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The Cold War

The Cold War was arguably the most dangerous period there has ever been in world history. During it, the threat of nuclear war, which represented an existential threat to civilization, and perhaps to humanity itself, was never far away. At times it came perilously close.

In the event, it never did. For this reason, the rivalry in the decades after World War II between the two superpowers – the United States of America on the one hand and the Soviet Union on the other, are labelled the “Cold War” – a time of continuous tension, but never of open warfare between the leading powers.

That is not to say that there were no wars in the world during these decades – far from it; however,  they never degenerated into a world war.

The Roots of the Cold War

Allied planning for the future during World War II

American planners during World War II war were determined to avoid the mistakes that were made after World War I. Above all, there was a widespread feeling that the authority of the League of Nations had been undermined by the absence of the United States and the Soviet Union.

A conference session including Clement Attlee, Ernest Bevin, Vyacheslav Molotov, Joseph Stalin, William D. Leahy, Joseph E. Davies, James F. Byrnes, and Harry S. Truman (German federal archives, Bild 183-R67561)

The “Big Four” Allied Powers of World War II (the USA, the USSR, Britain and France) therefore committed themselves to a more effective successor to the League and accordingly drafted the Charter of the United Nations in April 1945. The aim of this body was to settle future disputes between nations peacefully.

In the economic sphere, American and British planners were also determined to avoid the economic failures which, more than anything else, were judged to have brought about World War II. At the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944, representatives of the two nations’ governments created the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The dollar was to serve as the world’s reserve currency, with the pound, franc and other currencies pegged to it. These measures would provide an environment for a stable world economic system, and permit the recovery of world trade after the War’s end. They also planned for a General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which would prevent a return to the tit-for-tat tariff wars which had created so much harm during the Great Depression. 

The Soviet Union stood aloof from the Bretton Woods system, despite the best efforts of the US government.

The transition from World War II to Cold War

The end of World War II found much of the world in ruins. Large parts of the cities of Europe and Japan had been flattened, their transports systems terribly disrupted, and many of their seaports unusable. Europe in particular had millions of homeless refugees to feed and house. Both Germany and Japan were under Allied occupation, China was in chaos, Britain, France and the Soviet Union were exhausted.

Two superpowers

The United States of America and the Soviet Union had emerged form the war as the two leading military powers (or “superpowers”, as they became known as). But whereas the Soviet Union had experienced a hugely destructive invasion of its territory and the disruption of much of its infrastructure, along with the deaths of millions of its people, the United States emerged from the war with its economy and society intact and its morale high.

That the United States was the world’s leading power was underscored by its possession of the first weapon of mass destruction, the atom bomb, which it had used the bring about the end of the war against Japan.

Tensions between Allies

During World War II, the alliance which had defeated Nazi Germany and Japan, led by the United States and the Soviet Union, had never been free from deep tensions. Jospeh Stalin, the Soviet leader, deeply resented the Western Allies (mainly the USA and Britain) for having delayed (as he saw it) the opening of the Second Front for at least a year (it had eventually materialized in the D-Day invasions of Normandy in July 1944).

During this wait the Soviet Union had borne almost the full weight of the European war. Stalin suspected that his Western allies had deliberately sat on their hands while the Soviet army spent its strength against the mighty German army; then they could more easily pick up the pieces after the war was over.

The dropping of atom bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Americans in August 1945, intensified Stalin’s suspicions. These made clear that the West, in possessing these dreadful weapons, now enjoyed a clear military superiority over the Soviet Union.

The Western allies, on the other hand, had been constantly exasperated by Stalin’s stubbornness and paranoia. Moreover, as the war neared its end, they viewed with increasing alarm the swift Soviet advance across central Europe and into Germany.

The Soviet occupation of central Europe

At the Yalta conference in February 1945 the Allied leaders had agreed to help the nations liberated from Nazi occupation to set up free and democratic governments. Following the surrender of Nazi Germany in May 1945, however, the victorious Alliance almost immediately began to fall apart – a process which the setting up of the United Nations did nothing to prevent.

By the time of the Potsdam conference in July 1945, the Soviets’ unwillingness to permit democratic systems in the countries that it occupied was already apparent. In Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland, communist regimes were set up under Soviet sponsorship, often with great brutality. 

In response, the Americans ended wartime aid to the Soviet Union just three days after the German surrender.

An end to co-operation

The Potsdam conference essentially signaled the end of co-operation between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union. There was now a widespread feeling within the USA and Britain that the Soviet Union under Stalin was committed to the worldwide spread of communism, and would take any steps to realize this goal.

In fact, Stalin probably had less vaulting ambitions in refusing to release his hold on central Europe. Firstly, he had been traumatized by the surprise German invasion of his country in 1941, and he many well have felt that he needed to create a buffer zone between the Soviet Union and the West to prevent such an event ever happening again.

Secondly, he is thought to have been determined to isolate the Soviet people from Western influences, freighted as these would be by aspirations for multi-party democracy, consumerism and a more open intellectual culture. Stalin implemented a cruel policy of interning returning Soviet prisoners of war to prevent them from “infecting” their neighbors with Western ideas; in society at large, the first months of peace saw an immediate return to strict communist orthodoxy (which had been relaxed somewhat during the war years). 

Western fears

To the Western leaders, the Soviet occupation of central Europe looked very much like a land-grab on an epic scale, aimed at enabling communist rule to reach as far westward into Europe as possible. Indeed, the Americans and British were soon fearful that communism would continue its expansion.

The nations of Western Europe lay in ruins and their peoples were experiencing massive hardship. Communist parties, which looked to the Soviet Union for direction, were proving remarkably popular in France and Italy, and although Germany remained under military occupation and did not hold elections at this stage, it was clear that here, too, communism was gaining ground. It looked as if communism might come to dominate Europe as a whole.

Two speeches

Two famous speeches in 1946 helped to popularize the idea that Europe was now in the grip of a “Cold War” between two rival camps (although the term itself did not gain currency until the following year). Early in the year Stalin gave voice to his implacable hostility towards the West and all it stood for; and later Winston Churchill, now no longer prime minister of Britain, and touring the United States, replied in kind at Fulton, Missouri. He said, “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an Iron Curtain has descended across the Continent [of Europe]”. He went on the state that the countries to the east of this line now lay under the control of Moscow.

The United States moved decisively from co-operation with the Soviet Union to a policy of containment in 1947, when President Truman enunciated the “Truman Doctrine”. This stated that the United States must support democracies in facing the threat from communism around the world.

The Truman Doctrine first became a reality in Greece, which was torn by a civil war between communist and anti-communist groups. The Americans and British sent troops and other aid to support the anti-communist side.

A rift between Communists

The communist takeover of central Europe was not a straightforward affair, and it took until 1948 to be completed. Even then, things had not gone entirely the way the Soviets might have wished. A rift had opened up between Stalin and Tito, the communist leader of Yugoslavia.

