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 western political scientists regarding the Cold War, which can be surmised thusly. They also overlap with the views of the Soviet Union, informed and otherwise— most English-language opinions being, of course, uninformed given the USSR's secrecy and the USA's self-obsession, as well as the propaganda campaigns of each nation and power-bloc:
- Traditionalist: USA good, USSR evil.
- Revisionist: USA bad, USSR bad.
- Post-revisionist: USA bad, USSR worse (at least when Josef Stalin is around).
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 and polarization of the conflict.
- The more recent attempt, inspired by access to post-Cold War Soviet Archives, is to look past the propaganda on both sides and see how the geopolitical rhetoric affected domestic policies in metropoles and in satellites.
Our story properly begins at the end of the Second World War. First, however, a prologue:
Russia entered World War I 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 and a number of other ones elsewhere, forcing the Central Powers to tie down between a million and two million troops to face them. And contrary to the cliche, they were not that poorly off. (One factoid often singled out is the fact that many Russian soldiers didn't have rifles. This is nowhere near as damning as it seems, though it did become more of a problem later in the war. Because 1/3 of all troops in all armies of this period were needed for logistics—they were needed not to fight, because without them everyone else would die of thirst while starving and drowning in their own shit. Most first-rate armies still had rifles for those logistical troops anyway, but the Russians didn't and deduced they didn't need them. Which was almost true. This same factoid comes up again with regards to the Red Army in World War Two. However, it did become a problem because if the enemy broke through to the rear echelons they could wrap up thousands of unarmed logistics personnel who couldn't resist effectively, and later when production dipped down further, people needed to fight started having fewer rifles.)
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 nineteenth-century, i.e., 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 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 had expected to be on the defensive in the East until the West was sorted out) and at estimating the Russians' strength and positions, it was passably competent at maintaining discipline and unit quality and under the leadership of Ludendorff, Hindenburg, and Hoffman had the ability to usually out-plan their enemies on the front. 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 embarrassingly often, but unlike Napoleon or Charles XII their setbacks were not catastrophic and let them come back again and again. 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 spent the war being mostly bad at everything: Supply (and supply planning), intelligence, battle planning, and the execution of battle plans. Despite their greater experience, 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 a grinding battle of attrition that the Russians, Romanians, and their allies got the worst of. While Napoleon and Hitler charged across European Russia to try and make it for Moscow (and got fatally overextended when it didn't work), the Central powers gradually rolled the Russians Eastward in spite of notable attempts to stop it. While it was rare for the Russian line to shatter completely- and the main time it did in 1915 the Russian military managed to escape by making a mad dash from Poland- and morale was initially buoyed by the Tsar declaring his personal command of the war, the pattern was not good. While the strength of Russia's economy and the depth of her manpower reserves allowed them to replace the losses they had suffered in the first two years of the war in both men and equipment and the Central Powers had to divide their attention across multiple fronts, the loss in veteran soldiers, officers, and faith had locked Russia into a situation of diminishing returns where they could not produce as much lost equipment as they could with the loss of Poland (which had as much as fifth of the Empire's industry and about a tenth of the GDP) and the Baltics and could not train and discipline the new troops to the level of those that had nearly destroyed the Habsburg Empire in 1914. But even worse, the Central Powers' advances in the front and the Baltic Sea had placed previously secure areas like St. Petersburg—the capitol—and Ukraine—the heartland of Russian agriculture—at threat.
As if to put a cherry on top, the Turkish Empire declared war on the Allies by bombarding the Southern Russian coast, and stretched the committed Russian manpower even further by threatening the Caucasus. The resounding victory by the Russian army and its' Armenian allies over an ill-planned invasion at Sarikamish could not entirely fix this, especially as Allied requests for help with their own battles meant the Caucasus fronts were steadily denuded of men until—ultimately—the Armenians were fighting virtually alone by the end of 1917.
Finally, the Central Powers managed to seize on the tensions within the Russian Empire to try and pull it apart. From 1915, propaganda agencies in Berlin and Constantinople sent leaflets, agitators, and spies into the Empire. To ethnic minorities like the Finns, Georgians, Circassians, and Ukrainians they positioned themselves as possible liberators who would establish independent nations for them, something that Finns, Letts, and romantic Ukrainians were particularly interested in after decades of Russification. To the well established ethnic German population in Russia—especially the aristocracy—they positioned themselves as blood brothers offering them a chance to join a Greater German Reich. To the Muslims of the Caucasus, Central Asia, and beyond they used the Ottoman Caliph's office to proclaim this a holy war. And finally, to the common Russian population that was the cornerstone of the empire, they capitalized on the long running dissent with some of the problems in the Russian government and added in the growing desire for the slaughter to just end. In the end, not all of this panned out but it showed a more genre savvy approach than what the Nazis did, and enough of it did work to divide the empire among itself.
