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BIG IDEA: The Cold War was a conflict about what was the best economic system and split the world between the Soviet Union and the United States and the allies of these two superpowers. Many of the alliances, geographic divisions, and international systems of the Cold War are the results of the way World War II ended.

The Cold War was a 50-year struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. The two superpowers and their allies were trying to spread their ideas about the best way to run nations. The Soviet Union was the first communist nation and wanted to spread communism. The United States believed communism was wrong and wanted to promote a free market system.

Communism, which is now almost entirely gone in the world, is a system in which everyone works, and everyone shares in the wealth of the nation. The problem is that choice is taken out of the system, and therefore, incentive is also lost. People do not work hard, and the government becomes a dictatorship.

Before World War II ended, the leaders of the United States, United Kingdom and Soviet Union met multiple times to plan what the world would look like after the fighting ended.

After World War II, most of the nations in Africa and Asia that had been European colonies became independent. Many of these nations were poor, and both the United States and Soviet Union tried to win them as allies during the Cold War. Sometimes, this led to violence.

After World War I, Woodrow Wilson had tried to create a League of Nations to help prevent future war. After World War II, the United Nations was created. This time, the United States did join, and the UN has played an important role in the world as a peacekeeper and a forum for debate.

When Germany fell and the war ended in Europe, the Americans, French, British and Soviets divided up Europe into East and West. In the lands in the East that the Soviet armies had occupied, communist governments were supported. In the West, democratic governments were encouraged. This led to a division of the continent that would last throughout the Cold War. Germany itself was divided into East and West, as was Berlin, its capital city.


BIG IDEA: Rather than fighting another war to defeat communist nations, Americans chose to try to stop the spread of communism. This led the United States into conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, and also led to standoffs in Europe, especially related to the status of the city of Berlin.

Americans did not want to continue fighting to stop communism. They had just finished fighting the Germans and Japanese and fighting the Soviets to stop communism would have been unpopular with voters. Instead, leaders like President Truman decided to prevent communism from spreading to new places. This was called containment.

Americans were afraid that poverty and political instability in Europe would give communists an opportunity to win over the hearts and minds of people in many countries, not just the nations that were occupied by Soviet troops. A solution was to promote economic recovery. In theory, if people had jobs and the economy was doing well, they would not want to give up prosperity to experiment with communism. To do this, the United States gave billions of dollars to places like France, West Germany, Greece and Japan to help them rebuild.

Stalin was angry that the city of Berlin was divided and wanted to unite the city under communist rule. To force the Americans, British and French out, he blockaded the city, preventing fuel and food from being brought in. He believed that the allies would give up the city rather than fight. Truman saw the conflict as a test of his willingness to stand up to stop the spread of communism and organized an airlift to supply everything the people of West Berlin needed by air transport. After more than a year, Stalin gave up and allowed ground transport into the city again. It was an important early victory for containment.

Both the United States and Soviet Union wanted allies.  The United States and its allies in Western Europe formed NATO.  The Soviet Union and its allies in Eastern Europe formed the Warsaw Pact.  Both alliances were for mutual defense.  If any country was attacked, everyone would join the fight in their defense.

In China, the civil war that had been raging before the Japanese invaded reignited. Communists and nationalists fought in the late 1940s, and communists under Mao Zedong won, driving the nationalists to the island of Taiwan. The United States did not want to fight another war so soon after World War II and did not directly join the fighting. This was a failure to contain the spread of communism.

At the end of World War II, Korea had been divided between communists in the North and non-communists in the South. In 1950, the communists invaded the South and the United States led a fight to defend them. Korea was another important test of containment. The war was long and ended in a stalemate. Today Korea is still divided between a communist North and non-communist South. During the Korean War, General MacArthur wanted to expand the war into China and defeat communism once and for all, but President Truman fired him. The Cold War would be a long conflict, but always limited.

In the end, American leaders came to believe in a domino theory. They thought that if one nation became communist, its neighbors would also soon become communists. In order to prevent the spread of communism, every country, no matter how small, would need to be defended. Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson all decided to support the anti-communists in Vietnam for this reason.