During the war, the communists in that country had expelled the Nazis through their own efforts, and since then had maintained an arms-length relationship with Moscow. Tensions grew until Tito unofficially moved out of the Soviet camp and towards a defensive alliance with the West.

The Early Years of the Cold War, 1948-53

The Marshall Plan

In 1948 also, the United States took probably the most decisive step in preventing western Europe from slipping into Communist control by inaugurating the Marshall Plan.

In this, it provided aid to the countries of western Europe, thus stimulating strong economic growth. This in turn would see western European living standards rise and thus stabilize democracy in the region. The threat of communism began to recede here.

The US economy benefitted from much increased demand for American-made goods. Along with these came renewed American cultural influences, especially in music and fashion, which young people especially found attractive.

Around the World

South East Asia

By the late 1940s, the Cold War was spreading well beyond Europe. During World War II the Japanese had seized control of much of South East Asia from the colonial powers, Britain (in Malaya and Burma), France (in Indo-China), the Netherlands (in the Dutch East Indies) and the United States (in the Philippines). Thailand was the only country in the region which had not been under colonial rule before the war.

The surrender of Japan in August 1945 found most of the region still under Japanese occupation. The Americans gave the Philippines its independence, but the British, French and Dutch immediately attempted to reimpose their rule in South East Asia. In all cases they found themselves opposed by independence movements which all contained strong communists elements receiving support from the Soviet Union.

Long struggles followed, in which Britain succeeded (after several years of the “Malayan Emergency”), the French partially succeeded (in a war which the Americans would eventually inherit), and the Netherlands failed, in reimposing their rule (leading to the creation of Indonesia).

New nations in South Asia and the Middle East

These years also saw the British yield to political pressure to give India, Pakistan, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Burma (Myanmar) their independence; and in the Middle East several other countries gained their independence in 1946-1947: Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. As these hand-overs were not the result of long periods of fighting, and communist influence was limited here.

In international affairs, some of these newly independent countries favored a non-aligned position between the American and Soviet camps. This was especially the case with India, Indonesia and Egypt. Given that these were all recently under European rule, however, it is unsurprising that they tended to lean more towards the Soviet Union and away from the former imperialist powers.

The birth of Israel

In 1948, Israel declared its existence as an independent country, and was recognized by the United Nations as such.

The neighboring Arab countries utterly rejected this state of affairs, and sought to destroy the new state in the first of several Arab-Israeli wars. The Israeli victory, however, confirmed the state’s existence. This event would eventually bring about a situation which would set much of the Arab world against the West.

The Berlin Airlift and its Aftermath

Germany under occupation

Back in Europe, the Soviets attempted a major move against the Western allies, when they tried to force them out of Berlin.

The agreements at the Yalta and Potsdam conferences (see above) had involved dividing Germany into four occupation zones, each under one of the four Allies – the Soviet Union, the United States, Britain and France. Berlin, which lay within the eastern part of German, which was under Soviet control, was itself divided between the Allies.


In 1948 Soviet forces surrounded the city and prevented goods coming into the western-occupied part of the city by road and rail. The Allies therefore organized a massive 15-month-long airlift of supplies into their part of the city (June 1948 to September 49). They thus succeeded in keeping the population of West Berlin fed and clothed. The Soviets then gave up their attempt and lifted the blockade. 

AC-74 Globemaster-plane-at-Gatow airfield

A C-74 Globemaster plane at Gatow airfield on 19 August with more than 20 tons of flour from the United States (2111110-0C-AMW-0014, U.S Department of Agriculture)


As a result of this episode the Americans and their allies decided that they needed to formalize the military operation between them by unifying their command structures. They therefore formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO – April 1949). Its governing principle was that if one member nation was attacked, all would come to its defense. The founding countries were the United States, Britain, France, Italy, Portugal, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Denmark, Norway, Iceland and Canada.

The birth of West Germany and East Germany

The following month the western Allies occupying Germany (the United States, Britain and France) merged their occupation zones into a single unit and established it as a state in its own right – the Federal Republic of Germany (commonly called West Germany). In response, the Soviets organized their part of the country into the Democratic Republic of Germany (East Germany).

The Communist world on the march

The Soviet atom bomb

The blockade of Berlin by Soviet forces had only increased Western fears of Communist expansionism. These were strengthened by two events in 1949. Firstly, the Soviet Union exploded its own atom bomb; this meant that the United States had lost its military advantage as the only nuclear power.

China goes communist

Secondly, in September the Chinese Communist party under Mao Zedong completed its takeover of that giant country.  The previous ruling Nationalist regime, under Chang Kai Sheck, were forced to flee to Taiwan, an island off the Chinese coast.

McCarthyism in America

Given these developments around the world, it is hardly surprising that back at home in American fears of communism would give rise to a “Red Scare”. Senator Joseph McCarthy led a witch-hunt against suspected Communists in government, business and entertainment between 1950 -54.

By the end of this period “McCarthyism”, as it was called, had become discredited, but not before hundreds of public servants, business people, union officials and actors had had their careers destroyed by innuendo and false evidence.

The Korean War and after

In 1950 the West’s fears of communist aggression only got worse when the Soviet-supported communist regime of North Korea invaded South Korea, which was an ally of the United States.


Hundreds of thousands of South Koreans fled south in mid-1950 after the North Korean army invaded. (1950, U.S Defense Department)

Thus began the Korean War (1950-53) in which, after much bloodshed, the frontier between North and South Korea was fixed at almost exactly the line it had followed before.

The fighting came to an end in an armistice, rather than a peace treaty, so that the war has theoretically continued up until today.

The death of Stalin

In 1953, the Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin died. This removed probably the main instigator of the Cold War, but for the time being very little changed. This was clearly shown when Soviet forces put down an uprising in East Germany in June 1953. 


The Americans, certainly, did not consider that the threat of communist expansion had been reduced with Stalin’s death. Under President Eisenhower, they organized a system of alliances around the world, to supplement NATO. SEATO covered the Pacific (Australia, New Zealand), South East Asia (the Philippines, Thailand), and South Asia (Pakistan, and later Bangladesh). CENTO covered the Middle East (Pakistan, Iran, Turkey).

The United States and Britain were also members of both organizations, and France was a members of SEATO. 

In the event, neither were to work as successfully or be as enduring as NATO. However, they allowed US military bases to be established in a wide arc around the southern and south-eastern sides of the communist bloc; and  to the east lay the US allies of Japan and Korea.

Unsurprisingly the communists came to to feel hemmed in by hostile forces, and thus this alliance system to some extent intensified the tensions between the two camps. It became a main communist goal to shore up their control of countries within the bloc, as well as to break through this hostile line.

The Warsaw Pact

In 1955 Soviet control over the military forces of the central European countries was given formal structure when the Warsaw Pact was created, bringing them all under unified military command. This move was in direct response to Western Germany becoming a member of NATO the previous year. On the other hand, Austria, which unlike Germany had been administered jointly by the Allied occupying powers since the war, was given its independence in 1955 on condition that it adopted permanent neutrality.

