I think the other guy just blinked.
"You wanna talk about fear? When I was a kid I went to bed every night thinking the whole world was gonna blow up. That's just how things were. People just accepted it."
gives what may be the most succinct summary of the era in all of fiction.
The four minute warning. The balance of power. Mutually Assured Destruction. A massive number of movies. The Cold War's impact on the world was huge. This is the story in reasonably short form.
There are three approaches among politicial scientists regarding the Cold War, which can be summed pretty simply (they also somewhat overlap with views on the Soviet Union):
The views of historians are much more divergent, and can be broken down into three methodological schools:
- National triumphalism (U.S. or Soviet)
- Marxist grappling with the problem of the Soviet Union, from Solidarity (UK)'s "a pox on both their houses" to the various "critical support" lines
- Attempts to understand the links between systems, cultures and individuals which caused the responses
Our story properly begins at the end of the Second World War
. First, however, a prologue:
Prologue — The Russian Civil War
Russia entered World War One
as France's ally (as per the Entente Cordiale
) on the one hand and as the protector of Serbia and Montenegro on the other. The "Russian Steamroller" was the dominant force on the Entente side, making the single largest land contribution of any of the combatant countries by fielding two million combat troops in the Eastern Theatre on two fronts, forcing the Central Powers to tie down between a million and two million troops to face them.
Unfortunately, the Tsarist Russian state was a tottering mess well before then. It was under-industrialized relative even to Austria-Hungary, rife with a constant low level of dissent that had never quite gone away even with the increasing prosperity of the previous decade, and ruled by a well-meaning but incompetent Emperor who was too oppressive to be loved but too indecisive and softhearted to be effective. Her armies were vast, decently-motivated, and very much "of the people", but the way units were organized, supplied, and commanded was terribly
, dangerously obsolete. However, reform of the army itself was impossible due to Nikolay II's indecisiveness and the perceived lack of need for change (beyond the armament program initiated after the Russo-Japanese War, which made the troops very well-armed but still poorly supplied). While conscription was seen as something approaching a death sentence (the traditional Russian folk tradition for conscripts was for the family to go through a funeral ritual for them
before they left) this is arguably because only the Russians were realistic about their menfolk's prospects of actually making it through a proper war alive.
Anyhow, in short the Russian Army inflicted several crushing defeats on the Austro-Hungarian Army but was badly mauled by the Germans in turn. While the German Army was very bad at organising its own supply (it never planned for it in advance) and at estimating the Russians' strength and positions, it was passably competent at plotting out workable battle plans and carrying them out—this only backfired when they ran out of supplies halfway through a campaign or they blundered into unexpectedly large numbers of Russian troops, both of which happened embarassingly often. As the Germans took ever-greater control over and trained the Austro-Hungarian Army, the Austro-Hungarians also took on these weaknesses (which were still a step up from being worse than the Russians at everything
). The Russians on the other hand were bad at everything
; supply (and supply planning), intelligence, battle planning, and the execution of battle plans. Despite their greater experience and skill, their troops also weren't as good (man-for-man) because of the Russian Army's lack of investment in lower-level leadership (non-commissioned officers) at the ten- to hundred-man unit level.
The end result of the imbalance of competence was still a stalemate in the Eastern Front, despite its inexorable crawl eastward. This was thanks to the strength of Russia's economy (which was greater than Germany's) and the depth of her manpower reserves, which enabled her to fairly comfortably replace her losses and, in fact, equip them better
than before. The pushing back of the front lines meant little after the loss of Poland in 1915 (which had held about a fifth of the Russian Empire's industry and as much as a tenth of her total GDP) since the Baltic states and Belarus and western Ukraine were essentially giant swamps dotted with forest and a light sprinkling of villages. Despite the occasional victory, haul of prisoners, and slice of swamp gained for Germany there was no sign that things were going to change in the Eastern Front anytime soon, even in the autumn of 1917.
The end of the Empire and the Tsar had nothing to do with the fighting itself, in the end, and everything to do with his determination to decisively avert the trope of Russian soldiers being ill-armed and ill-equipped (even though they had more and better quality artillery than Germany as early as 1910!)note
But converting all available industry
to war production, as he'd been pressured into doing (in 1915, when they were suffering numerous defeats, and all the other powers had already started doing it), meant that the normal industrial goods weren't being produced. Consequently, the amount of grain farmers sold at market fell because with no new industrial goods being produced, there was nothing of that kind left that they wanted to buy. Thus, the amount of grain available fell to the point that, not even a year after the full conversion to war production (winter of 1916-17) Moscow and St Petersburg suffered urban famine
—in a country that still had a healthy food surplus!note
Eventually, things reached a breaking point and the Tsar—long blamed for things he was both guilty and innocent of—was told by the military that they were no longer willing to follow him. This forced his abdication and the end of hundreds of years of Imperial Russian history. However, what followed him was not a Communist Revolution, but a Provisional Democratic Republic
led by Aleksandr Kerenskiy, who decided to stay in the war to the anger of virtually everyone in the country, and many out of it. Before long, many of those dissatisfied with it decided to try and "fix" that.
to 1923, the "White Army", with the largely nominal aid of foreign troops note
, battled for control of Russia against the communist Bolsheviks and their Red Army
. It should be noted that the Whites (anti-communists), Blacks (anarchists), and Greens (small armed bands organized on the village level—sometimes for self-defense, sometimes for banditry) were not monolithic groups, but were composed of several different armies led by different generals. In addition to fighting the Bolsheviks, these factions frequently fought each other
as well. All sides had penchants for cruelty to the local populations (and, for that matter, their own troops
The Bolsheviks won thanks to their superlative planning, organization, coordination, numbers
, and industry. This ushered in the Soviet Union
. During the Polish-Soviet War
of 1919-’21, the Bolsheviks did make some worrying speeches about seeking to export their revolution globally by force of arms, meaning that they were by default the enemies of any non-Communists (including Europe). The level of foreign intervention in the Civil War, the lack of international recognition of the new state, and the repeated espionage attempts led to what's often termed a “siege mentality”
in the Soviet Union—materially, this meant a massive military budget and repressive domestic policies aimed against spies and saboteurs. note
Most leaders of the West, including Winston Churchill
, considered the Soviet Union the greatest threat to the world, only accepting the USSR as an ally
when they finally realized that a more immediate problem
had risen in the center of Europe. Ironically, Fascism had gained prominence mainly as an anticommunist movement, and earned a great deal of respect throughout the West for that reason. note
In any case, after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Churchill said "If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons". This pretty much summed up the fact that he considered the USSR evil, just the lesser evil.
A New World Order — Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam
In 1943, Roosevelt
and Churchill met in Tehran, Iran. There they agreed that Germany's new eastern border would be the Oder-Neisse Line and that the Polish eastern border would pretty close to the Curzon Line, which was also very close to the division of Poland in 1939. note
The Polish government-in-exile wasn't happy, but ultimately Stalin refused to reconsider. Naturally the Germans wouldn't be happy either, losing a quarter of their country, but for obvious reasons
no one else was that bothered about them at the time.
By the Yalta Conference in February 1945, it was obvious to more or less everyone bar Hitler that Germany was going to lose the war. Stalin wanted a Soviet sphere of influence in Central and Eastern Europe, a "buffer zone" so to speak. No army since the Mongol Hordes had ever conquered the whole
of Russia; but they typically caused extensive death and destruction in the attempt, which Stalin wanted to avoid
. He got his buffer, in return for all the territories holding free elections. Roosevelt hoped that the United Nations—created by this same agreement—would restrain Stalin. It didn't. During the McCarthy period, Roosevelt and his allies—particularly the U.S. Democratic Party—would often be called "soft on communism".
With Germany's defeat, the next conference was held in Potsdam, a Berlin suburb. Here the borders were finalized. The conference is most notable for a discussion between Truman and Stalin. Truman told Stalin that the U.S. had a powerful new weapon
it would use as part of Operation Downfall
against Japan note
. The weapons were not used to establish beachheads for the landings, in the end, but as a coda to the U.S.'s strategic bombing campaign to destroy Japan's cities. The Atomic Bombings Of Hiroshima And Nagasaki
have been rather controversial in the U.S. and Japan ever since the 1950s or so. The blood price of a Japanese surrender without them being used in the manner they were (or not at all) is impossible to determine.
However, just as the war in Europe is ending, there is serious
consideration among some Western and Soviet leaders to attack the other side while they are deployed in Europe
. Winston Churchill has the British Joint Planning Staff draw up "Operation Unthinkable" (appropriately named) while General George Patton famously says he'll have the Germans rearmed for reinforcement against the Russians. Fortunately, much of the Supreme Allied Commander's staff are sane, knowing that even with America's industrial might, they could only hope to defeat the USSR militarily after several years—although they have little understanding of or respect for her military leaders, the way the USSR has twice their number of tanks and other combat vehicles and thrice their number of combat troops speaks for itself. Even Slavs
are dangerous, they reason, when they outnumber you so badly
(though they could never hope to compete on a man-for-man basis with their racial superiors, of course
On the other side of the equation, the USSR isn't happy at her prospects in a protracted war either. She has exhausted her male manpower reserves and less than 92% of her military personnel are male (versus 100% for the Allied Powers). Continued war would mean the recruitment of ever-larger numbers of women and ethnic minorities and this would accordingly have a destablizing influence during and after the war (what with them being entitled to medals and pensions, something the USSR actually managed to deny her female fighters for the most part). While Franco-Commonwealth manpower is exhausted, on the other hand, the USA has barely even scratched the surface of her vast manpower reserves and if need be might actually be willing to use women as well. So while the conquest of western Europe would certainly be possible, within two or three years, the USA could field ground forces even bigger than the ones she'd lost and could force the USSR to confront these in Africa or Asia.
The USSR also has serious economic problems to contend with which will hurt her performance in a protracted war. Europe in 1945 is dependent upon imports of food from the Commonwealth and the Americas thanks to the massive disruptions to European agriculture caused by the economic mobilisation and collapse, conscription, and battle damage. Even the USSR herself gets all her beef and as much as a fifth of her grain from outside Europe (despite having been a grain exporter
pre-war), and this supply would of course be cut off in a Soviet-Allied war. This would generate massive unrest throughout Europe, fueling partisan movements such as the one in the Ukraine and quite possibly leading to open rebellion in some areas. It is also impossible for the USSR to sustain her current level of military production as her neglect of civilian/consumer goods has reached a critical point; the reconversion of the majority of her war industries back to their original purposes is necessary to avoid either a domestic economic crisis or (if the government tries to stop said crisis effectively by taxing people more) massive domestic unrest—fueling the partisan movements, etcetc. But if they choose to reconvert the bulk of their industries, this will drastically diminish the USSR's ability to reinforce her current forces and generate new ones, increasing the Allies' long-term advantage over the USSR in these respects.