BIG IDEA: The Soviet Union and United States developed huge numbers of extremely dangerous nuclear weapons as they raced to outdo the other side. This competition for military dominance extended even into space and nearly led to nuclear war over Cuba.

When World War II ended, the United States was the only country with an atomic bomb. Within a few years, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France and China had also developed nuclear weapons.

Since the Cold War was essentially a long face off, both sides wanted to be prepared with the most powerful weapons.  This led to an arms race in which the United States and Soviet Union tried to outdo each other to develop more powerful and more plentiful nuclear bombs, missiles, tanks, and airplanes.  Both superpowers ended up having nuclear weapons mounted on missiles, in bombs delivered by airplanes, and missiles launched from submarines.

In the United States, people were terrified of the possibility of death from sudden, unpredictable nuclear attack. Many Americans built fallout shelters. Students practiced “duck and cover” drills at school, and superheroes fought communists in comic books.

By the end of the arms race, both nations had enough nuclear weapons to destroy the other many times over. However, both sides were afraid to shoot first, for fear of a retaliatory attack. This mutually assured destruction prevented nuclear war.

All nuclear nations tested their weapons. The United States and France tested weapons in the islands of the Pacific, with disastrous results for the health of the islanders.

The race for technological superiority extended into space. The Soviet Union launched the first satellite, first animal, and first person into space, but the United States was first to send a man to the Moon.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy was elected president in a close election over Vice President Richard Nixon. It was the first election that featured televised debates.

Kennedy wanted more conventional weapons so he would have other options besides nuclear war. He also wanted Americans to travel abroad to help other nations so that people around the world would think positively about the United States.

In 1959, communists took over the island nation of Cuba. Americans tried to help anti-communist Cubans retake the island, but their invasion failed and Kennedy refused to help. This was embarrassing for Kennedy and made the Soviets think Kennedy was weak.

In 1962, Soviet leader Khrushchev placed nuclear missiles in Cuba. The 13 days of standoff between Khrushchev and Kennedy were the closest the two superpowers ever came to nuclear war. After the crisis, both sides decided to try to talk more and find ways to reduce their nuclear arsenals.


BIG IDEA: Fear of communism led Americans to turn on one another and changed the relationship between the military, government and defense contractors. However, the Cold War also led to improvements in education and new technologies for civilian use.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, a second Red Scare swept the United States. People in both the House of Representatives and especially Senator Joseph McCarthy investigated suspected communists. Many people’s careers were ruined by false accusations since few real communists were ever found. Those that did, such as spies who had given nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union, fueled fears that gave power to the accusers.

President Eisenhower wanted to find ways to use nuclear power for good, not just for weapons of destruction. His Atoms for Peace program encouraged the sharing of nuclear technology to support things such as medicine and nuclear power stations to generate electricity.

When he left office, Eisenhower warned America about the danger posed by the Cold War’s long period of military readiness. Unlike past wars that ended, the Cold War was always about to begin. This meant that the government was always spending money to have the latest military technology, and the companies and workers that supplied those weapons relied on tax money being spent for their jobs. Eisenhower warned that this would lead to unnecessary spending in the future, which has turned out to be true.

In fact, during the election campaign of 1960, Kennedy encouraged this sort of spending by claiming that the United States had fewer missiles than the Soviet Union.  This missile gap did not actually exist, but many people were so afraid of communists that they believed it anyway and their fear encouraged politicians to vote to spend money on the military.

Fear that the communists might be more advanced in the fields of science and math, and therefore might be able to surpass the United States in weapon design, led to spending in education. Science education became important again and many colleges and high schools built new science labs and hired science teachers.


BIG IDEA: While communist nations used fear to manipulate and control their people, the desire to prevent the spread of communism led the United States to side with dictators in the Third World who violated human rights. Beginning in the 1970s, American and Soviet leaders tried to relax tensions.

There were few chances for the United States and Soviet Union to actually meet face to face and debate their ideas.  Once chance was the Kitchen Debates between then-Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1959.  Nixon showed off a model American kitchen and all the good things that capitalism allowed people to buy.  Khrushchev was impressed, but did not change his mind about the benefits of communism.

