The Cold War and Its Legacy in the World


The Cold War was a conflict between the U.S. and its allies against the Soviet Union and its allies which lasted from the end of World War II until 1991. The war was conventional in that it, for the most part, was not fought on the battlefield. It was, however, a war of ideological, political, and economic differences fought with propaganda, diplomatic scuffles, and the sporadic military skirmish. These inherent differences that preceded WWII intensified following the war. The former allies mistrusted each other which led to a massive arms race that would make both countries military superpowers during this era. The Cold War was fought on many fronts such as Asia, Africa, Cuba, and outer space. The capitalist, democratic U.S, and the communist Soviet Union represented two opposed approaches to government. Each wanted to spread their ideologies throughout the world. The U.S. encouraged free trade while the Soviet Union closed its borders to trade with the West fearing that its people would be adversely influenced by Western culture which would undermine its totalitarian government. Territories in Europe were shared largely by the two countries following WWII. Given the ideological differences, the emergence of both as military superpowers each wanting to dominate the other, world-scale conflicts was unavoidable.

The Beginning

Initial Rhetoric

By the end of the war, the Soviets had first liberated then occupied much of Eastern Europe. As a result of the Yalta conference following the War, the Soviet Union controlled the Eastern part of Germany along with much of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and half of the German capital Berlin (“The Cold War”, 2006). The Soviet Union’s military atrocities in Poland catalyzed the U.S. dissolving its alliance with its former friend. All economic aid to the Soviets was cut off in May of 1945 by President Truman who, in August of that year declared that Stalin, the Soviet Premier, did not desire peace but to rule the world. Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of Great Britain stood with Truman on February 9, 1946, to give a speech in Missouri, Truman’s home state. He used the term ‘iron curtain’ referring to Stalin’s grip on Eastern Europe and said English-speaking peoples were allied against the Soviets to prevent a return to the Dark Ages. This sent shockwaves throughout the Soviet Union. Its official newspaper Pravda compared Churchill and Truman to Hitler. The U.S. policy of aiding Germany in its recovery and suggestions that Russia gives back lands seized in the war also irritated the Soviets which still harbored hatred against Germany and thought it should receive reparation funding instead (Smitha, 2001).

U.S. Response

Truman employed two major policies in the cold war fight. The first was the Truman Doctrine, a policy of containment of the Soviet Union. He said in a speech in March of 1947 that it was “America’s duty to interfere.” He did not want to destroy the country but wanted to stop the Soviet territorial expansion. The Truman Doctrine gave military and financial support to countries vulnerable to communist expansion such as Turkey and Greece. The second major policy, the Marshall Plan, provided economic assistance to the democratic countries in Western Europe. Marshall said that “America should give $17 billion of aid to get Europe’s economy going and stop Communism” (Marshall, 1947). This strategy was intended to bolster these countries’ economies thereby illustrating the positive influence of democracy and undercut the appeal of communism. The policy further turned up the heat between the two superpowers (Truman, 1947). In 1949, the U.S. again flamed the fire when it took the lead in the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a multi-national military organization meant to stop the Soviet military from advancing in Europe. The Soviet Union retaliated by forming the Warsaw Pact in 1955 with its Eastern European allies (Pike, 2005).

The Arms Race

Truman’s 1950 decision to build up armaments as a defense to the imminent Soviet threat gave the U.S. a global military presence for the first time in history. This, along with a similar strategy by the Soviets, started what is commonly referred to as ‘The Arms Race.’ The U.S. and Soviets built up arms for decades in a competition for the greatest military might. Because the U.S. lacked intelligence information on the Soviet military, it was compelled to assume that it was always behind in the Arms Race. The proliferation of armaments included conventional weapons but the main focus for both countries was nuclear arms. “America believed that if Russia were to have more nuclear warheads than the U.S. that they would be less afraid to use them, and so the U.S. should strive to maintain, at minimum, nuclear equality with Russia” (Pop, 2004).