In 1916, it all started to unravel, as the last year of the war when Russian industry could replace all its material losses. Coupled with the focus of the Central Powers being drawn against the Western Allies (with Germany coping with the siege of Verdun and the Somme, Austria-Hungary fighting the Italians and Greeks, and Turkey facing British offensives into the Levant and Mesopotamia), it seemed like the very best time to turn the war around, especially with requests from the Allies to draw troops off. Unfortunately, the first offensive ended in bona fide massacres at Lake Naroch and Baranovichi where the Russian armies in the Baltics and Belarus tried to break through the German fortifications and wound up breaking themselves. Realizing the key problem with this, the Tsar turned to Alexei Brusilov and asked him to try and salvage the situation. Brusilov decided to focus on Galicia, which was still mostly controlled by the Austrians. In a stroke of brilliance that lasted for several months, he shattered the KuK, took hundreds of thousands of prisoners, and seemed on the verge of knocking the Habsburgs off until the Central Powers panicked and transferred enough troops from the West to blunt the offensive. The result made Brusilov a hero and raised the morale of the Russian army, but it was still a bloody victor, was particularly expensive in material (such as artillery shells), and ultimately failed to turn the course of the war. With the Russian heartlands increasingly exposed to the prospect of German invasion, farmland and infrastructure loss undermining the food supply, and discontent with the way the war was going, the flaws in government, and starvation caused morale and discipline to crack. The failure of another offensive—this one driven by the ethnic Latvian units in the Russian army—in December just underlined it.
Conspiracy theories ran rampant that the Empire was governed by a pro-German clique setting them up for defeat, that Rasputin had seduced the Empress and was at the head, and that this whole war was pointless anyway ran rampant in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and ultimately reached the front, fanned by both popular discontent and the practiced Central Powers propaganda. All of this of course made it harder for the government to try and fix things.
In the end, it was the Tsar's attempt to do everything to avert the trope of Russian soldiers being ill-armed and ill-equipped that ironically helped bring down the monarchy and ultimately the war effort. In an effort to squeeze out a full production run off of a shrunken base, he converted 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). However, this meant that the normal industrial goods weren't being produced, more rationing had to be implemented, and even greater hardships happened at the precise moment when war weariness was already in full swing and faith in the monarchy was decisively shaken. 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! Britain, France, and Italy did not have this problem despite full conversion to war production because the USA, the Colonies/Dominions, Latin America, Japan, and China were willing and able to sell them the balance of normal/consumer goods that they would otherwise have had to forego. Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia, on the other hand, all had this problem, because they were all effectively under blockade; the Trans-Siberian and Arkhangelsk—Moscow lines could only have brought in a tiny fraction of what Russia needed, and were in any case almost entirely used to import machine tools (for the conversion) and other war matériel. Gallipoli was an attempt to break this blockade by defeating Turkey, but it failed miserably and kept the sea route into the Black Sea ports closed. Fixing this problem would've required one of two things: reconversion from war production, or the seizure and distribution of the unsold food still held by the farmers. Interestingly, the famine continued well into the Civil War and was only solved when the Bolsheviks abandoned their policy of food seizure and moved instead to promoting free industry and trade—i.e., reconversion.)
Starving citizens and soldiers found the conspiracy theories all too easy to believe and with even those who didn't seeing no immediate hope for improvement, they began to protest extensively, paralyzing much of the front throughout the end of 1916 and 1917. 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 that the protection of Russia and its' new democracy was best served by staying in the war. It was a decision that met the anger virtually everyone in the country, and many out of it. Before long, many of those dissatisfied with it decided to try and "fix" that. Kerenskiy managed to keep a tenuous good will and roused the Russian army into another offensive under Brusilov, but it collapsed in the face of mostly Habsburg troops almost instantly. All that good will faded, and suddenly those that wanted to "fix" it got recruits.
Chief among them were the Bolsheviks, whose leader Vladimir Lenin was in exile in Switzerland when he was approached by a German government who was irritated by Kerenskiy's defiance and the fact that they could not transfer all the millions of troops they so desperately needed to the Western fronts. So they made a deal: they would give Lenin and some of his close followers and rival expats a train back to Russia (sealed so that they couldn't get off early and cause dissent in the Central Powers) and finance his opposition to the Republic.
Almost as soon as he arrived, Lenin and his close allies gained much support in the capitol with his appeal of "Peace, Land, Bread", and a de facto urban cold war broke out between the Republic (uneasily divided between Republicans and Monarchists) and the Bolsheviks. Eventually, in November (or October in Julian dating) Lenin made his move to pre-empt an election. His loyalists stormed the seat of the government and Republican resistance collapsed after a brief fight. Lenin declared a Soviet Republic that was coerced into making peace with the Central Powers in the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, and his surviving enemies in the provinces rose in arms. Obviously worried about the fate of their allies and the massive German and Habsburg armies heading their way, the Entente dispatched troops to support Kerensky and the remaining Tsarists, initially to safeguard allied property and personnel and hope they could help Russia re-enter the war.
The Russian Civil War was on, and the first conflict between the Western Powers and the Bolsheviks was about to begin.
From 1917 to 1923, the "White Army", with the largely nominal aid of foreign troops (100,000 Japanese there basically to try to get Siberia to become their puppet state, 30,000 Czechoslovaks who had fought for the Russians but accidentally kickstarted the Civil War there when the Reds were trying to deport them via the Trans-Siberian railway and some idiots tried to disarm them around Omsk or thereabouts, and 20,000 British-Canadian-French-American-Greek-Australian troops (including two who received the Victoria Cross for their actions against the Red Army) who were trying to get back all the war matériel they'd sold to Russia and all their nationals who were still in the country), 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).
