CultureExplainer

What was the Cold War?

The 45-year standoff between the West and the U.S.S.R. ended when the Soviet Union dissolved. Some say another could be starting as tensions with Russia rise.

Photograph by Ralph Crane, Life Magazine/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty
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President John F. Kennedy, on a department store television in 1962, announces the Cuban blockade during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a defining moment in the Cold War.
Photograph by Ralph Crane, Life Magazine/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty
CultureExplainer

What was the Cold War?

The 45-year standoff between the West and the U.S.S.R. ended when the Soviet Union dissolved. Some say another could be starting as tensions with Russia rise.

Between 1946 and 1991 the United States, the Soviet Union, and their allies were locked in a long, tense conflict known as the Cold War. Though the parties were technically at peace, the period was characterized by an aggressive arms race, proxy wars, and ideological bids for world dominance.

Origins of 'Cold War'

The term cold war had existed since the 1930s, when it was used to describe increasingly fraught relationships between European countries. In 1945, shortly after the United States used the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, writer George Orwell used the term in an essay that explored what the atom bomb meant for international relations. The bomb was such a threat that it would likely end large-scale wars, Orwell wrote, creating “a state which was at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of ‘cold war’ with its neighbours.”

Orwell’s prediction of a “peace that is no peace” came true within months. Intent on retaining power in the wake of World War II, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. viewed one another with suspicion and hastened to create and consolidate allies. “Cold War” soon gained popularity due to famed journalist Walter Lippmann, who explored its meaning as the world quickly chose sides in an ideological fight between capitalism and communism.

Ideology—and military might—became increasingly important to both countries after 1947, when President Harry Truman asked Congress for funds to bolster Turkey and Greece’s struggling economies in an attempt to contain Soviet influence. The Truman Doctrine, as it was called, was the first salvo in a decades-long containment policy in which the U.S. supported and intervened in non-communist states.

The Arms Race

As an ideological “Iron Curtain” cut the Soviet Union and its satellite states off from the rest of Europe, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. engaged in an arms race, pouring trillions of dollars into accumulating nuclear arsenals and racing to explore space. By 1962, both countries had missile defenses pointed at one another. That year, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought both countries closer to actual conflict than any other event in the Cold War.

Multiple proxy wars stood in for actual conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Korean War, Vietnam War, and a number of other armed conflicts, during which both sides either funded one side of the war or fought directly against a communist or capitalist force, are all considered Cold War proxies. Both sides also funded revolutions, insurgencies, and political assassinations in Central America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

Though the Cold War ended with the dissolution of the Soviet bloc in the 1980s and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, it still affects modern geopolitics. As the last remaining superpower, the U.S. retains wide-reaching alliances, high weapons investments, and international military outposts. NATO, an alliance between the U.S. and Western European countries brokered at the outset of the Cold War, still wields political power. Today, increased tensions between Russia and the West have been referred to as a second Cold War.