Cold war (a term coined by the English writer George Orwell) was a prolonged state of military and political tension between the two major powers that emerged at the end of the second world war, namely The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or Soviet Union and The United States Of America. Although both these countries were allies during the Second World War, the profound differences between the countries, both economic and political, meant that their allying with each other was only superficial and temporary.
The two major powers, threatening mutual destruction as each possessed nuclear weapons, never had a direct military confrontation. In their quest for global influence, they engaged in indirect confrontations through “proxy wars”, such as the Korean War (1950-53) and the Vietnam War (1955-75). The Cold War was more of a psychological war than a traditional head on military escalation. The conflict was in fact carried on with the help of military coalitions, strategic force deployments, and extensive aid to client states, international espionage, traditional and nuclear arms races, lobbying to neutral nations, and technological competitions such as the Space Race.
The Cold War went on for more than four decades. It ended in late 1991, after the dissolution of the USSR, leaving the United States as the only superpower in the world. In the years following the end of the cold war, there have been many debates regarding the validity of the claims that nuclear weapons acted as a deterrent to a full blown military conflict between the two countries.
Origins and Balance of Power
The Second World War started in 1939 and ended in 1945, and was fought between two factions of the world-the Allies and the Axis powers. The Soviets did not enter the war until 22nd June, 1941, when it was invaded by Germany and Romania. They did however; fight a war with Finland from November 1939 to March 1940. The US, on the other hand was pulled into the war by the 7 December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbour. Although they had maintained neutrality up until that point, they did supply the allies with resources and monetary help. The end of the war came about due to the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by the US.
The fact that the balance of power shifted was quite apparent. The traditional major powers such as The UK, France and Germany had both their influence and resources depleted due to the war. Their main aim was to rebuild their nations, instead of exerting influence over the world. That left the US in the west and the USSR in the east as the only major superpowers. The US by 1945, was the top economic power in the world, controlling approximately 60% of the world‟s industrial production. Their territory was also untouched, except for the Pearl Harbour incident, as the war was fought mainly in Europe. USSR had to endure severe destruction to their territory due to the German invasion. Stalingrad, for example, had lost 95% of its industries and population. They did however, still had the largest army in the world and they were determined to use their strength to prevent another invasion.
During World War II, both the US and the USSR fought together as allies against the axis powers led by Germany. Their relationship however, was troubled throughout. Americans had always been chary of the communist ideology followed by the soviets and apprehensive about their leader Joseph Stalin, whose tyrannical rule reminded them of Hitler himself. The Soviets begrudged the Americans‟ continuous refusal to treat the USSR as a legitimate part of the international community.
At the end of the war, these grudges developed into an overwhelming sense of mutual distrust and animosity. Soviet expansionism in Eastern Europe after the war helped to strengthen many Americans‟ fears of a Russian plan to dominate the world. The USSR on the other hand, resented what they perceived as American officials‟ interventionist approach to international relations. Some experts believe that the existence of such antagonistic environment on both sides fuelled the conflict and that neither side was particularly to blame. The Cold War they feel, was inevitable.
At the conclusion of the Second World War, Europe became divided on the lines of ideological and political conflict. It was divided into east and west by a line called the Iron Curtain, which ran through the heart of Europe. The western bloc, allied with the US, consisted of countries such as The UK, France, The Netherlands and West Germany, some of whom joined North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a mutual defence pact. The eastern bloc, under Soviet influence, consisted of East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania and the USSR itself.
The eastern bloc countries had signed a mutual defence treaty called the Warsaw Pact under the Soviet initiative. This was done by the Soviets to create a buffer zone in Eastern Europe to foresee and respond to any future threats or aggression from the western bloc. These countries acted as satellite states for the Soviets, who helped liberate them from the Germans. As a result, the countries started operating in Soviet styled regimes. They embraced not only the communist ideologies, but also the ruthless suppression of opposition. One might even say that they were puppet states for the Soviets.
