• The end of World War II is a landmark episode in world history. Allied powers (led by USA, USSR, Britain and France) defeated the Axis Powers (led by Germany, Italy and Japan). After dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan surrendered. This led to end of one of the most devastating wars in world history. But this was the beginning of a new phase in the contemporary world history. The post-1945 world is characterized by the emergence of the USA and the USSR as ‘superpowers’.
  • The superpower era and the associated rivalry between them, was characterized as the Cold War. Age-old antagonisms that had been buried during the war resurfaced leading to the phase of the Cold War. The period of Cold War was marked by tensions between an increasingly US-dominated West and a Sovietdominated East. The multi-polarity of the pre-World War II period thus gave way to Cold War bi-polarity.

Extent of Cold War

  • Eastern Bloc: It comprised of countries of Eastern Europe which were allies of USSR. They followed communism.
  • Western Bloc: Countries of Western Europe and ally of USA. They pursued liberalism.
Cold War
Cold War World Map 1962


  • Cold war is the term used to describe the antagonistic relationship between the USA and the USSR after the Second World War till the end of the cold war in 1991.
  • The war is called cold because there was no direct military confrontation between the two superpowers. All the wars fought were localized but involved indirect support from the two superpowers- the United States and the USSR.
  • It means that both the superpowers would have come to direct confrontation, had circumstances allowed. The most hostile condition, when they almost came close to a war, was during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
  • The United States and the USSR gradually strengthened their own zones of influence, dividing the world into two divided camps. It was not exclusively a struggle between the US and the USSR but a global conflict that affected many countries, particularly the continent of Europe.
  • Indeed, Europe, divided into two blocs, became one of the main theatres of the war. In Western Europe, the European integration process began with the support of the United States, while the countries of Eastern Europe became satellite nations of the USSR.
  • But the period is marked with warmer and cooler phases. There were covert operations like proxy wars and conflicts linked to East-West conflict (Korean Crisis, Vietnam War , Israeli-Arab War, etc.). This was the warmer phase.
  • Whereas during cooler phase, we can observe that there was cooperation between the superpowers. This phase is described as Detente and Rapprochement. The Cold War finally came to an end in 1991 after the disintegration of the USSR.

Nature of Cold War

  • Bipolar: Two superpowers and other countries becoming allies of these two superpowers. This happened because of vacuum created by Britain after WW II and rise of USA and USSR.
  • Ideology Based: In economic sphere, conflict between capitalism and communism and in political sphere, democracy and socialism led to ideological differences between the two sides.
  • Mainly Non- violent: It remained non-violent for most periods. However , indirect involvement of the USA and the USSR can be traced during Korean War, Vietnam War, Arab Israel War, etc.
  • Deterrence: The reason was because of presence of nuclear weapon and rational behaviour of the two superpowers. Else, it would have led to Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).
  • Brinkmanship: It is a condition in which the adversaries are very close to war but avoid war at the last moment. This happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
  • Arms Race: In order to protect and promote own interests, both the superpowers went on increasing their inventory of strategic and tactical arms.
  • Building Allies: Through pacts like SEATO (Southeast Asia treaty Organisation), CENTO (Central Treaty Organisation), etc.
  • Military Groupings: USA led Western Europe formed NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Whereas, Soviet Union formed Warsaw Pact. The Warsaw Pact, formally the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance, was a collective defense treaty signed in Warsaw among the Soviet Union and seven Soviet satellite states of Central and Eastern Europe during the Cold War.
  • Economic Support: USA provided Marshall Plan for postwar reconstruction of European countries. In response to that, Soviet Union provided for CMEA (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance).

Marshall Plan

  • The Marshall Plan, also known as the European Recovery Program, channelled over $13 billion to finance the economic recovery of Europe between 1948 and 1951. The Marshall Plan successfully sparked economic recovery, meeting its objective of ‘restoring the confidence of the European people in the economic future of their own countries and of Europe as a whole.’ The plan is named for Secretary of State George C. Marshall, who announced it in a commencement speech at Harvard University on June 5, 1947.
  • At the time, Americans perceived the plan as a generous subvention to Europe. The Soviet Union, however, viewed the Marshall Plan as an attempt to interfere in the internal affairs of other states and refused to participate. Ultimately, the Soviets prevented Poland and Czechoslovakia from taking part, despite their eagerness to do so.
  • The plan promoted European economic integration and federalism, and created a mixture of public organization of the private economy similar to that in the domestic economy of the United States. This reorganization of the European economy provided a more congenial environment for American investment.

