“”Under the four oceans and the seven seas, American and Soviet submarines fight a near-war every day of the year. Relentlessly, they search for one another, trailing an adversary when they can and trying to evade one when detected. They make every move of a real war, except shoot. The submarines operate in what Adm. James D. Watkins, the former Chief of Naval Operations, has called "an era of violent peace".
|—Richard Halloran, New York Times, 1986.|
| It doesn't stop|
at the water's edge
The Cold War was a prolonged period of geopolitical conflict between the United States (and her allies) and the Soviet Union (and her allies). It was called a "cold" war because the two sides never directly engaged in war with each other, instead using diplomacy, deterrence, money, ideology, subversion, propaganda and proxies to try to best each other. The main reason this happened, as opposed to eventual direct armed confrontation, was due to each of the "superpowers" possessing nuclear weapons, which, to most sane people, made the idea of a "hot" war unthinkable. Most of the events of the time period were related to the Cold War in some way. One of the superpowers usually took sides in almost every conflict, usually provoking a response from the other. Even minor things like the movement of a well-known ballet star from one country to the other became part of the superpower dick-measuring contest.
Due to the nature of the conflict, it's difficult to really pin down either a start or an end date. The classical start date for the Cold War is 1946 after the publication of the "Long Telegram" by a US diplomat in Moscow, which convinced the US government that the Soviets were a hostile force that needed to be forcibly contained. That being said, it's also quite reasonable to place the start of the Cold War at the Yalta Conference during World War Two, when Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin diplomatically grappled with each other as to what a post-Nazi Europe would look like. Or perhaps it began even earlier, in 1943, with the US discovery of widespread Soviet industrial espionage and their subsequent retaliations. The end date, meanwhile, is usually taken to be either the fall of the Berlin Wall or else the dissolution of the Soviet empire.
There is a recurring battle among historians over who "started" the Cold War, with traditionalists blaming Stalin and revisionists blaming Truman. Most current scholars believe that between the mutual suspicion and the strongly differing plans for the post-war system, the question is really moot. When the Soviets were around, they claimed the struggle started when a US-UK coalition invaded Russia during their civil war and tried to assassinate Lenin (some revisionists still rock this look). Anyway, the winners get to write history, or end it.
There is also debate today over who ended the Cold War. A certain American conservative party claims that
Jesus Saint Reagan singlehandedly ended the Cold War with a speech in front of a wall. However, it is mostly accepted in the reality-based community that it was a combination of internal difficulties in the USSR (namely a large military budget, ethnic tensions and the fact that command economies are stupid), Gorbachev's attempts at reforms, a Pope, and pressure from various US presidents. It is an oft-forgotten (and inconvenient) truth that the Soviet Union's downfall was a surprise for all parties.
Defeating the Soviets involved the clandestine takeover of dozens of countries and attempting to control "The Grand Chessboard" of Asia, home to more than 2/3 of the world’s energy reserves. Pretty much every war of the past fifty years has been runoff of this goal. Many political scientists have declared that the bipolar great power system that accompanied the Cold War was very stable, and many fear that the current unipolar world could end up more war-prone than before; however, many also believe that the data so far suggests otherwise. The number of countries possessing nuclear weapons has steadily increased over two decades, so it's not all sunshine and roses though.
- 1 Origins
- 2 The Cold War
- 2.1 Containment
- 2.1.1 The Iron Curtain
- 2.1.2 Crises in Turkey and Greece
- 2.1.3 The Marshall Plan
- 2.1.4 The Eastern Bloc shapes up
- 2.1.5 Berlin crisis
- 2.1.6 Beginning of the nuclear arms race
- 2.1.7 The "Loss of China"
- 2.1.8 McCarthyism
- 2.1.9 Korean War
- 2.1.10 Eisenhower and Khrushchev
- 2.1.11 Hungarian Revolution
- 2.1.12 Sino-Soviet Split
- 2.1.13 Beginning of the Space Race
- 2.2 Escalation
- 2.3 Détente
- 2.4 Extreme tensions
- 2.5 Beginning of the end
- 2.6 Downfall of the Eastern Bloc
- 2.7 Dissolution of the Soviet Union
- 2.1 Containment
- 3 Lasting impact
- 4 Other cold wars
- 5 See also
- 6 External links
- 7 Notes
- 8 References
Although most conventional histories place the beginning of the Cold War at or around the end of World War Two, it's arguable that it actually began much, much earlier than that.
Russian Civil War
Some historians believe the Cold War began as early as the Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War. The Russian Civil War began when tsarists, liberals, Menshiviks, and others teamed up to oppose the recently empowered Bolsheviks. The anti-Bolshevik alliance quickly received assistance from abroad.
Russia's former allies went so far as to invade it in order to stop the spread of communism (this should sound familiar). British troops seized Arkhangelsk in northern Russia, and American troops sent by General Pershing joined them. Also battling the Bolsheviks were French, Belgian, Romanian, Greek, Polish, Canadian, Italian, Japanese, Czechoslovak, Yugoslav, and Australian soldiers. Although about 13,000 US troops joined the fight, President Woodrow Wilson's vaguely-stated objectives prevented them from really doing anything, and troop morale suffered because no one really knew why they were there. As always happens when foreigners invade Russia, winter came and made the situation unsalvageable, forcing the allies to withdraw from Russia. The intervention as a whole was bloody and pointless, and it permanently soured relations between the US and the USSR.
Hostility continued between the East and the West after the Bolshevik victory. Vladimir Lenin infamously stated that the new Soviet Union was surrounded by a "hostile capitalist encirclement" and that the Soviet Union and the world's communists would use subversion and revolution as the weapons by which they would spread their influence.
Of course, the Soviets would later cooperate with America and the Western European democracies against Hitler and the Axis. However, the Soviets and the Western allies fundamentally disagreed over how the postwar map of Europe should look. The democracies wanted central Europe to be shaped into democratic republics, while the Soviets wanted an array of puppet states that would buffer them from potential western threats. In February 1945, the allied leaders met in the Crimean city of Yalta in order to resolve these differences.
The Allies, who had previously agreed to divide Germany into an east and a west, also agreed that all of Germany's war industries would be dismantled, that war criminals would be tried before an international tribunal in Nuremberg, and that none of the Allies had any further obligation to the Germans than to prevent them all from starving to death. In terms of the disagreements, Stalin had the diplomatic upper hand since his troops were a mere 50 miles outside of Berlin. The Allies, meanwhile, had competing agendas. Churchill was focused on ensuring free elections in eastern Europe while Roosevelt was more concerned with enlisting Soviet aid against Japan.
In the end, Stalin played the democratic leaders like fiddles. In return for agreeing to join the United Nations, agreeing to allow free elections in occupied Europe, and agreeing to invade Japan when the time came, Stalin got the Western powers to consent to his occupation of much of the continent. After Nazi Germany fell, Stalin simply reneged on his promise to allow free elections and used his occupation forces to ensure that the nations of eastern and central Europe would become his communist puppet states.
Soviet operations against Japan
In August of 1945, the Soviet Union broke its non-aggression pact with Japan and declared war on it as they had promised to do at Yalta. The Soviets immediately invaded Japan's puppet state Manchukuo in northern China, catching the Japanese completely by surprise. When the Japanese put up stiff resistance at the Yalu river, the Soviets launched naval invasions into northern Korea.
Japan then surrendered shortly after the US dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. After this, the Americans landed in southern Korea and then arbitrarily decided to split the peninsula along the 38th parallel, thus ensuring that Korea's historic capital and largest city, Seoul, was in American hands. Although both sides promised to hold elections and reunify Korea, neither side trusted the other and both sides wanted Korea to remain ideologically aligned with them. Thus, Korea remained split and eventually became the totalitarian communist state of North Korea and the capitalist military dictatorship of South Korea.
In northern China, the Japanese had no choice but to surrender to the Soviets. The Soviets promptly handed over most of the captured weapons and territory to Mao Zedong's communist forces, giving them the upper hand in the inevitable resumption of the Chinese Civil War.
Back in Europe, the allies met in the Potsdam Conference to hash out more details of their administration of Germany. However, America's new president, Harry Truman, didn't like or trust Stalin, and the two leaders clashed over a variety of issues. Stalin protested when Truman refused to allow the Soviets any influence in American-occupied Japan.
The most pressing issue, however, was the US' use of two nuclear weapons against Japan. Stalin, likely realizing that Truman planned to use those weapons to threaten him, saying that America's use of the weapons was a "superbarbarity" and and that "the balance has been destroyed...That cannot be."
The Cold War
The Iron Curtain
“”Nobody knows what Soviet Russia and its Communist international organisation intends to do in the immediate future, or what are the limits, if any, to their expansive and proselytising tendencies... From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.
|—Winston Churchill, 1946.|
The rapidly souring relations between the United States and the Soviet Union created an atmosphere of confusion among US diplomats and policymakers, and the US' leaders had no real idea how to deal with a communist superpower. Hoping for advice, the US government contacted George Kennan from the United States Embassy in Moscow to Washington in 1946. Kennan replied with what is now called the "Long Telegram", a document that permanently shaped US policy towards communism. His key conclusion was that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies." This helped Truman solidify his foreign policy into a doctrine that he called containment. Kennan also formulated an early form of domino theory by saying that communist nations naturally spread their ideology, and that the US must take drastic measures to stop this from happening. As a result, the US finally abandoned its historical isolationism, and the US military budget increased from $13 billion in 1950 to $60 billion in 1951.