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty is the most recognized law concerning weapons deployment in space. It was constructed during the height of the Cold War between the Soviets and the U.S., both fearing the consequences of broadening the nuclear arms build-up to the regions of space. The two countries, therefore, united with other nations in agreement that space must not be used as a platform in which to launch nuclear arsenals; that the exploration of space must entail only peaceful objectives. “Article IV of the Outer Space Treaty prohibits the orbiting of weapons of mass destruction in space. It also prohibits the testing or deployment of any kind of weapon on the moon or other celestial bodies” (Dean, 2005). Though this was signed 40 years ago, these same concerns exist today. The treaty, however, only concerns nuclear arsenals in space, not conventional weaponry such as the missile launched by China last January. Since the treaty was signed, many nations of the world have been trying to close this loophole and disallow all types of weapons being used in space. As it stands today, nuclear missiles can lawfully pass into space on the way to their destination, and any weapons other than biological, chemical, or nuclear can be positioned in orbit and used as a staging ‘ground’ to strike targets on earth or in space. In theory, a nation could legally construct an armed, manned military installation in orbit (Dean, 2005).

Phase II


The leaders of both countries, Dwight Eisenhower and Nikolai Bulganin met in Geneva, Switzerland in June of 1957 along with the leaders of France and Britain. Eisenhower wanted an agreement that allowed both countries access to the other military bases which Bulganin refused. Following that meeting, Cold War hostilities fluctuated during the mid-to-late-1950s as both countries vigorously attempted to affect the political development of other countries. The Soviet Union, for example, provided technical, economic, and military assistance to communist regimes in Asia. The U. S. retaliated by helping eight Asian countries oppose the communists by creating the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. Additionally, both superpowers offered economic assistance to Egypt but the U.S. recanted when Egypt acquired arms from Czechoslovakia, a satellite nation of the Soviets at that time (Pike, 2005).

Khrushchev/ Kennedy

Cold War tensions improved a bit in 1959 when Nikita Khrushchev, the new Soviet leader, visited Eisenhower’s holiday residence. But in 1960, when a U.S. spy plane was shot down in Russia, tensions resumed. Eisenhower acknowledged the U.S. U-2 planes had been spying on the Soviets for four years. This incident was followed a year later by the Bay of Pigs invasion ordered by then U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Cuban exiles that were secretly trained by the Central Intelligence Agency invaded Cuba but failed miserably in the attempt to overthrow the government headed by a communist dictator and Soviet ally Fidel Castro. In August of 1961, tensions continued to grow when the Berlin Wall was built by the Soviet puppet government of East Germany to stop the many thousands of East German people from fleeing their impoverished oppressed life to the hopes of a better future in the West. The wall was heavily fortified and guarded. Many were killed to escape.

Bay of Pigs

In April 1961 a group of Cuban rebels backed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in a plan approved by the president invaded southern Cuba at the Bay of Pigs The invasion was an attempt to overthrow Castro by instigating a Cuban rebellion, but all rebels participating in the invasion were killed or captured within four days of the landing. So he could later deny U.S. involvement, Kennedy refused to provide any air support dooming the mission. The Cuban victory during the Bay of Pigs Invasion served only to strengthen Castro’s grip on Cuba and to embarrass the new president, who had not yet been in office three months. The U.S. made no secret of the plan in the attempt to unify Cubans against Castro. The majority of Cuban residents, though, took exception to U.S. intervention in Cuban affairs and united behind Castro. (Frankel, 2004, p.50).

Castro and many Cuban citizens, quite correctly, considered this action an aggressive, illegal invasion by the U.S. and a broken promise by its president. After foiling the Bay of Pigs invasion, Castro learned that the U.S. staged a mock invasion of a Caribbean island in 1962. The purpose of the mock invasion was to overthrow the leader Ortsac, Castro spelled backward. Because of this, Castro became even more convinced that a U.S. invasion of Cuba was imminent. Alarmed by this escalating threat by a major world super-power, Castro escalated the importation of missiles from the Soviets in what he and Khrushchev described as a “defensive mechanism” to thwart future aggressive acts by its neighbor 90 miles to the north. (Frankel, 2004). The Soviet Union, deeply involved in a cold war with the U.S., eagerly sent munitions, medium-range missiles, and equipment to build airfields in Cuba. Castro viewed the Soviets’ aid as building blocks to a strong Cuba-U.S.S.R. alliance.