The later 1950s

A secret speech

Although the death of Stalin had not had an immediate impact on the international situation, within the Soviet Union it had led to a softening of communist orthodoxy, and a measure of greater freedom for individual Soviet citizens.

Then, in February 1956, the new Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, delivered a secret speech denouncing Stalin as a tyrant and a criminal. The speech did not remain secret for long: the very next day it was widely reported in the world’s press, sending a shock wave around the world. 

The Hungarian uprising

The speech was followed by a thaw in Soviet rule. This had the unfortunate effect of encouraged some people in central Europe to believe that the days of tight communist control were ending. To hurry this longed-for event to happen, in October 1956 a popular uprising against communist rule broke out in Hungary. 


The flag, with a hole where the communist emblem had been cut out, became the symbol of the revolution. (Oct 1956, The American Hungarian Federation Declaration)

In an unrelated event, the Egyptian government of Abdul Nasser seized control of the Suez Canal from the British and French. These countries, along with Israel, then invaded Egypt and took back control of the canal. However the United States government, the Soviet government and the United Nations put strong pressure on the three invaders to withdraw, which they eventually did. 

The Soviet government took advantage of this diversion to brutally crush the uprising in Hungary, showing that their determination to dominate central Europe remained intact.


In the aftermath of the Suez crisis, the British and French governments felt humiliated by the superpowers’ success in pressuring them to withdraw from defending what they regarded as their vital national interests. For the French, in particular, these events showed how relatively weak the European nations had become.

Other western European nations agreed, and worked towards further integration. This had already begun in 1951, when, with economic revival beginning to make itself felt in the wake of the Marshall Plan (see above), western European governments felt a need to work together in integrating their economies more closely. As a result, six countries – France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherland and Luxembourg –  had set up the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC).

Now, in 1958, they widened the scope of this agreement to form the European Economic Community (EEC), more generally known as the Common Market. This integrated their economies much more closely by bringing into being a system of internal and external tariff coordination, the free movement of labor and capital, and a common agricultural pricing policy.

Economic advance in western Europe, and also Japan, meant that these nations were re-emerging as advanced, wealthy societies in their own right. They were now much less economically dependent on the United States than in the years after World War II.


The late 1950s were quiet years in the Cold War. The Hungarian debacle notwithstanding, the Soviet leadership under Khrushchev adopted a softer approach in its dealings with the West, culminating in Khrushchev’s triumphant visit to the United States in 1959.

Nevertheless, the fundamentals of the Cold War still held. At its heart was the policy of nuclear deterrence, which had evolved after the war. With the the Soviet Union becoming a nuclear power along with America, this had now become a policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). the idea was that nuclear war would be so destructive (especially after the development of the H-bomb in 1950, which was far more powerful than the atom bomb) that to launch a strike was to invite the utter ruin of one’s own country.

The Space Race

Until the mid-1950s nuclear weapons were carried by bombers; but later they were put on top of missiles. This development was closely linked to the rivalry which developed between the two superpowers known as the Space Race.

This got under way in earnest in the late 1950s when the Soviet Union put a satellite, Sputnik 1; into orbit (October 1957). The Americans were left badly wrong-footed by this achievement, and the following year they set up the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Two and a half years after Sputnik 1, however, the Soviets put the first man, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit, in April 1961.

The launch-Apollo 10-On Saturn V AS

The launch of Apollo 10 on Saturn V AS-505, May 18, 1969 (https://www.flickr.com/photos/nasa2explore/9349488669/in/album-72157634766304352/, NASA)

The Americans could only manage a short space flight in response, but the new President, John F. Kennedy, challenged his nation to put a man on the moon by 1970.

The whole world was soon riveted to the American space program as rockets got bigger and flights longer, until they were orbiting the moon itself. Finally, on July 20th 1969, the American Apollo 11 mission landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the moon – the first men to walk anywhere than on Earth.

The development of the rocketry required to deliver men into space was closely linked to that of missiles designed to carry nuclear weapons to their targets. The type of rocket which carried Sputnik 1 into space was also the first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM),

The problem with nuclear weapons, however, was that they were of little use in anything but all-out war between superpowers. It was conventional political and military struggles which really pre-occupied the leaders of the two superpowers at this time. Indeed, the 1960s was the time when both the fear of nuclear annihilation and the scale of armed struggle reached its peak in the Cold War.

The Split between the Soviet Union and China

By the start of the 1960s the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party had come to resent being treated as just another Soviet satellite. They had also come to question the Soviet leadership’s credentials as leaders of the communist world, particularly after Khrushchev’s denunciations of Stalin and softer stance towards the West.  Mao Zedong and his colleagues saw themselves as more orthodox in their following of communist teachings and more zealous in the spread of communism worldwide.

When Mao insisted that the Soviets share their nuclear and missile technology with the Chinese, the Soviets resisted. This led to a split between the Soviet Union and China. The hitherto universally-held view that the world was divided into just two camps could no longer be sustained.

The Chinese went ahead with their own nuclear program, and exploded their first atomic device in 1964. This marked a further step in the (re-)emergence of China as a great power in its own right.


These developments clearly weakened the Soviet position within the Communist world. However, in the previous year (1959) the Soviets had had a major stroke of good fortune. The liberation fighter Fidel Castro had overthrown a corrupt, pro-American regime in Cuba and established himself in power there. He had quickly moved to seek support from the Soviet Union, which thus acquired an ally just 90 miles off the coast of the United States.

The Bay of Pigs

The split with China encouraged Khrushchev to return to a more aggressive stance towards the West, the better to shore up his leadership credentials with the other communist states.

The Soviets were not without excuses for ramping up tensions. They shot down a US spy plane overflying their territory in 1960, and the US government refused to apologize. Of more significance, President Kennedy endorsed a CIA plan to send a force of Cuban exiles to invade Cuba in expectation of a popular revolt there.

In the event the landing at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961 was a fiasco, completed defeated within a couple of days.

The Berlin Wall

Later that year, to prevent an exodus of skilled workers from East Berlin to the West, Soviet and East German troops erected the Berlin Wall. Its sudden appearance, almost overnight, shocked the world.

Missiles to Cuba

In 1962, the Soviet Union began secretly installing missiles in Cuba. These could be used to launch nuclear attacks on US cities. In response, the US navy patrolled the seas off Cuba and turned back any Soviet cargo ships. President Kennedy also issued an ultimatum demanding that the missile bases be removed.


Kennedy in 1961 (https://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/JP9rbLopQEKqBZCCaOJq_Q.aspx, White House Press Office (WHPO))

Tensions mounted between the two superpowers, and for a few days it looked as if they were heading towards the long-feared nuclear exchange. Then, Khrushchev offered to withdraw the missiles in exchange for an American commitment never to invade Cuba. The Americans agreed, and the crisis passed.

The aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis

Cuba would continue to be a thorn in the side of America until the end of the Cold War. Its economy would be heavily subsidized by the Soviet Union (to the tune of over three trillion dollars a year), but it would prove an enormously valuable ally to the Soviet Union. It provided troops and other kinds of aid to anti-American movements in Central and South America and Africa, and its very existence acted as a huge irritant to successive US governments. Nevertheless, so far as the immediate crisis was concerned, nuclear war had been averted, and the firmness shown by the American government under President Kennedy had forced the Soviet Union into a retreat.

The Cuban missile crisis also showed that neither of the two superpowers was prepared to use nuclear weapons, for fear of mutual annihilation, and the following year they signed the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, prohibiting nuclear tests in air, sea, or space. However, the crisis also revealed to the Soviets how weak militarily they were compared to the Americans, and they began a build up both conventional and nuclear forces. The United States was forced to match this build-up.

The Superpowers and the rest of the world

By the early 1960s, the United States had become keenly aware of the need to win influence with the “Third World”countries. The late 1950s and early 1960s was the peak period for the process of  decolonization by European countries, especially by Britain and France, and especially in Africa. Gambia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Malawi all became independent from Britain, and the vast territory of French West Africa was partitioned into the new countries of Senegal, Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Upper Volta and Benin.

The Non-Aligned Bloc

Most of the new African states joined the Non-Aligned bloc of countries in the United Nations. However, just as with the earlier decolonized nations of India, Indonesia, Egypt and the other Arab countries, they tended to lean away from their former colonial masters. Most of them forged fairly close ties to the Soviet Union.

This of course made life difficult for the United States and its allies in the United Nations. Given that most of these states soon fell under the control of dictatorships, this body lost any possibility it once had of being an effective champion of democracy and human rights worldwide.

White rule in southern Africa

The anti-Western stance of the newly-independent African countries was sharpened by the continued White domination in southern Africa, where colonial left-overs survived. Angola and Mozambique remained colonies of Portugal, and in South Africa White-minority governments had erected a system of “Apartheid” to underpin their racial dominance in the country after 1948. Also, the White minority in Southern Rhodesia unilaterally declared its independence from Britain in 1965, and, with the support of the South African government, survived for several years in the face of a growing guerrilla insurgency (which had the support of Communist China).

The Six Day War

In the Middle East, another conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors took place in 1967. Having received arms from the Soviet Union, President Nasser of Egypt blockaded Israel’s port on the Gulf of Aqaba, and sent large numbers of troops to Jordan preparatory to another attack on Israel. The Israeli air force than suddenly attacked the Egyptian air force while it was on the ground, effectively destroying it;  and the Israeli army overran the Sinai, the West Bank of the Jordan river (including the Old City of Jerusalem) and the Golan Heights on Syria’s southern border. The fighting was over within 6 days.

Israeli troops-examine-destroyed-egyptian-aircraft

Israeli troops examine destroyed Egyptian aircraft. (June 1967, יחזקאל (חזי) רחמים , היוצר התיר את השימוש בתמונה)

The United Nations intervened and arranged a cease-fire. before it would withdraw its forces, however, the Israelis insisted that the Arab states recognize its right to exist and guarantee not to attack in future. The Arab states refused to grant such recognition or give such guarantees.

This episode poisoned relations between the Arabs and the West, which was seen as backing Israel, and made them move closer to the Soviet camp.

India and Pakistan

In the Indian subcontinent, India had been a leading member of the Non-Aligned group of nations in the UN since its early days as an independent country, albeit tending to lean towards the Soviet Union. This tendency grew as border disputes developed between India and China along their Himalayan border (where Chinese troops inflicted a humiliating defeat on Indian forces in 1962). 

As enmity between India and Pakistan sharpened after the two countries’ independence, especially over the status of the northern province of Kashmir, Pakistan had moved into the American camp (it was a member of both CENTO and NATO). However, as Chinese interest in the region grew, Pakistan also developed close ties with that country.

In 1971 East Pakistan broke away from West Pakistan, with India’s military backing; a brief but bloody war ensued, ending in East Pakistan gaining its independence as Bangladesh.

This did not alter the basic international strategic situation in the subcontinent, however. India retained the backing of the Soviet Union and Pakistan of the Americans, and increasingly also of the Chinese. 


The huge archipelago of Indonesia, in South East Asia, was governed by the regime of President Sukarno, who had led the country to independence from the Dutch. His government was increasingly influenced by a growing communist party beholden to the Soviet Union. In 1965, however, an army general, Suharto, savagely put down a Communist uprising. Taking over the government of the country, he then steered the country along a neutral course, focussing on internal development rather than international involvements.

Events were taking a quite different course elsewhere in South East Asia.

The Vietnam War

At the end of World War II, the French had tried to regain control of their colony of Indochina, which had been occupied by the Japanese. To a large extent they had succeeded, but had become bogged down in a long struggle with the Viet-Minh, a communist group based in northern Vietnam.

By the early 1960s the French had not only failed to win this struggle, but their empire in Indochina had unravelled. Cambodia, Laos and South Vietnam had all become independent states, though the French had continued their patronage of South Vietnam.

The US gets involved

American advisors and financial aid had been present in the region since the early 1950s, and in 1962 the French effectively asked the Americans to take over the burden for defending the region from the communists. In the face of the mounting threat from the communists in North Vietnam, who had the support of both the Soviet Union and the Chinese, President Kennedy approved the assignment of advisers to every level of South Vietnam’s government and military. The number of Americans in Vietnam had grown from 800 to 11,000 by the end of 1962.

The Domino Theory

A large part of the reason for the American determination to defend South Vietnam from communist takeover was the influence of the “Domino Theory”, which had gained currency since it was first propounded in 1954. This stated that if one country fell to communism, it would then be used as a base from which to infiltrate its neighbors. They would be more likely to fall, like dominoes in a row. American leaders were therefore afraid that the whole of South East Asia might become communist if South Vietnam was lost.

The struggle escalates

The Viet Minh, based in North Vietnam, were assisted by a growing number of communist fighters recruited in the South, organized as the Viet Cong. In 1960 there were 7,000 of them, but by 1964 their numbers had grown to more than 100,000. They were supported by units coming in from North along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. 


Viet Cong fighters crossing a river (George Esper: The Eyewitness History of the Vietnam War 1961-1975, Associated Press, New York 1983.)

The United States and South Vietnamese used special forces to counter the relentless communist advances in the countryside, and relocated rural populations in order to isolate the communists. This aroused bitter resentment amongst the South Vietnamese peasants, who consequently came to favored the communists.

President Johnson, who had inherited the direction of the war after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, ordered sustained bombing of North Vietnam in 1965, and dispatched the first regular US army units to the war. By June, 1965, US troops in Vietnam numbered 74,000.  Meanwhile, South Vietnam underwent a succession of military coups that undermined any idea that the United States was defending democracy.