Churchill, for his part, gave a speech in which he popularized (but not invented) the term "iron curtain" to describe the way the Soviets were dragging the nations of Europe into despotism. Stalin retaliated by comparing Churchill to Hitler, saying that Churchill wanted the "English-speaking nations" to dominate the world and claiming that the Soviets were simply acting in self-defense. The Soviet Union as a whole set the stage for its part in the Cold War by enacting the policy reccomendations of the Novikov Telegram, a message sent by the Soviet ambassador to the USA, Nikolai Novikov. Novikov argued that the US had emerged from the war as an aspiring imperialist power that hoped to dominate the world and saw the Soviet Union as its sole obstacle.
Crises in Turkey and Greece
The two superpowers were immediately pitted against each other by events in the Balkans. The Greek Civil War erupted almost immediately after the end of Axis occupation between Greek constitutional monarchists and Greek communists. Turkey also became a hot spot in 1946 when the Soviet Union demanded that they allow unlimited Russian shipping through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits. Refusing to cave to Soviet pressure, the Turks instead chose to seek protection from the US and join NATO.
Most importantly, however, these crises helped solidify Truman's containment doctrine. In 1947, Truman sent a message to Congress warning of communist expansionism, and they promptly approved $400 million for the purpose of aiding Turkey and Greece. This created a pattern of US financial interventionism that would remain throughout the Cold War. US aid bolstered the fascist forces in Greece, allowing them to achieve victory in 1949.
The Marshall Plan
In 1948, the US launched an economic aid program designed to stabilize the postwar economies of 17 countries in western and southern Europe. Although apparently an act of goodwill, the Marshall Plan was actually motivated by fear of communist expansion. US policymakers feared that poverty, unemployment, and homelessness in postwar Europe were reinforcing the appeal of communist parties to European voters. The US even offered aid to those nations occupied by the Soviet Union, likely hoping to expand their influence there, but the Soviets refused. The US distributed some $13 billion worth of economic aid, and the Europeans coordinated on their end by establishing the Committee of European Economic Cooperation, a precursor to the eventual Organisation for European Economic Co-operation.
The Eastern Bloc shapes up
In the postwar years, the Soviets blatantly broke Stalin's promises at Yalta. Rather than allowing free elections in eastern and central Europe, the Soviets instead acted to ensure that their plan for a buffer area of puppet states would come to be. They forced a communist government on Romania, cancelled elections in Poland, and executed pro-democracy advocates and politicians in Bulgaria. In 1947, the Soviet Union created the Cominform, an organization that was theoretically meant to encourage international cooperation among communist states but in reality was the legal mechanism by which the Soviets would control their puppets. The Cominform effectively made the Eastern Bloc official.
Czechoslovakia was the lone Soviet-occupied country that managed to survive as a free nation. However, the Soviets were not about to tolerate that. Rather than wait for elections, communist forces staged a coup against the legitimate Czechoslovak government in 1948 and then purged opposition members from government by either sending them into forced labor on collective farms or outright murdering them.
Josip Broz Tito, the communist leader of Yugoslavia, split with Stalin in 1948 and was expelled from the Cominform during the so-called Tito-Stalin split. Tito's nationalist tendencies led him to refuse becoming a Soviet client and seek to build his own sphere of influence. He went on to violently purge Stalinists from Yugoslavia and then found the Non-Aligned Movement.
Meanwhile, the western powers merged their occupation zones in Germany while using Marshall Plan aid to rebuild its industry. The US had very quickly decided that a unified or neutral Germany was undesirable despite the fact that the Soviets had met the preconditions the US had set for offering a new deal on Germany. In retaliation for the west unilaterally combining their German occupation zones, Stalin imposed a blockade against West Berlin that closed all transportation routes and halted food and supply shipments. Rather than halting political unity in West Germany, the blockade actually accelerated it. All three western powers consented to a series of conventions that drafted a constitution and created the Federal Republic of Germany in spring 1949.
In response to the creation of a West German state, the Soviets held sham elections in their own occupation zone. Voters used non-secret ballots and could only choose among various communist-controlled parties. In fall 1949, the German Democratic Republic came into existence.
The western powers also resisted the Soviet blockade of West Berlin, spurred on by a pro-western demonstration by 300,000 Berliners. The US, Britain, France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and several other countries began the tremendous "Berlin airlift" to supply West Berlin with food and other provisions. Realizing the futility, Stalin backed down and ended the blockade.
Beginning of the nuclear arms race
“”On the morning of Sept. 14, 1954, in the Ural Mountains about 600 miles southeast of Moscow, the Soviet military exploded an atomic bomb in the air near 45,000 Red Army troops and thousands of civilians as part of a military exercise. How many people were killed or maimed or became ill as a result of the exercise may never be known.
|—New York Times report, 1993.|
Soviet espionage managed to obtain details of the US Manhattan Project, and in August 1949, the Soviets detonated their very first atomic bomb as a test in Kazakhstan. The RDS-1, as the Soviets called it, was extremely similar to the "Fat Man" device the US had used on Nagasaki. The US, for its part, had been conducting nuclear tests since 1946, largely centered around the now-infamous Bikini Atoll. In 1952, the US detonated its first hydrogen bomb, that stunned everyone by creating a mushroom cloud 100 miles wide and 25 miles high and leaving a 1-mile-wide crater. The US also tested nukes in Nevada near Las Vegas.
As the Cold War developed, it was defined by the nuclear arms race between the two powers as the powers invented bigger and bigger weapons and more elaborate ways of delivering them. The UK, France, and China also developed nuclear weapons. In order to ensure collective defense in the new era of apocalyptic weapons, the US and nations in Western Europe signed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization into existence in 1949.
The "Loss of China"
After the war with Japan, the Nationalists and Communist governments of China went back to war with each other. In the new Cold War climate, Mao's communists were given a number of advantages: the Stalinist-backed North Koreans provided supplies and manpower, and the Soviets handed over the recently "liberated" Japanese Manchuria over to the communists to act as a base of operations. The inevitable victory by the Chinese communists forced the nationalists into exile on Taiwan and doomed China to decades of brutal dictatorship. It also created a political firestorm in the US.
The "China Lobby" in Congress had attempted to pressure Truman into sending troops into China. These people became harsh critics of Truman after the nationalist loss, saying that Truman was responsible for an "avoidable catastrophe."
The "Loss of China" helped give rise to a wave of anti-communist paranoia in the US that was spearheaded by US Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy gave speeches claiming that "Communists and queers" had infiltrated the State Department and sabotaged the US' attempts to aid Chiang Kai-shek . These conspiracy theories were inflamed further with the publication of The Shanghai Conspiracy by General Willoughby, a book which claimed that a Soviet-aligned cabal was taking over the US government and had been responsible for Mao's victory.
McCarthy infamously claimed to have had a list of communist spies in the State Department, although he never showed this list to anyone and repeatedly changed his mind as to how many communists were actually on it. The more support he got, the more insane McCarthy became. In 1951, he accused General George C. Marshall of being part of the communist plot. McCarthy's reign of terror continued as he targeted Hollywood and bringing Ronald Reagan into the national spotlight as he snitched on his fellow actors.
In the end, McCarthy actually damaged US national security. His hysterics led many in the Truman and Eisenhower administrations to dismiss the threat of Soviet espionage when, in fact, that threat was indeed real. Instead of doing good work, McCarthy simply chose to focus on his own wingnut grudges and chased after innocent and easy targets.
Probably the most significant example of the US commitment to containment policy was the Korean War. Kim il-Sung's North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950 after years of hostility, catching the US puppet by surprise. Although the invasion was successful for the North, the war quickly turned against them when the UN sent aid. The Soviet Union had boycotted the vote as part of their effort to get the Security Council seat handed from the Republic of China to the People's Republic of China; as a result the Security Council had the required unanimous assent for intervention. Sixteen countries sent forces to South Korea, although about 40% of the ground troops were South Korean and 50% were American.
The success of the intervention led the US to abandon containment policy. Instead, US forces pushed past the parallel and into North Korea, triggering a Chinese response. With superior Chinese manpower facing the West's troops, the war settled into a brutal stalemate. It ended with an armistice under the watch of newly-elected US president Dwight Eisenhower. North Korea became a totalitarian dictatorship centered around the Kim dynasty and South Korea continued as a violent dictatorship under Syngman Rhee.
Eisenhower and Khrushchev
“”Berlin is the testicles of the West. Every time I want to make the West scream, I squeeze on Berlin.
|—Nikita Khrushchev to Mao Zedong.|
The new US president Eisenhower moved to reduce the US budget by a third in order to reduce deficits and eventually balance the budget. He did this by reducing the US emphasis on ground troops and instead focusing on strategic deterrents like air and nuclear power.