Causes of Cold War

  • The major cause behind the cold war rivalry was the conflict between two dominant ideologies, i. e . capitalism vs. communism. But, with reference to occurrence of the Second World War, the causes can be understood as under.
    • Pre-1945: Before the end of World War II
      • Appeasement of Hitler by USA and UK after the First World War in order to fight against communism
      • Allied powers neglected Soviet Union ’s proposal to open a second front against Germany.
      • Manhattan Project: Under this project, USA secretly built its nuclear bomb.
      • War time conferences: Status of Germany and Poland after the war.
    • During World War II: Nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by USA, made USA the undisputable superpower. Consequently, the insecurity forced the USSR to start the arms race with USA.

Factor Responsible for Cold War

  • There are many views with respect to which the accountability for Cold War is fixed:


  • According to this view, Stalin wanted to put an end to the capitalism globally and spread communism outside USSR. As he wanted to dominate as many countries as he could, especially in the Eastern Europe, this created suspicion amongst the Western European Countries. In response, they formed North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. Also, this view supports the US actions like intervening from the side of South Korea in the Korean War (1950-53) were only in self-defence of “Free World” (capitalist bloc) against communism.

Truman Doctrine

  • Some scholars criticize the aggressive foreign policy followed by US in Vietnam War (1961-75) and the US support for brutal regimes like that of Pol Pot in Cambodia (1975-79). According to these scholars, Truman Doctrine and his policy of Containment was responsible for the Cold war. USSR acted in self-defence as the Truman Doctrine provoked Russian hostility.
  • These scholars maintained that the Cold War could have been avoided if the US and the west would have accepted Eastern Europe as a Russian sphere of influence as was agreed to by Churchill in 1944.
Truman Doctrine

Both US and USSR

  • The view is based on the evidences that came to light after declassification of government documents. As per this view, both US and the USSR share the blame for the Cold War. The Marshall aid plan of the United States were specifically designed to increase US dominance in Europe at the cost of USSR. Stalin never had a concrete plan about expanding communism outside USSR but he took advantage of every opportunity to increase the Soviet influence. However, lack of mutual trust between the USA and the USSR led to aggressive stance by one against the action of other.

Evolution of Cold War

  • Fulton speech of Winston Churchill (1946) where he mentioned about the Iron Curtain, is considered as the beginning of Cold war era. The iron curtain was between the Eastern bloc and Western bloc, the Capitalists and the Communists. The Evolution of Cold War can be broadly classified into three phases:

Phase I (1946-62)

Cold War in Europe

  • 1947: After the end of the Second World War, USA offered the Marshall Plan ($13 b) for post war reconstruction of Europe and also to attract the Eastern European countries towards capitalism. USSR was quick to react to this and announced the Molotov plan (1947), Cominform (1947) and the Council for Mutual and Economic Assistance (CMEA-1949) for countries of Eastern Europe. Berlin Blockade (1948): USSR stopped the rail, road and canal links to western Germany. This led to curtailment of delivery of essentials. But the blockade was made redundant as USA used airplanes to deliver the items.
  • 1949: USSR detonated its nuclear bomb. This marked an important point in cold war phase as it renounced the claim of USA as the only superpower. It led to nuclear arms race thereafter and nuclearization of world started.
  • 1949: NATO was formed by the United States and the East European countries. This further stratified the tensions. In response to that, the USSR formed Warsaw pact in 1954.
  • 1953: Firstly, US tested the Hydrogen bombs and so the USSR followed.
  • 1953: Death of Stalin and partial thaw in cold war
  • 1961: Berlin wall was built. This was concrete manifestation of the cold war.