The American public turns against the war

The late 1960s saw the situation deteriorate further for the Americans. US forces reached a peak of 543,000 men in 1969 (some allies also contributed small contingents – Australia,  New Zealand, Thailand, the Philippines and South Korea, which contributed 50,000 men). They were fighting a war of attrition. and though US army tactics were designed to minimize the cost in American lives, TV stations across America showed body bags being flown in from the war on a nightly basis. Johnson’s popularity steadily fell as antiwar sentiment grew.

The Tet Offensive and peace negotiations

In January 1968 the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive (so called because it began on the Tet holiday). Huge numbers of communist troops infiltrated South Vietnamese cities, attacked government sites, and even penetrated the American embassy in Saigon. The American press reported this as a major set-back for the United States.

President Johnson’s administration began a quest for peace, and soon negotiations began in Paris with the North Vietnamese.

The Quest for Détente

By the mid- to late-1960s, the United States was on the back foot around the world – in southern Africa, the Middle East, India and above all in South East Asia. Even in western Europe it had experienced set-backs: in 1966 France, (whose president, Charles de Gaulle, had resented NATO’s subservience, as he saw it, to the USA), withdrew its forces from NATO, though it remained a political member of the alliance.

The Cultural Revolution

To compound these difficulties for the Americans, the West had been completely unable to take advantage of the split within the communist camps between the Soviet Union and China. Indeed, China turned even more virulently against the West when, in February 1966, Mao let the young and fanatical Red Guards loose to impose a Cultural Revolution on the country by force. Attacks on foreign embassies and denunciations of both the Soviets and Americans persuaded leaders around the world that the Chinese were, for the moment at least, the major threat to world peace. On the other hand, these events thrilled all those already of an anti-Western bent (including some Americans and western Europeans). 

The remain-of ming dynasty-wanli-emperor

Red Guards dragged the remains of the Wanli Emperor and Empresses to the front of the tomb, where they were posthumously “denounced” and burned. (http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bild:Wanlitod.jpg, Louis le Grand)

The Prague Spring

One episode in the later 1960s reminded the world that the Soviet Union fundamentally stood against freedom and democracy, however. In Czechoslovakia the reformist Alexander Dubćek came to power in early 1968, and started liberalizing the communist regime there. The Soviet government looked on in alarm, and eventually sent in troops of the Warsaw Pact to bring this process to an end. A reform regime was replaced by a more pliable government and tight controls reimpose on the Czechoslovak people.

The superpowers on the defensive

America’s failure to contain the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive was the tipping point which forced the Americans to seek to reduce their worldwide responsibilities. In July 1969, President Richard Nixon announced that the United States would no longer send Americans to fight in Asian wars, but would limit itself to logistical and economic support.

The cost of America’s word-wide stand against Communism had been enormous, and by the beginning of the 1970s the US economy was experiencing high levels of inflation. In 1971 the Nixon administration imposed wage and price controls, and the dollar was allowed to float on world markets. In December 1971 the dollar was stabilized, but the Bretton Woods agreements (see above) had been badly undermined.

The Soviet Union was also seeking to reduce its commitments. The diversion of vast funds to overseas operations had starved its economy, and it was in dire need of massive agricultural imports. It was also keenly aware that Western technology had been creeping ahead, and it needed to find ways of catching up. These were powerful incentives to seek a thaw in relations with the United States.

Moves had already taken place in Europe, leading to treaties (1970) whereby the superpowers renouncing the use of force in their relations. Now, Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) between the United States and the Soviet Union got underway, in Helsinki.

The end of the Vietnam War

At the same time that the Paris talks (see above) were beginning, Nixon agreed to the US army’s request to destroy communist bases inside Cambodia, which had recently fallen to a communist regime. The resulting military operation did not achieve what was hoped, and aroused widespread protests around the world; nevertheless Nixon ordered further operations into Laos, to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

The North Vietnamese then made a bid for victory when, in March 1972, they committed the majority of their army to a massive offensive. Nixon responded by ordering the resumption of bombing of the North and the mining of North Vietnam’s major ports. The offensive stalled, and this prompted the North Vietnamese to invest more in the Paris peace talks.

A ceasefire

In October 1972 the talks finally produced an agreement on a ceasefire. This involved the release of prisoners of war, the evacuation of remaining US forces within 60 days, and political negotiations among all Vietnamese political parties.

The governments of neither South Vietnam nor North Vietnam proved keen on complying with the ceasefire. Nixon therefore ordered the intensive bombing of Hanoi itself (December 1972).

This naturally provoked worldwide protests, but succeeded in bringing all sides to terms. The ceasefire went into effect on January 1973, and the last American soldiers departed Vietnam on March 29th.


The beginnings of Détente

Meanwhile, the SALT talks in Helsinki led to the SALT I agreements of 1972. These limited the number of strategic missiles and antiballistic missiles each side could possess; they also provided for co-operation between the two superpowers in such areas as science, technology, space and health.

In this atmosphere of détente, West and East Germany recognized each other as independent states, and both were admitted to the United Nations in 1973.

Building bridges to China

While dialogue with the Soviet Union was ongoing, another channel of communication opened up for the Americans.

By 1971 the Cultural Revolution in China had run its course, and the Chinese leaders were beginning to view the Americans, not as deadly enemies, but as a potential counterweight to the Soviets. Talks might yield dividends – on the status of Taiwan (whose rulers were still recognized by the Americans and much of the rest of the world as the legitimate government of China), technology transfers, possibly even the end of the US military presence in Asia.

Ping Pong diplomacy

In April, 1971 the Chinese surprised the world by inviting an American table tennis team to compete in a tournament in Beijing. Secret talks between the US and Chinese governments followed. The Americans promised to remove US forces from Taiwan in return for Chinese support for a negotiated settlement in Vietnam. The Chinese also paved the way for President Nixon’s dramatic visit to China in February 1972.

More agreements

Détente between the United States and the Soviet Union proceeded apace with the signing of the Vladivostok agreement in November 1974, which limited each side’s ICBMs, and of the Helsinki Accords of 1975. These were signed by the United States, Canada, and all the European countries except Albania.

The signatories accepted the integrity of Europe’s existing borders and the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of other states. The agreement promoted exchanges in science, technology, and commerce, opening the Soviet market to western European industry and expanding Soviet access to Western technology. The signatories also agreed to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.

Détente undermined

Already, however, the (never strong) trust between the superpowers, without which détente could not succeed, was fraying. 

From the American standpoint, détente was seen as a less confrontational method of containing communist power by diplomatic means rather than brute military threat. The negotiations were built around a series of incentives to cooperate, such as arms control, technology transfers and grain sales. US officials expected the Soviets to reciprocate by, for example, exercising restraint in promoting revolutionary movements.

Nixon hoped that by creating a network of agreements, the two superpowers could learn to live together within a stable structure of peace. The Americans also hoped that expanding economic and cultural contacts might help open up Soviet society.