So while neither side doubts the USSR's ability
to conquer western Europe in a year or two at the most, both sides appreciate that this would not
be in her interests. In the long
-long-run, three-to-ten years down the track, the Allies will be able to grind her down to the point where they will still have some forces in the field and the USSR will have nothing with which to stop them.
As grim as this picture is, what with the (tens of) millions of dead and crippled people it entails, there is however a serious question over whether it would even be possible to start
such a war in the first place. Both the Allies and the USSR had constantly been telling their troops, for four years, that the other lot were friends. By 1945 both Allied and Soviet troops held an immense
amount of genuine goodwill and feelings of camraderie for their brothers-in-arms due to the Herculean blood sacrifice the Soviets ("better him than me", etc.) had made, and the incredibly generous material aid the Allies had so freely given ("I like beef and cigarettes", etc.).
In any case, Churchill is voted out of office in June 1945 (having been persuaded to drop the matter) and Patton dies in a freak car accident. Any serious discussion of attacking the Soviets directly is dropped, nor is the Red Army's STAVKA
allowed to make any plans for starting such a war.
There was also the question of what to do with the remains of Germany. Initially the Morgenthau Plan proposed and later partly implemented by the USA would essentially turn Germany into a nonindustrial agricultural state.note
However, in 1947, the Americans feared that the whole of Germany would go Communist as a response to their policies of basically keeping Germany poor. When details of the Morgenthau Plan were leaked, it was very publicly dropped, but parts of it were in effect implemented anyway; Germany faced limits on her industrial production until the early 1950s. In its place a new plan was formed: Germany and Austria would be divided into four "occupation zones"—French, British, American and Soviet. Berlin itself, being the seat of government, would also be divided into four occupation zones, a microcosm within the Soviet zone. The 1946 Marshall Plan
, the basis for post-war economic policy after the last elements of Morgenthau
were dropped in the 50s, called on the other hand for US investment in and aid to European economies (in exchange for favourable trade agreements, diplomatic understandings, etcetc) to get them on the USA's side against the USSR.
Half is Mine! — the Iron Curtain is Raised
The Soviet Union had promised to hold free elections in the areas under its control. The elections held, however, are generally considered to have been unfree
. Communist governments were slowly installed in the various states, who declared their allegiance to Moscow.
The monarchies of Romania and Bulgaria were abolished, literally at gunpoint in Romania and with a ridiculously blatant rigging of a plebiscite in Bulgaria. note
In 1948, the Czechoslovak Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk was found below his bathroom window in Prague. He had played a role in the February 1948 Czech Coup, where non-communist members of the unity government quit trying to force elections. This led to the communists forming a new government instead. Masaryk had been unhappy about Czechoslovakia's decision not participate in the Marshall Plan. The government called his death a suicide, but his cause of death is debated to this day. Many call it the Third Defenestration of Prague note
The Communists weren't 100% percent successful. Greece was undergoing a civil war that had been going on since before World War II started. The USSR did not actively support the Greek Communists, because Stalin had agreed at Yalta that Greece would fall under the Western sphere of influence. Somewhat surprisingly, Stalin kept his word. The Greek Communists saw this as a betrayal of their cause. Despite Soviet noninterference, the U.S. government perceived a threat of a "domino effect" in which the "fall" of one nation to communism would be followed by others (an idea we'll visit again soon
). This led to the Truman Doctrine. Truman called on the U.S. to "support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures". One could sum up the entire of U.S. Cold War foreign policy and, indeed, post-Cold War policy that way. (Although it would be a Broad Stroke
The Americans realized that most of Europe was not recovering from the war. Secretary of State George Marshall came up with a plan: give any country in Europe some free money, in exchange for them having a democracy. Theoretically an East Bloc country could sign up, but never would; and the boost given to the Western powers would help stave off Communism's growth. For the most part the plan went off without a hitch, and Western Europe developed economically. Good luck muddling your way through the Eastern states. Things were a bit more… complicated there.) And then there was that business with Berlin…
Here come the Candy Bombers! — The Berlin Blockade
Berlin, as mentioned earlier, had been split into four occupation zones. This meant that the three Western Zones of Berlin were 90 miles inside the Soviet Zone. The Western Allies had set up a new German currency, the Deutschmark, in their zones. The Soviets refused to honour it, as they did not
want a revitalized Germany. However, the money was already flowing freely around the zones. Stalin decided the solution was simple: Berlin must be 100% under Soviet control.
Access between West Germany and West Berlin was via designated road, rail and air routes. It would remain so later, when Germany was formally divided. The Soviet Union decided to shut down the first two—first partially, and then completely—using that much-loved excuse of "technical difficulties
With West Berlin being faced with starvation, the West started a massive airlift to keep the city going, using the air corridors. On top of the massive amounts of staples like foodstuffs, medicines and fuel being delivered, the air forces jumped at pilot Gail Halvorsen's
idea for the children of Berlin and dropped tons of candy in little parachutes for Berlin kids
, becoming known as "Candy Bombers" to literally sweeten
the propaganda effort (Halvorsen was eventually given the incredibly adorable nickname of "Uncle Wiggly-Wings" by the mini-Berliners, because he would wiggle his wings on his descent as he dropped his candy). Since Stalin didn't want to start a war any more than the West did, he could do little to stop this. After about a year, the Soviets backed down; the Western Allies continued to fear the Soviets going for Berlin again, but the West had quite solidly won the hearts and minds of the children of Berlin, which ended up becoming a surprisingly significant factor in the future. note
Halvorsen is still alive today after a long career in the USAF (and, ironically, a period as a missionary in St. Petersburg), enjoying a happy and healthy retirement in his hometown of Salt Lake City.
The American, French and British sectors of Germany combined together, becoming West Germany
. The Soviet sector became East Germany
. Similarly, Berlin was split into East and West, although until the construction of the Berlin Wall
people were still able to move freely between the East and West zones. As you might imagine, the movement was mostly from the East to the West.
Sabres over "MiG Alley" — The Korean War
Japan had also fought on the Axis side in the War, and so when they surrendered, Japanese territory was also divided into occupation zones. However, the Soviet Union had played only a 'minor' role in defeating Japan, not declaring war until the day after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and merely destroying the million-man Guandong/Kwantung Army and liberating Manchuria in the two weeks after that (this arguably being unnecessary once the USSR had de facto
declared its intent not to mediate in Japanese-American peace talks by declaring war upon Japan, making Japanese surrender inevitable). Thus, when Japan was split into occupation zones the Soviets only got southern Sakhalin and the Kuriles (as per Stalin's request, as they'd been taken from Russia in 1905) and a chunk of Korea north of the 38th parallel. Bankrupted by the War and dependent on US loans, the Franco-Commonwealth forces quickly turned over control of their occupation zones to the USA, who ended up occupying all of Japan proper.
Korea had been a de facto
Japanese colony since the Russo-Japanese War
of 1905 and an official one in 1910, and much like Germany was supposed to become one independent country after the war. However, the Soviets and NATO were as unable to agree on the form of government such a new nation would take in Korea as they were in Germany, and so Korea was split (without actually bothering to consult the Korean dictators or people, natch). The Soviet occupation zone became the Democratic People's Republic of Korea
), and got a Communist one-party government under the leadership of Kim Il-Sung. note
The American occupation zone in the south became the Republic of Korea (South Korea
), and got a Capitalist kleptocracy under the leadership of Syngman Rhee. This is because the NATO occupation forces thought a 'firm hand' was necessary to curb communist influence, and Rhee (who'd been in exile in the USA) fit the bill nicely. Both dictators sought to unify the peninsula by force, but as a partial democracy South Korea's politicians were ultimately able to veto the armament programme that Rhee needed to impose his rule upon the north.
On 25 June 1950 (which is why the war is known as the 6.25 War in Korea), North Korean forces unexpectedly crossed the 38th parallel into South Korea, using that age-old justification that they were attacked first. (In this case, they weren't.) When it became very clear that South Korea was losing badly, Truman went to the United Nations to get approval for what he termed a "police action". This rather strange term allowed him to avoid actually getting a declaration of war from Congress, which he felt would be too time-consuming. The legality of this is disputed, but it has since proved a useful maneuver in U.S. foreign policy
As someone once said, "Decisions are made by those who show up". In this case, it was the Soviet Union who very deliberately didn't - because they wanted
a USA-PRC confrontation of some sort, the bigger the better. The logic was simple: USA-PRC conflict would prevent Sino-American rapprochement and strengthen Sino-Soviet ties whilst keeping the USA's attention focused in East Asia and not Europe. This would help keep Soviet changes to the political nature of eastern Europe (which was already barely-independent, but had to be brought under close and proper Soviet control to guard against defections to 'The West') out of the spotlight in the US media. To this end the Soviets boycotted the UN's Security Council meetings over 'the China issue'.
The Chinese Civil War had been ongoing since about 1916 or so, and the two strongest factions to emerge from it in the final years of the conflict were the German-Soviet-US-backed Guomindang (lit. National People's Party, aka 'The Nationalist Party') and the Soviet-backed Communist Party. After winning the conventional war with the capture of Hainan island in May 1950, the Communists went on to stamp out the last Guomindang and Muslim insurgencies (bar those in Burma) by the mid-1950s. The USSR strongly insisted that the new People's Republic of China should have the permanent Security Council seat in the UN, not the Republic of China/Taiwan. Because of the boycott, the USSR didn't have to abstain from voting on UNSC Resolution 82note
which was passed on 27 June. For the first time in its history, the UN was going to war.
17 countries showed up, with nearly all the work being done by the U.S. (who provided 88% of the UN task force) and South Korea. After initial setbacks the UN started to push the North Koreans back; when they pushed too far, the Chinese did just as Stalin had hoped and joined the party to forestall what they saw as a potential NATO invasion. The Soviets were then able to make a killing selling the PRC all sorts of semi-obsolescent weaponry (such as semi-automatic rifles, which assault rifles like the AK 47
had just made redundant) and greatly strengthened their alliance and 'Revolutionary Cred' within the 'Second World' (by fighting the capitalist First World, of course) by providing anti-air weaponry to and fighter cover for the Chinese forces. MacArthur got sacked for wanting to actually attack - and, indeed, nuke
- China proper. McCarthy got worked up, ruining many a Hollywood career. M*A*S*H
dealt with a lot of incoming wounded.
Korea is notable for being the first jet war, where jet aircraft were used in a big way, especially the MiG-15 and F-86 Sabre. It was still, however, a guns-only environment, since air-to-air missiles were not around yet. A lot of the 'North Korean' pilots were from the Soviet Air Force. The UN knew this and chose to ignore it, the US pointedly not following through on what they later called 'Massive Retaliation' doctrine (immediate nuclear carpet-bombing of the USSR's cities in the event of any US-USSR conflict whatsoever).
