Dating the end of the Cold War requires dating its beginning, which requires defining what it was about. By one reckoning, the Cold War began in the 1945-1948 timeframe, and ended in 1989, having been a dispute over the division of Europe. By another account, the Cold War began in 1917 with the Bolshevik Revolution, and ended in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, having been a conflict between Bolshevism and Democracy.
The Cold War was the most important political and diplomatic issue of the later half of the 20th Century. The main Cold War enemies were the United States and the Soviet Union. The Cold war got its name because both sides were afraid of fighting each other directly. In such a "hot war," nuclear weapons might destroy everything. So, instead, they fought each other indirectly. They played havoc with conflicts in different parts of the world. They also used words as weapons. They threatened and denounced each other. Or they tried to make each other look foolish.
The term "Cold War" was first used in 1947 by Bernard Baruch, senior advisor to Harry Truman, the 33rd president of the United States, in reference to the frequently occurring and exacerbating crises between the United States and the former Soviet Union, despite having fought side-by-side against Nazi Germany in the Second World War.
The Cold War grew out of longstanding conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States that developed after the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Soviet Communist Party under V.I. Lenin considered itself the spearhead of an international movement that would replace the existing political orders in the West, and indeed throughout the world.
The Cold War can be said to have begun in 1917, with the emergence in Russia of a revolutionary Bolshevik regime devoted to spreading communism throughout the industrialized world. For Vladimir Lenin, the leader of that revolution, such gains were imperative. As he wrote in his August 1918 Open Letter to the American Workers, "We are now, as it were, in a besieged fortress, waiting for the other detachments of the world socialist revolution to come to our relief."
Western governments generally understood communism to be an international movement whose adherents forswore all national allegiance in favor of transnational communism, but in practice received their orders from and were loyal to Moscow. In 1918, the United States joined briefly and unenthusiastically in an unsuccessful Allied attempt to topple the revolutionary Soviet regime. Suspicion and hostility thus characterized relations between the Soviets and the West long before the Second World War made them reluctant allies in the struggle against Nazi Germany.
The United States and Great Britain fought against the Bolsheviks, unsuccessfully, between 1918 and 1920. In 1918 American troops participated in the Allied intervention in Russia on behalf of anti-Bolshevik forces. In the two decades thereafter, Soviet attitudes towards the West oscillated wildly. American diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union did not come until 1933. Even then, suspicions persisted. During World War II, however, the two countries found themselves allied and downplayed their differences to counter the Nazi threat.
The Cold War was a decades-long struggle for global supremacy that pitted the capitalist United States against the communist Soviet Union. Although there are some disagreements as to when the Cold War began, it is generally conceded that mid- to late-1945 marks the time when relations between Moscow and Washington began deteriorating. This deterioration ignited the early Cold War and set the stage for a dynamic struggle that often assumed mythological overtones of good versus evil.
At the close of World War II, the Soviet Union stood firmly entrenched in Eastern Europe, intent upon installing governments there that would pay allegiance to the Kremlin. It also sought to expand its security zone even further into North Korea, Central Asia, and the Middle East. Similarly, the United States established a security zone of its own that comprised Western Europe, Latin America, Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. From the long view of history, it is clear that both sides were jockeying for a way to secure their futures from the threat of another world war, but it was the threat that each side perceived from the other that allowed for the development of mutual suspicion. It was this mutual suspicion, augmented by profound distrust and misunderstanding that would ultimately fuel the entire conflict.
For the first few years of the early Cold War (between 1945 and 1948), the conflict was more political than military. Both sides squabbled with each other at the UN, sought closer relations with nations that were not committed to either side, and articulated their differing visions of a postwar world. By 1950, however, certain factors had made the Cold War an increasingly militarized struggle. The communist takeover in China, the pronouncement of the Truman Doctrine, the advent of a Soviet nuclear weapon, tensions over occupied Germany, the outbreak of the Korean War, and the formulation of the Warsaw Pact and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as rival alliances had all enhanced the Cold War's military dimension. U.S. foreign policy reflected this transition when it adopted a position that sought to "contain" the Soviet Union from further expansion. By and large, through a variety of incarnations, the containment policy would remain the central strategic vision of U.S. foreign policy from 1952 until the ultimate demise of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Successive American presidents and successive Soviet premiers tried to manage the Cold War in different ways, and the history of their interactions reveals the delicate balance-of-power that needed to be maintained between both superpowers. Dwight Eisenhower campaigned as a hard-line Cold Warrior and spoke of "rolling back" the Soviet empire, but when given a chance to dislodge Hungary from the Soviet sphere-of-influence in 1956, he declined. The death of Stalin in 1953 prefaced a brief thaw in East-West relations, but Nikita Khrushchev also found it more politically expedient to take a hard line with the United States than to speak of cooperation.
The United States and the Soviet Union were the only two superpowers following the Second World War. The fact that, by the 1950s, each possessed nuclear weapons and the means of delivering such weapons on their enemies, added a dangerous aspect to the Cold War. The Cold War world was separated into three groups. The United States led the West. This group included countries with democratic political systems. The Soviet Union led the East. This group included countries with communist political systems. The non-aligned group included countries that did not want to be tied to either the West or the East.
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