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What happened during the cold war

what happened in the cold war

Why is it called the cold war?

Cold War is called “Cold” because it supposedly never heated up into actual armed conflict. The Cold War did involve quite a lot of actual war, from Korea to Afghanistan, as the world’s two superpowers, the United States and the U.S.S.R., sought ideological and strategic influence throughout the world. So perhaps it’s best to think of the Cold War as an era, lasting roughly from 1945 to 1990. Many things happened during the cold war, but let start talking about numbers:

Cold war in numbers

The world’s first hydrogen bomb had the power of 10.4 million tons of TNT. It was codenamed ‘Mike’

275,000 planes dropped 1.5 million tons of supplies into Berlin when Stalin blockaded the city in 1948. One plane landed every three minutes.

There were 40,000 nuclear warheads in the world by 1986, which is the equivalent of one million Hiroshima bombs.

In 1963, 11 months after the Cuban Missile crisis almost caused nuclear war, JFK proposed a joint US-Soviet mission to the moon. His assassination put an end to the idea.

America’s top-secret decoding Project Venona identified 350 Soviet spies in 37 years. It was so secret that even the President wasn’t told about it.

There were 90 nuclear bomb tests in the Nevada desert in the 1950s and 1960s.

Over 15,000 people have died from cancer caused by nuclear testing

The US secret code for authorizing a nuclear missile launch was 00000000. The code was in use between 1962 and 1977.

What happened during the cold war?

Discussions of the Cold War tend to center on international and political history and those are very important, which is why we’ve talked about them in the past. This, however, is United States history, so let us heroically gaze–as Americans so often do–at our own navel. (Libertage.) Stan, why did you turn the globe to the Green Parts of Not-America? I mean, I guess to be fair, we were a little bit obsessed with this guy.

So, the Cold War gave us great spy novels, independence movements, an arms race, cool movies like Dr. Strangelove and War Games, one of the most evil mustaches in history. But it also gave us a growing awareness that the greatest existential threat to human beings is ourselves. It changed the way we imagine the world and humanity’s role in it.

In his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, William Faulkner famously said, “Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?” So, today we’re gonna look at how that came to be the dominant question of human existence, and whether we can ever get past it.

dr strangelove movie about what happened during cold war

Screenshot from the movie “Dr. Strangelove” 
So after WWII the U.S. and the USSR were the only two nations with any power left. The United States was a lot stronger – we had atomic weapons, for starters, and also the Soviets had lost 20 million people in the war and they were led by a sociopathic mustachioed Joseph Stalin. But the U.S. still had worries: we needed a strong, free-market-oriented Europe (and to a lesser extent Asia) so that all the goods we were making could find happy homes.

The Soviets, meanwhile, were concerned with something more immediate, a powerful Germany invading them. Again. Germany was very, very slow to learn the central lesson of world history: Do not invade Russia. Unless you’re the Mongols. (Mongoltage.) So at the end of World War II, the USSR “encouraged” the creation of pro-communist governments in Bulgaria, Romania, and Poland–which was a relatively easy thing to encourage, because those nations were occupied by Soviet troops.

The idea for the Soviets was to create a communist buffer between them and Germany, but to the U.S. it looked like communism might just keep expanding, and that would be really bad for us, because who would buy all of our sweet, sweet industrial goods? So America responded with the policy of containment, as introduced in diplomat George F. Kennan’s famous Long Telegram.

Communism could stay where it was, but it would not be allowed to spread. And ultimately this is why we fought very real wars in both Korea and Vietnam. As a government report from 1950 put it the goals of containment were:

1. Block further expansion of Soviet power

2. Expose the falsities of soviet pretensions

3. Induce a retraction of the Kremlin’s control and influence.

4. In general, foster the seeds of destruction within the Soviet system.

The Truman doctrine and the Marshall Plan

Harry Truman, who as you’ll recall, became President in 1945 after Franklin Delano Roosevelt died, was a big fan of containment, and the first real test of it came in Greece and Turkey in 1947. This was a very strategically valuable region because it was near the Middle East, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but the United States has been just, like, a smidge interested in the Middle East the last several decades because of oil glorious oil.

Right, so Truman announced the so-called Truman Doctrine, because you know why not name a doctrine after yourself, in which he pledged to support “freedom-loving peoples” against communist threats, which is all fine and good. But who will protect us against “peoples,” the pluralization of an already plural noun? Anyway, we eventually sent $400 million in aid to Greece and Turkey, and we were off to the Cold War races.

The Truman Doctrine created the language through which Americans would view the world with America as free and communists as tyrannical. According to our old friend Eric Foner, “The speech set a precedent for American assistance to anticommunist regimes throughout the world, no matter how undemocratic, and for the creation of a set of global military alliances directed against the Soviet Union.”