In the Soviet Union, the bellicose Nikita Khrushchev won out in the power struggle among his rivals Georgy Malenkov and Vyacheslav Molotov. Stalin had died of natural causes in 1953. Khrushchev also shocked the world by delivering a speech in which he exposed Stalin's crimes and denounced them. Although a positive action, it was ultimately a self-serving effort to solidify his personal control over Soviet communism and to further remove any remaining Stalin loyalists would could have posed a threat to him.
In 1955, Khrushchev formalized the Eastern Bloc by creating the Warsaw Pact, largely in response to the creation and rearmament of West Germany.
“”The wound which the Hungarian Revolution inflicted on communism can never be completely healed.
|—Milovan Đilas, Yugoslav politician.|
As part of his program of de-Stalinization, Khrushchev removed the Stalinist leader of Hungary. This encouraged liberals in Hungary to begin pushing for more civil rights and freedom. Popular discontent against communism and the ongoing Russian occupation led to mass protests. In November of 1956, however, the Soviet Union rallied its forces and attacked its own ally, killing 3,000 Hungarian civilians in a rapid and brutal invasion. Many thousands of Hungarians were kidnapped and taken to the Soviet Union, about 200,000 Hungarians fled to Austria, and Hungarian leader Imre Nagy and his allies were executed.
The brutal Soviet repression of the Hungarian Revolution had a catastrophic impact on the communist world. Many communist countries were disillusioned with their own cause, the West was infuriated, and communist parties abroad saw great declines in membership.
Although the Soviets faced criticism for being too brutal, they also ended up losing their most valuable ally for not being brutal enough. The split began when Khrushchev denounced Stalin and his policies, as Mao had been fond of Stalin and his methods. Mao turned around and denounced Khrushchev as having lost his revolutionary edge. China and the Soviet Union began competing against each other for influence over communist nations. This event would have critical ramifications for the later American intervention in Vietnam.
Beginning of the Space Race
The nuclear arms race continued to escalate throughout the late 1950s as both superpowers began to build weapons with the explicit purpose of reaching each other's territories. In 1957, the Soviet Union built and tested the world's first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, the R-7 Semyorka. In October of the same year, they launched the first man-made satellite into orbit, the Sputnik 1.
This naturally scared the fuck out of the American government, not only due to the fact that the Soviets were getting the edge on nuclear weapons delivery systems, but also due to the fact that the Soviets were apparently very good at educating scientists while the US education system was still churning out a bunch of racist rubes. In fall of 1958, Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act into law, which provided about a billion dollars in funding for US education at all levels. This began the US commitment to improving STEM education and racing with the Soviets to develop space-faring technology.
Even then, it took a bit for the US to catch up. In 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to reach space and the first human to orbit the Earth. Alan Shepard got there about a month later and became the first American in space. Not as impressive of a title.
The Berlin Wall
In November 1958, Khrushchev made an unsuccessful attempt to turn all of Berlin into an independent, demilitarized "free city" by delivering a six-month ultimatum to the western powers to withdraw their troops from the sectors they still occupied in West Berlin or face a renewed Berlin blockade. This effort failed, and it put more light on the ongoing West Berlin problem. Around 2.7 million people left the GDR and East Berlin between 1949 and 1961, many of whom were valuable working age people. In 1961, East Germany closed its border with West Germany and West Berlin. The GDR's Council of Ministers announced that "in order to put a stop to the hostile activity of West Germany’s and West Berlin’s revanchist and militaristic forces, border controls of the kind generally found in every sovereign state will be set up at the border of the German Democratic Republic, including the border to the western sectors of Greater Berlin." This heralded the construction of the Berlin Wall, an infamous symbol of communist tyranny.
US and Soviet relations soured further when the U-2 spy plane scandal broke out in 1960. The Soviets shot down a US spy plane and then President Eisenhower was embarrassingly caught in a lie when the USSR disproved his denials by parading the captured pilot in front of international news cameras.
Shenanigans in the Third World
Communism also became a major force in the Third World during the era of decolonization. This was only to be expected given communism's anti-colonial stance as well as the fact that France and the British Empire were US and capitalist-aligned allies. The US feared that the Soviets could effectively get most of Africa and Asia on a silver platter as the newly-freed nations turned to them for protection. This influenced Eisenhower's decisionmaking in the Suez Crisis; he publicly sided with Egypt over the UK and France as a means of demonstrating that the US was an anti-colonialist nation as well. This benevolence would not continue in future administrations, or even Ike's own.
Under Ike's watch, the US helped overthrow the democratically elected government of Iran at the request of the British in retaliation for their nationalization of Iran's oil reserves. This doomed Iran to decades of despotism under an absolute monarch. In 1954, the CIA launched a coup against the democratically elected government of Nicaragua, beginning four decades of civil war, dictatorship, and genocide in that country.
President Kennedy deepened US involvement in Indochina, which later had catastrophic results. The Johnson administration sponsored a 1964 military coup in Brazil. In 1966, the US aided Indonesian dictator Suharto in mass murdering over 500,000 people. The US also helped bring the brutal dictator Augusto Pinochet to power in Chile by sponsoring his coup against the legitimate government of Salvador Allende.
These events and others are a big part of why the US is not well-liked in the Third World today.
Bay of Pigs invasion
Communists led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara seized power in Cuba during the 1959 Cuban Revolution, having benefited from the fact that the Eisenhower administration had refused to lend aid to the unpopular and despotic Batista regime. While Ike might not have liked Batista, Ike didn't like Castro any better. The president refused to meet Castro in Washington DC, and he left VP Nixon to do the unpleasant business in his place. This was the beginning of a long period of hostility between Cuba and the US.
At the very end of Eisenhower's presidency, he allowed the CIA to explore options for removing Castro from power and granted them a budget with which to achieve this aim. Kennedy approved the plan in 1961 after becoming president. The CIA had organized an invasion force out of Cuban exiles and trained them in Guatemala; and then they sent the invasion force to launch a naval attack on Cuba. Just about every part of the plan that could possibly have went wrong went wrong, and Kennedy finally abandoned the cause and refused to provide the invasion force with promised air support. The result was a humiliating loss for the US that turned Castro into a national hero and permanently poisoned US-Cuba relations.
Cuban Missile Crisis
The failed invasion also pushed Castro into allying formally with the Soviet Union, and the Soviets pledged themselves to Cuba's defense. To this end, the Soviet Union moved a bunch of medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles to Cuba, the kind that could hit the US with a nuclear warhead within minutes. Kennedy was not thrilled with this idea.
In October of 1962, Kennedy met with his advisers and weighed three possible options: 1) do nothing, 2) blockade Cuba (an act of war), or 3) launch a military strike. Kennedy thankfully ruled out the military option, since there was no guarantee that all missiles would be neutralized before the Soviets could retaliate. Instead, Kennedy went with the second option, but chose to call the blockade a "quarantine" to avoid outright war. He then ordered the US Strategic Air Command to DEFCON 2 and ensured that 66 B-52s carrying hydrogen bombs were constantly airborne and replaced with a fresh crew every 24 hours.
Perhaps the most dangerous moment of the entire Cold War came on October 27th, when the US navy fired warning shots at a Soviet submarine that had lost contact with Moscow and was thus unaware of the situation. The boat was convinced that the Americans had declared war and attacked them, and only the dissent of Second Captain Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov stopped them from launching a nuclear missile. In the end, the conflict was resolved when Khrushchev sent a private letter to Kennedy offering a peaceful resolution. The two leaders agreed that the US would promise not to ever attack Cuba again and (secretly) withdraw its Jupiter ICBMs from Turkey in exchange for the Soviets pulling their missiles out of Cuba.
The terror of the Cuban Missile Crisis convinced the US and the USSR to sign the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which banned the testing of nuclear weapons unless conducted belowground. The crisis also triggered the political downfall of Nikita Khrushchev.
Among the US' mistakes in the Third World was a long series of fuckups that helped railroad it into the quagmire in Vietnam. Beginning with the Truman administration, the US backed France's attempts to reassert colonial rule in Indochina. Why? So the goddamn communists wouldn't win, of course! This was despite the fact that Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh had an undisguised admiration and friendliness towards the United States. Ho had stressed to President Woodrow Wilson that he was a nationalist first and a communist second and would have been perfectly happy cooperating with the United States.
The French loss in Indochina led to the 1954 Geneva Conference, which partitioned Vietnam and created new states in Indochina. Elections were supposed to be held in 1956 to peacefully reunite the country and end the violent struggle between Vietnamese communists and anti-communists. The US did not allow this to happen. Instead, the US began a program of sabotage against Ho's North Vietnam while propping up a capitalist dictator in South Vietnam, and goddamn does this story sound depressingly familiar. The decisions made by the Eisenhower administration regarding Vietnam at this point were made against the advice of the American intelligence community, who viewed the effort to prop up South Vietnam indefinitely as wasteful and foolhardy. Kennedy escalated US involvement by increasing the number of US troops in the region.