By 1947, Europe was divided and both the US and the USSR had clearly mapped out their influence spheres in the world. Cold War had begun. Containment and the Marshall Plan In order to stop the spread of communism and to counter USSR‟s influence, The US adopted the policy of containment. It was in response to the Soviet‟s attempt to increase their influence in
Eastern Europe and other parts of the world. It involved several measures, such as the establishment of NATO and providing a financial package for the Greeks in their civil war against communist led insurgents, to curb the rise in communism. Korean War was also one of the by-products of this policy. Containment and deterrence were major strategic policies aimed to keep the Soviets at bay.
The Marshall Plan or the European Recovery Program was a program undertook by the Americans to help in the rebuilding efforts of the European economies and also to restrict the spread of Soviet communism. The plan started in April 1948 and remained in place for a period of four years. The Soviets, on their part considered the plan as a way for the US to buy their influence in Eastern Europe. Stalin in particular believed that by accepting the aid, the Communist countries would be giving up some control of their economy to the US. The Soviet Union had a centrally planned economy, which was state controlled and promoted communism. This was considered as a major control point of the Soviet Union‟s power over its citizens.
This in turn helped the Soviet leaders to control and dictate other aspects of life and policy. Subsequently, accepting the US aid would mean losing some of this control and hence facing a threat to keep the Eastern bloc under its influence. Therefore, the Marshall Plan was rejected outright by the USSR, and no country from the Eastern bloc was allowed to accept it either.
Berlin Blockade (24 June 1948 – 12 May 1949)-First Major Crisis of the Cold War Shortly after the Marshall Plan was implemented, the Soviets, in order to achieve full control of the city of Berlin, instituted the Berlin blockade. They wanted to provide Berlin (which was occupied by 4 nations at the time-The US, The UK, France and USSR) with food and other resources so as to exert full control over the city. To realize their demand, they blocked the railway, road and sea access to western powers, to the sectors of Berlin under the control of the allied nations. They also did not want a unified Germany as was being proposed by the allied powers.
The allied powers were aghast. In return, they started the “Berlin Airlift”. Critical supplies such as food and fuel were airlifted and provided to the West Berliners, by the air forces of major allied powers. After almost a year of airlifting the supplies, the effort was clearly succeeding, and brought major embarrassment to the Soviets. They lifted the blockade on 12th May, 1949, but damage had already been done by then. As a result of the whole fiasco, Germany was divided into two separate states- The Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).
Strategic Deterrence and the Cuban Missile Crisis
Deterrence is a foreign affairs theory, in which an adversary is discouraged to undertake a future course of action, or to stop them from taking steps desired by another state. This theory gained immense prominence during the Cold War.
In the initial stages of the Cold War, the US adopted the policy of containment to tackle the USSR. This was marked by their aggressive protection of the states under its sphere of influence. This period of the war was marked by numerous proxy wars fought between the two super
powers, the most notable of which was the Korean War (1950-53), where the communist North was supported by the Soviets and China, and the South was supported by the US and its NATO allies.
This policy was adopted till the early 1960‟s by the US. By mid-1960‟s, a clear strategic deterrent for both sides had become clear. The deterrent for war was the mutual nuclear deterrence or most commonly known as mutual assured destruction. This theory assumed that both sides possessed enough nuclear weapons to annihilate the other side, and that if attacked, either side would attack with equal or greater force which would result in mutual and total annihilation of both parties, not to mention the effects felt by the rest of the world. It also assumes that neither side would want to be the first to attack, as the other party would attack them at the first hint of trouble, and both parties would have to face deadly losses. Till the late 1950‟s and early 60‟s, the US had the upper hand in terms of the number of nuclear weapons possessed.
