The Beginnings and Legacy of The Cold War


The so called Cold War was a state of dangerous tension between the USA and the Soviet Union (USSR) that lasted from 1945 until 1991. Distrust and suspicion were at the root of the Cold War. The political and economic systems of the capitalist USA and communist USSR were incompatible. In a capitalist state, the economy is largely free from state control, while the government is democratically elected and freedom of speech is allowed. In contrast, a communist state government has complete control of its economy and society. Each side (the “superpowers”) in this ideological war wanted the other to conform to their own political system.

The Cold War began shortly after World War II ended in 1945. Although the Soviet Union was an important member of the Allied Powers during the war, there was great distrust between them and the rest of the Allies. Britain, France and the USA were particularly concerned about the brutal leadership of the USSR’s Joseph Stalin. The Allies were always unsure of Stalin’s loyalty as he had previously allied himself with Hitler in 1939, through the Nazi-Soviet Pact. There was also a growing concern about how fast communism was spreading. This mistrust was a great source of anger to Stalin because, since the British retreat at Dunkirk, the Soviets had been left fighting the German Army single-handed. It was only on D-Day in 1944 that the British and Americans went to help the Soviets; by then thousands and thousands of Russians had been killed.

Although it is called The Cold War, no direct warfare took place between America and the USSR. However, they did fight each other in proxy wars. These were wars fought between other countries, but with each side getting support from either Russia or America, such as in the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The scars of Vietnam, to which the US deployed their own troops, are still felt in America today, whilst the legacy of the Korean war left open wounds to fester until they became dangerously significant, as any current news report will testify.

As well as fighting these proxy wars and maintaining an uneasy disapproval of each other’s way of life, the Cold War was fought out in the arena of power and technology. Each country wanted to prove that they were the most technologically advanced and held the most powerful weapons. This led to both the Arms Race and the Space Race.

The Arms Race saw each side try to possess the best weapons – and the most nuclear bombs. The theory was that a large stockpile of weapons would deter the other side from ever attacking them. Although some have been destroyed since the end of the Cold War, both America and Russia still have a huge arsenal of them as a result.

As well as the Arms race, the USA and USSR competed in the Space Race. Each side tried to show that it had the better scientists and technology by accomplishing certain space missions first. Both countries wanted to be the first to get a rocket into space and to get a man on the moon. Russia achieved the former, with the first man in space Yuri Gagarin. However, it was the US who succeeded in getting the first man on the moon. Interestingly, in terms of the amount of money put into the American Lunar Space Programme, it is unlikely NASA would receive enough from its government to repeat the feat today. It would not now be regarded as important enough to warrant the still huge expense.

It wasn’t until the economic and subsequent border collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that the Cold War officially came to an end. Today, as the issue of state-authorised cyber-hacking becomes increasingly prevalent, and when words and treaties become ever more difficult to be agreed on with Russia, some people are suggesting we are entering a new type of “phoney” cold war, one for the digital age. If that is true, judging by the first, it is not an appealing prospect.

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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