The period between the end of World War II and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s is the time of ‘Cold War’ conflicts between the Communist Block and the Western Democracies. It was a period the rose out of the economic collapse of Europe from the war when the industrial capacity of Europe, and especially Germany, was in total disaster. Europe was in a major ideological and social battle between the East and West. It was a period in which the Western Allies (US, UK, and France) became thriving capitalistic states while the Eastern European, Soviet-controlled countries followed the Soviet Union’s communistic policies.
The battle was on. There were minor ‘hot’ spots during this period, mainly involving Berlin, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the Middle East, and Cuba. The main ‘Hot War’ spots were in Asia, mainly in Korea, Afghanistan and Vietnam; where military conflicts boiled over into traditional warfare using ground and air combat. Most of the confrontations during this period took place in a war of words between Soviet and Allied leaders or between surrogate states. The goal was tactical posturing to win the war of the minds.
A parlor board game emerged to reflect the essence of this period. The game was RISK and was a quest to gain influence over the world. In the real world, the two worlds were partitioned at two conferences between the ‘Big Three’ of the Allies: Churchill, Roosevelt/Truman, and Stalin. The fate of Eastern Europe and the Middle East was set at conferences held in Yalta and Postdam in 1945 towards the end of the war in Europe. These specifications were vigorously implemented by the Soviet Union after the victory in Europe and in 1946 Churchill identified an ‘Iron Curtain’ that had been dropped from the Baltic in the north and the Adriatic in the south. This ‘Iron Curtain’ became the dividing line between the eastern and western ideologies.
The term ‘Cold War’ was first used by presidential advisor, Bernard Baruck, in 1947. The conflict between the East and the West continued, but not through direct military confrontation, therefore, it was a ‘Cold War’ as opposed to a shooting ‘Hot War’. The conflicts were characterized as geopolitical tensions aimed at capturing the minds of the people, especially those in Germany. In fact, this posturing was aimed at protecting the spheres of influence between Soviet communism and the Western democracies.
The ‘Cold War’ went through several phases during the period in which we are interested. These include the Post-WWII Period (1945-1950), the Korean Conflict (1950-1953), the Nuclear Confrontation (1953-1962), and the Space Race (1957-1975). There were, of course, some overlap of these periods, but they define the main phases of the ‘Cold War’ and how these conflicts were manifested.
The Post-World War II Period (1945-1950)…
The conflicts were basically defined by the two conferences cited above. The ‘Iron Curtain’ helped to demarcate the eastern and western spheres of influence. But a harder to defend area was Germany, which had been partitioned between the four Allies: US, UK, France and the Soviet Union. This partitioning applied to Germany as a whole as well as Berlin which was located within the Soviet zone; Berlin was also partitioned amongst the four powers. Much of the conflict here was focused on the Allied access to Berlin, capped by the Berlin Airlift of 1948. During this period the Allies unified their holdings and creating the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Soviet bloc, which eventually became the Warsaw Pact. Also during this period, the Soviet Union exploded their first atomic bomb and started the nuclear arms race.
This was also the period in which two major US policies were put into practice. The first, the ‘Truman Doctrine’, was focused on the containment of communism. The second, the ‘Marshall Plan’, offered funding to Europe for rebuilding their countries’ industrial base and infrastructure through US funding. These two programs were conditional on the countries putting in place democratic governments. This requirement led the Soviets from preventing any of the eastern European countries from participation.
The Korean Conflict (1950-1953)…
In 1950, the ‘Cold War’ warmed up. Rather than having the US and Soviet Union fighting directly and possibly using nuclear weapons, the two powers confronted each other through ‘proxy’ states; in this period, these proxy states were North and South Korea. With the support of the Soviet and Red Chinese, North Korea sent its troops across the 38th parallel to invade South Korea. By using these stand-ins, the major powers avoided a direct confrontation. The NATO and SEATO treaty allies helped to defend the south. This conflict continued until the death of Stalin; it ended with a cease fire, not a peace treaty, so the potential for renewal is constantly a possibility.