It also led to the creation of a new security apparatus – the National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Atomic Energy Commission, all of which were somewhat immune from government oversight and definitely not democratically elected. And the containment policy and the Truman Doctrine also laid the foundations for a military build-up – an arms race – which would become a key feature of the Cold War. But it wasn’t all about the military, at least at first. Like, the Marshall Plan was first introduced at Harvard’s Commencement address in June 1947 by, get this, George Marshall, in what turned out to be, like, the second most important commencement address in all of American history.

[blockquote author=”Eric Foner” pull=”normal”]The speech set a precedent for American assistance to anticommunist regimes throughout the world, no matter how undemocratic, and for the creation of a set of global military alliances directed against the Soviet Union.[/blockquote]

The Marshall Plan was a response to economic chaos in Europe brought on by a particularly harsh winter that strengthened support for communism in France and Italy. The plan sought to use US Aid to combat the economic instability that provided fertile fields for communism. As Marshall said “ our policy is not directed against any country or doctrine, but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos.”

Basically it was a New Deal for Europe, and it worked; Western Europe was rebuilt so that by 1950 production levels in industry had eclipsed pre-war levels and Europe was on its way to becoming a U.S. style-capitalist-mass-consumer society.

Which it still is, kind of. Japan, although not technically part of the Marshall Plan, was also rebuilt. General Douglas MacArthur was basically the dictator there, forcing Japan to adopt a new constitution, giving women the vote, and pledging that Japan would foreswear war, in exchange for which the United States effectively became Japan’s defense force. This allowed Japan to spend its money on other things, like industry, which worked out really well for them.

Germany and Europe

Meanwhile Germany was experiencing the first Berlin crisis. At the end of the war, Germany was divided into East and West, and even though the capital, Berlin, was entirely in the east, it was also divided into east and west. This meant that West Berlin was dependent on shipments of goods from West Germany through East Germany. And then, in 1948, Stalin cut off the roads to West Berlin. So, the Americans responded with an 11-month-long airlift of supplies that eventually led to Stalin lifting the blockade in 1948 and building the Berlin Wall, which stood until 1991, when Kool Aid Guy–no, wait, wait, wait, wait, that wasn’t when the Berlin Wall was built. That was in 1961. I just wanted to give Thought Bubble the opportunity to make that joke. Thanks, Thought Bubble. So right, the Wall wasn’t built until 1961, but 1949 did see Germany officially split into two nations, and also the Soviets detonated their first atomic bomb, and NATO was established, AND the Chinese Revolution ended in communist victory. So, by the end of 1950, the contours of the Cold War had been established, West versus East, Capitalist Freedom versus Communist totalitarianism. The Cold War also shaped domestic policy–anti-communist sentiment, for instance, prevented Truman from extending the social policies of the New Deal.

The program that he dubbed the Fair Deal would have increased the minimum wage, extended national health insurance and increased public housing, Social Security and aid to education. But the American Medical Association lobbied against Truman’s plan for national health insurance by calling it “socialized” medicine, and Congress was in no mood to pay money for socialized anything. That problem goes away. But the government did make some domestic investments as a result of the Cold War–in the name of national security the government spent money on education, research in science, technology like computers, and transportation infrastructure. In fact we largely have the Cold War to thank for our marvelous interstate highway system, although part of the reason Congress approved it was to set up speedy evacuation routes in the event of nuclear war.

And, speaking of nuclear war, it’s worth noting that a big part of the reason the Soviets were able to develop nuclear weapons so quickly was thanks to espionage, like for instance by physicist and spy Klaus Fuchs. Fuchs worked on the Manhattan Project and leaked information to the Soviets and then later helped the Chinese to build their first bomb. Julius Rosenberg also gave atomic secrets to the Soviets, and was eventually executed–as was his less-clearly-guilty wife, Ethel. And it’s important to remember all that when thinking about the United States’s obsessive fear that there were communists in our midst.

This began in 1947 with Truman’s Loyalty Review System, which required government employees to prove their patriotism when accused of disloyalty. How do you prove your loyalty? Rat out your co-workers as communists. No seriously though, that program never found any communists. This all culminated of course with the Red Scare and the rise of Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy, an inveterate liar who became enormously powerful after announcing in February 1950 that he had a list of 205 communists who worked in the state department In fact, he had no such thing, and McCarthy never identified a single disloyal American, but the fear of communism continued. In 1951’s Dennis v. United States, the Supreme Court upheld the notion that being a communist leader itself was a crime. In this climate of fear, any criticism of the government and its policies or the U.S. in general was seen as disloyalty. There was only one question–when will I be blown up–and it encouraged loyalty, because only the government could prevent the spread of communism and keep us from being blown up. We’ve talked a lot about different ways that Americans have imagined freedom this year, but this was a new definition of freedom–the government exists in part to keep us free from massive destruction.

So, what happened during the Cold War changed America profoundly: The U.S. has remained a leader on the world stage and continued to build a large, powerful, and expensive national state. But it also changed the way we imagine what it means to be free, and what it means to be safe.