Berlin Blockade (1948)

  • Rail, road and canal links to Berlin were blocked by USSR. This was to obstruct the food supplies in West Berlin. But USA dropped the food supplies making the blockade useless.
Berlin 1961 1989

Cold War in Asia

  • Victory of Communist China in 1949 strengthened the position of USSR.
  • Korean Crisis (1950-1953) led to separation of Korean peninsula into North Korea (supported by China and USSR) and South Korea (supported by USA) along the 38 th parallel. Still the peninsula is in crisis and represents the legacy of cold war era.
  • Vietnam War (1955-75): Vietnam witnessed almost two decades of conflict between the communist of Vietnam, supported by the USSR and the USA. This war reduced the US hegemony in Asia.
  • Arab-lsrael Crisis (1948): USA came in support of Israel whereas USSR sympathised with Arabs. This led to gap between USA and Arabs. After that in 1955, USA sponsored Baghdad Pact which led to formation of CENTO (Central Treaty Organisation). Its members were USA, UK, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan.

Cuban Missile Crisis (1962)

  • It is the most dangerous conflict in the first phase of the cold war. USSR installed missiles in Cuba. Seeing the threat to own territory, USA reacted aggressively and announced to attack USSR if the missiles were not removed immediately.
  • Considering the fact that in a nuclear world, if the balance fails, it will lead to mutually assured destruction (MAD). Consequently, the USSR removed the missile and thus saved the world from the possibility of the third World War.

Phase II (1962-79)

  • This phase is referred to as detente. This phase witnessed relaxation of tensions between the USA and the USSR. The immediate reason for this was to avoid the extreme situations like Cuban missile crisis. Apart from this, domestic challenges faced by the two countries also made it necessary to maintain peace. In USSR, economic challenges and leadership crisis started coming up.
  • European Union and Japan started challenging the hegemony of USA. Important events of this period are:
    • 1964 Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) (This treaty banned nuclear tests in open air. But it permitted underground tests).
    • 1968 Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), etc.
  • There was recognition given by USA to People’s Republic of China in 1971. This shows the rapprochement between the two superpowers. Helsinki Accord of 1975 made the cooperation more feasible. Both sides (East and West) agreed to maintain status quo in Germany. USSR gave recognition to Human Rights and the West recognised the communist rule in East.

Phase III: New Cold War (1979-89)

  • The detente was short lived. The differences emerged again after invasion of Afghanistan by USSR in 1979. While the invasion was to support the communist regime in Afghanistan, the US and the west, along with Pakistan supported Mujahideen to topple the communist government.
  • Both sides indulged in arms race and started to increase the stockpiling of arms, including nuclear warheads. The US President Ronald Reagan initiated the Star wars or the strategic defence initiative programme which would make US capable of launching missiles from Space.
  • Though, Maikahil Gorbachev tried to improve relations with the USA, he was unable to develop the USSR economy. This along with other reasons ultimately led to the disintegration of USSR and ultimately, the end of cold war.
Cold War

End of Cold War

  • When the Cold War came to an end, the end was dramatic, swift and quite unexpected. Over 70 years of communism collapsed in just two years, 1989-91. And wherever communist regimes survived, such as in China, a process of radical change was taking place to reform communism in order to protect it from extinction.
  • In 1990, the Charter of Paris for new Europe formally announced the end of the Cold War and in 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed.
End of Cold War

Factors that Led to End of Cold War

  • The factors that have been associated with the collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War include the following:
    • Structural weaknesses of Soviet-style communism
    • The impact of Gorbachev’s reform process
    • US policy and the ‘Second’ Cold War
    • Economic and cultural globalization.

Limitations of Communism

  • Some have argued that the collapse of communism was an accident waiting to happen. There were inherent limitations in the communist system. These limitations were of two kinds, economic and political.

Economic Limitations

  • Failure of Central Planning: Centrally planned economies proved to be less effective than capitalist economies in delivering general prosperity and producing modern consumer goods. Eruptions of political discontent in 1980-91 were thus, in significant measure, a manifestation of economic backwardness and expressed a desire for western-style living standards and consumer goods.

Political Limitations

  • Communist regimes were structurally unresponsive to popular pressure. This was because of absence of competitive elections, independent interest groups and a free media. Single-party communist states possessed no mechanisms for articulating political discontent and initiating dialogue between rulers and the people.
  • There is little doubt that, in addition to economic frustration, the popular protests of the 1989-91 period articulated demand for the kind of civil liberties and political rights that were seen as being common place in the liberaldemocratic West.

