The Cold War (1947-1991) was the open yet restricted rivalry that developed after World War II between groups of nations practicing different ideologies and political systems. On one side was the Soviet Union and its allies, often referred to as the Eastern bloc. On the other side were the United States and its allies, usually referred to as the Western bloc. The struggle was called the Cold War because it did not actually lead to direct fighting between the superpowers (a "hot" war) on a wide scale. The Cold War dominated U.S. and Soviet foreign policy from 1947 (when the term was first used) until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The Cold War was characterized by mutual distrust, suspicion, and misunderstandings by both the United States and the Soviet Union, and their allies. At times, these conditions increased the likelihood of a third world war, which was widely considered to probably escalate to nuclear war. The United States accused the Soviet Union of seeking to expand their version of communism throughout the world. The Soviets, meanwhile, charged the United States with practicing imperialism and attempting to stop revolutionary activity in other countries.
The Cold War is usually periodized roughly as having occurred from the end of World War II until the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. The Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan were some of the occasions when the tension between those two ideologies took the form of an armed conflict, but much of it was conducted by or against surrogates and through spies and traitors who were working undercover. In those conflicts, the major powers operated in good part by arming or funding surrogates, a development that lessened direct impact on the populations of the major powers.
In the 1970s, the Cold War gave way to détente and a more complicated pattern of international relations in which the world was no longer clearly split into two clearly opposed blocs. Less powerful countries had more room to assert their independence, and the two superpowers were partially able to recognize their common interest in trying to check the further spread and proliferation of nuclear weapons. U.S.-Soviet relations would deteriorate once again in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but improved as the Soviet bloc started to unravel in the late 1980s. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia lost the superpower status that it had won in the Second World War.
In the strategic conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union a major arena was the strategy of technology. It also involved covert conflict through acts of espionage. Beyond the actual killing of intelligence service personnel, the Cold War was heavily manifest in the concerns about nuclear weapons. It was questioned as to if they were being mass produced and whether wars could really be deterred by the mere existence of nuclear weapons. Another manifestation was in the propaganda wars between the United States and the USSR. Indeed, it was far from certain that a global nuclear war wouldn't result from smaller regional wars, which heightened the level of concern for each conflict. This tension shaped the lives of people around the world almost as much as the actual fighting did.
One major hotspot of conflict was Germany, particularly the city of Berlin. Arguably, the most vivid symbol of the Cold War was the Berlin Wall. The Wall isolated West Berlin (the portion of the city controlled by West Germany and the Allies) from East Berlin and the territory of East Germany, which completely surrounded it.
Another major feature of the cold war are the arms races between the Soviet Union and NATO, especially the United States but also the United Kingdom, France, West Germany, Sweden and several other European powers. This race took place in a great many technological and military fields and resulted in enourmous leaps in the state of the art. Particularly revolutionary advances were made in the field of rocketry and lead to the space race (most, if not all of the rockets used to launch humans and satellites and to get to the moon were originally military designs).
Other fields in which arms races occurred include jet fighters, bombers, nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, biological weapons, surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft artillery, regular artillery, surface-to-surface missiles (including SRBMs and cruise missiles), inter-continental ballistic missiles (as well as IRBMs), anti-ballistic missile technology, armoured vehicles, rifles, rocket propelled grenades and other anti-tank weapons, submarines and anti-submarine warfare, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, electronic intelligence, signals intelligence, reconnaissance aircraft and spy satellites... the list is virtually endless.
All of these fields required massive scientific and manufacturing investment and many identify the enormous costs associated with the arms race (especially to the USSR who didn't have very good accounting practices) as part of the reason for the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union. Although the western block arguably fielded weapons in many of these areas with superior effectiveness, mainly due to their lead in digital computers and reluctance to spend enough money to develop systems with brute force superiority, the eastern block wins hand down in most areas for sheer number of designs in each field, number of weapons built and in many cases for raw performance. This makes comparing the eastern and western technology very subjective and there is much debate about which systems are superior. One thing is certain; after the breakup of the Soviet Union many extremely advanced technologies became available on the open market.
One prominent feature of the nuclear and especially nuclear ICBM arms race was the concept of deterrence via mutually assured destruction or "MAD". The idea was that the USA would not attack the USSR or vice versa, because both powers had more than enough nuclear weapons to make the entire planet uninhabitable and reduce each other to nothing. Therefore, launching an attack on either party would be suicidal and so neither would attempt it.
There have been three distinct periods in the western study of the Cold War. For more than a decade after the end of World War II, few American historians saw any reason to challenge the official U.S. interpretation of the beginning of the Cold War: That the breakdown of relations was a direct result of Stalin's violation of the Yalta accords, the imposition of Soviet-dominated governments on an unwilling Eastern Europe, Soviet intransigence, and aggressive Soviet expansionism.
However, later historians, especially William Appleman Williams in his 1959 The Tragedy of American Diplomacy and Walter LaFeber in his 1967 America, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945-1968, articulated an overriding concern: U.S. commitment to maintaining an "open door" for American trade in world markets. Some revisionist historians have argued that U.S. provocations, aggressions, and imperial ambitions pursued by the Truman administration from 1945 to 1953 were at least equally to blame, if not more so. In short, historians have disagreed as to who was responsible for the breakdown of US-Soviet relations and whether the conflict between the two superpowers was inevitable. This revisionist approach reached its height during the Vietnam War when many began to view the American and Soviet empires as morally comparable.
In the later years of the Cold War, there were attempts to forge a post-revisionist synthesis by historians, and since the end of the Cold War, the post-revisionist school has come to dominate. Prominent post-revisionist historians include John Lewis Gaddis and Robert Grogin. Rather than attributing the beginning of the Cold War to either superpower, post-revisionist historians focused on mutual misperception, mutual reactivity, and shared responsibility between the superpowers. Borrowing from the realist school of international relations, the post-revisionists essentially accepted US European policy in Europe, such as US aid to Greece in 1947 and the Marshall Plan.
According to this synthesis, "Communistic activity" was not the root of the difficulties of Western Europe, but rather it was the disruptive effects of the war on the economic, political, and social structure of Europe. In addition, the Marshall Plan rebuilt a functioning Western economic system, thwarting the electoral appeal of the radical left. For Europe, economic aid ended the dollar shortage and stimulated private investment for postwar reconstruction. For the United States, the plan spared it from a crisis of over-production and maintained demand for American exports. The NATO alliance would serve to integrate Western Europe into the system of mutual defense pacts, thus providing safeguards against subversion or neutrality in the bloc. Rejecting the assumption that communism was an international monolith with aggressive designs on the "free world", the post-revisionist school nevertheless accepts US policy in Europe as a necessary reaction to cope with instability in Europe, which threatened to drastically alter the balance of power in a manner favorable to the USSR and devastate the Western economic and political system.
The role of intelligence agencies
The armies of the countries involved rarely had much participation in the Cold War; the war was primarily fought by intelligence agencies like the CIA (United States), MI6 (United Kingdom), BND (West Germany), Stasi (East Germany) and the KGB (USSR). The major world powers never entered armed conflict directly against each other.
The agent war of mutual espionage both of civilian and military targets may have caused most casualties of the Cold War. Agents were sent both to the east and the west, and spies were also recruited on location or forced into service. When detected, they were either killed instantly or exchanged for other agents. Spy airplanes and other surveillance aircraft were likewise regularly shot down upon detection.
This Wikipedia article is reprinted here under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.