The Cold War and the Formation of a Bipolar World

The ideological differences between the Capitalist West, represented by the United States, and the Communist East, represented by the Soviet Union, reached the boiling point after the end of World War Two. The conflict lasted for five decades and affected the entire world. During that time, the world saw an unprecedented arms race and occasional military confrontation; and the whole time the very real possibility of nuclear annihilation; a situation characterized by the chilling phrase, "mutually assured destruction." The conflict between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. never became a direct military conflict; it is therefore classified as the Cold War. It was during this period that the term "superpower" came into use. Eventually, the ideological divide that separated the Europe became global.

The two sides of Europe ultimately adopted the political institutions, economic systems, and foreign policies of the superpower with which it was either aligned or by whom it was dominated. Western nations adopted parliamentary governmental systems and capitalist economies and adjusted their foreign policies to the U.S. vision of the post-war world. Those under Soviet occupation (which was in fact the case, as Soviet Armies remained in place for much of the time) adopted Soviet style political and economic institutions and followed the Soviet foreign policy line.

The most obvious division was in Germany. Events became heated when French, British and American zones of occupation in Germany were merged into a single unit and introduced a new currency, the Reichsmark. The same applied in West Berlin. The Soviets retaliated by blocking all road, rail and water links between Berlin and West Germany. They maintained that the economic measures adopted in the west violated wartime agreements; declared the four party administration of Berlin no longer in effect; and asserted that the Allies no longer had jurisdiction in Berlin. This was apparently an attempt to seize control of all of Berlin by starving its populace. The allied forces then mounted the Berlin Air Lift, which flew food and fuel into West Berlin to keep its people alive and warm. Missions were flown around the clock for eleven months. The Soviet leadership eventually relented. In the aftermath of the blockade, the U.S., British, and French Zones were united into the Bundesrepublik Deutschland ("Federal Republic of Germany.") It was commonly known as "West Germany." The Soviets responded by forming the German Democratic Republic (East Germany.) Berlin itself was also similarly separated. East Berlin became the capital of East Germany; while the capital of West Germany was moved to Bonn.

East Germany witnessed a tremendous loss of people, primarily young highly skilled Germans who moved to the West. Nearly 3.5 million Germans emigrated from East to West between 1949 and 1961. To stop the loss of population and skilled workers as well as to prevent further embarrassment, East German officials erected a wall which separated East and West Berlin. The Berlin Wall had watch towers, search lights, antipersonnel mines and guards with orders to shoot to kill. The wall was a violation of the four-power agreement for control of Germany; but the Allies avoided confrontation for fear that a full scale shooting war might erupt. In the years following, several thousand East Germans successfully escaped; but several hundred others died in the attempt.

The Warsaw Pact and NATO were created as part of the Cold War. The United States was determined to maintain military superiority and the Soviets were equally determined to do the same. As a result, both sides amassed tremendous stockpiles of thermonuclear weapons and systems for deploying them. By 1970, the two superpowers had enough firepower to guarantee Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD.) The very fear of such destruction restrained each side with two exceptions: Korea and Cuba.

The U.S. and U.S.S.R. had been unable to agree on a plan for the unification of Korea; therefore Korea had been divided at the end of World War II along the 38th Parallel into two sovereign countries: The U.S. supported the Republic of Korea in the South with its capital at Seoul; and the Soviets supported the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea in the North, a communist nation with its capital at Pyongyang. Each side was armed by its respective sponsor who then withdrew, and each claimed sovereignty over the entire nation. On June 25, 1950 troops from North Korea crossed the 38th parallel in a surprise attack, aimed at uniting the country under the rule of Pyongyang. The U.S. convinced that the Soviets had sponsored the attack, sent in troops with the sanction of the United Nations and forced the communist forces back across the line. Rather than stop there, however, they pursued the troops across the line, presumably to unify the country under Seoul’s leadership. The campaign carried them to the Yalu River on the Chinese border. This upset the Chinese who sent 300,000 soldiers into Korea and who forced U.S. and allied forces back South. The conflict lasted another two years before a cease fire was declared in 1953, largely because the new American President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, threatened to use Nuclear weapons. No peace treaty was signed, and the two Koreas remained divided and bitterer toward each other than before. The possibility of a united Korea was even more remote.

The United States had adopted a policy of Containment, to stop Communism within its then existing borders. Eisenhower carried this further by adopting the domino theory; particularly in Asia: that if one country were to fall to the Communists; its neighbors would fall also, like dominoes. Accordingly, the U.S. extended military protection and economic aid to the non-communist nations of Asia and joined SEATO; the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization, another defense pact similar to NATO.

