Cold War

How did it start?

  • In 1961, the USSR leaders were concerned about the US invasion of Cuba, a US ally.
  • Nikita Khrushchev, the USSR's leader, wanted to turn Cuba into a Russian base.
  • He deployed nuclear weapons in 1962, exposing the US to close-range fire.
  • US President John F. Kennedy and his advisers urged Khrushchev to withdraw the missiles and nuclear weapons from Cuba.
  • The Cuban Missile Crisis, a watershed moment in the Cold War, led to the US and Soviet Union's confrontations. Despite numerous conflicts, the Cold War never evolved into a full-fledged battle between the two nations.

What is the Cold War?

  • The conclusion of World War II marked a significant moment in modern international politics, as the Allied Forces defeated the Axis Powers in 1945, bringing the Second World War to an end.
  • The conflict ravaged the world in terms of human life and civilian property damage. 

  • The Cold War began after the war ended in August 1945, when the US detonated two atomic bombs on Japanese cities, forcing Japan to surrender. 

  • Critics argue that the US decision to drop the bombs was unnecessary, while supporters argue that it was important to terminate the war quickly and save American and Allied casualties. 

  • The Cold War emerged as the world's strongest power, with the potential to influence events worldwide. 

  • The Cold War was based on the realization that the damage wrought by atomic weapons is too costly for any country to bear, and both sides would be severely damaged, making a full-fledged conflict improbable. This is known as 'deterrence logic,' where both sides have the ability to react against an attack and inflict intolerable harm, avoiding conflict but not power rivalry.

  • The primary military features of the Cold War–
    • The two superpowers were expected to act responsibly and logically, as were the countries that made up the opposing superpower blocs. They were to be sensible and responsible in the sense that they recognized the dangers of fighting conflicts involving the two superpowers.
    • Fighting wars will be extremely damaging when two superpowers and the blocs commanded by them are in a deterrence relationship. Being responsible means being controlled and avoiding the possibility of another global war. In this sense, the Cold War was successful in ensuring human existence.

The cold war was centered on two dominant powers-

  • The United States of America
  • Soviet Union

Timeline of Cold War


American President Harry Truman’s Doctrine about the containment of communism


Marshall Plan: US aid for the reconstruction of the Western Europe


Berlin blockade by the Soviet Union and the airlift of supplies to the citizens of West Berlin by the US and its allies


Korean War; division of Korea along the 38th Parallel


Defeat of the French by the Vietnamese at Dien Bien Phu Signing of the Geneva Accords Division of Vietnam along the 17th Parallel Formation of SEATO


American intervention in Vietnam


Signing of the Baghdad Pact, later CENTO


Soviet intervention in Hungary


US-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba Construction of the Berlin Wall


Cuban Missile Crisis


American Intervention in the Dominican Republic


Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia


US President Richard Nixon’s visit to China

1978 - 89

Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia 

1979 - 89

Soviet intervention in Afghanistan 


Gorbachev becomes the President of the USSR; begins the reform process 


Fall of the Berlin Wall; mass protests against governments in eastern Europe 


Unification of Germany 


Disintegration of the Soviet Union End of the Cold War era

Emergence of Two Power Blocs

  • The two superpowers sought to expand their influence in various regions, with lesser governments using alliances for their own purposes. 

  • The division of the world into two camps began in Europe, with Western European nations supporting the United States and Eastern European countries supporting the Soviet Union. 

  • The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was established in 1949, with the Soviet Union leading the Warsaw Pact in 1955. 

  • During the Cold War, international alliances were established based on the needs of superpowers and smaller governments' calculations. 

  • Europe became the primary battlefield of conflict between the superpowers, with the Soviet Union using military might to entice countries to join their respective alliances. 

  • The United States established alliance structures like SEATO and CENTO in East and Southeast Asia, while the Soviet Union and communist China maintained ties with neighboring nations. 

  • The Cold War threatened to split the globe into two factions, with many newly independent countries concerned about losing their freedom. 

  • Cracks and fissures in coalitions emerged, with Communist China clashing with the Soviet Union in the late 1950s and the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) allowing newly independent nations to avoid joining alliances.

 Why did the superpowers need allies?