The Cuban Missile Crisis

The Cuban Missile Crisis which began in October 1962 brought the two countries as close to nuclear war as they would ever come. U.S. intelligence photographs showed that Soviet missiles were being delivered to Cuba. Following a week of high tensions and a U.S. naval blockade of the Cuban island, Khrushchev reached an agreement with Kennedy to remove the missiles if the U.S. would not overthrow the Cuban government. After this time of intense anxiety on a global scale, the Cold War turned toward cooperation as both sides feared a nuclear holocaust. The two countries took a major step closer to one another by signing an arms control agreement in 1963 which banned nuclear tests anywhere but underground. The ‘Red Phone’ was also implemented which gave the leaders direct access to each other. Relations continued to ease between the Soviets and the U.S. during the late 1960s and early 1970s. President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev had several meetings and agreed to many arms control pacts.

The U.S. and Cuban governments were each compelled to action by the fear of each other during the Cold War. Both countries posed a threat, real and implied, to the other. Nuclear bomb paranoia swept the post-World War II world. In no place or time was this fear more apparent than during the Cuban Missile Crisis. During the 1962 crisis, Fidel Castro, Nikita Khrushchev, and John Kennedy jockeyed for the upper hand, each employing bold moves that brought the world to the brink of possible annihilation.

Before the Cuban Revolution in the mid to late 1950s, the tropical island of Cuba was a favored tourist attraction of U.S. citizens. The United States government held substantial control in Cuba’s economic and political dealings. However, Castro, a leading political figure in Cuba, refused to be controlled by the United States. The United States government suspected that when Castro assumed power on January 1, 1959, his communist government would pose a close threat to America. Castro further raised concerns when he seized property belonging to prosperous Cuban Nationals and foreigners in an attempt to improve conditions for working-class Cubans. Many of these properties belonged to businesses owned by U.S. companies and individuals. U.S. suspicions and concerns were heightened in December 1960 when Castro officially and openly aligned Cuba with the Soviet Union. Less than one month later, in early January 1961, the U.S. severed diplomatic relations with Castro and imposed a trade embargo on Cuba that remains in effect to this day. The embargo stopped the flow of oil to Cuba and the sale of its major cash crop, sugar, from Cuba.

By 1962, the tension between Cuba and the U.S. was at its height. Kennedy was perceived by Khrushchev as immature and even incompetent following the June 1961 summit in Vienna. These perceptions were only bolstered by the botched Bay of Pigs invasion. Furthermore, the U.S. had taken no action while the Soviets were slowly constructing the Berlin Wall. Khrushchev and, therefore, Castro perceived that they had an upper hand in negations with Kennedy and fully expected him to back down in the face of threats made. In July 1962, Castro boldly announced that Cuba would proceed with all necessary measures to protect his country and had the backing of the U.S.S.R. Castro, in his mid-30’s, was apprehensive of the American military power, but the new President of Cuba was energetically engaged in building an idealistic government he thought would be a model for the world to follow. In addition, he had the super-power Soviet Union as an important ally and perceived Kennedy as a weakling. Amidst recent warnings by Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in a speech to the UN that an American attack on Cuba could mean war with the Soviet Union, Kennedy ordered a U-2 reconnaissance flight over western Cuba in mid-October. The U-2 spy plane flying over western Cuba did indeed discover and photographed evidence of missile sites in Cuba (Frankel, 2004, p.88).

By Oct. 23, 1962, U.S. ships had taken up position in an 800-mile perimeter around Cuba. That same evening, Kennedy addressed the nation on television to announce U.S. intentions. A war of words and a political chess match ensued. Kennedy found that the Soviets were prepared for the high-stakes rhetoric. In a letter dated Oct. 22 to Khrushchev, Kennedy informed the Soviet premier that the U.S. considered the missiles in Cuba to be a threat to the security of the western hemisphere and that they will be removed. On Oct. 28, Khrushchev announced over Radio Moscow that he has agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba. Castro, his administration, and his top commanders knew nothing of this broadcast. They had received no copies of letters sent to or from Khrushchev regarding the issue. Cuban officials only learned of this deal between the superpowers several hours after it was announced on the radio (Frankel, 2004, p. 145).