Without support from the West, they turned inwards and faced a host of problems at hand: they were a one-party state in a largely rural nation with poor urbanization in need of modernization, their working-class urban base which propelled them to power was depleted as a result of their participation during the Civil War, while their war communism policies were harsh and unpopular among rural peasants. Initially Lenin offset it via New Economic Policy (NEP) which was intended to lessen the hostility of peasantry to the Bolshevik party. This attempt at a mixed economy bore short-term results and the USSR started to recover. After his death, there was another power struggle with some advocating a continuance of the NEP (Nikolai Bukharin), others arguing for world revolution, collectivization of agriculture and mass industrialization (Leon Trotsky). World revolution was decisively unpopular with both Bukharin and Josef Stalin. Collectivization and industrialization started looking very attractive to the Politburo, on account of the fact that the gains made by NEP did not allow for investment and development of industry and military at the pace they would need to close the gap between them and the advanced nations. Stalin being more familiar with Russian traditions than Marxist-Hegelian dialectic, was motivated by fears of Western invasion and exploitation of Russian vulnerability (Based on memories of the Mongol invasions, the Time of Troubles, the invasion of Sweden and the invasion of Napoleon) and the legitimacy this could provide the Soviet Union. This launched the famously brutal decade of The '30s beginning with incompetently managed collectivization that exacerbated a food crisis and a drought in 1933-1934 into a horrific famine across the Soviet Union, greater centralism and control of bureaucracy that ultimately oversaw the brutal purges, as well as massive industrialization that, at terrible human cost, was closing the gap between the Soviet Union and the West.
International observers did not cool their own fears in the face of the Soviet Union's retreat from its inherently revolutionary origins. The United States of America, The British Empire, the French Third Republic and its Colonial Empire, the Weimar Republic were well aware of the appeals of Communism to a good portion of their own citizens and subjects. The October Revolution inspired freedom fighters of different political persuasions across all Imperialist colonies, receiving praise and commendation from the likes of Sun Yat Sen (whose KMT received official support and patronage from the USSR), Jawaharlal Nehru, and Ho Chi Minh (A graduate at Whampoa Military Academy set up by the Soviets to help the KMT) taking inspiration from Vladimir Lenin (Who continues to enjoy a neutral and/or positive reputation in these ex-colonial nations) and the Bolshevik Party. The Bolsheviks had promised voting rights for women, anti-racist and anti-colonialist ideals, self-determination, labour reform and unionization. In retrospect they obviously promised more than they eventually delivered, but in the face of official hostility to their nation, they relied greatly on the goodwill and common aspirations of late 19th Century Internationalism and in the wake of the sudden and shocking toppling of an hitherto untouchable autocracy and the conversion of the world's largest nation with Europe's largest population to a Socialist form of government had two effects. In the case of Europe, it vindicated the apocalyptic reactionary fantasies of entrenched traditionalists and this led to the rise of Fascism. In the case of more developed nations with liberal infrastructure, namely the Anglophone, it generated consensus for reform on the part of moderate conservatives and centrist liberals leading them to put into effect many planks of the Bolshevik platform.
Female suffrage in England and the United States took effect a few years after the October Revolution, while the British Empire passed more reforms after the end of World War I that finally and decisively put into effect universal suffrage in the metropole (albeit not its colonies which it maintained until World War II and a more committed anti-colonial Democratic President entered office). The United States for its part, under Woodrow Wilson, encouraged national self-determination and limited but not complete decolonization, measures to end imperialism to erode the appeals of Communism at home. But American isolationism and the vested interests of industrial elites which supported both parties led to the repression and mass deportation of many American radicals during the first Red Scare. This would moderate during The '30s in the wake of The Great Depression, under the Presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was the first American President to officially recognize the Soviet Union, and he instituted the New Deal, a social-democratic policy partially inspired by the (perceived) successes of the USSR's First Five Year Plan, and created with the goal to co-opt class angst and anti-establishment feelings that might potentially strengthen the cause and appeal of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA). The CPUSA was always a marginal party but it was at its least marginal during the 30s, having a good deal of influence in the Union movement, and taking up the cause of African-American enfranchisement by marching to the South in the 30s (which laid down the foundations for the Civil Rights Movement) which generated fear, anger and reaction among American conservatives, as well as moderate liberals.
Within England, the Labour Party enjoyed growing consensus, leading the Conservatives to agitate and engage in anti-communist campaigns. The Labour was social-democratic rather than Communist, but the existence of a Communist Party made their less-radical-by-few-degrees platform moicre consensual and attractive to the English base (Lenin also recommended the British Communist Party to ally and support them). An early victory by Labour in the 20s was derailed by the propaganda success of the forged Zinoviev Letter, while Oswald Moseley's British Union of Fascists, admittedly fringe, managed to attract high profile support from England's elites. The international appeals of Communism also led the The Raj to go lightly on seemingly moderate and harmless reformers like Mahatma Gandhi whose political successes led in turn to widespread international consensus for decolonization and Indian Independence, permanently tarnishing the formerly widely believed British propaganda about benevolent colonial enterprise. Winston Churchill was a fierce anti-communist and imperialist. He was favorable to General Franco during the Spanish Civil War and opposed the Republicans (mostly because they were supported by the USSR) and indeed England, France and the USA refused to intervene in said conflict, which became a celebrated cause for the Popular Front coalition sponsored by Comintern (an anti-fascist alliance between multiple leftwing parties to halt fascism).
Among the Left, the fractures in consensus towards Communism began with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Internally, this was driven by pragmatic short-term goals of the USSR in face of growing Nazism, failures of mobilization against Hitler at Munich, against Franco during the Civil War and increasing self-inflicted isolation. This pragmatism would compromise the Soviet Union internationally. Since Communist parties everywhere were marginalized, barely tolerated and/or openly proscribed and repressed, it depended on the ability of local communist parties to build coalitions and consensus with other parties, which it achieved via its support for anti-fascist causes. This reversal by the Soviet metropole put Comintern in an impossible situation and compromised the legitimacy of several national communist parties in Western nations, giving weight to the argument that Comintern was not truly international but rather a mouthpiece for Soviet foreign policy. It also led to a good deal of defections and drying up of recruitment, making them vulnerable for post-war repression.