On the Soviet side, détente was seen as a means of guiding a weakened America and its allies – and indeed the whole world – into a new, communist, phase of history. This was in fact deemed to be the inevitable outcome of superpower rivalry – and détente was viewed as rivalry under a different guise.

Developments in the Third World

The Soviets continued to take advantage of instability in Africa to expand their influence. In central and southern Africa, Angola and Mozambique finally achieved independence from Portugal in April 1974. In both, communist governments soon assumed power, with support from the Soviet Union and Cuba.

In the Horn of Africa, a communist military coup overthrew the pro-Western government of Ethiopia. This nation is strategically placed near the vital shipping lanes of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.

Soviet and Cuban advisers had soon entered the country. They gave Ethiopia vital support in its conflicts with neighboring countries. 17,000 Cuban troops and a trillion dollars of Soviet aid enabled Ethiopia to defeat Somali forces and suppress a revolt in Eritrea.

Diplomatic efforts by the US government under President Jimmy Carter came to nothing, and ended in humiliation for the Americans. Ethiopia signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation with the Soviet Union in November 1974.

In South America, the Socialist president of Chile, Salvador Allende, was overthrown by the army under general Augusto Pinochet in September 1973. The Soviets helped spread the word that this was the work of fascists in league with US imperialists.

As well as these setbacks in the “Third World”, the Americans were increasingly exasperated by their repeated failures to restrain the growth of Soviet offensive weapon systems. The fear grew that the United States might become vulnerable to a preemptive attack.

South Vietnam falls to the Communists

Then, in April 1975, during the final sessions of the Helsinki talks, the North Vietnamese moved down into South Vietnam in violation of the ceasefire of 1973. As they reached the capital of the Saigon, the capital of the South, the last remaining Americans fled to the top the US embassy and were airlifted out by helicopter. In the aftermath, thousands of South Vietnamese were imprisoned in “re-education camps,” and thousands more risked their lives as “boat people” to escape reprisals by the communists.

CIA-agent-helps-evacuees up-a ladder onto-an america

CIA agent helps evacuees up a ladder onto an Air America helicopter April 29, 1975, shortly before Saigon fell. (http://www.verledentijd.com/2011/03/val-van-saigon/saigon-hubert-van-es/, fall of Saigon)

The following year, the communists formally reunified Vietnam. By this time the communist Khmer Rouge had taken control of Cambodia. Its leader, Pol Pot, instigated the worst reign of terror of the 20th century, as he sought to eliminate the middle classes and anyone with a Western education. A fifth of Cambodians were killed.

After the fall of Saigon, Laos, too, fell to the Communists.

The end of Détente

These events in South East Asia fed a growing sense of American demoralization and a growing disenchantment with détente. To make matters worse, the Soviet government stepped up its persecution of dissidents in defiance of the Helsinki Accords; and to add insult to injury, those very Soviet citizens who were engaged in monitoring their country’s compliance with the Accords were themselves arrested and imprisoned.

President Carter sought to base a foreign policy on the promotion of human rights around the world. Carter made it clear that this applied as much to friends as to communist states. The Soviet Union denounced this policy as unacceptable US interference in its internal affairs. 

The Carter administration’s concern for human rights sometimes created a sense that it was cautious and vacillating in its handling of Third World struggles. The Soviet Union appeared to take advantage of this, to the exasperation of American politicians.

Finally, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the US government announced that détente was dead.

The United States and China

Their setbacks in Africa, meanwhile, had encouraged the United States to seek help in balancing Soviet power in the world through forging closer ties with China.

This cause was aided by important changes in the Chinese leadership. Mao Zedong had died in 1976, and more moderate leaders such as Deng Xiaoping had come to power. Full diplomatic relations between the United States and China were established in January 1979. 

The Middle East

Since the Six Day War, despairing of conventional warfare, elements within the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had turned to terrorism to promote their cause. Acts of violence included the blowing up of airliners and the hijacking and killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games.

The terrorists had the financial backing of pro-Soviet states like Cuba, East Germany and Libya.


At the same time, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which was composed of oil-producing countries around the world but particularly in the Persian Gulf, became much more assertive. Because its members controlled the majority of the world’s oil supplies, this cartel wielded tremendous potential power over energy-hungry Western countries.

The Yom Kippur War

In October 1973, during the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, Egypt launched the fourth Arab-Israeli War. This war ended effectively in a draw between the protagonists, thanks to intense American diplomacy. 

The Oil Embargo

The Arab OPEC nations then imposed a five-month embargo of oil exports to all nations which had aided Israel. They also hiked the price of oil dramatically upwards, and by January 1974 it was more than four times what it had been a year before.

The shortages and exorbitant costs of petrol had a major negative impact on the economies of many nations, advanced and developing alike. Conversely, it also brought in a huge amount of wealth for the few sparsely populated oil states in the Middle East.

The Camp David Accord

In 1978 the Middle East became an even more complex place than it had been before when, after months of hard negotiations, President Carter succeeded in bringing Egypt and Israel together in the Camp David Accord. This led to a peace treaty signed between the two countries in March 1979.

This was a development which appalled other Arab states, as well as powerful elements within the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). It alienated the United States still further in the eyes of most Arabs, and the Soviet Union stepped up its arms sales to the region. President Sādāt of Egypt was assassinated by soldiers within his own army in 1981.

The Iranian Revolution

Then, in 1979, the Shah of Iran, America’s staunchest ally in the Middle East, was toppled by a popular revolution led by Shīʿite clerics under the charismatic Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini denounced the United States as a “Great Satan”. Revolutionary activists seized the American embassy in the Iranian capital, Tehrān, in November 1979 and held its staff hostage there for nearly 15 months.


Shah and his wife, Shahbanu Farah leaving Iran on 16 January 1979 with crying eyes (http://fararu.com/fa/news/138603/%D8%AA%D8%)

When diplomacy had been exhausted, Carter ordered a military mission to rescue the 52 hostages (April 1980). This ended in fiasco. Only in January 1981, after Carter had been overwhelmingly defeat in his bid for reelection to the presidency, were the hostages released.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan

At the end of 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The motive was to keep in power the pro-Soviet government it had installed there the previous year, which was under threat from growing resistance from Islamic fighters in the country.

The Soviet invasion put paid to the last remnants of détente, and aroused American fears that it heralded the complete takeover of much of the Middle East (and its oil) by Soviet forces. US intelligence was soon arming the resistance movement based in the mountainous country.

The Superpowers in Trouble

Western demoralization

The 1980s thus opened with the United States once again on the back foot in its rivalry with the Soviet Union. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and influence with African and Central American revolutionary movements, along with the end of American influence in Iran, placed it on the defensive. It seemed to be losing the battle for influence with Third World countries around the world, and was having to match the Soviet build-up in conventional arms. Even at home, in the United States as well as amongst it allies, voices calling for the end of the arms race were growing more powerful. Signs of Western demoralization were widespread.