It was President Johnson who finally declared a full war in the region by sending huge numbers of US troops there. The ensuring conflict was an ungodly quagmire that killed numerous people on both sides and spurred opposition at home. The US' losing war in Vietnam likely represented the lowest point of its involvement in the Cold War; national unity had never been lower and its prestige and finances took some serious blows.
Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia
“”It is a sad commentary on the communist mind that a sign of liberty in Czechoslovakia is deemed a fundamental threat to the security of the Soviet system.
|—US president Lyndon Johnson. Hypocritical? Yes. Also correct? Oh, yes.|
In 1968, elections in communist Czechoslovakia brought communist politician Alexander Dubček to power. This marked the beginning of the "Prague Spring," a period that refers to the Dubček government's attempts to liberalize Czechoslovakia, reform its economy, and grant more liberties to its citizens. These reforms were outlined in the "Action Programme", and this document promised an end to arbitrary arrests, more freedom of speech, more equal representation for Slovakia, and increased freedom of action for Czechoslovakia's industries. The Soviet Union did not like this idea.
In response to the developments in Czechoslovakia, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev launched a massive invasion of Czechoslovakia backed by his puppets in the Eastern Bloc. Just like with Hungary, the invasion was conducted with great speed and most civilians simply went along with it out of fear despite having supported the liberalizing reforms. Czechoslovakia's liberal politicians were jailed, including Alexander Dubček, and the new Czechoslovak government purged liberals from its ranks and quickly rolled back Dubček's reforms.
To justify the invasion, the Soviet Union subsequently adopted the "Brezhnev Doctrine," which stated the any threat to communism in an Eastern Bloc state was a threat to all communist nations. Therefore, the Soviet Union would reserve the right to violate the sovereignty of any communist country that attempted to replace communism with capitalism. The Brezhnev Doctrine would later be invoked in Afghanistan. The Brezhnev Doctrine was also illegal under Article 2, Chapter 4 of the United Nations Charter, not that the Soviets or any other significant country really gave a shit.
Apollo 11 moon landing
Although president Kennedy had framed the Space Race as a means of boldly going where no man has gone before, it was in reality conducted with coldly political objectives in mind on both sides. During the Sixties, as the Soviets and the Americans began to take seriously the idea of going to the Moon, and this ushered in the era of either blowing up dogs and monkeys or shooting them into the cold vacuum of space to die. Poor Laika. During the Sixties, it seemed like the Soviets were pulling ahead, as they managed to put the first woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova), and had a Soviet cosmonaut conduct the first-ever spacewalk (Alexei Leonov), and then had two Soviet cosmonauts conduct the first ever space rendezvous (Andrian Nikolayev and Pavel Popovich). In 1967, tragedy struck for the Americans when the first Apollo crew died due to an accidental fire in their training capsule. The Soviets also lost a cosmonaut in the same year when his parachute failed and his spacecraft slammed into the ground.
After closing down for about a year, NASA then reopened in 1968 and hurriedly tried to catch up to the Soviets. Soviet propaganda was convincing the world that they were on the verge of doing a moon landing, although this was in reality nowhere near true. In the end, US astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man on the moon, landing there with Buzz Aldrin in 1969.[citation NOT needed] There were a number of reasons why the US finally managed to pull ahead. Soviet scientists worked under harsh conditions and constant fear of punishment, while NASA encouraged questions and candid reports. Soviet resources were more limited than what the Americans had, and they then divided their resources into pursuing the competing aims of two rival scientists. And finally, the US had far more sophisticated electronics and computers.
It's debatable to what extent the moon landing actually influenced the Cold War. Roger Launius, NASA’s former chief historian, argues that the moon landing increased US prestige and helped them gain allies in the latter half of the Cold War. Other historians argue that the Soviets took Ronald Reagan's much-ridiculed "Star Wars" program very seriously because of the US' previous moon landing success, leading them to spend huge amounts of money in an attempt to counter it and speeding their own downfall.
The Brezhnev years are sometimes called the "Era of Stagnation" due to the fact that the 1970s and 1980s were a dismal time for the Soviet economy. This happened for a variety of reasons, and many are debatable. The first was that the numbers of working age people in the Soviet economy started to decrease due to declining birthrates and increasing mortality rates. Mounting economic problems also seems to have had a negative impact on worker enthusiasm and productivity across the Soviet Union. These problems were also likely heightened by Brezhnev's increases in political repression and the unresponsive nature of his government. The Brezhnev government also seemed to have struggled to manage the increasingly large and complex Soviet economy, but it still refused to engage in any significant liberalization.
Later, the oil crisis of 1973 shocked the economies of communist Europe, and they took longer to recover than the US. Other contributing factors seem to have included Soviet resistance to economic globalization and the Soviet government's prioritization of military goods over consumer goods.
Stagnation had a greatly negative impact on living standards in the Soviet Union. The economic slump combined with the Soviet Union's lack of concern for consumer goods meant shortages and long waiting periods for things that Americans took for granted like automobiles, televisions, refrigerators, and washing machines while simpler consumer items like clothing and footwear were derided for their low quality. This later became a political liability as later US president Ronald Reagan would gleefully mock the poor economic conditions endured by Soviet citizens.
Although the causes are still unclear, it's undebatable that the Soviet era of stagnation contributed to its eventual downfall.
Nixon goes to China
Tensions between the Soviets and China peaked in 1969, and the two nations even fought an undeclared war with each other in Manchuria that may have killed hundreds of people. In 1971, US president Richard Nixon stunned the world by announcing that he had been holding secret talks with the Chinese government and was now ready to meet with Chinese leaders in Beijing. Nixon's visit had two motivations. The first was the wise realization that "there is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation". The second was the realization that the US could potentially ask China to pressure its North Vietnamese allies into negotiating a way out of the still-ongoing Vietnam War for the US.
All of this diplomacy culminated in Nixon's historic 1972 visit to Communist China in which he held a week-long summit with their leaders. This visit paved the way for full normalization of relations between the US and China, and it also cemented US policy towards Taiwan as "we technically don't recognize their independence." The visit also helped convince the Soviets to accept a thawing of Cold War tensions.
Nixon goes to Moscow
Later in 1972, Nixon met with Soviet leaders in a historic visit to Moscow. It was the first time in history a US president had visited Moscow, and Nixon met with Brezhnev to discuss reapproachment and cooperation between the two superpowers. This quest for common ground culminated in the important Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, a series of bilateral conferences that resulted in two nuclear arms control treaties. The two leaders also sought to increase economic ties between their nations, especially sought-after by Brezhnev, who needed to bolster the stagnating Soviet economy. East and West cooperated once more in signing the Helsinki Accords, a non-binding agreement to be a bit nicer to each other.
Communist infighting in Asia
After the wars in Indochina, Pol Pot, one of the evilest dictators in history, came to power in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge, which had previously been influenced by communist Vietnam, then rapidly began distancing themselves, and Vietnam later admitted to the Soviets that they had zero control over what was happening in Cambodia. It was around this time that Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge committed the horrifying Cambodian genocide, murdering between 1.5 and 2 million people in their insane quest to transform Cambodia into a tranquil agrarian utopia.
Tensions rose between Cambodia and Vietnam due to a combination of territorial disputes and disagreement over which country should be the primary leader of communism in Southeast Asia. This culminated with Cambodia's 1978 invasion of Vietnam, and Cambodian troops exterminated any Vietnamese civilians they found. Among these atrocities was the Ba Chuc massacre, where Khmer Rouge forces murdered about 3,000 civilians, with one survivor remembering "They shot my children dead one by one. My youngest, a two-year-old girl, was beaten three times but did not die, so they slammed her against a wall until she was dead." The war was conducted brutally, and an estimated 30,000 Vietnamese soldiers died. Thankfully, the Vietnamese emerged victorious.
China, however, had been a supporter of Pol Pot's vile regime, and they launched a punitive invasion of northern Vietnam that killed tens of thousands of people and ended inconclusively. This conflict ended up being a blow to Soviet prestige, as the Chinese conclusively demonstrated that the Russian superpower was unable to protect their Vietnamese allies.
The US and the Soviets also generally agreed that the 1979 Iranian Revolution was a bad thing. The revolution likely became inevitable due to the US' assistance in making the Shah an absolute monarch who despotically mismanaged Iran. Tension erupted into mass protests and insurrection, and Ayatollah Khomeini became a leading figure of the anti-Shah forces. He called for an Islamist state, and this emphasis on religious law naturally put him into conflict with the Soviets. In September of 1979, the Soviet Union officially denounced the Iranian Revolution, calling it a disaster for Iran that only brought economic chaos, political persecution and repression of minorities. When Khomeni's regime started cracking down on Iranian communists and expelling Soviet diplomats, the Soviets became their enemy. They would later join the US in aiding Iraq against Iran in the 1980 Iran-Iraq War.
The Revolution had a far-reaching ripple effect, and it likely helped end the period of détente. The turbulence it caused and the US' loss of a major regional ally emboldened the Soviets to invade Afghanistan.