Within England, Churchill moderated his anti-communism after grasping the immediate threat of a remilitarized and rearmed Germany in the Continent. Upon the Nazi Invasion of the Soviet Union, he immediately recognized the Soviet Anexation of Kresy (Eastern Poland) as part of the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and both England and the Soviet Union jointly invaded Iran to seize its oil fields.
In 1943, Roosevelt, Stalin 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 be pretty close to the Curzon Line, which was also very close to the division of Poland in 1939. (The Curzon Line had been an earlier proposed Polish-Russian border—based on the third partition of Poland in 1795—which had a lot of Soviet ethnicities on the east side. The area of land, Kresy, had historically consisted of a Polish minority, largely among the szlachta warrior caste that colonized the lands and enforced Polonization among its elites who ruled a land largely consisting of ethnic Ukrainians and Belorussians. Before World War II it had been the poorest part of the Second Polish Republic, consisting of Ukrainians and Belorussians who felt marginalized by the dictatorship of Pilsudski). To compensate them, Poland would receive lands from German provinces of Pomerania and Silesia. The Polish government-in-exile wasn't happy, but Stalin refused to reconsider (In his eyes, the German lands were far richer and resourceful than the Kresy and the Polish were turning down a great bargain). Naturally the Germans residing in these territories weren't happy especially since it would trigger mass expulsion and population transfer, but at the time nobody else really cared what they thought. 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. The German invasion had led to the deaths of some 26 million Soviet citizens, including 17 million civilians, at that time. Most Soviet Republics had lost far more than the national average of 12%, with Ukraine losing a fifth of its population and Belarus a full quarter. Neither Stalin nor the Soviet people were willing to go through that again. EVER, not least because the western Allies had barely suffered a million dead between them, despite their greater population (nearly 400 million to the USSR's 180 million); if it came to a war, the Soviet Union would need all the territory it could get so it could have some hope of avoiding total conquest despite the necessity of a 'space-for-manpower'/'defense-in-depth' strategy.
Stalin 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, in addition to a promise made by FDR of a loan from the US to the Soviet Union to aid its postwar reconstruction. Stalin, naturally paranoid and skeptical, was not entirely sure if Roosevelt would hold his end of the bargain, but then he died in office a year after being re-elected for an unprecedented 4th Term. His successor, Vice President Harry Truman was not briefed entirely on the nexus of relations between FDR and Stalin, and as a result he tightened the noose on his control of Eastern European nations, leading to decidedly unfree elections in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary.
This was aided moreover by incidents in August 1945.
The next key Cold War 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. Stalin already knew about the weapon (before Truman was briefed, no less) thanks to his scientists intuiting the existence of an Atomic Project on account of the sudden and total disappearance on all information about nuclear energy in scientific journals, when it had hitherto been a growing field in physics. In addition, the Soviets also infiltrated the American nuclear weapons project and learned about Nazi Germany's atomic project. 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. The use of these weapons however significantly changed the dynamics of US-USSR relations and it triggered the arms race with the Soviet Union reactivating and launching its own nuclear program to close the gap between itself and the West.
The relations between the West and the USSR started deteriorating rapidly. 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" 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 their 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, etc. 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, leading to the Labour government of Clement Atlee, which would launch the NHS as well as initiate decolonization and grant independence to India and Pakistan. 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.
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. (In a strange twist, Simeon II, last Tsar of Bulgaria, would much later be democratically elected prime minister of that country.) 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 (after the First Defenestration that had started the 15th-century Hussite Wars and the Second Defenestration that started the Thirty Years' War).
Stalin being against world revolution since the 20s, settled into his role as Great Power leader and while he demanded and expected Soviet spheres to be respected by the Allies, he in turn respected what the Allies considered their sphere of influence. Greece was undergoing a civil war that had been going on since before World War II started. During the war the organization of ELAS, which was a broad coalition of communists, socialists and leftists opposed the Government Army consisting of pre-war fascists and Nazi collaborators. 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 and he kept his word on that matter. The Greek Communists seeing the lack of Soviet support and strong bonds formed with non-communists during the war, agreed to keep their army outside the capital which welcomed the British led forces. They hoped for a new democratic government to replace the pre-war dictatorship and monarchy. Yet Churchill, forever obsessed with the Mediterranean underbelly, and partial to restoring constitutional monarchy over republicans, lent his support to the Greek Royal Family, in exile in London. This led to the decision of the British and American forces to to reinstall the Royal Family with the support of the fascist-collaborationist regime in Greece, manifesting itself in British and American soldiers firing on Greek protesters on December 7, 1944, plunging the country into a lengthy post-war dictatorship and making it the only regime occupied by the Nazis to never experience trials on collaborators and war criminals. So much for free elections on the other end.
