See also our article on the History of the Cold War for more detail.
The period of high tension and Lensman Arms Race between the Western democracies and their client dictatorshipsnote (led by NATO) and state communism (led by the USSR, the Warsaw Pact a.k.a the "eastern bloc", with China kind of aligned with them till the Sino-Soviet split of '60note and other emerging left-wing and communist movements. The nature of the 'war' means it didn't have a beginning or end as such, but Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech of 1946 to the Malta meeting of 1990 are popular dates. Red October is the earliest start-date, the latest end-date being Christmas Day 1991, when Mikhail Gorbachev resigned and the USSR was officially dissolved. There was never a direct conflict between the two nuclear superpowers.note Most of the fighting came as a result of Proxy Wars, with one or both sides backed by one or both superpowers (Korea, Vietnam, The Iran–Iraq War, The Angolan Bush War, Afghanistan, etc).
Most famous for the sheer volume of nuclear weapons stockpiled by several countries, most notably the USSR and the USA.
The fact that this was an era with no fighting did not hinder the Cold War from being highly influential in many a Spy Drama during this period, as setting or Backstory, such as Airwolf, The A-Team, etc. Standard plot in western media involves U.S. as goodies, USSR as baddies (of course, it is vice versa in Russian media). You could also have General Ripper come in and accuse our heroes of being Commie spies; or a third party trying to spark the war between two superpowers. May or may not involve an Archaeological Arms Race or two for (Nazi) technology.
Now much harder to use for plot ideas, unless you're using missing ex-Soviet weapons as a Weapon of Mass Destruction or unemployed Soviet scientists to develop it. Or Alternate History scenarios in which the war went hot (especially popular among Video Games). Though recently it has seen a revival of interest, recent works try to take a more realistic approach to the era but it still uses the old tropes as and when necessary.
So what actually happened? To avoid cluttering the article, this will get a separate entry: History of the Cold War. However, broadly speaking, the history of conflict between the West and the Soviet Union can be divided into six sections:
- 1917-1930: Starts in Red October, in which the Bolsheviks seized power, unilaterally pulled out of the ongoing World War I to the chagrin and disbelief of world powers, speaking the Russian Civil War between the Whites and the Reds. League of Nations forces intervened and (indirectly, for the most part) assisted the various nationalist and White Russian forces in their attempts to secede from or take over Bolshevik Russia respectively. The various anti-Bolshevik factions were too ill-coordinated to prevail, though a fair few countries (like Poland) managed to successfully secede when the Red Army tried to march to Germany through Poland to aid the Bavarian Revolution (which was violently crushed). Success of the October Revolution leads to fears of a Revolutionary wave, leading to the Ur-Example of the Red Scare - the United States being notably zealous in its crusade against socialism, which in turn led to the rise of Fascist Italy and other movements who became the militant counter-revolution. Fiction in this era tends to focus upon Bomb Throwing Communists, attempts to jumpstart a world revolution, and the chaos of the Russian Civil War.
- 1931-1945: The Great Depression leads to a period of reduced tensions between the USSR and the rest of the world as Imperial Japan's lurch to the right-wing and the rise of Nazi Germany, led liberals and centrists and the non-communist left in USA, UK, and France to ascendancy in order to check both Fascism and Communism. Communist International (Comintern) mounted a Popular Front in the middle-of-the-thirties and tried to intervene in the Spanish Civil War on behalf of Republican Spain. Attempts at a common alliance fell in the wake of the Munich Crisis, leading instead to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, followed by the invasion of Poland and the outbreak of World War II. A grand anti-fascist alliance was formed when the Nazis invaded the USSR, followed by Imperial Japan's attack on America, though both sides still worked to expand their spy networks in each others' ranks. The fall of the Axis powers led to the conflict quickly re-emerging in the post-war period. Expect Anglo-American fiction to portray the Soviets at best as heroic but not entirely trustworthy allies and conniving and treasonous enemies-in-all-but-name at worst or alternatively downplay and ignore their contributions to the war effort.