“”For us, the idea was not to get involved more than necessary in the fight against the Russians, which was the business of the Americans, but rather to show our solidarity with our Islamist brothers.
|—Osama bin Laden on the war against the Soviets.|
The détente period decisively and immediately ended due to the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.
In 1978, the communist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan seized power in a coup and reestablished Afghanistan as a "Democratic" Republic. Once in control, the party implemented socialist policies, most notably land reform. This greatly pissed off the Afghan people, since property was confiscated haphazardly, causing agricultural production to fall and the economy to go down the shitter. On the plus side, the communists granted legal equality to women and established the Afghan Women's Council to improve their lot. This progressive step turned hardcore Islamists against the government. Unfortunately, there were lots of those.
The situation unsurprisingly exploded into a guerrilla conflict later in 1978, with the Islamist mujaheddin receiving aid from Pakistan and China. In September 1979, Afghan president Nur Muhammad Taraki was assassinated by his political rival Hafizullah Amin, who was then assassinated by the Soviet Union in retaliation. In the chaotic wake of the assassinations, the Soviets sent about 100,000 troops into Afghanistan to "stabilize" the region.
Soviet interventionism was immediately condemned by Afghanistan's fellow Islamic-majority nations. US President Jimmy Carter retaliated by withdrawing from the arms limitation treaties and then boycotting the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics. The Carter administration and even moreso the incoming Reagan administration made it a policy to financially and materially support the mujaheddin insurgency against the Soviets. This decision did not create any problems in the future. The mujaheddin managed to kill about 14,000 Soviet soldiers with US help, and the whole affair became a quagmire that sapped the Soviet Union's already stagnating economy. For this reason, the war is often glibly referred to as "the Soviets' Vietnam."
“”My idea of American policy toward the Soviet Union is simple, and some would say simplistic. It is this: We win and they lose.
|—US President Ronald Reagan.|
“”In the Soviet Union the fear that the West was about to unleash a 'hot' war was growing. The installation of the Reagan regime and its inflammatory rhetoric had so concerned the Soviets that at a session of the KGB high command and senior staff, General Secretary Leonid Brezhnez and KGB chief Yuri Andropov stated that the United States was actively preparing for a nuclear attack on the USSR.
|—John Clearwater, nuclear weapons historian.|
Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election, among other things promising to increase military spending and attempt to defeat communism worldwide. He was joined in this aim by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. His war against the Soviet Union began quickly. In 1982, he blocked the construction of a gas pipeline from the Soviet Union to Europe, hurting their economy but also annoying America's allies. Along with supporting insurgents in Afghanistan, Reagan sent the CIA to increase support for radical Islamism in the Central Asian Soviet republics. This policy also called for helping Pakistan train and radicalize Muslims globally for the purpose of conducting a global jihad against the Soviet Union. And that policy caused no complications later on.
After the 1984 U.S. presidential election, Reagan formalized his so-called "Reagan Doctrine." It called for the US to support any and all anti-communist movements around the world. For the first time, the US sought not to survive the Cold War, but instead to win it.
Polish Solidarity movement
In 1980, disgruntled members of the Polish public founded the Independent Self-governing Labour Union "Solidarity" to push for more worker's rights and political freedoms by using civil disobedience. The movement received significant financial support from the United States.
Poland had long been a troublesome satellite state for the Soviet Union due to its long history of conflict with Russia, tradition of personal freedom, and strongly religious culture. As a result, the communists rule in Poland was looser and more flexible. Polish political society began rising after Polish archbishop Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope, becoming Pope John Paul II. His visit to Poland drew crowds of millions and reawakened Polish national identity. This impetus fueled Solidarity, and by 1980 it had about 10 million members.
Fearing the political movement, Poland's communist authorities put the country under martial law for almost two years. Once again, a Soviet satellite had tanks rolling through its streets, although this time they weren't owned by the Red Army. There was a reason for this. The Soviet Union was afraid of invading Poland, as their economy had become fragile enough to make any potential sanctions imposed by the West a real threat to their nation's stability. The Polish crackdown led to thousands of arrests and killed 91 people.
In 1981, a Turkish dude tried to assassinate the Pope. This inflamed international tensions even more, as the West immediately suspected the Soviets, and the Soviets were convinced that the West had organized it as a false flag in order to stir the pot in Poland. It's still unknown what the assassin's motivations really were.
Renewed arms race
“”It may be that the thermodynamic law of entropy has ... caught up with the Soviet system, which now seems to expend more energy on simply maintaining its equilibrium than on improving itself.
|—U.S. State Department memo, 1980.|
Part of Reagan's strategy involved an intensified arms race against the Soviet Union. One of his proposals was the Strategic Defense Initiative, nicknamed "Star Wars", which he claimed could protect the US from an intercontinental ballistic missile launch. Despite this failure, it successfully incited the Soviets into greater levels of spending to counter it, as the shock of losing the Space Race had convinced them to take America's batshit claims seriously.
In his first term and beyond, Reagan increased the size of the US military. It was, in fact, the largest peacetime military buildup in United States history. In 1983, the US increased tensions even further by deploying 108 Pershing II ballistic missiles to West Germany, which sparked protests across Europe. This almost resulted in nuclear war. The tense situation in Europe put the Soviets on a hair-trigger, and in 1983, an equipment malfunction almost convinced them that the US was launching missiles. Just a month later, some extremely realistic military exercises by NATO fooled the Soviets into believing that eastern Europe was about to be invaded, and they responded by placing their nuclear forces on alert and readying their air forces in East Germany and Poland.
In terms of weakening the Soviet empire, however, the arms race was a success. By the 1980's, the Soviets were throwing about 25% of their GDP into the military, neglecting their domestic civilian economy as a result. Soviet spending on the arms race exacerbated their internal weaknesses and worsened their natural economic slump. This also coincided with the post-OPEC-crisis surplus in the global crude supply that both benefited the US economy and grievously harmed the Soviet economy, which had become dependent on oil exports.
Korean Air Lines Flight 007
The high-stakes standoff between superpowers caused actual deaths in September 1983 when a passenger jet flying from New York City to Seoul apparently strayed into Soviet airspace and was shot down by paranoid Soviet defense forces. The Soviets claimed that their jet tried to fire warning shots, but this was either untrue or else the jet was using non-tracer shots that would have been invisible at night.
The event was especially jarring because one of the passengers was Representative Larry McDonald, a conservative Democrat from Georgia's 7th District, and the second president of the John Birch Society. Soviet leader Yuri Andropov accused the US of deliberately placing the civilian plane in the line of fire, while conspiracy theories in the US circulated claiming that the Soviets had actually kidnapped Representative McDonald and the other passengers. The event, along with the two nuclear close-calls, helped make 1983 one of the worst years of the Cold War.
US invasion of Grenada
“”Why are we invading Spain?
|—US staff officer upon receiving orders to head to Grenada.|
The United States invaded the Caribbean island nation of Grenada in October 1983, and this was one of the few US foreign interventions that actually worked out. First, some context. Grenada gained independence from the UK in 1974, but the Marxist-Leninist New Jewel Movement took power in 1979 and turned the island into a dictatorship. The US wasn't happy about having a communist island nation so close to their old enemy Cuba. In 1983, political unrest resulted in the murder and replacement of the island's communist dictator with a different communist dictator, and the US used this as a convenient excuse to invade. The UK and Canada objected to the attack because they had actually invested in the construction of an airport in Grenada. The US invaded anyway.
On November 2nd, 1983, the United Nations General Assembly, by a vote of 108 to 9, declared the military action "a flagrant violation of international law." The US didn't really give a shit, because why would they? Despite the international backlash, the invasion was a rapid success. This was a major political win for Reagan, as he was able to point to it as a sign that his "rollback" strategy against communism was working. The US made Grenada into a democracy, and to this day the island nation celebrates the day of the invasion as Thanksgiving.
Reagan's aggressively anti-communist foreign policy led to a very serious overstep of his presidential power.
In 1979, the Sandinista National Liberation Front overthrew the Somoza dictatorship and aligned themselves with the Soviet Union and Cuba, although they never adopted a Soviet-style command economy. This made Papa Reagan mad. The Sandanistas immediately came into conflict with the counterrevolutionary Contra force, and the CIA naturally started training and supplying Contra fighters.
During their struggle against the Sandanista government, the Contras were responsible for some sickening atrocities. In 1985, Newsweek described how Contras would execute their victims, saying: "The victim dug his own grave, scooping the dirt out with his hands... He crossed himself. Then a contra executioner knelt and rammed a k-bar knife into his throat. A second enforcer stabbed at his jugular, then his abdomen. When the corpse was finally still, the contras threw dirt over the shallow grave — and walked away." Contra leader Edgar Chamorro was quite candid about the fact that the Contras would routinely murder civilians but attempted to justify it all by saying to a US reporter, "Sometimes terror is very productive. This is the policy, to keep putting pressure until the people cry 'uncle'". It's worth noting at this point that Reagan called the Contras "the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers."