The Americans realized that most of Europe was not recovering from the war, and also that the Communists in many Western European nations, and even anti-communist left-wing parties, came out of the conflict with considerable popularity and prestige. They owed this to the legitimacy of wartime alliance with the Soviet Union and their own persecution at the hands of the Nazis and Les Collaborateurs, suffering and partisan activities as La Résistance. The rise of the Labour Party (which was social democratic and anti-communist) angered Americans that they refused to write off a wartime loan offered to the United Kingdom. In France, the French Communist Party were at its most popular and respectable, with Charles de Gaulle, liberal centrist that he was, honour bound to give many of them medals while passive-aggressively keeping them from real leadership. To counter the prestige of the Soviet Union and Communism and other Left-Wing parties, the Americans decided, as they saw it, to bribe Western Europe into becoming a capitalist bloc. In addition to this, the growing surplus for American goods during wartime necessitated the need for a market that demanded and paid for these goods. Secretary of State George Marshall came up with a plan: give any country in Europe some free money, invest in European businesses and post-war reconstruction and development. Theoretically an East Bloc country could sign up, but never would; and the boost given to the Western powers and ensuing European prosperity dampened the appeal and need for Communist and left-wing parties in these nations.
In Italy, the partigian had been especially popular and especially Communist so the Americans decided that mere bribery wouldn't suffice. It aided the Christian Democrats by a particularly notorious election Scare Campaign which achieved its end of prevent the Communist-Leftist coalition from taking power but the latter nonetheless increased their representation and achieved success in later decades by becoming the most mainstream of all western communist parties. In the long-run, the plans more or less worked, Western Europe developed economically, with West Germany achieving the Wirtschaftswunder, Italy facing Il Boom during the late fifties-early 60s, France after resolving the Algerian crisis, and as a result of dirigist policies and entered Les trentes glorieuses, three decades of economic growth.
In Eastern Europe, Soviet Union strained by wartime deprivations, a famine in 1946, nonetheless took the task of wartime reconstruction and organization. In Poland, they rebuilt with the aid of Polish residents much of Warsaw, which had been destroyed by Nazi Germany, and undertook the task of agrarian reform. (Many Polish also believe that the Soviets enabled this by refusing to aid the Home Army during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, but recent military historians such as David Glantz and Richard Overy agree that the Rokossovsky's Belarussian Front faced a counter-attack and they could not have realistically aided the Uprising and while Stalin was definitely not a man with Poland's best interest at heart, this would qualify as a case of Not Me This Time.) Wartime reparations from Germany as well as the use of German POWss as forced labour, aided them considerably in post-war reconstruction. The greater wartime losses of its population and the post-war famine, was one of the factors why the USSR did not see a baby boom compared to post-war America, which eventually led to the latter exceeding the Soviet Union in population size.
The Western theatre of the Cold War in Europe ended with the episode of 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. (Halvorsen, a citizen of Salt Lake City, was subsequently asked by the German delegation to be their flagbearer during the opening ceremony of the 2002 Winter Olympics, a request he happily granted.) 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.
Japan had also fought on the Axis side in the War, and so when they surrendered, Japanese territory was also divided 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 (North Korea), and got a Communist one-party government under the leadership of Kim Il-Sung. (Kim had played some ill-defined role as a Communist rebel leader against the Japanese before and during the war; his official biographers give him a heroic role, but outside observers claim he did little but sit in Soviet territory and make surprisingly practical plans.) 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 82 (If the USSR hadn't been able to find a way to avoid attending, vetoing it would probably have been necessary to avoid the appearance of selling the PRC out— even though this would not have been in the USSR's interests. Appearances matter ) 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 had plans to expand the war into China, though these plans were never executed as he was relieved of command for making damaging statements against Truman. 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 Lavrenty Beria (who, depending on who you ask, was either a sociopathic serial rapist and murderer or a regular Soviet senior official who actually tried to push through genuinely beneficial reforms but got vilified after losing), 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.
In the wake of the Cold War, American politics swung to the right, culminating in the second Red Scare, leading to the Smith Act Trials, The Hollywood Blacklist and a vast propaganda campaign to discredit communism at home and abroad. This ultimately manifested itself in the political careers of Joseph McCarthy and also Richard Nixon who as Republican senator propelled to fame with his involvement in Whitaker Chambers-Alger Hiss incident. 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. Truman was anti-communist but opposed to anti-communist agitation. The Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson who had similar inclinations lost to Dwight D. Eisenhower who won on a strong anticommunist platform and who co-opted some of McCarthy's rhetoric as part of his campaign. As the former Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in World War II, 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 and his administration would ultimate withdraw patronage from McCarthy leading to the latter's downfall and political disgrace, putting a stopper to hectoring anti-communist hysteria now that it clearly served its purpose of putting a Republican in the White House after 20 years of Democrats holding the presidency.
Josef Stalin died in the March of 1953 in suitably horrific circumstances much to the relief of many Soviet Jews who were suffering during his final purge of the Doctor's Plot, which was immediately ended and reversed at his passing. 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). 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, that 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.) This period of uncertainty, as revealed in Soviet Archives, had the potential for detente. 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. In addition, none of their proposals were seriously considered by the West even if Winston Churchill of all people supported the potential for changes in the Soviet Union. It was not in the interests of the Eisenhower administration to allow the Soviets to play peacekeepers and pacifist. The Soviet Invasion of Hungary was far more to their liking. The administration did not do anything to help the Rebels citing the potential for the nuclear war but they also saw it as an opportunity to further discredit the communists, which it did. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was bad, but for most fellow travelers of Communists and actual party members, this became the true Broken Pedestal moment (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. An improvement from Stalinist times; in the past he might have been shot as Khruschev so helpfully reminded him.