Cuba had been a dictatorship under Fulgencio Batista who had maintained friendly relationships with the U.S., in particular American sugar interests. He was overthrown in 1959 by Fidel Castro, a lawyer and former professional baseball player who seized American owned property and imposed his own dictatorship. The U.S. retaliated by stopping all imports of sugar, which was the backbone of Cuba’s economy, and imposing an embargo. Among the items eliminated were Cuban made cigars. While the move was intended to cripple Cuba, it provided an opportunity for the Soviets to expand their influence into America’s back yard. They offered to buy Cuban sugar and provide arms in exchange for which Castro announced publicly "I have been a Marxist-Leninist all along, and will remain one until I die."

The new American President, John F. Kennedy, authorized an invasion by anti-Castro Cubans which landed at the Bay of Pigs. They had hoped to ignite a revolution which did not occur; and the invaders were either killed or captured. The prestige of the U.S. was damaged, and the Soviets apparently were encouraged as a result to move nuclear weapons into Cuba. American satellites revealed that the Soviets were assembling nuclear missile launch sites in Cuba aimed at the U.S. In response, President Kennedy issued an ultimatum to the Soviets to withdraw the missiles; and imposed a "quarantine" on Cuban waters. (It was in effect a naval blockade; but Kennedy avoided the use of the "B" word as a blockade would constitute an act of war.) For two weeks, the world was closer to nuclear war than it had ever been. Ultimately, the Soviets agreed to withdraw the missiles from Cuba in exchange for a promise from Kennedy not to invade Cuba and a promise to withdraw missiles from Turkey which were aimed at the U.S.S.R. The end of the crisis was seen by the world as a victory for the U.S.; but it did show the world the potential of a nuclear holocaust.

Cold War Societies: Concerns about the cold war spread into the home front. A "red scare" spread across the United States. Many people who had joined the communist party not for revolutionary reasons but because they supported its programs, los their jobs and reputations and were deemed threats to national security. There was increased emphasis on the "American" way of life, and a return to religion, as a reaction to the atheism of Communism. The words "under God" were added to the American pledge of allegiance; and "In God We Trust" was added to American currency. The American ideal woman was a stay-at-home wife and mother who enjoyed all the conveniences of the Modern American home. In fact, many women were forced to work and resented the imposed guilt of not living up to the standard. This was a significant factor in the rising feminist movement of the sixties. Black Nationalism was also a byproduct of the status quo expected in the U.S. during the fifties.

In the Soviet Union, women were not so fortunate. They did not have access to consumer appliances, automobiles; etc as was true in the U.S. Stalin imposed anticapitalist ideological requirements on everything, even productions of art and novels. Those who differed were "silenced." This was only relaxed after Stalin’s death.

While the Soviets could not compete with the U.S. for consumer comforts; it made every effort to excel the U.S. in scientific and technological advances. In the 1950’s they build the Soviets’ first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) and on October 4, 1957, launched the first satellite: Sputnik I. Thus began the "space race" between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Both realized the potential of space for military purposes. In April, 1961, the Soviets were the first to have a man orbit the earth, Yuri Gagarin. The U.S. in response committed itself to be the first to land a man on the moon and to do so before the end of the sixties. This was finally accomplished on July 20, 1969. Thereafter, the Soviets under Nikita Khrushchev, worked for "peaceful co-existence" between the superpowers. It was obvious to both sides that no one would win the confrontation; there would only be mutual annihilation. Einstein’s prediction of World War IV were all too frightening.

Challenges to Superpower Control of the Globe: The first challenge to a "bipolar" world came in France under the leadership of Charles DeGaulle, a World War II leader. DeGaulle did not feel that France should depend upon the U.S. to protect it; nor did he wish his country to become embroiled in a dispute between the two superpowers. Thus, France rejected a nuclear test ban treaty signed by the U.S. and U.S.S.R, and in 1964 France detonated its own nuclear device in the Sahara Desert. He later developed a task force capable of defending France. His plan was for Europe to emerge as a third power independent of the two superpowers; however he was not successful in selling his plan to other European nations and when he left office in 1969, his design for a Europe free from superpower domination had vanished. In Yugoslavia, Marshall Tito ruled the country without allowing control from the Soviets, as a result of which Stalin expelled Yugoslavia from the Soviet Bloc. Tito pursued a policy of ties with both East and West.