Fully aware of the atrocities being committed by the Contras, Congress twice forbade Reagan from sending aid to them, first in 1982 and then in 1984. To circumvent the Congressional ban, US National Security Council member Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North secretly devised and implemented a plan by which the US would sell weapons to Iran in exchange for Iranian assistance in freeing US hostages held by Hezbollah, and then the Reagan administration would use the proceeds to covertly aid the Contras. In other words, the Reagan administration armed one of the US' most intractable enemies so that they could arm some brutal death squads in Central America. The scandal was exposed when the Contras shot down a plane full of CIA-bought guns.
In the end, Oliver North was sentenced to prison time, but later had the sentence vacated by an appeals court. Like any good loyal attack dog, Oliver North took the fall for his boss by illegally destroying White House documents in order to prevent anyone from knowing how involved Reagan really was in the affair. Oliver North now has a nice cushy job as the president of the National Rifle Association.
Beginning of the end
In 1985, the Politburo unanimously appointed the relatively youthful Mikhail Gorbachev as General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, preferring him over yet another elderly leader. He inherited a country whose economy had been stagnant for more than a decade and whose foreign currency earnings had sharply fallen due to the oil glut of the 1980s. These issues convinced Gorbachev to reevaluate Soviet domestic policy.
Gorbachev's leadership style was entirely different from his predecessors. He discouraged any cults of personality, conversed with ordinary citizens, and encouraged honest and frank policy discussions in the Politburo. The West started to see him as more reasonable and potentially less threatening. In order to increase his own power and make way for liberal reforms in the future, Gorbachev forced many of the Politburo's older members into retirement and staffed the Soviet Union's executive bodies with yes-men.
By 1987, Gorbachev had become convinced that deep structural changes were necessary to salvage the ailing Soviet state. Thus, Gorbachev proposed a new program of reform called perestroika, or "restructuring." The goal was to make the Soviet Union economically competitive again by decentralizing the command economy and encouraging state-run businesses to become partly self-financing. Among the reforms Gorbachev's Politburo passed were laws allowing enterprises to adjust their activities based on consumer demand, laws that shifted control of enterprises away from state ministries and to elected worker cooperatives, and, for the first time since Lenin's New Economic Policy, laws permitting private ownership of businesses. It's important to note, however, that Gorbachev in no way intended to transition into a market economy. He wanted to strengthen socialism, not undermine it.
He also proposed glasnost, a reform agenda that he hoped would make the Soviet government more transparent. In effect, it greatly improved the situation for freedom of speech in the Soviet Union, as public criticism of public officials was now permitted. Although Gorbachev hoped to benefit the Soviet Union, glasnost backfired when the Soviet people suddenly became aware of the myriad deficiencies present in their country and government. This led to an increase in social unrest throughout the Soviet Union.
Environmentalism in the Soviet Union
“”Decay and desolation scar the landscape of a remote corner of the Kazakh Steppe. Unnatural lakes formed by nuclear bomb explosions pockmark the once flat terrain, broken up only by empty shells of buildings. It appears uninhabitable. And yet, ghosts – living and dead – haunt the land, still burdened by the effects a nuclear testing program that stopped nearly 30 years ago.
|—Alexandra Genova, writing for the National Geographic in 2017.|
Glastnost received an enormous boost in significance from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. The Kremlin initially tried to cover up the disaster, causing general disgust at the government's prioritization of politics over their citizens' lives. The relaxed political atmosphere of the late 1980s allowed for a great number of environmentalist groups to start popping up in the Soviet Union, often led by women who were concerned by the impact these issues would have on their children.
Environmentalism also fed increasing tides of ethnic nationalism in the Soviet Union. Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Ukrainians, Armenians, and others started to perceive the Kremlin's general disregard for environmental safety as an effort to destroy them. The Soviet government buried many hundreds of thousands of tons of contaminants from chemical-weapons production, dumped untold amounts of radioactive waste, and launched a decades-long spree of mining and coal-burning that leaves Russia still to this day as the country with the world's worst air pollution. Kazakhstan perhaps suffered the worst. Starting in 1949, the Soviet government tested hundreds of nuclear bombs in Kazakhstan, leaving the country with thousands of birth defects, cases of cancer, and other diseases that still persist. The Soviets also exposed 60 million people in Kazakhstan to what former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called "one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters" by completely destroying the Aral Sea. The place is a desert now, with vast plains that were once used for WMD testing and as a dumping ground for pesticides, industrial waste, and fertilizers. Armenia's capital, Yerevan, still has lead-polluted water due to the decrepit Soviet-era water pipes.
The revelation of the Soviet Union's many environmental disasters had a catastrophic impact on public opinion, as people saw this as a blatant disregard for human life. The ideas that Soviet-style communism was more responsible than capitalism and that national minorities benefited from Moscow's rule were proven to be lies. This was a major contributing factor to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Diplomacy with the West
Gorbachev's leadership led to a friendlier relationship with the West. This began quickly with the 1985 Geneva summit between Reagan and Gorbachev. Both sides left optimistic, although the US refused to join the Soviet Union in abolishing underground nuclear tests and also refused to end Star Wars. They met again a year later in Reykjavik, but talks collapsed again over the issue of Star Wars. In 1987, the two nations finally agreed to jointly sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which banned almost all land-based nuclear missiles but exempted sea- and air-based ones. 1987 also saw Reagan visit West Berlin and give the now-famous "Tear down this wall!" speech, although many of his aides argued that the speech could have ended the thaw between the superpowers.
1989 was an important year for the Soviet Union and the Cold War as a whole. Soviet troops finally withdrew from Afghanistan, as Gorby recognized that the war was a severe drain on the Soviet economy. It also saw the Soviet Union adopt the unofficially-named "Sinatra Doctrine", by which the Soviet Union pledged to no longer violate the sovereignty of other members of the Eastern Bloc. This was likely an attempt to reduce the Soviet Union's military expenditures by abandoning its satellite states. And in December of 1989, Gorbachev and newly-elected US president George H.W. Bush declared the Cold War officially over at the Malta Summit.
Downfall of the Eastern Bloc
By 1989, the communist governments of Europe were on the brink of collapse due to economic strife and internal opposition, and Gorbachev's refusal to intervene in their affairs meant that the collapse of the Eastern Bloc was only a matter of time.
Polish Round Table Agreement
Facing strikes and the still-increasing power of the banned Solidarity movement, the Polish communist government finally agreed to negotiations with the trade union. The result was the historic Polish Round Table Agreement, where Solidarity was finally legalized and both parties agreed to hold legislative elections. This functionally ended one-party communist rule in Poland, as executive power was transferred from the General Secretary of the Polish communist party to an actual elected president.
Solidarity dominated the subsequent elections. They won every freely-contested seat in the Sejm and won 99 out of the 100 seats in the newly-created Senate. Poland was the first Eastern Bloc country where democratically-elected representatives held real power. Solidarity's candidate also won the 1990 presidential election. With non-communists in charge of the government, Poland began to peacefully transition away from communism.
Hungarian Round Table Agreement
Hungary quickly followed Poland's lead. Reformers took control of the Hungarian Communist Party, and in 1989, they voted to allow independent parties and public demonstrations. Later in the same year, Politburo member Imre Pozsgay declared that the Hungarian government now considered the 1956 revolution to be a popular uprising instead of a foreign-instigated coup attempt. This was a reversal of three decades of policy.
Mass protests in favor of democratization convinced the communist regime to follow the Polish model and negotiate with their opposition. The similarly-named Hungarian Round Table Agreement resulted in the complete overhaul of Hungary's government, establishing a Constitutional Court, multiparty elections for National Assembly deputies, and a penal code preventing arbitrary justice. The Hungarian Communist Party then voted amongst its members to transform into a democratic socialist party. Thus, unlike in Poland where opposition forces seized control of reform, Hungary had its own communist party join the effort. Hungary held free elections in 1990 that saw the conservative nationalist Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) become the largest party in parliament while the Hungarian Socialist Party suffered a great defeat at the polls and did not join the ruling coalition.
During the process of Hungary's transition away from communism, the government there dismantled their electric border fence with Austria. This punched a huge hole in the so-called Iron Curtain that East Germans immediately started to exploit. The East German government, meanwhile, was very pissed off about this. While worried, the Soviets did not intervene.
This created a massive refugee crisis as hundreds of thousands of East Germans fled into their neighboring countries, either hoping to reach Austria or else reach a Western Bloc embassy. At the request of East Germany's leadership, Czechoslovakia closed its borders to East Germans in order to stop East Germans from reaching Hungary. East Germany also shut down its border with Poland.
Erich Honecker, leader of East Germany and General Secretary of its communist party, had miscalculated. By imprisoning his country's population inside their borders, he made it clear that East Germany would not be following the Polish and Hungarian model of reform. This was intolerable for the people of East Germany. East Germans started staging a series of large protests called the Monday demonstrations that the government repeatedly tried and failed to suppress. The government started to consider conducting a mass crackdown in the style of the then-recent Tiananmen Square Massacre, but decided against this due to East Germany's reliance on loans from the West as well as the lack of military support from the Soviet Union. Annoyed by Honecker's exacerbation of East Germany's political crisis, Gorbachev had him replaced with the more moderate Egon Krenz. As an act of appeasement, Krenz reopened the border with Czechoslovakia, but this only caused the refugee exodus to resume.