Final Act


Though, when Ronald Reagan was President he referred to the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev had four meetings with Reagan. Gorbachev removed the Soviet army from Afghanistan and signed a nuclear missiles reduction agreement with the U.S. There was extensive instability among the ‘communist block’ countries of Eastern Europe by 1989. Unlike previous Soviet leaders, Gorbachev chose not to interfere militarily as these nations broke off from the Soviet Union. That year, the Berlin Wall was torn down, again uniting East and West Berlin. The demise of this symbol of Soviet domination along with the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the collapse of the Soviet Union itself soon after marked the end of the Cold War (Pike, 2005).

Unipolar’ Outcome

From the end of the Cold War in 1989, as symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall, to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the U.S. was undoubtedly the world’s greatest power militarily, economically, and therefore politically. However, this time in which the U.S. operates as the only superpower and therefore the world’s dominant force, known as the ‘unipolar moment’ was first, superficial to begin with and second, fleeting. The Soviet Union’s collapse left the U.S. as the lone superpower and it quickly showed a willingness to operate unilaterally when pursuing its interests. “Those in Washington who believed that superpower status was equal to a unipolar international system justified making decisions without the cumbersome involvement of allies.” (Hogan, 2004 p.2) This unipolar moment was, of course, a myth because a gap has always existed between the U.S.’s military capacity and its capability to control world events to its liking. The U.S. certainly enjoyed and took full political advantage of the widely accepted perception of its unipolar status following the Cold War’s end. It is this perception, this myth that should be examined when attempting to understand the concept of a world superpower and its limitations in an era of globalization. A unipolar world never existed, it was a term made up by observers that only saw the surface effects of the Cold War’s end.

The U.S. was also referred to as the first hyperpower by the French but both of these terms are misleading at best and if believed, especially by the U.S., dangerous, as has been shown by the arrogance displayed in the invasion of Iraq. There are other descriptions of the supposed power wielded by the U.S. including ‘leader of the free world’ and ‘indispensable power’ that should be re-thought when defining America’s political position in the world community today. A vast disparity exists between America’s perceived capacity to wage war and its actual capability to twist events following its ambitions. The potential military power and technological edge the U.S. has over all other nations is not in dispute, however, because it spends more on defense than nearly all of the other nations of the world combined. “An $11 trillion economy that facilitates enormous technological prowess and a defense budget that exceeds the combined total of the next 25 powers should leave no doubt about the potential of the United States” (Olney, 1990: 78). A product of justifications stemming from the Cold War and anti-communism sentiments, the Vietnam War became the benchmark by which American military limitations can be measured. Though the U.S. ‘won’ the Cold War, the aftermath was handled poorly and this legacy lives on today. The U.S., because of its involvement in ‘nation building’ that began in Korea and continued during the Vietnam era and is in full effect today, has lost political credibility throughout the international community.


The Cold War era was a time of great suspicion and intense political positioning between the Soviet Union and the U.S. in addition to a protracted nuclear arms race. This obsession with building up arms left in its wake a legacy of perils associated with those weapons that were intended to protect the countries’ borders and citizens. When the Cold War ended, both countries could destroy the earth several times over. Now, each has spent billions to destroy the weapons. Many lie within the ex-Soviet territories and many people fear that these nuclear missiles could be sold to terrorist organizations. Much hatred and money were expended for a war that was never declared. It was widely assumed following the end of the Cold War that the U.S could act without the approval or cooperation of other nations if it desired when taking any military actions for any reason and that no nation or coalition of nations could effectively intervene. This assumption was, is, and always will be incorrect. The U.S. cannot be involved in a unilateral conflict without operating under the constraints of its limited resources and range or without the support of the people in the region it intends to occupy.

Works Cited

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  3. Frankel, M. “High Noon in the cold war: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.” New York: Ballantine. (2004).
  4. Hogan, David W. Jr. “The Cold War Army.” Centuries of Service The U.S. Army 1775-2004. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History United States Army, (2006).
  5. Olney, Richard. “Growth of Our Foreign Policy.” The Atlantic Monthly. Vol. 85, N. 509, (1990) cited in Niall Ferguson Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire. New York: The Penguin Press, 2004.
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  7. Pop, Florin. “The Arms Race.” Cold War Project. (2004).
  8. Smitha, Frank E. “The Cold War Begins.” Macro History. (2001).
  9. Truman, President Harry S. “The Truman Doctrine.” Address before a Joint Session of Congress.” (1947).