This superiority led to a unilateral deterrent in favour of the US. But all this started to change when the USSR developed its own nuclear weapon on 29th August 1949, and by the mid 1960‟s they had built a huge nuclear arsenal, capable of challenging the US in terms of number or size. They had also gained competency in the technologies needed to deliver the warheads. Although both the countries wanted to avoid a full scale nuclear war at all costs, they still invested substantial amounts to build their nuclear arsenal, even if the weapons were not intended for use. This could be explained by the fact that both parties took any threat seriously, and that it was critical to be prepared for the worst.
The horrendous consequences of a war fought with nuclear weapons brought a new sense of calm and stability to the relations between the two nations. Both the superpowers were anxious not to give the other power any reason that would validate an attack. However, this caution also justified building up their weapons arsenal, which included the nuclear weapons as well. Even without the nuclear weapons, a head on military conflict would have been devastating for not just the two superpowers but for the world as well, the inclusion of nuclear weapons to the scenario took the deterrence factor to a whole new level.
The lowest point of the Cold War which not only involved the mutual deterrence theory for the first time, but also emphasized it, was the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was a 13 day conflict carried out between the US on one side and the USSR and Cuba on the other and is generally regarded as the confrontation which brought the two countries closest to a nuclear war. Due to the rise of communism in Europe, as well as in Cuba (its neighbour), the US was concerned. They had also just undertaken a failed attempt (Bay of Pigs Invasion-17th April 1961) to overthrow the Castro regime presiding in Cuba. All this led to the extreme step of putting nuclear missiles in Turkey, with the direction of the aim towards Moscow.
The failure of the Bay of Pigs Invasion, coupled with the fact that the US had placed their warheads in the direction of their capital, led the Russians to take the bold step of placing their nuclear missiles in Cuba. The motive for this move by the Soviets was threefold. Firstly, this neutralized the US advantage of placing missiles in Turkey, and benefitting in case they wanted to attack. Secondly, it would discourage the US from repeating any invasion attempts in Cuba. Thirdly, and most importantly, this move enabled the Soviets to target the entire US territory. The missiles possessed by the USSR at that time were inaccurate and unreliable over long distances, to say the least. They could have targeted some parts of the US from their own territory, but could not have targeted the US in its entirety.
Although the confrontation was resolved after long diplomatic negotiations and discussions, it did bring out the fact that a nuclear war was extremely possible and would devastate both the countries. The US and the USSR did remove their warheads from Turkey and Cuba respectively, and realized that nuclear war was not an answer. This also led to the adoption of a policy called Détente by both the parties. This policy advocated a peaceful co-existence between the two superpowers. One of the major factors for the adoption of this policy was the mutual assured destruction theory and also both the nations realized the devastating effects the Cuban Missile Crisis could have had. Détente brought a period of calm and stability to the cold war. End of the Cold War
By 1989, the Eastern bloc was nearing a collapse. Without the military support of the Soviets, the other states of the Warsaw Pact saw their power diminishing. Peaceful protests started taking place across Central and Eastern Europe. This all led to a wave of revolution in Eastern bloc, much like the Jasmine Revolutions taking place in Central Asia now. All the Soviet satellite states, except Romania who killed their head of state, overthrew their soviet style governments peacefully and broke away from the Eastern bloc. All this climaxed with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November of 1989.
Ultimately the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, which lead to the end of the Cold War, leaving the US as the sole superpower in the world. After the Cold War, there have been constant efforts by both the US and Russia to reduce the number of nuclear warheads in their arsenal. Cold War marked a tense time for not just the two countries involved, but for the whole word as well, who wished that this „Cold‟ war never turned into a „Hot‟ war. It is in the interest of the world that the balance of power is held in the hands of two or more than countries, so that a bipolar or tri-polar world is achieved. But as we have seen in the past, this may lead to a lot of conflicts as well.
The relationship between the US and Russia has never been friendly in the
truest sense of the word, but they have tried to maintain cordial relations since the end of the cold war. But, will all this change in the future? Will balance of power again change hands? Would the minor conflicts between the nations (such as the Snowden conflict recently) turn into a major one leading to a Cold War scenario?
Only time will tell.