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. (Such as his accusation, on being barred access from Disneyland, that the U.S. government was keeping secret nuclear missiles hidden under Tomorrowland—presumably in the same place they're keeping Disney's frozen corpse.) An important aspect of Khrushchev's reign was the policy of de-Stalinization, whereby he discredited Stalin, and by extension Stalin's network of client-patronage (which formerly had included him). He accused Stalin of being heavily involved in purges and he reconstructed many of the victims during the 30s, while leaving out the fact that he himself had submitted execution quotas during The Purge. 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.
Khruschev's polices of destalinization also marked the origins of the Sino-Soviet split. Mao Zedong warned him that many communist parties around the world counted on Stalin's leadership for their legitimacy (including his), and by discrediting Stalin in such a manner, they would politically compromise the relationships of satellite communists to the metropole. (Mao's leadership of the CCP was never as secure and firm as Stalin's. The CCP didn't exist until the Soviets formed it in Shanghai during the 20s, and indeed the Soviets backed the KMT of Dr Sun-Yat Sen and Chiang Kai Shek. Stalin suggested to the CCP, in the words of the Soviet Emissary to China, to serve the KMT "as a coolie" yet repeated purges by the KMT made that impossible for them to do and eventually Mao led the CCP during the 30s and 40s to an independent KMT course that Stalin did not authorize but finally shrugged his shoulders and accepted) Khruschev went ahead nonetheless, and this, coupled with constant border clashes between the Chinese and the Soviets at the Amur River, marked the start of a break between the two largest Communist nations. (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. 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. (This is on top of the whole "insult to injury thing" whereby the Soviets had literally stolen half of China's industry. By dismantling all the industries of Manchuria wholesale (and shipping them back to the USSR) during their occupation of the region, they doomed 100,000+ locals to starve and/or freeze to death during the winter of 1945-46.) 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. (After Mao’s death Hoxha would pursue a paranoid isolationist policy, denouncing both the PRC and the USSR, and proclaimed Albania to be the world’s only Marxist-Leninist state) The break opened up China to America more, starting with sporting tournaments and building to Richard Nixon's famous visit in 1972. As an aside, the saying "only Nixon could go to China" is symbolic of Nixon's conservatism: a liberal would've been accused of being a Communist himself, but Nixon (like Eisenhower before him) couldn't be. 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.
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 ever 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.
The US, for its part, devised and tested increasingly powerful nuclear bombs, starting with the Castle Bravo tests of the first Hydrogen bomb in 1954. The "father" of the H-bomb, Edward Teller, would go on to propose a 10 Gigaton nuclear bomb named GNOMON that, using the Teller-Ulam linking system, could theoretically destroy the entire world. Appropriately, its delivery system was written as "Backyard." Congress wasn't interested and Teller's increasingly unhinged proposals got him shunned in the mainstream scientific community. Combined with the calls from many Manhatten Project scientists like Robert Oppenheimer for de-escalation and the US government's interest in a bigger boom waned. Resources were instead directed to increasing the capabilities of their delivery systems, and towards defensive systems.
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 Space Race.
The end of World War II had meant that the colonial powers could no longer afford to maintain their empires without American support. Roosevelt was committed to decolonization and classic old-fashioned imperialism had seen its day. 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. (Arguably this was hypocritical given that America had itself had been a colonial power after their Civil War and 1898 Spanish-American Wars, in Cuba and the Philippines. The USSR had reclaimed most of Imperial Russia's former territories after their own Civil War and WWII (to be fair, Russian "colonization" was drastically different from and arguably more benevolent than that of other European powers, with no ethnic/racial dimension but a very strong religious/ideological one). During the Cold War, outright colonialism was replaced with two superpowers aggressively pushing various countries in their political direction, and helping foster revolts in the ones that didn't. This bears resemblance to the Anglo-French continental great power rivalry of the 18th Century but now played out on a global scale (England and France between say 1712-1815 engaged in a century of wars across all their colonies backing rivals and rebellions to weaken each other's position. One French proxy-war was the American War of Independence and the Americans received French patronage to weaken the First British Empire. This ended with The French Revolution and Napoleon's defeat which led to the consolidation of The British Empire). 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.
The British eventually left the Indian Subcontinent, which given more than a century of enabling caste and religious disputes and prejudices (Including one failed partition of Bengal), was an inevitably violent process, known as the Partition which resulted in the deaths of more than a million Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus during one of the largest population transfers and human migration in history. (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.) This led to two states, India and Pakistan. The former became a Republic that claimed to be part of the Non-Aligned Movement refusing to side either with the United States and the Soviet Union, but generally leaned towards the Soviet Union. Pakistan would in turn be backed by the United States of America, an alliance that continued even after the end of the Cold War, well into The War on Terror. The partitions 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 'Mau-Mau' uprising in Kenya (One of the victims was apparently Barack Obama's grandfather). 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 population (to which the somewhat simplistic but undeniably effective solution was simply to imprison the entire ethnic-Chinese population in the areas the insurgency operated in. They'd correctly noted that since the extremely strong ethnic/racial component to politics in the fledgeling federation meant that only Chinese people were supporting the guerillas (since the Malay majority had wanted to impose "socialist" employment quotas that would require all businesses to have a minimum number of Malay employees, a measure that in the long run really did help lift the relatively disadvantaged Malay population out of poverty) ) and keep troops around to make the newly-independent Indonesian Republic think twice about trying to annex Malaysia.