Günter Schabowski, a member of East Germany's communist party, changed the world with a gaffe. Handed a paper listing temporary regulations concerning travel to West Berlin, Schabowski gave a press conference and mistakenly answered a reporter's question by stating that the regulations were going into place immediately. Seemingly the entire population of East Berlin and its surrounding areas shat a brick at the news. People mobbed the Berlin Wall security checkpoints, and none of the officials or soldiers were willing to take responsibility for acting on the spot. Thus, they had little choice but to start letting people through. East German civilians held an impromptu celebration there. Once opened, the border with West Berlin could not be closed, and the guards did nothing while people started hammering away at the wall. Events moved quickly from that point. Protesters stormed the Stasi headquarters. East Germany held free elections in March 1990, and the Christian Democratic Union won on a platform of speedy reunification with West Germany. Germany reunified in October 1990.
With cataclysmic events shaking the communist countries of Europe, reform in Czechoslovakia seemed possible for the first time since the Prague Spring was suppressed by the Warsaw Pact. Events began in early November of 1989, when riot police attacked student demonstrators in Prague, angering the public and convincing half-a-million people to join the movement. Daily demonstrations occurred in Prague and started spreading to the rest of the country. On November 28th the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia knew they were beaten and agreed to surrender their monopoly on power. Czechoslovakia peacefully transitioned to a democratic form of government.
The only violent revolution in the Eastern Bloc happened in Romania, and it was fought against the brutal dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu. He imposed austerity measures on Romania in response to the country's economic malaise that were deeply unpopular. He kept power with a violent secret police and maintained a forced cult of personality. Uprisings against him were inevitable.
Protesters assembled against him in various Romanian cities and started chanting "We want bread", and they soon added "Down with Ceauşescu". The dictator is said to have flown into a frenzied rage when he learned of this, apparently believing that Gorbachev was plotting with the West against him. He ordered his troops to fire on the protesters, and he publicly denounced those who refused. This only worsened the situation, and mass protests swept Romania. Ceauşescu tried to restore his own authority on December 21st by staging a show of support for his government in Bucharest's main square. But the ploy went hilariously wrong when the crowds interrupted his speech to mock him on live television. Members of the Romanian army and security apparatus turned against him amid bloody street battles. Crowds nabbed Ceauşescu and his wife, put them on show trial and shot them.
Although Romania transitioned away from communism, it still had great structural deficiencies that prevented it from becoming a true democracy for a long time.
Dissolution of the Soviet Union
Protests and riots in the Soviet Union
The late 1980s saw a dramatic uptick in domestic unrest inside the Soviet Union, due to a wide variety of factors. This started to become highly noticeable to the world in 1987, when authorities in the Soviet Baltic republics allowed protesters to publicly mourn the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in which Hitler agreed to let Stalin annex the Baltic states. Upon realizing that the protests had a nationalist edge, Soviet authorities unsuccessfully tried to suppress them. Unrest also became apparent in Armenia, where 3,000 people demonstrated in October 1987 against the continued operation of a chemical plant and a nuclear power station.
Estonian nationalists founded the Estonian Popular Front in 1988, which started to head a genuine democratic and national liberation movement. Lithuania and Latvia created similar liberation movements. Meanwhile, ethnic tensions between Azeris and Armenians exploded in Nagorno-Karabakh, which is an Armenian-majority area inside of Azerbaijan. In February 1988, Azeri mobs massacred between 32 and 200 Armenians in the area. In June 1988, the Armenian Supreme Soviet approved a measure calling for the annexation of Nagorno-Karabakh to the Armenian Soviet Republic. For the first time in the history of the Soviet Union, two Soviet constituent republics were opposing each other. Protests spread to other Soviet republics throughout the rest of 1988.
In August of 1989, 2 million citizens of the Baltic republics joined hands to form a human chain across the three states in order to call for independence. Said Juris Kaža, a Latvian-American journalist who filmed the event, "You could literally see that half the country was out in the road and holding hands." The protest became part of the wider Singing Revolution, in which many thousands of Baltic citizens revived their illegal national anthems and waved the banned flags of their nations. Just months later, Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to abolish the communist party's monopoly on power and was followed by its fellow Baltic republics. In the same year, Soviet troops massacred 16 protesters, mostly young women, in the Georgian Soviet Republic. The Central Asian Soviet republics also saw violence and rioting.
In early January of 1990, Azeri crowds tore down the Soviet Union's border fences with Iran in order to reunite with their fellow Shiite Muslims. For the first time, the Soviet Union completely lost control over one of its own external borders. This, along with the ethnic civil war happening in Azerbaijan and Armenia, convinced Gorbachev to intervene. Soviet tanks and troops stormed the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, killing between 130 and 300 people. Soviet troops reportedly shot people at point-blank range, run over cars with tanks, bombarded hospitals, prevented the medical personnel from helping the wounded, and literally bayoneted the survivors. Although the Soviet Union regained control of Baku, this action lost them all of Azerbaijan. Thousands of Communist Party members in Azerbaijan burned their membership cards in the streets.
The event could not be covered up, and international outcry was immediate. The Human Rights Watch said of the events,
“”Indeed, the violence used by the Soviet Army on the night of January 19–20 was so out of proportion to the resistance offered by Azerbaijanis as to constitute an exercise in collective punishment. Since Soviet officials have stated publicly that the purpose of the intervention of Soviet troops was to prevent the ouster of the Communist-dominated government of the Republic of Azerbaijan by the nationalist-minded, noncommunist opposition, the punishment inflicted on Baku by Soviet soldiers may have been intended as a warning to nationalists, not only in Azerbaijan, but in the other Republics of the Soviet Union.
Parade of sovereignties
On February 7th, 1990, the Central Committee of the CPSU accepted Gorbachev's recommendation that the party give up its monopoly on political power. All of the Soviet republics then held elections for their national assemblies. The Communist Party lost elections in six of them: Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Moldova, Armenia, and Georgia. The politically-independent republics began a so-called "war of laws" with the communist central government, struggling for more autonomy. In March 1990, Lithuania's Supreme Council passed the Act of the Re-Establishment of the State of Lithuania, which declared that pre-1940 Lithuania was in existence again and independent of the Soviet Union. Latvia and Estonia followed.
In comes Boris Yeltsin. He had previously been a political friend of Gorbachev, but he was eventually put out to pasture after he started criticizing the government's reforms for being too slow. Despite this, Yeltsin wasn't done yet. His credentials as a radical reformer made him popular with Russian voters. He won a seat in the USSR Congress of People’s Deputies, and then in May 1990, he was voted President of the Russian Soviet Republic against the wishes of Gorbachev. As the leader of Russia, Yeltsin posed an existential threat to the Soviet Union. He put the USSR's largest republic into conflict with the Kremlin government. In a dramatic move, Yeltsin then resigned from the Communist Party, followed by his fellow radical reformers. This action split the Communist Party for the first time since the Bolshevik-Menshevik divide that put Lenin in power in 1903. In June 1990, Russia declared sovereignty, stating that it had the right to prioritize its own laws over those of the Soviet Union.
Soviet attacks on the Baltic republics
In January 1991, the Soviet government attacked Lithuania in retaliation for its declaration of independence. Soviet military action in the republic's major cities killed 16 people and wounded more than 700. This event further weakened the Soviet Union's position internationally and domestically, and stiffened Lithuanian resistance.
Realizing what was coming for them, Latvians spent most of late January constructing improvised barricades around the republic's important locations. Soviet forces attacked, but were forced away by thousands of Latvian civilians. This event is now remembered as "The Barricades."
Civilians in Estonia also successfully defended their capital Tallinn's TV tower from Soviet forces who were trying to shut down communications for the entire republic.
The August Coup
August 1991 brought with it the event that effectively put the last nail in the Soviet Union's coffin.
Although their relations were strained, Gorbachev and Yeltsin shared a distaste for the hardline communists who sought to obstruct the reforms sweeping the Soviet Union. The two men held a secret discussion over how they might depose and replace some of those hardliners, including Soviet Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov, Internal Affairs Minister Boris Pugo, Premier (head of government) Valentin Pavlov, Vice-President Gennady Yanayev, and KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov. Kryuchkov, as the lead Soviet spymaster, was already a paranoid man, and he easily got wind of what the reformers were planning.
Gorbachev, meanwhile, was planning the greatest of his reforms. The New Union Treaty was his last and most desperate attempt to salvage the Soviet Union. It would have entirely replaced the USSR with a new entity called the Union of Sovereign States, which would have been a decentralized federation. Before the plan was finalized, Gorbachev went on holiday to his dacha. That's when things went pear-shaped.
