Thursday, August 28, 2014

(1945-1991) Everything about the Cold War - World History

At the end of the Second World War, the world was dominated by the USA and the USSR. Their ideological differences produced a complete polarization between the capitalist west and the communist bloc. Both sides developed nuclear arsenals but the fear of nuclear destruction led to a “Cold War”, a confrontation short of armed conflict.

AFTER 1945 THE INTERNATIONAL order was dominated by the division between the capitalist west and communist east, each side grouped around the two new “superpowers” that emerged from the defeat of Hitler - the United States in the west, the Soviet Union in the east. Yet though their hostility produced persistent confrontation, open conflict was avoided, a state described by the American journalist Walter Lippmann as “Cold War”.

The source of the conflict

The roots of the Cold War lay in the Russian revolution of 1917. Communism, with its belief in its own inevitable domination of the world, was seen as a profound threat to the world capitalist system, of which the USA was taking the leadership. The United States and the other Western allies had found themselves allied to the Soviet Union in the Second World War through force of circumstance: the imperatives of defeating Hitler overrode all other considerations, though this did not prevent persistently strained relations throughout the war. But with Hitler beaten, the underlying tensions resurfaced. The West saw in Soviet communism the spectre of a second expansionist authoritarian system, while for its part the USSR believed it had helped defeat one form of capitalist imperialism only to be confronted with an even more powerful one in the form of the USA.

The height of the Cold War

With both sides eager to avoid open conflict, the Cold War was fought out in world of spies and secrets, political threat and subversion. In large measure it was a war fought by proxy. Both camps exploited or entered local conflicts in which they armed, equipped and trained the opposing sides, each seeking to extend their spheres of influence without coming to blows directly. 

Tension was most acute in the period between 1947 and 1963, as the new political order in Europe and Asia was being fashioned, above all in central and eastern Europe where the USSR sought to impose itself on those territories it had liberated in the war. The consolidation of communist regimes in the region combined with the success of the communist revolution in China in 1949 under Mao Zedong created an apparently solid communist bloc from Europe to the Pacific, though by 1960 an open rift developed in Sino-Soviet relations. 

America in 1947 committed itself to “containing” communism (the Truman Doctrine) and lent support to countries fighting wars against the communist threat, in Greece (1947), in Korea (1950-3) and then in the long and draining conflict in Vietnam (1961-73). At the same time, the United States tried to bolster these efforts by creating security bloc NATO in Europe in 1949. SEATO in southeast Asia in 1954 and CENTO in the Middle East in 1959. The Soviet Union and China retaliated by giving military aid and political support to anti-colonial or nationalist struggles against “world imperialism” throughout Asia, Latin America and Africa. In 1955 the Soviet Union also sponsored a military alliance of its own, the Warsaw Pact.

The shadow of the bomb

The most important factor preventing the shift to “hot war” was the existence of nuclear weapons. First used in 1945 against Japan, America’s monopoly of the weapon was broken by the Soviet Union in 1949. In 1951 the USA developed thermonuclear weapons, with still more destructive power, and by 1953 the Soviet Union had them, too. By 1958 the American arsenal of warheads was estimated to be able to kill 100 missiles and submarine-launched missiles in the 1950s then gave both sides the ability to destroy the other almost entirely, indeed to obliterate much of the globe. By the 1960s Britain, France and China had also developed a nuclear capability. The prospect of mutual destruction on a horrific scale acted as a deterrent to conflict. The closest the world came to war was the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The experience so alarmed the two sides that from 1963 a slow thaw set in with the signing of a partial test-ban treaty. 

It was followed in 1969 with the opening of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) and, in 1970, by a nuclear non-proliferation treaty (though France, China, India, Pakistan and Israel refused to sign). Although relations improved again in the early 1970s with the advent of d├ętente, tensions increased with the communist victory in Vietnam and the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan in 1979. The USA responded in the early 1980s with renewed anti-Soviet rhetoric and a massive rearmament programme, calculating that the cost of matching it would be more than the already impoverished Soviet economy could bear. 

The expense of maintaining their un-winnable war in Afghanistan coupled with the costs of this renewed arms race was to prove too great a burden for the USSR. In 1985 president Gorbachev announced Soviet willingness to disarm and between 1985 and 1987 negotiations proceeded for the progressive reduction of nuclear arsenals. The collapse of the Soviet communist bloc in 1989-91 and reform in Asian communist states brought the cold war to an end. 

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