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 '50s and Sixties. Egypt, which was a British protectorate that had gradually been winning back its independence since the 20s, had a revolution led by military officers in 1953. Of these officers, Gamel Abdel Nasser would eventually emerge as the country's leader, launching a wave of nationalist sentiment throughout the Arab world that would see the British-backed Iraqi Monarchy deposed and the French kicked out of Syria. Nasser's big win would come in 1956, when he nationalized the Suez Canal to the detriment of its Franco-British shareholders. This prompted the British, French, and Israelis to invade, but in a rare moment of foreign policy alignment, the US and USSR both agreed that Egypt's independence needed to be maintained, and they pressured the British and French to leave. Israel would continue to occupy their gains, prompting the Six-Day War in which the Egyptians and their Syrian allies tried and failed to retake them. The rest of the Empire went fairly quietly, with many British overseas territories gaining their independence from 1950-1980. However, it was not always a peaceful transition of power. Many countries, such as Grenada, would be fraught with political instability and eventually fall to dictatorship. Some British colonies, like Ghana, would peacefully gain their independence and manage to stay (relatively) politically stable, and to this day Commonwealth countries maintain some of the highest living standards and strongest economies in their respective regions. For example, the top 3 performing sub-Saharan African economies are all former British colonies: South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya. Some British colonies would instead try to preserve the white nationalist policies of the Empire through violence, with South Africa becoming a horrific apartheid state, and white colonists in newly independent Rhodesia fighting an African socialist insurgency. Both would fight bloody wars across the region of Southern Africa, intervening in the independence wars of Angola and Mozambique to try and keep the balance in favor of white colonists. The white nationalists would thankfully lose in the end, but while South Africa started on a path to democracy and integration, whites were largely driven out of Rhodesia, and the rebels mostly failed to develop the region, with their rule descending into kleptocratic cronyism not all dissimilar to colonial rule.
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 organized by Nazi-sympathizer 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 Pieds-Noirs.
The rest of the French Empire would disintegrate similarly. French colonial rule was even more heavy-handed than the British, so as a result its colonies struggled more under independence. Communist insurgencies were common, owing both to the popularity of socialist ideology in the Francophone world -including France itself, which second to Italy had the most powerful communist movement in the West- and to the abject poverty and desperation the French had left them in. Moralizing initiatives in the late 19th century and early 20th century forced the British to put their money where their mouth was and build up their colonies to prove their "civilizing mission" wasn't just talk. France, and the other European nations, held no such pretensions, and their colonies were purely exploitative for the benefit of the motherland. This left them under-developed and unequipped to handle independence. Syria would fight off the French and struggle to find an independent identity, briefly uniting with Nasser's Egypt before being taken over by Bashir al Assad's Ba'ath Party (only tangentially related to Saddam's Ba'ath Party in Iraq). Their African possessions, sans Algeria, were granted independence throughout the 50s and 60s, but not always without violence. Plans to unite the Francophone countries of West Africa fell through partly due to tribalism, but mostly because the French dropped it when they realized that a bunch of small, weak countries are easier to control than one big one. To this day, France has continued to play a hand in West African political and military affairs in order to maintain their interests in the region. Vietnam, which is covered in more detail on its own page, faced a communist insurgency by the Viet Minh.
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. The unpopularity of these colonial wars led to the collapse of the Portuguese Estado Novo fascist dictatorship, and not long after Franco would pass and Juan Carlos II would oversee Spain's transition back to democracy.
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, despite the East German claims that the wall was for protection against Western aggression.
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, (at least that's what he initially stated) 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 (it didn't help that Castro had seized thousands of dollars of Cuban & U.S. Property in Cuba and murdered those who resisted). They quickly put a trade embargo on the place that remains to this day. (Although the Obama Administration has been attempting more diplomacy recently, as ignoring the problem clearly hasn't made Cuba any less communist.) 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.
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 Pigs 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. (To give an example, the Americans had just put Polaris submarine-launched missiles into service. These (the A1 version) had a range of 1,367 miles (2,200 km), could be launched submerged and 16 could be carried by the George Washington class of converted Skipjack nuclear submarines. The best Soviet SSBN at the time was the Project 658 "Hotel" class, which had R-13/SS-N-4 "Sark" missiles with a range of only 404 miles (650 km), and had to launch them surfaced. This process took twelve minutes. Surfacing when you're a boomer is a pretty bad idea.)
The Soviets’ ICBM forces were a) very few, b) very vulnerable as they were not in silos (The USSR used a mostly train-based missile launch system, under the (ultimately mistaken) impression that a mobile force was more difficult to destroy than a stationary, reinforced location. A direct side effect of this is that US intelligence agencies became very good at finding things with the increasingly ubiquitous Spy Satellite, which was more or less developed to spy on 'the Russians'.), and c) time-consuming to launch (Most Soviet missiles used a particularly toxic and, more importantly, corrosive blend of rocket fuel (the R-7s that also served as satellite launchers ran on relatively benign liquid oxygen and kerosene, but see below). Because Soviet metallurgy was not as advanced as U.S. efforts, the Soviet missiles could only be fueled for a limited time (a few days) before they would have to be unfueled, maintained, and refueled (with the R-7s, the liquid oxygen would evaporate in even less time, about a day). As a result, unless an offensive posture was needed, missiles were kept empty of rocket fuel until they were set to be launched. Since fueling a missile can take up to four hours, it was understandably a problem for launch preparedness. This is why Cold War movies make such a big deal about missiles being fueled: it is not a secret process, and it indicates a dramatic increase in offensive posture. U.S. missiles did not have this problem.