Continuing trouble in the Middle East

The Middle East in particular continued to be a source of frustration for the United States. The peace process between Israel and the Arab states continued to go nowhere (except for Egypt, where president Sādāt was succeeded by the equally pragmatic Hosni Mubarak). Arab terrorism became more active: attacks on civilian targets in Europe such as airports and discotheques created a tense atmosphere.

Then the small country of Lebanon collapsed into civil war, and some American (and British) citizens resident in the country began to be seized and held hostage. The American administration of Ronald Reagan, having publicly called on Western governments to stand firm against terrorists, itself negotiated sales of arms to Iran in exchange for Iranian pressure on the hostage-takers in Lebanon to release the captives.

More Setbacks for America around the World

Central America

The American government also faced mounting problems in its own backyard, in Central America. The anti-American Sandinistas had taken power in Nicaragua in 1979, and were now trying to create a Communist society. They were also becoming a base for further Communist expansion in the region, backing an insurgency in neighboring El Salvador and receiving arms and other aid from the Soviet Union and Cuba. In response the Americans mined Nicaraguan harbors, but once again faced world-wide condemnation when this became publicly known. They also sent aid to the Contras, a right-wing armed group in Central America – and they paid for this aid with the profits from the sale of arms to Iran. When this became known the United States faced further humiliation.

Cuban and Soviet influence was also growing within some Caribbean islands, such as Jamaica, Trinidad and Grenada. The Reagan administration’s efforts to counter this led in 1983 to invasion of Grenada. This was supported by popular opinion in America, but angered the United State’s most loyal ally, Britain, whose government had not been consulted.


The Americans faced further set-backs in Africa. The equivocal American criticism of the system of Apartheid in South Africa meant that, despite the United States imposing sanctions in 1986, leaders of the anti-Apartheid African National Congress (ANC) movement tended to lean towards the Soviet Union, which actively cultivated contacts with them. It also gave succor to the new African-majority government in Zimbabwe, under Robert Mugabe, who in 1984 declared his intention to create a one-party communist state (though did little to implement this for another ten years).

The Soviet Union in difficulties

The early 1980s, therefore, were difficult years from the Americans on the international stage. The forces of communism seemed to be holding the initiative in all corners of the world. As the 80s wore on, however, the tide began to flow against the Soviet Union – at first hardly perceptibly, but with greater and greater strength as time went by.

In 1980 the United States presidential election brought to power Ronald Reagan. He realized that détente was dead and was determined to compete vigorously with the Soviet Union. In the early years his policies met with mixed success, but later they began to pay dividends.

A new arms race

Reagan expanded the military budget and laid particular stress on the development of sophisticated military technology, most notably Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which sought to deploy new laser and particle-beam technology to counter the threat of Soviet ballistic missiles. This policy was much criticized – even ridiculed – in the West, but it alarmed the Soviets.

SDI was part of a broader strategy to outspend the Soviet Union in the arms race, which had taken off again with the death of détente. The resulting build-up of armed forces of all kinds was massively costly for both superpowers, but much more so for the Soviet Union, with its inefficient and unproductive economy.

The economic problems and international isolation of the Soviet Union also resulted in it falling behind the West in the new information technologies which were revitalizing Western economies and upgrading Western military capabilities.

Afghanistan and other places

The Soviet Union had also by this time become utterly bogged down in Afghanistan, very much like the Americans had done in the 1960s in Vietnam. Their puppet regime had lost all authority in the country, and the cost of defending it against an ever-more successful resistance, armed with US and Chinese weapons, mounted inexorably.

Not only in Afghanistan, but in Angola, Mozambique, Nicaragua and El Salvador, maintaining friendly regimes in power or fighting hostile pro-American regimes was a huge drain on Soviet resources.

Solidarity in Poland

The Soviet system in Europe was not left unscathed, either, though no armed struggle developed here. When in the early 1980s the Polish economic hit a recession, the government responded with an austerity drive. Serious industrial unrest broke out, which soon morphed into widespread popular protest against the communist government. This movement centered on the trade union Solidarity and its leader, Lech Walesa.


Wałęsa in 1996 (Kingkongphoto & www.celebrity-photos.com from Laurel Maryland, USA)

In December 1981, the Polish government under General Jaruzelski imposed martial law on the country. In response, the United States blocked further loans from the International Monetary Fund, which made the economic situation in Poland deteriorate further.

Economic problems

And not just in Poland. By the early 1980s, the Soviet government was running budget deficits of 7 or 8 percent of GNP. The country was suffering from chronic shortages of not just consumer goods but even necessities such as bread. A growing black market went hand in hand with spreading disaffection with the whole communist system. Demoralization in society was manifest in alcoholism and declining life expectancy. 

Inaction at the top

The Soviet leadership of these years was utterly incapable of coming up with the radical solutions necessary to escape from this impasse. The advanced age of Brezhnev and his colleagues weakened their ability to even realize the dangers of the situation, let alone come up with workable policies. Then when Brezhnev died in November 1982, he was succeeded as general secretary of the Communist Party by the former – and elderly – KGB chief, Yury Andropov. He died just a year and a half later, to be succeeded by an equally elderly man, Konstantin Chernenko. Chernenko himself died just over a year later, in March 1985. 

The search for reform in the Soviet Union

On Chernenko’s death, the communist party chose Mikhail Gorbachev as general secretary. Here at last was a members of the younger generation gaining power, and immediately things began to change.


Mikhail Gorbachev February 1987 (Vladimir Vyatkin / Владимир Вяткин, RIA Novosti archive, image #850809)



Gorbachev began moving the Soviet Union towards coexistence with the West, so that the immense cost of maintaining the Cold War could be reduced. He cracked down on the consumption of alcohol, and then embarked on a far-reaching reform of the economy. This policy was labelled “perestroika”.

Sadly, far-reaching though it was, perestroika simply did not go far enough in tackling a system which needed to be changed from its very foundations. For example, it did not allow for the introduction of private property and a hard currency when these were essential for access to world markets.

A new foreign policy

In his foreign policy, Gorbachev set about reducing the Soviet Union’s isolation, so that it could benefit from Western financial aid and technology. He proposed deep cuts in the nuclear and conventional weapons of both the Soviet Union and NATO; and he repudiated the “Brezhnev Doctrine”, which said that the Soviet Union had the right to intervene to protect communist governments wherever they might be threatened.

In February 1988 Gorbachev initiated the the evacuation of Soviet troops from Afghanistan.


To persuade the West that things really were changing, he tolerated human rights at home, and launched a policy labelled “glasnost”, which allowed open criticism of Communist Party policy. This led to a flowering of independent newspapers and journals, and the emergence of genuine public opinion within the Soviet Union.


These measures had the desired effect so far as the West was concerned. They brought the United States to the negotiating table which led to the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty (1987).  In Moscow, in mid-1988, Reagan and Gorbachev discussed an even bolder proposal: reduction of both strategic nuclear arsenals by 50 percent.