The Nuclear Confrontation (1953-1962)…
This period is marked by the change in leadership on both sides. Previously, the wartime leaders, Stalin and Truman, continued in control. Truman’s term in office ended in 1953 and Stalin died. Thus, leadership transitioned. This transition was smooth in the US because of our democratic election process while the transition in the Soviet Union was typified by intrigue and power struggles. Thus, the war hero, Eisenhower, became the US President while a bureaucrat, Khrushchev, emerged as the Soviet leader. While both countries had vast nuclear arsenals, this period was marked mostly by wars of words rather than nuclear confrontation, at least until the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Both countries had vast nuclear weapon stores, both had long-range bombers which could deliver these bombs to the major cities of the other country, and both used words to avoid creating a war of annihilation. This state of ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ made for a very threatening type of confrontation: the fear that some ‘hothead’ would push the button to initiate a nuclear attack.
These tensions were played out in a couple of skirmishes during this period. The Soviets brutally suppressed the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 with troops and tanks. We did not intervene since Eisenhower had reduced American forces during his presidency and relied more on the nuclear threat to keep the peace; it did not work in Hungary. Later that year, there was a confrontation between the sides over access to the Suez Canal; this conflict nearly boiled over into the use of nuclear forces.
Also, in 1956, Khrushchev confronted the non-communist world whenever the opportunity arose. In the war of words, we all remember those spoken in the fall of 1956: “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you…” This brought both fear and disgust to most Americans. But we were relatively safe in the knowledge that we were far ahead of the Soviets in the nuclear race. The stage was set for the next event…
The beginning of the ‘Space Race’… 1957 was named as the International Geophysical Year. Eisenhower promised that the US would launch a satellite into space during this special year. However, during May, the Soviets test-fired a missile capable of reaching the US homeland. And then in October, they used this missile to launch a 200 pound space ball into low earth orbit. Sputnik had been loosed. We reacted with amazement and had been caught ‘off-guard’ because we thought that the Soviets were behind us in the development of missile and space systems. We were wrong!
All of a sudden, the string of radar installations that we had built across the north of Canada, the NORAD network, was out of date. In the schools, we had routinely practiced the ‘Duck and Cover’ drills to use in case of a nuclear attack. Some people had even started to build bomb shelters in their backyard. Now all of these precautions seemed to be outdated. As Frank Borman, an astronaut, stated: The Space Race was “just a battle in the Cold War,” and that that had the superior spaceflight rockets would also have the superior Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM). We were behind and would be for several more years.
But we had several things going for us. We had captured many of the key scientists of the Nazi missile program at Peenemunde at the end of World War II and returned them to the US. We had also captured the remaining components of the V2 rockets; we had the basics to help us catch up to the Soviets. In addition, Eisenhower immediately made changes to our missile development program. He created the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA), a non-military organization, to oversee the Space Race. He also created, within the Pentagon, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) to oversee the development of technologies within the military. Congress passed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) and its Student Loan Program to fund the development of math and science programs in our colleges. Sputnik, as discussed in a previous posting, provided the spark that lit the fire in this country to achieve our Space Race goals.
The Space Race (1957-1975)…
We will look at these accomplishments in another post. For now, let us just say, we met the challenge of President John F. Kennedy and landed men on the moon and returned them safely to earth by the end of the 1960’s. But that is a simplification.
Yes, the ‘Cold War’ continued after Sputnik. But we were able to mobilize our resources to meet this challenge. Our quest reach into space has been achieved and our scientists are equal to any. What we need to keep in mind is that the battle for the minds of the world and the avoidance of nuclear holocaust is an ongoing battle. But this quest was ‘kicked off’ by the launch of a 200 pound satellite in early October, 1957.
Next Time: We will take a final look at the Space Race during the 1960’s. Join us for this continuing adventure…