Stalin died in 1953, and shortly thereafter, the iron control he exercised over the Soviet Union dissipated. Khrushchev publicly denounced Stalin in a secret speech before the Party Congress in 1956. Stalin’s body, which had been specially embalmed and placed in a public mausoleum beside Lenin’s, was removed; and his portrait taken down from public buildings. Thereafter, Khrushchev loosened Stalin’s tight control on thought and ideology. Nations within the Soviet Bloc were allowed a small degree of independence. Still, the Soviets did not allow complete autonomy. When a rebellion broke out in Hungary by people demanding a break with Moscow and the Warsaw pact, the Soviets sent in troops to put down the rebellion. The leaders were executed after having first been promised safe conduct out of the country. A similar rebellion in Czechoslovakia, known as the "Prague Spring" was put down by the Soviet Army. Khrushchev’s successor, Leonid Breshnev said that intervention in Czechoslovakia was necessary under a "Doctrine of Limited Sovereignty. " This soon became known as the "Breshnev Doctrine," which reserved the right to invade any socialist country that was considered threatened by internal or external elements "hostile to socialism."

In China, the civil war that resumed after the defeat of Japan ended when the People’s Liberation Army under Mao Zedong controlled the mainland and the nationalist government of Chaing Kai-shek (Jaing Jieshi) fled to the island of Taiwan with most of the government’s gold reserves. From there he proclaimed that his was the true government of China. On October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China which ended China’s imperialist period and drew China closer to the Soviets.

Mao reorganized all aspects of Chinese society. New political institutions were formed which allowed for a national assembly but that assembly was monopolized by the Communist party. Those opposed or who had been members of the previous government were arrested and either imprisoned or executed. Agriculture was collectivized as in the Soviet Union and China adopted its own Five Year Plan. Landholdings of rich peasants were confiscated and the land redistributed so that every peasant had at least a small plot of land. Laws were introduced to provide equality for women and which also flew in the face of Chinese tradition. Child marriages, forced marriages and foot binding were banned; women were given equal access to divorce; and abortion was legalized.

Originally, a "sweetheart" arrangement existed between Communist China and the U.S.S.R. Both were upset that the U.S. and western powers had grown closer to their old enemies, particularly Japan and Korea. In the early 1950’s, China proclaimed the Soviets as the undisputed authority in world communism; this in exchange for Russian military aid. The Soviets also began a campaign to award Communist China the seat on the UN Security Council (and absolute veto) held by Nationalist China. The alliance cooled, however, as the Soviets attempted to lecture the Chinese on how to construct a socialist society. China resented the fact that the Soviets offered more aid to noncommunist countries such as India and Egypt than to it. Also, they resented the fact that the U.S.S.R. insisted that China repay in full all military aid during the Korean War at a time when China was in desperate need of capital. The final blow came in a conflict between China and India over Tibet, which had been forcibly annexed by China in 1950. When a rebellion in Tibet broke out, China accused India of supporting it. They were not happy that the Soviets claimed neutrality in the conflict; and even more so when they learned that the Soviets had given aid to India far in excess of that ever given to China. In 1964, the dispute devolved to name calling. With Khrushchev pursuing peaceful coexistence with the Western Powers, China accused the Soviets of being "revisionists," a curse word in Communist circles. The Soviets in turn accused the Chinese of being "left wing adventurists" as Mao had asserted that war with the West was inevitable.

Decline of Superpower Influence and the End of the Cold War: It soon became apparent to both Western and Communist leaders that the situation was becoming unmanageable; thus by the late 1960’s, the leaders of both nations agreed on a policy of détente: a reduction in hostility and a move toward cooperation. Soviet and American leaders exchanged visits and signed agreements calling for cooperation in health research, environmental protection, even space ventures as well as cultural exchange programs. Most important, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) were concluded in Helsinki, Finland, resulted in limitations of nuclear armaments on both sides. Détente cooled when the U.S. extended full diplomatic recognition to the People’s Republic of China and the U.S. President, Richard Nixon, visited China. Later, Soviet forces intervened to prop up a Marxist regime in Afghanistan which led the U.S. to impose economic sanctions on the Soviets and send arms and supplies to the nationalist Afghan forces. Among those whom the U.S. supported in the fight against Communism there: Osama bin Laden.

