The Cold War followed the end of the Second World War and was a direct consequence of the events that took place between 1939 and 1945, and of competing ideas about the ideal form of society, which had come to prominence in the early twentieth century. The scale of the militarisation of the United States and the Soviet Union in the early 1940s had been unprecedented in human history and produced two superpowers. Their large military forces had been critical to the ending of the war in Europe, at whose end these two allies raced to take and hold as much territory as possible, and Europe became split in two between a west and south supported by the United States and an eastern half dominated by the Soviet Union. Germany did not survive as a unified country and was split into West and East Germany and Berlin divided. What became known as the ‘Iron Curtain’ descended across the European continent.
Broadly speaking, the United States and her allies were liberal free market economies and the Soviet Union and her allies were communist planned economies. This standoff between capitalism and communism was cemented by the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the Warsaw Pact (WP). Initially the United States was the sole nuclear power but nuclear secrets were leaked to the Soviet Union and both sides began a dangerous nuclear arms race that would come to define the Cold War period of history. China, France and the United Kingdom also developed nuclear weapons and after the United Nations was created in 1945 these five ‘victors’ of the Second World War became the permanent members of the UN Security Council. The remit of the UN was to preserve world peace but it was frequently inhibited in this role by the rivalries of the ‘big five’. Global politics became defined by the Cold War rivalry between the ‘First’ and ‘Second’ worlds of West and East in which two systems of governance sought dominance but never actually fought each other directly, with much of the violence occurring elsewhere in the comparatively undeveloped ‘Third’ world. Communist China initially allied with the Soviet Union, although in time this relationship broke down and China pursued her own course, as did Yugoslavia under Marshall Tito. In the simplest terms, any direct conventional war between NATO and the WP brought with it the danger of escalation to nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, both of whom vied to attain the ability to launch a decisive first strike. Their inability to do this ensured that any use of nuclear weapons would result in mutually assured destruction (MAD), resulting in the possession of thousands of nuclear warheads on either side as a deterrent to the other side using nuclear weapons. A notable example of the potential danger is the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), during which the Soviet Union sought to deploy nuclear missiles in Cuba, which was in turn blockaded by the United States. After a tense standoff the Soviet Union appeared to back down, but in reality it was a compromise as in return the United States ceased deployment of nuclear weapons in Turkey, a NATO ally.
Whereas the rivalry between the two powers remained ‘cold’, the situation elsewhere was the opposite. Both sides, often controversially, conducted military action in the ‘third’ world. The first was the Korean War (1950-1953). Korea had been occupied by Japan during the Second World War and upon liberation was divided into a communist North and a nominally democratic South. China and the Soviet Union provided support for a North Korean invasion that would unify the country, almost driving the United States forces into the sea. A counterattack at Inchon led to United States led forces from the United Nations and British Commonwealth pushing the North Koreans to the Chinese border, at which point Chinese forces entered Korea in force, driving the United Nations back to the 38th parallel. A prolonged armistice resulted in the division of Korea into North and South and the two countries have never formally declared peace. Superpower status did not guarantee military success against smaller adversaries: the United States fought Soviet Union backed North Vietnam and the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War (1955-1975) in order to prevent the countries of South-East Asia falling like ‘dominos’ to communism, with the eventual outcome of North Vietnamese victory and unification of Vietnam after the United States withdrew. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to support its communist leadership, resulting in the Afghan-Soviet War (1979-1989) between a United States backed mujahedeen and the forces of the allied Soviet Union and Afghan government. The outcome was the collapse of the Afghan government after Soviet withdrawal. An estimated 2.5 million civilians were killed during the Korean War and the estimate for the Vietnam War is between 627,000 to 2 million. The estimate for civilian deaths in the Afghan-Soviet War is 850,000 to 2 million. These figures do not include the cost of life to military forces and all three countries were devastated by the fighting.