- 1946-1962: The Chinese Civil War resumes (and in 1950 is won by the Chinese Communist Party), coinciding with and causing a sharp falling-out between the two sides which culminates in the Cuban Missile Crisis. The short-lived Sino-Soviet alliance (1949-1960) dissolves amidst Sino-Soviet border skirmishes. Fiction here has direct Soviet involvement in evil plots. The Space Race also begins with the Soviet launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957.
- 1962-1978: The period of détente. PRC-USSR relations worsen and the border clashes intensify, an all-out war between the two looks increasingly likely. You are more likely to see a rogue commander start up a False Flag Operation here without approval from the top. Witness the James Bond films You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me.
- 1978-1987: The "Second Cold War", with the PRC under Deng Xiaoping allying with the USA against the USSR and experimenting with opening up 'Special Economic Zones' along her coastline to capitalism. Arguably the first period with more nukes and primitive electronic computers. Direct Red Scare again and the home of Airwolf and The Return of Godzilla.
- 1987-1991: Ronald Reagan goes go-karting with Gorbachev. Glasnost and the end of the Cold War to the tune of ever-increasing PRC experimentation with capitalism. Expect the Renegade Russian to appear wanting to avenge his side's "loss" or a paranoid General Ripper trying to Make the Bear Angry Again for personal reasons.
- 1991: The Soviet Union self-destructs in The Great Politics Mess-Up, with The New Russia taking on its UN Security Council seat and most of its debt.
- Berlin Wall
- Commie Nazis
- Fake Russian
- From Russia with Nukes
- Glorious Mother Russia
- Lensman Arms Race
- The Great Politics Mess-Up
- The Hollywood Blacklist
- Iron Curtain
- A Nuclear Error
- Peace Through Superior Firepower
- Reds with Rockets
- Reporting Names
- Russian Reversal
- The Moscow Criterion
- Warsaw Pact
- Why We Are Bummed Communism Fell
- World War III (NATO/Warsaw Pact version)
- Ultimate Defence of the Realm
- Yanks with Tanks
Due to its sheer length, the Cold War appeared by analogy in thousands of other works. See Space Cold War for examples. Also, the whole affair had so many confusing elements that Conspiracy Theorists are still arguing about it - see Enforced Cold War.
- Obviously, all works about The Korean War, The Vietnam War, and the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan are about the Cold War by default.
- The historical event is touched on in Axis Powers Hetalia with the avatars of Russia and America.
- Future War 198X, an obscure Toei Animation production loosely based on The Third World War.
- Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine is set roughly in the Cold War era and has an episode in which Fujiko gets caught up in a Cuban, American, and Russian aerial standoff.
- From Eroica with Love starts in this era, although it keeps going after the Cold War ends.
- Early Marvel Comics, published in the early 60's, tended to include a lot of Cold War-related plots. Iron Man in particular fought a lot of Communist agents of one sort or another — Crimson Dynamo, Titanium Man, even the Black Widow first appeared as a Soviet spy before defecting to the U.S., and of course Tony's origin has him escaping from the North Vietnamese. The Incredible Hulk owes his origin to a Soviet spy, Igor Drenkhov, who deliberately allowed the gamma bomb to detonate while Bruce was in the target area. And Reed Richards launched his rocket to beat the Soviets in The Space Race. Years later in The '80s, the U.S.S.R. would have its own super team, the Soviet Super-Soldiers. Due to Comic-Book Time, all of these Iron Curtain characters have been subject to retcons in the last couple of decades, as the Cold War recedes further and further into the past.
- The Conversion Bureau: Cold War has xenocidal ponies declare war on humanity in 1986, which leads to the Americans and the Soviets teaming up to stop them.
Film - Animation
- The Passions of the Spies (Shpionskiye Strasti), a 1967 black and white Soviet animation, satirizes the whole spy war genre. More to say, it even dares to satirize the very Soviet propaganda, albeit in a friendly way.