After a short period of back-and-forth campaigns, followed by a long stretch of negotiations while fighting over the same set of meaningless hills around the 38th parallel, the war ended in a stalemate, unresolved to this day. Upon Stalin's death the new Soviet leadership, a Troika under the sociopathic serial rapist and murderer Lavrenty Beria (no, those aren't epithets), decided that the USA was becoming just a teeeeeeensy bit too paranoid and nuke-happy for them to be comfortable with continuing an open war against them. Consequently the Soviets pushed for a truce and got it. Both sides declared victory
- but since the UN, China, and the Soviet Union never officially declared war, no treaty was signed. The two surface combatants, North and South Korea, still have not officially signed a treaty to end the war.
"Change Places!" — Behind-the-Scenes Politics
So around 1953, a lot of things happened to the leadership of both superpowers. Harry Truman
, who had proved to be unfortunately inexperienced at foreign policy (despite the fact that he had more sense than MacArthur
in that he thought dropping the Bomb
on China was a bad idea), was out as president. Dwight D. Eisenhower
was sworn in in his place on a strong anticommunist platform. As the former Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in the Second World War
, Senator McCarthy couldn't even begin to claim that he was soft on commies, which gave Ike much more room to decide his own foreign policy, unlike Truman, who'd been pressured into a tough stance by the McCarthy brigade
. It was Eisenhower that pushed the disastrous Korean War towards a close in the same year that he was sworn in.
Much more important than Eisenhower's presidency is the death of Josef Stalin
in March of 1953 in suitably horrific circumstances. With his death, the Western World let out a sigh of relief. Despite the fact that they had been calling him Uncle Joe a little under ten years previously, Stalin had come to represent the evils of communism and the Soviet Union. What followed was a serious power struggle in the Soviet Union's leadership.
The first to come to power was Lavrentiy Beriya
, the former head of Stalin's secret police (the NKVD) and a particularly nasty individual. Unfortunately for him, nobody trusted and everybody hated him. He moved to take down his troika partners and premier enemies within the party and government, but in doing so overlooked Nikita Khrushchev
. Khruschev was a mere 'second-tier' leader in Georgiy Malenkov's faction at the time, but in response to Beria's attempts the party and the government rallied around him as a new leader. Khrushchev and General Georgy Zhukov (yes
Georgy Zhukov) rallied enough members of their respective factions to mount a coup. Troops loyal to Zhukov accompanied him as he personally arrested Beria and ensured he got the trial (and subsequent execution) he'd had coming for so long for his crimes against the Soviet people in general and the Soviet leadership in particular. Interestingly, during his brief time in power Beria had seriously proposed the re-unification of Germany as a neutral state. There was a surprising amount of genuine support for the initiative, but Beria's association with the initiative made it politically unacceptable for Malenkov to give it the go-ahead once he took power.
After Beria's removal Malenkov, one of the few leaders of the Soviet Union to not be bald, took power with Khruschev and Zhukov as his seconds. During his premiership, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary
to suppress the popular anti-Soviet revolutions that were going on.However, Beria's attempted purge of Malenkov had actually made him and Khruschev equals, and Khrushchev proved quite influential in running the country during Malenkov's premiership. He was the first advocate of reducing nuclear arms in order to refocus the economy on consumer goods, which required peace talks with the U.S. Eventually Malenkov ran afoul of Khrushchev, to whom he referred as "the moon-faced idiot", and was ousted as Premier and replaced with Nikolay Bulganin, who basically just let Khrushchev run the country. Malenkov ended up as a manager of a hydroelectric plant in Kazakhstan
The victor of Stalin's death is, without a doubt, Nikita Khrushchev
. For most of his reign he was the First Secretary of the Communist party, but he was definitely in control of the Soviet Union until about 1963. His policy of "Peaceful Coexistence" was essentially a rip-off of Malenkov's ideas—since the fall of the capitalist devils was inevitable, the USSR would have no need to oppose the U.S., because fate would take care of it for them. As such Khrushchev could focus more money on the Soviet domestic economy. Khrushchev was a fairly simple, plain-speaking guy… which got him (and the world) into trouble a few times. note
An important aspect of Khrushchev's reign was the policy of de-Stalinization, whereby he discredited Stalin as being… quite evil. Some political prisoners were freed and some of the gulags were closed; a survivor of the gulags
was even allowed to publish his experiences. However, Khrushchev stopped short of initiating a true political liberalization.
My Nuke is Bigger than Your Nuke
On 29 August 1949, a 22 kiloton nuclear explosion happened in the Kazakh SSR. Called Pervaya molniya
("First Lightning"), RDS-1 or Joe-1, it was the first of the USSR's Mnogo Nukes
. Thanks to the Soviet spies in the Manhattan Project, the Arms Race had begun. The two superpowers raced to develop, and test, more powerful nuclear weapons, with Britain, France and later China joining in.
Just as importantly, they also strove to develop nuclear deployment systems. For all their advances in creating weapons, the Soviets did not actually have any means of striking at the USA until 1957 - and even then, by 1963 they had just over twenty
operational missiles (not twenty 'types' of missiles, twenty missiles
) capable of delivering nukes to US cities. The US, on the other hand, could potentially hit the USSR with hundreds of nukes courtesy of their intercontinental strategic bombers and early missile fleet. While it was possible for the Soviets to nuke Britain and France, the effect of this hinged entirely on the USA's sympathy to their cause.
Due to the dramatic loss of sympathy amongst left-leaning people in NATO countries (owing to revelations of Soviet wartime and pre-war atrocities) and more effective counter-intelligence the USSR no longer had any well-placed informants within NATO governments. Conversely, neither NATO nor any of its constituent member-states had never had any spies inside the USSR whatsoever. Accordingly, by the mid-50s neither side had any idea how far the other had got in terms of developing and producing delivery systems. The Americans thought there was a "bomber gap" (there was, but firmly in their favor) and the Soviet leadership thought they were ahead in the missile race (they were behind). The US consistently overestimated Soviet capabilities throughout the Cold War.
The biggest nuclear explosion ever was the Tsar Bomba in 1961. It was capable of yielding 100 megatons
, but was limited to "just" 50, which is big enough to level the whole of Central London and much of the East End. It broke windows as far away as Sweden. However, it was too big to be of practical use. The USSR was just showing off.
Predictably, the rapid buildup of ever more powerful nuclear arms by two ideologically-opposed superpowers seemingly on the brink of war scared quite a few people. The world had, after all, seen the terrible power of atomic weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and some of the new ones were hundreds of times more powerful than those from 1945. Nuclear testing has shown by the 1950s the dangers of radiation, or "fallout", which can result from a nuclear explosion. During the Korean War, in the People's Republic of China fallout shelters were built around the country and children learned to "duck and cover". Mainland Chinese citizens were told to expect, and be prepared for, a nuclear attack at any time. Because they overestimated the Soviets' capabilities the USA, too, began teaching its citizens to make basic preparations but didn't really give the issue much thought at this time. On the other hand the UK government recognised the futility of such preparations
(given the country's population density, only the barest fraction of their people could conecivably be saved) and wanted to avoid panicking their people at all costs, so their own measures were extremely limited even in comparison with the USA's. Unsurprisingly, the USSR made a point of not educating her own citizens about nuclear matters or building any shelters - as the USA was already more than capable of killing them all, shelters or no, and keeping the populace uninformed and thus avoid anti-nuclear sentiment was seen as a great advantage over Western countries.
The race to build better delivery systems for nuclear weapons led to the development of powerful ICBMs, rockets with enough power to reach the other side of the planet, or even into space. This led into the The Space Race
The Easy Way or The Nasty Way: Decolonization
"Independence can only be obtained and secured by a nation that has its spirit raging with determination: "independence or death"!"
The end of the Second World War
had meant that the colonial powers could no longer afford to maintain their empires. Ideas like democracy, self-determination and nationalism began to spread around the world and many in the colonies were no longer willing to tolerate colonial rule. Neither the Americans nor the Soviets were keen on colonies either, and called for "decolonization" in the name of self-determination and freedom. note
As countries in the so-called "Third World" gained independence one by one with varying degrees of Sino-Soviet aid, the West and the Soviet Union (and China too) competed in various morally-questionable ways to bring them into their respective spheres.
Anyway, the British had been having to deal with Indian civil disobedience for quite a while. So they decided to let India go. Messily, they attempted to appease two populations by splitting it into two states, India and Pakistan. This led to a great deal of violent chaos, one remnant of which is the "Kashmir Question" which lingers to this day. The partitions of Palestine and Cyprus, both British possessions, were also less than perfect and the British notably killed and tortured a few tens of thousands during the 'Mao-Mao' uprising in Kenya. The British also helped the newly-independent (albeit still with very
close economic ties to Britain) Malaysian Federation put down a Maoist insurgency amongst her ethnic-Chinese populationnote
and keep troops around to make the newly-independent Indonesian Republic think twice about trying to annex Malaysia.
It's a bit fuzzy why
exactly the British favoured a two-state solution to Indian independence, but some recent research has proposed that Indian-Muslim leader Ali Jinnah and his party were simply trying to use the threat of a two-state solution to secure greater influence for Muslims in a hypothetical unitary Indian state. However, it seems that the Indian-Hindu leader Jawaharlal Nehru and his
party weren't willing to give them quite
as much leeway as they wanted and in any case the British apparently took his proposals at face value (rather than seeing them as the bargaining-chips they were), leading to a two-state solution that nobody actually wanted. Worse yet, the British were completely broke thanks to five years of Total War and could not raise the money they needed to both implement and fund the NHS (which practically doubled government spending overnight) and
fund a two-year de-colonisation programme. Since Clement Attlee's Labour Party had been sworn-in promising to create the NHS, they cut the latter down to just one year, resulting in a shambolic mess that got hundreds of thousands—if not millions—wounded (and many killed) and a great deal of property and wealth being lost.
A similar situation occurred in Palestine, only this time it was the UN that pressured the British into leaving. As a result, the British became somewhat infamous in diplomatic circles for a "not our bloody problem, we warned you" attitude to the Arab-Israeli Conflict
in The Fifties
. The rest of the Empire went fairly quietly bar the Bush Wars of British Rhodesia (which only killed a few thousand).
The French were a bit more reluctant to let their empire go, not least because part of it was actually an honest-to-goodness part of France proper, and both of the wars they fought to hold on to it made use of tens of thousands of soldiers from the former Wehrmacht
who fought as part of their Foreign Legion (and numberd at some 35% of the total in the immediate post-war period). The first conflict
would later involve napalm
and will be mentioned later. The second involved French North Africa
and the significant French cultural minority in modern-day Algeria which composed as much of 1/8 of the total population there. Their efforts to stamp out the Algerian Independence movement included the employment of the Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique
en masse by former Gestapo victims
and the use of the police force as a tool of state repression and terror as organised by Nazi-sympathiser former-collaborators
from the Vichy- and Occupation-era administration
. The Battle of Algiers
is a well-known film depicting the period. The war brought about the collapse of the Fourth Republic and the return of de Gaulle, who gave Algeria a referendum on secession in which they showed their desire for full independence—which they promptly got. Some French people were not happy, to the point that they tried to kill de Gaulle. Several times. The film The Day of the Jackal
contains not only a fictional attempt that very nearly succeeds, but a pretty accurate account of a real one at the beginning.
