What Was the Cold War?

The Cold War was a conflict between two superpowers — the United States and Soviet Union — for world dominance. It lasted from 1947 to 1991.

Why It Was Called the Cold War
It was known as the Cold War because there was no direct military engagement between either side. Instead, proxy wars occurred in third-world countries.

Background of the Conflict
During World War II, the U.S. and Soviet Union fought together against Nazi Germany along with the other allied powers, along with France and the United Kingdom. Before this, in 1939, the Soviet Union had actually signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany. However, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler betrayed Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union’s leader. This led to a change of heart by the Russians, who then turned against Nazi Germany.

Despite fighting together, there were tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The U.S. was a democratic country that believed in capitalism, free markets and free elections while the Soviet Union was a totalitarian state that believed in communism, striving to promote the Communist Party above all others and securing its borders.

In Yalta, a Russian town, the Allied Powers met before the end of World War II to discuss future plans when Nazi Germany was defeated. During the Yalta Conference, they agreed to split Germany into four parts — each part occupied by one of the four main Allied Powers — in an attempt to eradicate any lingering Nazi influences.

Unfortunately, after this conference, suspicions between them grew. This was in part due to the U.S. use of the atomic bomb in Japan, displaying their military power and, in part, due to the Soviet Union’s continued expansionist approach.

The Long Telegram
At the end of World War II, the U.S. suddenly cut off the Soviet Union’s financial and military aid while the Soviet Union refused to remove its troops from the Middle East’s oil-rich territories or to relinquish its claims to Nazi-gained territories.

In 1946, a U.S. ambassador based in Moscow, George Kennan, sent what is known as the "long telegram" to the U.S. Secretary of State. He warned there was no reckoning with the Soviet Union and that the Soviets were focused on expansion and pushing communism as a dominant force. He believed that blocking Soviet power and communism as a whole was the only way to move forward. This was known as containment. Four decades later, this philosophy still dominated U.S. foreign policy.

Effects of the Cold War
U.S. President Harry Truman recommended that for the containment strategy to work, a significant military force was needed to curb communist expansion. Defense spending increased considerably and the progress of atomic weapons was encouraged. This was mirrored by the Soviets, as was the production of an H-bomb, in what became known as the "arms race."

In the 1950s and 1960s, the "space race" was another fierce competition between the superpowers. It began with the Soviet launch of Sputnik, the first man-made object sent into orbit, followed by the U.S. launch of Explorer I the following year.

The End of the Cold War
When President Richard Nixon took office, he used diplomacy to rebuild international relations, although his efforts were later undermined by President Ronald Reagan. However, in 1985, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev issued two policies in the Soviet Union that altered international relationships and reduced Soviet influence. In 1991, the regime collapsed and the Cold War finally ended.