World in the News: Cold War

cold war

The "Cold War" is making a comeback. Or at least the phrase is. Russia's actions in Crimea have brought relations with the West to their lowest point since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, dusting off a term that fell out of use more than 20 years ago.


The Cold War generally refers to the 40-odd years after World War II, when the Soviet Union and its eastern allies and the U.S. and its western allies competed for ideological and military influence over the globe, with no large-scale fighting directly between the two sides.


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Tanks and trucks on display during the annual November parade in Red Square in 1971.

But the chilly phrase had been used before that era of nuclear one-upmanship. "The term had been used a good bit in the 1930s," says Samuel Wells, a senior scholar at the Wilson Center who has focused on European Cold War studies. At that time, the Nazis were beginning to seize territory, and larger European powers were getting nervous. "The French referred to tense relations with the Germans as la guerre froide."


Then, in a 1945 newspaper article that was published two months after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the writer George Orwell stated that a country with nuclear weapons would be one "which was at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of 'cold war' with its neighbors."


The term "Cold War" gained its full meaning—the ideological division of the world into two blocs between the Soviet Union and the U.S.—in 1947 when famed journalist Walter Lippmann published a series of articles called "The Cold War" that popularized the term, shortly after a financier and adviser to President Harry Truman named Bernard Baruch used it to reflect the new Soviet-U.S. reality.


During a speech to Congress in April 1947, Baruch put it famously, and bluntly: "Let us not be deceived—we are today in the midst of a cold war."


James Hershberg, a Cold War expert and a professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., says that when it comes to the chill in relations, we are not again in the midst of a Cold War, despite what the media may say.

"Having bad U.S.-Russia relations is not the same as a new Cold War," says Hershberg. "That was a broad disagreement on the legitimacy of the international world order." What we've got now, he says, "is a pure Russian power grab, absent any of the ideological pretenses and challenges of the Cold War era."