There were a significant number of conflicts during the Cold War period that occurred without superpower military intervention, although the protagonists were often backed by one superpower or another. The Arab-Israeli conflicts did not need outside influences to begin. In 1948 an attack on Israel by Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Syria after the declaration of Israeli independence resulted in an Israeli victory. Subsequent short wars in 1967 between the same protagonists and in 1973 between Israel and Syria and Egypt also resulted in Israeli victory. Israel has since made peace with Egypt and Jordan. These wars were but one part of related armed conflict in the region, including the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), which require further attention elsewhere. Within all this is the Palestinian tragedy, a people whom have lost their statehood and have been displaced into the Gaza Strip, West Bank and nearby countries. Civil wars also took place in Greece (1946-1949) between communists and government forces backed by the United States and the United Kingdom, China (1946-1950) between Mao Zedong’s communists and Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalists, and Ethiopia (1974-1991) between the new Marxist Derg government and rebel groups. The victory of the Greek government left Greece ruined and bitterly divided. Mao’s victory in China set the country on a traumatic path of modernisation and the nationalists withdrew to the island of Taiwan. In Ethiopia, the Derg were overthrown and the country became a Federal Democratic Republic, but was now landlocked as the northern state of Eritrea had achieved independence. These examples, Greece, China and Ethiopia, form only a small part of the armed conflict that beset Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle-East during the period of 1945-1991. A final example is the inter-state war between Iran and Iraq (1980-1988), which began when long standing border disputes were exacerbated by the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the fear of its potential impact on the oppressed Iraqi Shia majority led to the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, seeking to take advantage of the ensuing chaos in Iran. The outcome was a stalemate that has been compared to the trench warfare of the First World War.
A second source of armed conflict was the retreat of the European colonial powers from Africa, Asia and the Middle-East. The moral legitimacy of the British, Dutch and French to rule had been challenged by the United States and Japanese military victories had demonstrated their military weakness. In Africa, Belgian, British, French and Portuguese rule was also contested. The experience of the countries seeking independence was varied, with the colonial powers willing to let some territories go without serious attempts to hold them, others bitterly contested and in some cases the militaries of a colonial power were used to secure the position of newly formed governments. Tragically, independence often resulted in violence in the liberated countries or dictatorial governments. The British eagerly withdrew from Palestine, unwilling to contain Arab and Jewish insurgencies, and from India, in the face of mutinies and Mahatma Ghandi’s campaign of civil disobedience. Subsequent events in Palestine are described above, for India independence in 1947 meant partition into India and Pakistan and violence between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Relations between India and Pakistan have remained fraught until today and the two countries have fought in four wars since: in 1947 and 1965 over Kashmir, in 1971 as a result of the fighting in East Pakistan that led to the independence of Bangladesh, and a limited war in 1999 over a Pakistani incursion into the Indian territory of Kargil in Kashmir.
In contrast, British and Commonwealth forces fought communist guerrilla forces during the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960) in support of the autonomous province of Malaya, which ended when amnesty was offered to the insurgents who were close to defeat. Malaya (now Malaysia) became independent in 1957. France contested the independence of French Indochina with the Viet Minh during the First Indochina War (1946-1954), ending in French defeat at Bien Dien Phu, the independence of Cambodia and Laos (1953) and the independence of Vietnam (1949) and partition of Vietnam (1955). All three countries would become embroiled to various degrees in the Second Indochina War (Vietnam War), but the consequences of civil war in Cambodia (1967-1975) were the rise of the Khmer Rouge and subsequent Cambodian Genocide (1975-1979), a prolonged atrocity terminated by a Vietnamese invasion and defeat of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. France also fiercely contested Algerian independence (1954-1962) in a brutal conflict that ended in a stalemate, independent Algeria (1962) and the fall of the Fourth French Republic in 1958. Other examples of liberation struggles include: Angola (1961-1974), the Congo Crisis (1960-1965), Kenya (1952-1960), Mozambique (1964-1974), and Namibia (1966-1990).
The Cold War came to a sudden end with the East European revolutions of 1989, in which every communist government was overthrown, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union and formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States in 1991. The seeds for these remarkable events were sown by economic and political reforms (perestroika) within the Soviet Union aimed at resolving its economic problems. The period 1979 to 1985 had seen a dangerous escalation in tensions between the superpowers but a thaw in their relationship led to the Reykjavik summit and agreements on the reduction of nuclear weapons. In effect, the Soviet Union had collapsed under the weight of its own economic woes and its leadership were unwilling to enforce communist rule in Eastern Europe in the face of increasing dissent.