Impact of Gorbachev’s Reform

  • Although structural weaknesses may explain communism’s susceptibility to collapse, they do not explain either its timing or its swiftness. How did economic and political frustration accumulated over decades spill over and cause the downfall of regimes in a matter of months or even weeks? The answer lies in the impact of the reforms that Mikhail Gorbachev introduced in the Soviet Union from 1985 onwards. There were three key aspects of the reform process.
    • Perestroika: It involved the introduction of elements of market competition and private ownership to tackle the long-term deficiencies of Soviet central planning, drawing on earlier experiments in ‘ market socialism’, particularly in Yugoslavia. However, economic restructuring under Gorbachev had disastrous consequences. It replaced an inefficient but still functioning planned economy with one that barely functioned at all.
    • Glasnost: It involved the dismantling of restrictions on the expression of opinion and political debate. However, glasnost merely gave a political voice to Gorbachev’s opponents hard-line communists who opposed any reforms that might threaten the privileges and power of the party-state elite, as well as radical elements that wished to dismantle the apparatus of central planning and communist rule altogether. Gorbachev thus became increasingly isolated and retreated from ‘reform communism’ into more radical changes, including the formal abandonment of the Communist Party’s monopoly of power.
    • Sinatra doctrine: A new approach to relations with the USA and Western Europe, the basis of which was the abandonment of the Brezhnev doctrine. ‘Sinatra Doctrine’, allowed the states of Eastern Europe to ‘do it their way’, meant that Gorbachev and the Soviet Union refused to intervene as, one after another, communist regimes collapsed in 1989-90, symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall.

US Policy and ‘Second’ Cold War

  • Alternative explanations of the end of the Cold War draw attention away from internal developments within the Soviet Union and the communist bloc in general, and focused instead on the changing context within which communism operated. The chief external factors contributing to the collapse of communism were the policies of the Reagan administration in the USA and the advance of economic and cultural globalization. The Reagan administration’s contribution to this process was in launching the ‘Second Cold War’ by instigating a renewed US military build-up in the 1980s, particularly in the form of the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) (the so-called ‘star wars’ initiative) of 1983.
  • Whether intended or not, this drew the Soviet Union into an arms race that its already fragile economy could not sustain, helping provoke economic collapse and increase the pressure for reform.

Economic and Cultural Globalization

  • The contribution of economic globalization was that it helped to widen the differential living standards between the East and the West. While the progressive internationalization of trade and investment helped to fuel technological and economic development in the US-dominated West from the 1970s onwards, its exclusion from global markets ensured that the Soviet-dominated East would suffer from economic stagnation.
  • Cultural globalization contributed to the process through the spread of radio and television technology, helping ideas, information and images from an apparently free and more prosperous West to penetrate the more developed communist societies, particularly those in Eastern Europe. This, in turn, further fuelled discontent and bred support for western-style economic and political reforms.


  • Cold War was a period of intense tension. There was a fear of war. It was a global phenomenon which gave birth to the third world, which was generally the arena of warm phase of the cold war conflict. For example: Korean crisis, Vietnam War, Afghanistan, etc. It created fissures in the Third world’ countries.
  • At the same time, there was birth of Non Alignment Movement (NAM). It provided an alternative platform to the countries which didn’t want to get in super power rivalry. NAM provided an independent stand to these countries. It was a platform to enhance South-South Cooperation.
  • End of the Cold War made USA the supreme power in the world. It made liberalism the most dominant philosophy in world. Cold war rivalry is also held responsible for the poor functioning of global governance bodies like United Nation (UN). Cold war rivalry in the Middle East and Afghanistan gave fire to one of the most serious threat to the present day world, i.e. terrorism. Islamic fundamentalism is on rise and is a challenge for most of the countries in the world. The attack of 9/11 on the World Trade tower in USA , the attack on Indian parliament and many other terrorist attacks globally are indicators of the menace of the terrorism, and the after-effects of the Cold War.
timeline of cold war

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