Cold War – Concept, history, causes and consequences

We explain what the Cold War was, its antecedents, causes and consequences. Also, what was the event that marked its end.

cold War
The Cold War pitted the United States and the Soviet Union for 40 years.

What was the Cold War?

The Cold War it was one of the greatest military, economic, cultural and social conflicts of the 20th century, which ideologically confronted the two superpowers of the time: the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the United States of America (USA), for world supremacy. The former were promoters of the communist model, while the latter defended the capitalist model.

The term “Cold War” was coined by the English writer George Orwell (1903-1950) in 1945, in his essay “You and the Atomic Bomb” published in the newspaper Tribune.

He used that name because it was a subsidiary war, that is, the two rivals did not clash openly, nor did they take direct military action against each other. On the contrary, they clashed indirectly, intervening in conflicts in third countries, in which each power supported a different faction.

This does not mean that it was a minor conflict, or that it did not come at an immense human cost. In fact, the Cold War involved a large part of the world, which it divided into two opposing blocs, throughout its more than 40 years of duration. It encompassed, among other conflicts, the second part of the Chinese Civil War (1946-1949), the Korean War (1950-1953), the Sinai War (1956), the Vietnam War (1955-1970) and the Afghan-Soviet (1979).

Formally, the Cold War started after the end of the Second World War in 1945, and culminated in December 1991 with the political dissolution of the Soviet Union and the world triumph of the capitalist model.

The Cold War was a central conflict in contemporary history, which forever changed the international balance of powers and left a permanent mark on the political, economic and social configuration of entire regions. In addition, it marked a time of global tension, in which the fear of an atomic war arose for the first time, whose devastating effects could put human life on the planet in check.

Background to the Cold War

cold war russian revolution background
Since the Russian Revolution, the United States has tried to stop the advance of communism.

The antecedents of the Cold War date back to the beginning of the 20th century, according to some authors in the competition between the Russian Empire and the Western Empires for political and economic hegemony, in which the First World War had a lot to do with it.

In fact, it was in 1917 when the confrontation between capitalism and communism began, in the framework of the Russian civil war and the subsequent October Revolution that deposed the government of the tsars and established in its place the first socialist nation in history. The United States intervened in this conflict, in favor of the White Movement and against the revolutionary Red Army.

Nevertheless, the direct antecedents of the Cold War are in the Second World War and in the alliance that the leaders of the Western powers, the British Winston Churchill (1874-1965) and the American Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945), had to make with the Soviet dictator Iósif Stalin (1878-1953), to confront to the troops of the German III Reich, and to the expansionist claims of Adolf Hitler (1889-1945).

This alliance was functional until the defeat and political-territorial division of Germany, when Soviet forces occupied the territories of Eastern Europe previously conquered by the Nazis. Thus it became clear that conflict between the capitalist republics and the new Soviet empire was inevitable.

In fact, one of the main crises of the Cold War, the Berlin blockade of 1948-1949 in which the Soviet Union closed the borders of its dominions to the West, made it clear that the whole world was about to split into two camps. faced:

  • The Western Bloc or capitalist bloc, controlled by the United States and the United Kingdom, which made up the signatory countries of the North Atlantic Treaty (which gave rise to NATO).
  • The Eastern Bloc or communist bloc, controlled by the Soviet Union and which included the signatory countries of the Warsaw Pact.

Causes of the Cold War

The causes of the Cold War can be summarized as:

  • Fear and anti-communist sentiment that the emergence of communism unleashed between the power sectors in Europe and the United States, starting with the Russian Revolution of the early twentieth century, and the outbreak of the Chinese Civil War in 1927.
  • The collapse of Europe as a world power after the Second World War, giving their place in the world order to the United States and the Soviet Union, the two countries that defeated the Nazis.
  • Tensions inherent to the political-territorial distribution of Germany between the allied forces of the United States, Great Britain and France, on the one hand, and the Soviet Union, on the other, especially when the massive flow of settlers towards the western nations began, escaping from communism.
  • Growing American Interference in EuropeThe result of both the Second World War and the Marshall Plan for economic recovery with which the United States pushed Europe to rise up more quickly.
  • The Russian occupation of the Eastern European territories, previously conquered by the Nazis, since their liberation in 1945 by the military forces of the Soviet Union.

Consequences of the Cold War

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The Cold War claimed millions of lives in the warlike conflicts it sparked.

The consequences of the Cold War were immense and profound in contemporary history, and can be summarized as:

  • The reconfiguration of world powerAfter the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States became the world’s only superpower and began to freely exercise its cultural hegemony.
  • The end of the communist utopiaNot only because the Soviet Union did not survive the long conflict with the West, but because the horrors of its initial revolutionary governments and the economic hardships to which its population was subjected subsequently became public knowledge. This ideological disillusionment marked the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the globalized hyper-capitalist world.
  • The rift between China and the Soviet Union, beginning in the 1950s, and the division of the communist world between the Leninist and the Maoist side. This allowed for a major rapprochement between the United States and China during the 1970s.
  • The establishment of dictatorships and the start of civil wars, in many countries of the so-called Third World, in which both powers took part and chose sides. The cruel anti-communist dictatorships of South America, for example, were backed by the United States, as were the communist dictatorships in Asia and Eastern Europe by the USSR.
  • The loss of millions of human lives in the subsidiary conflicts that occurred throughout the planet, but especially in the regions of immediate influence of each power: Asia Minor, Latin America, and to a lesser extent, Africa and the Middle East. Many nations changed their destiny forever as a result of these conflicts.
  • German reunification in 1989, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the obvious economic, commercial and cultural inferiority of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) that from then on ceased to exist.

End of the Cold War

final cold war fall of the berlin wall
Gorbachev made changes that prompted the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union.

The Cold War formally culminated in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, after years of crisis and a significant decline in its international influence.

Already in the late 1980s its ability to inject resources and influence into the socialist nations of Eastern Europe had suffered numerous onslaught. Furthermore, many of its former ideological allies began in one way or another the transition to the free market.

The processes of change and restructuring undertaken during the mandate of Mikhail Gorbachev (1931-), known as perestroika (restructuring) and glásnost (openness) tried to stop the economic and social collapse of the Soviet colossus, but at the same time they were interpreted as an international recognition of the communist failure.

In that period, many of the nations that made up the USSR began their respective independence processes, dismembering the nation after 73 years of existence.

Capitalism, then, emerged triumphant from the Cold War, as well as American culture.