The reason the French held onto Algeria for so long—apart from owning it for a hundred and thirty years—was the huge number of culturally (but not so much ethnically, with many settlers being of Italian and Spanish descent) French settlers who lived there; so many that Algeria was legally and administratively a part of France and elected people to its national parliament, rather than being a colony with its own separate elections and government (though in practice, the French tended to govern all
their protectorates and colonies as if they were extensions of France). There were about 1.4 million of them, making up some 13% of the Algerian population in 1961. These European settlers (known as the Pieds-Noirs
, or "black feet") and their families had in many cases lived in Algeria for several generations, and they understandably ended up the most bitterly upset with de Gaulle and the French Left. After independence virtually all of them "chose" to leave Algeria under threat of death ("Suitcase or Coffin", as the promise went) and "returned" to France to the apparent surprise of the French Government who had expected only a trickle of refugees, rather than the wholesale evacuation of the Europeans. The more than 150,000 former Harkis
(Muslim soldiers in the French Army) they left behind shared their fate
with the few remaining Pied-Noirs
Other countries also had their share of decolonization messes - the Dutch, with their bloody campaign to hold their East Indies which killed a good hundred-thousand; and the almost cartoonishly brutal Belgians with their war in and evacuation of the Congo (which killed hundreds of thousands more) and its horrific aftermath (the Rwandan Genocide). Notably, Portugal and Franco's Spanish State, both ruled by quasi-fascist dictators, did not let go of their colonies until the mid-1970s when both countries lost their revolutionary wars against the locals and thereafter became democracies. Angola and Mozambique, two Portuguese colonies in Africa, soon became the scene of bloody, decades-long proxy wars, fought between Soviet-backed and Western-backed rebel factions, with occasional Cuban and South African interventions, which continued long after the Cold War ended.
Gary Powers and Berlin
"As a free man, I take pride in the words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’!"
—John F. Kennedy
For a while, the CIA had been conducting secret reconnaissance overflights of the USSR using the U-2 spyplane. The U-2 was a powerful recon weapon because it flew too high for Soviet aircraft. It didn't, however, fly high enough for the S-75 Dvina missile, aka the SA-2 "Guideline"
. After spamming the plane with 14 of the things
, it was shot down.
The Americans claimed that they'd lost a NASA plane due to the pilot losing consciousness. What they didn't know was that U-2 pilot Gary Powers had ejected and was in USSR custody. (Powers had been issued a Cyanide Pill
for such an eventuality, but opted against using it.) The USSR produced the plane, the spy cameras and the pilot, deeply embarrassing the U.S. A planned Paris Summit was cancelled when Eisenhower refused to apologize, and Powers was convicted of espionage. He would ultimately be swapped
for a captured KGB agent.
There was another setback for the U.S. Getting increasingly worried about the growing numbers of East Germans leaving the GDR via Berlin, the East Germans successfully petitioned the USSR for them to seal the border with the Berlin Wall
in 1961. NATO
had to live with it, but there was quite a tense moment as American and Soviet tanks faced off at Checkpoint Charlie. However, the Western powers eventually came to believe that the Wall's construction was a positive development for them to a certain degree. Namely, it signified that the Warsaw Pact powers were on the defensive and less likely to take over all of Berlin if they were willing to build such fortifications. Even more importantly, it was a priceless propaganda point for the West since it was a glaring contradiction to Soviet claims that their regime was a better way of life.
Communism does the Splits: the Sino-Soviet Cold War
"All the rest of the world uses the word "electricity." They've borrowed the word from English. But we Chinese have our own word for it!"
The People's Republic of China
was established from the ruins of the first republic
in 1949, headed by Mao Zedong
Mao was a ruthless and calculating leader who had been a "resistance"
leader against the Japanese, whom he was careful to maintain unofficial truces with at all times
, and the Guomindang. Unfortunately, by the end of 1952 the Civil War was completely over and he was the undisputed leader of the entire country. "Unfortunately", his policies proved disastrous
. The Second Five-Year Plan/"Great Leap Forward" killed a couple of dozen million through starvation-related diseases and exposure to the elements (no more, please, let's not go for sensationalism) and The Cultural Revolution killed tens of thousands (and traumatised tens of millions) in brutal and disturbingly mass-hysteric ways. These included many of the Communist Party’s own revolutionary leaders, who were unpersoned
as “reactionary rightists”.
From about 1956-1961, China and the Soviet Union slowly split apart due to a myriad of issues and bad blood in general. One such issue was the way Stalin's had openly preferred Chiang Kai-Shek
and the Guomindang over the communists and their various leaders, Mao managing to oust his last rivals in 1940 by taking their (and Stalin's) advice and executing the Chinese Communist Party's only military action against the Japanese to take pressure off the Guomindang
(a dismal failure that discredited them). He'd done this as late as 1948, when he was still insisting that The Republic (and not the Chinese Communist Party) was the legitimate government of China. Worse, in the post-war period Stalin took advantage of Communist China's isolation from the rest of the world to force Mao into a series of very
unequal trade agreements in exchange for the limited technical assistance the USSR gave China.note
Mao for his part believed that Stalin's successors were too soft and that, as their senior, he
should be leader of the Communist ("Second") World. In any case, tension mounted until it escalated into border clashes. China developed her own nuclear weapons largely as a deterrent against the Soviets and even began to compete with the Soviet Union for satellite states; notably, Enver Hoxha’s Albania switched to China’s side in 1961. note
The break opened up China to America more, starting with sporting tournaments and building to Richard Nixon's famous visit in 1972. note
Mao Zedong's death in 1976 brought the more capitalist Deng Xiaoping into power, and he instituted many economic reforms. By the end of the Cold War China had abandoned much of the Maoist ideology and fast moving towards becoming a market economy, though it remains to this day a one-party state.
Making a Pig's Ear of it — Castro and the Bay of Pigs
"A revolution is not a bed of roses. A revolution is a struggle between the future and the past."
In 1958, a man with an impressive beard called Fidel Castro
overthrew the Cuban leader Fulgencio Batista. Batista had been pro-big business
. Cuba was a major exporter of sugar, was famous for its cigars, and The Mafia
had set up shop there. However, the U.S. government had not been totally in love with this Batista guy, and had actually arms embargoed him.
Some of the Cuban revolutionaries were staunch Communists. Arguably, Castro had not been one of them, seeming more interested in general ideas of independence from U.S. and foreign capital. Given the political climate of the day, though, a side had to be chosen. Very soon after the revolution, Cuba established a partnership with the Soviet Union - who loved them to bits. The propaganda value of the Cuban Revolution (which had succeeded in 'overthrowing American Imperialism' with basically no Soviet involvement) was immense. This partnership did not go down well with the U.S., which had been taking a wait-and-see approach up to this point. They quickly put a trade embargo on the place that remains to this day.
Dwight D. Eisenhower decided to covertly fund a CIA coup of Cuba by means of revolutionaries dispatched to invade Cuba's Bay of Pigs
. They seem to have seriously believed they could cover up their own involvement in the operation. The plan was not complete when JFK became president, but JFK decided to go ahead anyway - believing that the CIA and military knew what they were doing. He didn't want to deal with the criticism that he abandoned Eisenhower's plan, and he also didn't like Communism.
It went wrong. It went seriously wrong. The "invading force" was a small, underfunded, underequipped band of refugees
. They'd been quickly trained and set out on boats to get their revenge on the new government, and were mostly killed or captured. U.S. sponsorship of the whole thing soon became very clear. More importantly the whole debacle fanned fears in Cuba and the USSR that the USA would take the existence of a Communist country in its 'sphere of influence' (The Americas) as an affront to their national pride and a threat to their control of the region, and that they would invade the country in the near future.
Amusingly, Castro also survived a number of CIA assassination plots; one of his bodyguards calculated it at 638
. As they went on some took a turn for the truly bizarre, such as exploding cigars and a fungal-infected diving suit. Understandably, these soured him on the USA on a personal level.
"He's pointing missiles at my holiday home!" — The Cuban Missile Crisis
"If you start throwing hedgehogs under me, I shall throw a couple of porcupines under you!"
It was now 'clear' to the Soviet leadership, given intelligence sources within the lower levels of the US administration and the USA's recent actions, that the USA was seriously considering invading Cuba. The immediate response was therefore to sign an alliance with the tiny, isolated communist country and to dispatch troops to aid in its defence. But realistically, there was only one way that Cuba could be defended from an American invasion: with nukes.
Since 1957 Khruschev had embarked on an ambitious, three-pronged foreign policy initiative. The first part of this involved talk of partial and even total nuclear disarmament, counting on the USA's paranoia and trigger-happiness to forestall the USSR from ever actually having to get rid of all their nukes. The second involved enthusiastic, wholehearted support for colonial revolutionary movements and the public condemnation of Franco-British human rights abuses and repression throughout Africa (and particularly the French Civil War in Algeria
). The third involved threatening to nuke people if they didn't agree to Soviet demands (which generally regarded initiatives 1 & 2).
The first initiative fell through since despite concerted spin-campaigns to make it look like they were, neither the USSR nor the USA under Eisenhower and later Kennedy were the slightest bit interested in nuclear disarmament. The second had made the Soviets very popular in Africa and gotten them a lot of Revolutionary Cred., but Maoist Red China
was constantly on their case about not pushing de-colonisation hard enough. And the third had also been wildly successful. Eisenhower and his Secretary-of-State, the ever-belligerent John Foster-Dulles (architect of the USA's 'Massive Retaliation' nuclear doctrine), had actually forced the UK and France to back down from their attempt to annex part of Egypt on pain of Soviet nuclear strikes. However, Khruschev had been mistaken. The key factor in the USA's intervention in the 'Suez (Canal) Crisis' of 1956 had in fact been the USA's utter contempt for what it agreed with the Soviets and Communist Chinese were 'imperialist mindsets' among the British and French. By the time Khruschev had issued his threats, the USA had already decided to act. Khruschev didn't know this, however, and thought that he had forced the USA's hand.
This brings us to Cuba, in 1962, where he saw the opportunity to pursue policy intiatives 2 and 3 simultaneously. The USA had demonstrated its hostility to the Cuban regime by attempting the Bay of Bigs coup against it, and Soviet intelligence reports indicated (accurately, as recently-declassified US government documents attest) that some elements within the US government were clamouring for an invasion. The Cuban Revolution had been big news in the USSR recently since it was one of very few 'wins' that the Soviets could claim for their policy of de-colonisation (Algeria had overshadowed it recently, but it was still very fresh in people's minds). Abandoning Cuba to American Imperialism was simply not an option, especially given that Khruschev's first great policy initiative (disarmament) had cost him credibility when it publicly fell through. Cuba was also a way to redress the strategic balance. With all the lack of forethought characteristic of his impulsive style of leadership, Khruschev came to regard the staging of strategic nuclear missiles in Cuba as a means to score some more points against the USA by getting them to back down from the threat of nuclear war 'again' (as he saw it).
