5 Key Cold War Events
The Cold War shook the foundation of the world, as it was the first time that large-scale nuclear warfare became a truly realistic threat. Spanning approximately 45 years between 1947 and 1991, wherein no direct battles were fought, the Cold War was a period of intense geopolitical tension between the United States and the Soviet Union. By deeply delving into the most critical events of the dispute, historians can develop a better understanding of the Cold War’s extensive conflict.
Containment of Russia
At the end of World War II, the majority of American leadership was in agreement that the most viable approach against the political and militaristic expansion of the Soviet Union was to implement a containment strategy that would help keep the Soviet expansion in check and protect Western democratic values. American diplomat, George Kennan, described this strategy as “a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with the United States, there can be no permanent modus vivendi [agreement between parties that disagree]”; concluding that America had only one option to proceed, “long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” In 1947, President Harry Truman made the containment of the Soviet Union a top priority, laying the groundwork for the Cold War by introducing domestic policies that centered on undermining communism in the United States. Such action helped set the tone for the next four decades of United States foreign policy.
Arms Race Between the United States & Russia
Under the umbrella goal of containing Soviet Russia’s military capacity, the United States began manufacturing armaments at an excessive rate, rationalizing the production of these arms as necessary to ward off potential conflict. American officials recommended that the United States develop and deploy atomic weapons in an effort to keep Soviet doctrines and policies from expanding unchecked throughout Europe and the world, and to highlight to the Soviets that there would be dire consequences if they continued their expansionist policies. The U.S.’s containment efforts—which focused on a blend of increased arms production, ramped up militarism and displays of force throughout the world, the continued promise of mutually assured destruction by nuclear weapons, and the containment of Soviet-supported, communist political movements outside the Soviet Union—led to the American defense budget quadrupling.
Not only were small arms, aircraft, ships, and land-based military vehicles being produced en masse, the containment and arms race-related policies employed by the U.S. also jumpstarted a nuclear arms race, as the Soviet Union and the U.S. tried to outdo one another by creating more powerful and increasingly sophisticated nuclear weapons. The arms race culminated in an effort to develop nuclear weapons similar to the atom bombs dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which brought a violent end to World War II. The Soviet Union recognized the immense military value of having atomic weapons and went on to develop their own atomic bombs in 1949. To maintain their perceived superiority and suppress Soviet attempts at becoming a global leader, the United States began production of an even more devastating weapon: the hydrogen bomb.
Development of the Hydrogen Bomb
The development of the hydrogen bomb is a widely discussed topic, as there were many conflicting spheres of influence involved with its production within the political, social, and scientific communities. Some scientists, like Edward Teller, were proponents of the production of a super-bomb, while others were extremely opposed to the idea. While anti-communist tensions were at a moderate baseline in the early years of the Cold War, the period of time encompassing the race to develop a functional hydrogen bomb set the precedent for the rising tensions of the Cold War as it escalated throughout the 20th century.
The first successful detonation of an American-made hydrogen device occurred on November 1, 1952, in the Pacific region on the Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands. This test involved the deployment of 10.4-megaton apparatus nicknamed Mike, and the resulting explosion was a visible example of just how justified the rising level of public fear and anxiety towards hydrogen weapons had been. The blast decimated nearby islands, leaving behind a crater more than a mile wide and creating a virulent mushroom cloud that was an approximate 100 miles wide and 25 miles high. Following this test, the Soviet Union then rushed to develop hydrogen bomb technology. With the implementation of the hydrogen bomb, the Cold War was in full swing, as the American and Soviet governments—along with their respective citizens—became entirely fixated on the growing threat of thermonuclear conflict.
The Cold War also resulted in a technological competition between the Soviets and the U.S. as the two nations vied against one another to achieve space supremacy. On October 4, 1957, this space-race began when a Soviet satellite named Sputnik was launched into orbit using an intercontinental ballistic missile. The launch of Sputnik represented the ever-growing power of the Soviet Union and highlighted that the U.S. was starting to fall behind in the technology-driven space race. Additionally, Sputnik showcased the power of Soviet missiles, which had effectively demonstrated the capability of delivering nuclear payloads into orbit, and possibly onto American soil.
In response, the United States Army launched Explorer I into space on January 1, 1958. This satellite was designed by scientist Wernher von Braun, a pioneer in modern rocket science, and it led to the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) by President Dwight Eisenhower. Even with this launch of the American satellite, the Soviets remained in the lead, managing to launch the first manned space mission in April 1961. Eight years later, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the surface of the moon, claiming American victory in the space race. The space race highlights a period of the Cold War where both the Soviet Union and the U.S. aimed to boost the morale of their citizens by showcasing their technological innovations.
Fall of the Berlin Wall
Built in 1961, the Berlin Wall was designed by the Communist government of the German Democratic Republic as a means of curtailing the flow of East German migrants into democratic West Germany. This almost 100-mile long fortified line of watchtowers, concrete barricades, and trenches effectively split Berlin in two. The Berlin Wall became a potent symbol of the Iron Curtain—the ideological and physical divide that separated the democratic West from the communist East during the Cold War. Though, as the 1960s came to a close, communist power began its decline, as during this time the United States began accelerating towards becoming the world’s first completely unparalleled superpower.
When President Richard Nixon took office in 1969, the American approach to international relations began to switch in favor of diplomacy. For instance, the United States went on to establish diplomatic relations with communist China. The United States also drafted and signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty with the Soviets in 1972 and 1979, a treaty that placed limitations on the manufacture of nuclear weapons by both parties, partially eliminating the perceived threat of global thermonuclear warfare. While Ronald Reagan battled communism in Central America and across the world, economic problems rooted in the Cold War caused Soviet influence to wane in Europe, and by 1989, most communist nations had transitioned to non-communist forms of government. In November of 1989, the Berlin Wall, a famous symbol of communism throughout the world, was demolished by Berlin natives who were given permission to cross the border on November 9, 1989. By October 3, 1990, East and West Germany reunified. In the wake of these events, the Cold War gradually slowed to a halt, finally ending with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
By exploring the decisive moments of the Cold War—ranging from the start of the space race to the development of the hydrogen bomb—world history scholars can develop a keen understanding of not only the Cold War but also how this geopolitical conflict impacted world history as a whole. Though the Cold War is often portrayed as a conflict-free engagement that resulted in a few casualties, the reality is that this power struggle nearly brought the world to the brink of nuclear destruction. Fortunately, the American government tapped into all of its available resources to lead the country to victory, without deploying any nuclear weaponry.
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Cold War, History.com
Cold War History, History.com
The Six Key Moments of the Cold War Relived, BBC News Magazine
Berlin Wall, History.com
United States Tests First Hydrogen Bomb, History.com