The New Union Treaty was the last straw for Kryuchkov and his fellow hardliners. They flew to Gorbachev's dacha and confined him there, then assembled KGB troops around Moscow and emptied the city's prison to prepare for resistance. Yanayev made himself president and assembled the State Committee on the State of Emergency to help him run the country during its time of crisis.
Acting immediately, citizens of Moscow heeded the call of Boris Yeltsin to gather around and barricade Russia's parliament in defiance of the coup plotters' military strength. Troops attacked the Russian parliament, killing three people. According to Sergey Parkhomenko, a journalist and democracy campaigner who was in the crowd defending the White House, "Those deaths played a crucial role: Both sides were so horrified that it brought a halt to everything." Facing public resistance and having been delegitimized due to their murder of three people, the coup quickly collapsed. Government troops arrested the coup leaders and regained control of Moscow. Gorbachev was reinstated as leader of the Soviet Union, but his power was severely weakened.
After the August Coup, the Soviet Union collapsed with stunning speed.
That Gorbachev's position was destroyed became obvious to all observers. He resigned as leader of the Communist Party but not as President of the Soviet Union, effectively divorcing Soviet leadership from party rule. Yeltsin then banned the Communist Party inside Russia and allowed Ukraine and Belarus to secede. Gorbachev's influence as leader of the Soviet Union extended no further than Moscow itself, and even there he saw his government being swallowed up by Yeltsin.
The Bush administration treated this as a crisis, as they feared that any border disputes or misunderstandings could cause the Soviet nuclear arsenal to be put into use. The US carefully sent the message that so long as those republics honored each other's self-determination and international law, they could expect support from the democratic West. On December 8th, Yeltsin met with leaders from Belarus and Ukraine to officially dissolve the Soviet Union and establish a supranational organization called the Commonwealth of Independent States that was meant to foster cooperation among the former Soviet republics. On December 21st, the remaining Soviet republics also affirmed that the Union was dissolved and then joined the CIS. They also agreed that Yeltsin and the Russian republic would inherit the Soviet Union's Security Council seat. Bowing to the inevitable, Gorbachev resigned as leader of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day. President Bush officially recognized all 12 independent republics.
On United States culture
“”Thus were two generations of Americans treated by their overlords until, in the end, at the word 'communism' there is an orgasmic Pavlovian reflex just as the brain goes dead.
The Cold War had a profound effect on the culture and attitudes of the United States, and the lingering effects of these changes are still present in the average American's worldview today. The Cold War spawned McCarthyism and the fear of communists everywhere, accompanied by a slew of anti-leftist propaganda. Though McCarthy and his compatriots were eventually dismissed as demagogues and fear-mongers, they did manage to significantly affect the American psyche, instilling a knee-jerk hysteria of socialism and communism into many Americans. These undertones can still be seen today in the actions of anti-Obama protestors, many of whom are most concerned about Barack Obama's supposed "socialist" sympathies. Americans. The Cold War also influenced cinema and popular culture, and many of the films produced during this era are based upon the concepts of MAD, the bipolar state of world politics, or the Cold War culture.
Thanks to the Cold War, there has been tremendous advances in technology. Many things people today take for granted, such as the Internet, long distance calling, various computer programming languages, satellites, lasers, and supersonic flight, all resulted from the Cold War. While these probably still would've emerged, technological progress drastically sped up in this 45-year-long competition. The downside is major advancements in nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. But these are used with relative rarity.
Other cold wars
"The First Cold War"
As noted above, the pre-WWII era is often seen as a prequel to the Truman-Stalin drama, particularly where Woodrow Wilson and Lenin are concerned. Indeed, 1918, much like 1950, was a year with more "hot" war than cold as US and Red Army troops shed blood on opposing sides in the Russian Civil War.
Cold War II
Used to refer to the renewed tensions between Russia and the West, with Russia once again trying to rebuild its former empire. Unlike Cold War I, which was between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, this time NATO seems to be mainly fighting just Russia. Like Cold War I, proxy wars are commonplace, such as in Syria. However, at this point, it's pretty much been proven that neither Assad nor the Rebels have any chance of winning, Russia and the United States both respectively continue to back them instead of the only democratic side. How this will end is unknown.
Middle Eastern Cold War
In a continuation of the centuries-old Sunni-Shi'a conflict, the Middle Eastern Cold War is led by the conflict between the Sunni absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia and the Shi'a theodemocracy of Iran. Various smaller countries in the Middle East have joined both sides, to the degree that Yemen descended into a civil war over it, which obviously almost immediately become a proxy conflict. The US has intervened heavily on the side of the Saudis due to it having the most oil.[note 1]
Indian Cold War
The Indian Cold War is a decades-old conflict between India and Pakistan, with Bangladesh to a certain extent backing India. This mostly consists of border disputes over Kashmir Valley, a mostly Muslim region under Indian control, and has turned to actual warfare four times. As in the major Cold War, both sides have a shit-ton of nukes simply to deter each other. Both sides still feel resentment for the genocidal riots resulting from the Indian partition.
Korean Cold War
The Korean Cold War is between North and South Korea. If you don't know which side is better, this is not the website for you. China is pretty much the only country that backs North Korea, and even they do so with reluctance, and this has led to controversy. Tensions started at a little border skirmish called the Korean War. Both were dictatorships until the 80s, when the South democratized. When the Cold War ended, the South Korean economy entered the developed world, and North Korea's four decades of growth fell to a sharp decline. Contrary to its southern neighbor, the North has become increasingly authoritarian since they lost their Soviet backing, and this cold war can only end badly, possibly even in World War III.
- What we almost brought upon ourselves
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- Today, an alliance with Saudi Arabia to ensure the flow of oil becomes less necessary thanks to hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and horizontal drilling, both of which have enabled drillers to exploit deposits previously inaccessible, and the renewable energy boom.
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- See the Wikipedia article on 1990 East German general election.
- Panic! on the Streets of Prague. Local Life.
- Romania's bloody revolution. BBC.
- Lithuanians Rally For Stalin Victims. New York Times.' 1987.
- Latvian Protest Reported Curbed. New York Times. 1987.
- Reports of demonstrations in Yerevan and Clashes in Mountainous Karabagh. Armenia Foreign Ministry. Archived.
- See the Wikipedia article on Popular Front of Estonia.
- See the Wikipedia article on Sumgait pogrom.
- Armenian Legislature Backs Calls For Annexing Disputed Territory. New York Times. 1988.
- The Human Chain Of The Baltic Way. NPR.
- 30 years later, the human chain that 'unshackled' the Baltic nations still matters. Policy Research Institute.
- Singing Revolution: Past and Present. Foreign Policy Research Institute.
- Upheaval in the East; Lithuania Legalizes Rival Parties, Removing Communists' Monopoly. New York Times. 1989.
- At Least 16 Killed as Protesters Battle the Police in Soviet Georgia. New York Times.
- Upheaval In The East: Azerbaijan; Angry Soviet Crowd Attacks What Is Left Of Iran Border Posts. New York Times 1990.
- Bloody "Black January" became the starting point for independence of Azerbaijan. Jerusalem Post.
- Page 93 Black Garden. de Waal, Thomas. 2003. NYU. ISBN 0-8147-1945-7
- Robert Kushen, Aryeh Neier (May 1991). Conflict in the Soviet Union: Black January in Azerbaidzhan'. Human Rights Watch. p. 3. ISBN 978-1-56432-027-8.
- See the Wikipedia article on Dissolution of the Soviet Union.
- See the Wikipedia article on Act of the Re-Establishment of the State of Lithuania.
- Boris Yeltsin. Britannica.
- 1990: Yeltsin resignation splits Soviet Communists. BBC.
- See the Wikipedia article on Declaration of State Sovereignty of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.
- See the Wikipedia article on January Events (Lithuania).
- See the Wikipedia article on The Barricades.
- See the Wikipedia article on Tallinn TV Tower.
- Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin (2000). The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West. Gardners Books. ISBN 0-14-028487-7, pages 513–514.
- See the Wikipedia article on Union of Sovereign States.
- Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin (2000). 'The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West. Gardners Books. ISBN 0-14-028487-7, pages 513–514.
- Tanks, pies and flowers; resisting 1991 Soviet coup. Reuters.
- Calls for recognition of 1991 Soviet coup martyrs on 20th anniversary. The Guardian.
- Russia's Brightest Moment: The 1991 Coup That Failed. Moscow Times.
- The Collapse of the Soviet Union. US State Department Office of the Historian.
- See the Wikipedia article on Belovezha Accords.
- See the Wikipedia article on Alma-Ata Protocol.
- Russia to take Soviet U.N. seat. Policy Research Institute.
- Dreaming War, 2002 (originally published in Vanity Fair, 1999)
- An in-depth article and discussion of Red Scare propaganda at UPenn
- See Wikipedia for a comprehensive list
- Top Ten Technologies We Have Because of the Cold War
- Wilson Center, Kennan Institute "The First Cold War: The Legacy of Woodrow Wilson in U.S.-Soviet Relations, by Eugene Trani"
- See the Wikipedia article on Indo-Pakistani wars and conflicts.