The Soviet military was quite right to point out that basing strategic nukes in Cuba would benefit the USSR's own national security, whether or not an agreement was reached with the US. The Soviets were still considerably behind the U.S., their Mnogo Nukes
being far less capable than the Americans' Superior Firepower
The Soviets’ ICBM forces were a) very few, b) very
vulnerable as they were not in silosnote
, and c) time-consuming to launchnote
The USSR had another problem. The Americans had deployed Jupiter and Thor medium range ballistic missiles in Europe, especially Turkey. The USA's constant reconnaissance flights allowed them to observe the Soviets preparing to launch their 20 ICB Ms
. If the US then decided to nuke the silos with their Turkish missiles, then the Soviets would have no means of striking back at the US.
The USSR signed a secret military alliance with Cuba and transferred 40,000 troops and a bevvy of tactical nukes to the island, with R-12 Dvina/SS-4 "Sandal"
and R-14 Chusovaya/SS-5 "Skean"
ballistic missiles following on behind them, the whole lot being snuck in on cargo ships. They also deployed some other stuff, like a regiment of MiG-21 fighters. The SS-5 was capable of hitting pretty much all of the continental US, including Hyannisport, JFK's own holiday home. Since most of the U.S. early-warning infrastructure was pointed north, (for example, the DEW line referenced in an MST3K
movie), this would reduce launch warning time to virtually zero.
Tactical nukes had been shipped to the Soviet forces for use on the Il-28 bombers and artillery weapons, but it appears that release authority was never given. Or at least it was only given for 'extreme circumstances', a proviso that was later rescinded by Khrushchev when the U.S. appeared to be preparing for an invasion. A couple of the submarine commanders operating in the region, whose boats were equipped with a nuclear torpedo apiece, were apparently unsure of whether they were authorised to use them or not.
The USA's Executive Committee of the National Security Council (EXCOMM) discussed what to do about the missiles on Cuba. JFK secretly recorded the meetings, which helps historians a lot. The Joint Chiefs were being General Ripper
before that trope first appeared. Indeed, Air Force General Curtis LeMay— the inspiration for Ripper — was at the meetings advocating airstrikes. Eventually they settled on a blockade. Since that is legally an act of war, they called it a "quarantine", and JFK announced the existence of the missiles to the world. This completely wrong-footed Khrushchev and Castro. Their secret alliance was supposed to have been, well, secret
until they chose to publicly declare it (when the missiles were all in-place). Declaring its existence after
the revelations about the missiles would make it look like they were lying (in addition to not having had legal grounds for moving Soviet war material onto Cuban soil because they hadn't had an alliance), so they never ended up revealing it. The USA's Strategic Air Command (SAC) went to DEFCON-2
for the only time in its history.
After a few very tense days, two contradictory letters, and the Soviets deciding not to challenge the quarantine line, a deal was reached. The missiles would be removed from Cuba, and the US would not invade Cuba like they had been kinda-planning to do. The U.S. also secretly agreed to remove the Jupiter and Thor missiles, but they were obsolete anyway as the ICBM force was coming on-line. When the dust settled Kennedy looked like the victor, Khrushchev suffered a final blow his prestige that cost him his job, and the world breathed a sigh of relief that the "Thirteen Days" had not been their last. To make further crises easier to solve, the Hot Line
was set up.
We came much closer to World War III than most people realize, though. The U.S. was helped through the crisis by the presence of a mole in the GRU (Soviet military intelligence), Colonel Oleg Penkovskiy. Penkovskiy was caught during this, and suddenly his handler received a coded message (involving breathing down a phone line) indicating an imminent Soviet nuclear attack. He wisely ignored it. Penkovskiy was tried as a traitor and shot. Some reports claim he was actually thrown alive into a furnace.
Quagmire, American, French and Australian style — Vietnam
"All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness"
(see also The Vietnam War article)
—The U.S. Declaration of Independence as quoted by Ho Chi Minh in the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence, 1945
As mentioned above, the end of the Second World War meant the colonial empires were collapsing. A particularly important case was French Indochina, i.e.
, the present-day states of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The French tried to keep this area under their control with covert American help, but failed. On May 7, 1954, the French lost the Battle of Dien Bien Phu to a Vietnamese independence movement known as the Vietminh. The French subsequently withdrew from the area.
Vietnam was split, on a supposedly temporary basis, into two zones: the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), a Communist nation, and the State of Vietnam (South Vietnam), which was capitalist and French/U.S. backed. The southern state was only supposed to be temporary, and a planned election in 1956 was meant to reunify the country. It never happened. It was realized that Ho Chi Minh and the Communists would win the elections, so the south refused to hold them. This piece of irony
is mostly forgotten in the United States. For even more irony, Ho Chi Minh, during the war with French, actually sought U.S. backing. The U.S. opted for French imperialism over communist insurgency.
Ngo Dinh Diem was chosen by the Americans as South Vietnamese leader, apparently because he was the best of a very bad lot. In particular, the fact that he was reportedly a fan of Adolf Hitler
tends to cause awkward mumblings when brought up. He proceeded to crack down harshly on political opponents that he labelled as communists, especially the Buddhist population. (Diem was a strict Catholic.) An insurgency began in South Vietnam, authorized by Ho Chi Minh. They attacked local government officials to begin with. Then they started on school teachers
and health workers
, as symbols of the status quo.
In 1960, the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam was created. We'll call it NLF, but it was widely known among Americans as the Việt Cộng ("Vietnamese Communists"), often shortened to VC, Victor Charlie or just Charlie. The popularity of surfing among them is unclear
John F. Kennedy
increased aid to South Vietnam and sent more military advisors,note
but Diem was getting increasingly unpopular, and the NLF were getting increasingly popular. A monk burned himself to death in public protest. The U.S. administration, fearing a "domino effect" if Vietnam went Communist, backed the overthrow and murder of Diem without Kennedy's advance knowledge or approval.
Three weeks after Diem's death, Kennedy was himself killed. The incidents were probably
not related. Lyndon Johnson
—the new President—initially did not make Vietnam a priority. That would soon change.
On 2 August 1964, the destroyer USS Maddox
fired on several torpedo boats that had been stalking the Gulf of Tonkin. Initial claims that the North Vietnamese fired first
were revealed to be false, although the Maddox
fired warning shots and may well have been the target for an attack anyway. Two nights later, the Maddox
and another destroyer fired on phantom targets. The North Vietnamese were doing nothing on that night.
Precisely what Johnson, McNamara or anyone else knew is unclear, but they were probably not telling the whole story. Johnson sought and got the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution from Congress, authorising full-scale American intervention in Vietnamnote
By 1970, face of rising domestic and international disapproval and mounting casualties, the United States was looking for a way out. A ceasefire was declared in January 1973, with military forces from the U.S., South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and Thailand leaving the country by the end of March. note
Fighting between Vietnamese forces resumed within months. On April 30, 1975, after thirty years of war in Vietnam, first involving the French and then the Americans, the government of South Vietnam surrendered unconditionally to North Vietnam.
The Vietnam War
had a massive impact, not just in Vietnam. Figures for deaths widely vary
, but 2.8 million dead and crippled (in ways that made them useless for both military purposes and general employment) is a good figure. While they killed and crippled far more Vietnamese people, the U.S. lost 58,217 soldiers—a figure only exceeded only by their losses in The American Civil War
and World Wars. The South Vietnamese forces also lost a lot of people, but it was the two Vietnams' civilians that took the brunt of the suffering, sharing out the other 2.7 million dead and crippled between them and Cambodia. The figures are vague because the guerillas didn't wear uniforms, making it difficult to tell a dead guerilla from a(n armed) civilian. Sadly, the political agendas of the agencies commissioning these studies also have to be accounted for. Finally, large areas of farmland were rendered unusable due to weapons used by the USA—napalm, designed to burn people and things to a crisp, and chemical defoliants designed to kill plants but which also (due to flaws in the mass-production process and lack of quality control
) poisoned and killed animals and people. The chemical defoliants in particular would linger in the country's soil and water for years—if not decades—to come.
's attempt to finance both this and the "Great Society" led directly to the collapse of the "Bretton Woods" system of fixed exchange rates. It also meant the end to the last attempt the United States has made to eliminate domestic poverty.
A very large number of refugees, known as the "boat people", resulted from the fall of Saigon, the Cambodian Genocide and the 1979 Sino–Vietnamese War. They mostly headed east for international shipping lanes, frequently suffering from hunger, thirst and pirate attacks. 823,000 Vietnamese refugees were ultimately taken by the United States, with Australia and Canada taking 137,000 each.
Year Zero Hope: Cambodia
The worst result of all of this was the taking over of Cambodia by a group called the Khmer Rouge ("Red Khmer"). They renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea
and proceeded to move the urban population out to the countryside. They were told that this was to protect them from U.S. bombing and they would be back in a couple of days.
It was a great big lie
The Khmer Rouge, led by a man called Pol Pot, had a less strictly Marxist philosophy than that espoused by, say, the North Koreans. Or, for that matter, by the Dutch. "Communism" in this case was a purely agrarian utopia for peasants only, and required the elimination of industry, modern technology, the urban environment, and anyone guilty of propagating these social ills. Since all other Communists regarded modern technology and industry as the best thing since sliced breadnote
, this quickly resulted in the Khmer Rouge having no friends.
Monks, priests and imams were killed en masse. If you wore glasses, you were considered an intellectual (not as stupid as it sounds, since you had almost certainly received them from the old government). Hundreds of thousands died in labour camps and skulls were piled in pyramids. The death toll is estimated at between 1.4 million and 2.2 million.
Eventually, a long-running border dispute with Vietnam kicked off into a full-scale war. The Vietnamese invaded, occupied the country and pulled off a successful humanitarian intervention (no industry means no rifles, no ammo, no tanks… What an Idiot
!) The piles of skulls shocked the world. The fact that it was a bunch of Communists
who stopped Pol Pot is almost never mentioned. Piles of skulls are still found in memorials in the country.
Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge leaders fled into the countryside. Ironically, the Vietnamese invasion would trigger another war against China (so much for socialist solidarity), which had backed Pol Pot. The Khmer Rogue would fight a guerrila war against the new Vietnamese-installed government of Cambodia for another decade with clandestine backing from the United States, Britain, China and Thailand. Pol Pot himself died in 1998.
