Table of Contents
- During World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union had fought on the same side, though they did not fancy each other a lot.
- Americans had been worried about Russian Communism for a long time and Russians thought that the US should have joined them sooner so more Russians would not have died in the war.
- The term ‘cold war’ first came up in an essay written by English author George Orwell. It was called ‘You and the Atomic Bomb.’
The Cold War: Overview
In the 1950s, there was a war between the US and USSR. This war became a big part of everyday life in both countries. Keep reading to learn more Cold War facts.
The war was fueled by two things: the arms race and the fear of nuclear weapons. These things were happening at the same time as wars in Korea and Southeast Asia.
In Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union was trying to take over other countries. This made American’s scared of a Russian plan for world control. That made the Russians mad because they thought American officials were always threatening them and trying to stop their plans for power.
The result was that both sides started fighting. It became a Cold War where nobody could win.
Within months, writer George Orwell’s prediction came true. The US and the USSR were suspicious of one another and wanted to keep power in the wake of World War II by creating allies in capitalism and communism, respectively.
The “long telegram”
By the time World War II ended, American officials decided that the best defense the US could have against the Soviets was through containment.
A diplomat named George Kennan (1904-2005) explained this policy in his famous “Long Telegram.” The Soviet Union was a political force committed to the idea that there could not be peace with the US. That is why the US’s choice was to contain Russia and contain its expansionist tendencies.
Starting in 1947, the US military power became important to both countries after President Truman asked for money to help Turkey and Greece. He was trying to stop the influence of the Soviet Union in these two countries which were very near the USSR.
This was called the Truman Doctrine. The US usually became involved with other countries by giving them money and arms to fight the USSR in their own territories. It was like the US fought a war outside of its own territory and in the name of other countries.
After World War II, the line between East and West was frozen. Conflicts like the ones in Greece and Turkey happened in Asia, Africa, and Latin America too for the next five decades. Some of these conflicts got mixed up with the Cold War because the countries wanted to influence anti-colonial movements.
The Atomic Age
Some of the leaders of the Soviet Union were afraid that the US would attack Russia. The US had used an atomic bomb to end World War II in Japan. This showed the Soviets that America was a possible threat to their government.
The Russians also didn’t want Germany to become independent after World War II because they had invaded Russia twice and killed many people before. Russia wanted to occupy Germany and prevent another attack. The US didn’t want Germany occupied, but they agreed with the Soviets on this point.
The containment strategy also provided the reason for an increase in money for the military. Truman’s recommendation was to use military force against communism anywhere that it was happening. To do that, he proposed a huge increase of money for the US defense.
The United States went on to develop atomic weapons. They started an arms race with the Soviet Union.
In 1949, the Soviets tested an atom bomb of their own. In response, President Truman announced that the United States would build an even more destructive atomic weapon: a hydrogen bomb (H-bomb) or “superbomb”. Stalin followed suit.
Because of the Cold War, the stakes were high. The first H-bomb test made a 25-square-mile fireball. It made a hole in the ocean floor and could have destroyed half of Manhattan. There were radioactive wastes that came out of later American and Soviet tests.
The Cold War had a great effect on life in the US. People built bomb shelters in their backyards. They practiced attack drills at schools and other public places.
The 1950s and 1960s saw an epidemic of popular films that horrified moviegoers with depictions of nuclear destruction and mutant creatures. In these ways, the Cold War was always there for Americans’ everyday lives.
The Space Race
Space exploration was also used as a front in the Cold War. American people were not happy when a Soviet missile put an object in space first. The United States wanted to keep up with the Soviet Union, so they started exploring space too.
In 1958 the US launched its own satellite, Explorer I, and the Space Race began. In that year President Dwight Eisenhower signed a public order to create NASA to explore space.
The Soviets were one step ahead of the US, though, because they launched a man into space in 1961 for the first time. In May, a US citizen became the first American man in space.
President JFK said that by the end of the decade the US would land a man on the Moon. His prediction came true on July 20 when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon.
The astronauts were seen as heroes and Soviets were seen as villains because they couldn’t do it themselves. After Apollo 11 landed on the moon, six more Apollo missions followed. One of these was Apollo 13. The crew had an explosion in their space ship and they survived.
The red scare
The government of the United States started to prevent communism from expanding after World War II. Many Americans had become fear that communism might spread and threaten democracy in the US.
The House Un-American Activities Committee was created to find communist activities in the US. The government was afraid the Soviet Union had spies in the country.
The Committee brought the Cold War home by doing a series of hearings. They wanted to show that communist subversion existed in the United States.
The federal government and state governments attacked what they thought were communist threats. Senator Joseph McCarthy chaired one such committee, and the hope was to end communism in the federal government.
In Hollywood, the Committee made people say something that wasn’t true about their politics, which meant they lost their jobs. More than 500 people lost their jobs. People who were blacklisted couldn’t work again for a long time.
Thousands of people were investigated, fired, or even prosecuted during the 1950s. After communism became a topic, liberal college professors lost their jobs, and people were asked to testify against colleagues. Loyalty oaths became commonplace during this time period.
The war abroad
The fight against subversion at home was like the fight against the Soviet threat abroad. In 1950, the Cold War had its first military move when the North Korean People’s Army, which was backed by the USSR, invaded South Korea, which was backed by the US. Truman sent American troops into Korea, but the Korean War dragged to a stalemate and ended in 1953.
Some other international disputes happened. In the early 1960s, President Kennedy had a lot of trouble in his own hemisphere. The Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 seemed to prove that the real communist threat now lay in countries that were unstable and postcolonial, like Cuba.
In Vietnam, there was a struggle between the American-backed nationalist Ngo Dinh Diem in the south and the communist nationalist Ho Chi Minh in the north. The US wanted to stop communists from taking over so they supported Diem. But by 1964, it became clear that if they wanted to stop communists from taking over Vietnam, then they had to help Diem more.
The US sent a lot of troops to Vietnam to fight for a lost cause. Many young soldiers died in the Vietnam war. Finally, the US had to retire its troops and Vietnam unified into a communist country.
The end of the Cold War
Richard Nixon became the US president in the 1970s. He didn’t view the world as just one country with more power. Instead, he believed that people should use diplomacy instead of fighting to have more power.
To this end, he did things like recognizing China after their government became communist. He also established diplomatic relations with China and the Soviet Union at a time when they were not friends.
Then Mikhail Gorbachev took office in the USSR. He did two things that changed how Russia was seen by other countries: “glasnost” which means the country was more open to new ideas, and “perestroika” which meant that there were to be very strong economic changes inside the USSR.
In 1989, Eastern Europe changed. Every other communist country replaced its government with a noncommunist one. On November 9, the Berlin Wall was finally demolished. By 1991, the Soviet Union had fallen apart and there was no more Cold War. The US had no other “big” enemy with whom to fight.
Though the Cold War ended in the 1980s, it still affects today’s geopolitics.
The United States is called the superpower because it has a lot of allies in countries where it sent money and arms to fight. The US also has a lot of weapons and military outposts all over the globe.
P.S. If you enjoyed what you read and are a teacher or tutor needing resources for your students from kindergarten all the way up to high school senior (or even adults!), check out our partner sites KidsKonnect, SchoolHistory, and HelpTeaching for hundreds of facts, worksheets, activities, quizzes, courses, and more!