Film - Live Action
- Dr. Strangelove famously lampooned the Cold War as a childish dispute aggravated by sexual insecurity.
- Reversing the concept, Ice Station Zebra, while the attention was paid mostly to the U.S. side, the film showed the importance of delicate balance, which kept the war cold, over having the upper hand.
- Role reversal: K19: The Widowmaker, in which the crew of a Soviet submarine are the protagonists and American forces are the antagonists.
- X-Men: First Class is set during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the plot revolves around the Crisis being caused and then defused by mutants.
- One, Two, Three is set shortly before the Berlin Wall was built (in fact, that's the reason why the movie became a victim of Too Soon).
- Thirteen Days: About the the political infighting John F. Kennedy went through during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
- The Resident tetralogy is a lenghty series of Soviet spy films about a Russian emigre spying for CIA in Soviet Union. He's eventually caught by Russian counter-intelligence and performs a Heel–Face Turn to become a KGB agent.
- Lord of War starts in this era. Later, Yuri subverted Why We Are Bummed Communism Fell; he's positively thrilled that the Soviet Union collapsed, because it's great for his business, especially as he's got an uncle who's ex-Soviet Army with warehouses just full of arms...
- WarGames is about a computer hacker accidentally initiating A Nuclear Error which could lead to World War III.
- The much earlier film Fail Safe is a more bleakly realistic version of what a computer-caused Nuclear Error could lead to. The film focuses on the American President and his Soviet counterpart desperately trying to prevent World War III.
- In Pickup on South Street, the plot revolves around a group of commies trying to get hold of a microfilm with top-secret US government information.
- The Return of Godzilla both takes place in, and was made during, the Cold War; in fact, Godzilla's appearance in the film even threatens to turn the Cold War into a third World War in the context of the story.
- The Man From UNCLE is set during The '60s, and has a CIA agent and KGB agent having to work together.
- Bridge of Spies tells the true story of how American lawyer James Donovan defended the Soviet spy Rudolph Abel at trial and later negotiated a Prisoner Exchange, sending him back to the USSR in exchange for a captured US pilot.
- Most of the James Bond novels are connected to the Cold War.
- The November Man novels.
- The works of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan series up to The Cardinal of the Kremlin are set during the period, with a heavy focus on espionage and counter-espionage.
- John le Carré.
- Len Deighton, especially the Bernard Samson Series.
- Julian Semenov, for the Soviet side.
- A Colder War by Charles Stross involves a Cold War arms race where the "arms" are Eldritch Abominations and Things Man Was Not Meant to Know.
- Ralph Peters' Red Army covers the 1980s Cold War gone hot scenario from the Soviet perspective.
- Jim Butchers first book in his new series "The Cinder Spires" features a cold war between Spire Albion and Spire Aurora.
- Derek Robinson's thriller about the RAF in the Cold War, Hullo Russia, Goodbye England.
- The Widow of Desire is set in the late 80s, and the main characters is an American socialite who married a Russian businessman and founded a fur company with him. He ended up getting murdered because he found evidence of a conspiracy against Gorbachev, and hid the evidence in a Russian lynx coat he bought for his wife.
- The Twilight Zone indirectly used the Cold War and the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union in both its original series and the 1985 revival. One — "A Little Peace and Quiet," the debut story of the 1985 revival — involves the use of newscats, depicting growing tensions between the United States and Soviet Union, much in the style of the first half of The Day After to set up the climax (nuclear war actually breaking out between the U.S. and USSR).
- 24 has used both ex-Soviet weapons and ex-Soviet scientists.
- Airwolf had the eponymous helicopter stolen by its inventor and taken to Libya, with the intent of passing it on to the USSR.
- The Professionals regularly had brushes with the KGB.
- MacGyver, for the first three seasons.