The Mideast Conflicts
(see also the Arab-Israeli Conflict article)
—Arthur Balfour, on the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1925
After WWII, the Middle East was undergoing considerable changes with many new states being created and given independence from the UK and France. during this time, the UN voted on enforcing a 1922 League of nations resolution and partitioning an area called Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. Unfortunately, the area was already full of Arabs who objected to the establishment of a Jewish state in the area. You are probably familiar with the results
One major chapter in the whole kerfuffle was the Six Day War, with a large number of Arab states on one side (principally Egypt, Syria and Jordan) and the France-backed Israel on the other. Naturally the Soviet Union wanted in on this, and helped the Arab states as best they could. The war began with preemptive Israeli airstrikes which all but destroyed the air forces of the Arabs, and ended six days later with Israel in control of Sinai, the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Ironically, it was faulty Soviet intelligence which caused the rapid escalation of existing tension which led to war and Arab defeat in the first place. note
In 1973, the Arab states tried again. They launched their attack on Yom Kippur, thinking that Israel would be at its most vulnerable. They were right. Yom Kippur is the holiest day in the Jewish Calendar. The country was at a complete standstill, as nearly everybody was fasting and forbidden to work. Israel knew about an Arab attack, but they underestimated the extent of Arab pre-war deception and the Egyptians' capability of quickly breaching and overcoming the Bar-Lev Line.
The war lasted 17 days and was terminated via a cease-fire. While the Israelis eventually had the upper hand, the myth of its military invincibility that was uphold by the Six-Day War was broken. In terms of proportion, though, Israel suffered three times more casualties in three weeks than the U.S. in the whole of Vietnam. The war saw the first missile boat vs. missile boat fight, the Battle of Latakia.
The U.S. had become the main power arming Israel after the French had stopped. OPEC, highly annoyed at U.S. support for Israel, proceeded to stop the sale of oil to many of the Western states, resulting in the 1973 energy crisis (the UK and France had been neutral in the war, and so received supplies mostly uninterrupted). Oil was restored after six months, but the crisis lasted longer. This caused fuel shortages, job losses, price rises, at least one change of government (in the UK), smaller cars for the future, and The Man with the Golden Gun
Geopolitically, the war ended up being a victory for the U.S.; Secretary of State Kissinger
got the Egyptians—previously a major Soviet satellite—to switch arms suppliers to the U.S. This put Israel and a big part of the Arab side into the Western sphere. The end result was a bit strange, though. The U.S. ended up bribing both countries not to shoot at each other by providing vast amounts of weaponry for use against Soviet-backed countries.
We're bringing sexy Backfire: SALT I and II
Eventually, the two superpowers decided that things had just started getting silly and it was best to put a limit on the Arms Race. There were increasing numbers of anti-ballistic missiles being deployed and missiles were starting to get multiple warheads
. In 1969, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) started. They lasted three years before reaching a deal, with the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and the Interim Agreement, known as SALT I.
SALT I created the following limits on boomers and ICBM, lasting from 1972 to 1977:
- SLBM - US: 710 missiles on up to 44 submarines, USSR: 950 missiles on up to 62 submarines.
- Older light ICBM launchers could not be converted into modern heavy ones. Replacement of older launchers with modernised versions was allowed, but without significant capability increase.
- No new ICBM could be started, but those under construction could be finished — limiting the superpowers to 1,054 and 1,618 respectively for the U.S. and USSR.
- Current ICBM could not be relocated.
A number of the deactivated SS-20 and Pershing-II missiles were allowed to be kept for display purposes. One of each are on display in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC and the Central Armed Forces Museum in Moscow.
Quagmire, Soviet Style — Afghanistan
In 1973, power in Afghanistan
was seized from the monarchy in a coup by a former Prime Minister (and the King's cousin) named Daoud. Daoud had been appointed by the King, but that King was no longer well-liked, so Daoud abolished the monarchy
. However, he didn't prove a very successful leader, and in the past couple of decades the monarchy's corruption had made the local Marxist party—the PDPA—quite popular. Despite having split in 1967 into the parcham
(Flag) and khalq
(Masses) factions, it remained fairly powerful. Daoud did his best to repress them, using all the ordinary means.
In 1978, Daoud was overthrown by the Afghan Army, who sympathized with the PDPA. The result was the Marxist-led Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, which lasted eighteen months. The PDPA offended many traditionally-minded Afghans with reforms of marriage customs. Their outlawing of usury—both deeply Islamic and socialist—made bitter enemies of wealthy landlords. And the brutality of their enforcement of land reforms made them unpopular all-around. Combined with factionalism in the PDPA itself, the result was civil war and general chaos.
The Soviet Union had been aiding Afghanistan since 1919; they'd had a military cooperation agreement since the fifties. As things got worse at home, the newly-Marxist Afghan government began asking the USSR for help. The requests kept going out for months, increasing in scale as the PDPA's situation became more tenuous. The USSR, however, seemed unenthusiastic about invading another country to prop up its flagging government.
The U.S., on the other hand, just couldn't resist. Long before any hint of Soviet involvement, the mujahideen
rebels were getting American aid, and Jimmy Carter had set the CIA loose in Afghanistan's alleyways. The aim, unknown to the mujahideen, was to provoke
an invasion by the USSR. In an advisor's words to Carter, "We now have the opportunity of giving to the Soviet Union its Vietnam War."
It worked, of course; Soviet tanks rolled in, brand new hatreds were forged, many lives were lost, neighborhoods destroyed, economies ruined. This adventure severely drained the Soviet Union's material wealth. When they finally gave up, were hurting quite a bit more economically than the U.S. had due to Vietnam. The war lasted 10 years (roughly the same as Nam), USSR lost 15 thousands of people, Afganistan lost from 1 to 2,5 millions people depending on who you ask.
However, the U.S. took significant karmic backlash. The mujahideen counted a Saudi named Osama bin Laden among them, and al-Qaeda would later be formed from its members
As it turned out, the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan survived the Soviet Union by four months, before falling to the mujahideen in April of 1992. Peace proved elusive, however.
Pioneer vs. Pershing: The European Missile Crisis and ABLE ARCHER
In 1976, the Soviet government started the deployment of RT-21M Pioneer/SS-20 "Saber" missiles to the western USSR. They were probably intended to replace the "Sandal" missiles. However, they were considerably better than the SS-4. They had a range of at least double the SS-4s and the capacity to carry three independently-targetable warheads.
At this time, NATO were behind the Warsaw Pact in the arms race and probably could not have defended Western Europe without resorting to Superior Firepower
. This would be rectified when "emerging technologies" such as JSTARS
and development of operational-level thinking by the 1990s. Until then, however, the SS-20 missiles, could hit the UK from behind the Urals and were perceived as a major threat. The USSR could take out the entire theater nuclear capability of NATO in Europe before it would have a chance to fully respond.
NATO's decision was to deploy Superior Firepower
to Western Europe, especially Britain. Two types of new missiles were deployed. One was the Pershing-II. The other was a subsonic cruise missile called the BGM-109G Gryphon, aka the Ground Launched Cruise Missile, GLCM, or just Cruise. Thinking that the latter was designed to help the Americans "win" a tactical nuclear war, a massive protest movement grew in Europe. Culturally, this whole fear was reflected in stuff like The Day After
, When the Wind Blows
, and Threads
To test new communications protocols and to give the military a firm simulation of DEFCON-1, on November 2, 1983, NATO launched Exercise ABLE ARCHER. It was a ten-day training exercise intended to simulate escalation between the two powers culminating in nuclear release. Due to the realism of the exercise, which included participation of heads of state, and thanks to well-placed sources, the Soviets believed that ABLE ARCHER was actually a prelude to a genuine first-strike; it even mirrored what they believed NATO would do during a first strike. The Soviet forces in Eastern Europe were placed on full alert until the exercise concluded on November 11. Though obscure, ABLE ARCHER is considered to be the closest the world has come to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
"So, who are we shipping stuff to this month?"
Way back in 1823, President James Monroe had stated that the Americas were the United States' exclusive sphere of economic and political influence. In practice, the U.S. didn't actually try to back this up until she had a big enough economy and military to do so (the U.S. Navy finally surpassed the Chilean Navy in the 1890s), whereupon she waged several "interventions" to keep Latin American markets open to U.S. companies and to prevent Latin American countries from taxing or nationalizing U.S. companies as in the "Banana Wars" of the immediate post-WWI period.
This also meant that the U.S. overthrew communist regimes and killed communists Latin America. This meant propping up pro-American leaders in the area—even (heck, especially) if they were brutal dictators. They helped overthrow the democratic government of Guatemala, leading to four decades of military rule before the CIA helped restore democracy in 1993. They also supported a coup against Salvador Allende in Chile, a popular left-wing leader who the U.S. was afraid would go Soviet. The coup went off on 11 September 1973—a fact noted 30 years later on the second anniversary of 9/11. Allende's fall led to the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, a rather nasty piece of work. And in Brazil in 1964, and in Argentina, and in Uruguay, and… you get the idea. The U.S. involvement in Latin American politics caused a great degree of lingering resentment and partly explains Hugo Chávez. It turns out that when the "capitalism" team is known for propping up authoritarian dictatorships, communism gets more popular—who knew?
Proxy Wars, African Style
Africa had not been ignored by the superpowers during this time. The two sides courted the various African states, supplying them with weapons and general aid. The Soviet Union and People's Republic of China particularly wanted to destabilize the western powers there and create pro-communist states.
One of the more notable cases was Mozambique. FRELIMO, a Marxist-Leninist organisation, started an uprising in 1964 that led to Portugal getting involved in its equivalent of The Vietnam War
. Portugal lost 3,500 soldiers. The war and the costs involved led to a military coup and the democratization of Portugal. During this FRELIMO received considerable support from the Warsaw Pact
, including military advisors. After independence, another civil war broke out. The new Communist government was attacked by an anti-Communist group backed by the states of Rhodesia and South Africa—the apartheid states (Angola also suffered from a similar civil war).
naturally had a Cold War
dimension. South Africa was engaged in an occupation of what would become Namibia, being resisted by Soviet-backed guerrillas. The U.S. and UK both had commercial interests in the area, especially the gold and diamonds. Many saw South Africa as a bastion against Communism. The African National Conference—which would eventually overthrow the apartheid government—was an avowedly socialist organization, and still is. The U.S. and UK put it on the terrorist organization list, as the organization carried out acts of sabotage and bombings which did kill civilians, as Nelson Mandela admits. He and ANC members would not be removed from the U.S. list of terrorists until July 2008
. This kept them from going anywhere in the U.S., bar the United Nations
headquarters in New York City
, without a waiver from the U.S. Secretary of State.
ANC socialism soon proved to be of a rather moderate sort; the more radical leftists who'd fought alongside ANC leaders called for redistribution of wealth held by those who'd been privileged by the racist system. However, in terms of material goods, the most Mandela's government has provided to the poor in South Africa is free lunches for schoolchildren. There was certainly no alliance with the Soviet Union, though that may be because the USSR would soon be in no position to help anyone.