Twice, people in Eastern Europe tried to fight to get rid of their communist governments. In 1959, people in Hungary rebelled and in 1968, people in Czechoslovakia rebelled. In both cases, the Soviet Union sent its own troops to put down the rebellions and restore communists to power.

One way communist governments maintained control was through fear. People who disagreed or tried to organize opposition to the government were arrested, thrown in jail, or sometimes they simply disappeared. People knew that the secret police might appear at any moment and had power to kidnap political opponents, so most people tried to avoid criticizing their leaders or doing anything that might put themselves in danger. The result was an obedient and unhappy people.

In the 1970s, American leaders decided that there was little chance of getting rid of communism.  The initial worries about communism spreading had ended.  Therefore, they decided, they should try to find ways to get along and coexist peacefully.  The United States and Soviet Union signed a series of treaties to ban the testing of nuclear weapons, and to start to reduce their total number of warheads.  The two nations even worked together to have their spacecraft dock in orbit and their astronauts shake hands in space.  This period of cooling tensions was called Détente, but ended when the Soviets invaded their neighbor Afghanistan.

Both the United States and Soviet Union tried to convince other nations to join their side. This meant that Americans supported anti-communists governments around the world. Sometimes, we supported people who were dictators and terrible leaders, such as in Chile and Panama, simply because they were anti-communist. These conflicts were proxy wars, because they stood in for actual fights between the superpowers.

In Central America, when the poor started a revolution against the wealthy landowners, the Soviet Union supported the poor and the United States ended up supporting the rich people who controlled the government. Because both superpowers were giving money and weapons to their side, the civil wars lasted a long time and thousands of people died who might have lived if the Cold War had not been raging. Similar problems happened in the Middle East. In Afghanistan, the United States gave weapons to the same people who we eventually had to fight after 9/11.


BIG IDEA: The Cold War ended without the massive military conflict between East and West that the two sides had prepared for. Instead, the leaders in communist countries allowed greater economic freedom, and responding to social pressure in the case of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, greater political freedom.

As part of his effort to reduce Cold War tensions, Richard Nixon decided to formally recognize the communist government of China and visited Beijing in 1972. This led to an opening up of China, as well as the sharing of goodwill gestures such as ping-pong matches and a gift of panda bears.

When Ronald Reagan became president in 1980, he decided to challenge communist leaders. He called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and built up the American military. He disagreed with the idea of détente.

Reagan proposed a new strategy that would upend the system of mutually assured destruction. He wanted to build a system that could shoot down incoming Soviet missiles. The plan was not technologically possible, but it threatened to undo the delicate balance of power that had prevented war for decades.

Reagan was weakened as president by the Iran-Contra Scandal, which showed Americans how much he did not know about what his aides were doing. He survived, however, and started working with Soviet leaders.

Reagan met multiple times with Mikhail Gorbachev to try to reduce nuclear weapons. In fact, his second term was almost the opposite of his first. Instead of building up the military, Reagan started to reduce nuclear weapons. He wanted to give Gorbachev a chance to start reforms inside the Soviet Union.

Communism started to fall in Europe beginning in Poland. Workers there formed a union that conducted a non-violent resistance against the communist leadership. Pope John Paul II, originally from Poland, was an important voice around the world against communism.

In 1989, students organized a mass protest in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. They wanted democracy and an end to communist rule. However, the communist government of China sent in the army to end the protest.

Growing protests in Eastern Europe were different, however. The Soviet government under Gorbachev refused to intervene the way that had in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the 1950s and 1960s. Instead, they allowed pro-democracy demonstrations and permitted their Eastern European allies to open up the borders with the West.

In 1989, people in Berlin tore down the Berlin Wall. This most potent symbol of the division between East and West fell peacefully when the Soviets decided to let communism in East Germany end.

Gorbachev had hoped that by allowing people the freedom to vote, he might save communism, but that plan failed and in 1991, army officers staged a coup and tried to overthrow his government. However, the army itself did not follow the coup’s leaders. Eventually, the destruction of Gorbachev’s authority led to the splitting up of the Soviet Union and the end of communist governments in all the newly independent nations and in the former communist nations of Eastern Europe.

Communist governments continue in Cuba and North Korea. In China and Vietnam, the communist leaders gave up communism as an economic system, but continue to rule without elections.