- JAG has throughout the series many references to the Cold War, the former threat of the Soviet Union, and with particular emphasis on that nasty proxy war in Vietnam.
- The Colbert Report. Stephen is doing his best to re-start the cold war in his Cold War Update segments.
- In It Takes a Thief (1968), Al Mundy smuggles something or someone across the Iron Curtain practically Once per Episode.
- Soviet series TASS is authorized to announce... features good KGB guys and corrupt CIA agents struggling over a coup d'etat plot in some fictional Black Africa state.
- The FX show The Americans takes place in the early eighties and focuses on two Russian KGB deep undercover agents in America.
- The Doctor Who episode "Cold War".
- The original series episode "Warriors of the Deep" is set in the future, when there is a cold war going on between two "power blocs," but it's not clear whether it's a continuation of the (at the time) present Cold War or a later, unrelated one.
- The Klingons in the original Star Trek existed mostly for parables about the Cold War. When the Cold War ended in real life, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country ended the cold war between the Federation and the Klingons.
- One time travel episode of the original series, "Assignment: Earth," involves the Enterprise crew accidentally getting caught up in a plan by aliens to prevent a nuclear war between the superpowers.
- "The Omega Glory" has the crew discover a world whose history exactly parallels Earth's, except that their Cold War ended in nuclear annihilation.
- One episode of You Can't Do That on Television has the Russians threatening to take over the show. They do succeed in replacing all the green slime with red slime.
- The music video for Miike Snow's My Trigger is set during the Cold War, with the United States' President and the Kremlin's leader both being pressured into going for the nukes. In the end, neither one goes for it.
- Playing off Cold War tensions, many promoters would create Russian heels by taking ordinary Americans, giving them a Russian (or other USSR-state) accent and having him "promise" to destroy the lead pro-American face in the promotion he was working in. Many of the best known came well after the Cuban Missle Crisis, but still, villains like Ivan Koloff (1970s) Nikita Koloff (mid-1980s, until his face turn) and Nikolai Volkoff (mid- to late-1980s World Wrestlng Federation) were very effective in building heat and drawing audiences wanting their hero of the time to destroy said villian.
- Twilight Struggle has the geopolitical jockeying by both superpowers as its main theme, with two players taking control of either side and seeking to spread their influence throughout the rest of the world.
- Nuclear War plays this for Black Comedy, as players attempt to eliminate their opponents' populations through propaganda and then full-blown nuclear exchanges. The End of the World as We Know It is a common result.
- One example of a role-reversal of the usual "West good, East bad" scenario is from the stage-musical Chess, in which both the American and the Soviet intelligence agencies are shown to be cruelly manipulative, differing mainly in style — the Russian KGB agent bombastic and overbearing, the American CIA plant slick and cunning — rather than substance.
- The Crucible by Arthur Miller (himself a communist) is a thinly veiled criticism of Mc Carthyism.
- Battlezone has the Cold War go hot - IN SPACE! The Soviet Union and United States fight over Bio Metal on various planets in the solar system right after the first lunar landing - which were basically faked, shown in the intro to the first level where right behind Apollo 11 is an entire moon base, which can be used to make fantastic hover tanks and weapons. The events of the game are totally covered up until Battlezone II (set in the late '90s)
- The first two Metal Gear Solid games were set after the Cold War — though Russia played roles in both — but the third is set in 1964 and stars an American agent operating in Soviet Union, and effectively was a deconstruction of the nature of the Cold War. Peace Walker is set in 1974, where the Cold War superpowers are jockeying for influence in Central America. The Phantom Pain takes the series to 1984 with one of the game sections covering the Soviet-Afghan War.
- Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War was basically a Cold War gone hot situation. Osea (the in-game equivalent of the US) and Yuktobania (USSR), though like its prequel Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War, it started to take a bit of a twist towards the weird near the end.
- The Operation Flashpoint series.
- The Third Courier, a modern spy game set in Berlin, had the misfortune to be released in 1989, as the Berlin Wall was falling.