"OK, who decided to arm both sides?" — Iran–Iraq
The Iran–Iraq War—known as Holy Defense and Imposed War in Iran and as Saddam's Qādisiyyah in Iraq—lasted from September 1980 till August 1988. Iraq invaded on the 22nd of September, because of fears of a Shia insurgency among Iraq's oppressed Shia majority and long-standing border disputes.
For backstory, we have to go back to WW2
. Britain and the USSR repeated their feat from WWI, which had been to invade and occupy southern and northern Iran respectively (to protect the Royal Navy's oil supply from the Ottoman Empire)—but this time, it was also done to secure a second route by which Lend-Lease material aid to the USSR could be delivered to them all-year-round note
. They installed Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as the Shah of Iran. He fled the country in 1951 when the popular Mohammad Mossadegh was democratically elected as Prime Minister. The CIA and MI6
launched a coup d'état that removed Mossadegh and reinstalled the Shah. The autocracy then secularized and Westernized the nation—often ignoring the Iranian Constitution. This caused nationalist, Leftist and Islamist groups to resist, though usually they weren't united. This is possibly why conspiracy theorists lump Communists and Islamists together, despite many of them hating the other with a passion.note
The tension from the suppression and fighting culminated in the Iranian Revolution in 1979, leading to the current Islamic Republic of Iran, led by the Ayatollah Khomeini.
The Ayatollah despised Saddam's Iraq for its secularism and suppression of its Shia population, which made up the majority in both countries. Saddam tried to take advantage of the chaos in Iran following the revolution and invaded. The effect on Iran's forces could be compared to Germany's invasion of the USSR. Troops weren't organised and many were taken prisoner. The war quickly developed into a stale mate as the people rallied around the Ayatollah. By 1982, all of Iraq's forces were pushed back and Saddam withdrew his troops and deployed them along the border, often called his wisest decision during the war.
Afterwards, Saudi Arabia tried to organise a conclusion by offering Iran $70 billion in reparations and the complete removal of Iraqi troops from Iran. Iraq agreed to this, and critics of the Iranian government called it a very favourable agreement. Iran said it wanted Saddam's removal, the return of 100,000 Iraqi refugees, and $150 billion in reparations. When these weren't met, Iranian troops crossed the border on the 13th of July. The war soon ended up into a stale mate (again) as both sides ran out of air power and self-propelled artillery, and Iraq's more professional troops couldn't defeat Iran's more numerous infantry. The war degraded into both sides launching Scud missiles and bombing raids against each others cities. Civilian targets were usually hit, with Iraq especially bombing civilian neighbourhoods and attacking civilian trains and aircraft.
On the 20th of August 1988, Iran agreed to a UN resolution and borders returned to their pre-war boundaries. After Iran signed to it, insurgency groups began a ten day offensive, with Iraqi support. However, pressure from other countries forced Iraqi planes from Iran, allowing them to destroy the insurgency.
The war is frequently compared to WW1
through the use of trench warfare, massive bombardments, human wave attacks (Iranian) and use of gas (Iraq). At the start, the balance of power was relatively equal, but by 1988, Iraq had a clear advantage in terms of machinery (armor, artillery, aircraft, etc). Iran started off with a stronger air force, but ended up only with much more infantry. Human rights abuses were committed on both sides. Iran used many teenage soldiers, and employed children as mine clearers (yes, the hard way). Iraq attacked many civilian targets, killed hundreds of thousands of Kurds in the conflict and widely used biological and chemical weapons.
Iran's officials state about 188,000 dead altogether (troops, civilians, etc), with other estimates up to 800,000. Iraq lost an estimated 300,000.
There was large scale international involvement on both sides. By far the largest donor of weapons was the USSR, who supported both sides, as did the USA. The bulk from both countries went to Iraq, despite Iraq killing 37 American sailors. America launched military action against Iranian ships and aircraft. The USA also shot down one civilian passenger liner by mistake. Iran says differently, but it was
a mistake, nonwithstanding the USA's refusal to apologize or admit fault. Saudi Arabia, Italy, France (the second largest donor of weapons to Iraq after the USSR), the UK and Singapore all supported Iraq; North Korea was the only country to exclusively support Iran. American support has been seen as revenge for the Iranian revolution, as they especially glossed over Iraqi human rights abuses—and even Iraq's history of accepting Soviet military support. Ironically Donald Rumsfeld met Saddam Hussein in 1983 as part of a special envoy. Twenty years later he would be part of the government that invaded Iraq and deposed Saddam.
Glasnost, Perestroika, the fall of the Warsaw Pact, and Malta
As with the 1950s, the 80s witnessed an important shift in leadership on both sides of the Iron Curtain. In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States. Compared to Richard Nixon (who was the first Western leader to open relations with Red China, and signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the USSR), Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter, Reagan was staunchly anticommunist, being one of McCarthy's contacts in Hollywood, and worked to heat tensions that had been cooled since the 70s. Meanwhile, the USSR witnessed a rapid change in leadership, going through three chairmen in three years before Mikhail Gorbachev assumed the position, the youngest leader in its history and first to have been born since Red October.
Solidarity in Poland
has its national consciousness tightly connected to the Catholic Church. It was one of the few countries behind the Iron Curtain where the Church had greater power than in the west. Poles are to this day maintaining that the church represents the nation more accurately than the state. The Communists did not like it, and they weren't subtle about it. note
Numerous strikes in Poland (Poznan in 1956, Bydgoszcz in 1976) were caused by rises in prices of staple food, the literal "bread and butter". Sometimes these increases would be as high as 50%. The Church attempted mediation, but ultimately nothing could be done.
Then, in 1978 something changed. For the first time in history, a Pole had been chosen as The Pope
. That was in a way a slap in the face for the Polish and Russian Communists. He visited his motherland the next year, drawing incredible crowds. The Poles for the first time in history since 1569 had a powerful ally, and the feelings of national pride resurfaced. He publicly claimed that this land needed change.
In 1980, hunger struck once again. Price of meat rose by 60%. People started to strike, though this time they did not come out on the streets, so that no one could be shot by the militsya
. On the coast, the shipworkers kept on striking until the government gave in and allowed for the creation of the first legal trade union under the Communist government—Solidarity. It was one of the few democratic institutions that were allowed to work, and it was heavily grounded in Catholic teachings and the example of Italy's early 20th-century Catholic Trade Unions. Many priests, including Jerzy Popiełuszko, were murdered by the Polish secret police.
Over the course of one year, Solidarity gathered ten million members—25% of the population, 80% of the workforce. The strikes could—and did—completely paralyze the country. Ironically, this is the sort of coordinated workers' action best advocated by Marx himself.
The government was forced by the Soviet Union to "calm the country down". They introduced martial law, interred Solidarity leaders, let the ZOMO riot police attack workers still on strike, and generally hurt the public image of themselves. This caused the international reaction, including Ronald Reagan
introducing import sanctions on Poland. This is quite possibly the only time in history when someone has helped a foreign nation by not
trading with it. The American support to Solidarity is one of the reasons why today's Poland is one of the most pro-U.S. countries in the world.
Solidarity moved underground. When the government was forced to lift the martial law, it resurfaced. Not-so-coincidentally, this occurred alongside Gorbachev's promises of Change, or "Perestroika
Even Newer Economic Policy: Perestroika
Mikhail Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the CPSU in 1985. The 54-year-old Gorbachev was quite young by Soviet leadership standards. Although a believer in Communism, he realized the importance of reform in the Soviet Union, which has been stagnating in just about every aspect since the early 1970s.
Soon after he came to power Gorbachev announced perestroika
("restructuring"), and it means precisely that: Gorbachev set out to reconfigure Soviet society. He began to overhaul the Soviet command economy, reducing central control to allow for more efficient and realistic planning to meet consumer demands, and eventually transferring decision-making powers to local workers. He began to allow small-scale private enterprise and encourage foreign investment, while combating corruption and cutting military spending.
There were cautious political reforms as well. Using his position to force hardliners out of office, Gorbachev introduced multicandidate (but not multiparty) elections and reduced the Communist Party's control over administration. Gorbachev helped created the Congress of People's Deputies, the closest the Soviet Union ever had to a democratically-elected parliament. While the Communist Party remained powerful, and in fact most of the seats in the new parliament was held by or reserved for hardline Communists, reformist voices began to be heard. Predictably, those who did well under the old system, namely, those who run the Soviet bureaucracy, did not take this at all well and constantly undermined Gorbachev’s efforts.
Openness Can Be a Double-Edged Sword: Glasnost
The other side of the Gorbachev's reforms is glasnost
, "openness". This one aimed to give more civil rights to Soviet citizens. Political prisoners were pardoned and exiled dissidents allowed to return, government archives were open to the public and limited criticism of the government were tolerated. Part of the reason for initiating glasnost
was to encourage debate and discussion on perestroika
, to counter the influence of the Communist hardliners within the CPSU.
The first test of this is the Chernobyl disaster. An explosion in the Ukrainian nuclear power station released a massive amount of radiation that Gorbachev would later claim had bankrupted the Soviet economy due to the costs of cleanup and containment. The initial Soviet response was to cover it up, but that proved impossible when research stations as far as Scotland detected the high radiation levels.
It didn't take long for glasnost
to backfire. As a result of glasnost
, the Soviet people were given more civil and political freedoms than ever before… and they soon wanted more. Now that past and contemporary Soviet crimes, misrule and mistakes are now out in the open and being debated, the authority and legitimacy of the CPSU were being compromised. Worse still, nationalist sentiments which previously was either suppressed, controlled or otherwise made insignificant, began to fueled ethnic tension across the Soviet Union. "Socialist brothers" in Armenia and Azerbaijan in particular were at each other's throats over Nagarno-Karabakh (a messy situation involving an Armenian state surrounded by Azeri territory which remained unresolved to this day). Gorbachev, under attack from reformists, conservatives and nationalists, were unable to reconcile them.
Gorbachev was rather more successful on the international front. Relations between the USA and USSR began to improve. Gorbachev agreed to disarmament treaties and planned the withdraw Soviet troops out of Afghanistan, which was just as well—military spending had been crippling to the Soviet economy.
They Just Pact'd Up: the Sinatra Doctrine and the Revolutions of 1989
Soviet reforms were watched closely in the communist states of Eastern Europe. Their leaders were under increasing pressure to reform, from both their own people and from Moscow. Many of the ruling elite feared they were about to lose their hold on power. They were right.
From Gorbachev's point of view, the Soviet satellite states of Eastern Europe were not only embarrassingly poor and oppressive (at a time when he's trying to make a name for himself as a reformer), they were also a drain on the Soviet economy. In the end he decided to adopt what the Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze (later President of Georgia) named the Sinatra Doctrine
—the Soviet Union would no longer control the internal affairs of their Warsaw Pact allies. The people of Eastern Europe can now decide their future "their way". They can now have a say in how their countries are run, or overthrow the ruling Communists if they wanted to.
