The Cold War: a time of spies, propaganda and the space race

Aylsham, collect pic of Christmas Island nuclear bomb test. belonging to John greenacre. edp 01/01/0

Many believed a nuclear war was inevitable - Credit: John Greenacre/Archant Library

The Cold War is the name usually given to the intense period of international rivalry in the 20th century between the western democratic powers which included the USA and UK and the eastern Communist world dominated by the Soviet Union and ‘Red’ China. It was seen as a ‘cold war’ as opposed to a ‘hot war’ because there was no actual fighting between the two sides, although a number of ‘hot’ wars did break out during it.

Most people see the Cold War as starting around the time of Winston Churchill’s famous ‘Iron Curtain’ speech in 1946. The US had emerged from the war in a supremely strong position: economically booming and the only nation in the world in possession of the atomic bomb. Communist since the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Soviet Union (also known as the USSR) had, in contrast, been devastated by the recent conflict. Much to the West’s alarm, the USSR created its own protective buffer zone by absorbing much of Europe including East Germany into a new Eastern Bloc.

In 1949, NATO was formed, consolidating the western alliance of nations. The Soviet equivalent, the Warsaw Pact was signed in 1955. But 1949 was generally a bad year for the west for two reasons: Firstly, the USSR exploded its own first atomic bomb. Secondly, Communist forces suddenly triumphed in China’s civil war. At a stroke, one in three people in the world were now effectively Communist! These developments alarmed the US which was already developing an intense sense of paranoia about the spread of Communism. In 1950, the Cold War turned into a hot one as many western nations including the UK fought Communist North Korean and Chinese forces directly in the Korean War.

With the UK also getting nuclear weapons by 1952, many people grew terrified at the thought that some sort of nuclear war between the two sides was becoming inevitable. In October 1962, this very nearly did happen as a crisis erupted over the Soviet decision to place nuclear weapons on Cuba, an island nation just 80 miles off the US coast which had succumbed to a Communist revolution in 1959. President Kennedy reacted in a tough fashion. Thankfully, the Soviet leader Khrushchev backed down. The missiles were removed and tensions eased, at least for a while.

This was an era of spies, intrigue and propaganda. There was also the space race. The Soviets won the early stages launching the first artificial satellites after 1957 and ensuring Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space in 1961. In 1969, however, American Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the Moon.

The 1970s was the age of Détente: international tensions eased and arms reduction was sought through the SALT treaties. But in the 1980s however, things suddenly got much worse as Presidents Carter and especially Ronald Reagan launched a new dramatic phase of the arms race in response to the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Reagan proposed the Strategic Defence Initiative (often called ‘Star Wars’) to combat the threat of nuclear war. In the end this proved much too expensive to be practical: some think the whole idea was a ruse to encourage the USSR to bankrupt itself by forcing them to compete with much higher levels of US defence spending.

The year 1985 marked a real turning point, however. After a number of old stuffy leaders, the younger and more progressive Mikhail Gorbachev assumed power in the USSR. Although still very much a Communist, Gorbachev’s new liberal approach led to warmer relations with the USA, more arms reduction summits and enabled the East European nations to break away from the USSR relatively peacefully. In 1989, the Berlin Wall, a symbol of global division came down and in 1991, though Gorbachev had not really intended it to happen, the USSR dissolved completely and the Cold War ended.

Such an outcome would have seemed unthinkable only a few years before.