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 ICBMs. 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 The Deadly Mantis), 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 (No, not those guys)) 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 Hotline was set up. Castro was furious at being locked out of the negotiations, and accused Khrushchev of treating him like a pawn or puppet, a great insult to a Cuban nationalist like Castro.
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. A lot of conspiracy theorists claim the guy was actually sent by some senior Soviet officials who didn't want a nuclear war
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 communist and anarchist activists, politicians and writers. 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?
This theater also included the "Central American Crisis" which was composed of the The Salvadoran Civil War, Guatemalan Civil War, the Nicaraguan Revolution and their Contra War, and the U.S's invasion of Panama.
(see also The Vietnam War article)
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, (There were approximately 1000 U.S. advisors in Vietnam when Eisenhower left office. That number rose to 16,000 under JFK) 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 Vietnam (though the English-speaking world generally refers to this period as the Vietnam War, the U.S. Congress never approved a declaration of war).
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. (The Nobel Peace Prize went jointly to North Vietnamese Foreign Minister Lê Đức Thọ and U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Lê Đức Thọ, however, declined the award.) 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 wounded (in ways that disqualified them from both military purposes and general employment) is a good figure. While they killed and maimed 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.
Lyndon Johnson'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.
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 bread (Well, there was no sliced bread in Commie Land. Let's just say bee's knees.), 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…) 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.
(see also the Arab–Israeli Conflict article)
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. (Notably, during this war, an Egyptian missile boat became the first to sink another vessel with guided missiles.)
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.
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.
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 (The other route, around Scandinavia to the port of Arkhangelsk as in the First World War, was closed for six months of the year when the seas froze over in winter and its ships were also subjected to constant and fierce raids from Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine forces based in Norway and Finland. The main route used during World War I, Vladivostok and the Trans-Siberian Railroad, was made unavailable by Japan's declaration of war upon the Allies and the USA just five months after the USSR had been brought into the war ). 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. (This isn't to say that there weren't some Islamist leftists; indeed, one of the biggest Islamist factions, the Mojahideen-e-Khalq (People's Mojahideen) followed the Islamic Socialism of Ali Shariati, which tried to synthesize Islam and socialism.) 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.
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.
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, SADARM 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.
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).
Apartheid 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.
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 in 1985, the youngest leader in its history and first to have been born since Red October.
Solidarity in Poland
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. (In Stalin's times Cardinal Wyszynski— the leader of the Polish Church— suffered three years of house arrest, priests and bishops were sent to prisons, and even convents were raided by the police.) Numerous strikes in Poland (Poznan in 1956, Gdansk in 1970 (events in nearby Gdynia became commemorated in protest song "The Ballad of Janek Wisniewski"), 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. By 1976, growing discontentment led to first semi-organised opposition groups showing up to protect the rights of the strikers. They would later form a large part of the intellectual core of democratic opposition.
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 opted to "calm the country down". (Whether it was forced by the Soviet Union or did it on its own is a matter of discussion.) 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 were now out in the open and being debated, the authority and legitimacy of the CPSU was being compromised. Worse still, nationalist sentiments which previously were 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 remains unresolved to this day). Gorbachev, under attack from reformists, conservatives and nationalists, was 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 withdrawal of 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, had been force-fed Communism by Moscow for 40 years and decided it had 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 TB Tropes it was the "Hole in Flag Revolution". (So-called because when nationalists and democrats marched against the ruling Communists in 1989 and brought them down they were flying flags with the Communist state symbols cut out.)
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. (Alexander Dubcek, the moderate communist leader who was the architect of the reformist "Prague Spring" in 1968 and was later ousted by Soviet troops, returned in triumph as Chairman of the Federal Assembly.)
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. (The Communists promptly rebranded themselves "The Bulgarian Socialist Party" and retained power at the country's first free elections in 1990; they were not voted out until 1996.)
Romania was a special case. It was ruled by one Nicolae Ceauşescu, a hardline, oppressive and possibly insane Stalinist. (However, he was praised by Western leaders for pursuing his own foreign policy independent of Moscow.) 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 one-hour 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 and the spirit of Communism intact, yet it was already apparent that trying to do so would be like trying to drain a sinking ship with a small bucket.
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, who became Russia's first democratically-elected President on June 12, 1991. Eventually, Gorbachev was forced to send in troops to quell nationalist demonstrations across the country, only making 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, and 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, and on December 8, 1991, he met in secret with the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus to sign the Belavezha Accords, officially dissolving the Soviet Union as a geopolitical entity and establishing the Commonwealth of Independent Nations in its place. Gorbachev, no longer with a country to rule, resigned as President of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day, 1991, extinguishing his office and granting all the powers that came with it to Yeltsin. That night, the Hammer and Sickle was lowered for the last time over the Kremlin, and the following day, the Supreme Soviet voted itself out of existence. The USSR— and with it, the Cold War— had come to its definitive end. Yeltsin declared the new Russian Federation to be the successor state to the USSR and the Commonwealth the successor organization, 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.
On a more tangential note, perhaps the most bizarre and telling sign of the Soviet Union and the Cold War's end came in 1997, when Gorbachev reemerged in the public eye via a spot in a Pizza Hut ad of all things, lampshading the rocky reputation he has among the Russian populace. The sight of the former leader of the world's Communist juggernaut bending over to the whims of capitalism was nothing short of ironic, and to this day serves as one of the biggest emblems of the United States' apparent victory over its Slavic counterpart.