Gorbachev wanted to see Eastern Europe embrace its new freedoms and establish moderate Communist regimes similar to his own. Eastern Europe, however, was force-fed Communism by Moscow for 40 years and decided it had enough. Instead of a revitalized Warsaw Pact, within two years all the Eastern European countries would abandon communism and the Warsaw Pact itself would cease to have any relevance whatsoever. The events of 1989 came to be called the "Autumn of Nations", but here at Tv Tropes it was the "Hole in Flag
Poland was the first to go. Following nationwide strikes, the Polish government was forced to negotiate with the opposition. Solidarity, after years of operating underground, was legalized and did extremely well in the election in June 1989, despite most of the seats in the Sejm being reserved for the Communists and allied parties. Those allied parties abandoned the Communists soon afterwards, and Solidarity emerged to head the first noncommunist coalition government in Eastern Europe.
In Hungary, as in Poland, the Communist Party held round table talks with their opponents. The Communists initiated political liberalization, dissolved themselves, and held free elections. They also opened their borders with Austria, and planned to celebrate this new development with a large-scale gathering known as the Pan-European Picnic—a gathering which unexpectedly accelerated the revolution in East Germany.
When East Germans heard about the Pan-European Picnic, they came in the tens of thousands to Hungary and over the border to Austria and West Germany. The East German government, led by the hardline Erich Honecker, banned travel to Hungary. Citizens then began camping outside the West German embassy in Prague, and the government banned travel to Czechoslovakia as well. Now people began pouring out into the streets to demand the resignation of the government, which tried in vain to get them to stop. Gorbachev was unsympathetic… to Honecker. Eventually, the East German government caved in. On November 9, the Berlin Wall was opened, due to the minister making the announcement being confused (the opening was to occur the following day, in order to give the border guards time to prepare). The communist Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschland
lost power soon afterwards, and Germany was reunified on October 3 of the following year.
Czechoslovakia had their own "Velvet Revolution". With the country paralyzed by protests and strikes, and their Communist comrades losing power one by one, the Czechoslovak communists under hardliner Gustáv Husák yielded and gave up power. Writer Vaclav Havel became Czechoslovakia's first noncommunist President since 1948.note
In Bulgaria, an environmental protest movement quickly broadened into a general demonstration demanding political reforms. Though the Communist regime bought itself some time by ousting their longtime leader, the hardline Todor Zhivkov, and replacing him with the more moderate Petar Mladenov, striking workers and protesters continued to tie up the country until Mladenov announced that the Communists had abandoned power. note
Romania was a special case. It was ruled by one Nicolae Ceauşescu, a hardline, oppressive and possibly insane Stalinist. note
An arrest of a local minister triggered riots in Timişoara, which then sparked protests around the country. Protesters were shot by the secret police, the militia and the Army, before the Army switched sides and began fighting on the same sides as the protestors, and the tide turned. Ceauşescu and his wife were captured and shot on national television after a brief show trial
By 1991, all the Soviet satellite states of Eastern Europe, plus Albania, had thrown off Communist rule. Communist Yugoslavia, though not part of the Warsaw Pact, was also collapsing as different ethnic groups started killing each other. The only Communist state left in Eastern Europe was the Soviet Union itself. For the moment.
As these were going on, US President George H.W. Bush and Gorbachev met in Malta. Though no agreement was reached at that summit, both men agreed that the Cold War was effectively over.
No, You Can't Go Back To Leningrad — the Fall of the USSR
The Communist governments of Eastern Europe had been overthrown. U.S.–Soviet relations had never been better, and the Soviet Union itself was embracing democratic ideals. Gorbachev still hoped to keep the Soviet Union intact.
This was becoming increasingly difficult. The various Soviet Republics, previously in thrall to Moscow, gained more freedom from the Central Government and quickly decided they liked this freedom. The republics, especially the Baltic states, now wanted full independence. Gorbachev's own insistence on political freedom now saw him quickly losing control of the Soviet Union to nationalist leaders such as Boris Yeltsin. Gorbachev was forced to send in troops to quell nationalist demonstrations across the country—this only made matters worse.
Gorbachev decided to hold a democratic referendum on the future of the Soviet Union. Though it was marred by boycotts in six of the fifteen republics, in the rest of the USSR voter turnout was 80%, and most wanted to keep the country together in a renewed form. But it all came to naught, because of what happened next.
In August 1991 a cabal of hardline Communists decided to take matters into their own hands and staged a coup d'état
in an attempt to restore Communist orthodoxy. They soon realized that few shared their enthusiasm for a return to totalitarianism. The coup collapsed. Gorbachev was returned to power, but in name only while Boris Yeltsin was hailed as a hero for leading the resistance. The coup had dealt Soviet authority a fatal blow, and now the "unbreakable Union" was breaking apart as power passed from the Soviet government to the Republic governments.
The Baltic States—Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania—had decided to secede from the Soviet Union long before the August Coup. Now the rest of the Republics began to leave. In November 1991 Yeltsin banned the Communist Party. The Soviet Union itself was dissolved on December 8, 1991. Gorbachev, no longer with a country to rule, resigned as President of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day, 1991. That night, the Hammer and Sickle was lowered for the last time over the Kremlin, and Yeltsin declared the new Russian Federation to be the successor state to the USSR, allowing Russia to assume the USSR's global responsibilities (especially its permanent seat on the UN Security Council).
Over the Earth, two Soviets remained in the now-Russian Mir space station. Since he had been there longer, Sergei Krikalev became known as "the last citizen of the Soviet Union" when he finally landed (along with Alexander A. Volkov) in a newly-independent Kazakhstan in 1992.
Afternote: The first CNN war — The Persian Gulf War
The Cold War
was all but over at this point, but the first Gulf War served as a demonstration of what the United States could have been capable of if things had gone hot in the 1990s or later. While Iraq used obsolescent export-quality Soviet equipment
and some of its officers received training in the USSR, her forces were both grossly outnumbered and outclassed and did not use Soviet Operational Art. It is interesting to note, however, that many casual analysts and military fanboys see the poor performance of the Iraqi military's Soviet-produced equipment as definitive proof that the USA would have won the Cold War in Europe if it had been a conventional conflict—this is in large part due to their enthusiasm for equipment and weapons
at the expense of boring and irrelevant things like strategy and logistics
On 2 August 1990, Saddam Hussein, interpreted a comment by U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie ("we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait") as a green light to launch a military invasion of Kuwait, a small emirate that borders Iraqnote
. He also thought that the Soviet Union would veto any attempt to take firm diplomatic action. He figured very wrong.
The initial U.S. and allied move was to increase the defense of Saudi Arabia, moving aircraft there in case Saddam tried to make a move on that country too. UN resolution after UN resolution calling for an Iraqi withdrawal were ignored, and the U.S. built up a coalition of 34 countries—the final total buildup of troops was over half a million, and six U.S. carrier groups were involved. With a troop drawdown happening in Europe, the U.S. was free to shift over an entire corps-sized formation from Germany to the Middle East.
For all that, though, the U.S. almost did not enter the war. Iraq had the world's fifth-largest military and a very capable air force. (On paper, at least.) Remembering Vietnam, many U.S. legislators were very reluctant on the issue. Kuwait hired a PR firm and had a woman testify before the Senate that Iraqi troops had removed babies from incubators and left them to die.
It was completely false. That and other atrocities that did
occur proved enough to get the resolution approving the U.S. involvement passed.
On 29 November 1990, the United Nations
Security Council by a 12-2 vote (China abstained; Cuba and Yemen were against; the Soviets actually voted in favor), passed Resolution 678 , which stated:
Authorizes Member States co-operating with the Government of Kuwait, unless Iraq on or before 15 January 1991 fully implements, as set forth in paragraph 1 above, the abovementioned resolutions, to use all necessary means to uphold and implement resolution 660 (1990) and all subsequent relevant resolutions and to restore international peace and security in the area;
That meant, "Get out of Kuwait or face war." Saddam didn't get out, so he faced war.
On 17 January, Operation Desert Storm
began. Iraq possessed one of the densest air defence networks in the world, which was centered around a French air defense system named "Kari
". It basically lasted one night due to the Americans' secret weapon. Okay, the F-117 had already been revealed and taken part in the DEA operation that was Panama, but that had been easy. This was harder, and it proved itself. An EF-111 got a kill without firing a shot, B-52s set the world record for a long-distance airstrike by flying from the U.S. to Saudi Arabia, firing cruise missiles, and going home, and Iraq's air defenses were crippled. Iraqi fighters didn't do much better. Some pilots ejected when they saw the enemy, and eventually the Iraqi Air Force left en masse
for Iran, who said "Thanks for the planes" and duly confiscated them.
The Gulf War was notable for the levels of use of precision-guided weapons. They had not been used to this level before, leading to the war being called the first "computer war". Comparisons of night-vision video footage to video games were abundant for a few years after, including by Terry Pratchett
Saddam, who understood the psychological impact of ballistic missiles even before they started falling on him, decided to launch modified "Scuds" at Israel and bring it into the war. He hoped to shatter the UN coalition, many of whom didn't like Israel and might balk at helping defend it. U.S. MIM-104 Patriot antiballistic missiles made a go at stopping them, but faced with missiles that accidentally broke up on reentry and Saddam not aiming them at anything, they couldn't do much.
Attempts to find and destroy the launchers in Western Iraq had limited success, mainly because they were mobile. Two future military novel authors along with other SAS members ended up getting captured by the Iraqis while doing this in the Bravo Two Zero
mission. Ultimately, Israel was kept out of the war with finesse rather then firearms. Elsewhere, Saddam's forces dumped oil into the Persian Gulf and burnt Kuwaiti oil wells.
After six weeks of air strikes (one of which accidentally killed hundreds of civilians in a shelter), the ground liberation of Kuwait began. The UN forces, led by "Stormin' Norman" Schwarzkopf
, then pulled the oldest trick in the book. They made noise in the press about an amphibious Marine invasion from the east, launched a feint attack from the south, and sent the bulk of their forces into the western desert to swing around and cut the Iraqis off from behind
. It turned into a rout. A group of retreating Iraqis got subjected to air strikes for several hours, which played badly in the world press. For whatever reason
, a full-scale invasion of Iraq did not take place. Kurdish and Shia uprisings against Saddam were brutally crushed. In essence, the United States conducted the sort of offensive that they had planned to defend against.
On 28 February 1991, a ceasefire came into force. 379 UN soldiers had died, but only 190 to enemy fire. Iraqi military deaths were at least 20,000, while the number of civilian deaths was the subject of much debate. In Moscow, the head of the Voyska PVO
, the USSR's air-defense force, had to explain how the Iraqis lost so convincingly. Iraq's weapons of mass destruction were not used because it was made very clear to Saddam that nuclear weapons would follow. This issue would not go away. Iraq would stymie UN weapons inspectors for years afterwards, until the U.S. finally ousted him from power in 2003.
But that, as they say, is a story for another day…