- World in Conflict: An RTT (Real Time Tactical) game set in 1989. Instead of the Berlin Wall falling, the USSR decides to go all in an attempt to destabilize NATO as means of keeping itself afloat. The game also has an expansion called Soviet Assault which shows the Russian side of the conflict starting from day one to right before the final battle for Seattle.
- Call of Duty: Black Ops first of the series to be set in the Cold War.
- Call of Duty: Black Ops II: Features two cold wars, the historical one in the 1980s, and a fictional one between the US and China.
- Wargame: European Escalation: Another RTS game. Set between 1975 - 1985, the Cold War doesn't exactly go hot immediately in this one. In the first campaign, the conflict is entirely between East Germany vs. West Germany; it erupted due to a political incident involving a soldier crossing the Wall and the East German guards being way too overzealous in trying to catch him. Subsequent campaigns explore a Warsaw Pact rebellion with a Soviet crackdown, Able Archer '83 turning hot, and a Spetsnaz colonel's plans for revenge after the war spilling out from Able Archer turned nuclear.
- Missile Command, which was not only set in the Cold War, but made during it. It hit so close to home, programmer Dave Theurer actually had nightmares about nuclear war while making this game.
- A very great many scenarios from the Steel Panthers series deal with either the numerous "brushfire wars" between clients of the two sides, or with hypothetical conflicts where the war turns hot.
- Codename Panzers - Cold War: when the a Soviet fighter collided with U.S. cargo plane, which is enough to provoke the USSR to attack West Germany, instigating a war between the USSR and NATO.
- Graviteam Tactics: the campaigns Operation Hooper and Shield of the Prophet are set within 1970s and 1980s proxy conflicts of the Cold War in Afghanistan and Angola. The Zhalanashkol 1969 campaign is set during the western portion of the 1969 Sino-Soviet border conflict.
- The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is set in the Midwest in 1962, with XCOM meant as an early response unit against communist invasion rather than aliens.
- In Xenonauts, the player takes command of a multinational paramilitary organization whose objective is to thwart an Alien Invasion. The twist: it's 1979, and the tension is high.
- You Are Empty takes place during the Cold War in an alternate universe where the Soviets have taken over the USA.
- Sniper Elite is nominally set during the last days of World War II, but most of your missions involve preventing critical intelligence from falling into Soviet hands or supporting anti-Soviet insurgents, making the game less about the end of the Second World War and more about the start of the Cold War.
- Flashpoint Campaigns is set in a standard Cold War gone hot in Germany scenario at the end of the 1980s.
- Westward is set in an Alternate History where the Cold War never ended. Initially this is just an interesting part of the story's background, but eventually the implications become quite important to the plot, and personally to some of the characters.
- In Jet Dream, Cold War politics are portrayed relatively realistically, but parodied in the "teen oriented" sister title It's Cookie! Those stories depict an East-West "Cool War" to win over the world's teens in a circa-1970 world where the watchword is "Fem Is In!" The "Cool War" is mostly fought as a battle between the West's flawless-but-expensive Gender Bender process and the East's quick-and-dirty Easy Sex Change procedures.
- Boris and Natasha, the spies from Rocky and Bullwinkle, are from the mythical country of Pottsylvania, and their Fearless Leader seems more German than anything else, but Boris and Natasha both have the thickest, most gloriously over-the-top Russian accents you could ask for.
- Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse's Rogues Gallery includes two spies named Comrade and Commissar.
- East-West tensions are a major plot point in the Five-Episode Pilot for Challenge Of The Go Bots. Notably, the Communist character, Anya Turgonova, is one of the good guys, but there's a lot of initial distrust between her and the American good guys.
- G.I. Joe has its Soviet counterpart, the October Guard, which is the Soviet Union's team created to fight Cobra. Relations between them and the Joes are always strained, but they both know that they are basically on the same side against Cobra.