In December 1988 Gorbachev announced at the United Nations a unilateral reduction in Soviet army forces of half a million men and the withdrawal from eastern Europe of 10,000 tanks. He declared that from now on the Soviet Union would adopt a “defensive posture,” and he invited the NATO countries to do the same.

Early in 1989 the US government approved the subsidized sale of 1,500,000 tons of wheat to the Soviet Union. Gorbachev responded by announcing deep cuts in strategic arsenals, and the unilaterally withdrawal of 500 warheads from eastern Europe.

The Fall of the Soviet system

Eastern Europe

In March 1989 Gorbachev told the Hungarian prime minister that he would not intervene in the internal affairs of Warsaw Pact states. He was clearly indicating that he intended to stand aside and let events in eastern Europe take their course. 


In Poland, the first free elections were held in over 40 years. Solidarity won by a landslide. The Western governments responded by offering emergency two trillion dollars of aid to the Polish government. 


In May, Hungary dismantled the barriers which had stopped people from crossing the border into Austria. A flood of East Germans was soon using the route from their still hard-line state, down into Czechoslovakia and Hungary and thence across into Austria and back up into West Germany.

East Germany

In November, the East German government gave way before mass protests involving hundreds of thousands of people and reopened its border with Czechoslovakia.

A few days later hard-line ministers resigned and the next day a reported 1,000,000 demonstrators in East Berlin called for democracy. The rest of the cabinet resigned, and the new cabinet soon announced that all border points were now open.

The fall of the Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall itself began to be dismantled by jubilant citizens. A week later the state security police, were disbanded. The Communist Party was toppled from it leading role in the state, and free elections were planned for the following May.


The Fall of the Wall (Berlin 1989, fall der mauer, chute du mur, Raphael Thiemard)

They fall like dominoes

In short order Communist parties were deposed from their control of the state in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania, and the transition to democratically elected governments was made. Only in Romania was there significant bloodshed as the dictator resisted the inevitable revolution.

By the end of the year agreements were being made with the Soviet Union for the rapid withdrawal of Soviet military forces from their countries.

The Reunification of Germany

The process which started in 1989 saw its natural fulfillment in the reunification of Germany in 1990. That this occurred so rapidly is because more than a 100,000 East Germans moved to West Germany in the month after the fall of the Berlin Wall, placing huge strains on that state and more or less forcing the West German government to begin working towards reunification immediately, so as to stem the tide.

The dire state of the East German economy, with its worthless currency, decrepit and backward infrastructure and grossly polluted environment meant that until Germany was united, it faced dangerous instability.

East German elections on March 1990 showed a large majority in favor of immediate unification.

Talks began at once, and the next month the West German government and central bank accepted a plan to replace the East German currency with deutsche marks on a one-to-one basis. Two weeks later East and West Germany published the terms for a merger, and the two states were unified economically on July 1 1990. Full political unification came into force in October, 1990.

The End of the Soviet Union

The Soviet Union under pressure

Meanwhile these developments in central Europe were being echoed within the Soviet Union itself. 

Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost had been implemented primarily with an eye on creating trust with the West, but led inevitably to calls for greater democracy. 

Calls for self-rule

In March 1989 the Soviet Union held its first (relatively) free elections, to the new People’s Congress. These, however, could not satisfy the now open demands for self-rule by the different ethnic groups which made up the Soviet Union, who saw the Soviet state as a Russian empire by another name.

Gorbachev tried to stamp down on separatist tendencies by, for example, ordering soldiers to disperse a 15,000-strong crowd of Georgians demanding independence.

In August, however, an estimated 1,000,000 people formed a human chain linking the capitals of the “Baltic States” – Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – together to call for an end to the Soviet occupation of their countries.

Tiananmen Square

While these dramatic developments had been taking place in Europe, events in China had taken a different turn.

Since the death of Mao Zedong, the Chinese leadership had permitted limited free enterprise while retaining a monopoly of political power. Emboldened by events in the West, however, tens of thousands of students and other protesters filled Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in April 1989 and refused to disperse despite strong warnings.

By the end of the month the situation was completely out of control: more than 1,000,000 demonstrators occupied large sections of Beijing. Finally, on June 3, units of the army were called from distant provinces to disperse the crowds; they killed hundreds of protesters, and thousands more were arrested in the days that followed. The move towards democracy had been decisively put down.

The collapse of Soviet control around the world

The Soviet Union’s financial crisis increasingly limited its ability to underwrite client states, and the last half of the 1980s saw a reduction of Cold War-related tensions in the Third World. This allowed the United States a much freer hand in Central America, where it was able to influence events in Nicaragua to bring about the end of Sandinista rule and democratic elections; this would weaken, and ultimately end, the insurgency on El Salvador.

Other governments around the world, for example in Vietnam, Ethiopia and Angola, found themselves having to deal with their own situations without Soviet backing, and as a result moved towards more realism and compromise n their dealings with non-Communist neighbors and their own economic situations. On the other hand the new situation helped forced the South African government into talks to end Apartheid and release opponents from prison, most notably Nelson Mandela.

The only region to seem impervious to the end of the Cold War was the Middle East, where Arab-Israeli hostilities continued as if nothing at all had happened.

The break-up of the Soviet Union

Within the Soviet Union itself, Gorbachev faced mounting opposition to his policies.His economic reforms had failed utterly, and the Soviet GNP continued in free fall. While hard-liners criticized Gorbachev for being too soft on dissent, Separatism spread among the republics, with the Baltic states hoping for complete independence. 

Late in 1990 Gorbachev began to issue sterner warnings to the republics to submit to central authority. In January 1991 Soviet security forces entered Vilnius and forcibly evicted Lithuanian patriots from public buildings, at the cost of several lives. This had the effect of increasing unrest, and protests and strikes erupted all over the Soviet Union.

A failed coup

In August, a group of hard-liners announced that Gorbachev, who was on holiday in the Crimea, had been removed from office; and they imposed martial law. 

Boris Yeltsin, the president of Russia, the largest of the Soviet republics, branded the coup leaders as traitors, barricaded himself inside the Russian parliament surrounded by his supporters, and dared the military to attack their fellow citizens. The coup collapsed within 48 hours. 


August 1991 coup – awaiting the counterattack outside the White House Moscow (https://www.panoramio.com/photo/18237058, David Broad)

The end of the Soviet Union

The coup fiasco destroyed the last remnants of authority in the Soviet system. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania declared independence, followed swiftly by Ukraine, Belorussia and Moldavia. Within Russia, the coup brought Yeltsin to power and on December 8th 1991, Yeltsin and the newly elected presidents of Ukraine and Belarus declared that the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. They replaced it with the loose Commonwealth of Independent States. 

Gorbachev resigned on December 25, the hammer-and-sickle flag was lowered from the Kremlin, and in its place rose the white, blue, and red flag of Russia.