The U.S. suffered setbacks in Vietnam, when it failed to dislodge the Communist government of North Vietnam; in fact after American forces withdrew in 1973 as a result of widespread opposition by the American public, North Vietnamese forces conquered South Vietnam and united the country. The former capital of South Viet Nam, Saigon, was renamed Ho Chi Minh city, after the leader of the North. The Soviets had problems of their own in Afghanistan. The People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, a Communist group, had attempted to introduce radical reforms in family law and education. This led to a backlash from Islamic leaders and led to armed resistance. Soviet forces attempted to support the PDPA for nine years in the face of a nationalist Islamic resistance by Islamic warriors known as mujahideen. The mujahideen were supported by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and China. U.S. surface to air missiles proved decisive; and the Soviets withdrew in 1989. Sadly, the mujahideen themselves divided and civil war erupted. In 1994, the Taliban, (meaning "students") captured Kabul, executed the Soviet favored leader, and proclaimed the Islamic State of Afghanistan.

Vietnam and Afghanistan undermined the prestige of the world’s superpowers and proved that their claims to military superiority were hollow. Their efforts in both areas taxed their financial resources and caused dissatisfaction within their own countries. At the same time, the efforts did little to advance their cold war policies. Demonstrations in the United States and Europe by college students and others illustrated the general attitude of discontent.

The ultimate victim of the Cold War was communism itself. As an economic system, it proved a failure, which failure was exacerbated by the tremendous financial strain of the Cold War. In 1971, a Polish intellectual, Leszek Kolakowski, remarked bitterly, "the dead and by now grotesque creature called Marxist-Leninism still hangs at the necks of the rulers like a hopeless tumor." In an ironic domino affect, Communist governments across Eastern Europe collapsed leaving only Cuba and North Korea, outside Europe, as the only true Communist governments.

The new Soviet Leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, in the late 1980’s committed himself to a restructuring of the Soviet Union and unilateral withdrawal from the Cold War. He declared the Brezhnev doctrine no longer in force and that hence forth, each country would be responsible for its own destiny. Thereafter, Communist governments fell quickly. In Poland, the Solidarity movement led to the election of Lech Walesa as President of Poland. In Bulgaria, the communist dictator was forced to resign and Hungary followed two months later. Czechoslovakia also evolved from a Communist system; however disagreement over the time frame for shifting to a market economy and ethnic differences led to the formation of two countries: Slovakia and the Czech Republic. In Romania, the communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown and executed on Christmas day, 1989. East Germany opened the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, and on October 3, 1990, the two Germanies united into the Federal Republic of Germany.

In the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to institute economic reforms and liberalize Soviet society; but never intended to abolish the existing socialist system. He soon found out that he could not reform part of the system without dismantling the whole. Additionally, the Soviet Union itself was caught up in the tide of collapsing socialist dynasties around the world. The Soviet economy had been in terrible shape, as spending had been focused on military rather than consumer goods. Food and other items had been rationed, and grain had been purchased from the United States. The citizenry seemed demoralized as indicated by increased rates of alcoholism and divorce. Gorbachev implemented a system of reforms known as Perestroika, Russian for "restructuring." He linked it to a new political system known as Glasnost, which referred to the opining of Soviet Society to public criticism and admission of past mistakes. By so doing, he unleashed a firestorm, and opposition within his own party. Ultimately, the Soviet economy disintegrated. Minorities within the U.S.S.R. were now inspired to declare their own independence. The first were the people of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania who declared their independence in August, 1991. Eleven other former Soviet republics also declared their independence. Enemies of Gorbachev thought his reforms had gone too far, and while he was on vacation in August 1991, attempted to sieve power. The coup was crushed, and Gorbachev unharmed, however his political clout had vanished. He was forced to watch from the sidelines as Boris N. Yeltsin, president of the Russian Federated Socialist Republic declared the Soviet Union dissolved and the Communist Party outlawed. On December 25, 1991, the new flag of the Russian Republic flew over Russia and the Soviet Union was formally ended on December 31, 1991. As new records from the Soviet era were opened, the West finally learned of the disposition of Adolf Hitler’s body, which Soviet Troops had discovered at the end of the war. Additionally, the bodies of the slain Romanov family were recovered and their bodies interred in the National Cathedral. They were proclaimed saints of the Russian Orthodox Church. With the demise of Communism, religion returned to Eastern Europe.

A similar revolt broke out in Communist China, but was brutally repressed during the Tiananmen Square rebellion. China would remain Communist; however leaders saw the handwriting on the wall and adopted increasingly capitalist economic measures. China soon became the third largest economy in the world behind that of the U.S. and Japan, and the fastest growing.