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What was the Cold War?

written by: Noreen Gunnell • edited by: Noreen Gunnell • updated: 9/11/2012

Learn facts about the Cold War and be able to answer the question, "What was the Cold War?"

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    Introduction

    While learning about the 20th century, you will inevitably face the task of answering the question, “What was the Cold War?" Understanding the Cold War requires learning some of the causes of and facts about the Cold War.

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    The Cold War lasted just over 45 years, starting in 1945 and ending in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union (USSR). It began almost immediately following World War II and may have been inevitable given the stark contrast between the political systems of Western Democracies and Eastern Socialist States. The two primary adversaries in the Cold War were the United States and the Soviet Union. These former Allies of World War II would be joined by other nations creating two distinct sides-the East and West. This distinction was clearly evident in Europe, a continent divided by what Winston Churchill named the “Iron Curtain".

    A cold war is a sustained period of animosity that manifests itself in many aspects of culture and daily life. It is a war that stops short of military combat but involves the accumulation of weapons to serve as deterrence. The Cold War was waged not on battlefields but in research labs, outer space, and competitive sports. The race to put the first man in space propelled the US Space Program ahead faster than if it had not been humiliated by the Sputnik Launch, which gave the Soviets bragging rights as the first nation into space. Likewise, strides in the Arms Race were motivated by the need to keep the enemy at bay. Each side endeavored to have weapons intimidating enough to keep the opposition from striking first. The Olympics became more than an athletic competition. Instead, they served as a contest of ideologies, capitalism verses socialism and communism verses democracy. The Miracle on Ice in the 1980 Winter Olympics highlights the political hue that colored the Olympic Games during the Cold War.

    The catalyst for the Cold War was the division of Europe amongst the Allied Nations in the aftermath of World War II. Germany was the main point of contention between the democratic Allies, the United State, Great Britain and France, and the Soviet Union. If Germany was simply turned over to the USSR, democratic European nations would be left with a situation similar to the one they found themselves in during the 1930s. They would be left watching the advance of Socialist States with economies, governments, and cultures that could be menacing to their own. This outcome was unthinkable.

    Germany was divided into four zones between the US, Great Britain, France, and the USSR. Its capital city, Berlin, was split into four as well. Soon, the democratic Allies would join their zones and establish democratic governments. Hostility between the two sides would grow as Soviet expansion absorbed more eastern European nations into itself. Western ideas and goods were kept out of Eastern bloc countries, and the West would portray the Soviet Union as a society based on world domination through coercion.

    What was the Cold War? It was an era marked by hostility, mistrust, and paranoia between two main super-powers and their allies. The Cold War was one of espionage, the development of annihilating weapons and pervasive rivalry between the West (US) and the East (USSR).