Smaller republics in Asia, Africa, and Europe were no match for superpowers, but they provided vital resources, territory, spying locations, and economic support. These allies also influenced the superpowers' ideology, arguing that liberal democracy and capitalism were superior to socialism and communism.

Arenas of Cold War

  • The Cold War led to numerous crises and shooting wars but did not result in another world war. 

  • The two superpowers were poised for direct confrontations in Korea, Berlin, and Congo, but neither side was willing to back down. 

  • Cold War arenas were locations where crises and battles happened or threatened to occur between alliance systems but did not exceed set bounds. Despite many deaths, the world was spared nuclear war and global hostilities.

  • Occasionally, nations outside the two blocs, such as the Non-aligned nations, played an important role in the reduction of Cold War hostilities and in avoiding several major catastrophes.

  • Jawaharlal Nehru (the NAM leader) played a crucial role in mediating between the two Koreas. 

  • In the Republic of the Congo crisis, the United Nations Secretary-General played an important role in mediating. Because, by and large, it was a realization on the part of a superpower, It should be avoided at all costs.

  • It forced them to practice restraint as well as behave more responsibly in International relations. 

  • The Cold War fueled rivalries between the two alliances, leading to constant arming and preparation for war. Both sides acknowledged the possibility of war despite restraint, miscalculation of weapons, and misunderstanding intentions. The potential for nuclear accidents and miscalculations raises questions about how leaders would determine if a nuclear weapon was an accident or an act of sabotage.

  • As a result, the United States and the Soviet Union resolved to work together to limit or eliminate certain types of nuclear and non-nuclear weapons. They determined that 'arms control' could keep a stable balance of weaponry. Beginning in the 1960s, the two sides signed three major agreements within a decade. These were the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Tests, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

  • Following that, the superpowers undertook numerous rounds of arms control discussions and signed several additional accords to restrict their arsenals.

Why did some countries decide not to join any superpower?

  • The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) originated from a meeting in 1956 between Yugoslavia's Josip Broz Tito, India's Jawaharlal Nehru, and Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser. The five founders, including Indonesia's Sukarno and Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah, formed the five founders of NAM. 

  • The first non-aligned summit in Belgrade in 1961 emphasized cooperation among these five countries, growing Cold War tensions, and the entry of decolonized African countries into the international arena. 

  • The movement's membership expanded over time, with the 14th summit in Havana in 2006 involving 116 member states and 15 observer countries. 

  • NAM is not about being a member of an alliance but rather about a policy of staying away from alliances. 

  • Non-aligned countries, including India, played an active role in mediating between rival alliances for peace and stability, demonstrating their unity and resolve to remain non-aligned.

Challenges for Non-Aligned Nations

  • During the Cold War, non-aligned countries, particularly Least Developed Countries (LDCs), faced challenges in economic development and achieving independence. 

  • The idea of a New International Economic Order (NIEO) emerged in 1972, proposing a reform of the global trading system to give LDCs control over natural resources, access to Western markets, reduced technology costs, and a greater role in international economic institutions. 

  • Economic issues became increasingly important, leading to the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) as an economic pressure group. 

  • However, the NIEO initiative faded in the late 1980s due to opposition from developed countries and struggle to maintain unity.

India’s Response to the Cold War

  • During the Cold War, India took two different actions: 
    • staying away from the US and USSR alliances and 
    • Raising its voice against decolonized countries joining them. 

  • India's policy of nonalignment was not negative or passive, but actively intervened in world affairs to soften Cold War rivalries. It tried to reduce differences between the alliances and prevent them from escalating into a full-scale war. 

  • India chose to involve other members of the non-aligned group in this mission, aiming to activate regional and international organizations not part of the alliances led by the US and USSR.

  • Non-alignment served India's interests directly by allowing it to take international decisions and stances that served its interests rather than the interests of superpowers and their allies. 

  • It also allowed India to balance one superpower against the other, allowing it to tilt towards the other if needed. 

  • Critics have criticized India's non-alignment policy for being unprincipled and inconsistent, but it has evolved in the Cold War context. It was based on recognizing that decolonized states share a historical affiliation and can become powerful forces if they come together.

  • It also aimed to democratize the international system by thinking about an alternative world order to redress existing inequities. Even after the end of the Cold War, these fundamental principles continue to hold true.

End of the Cold War

  • The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 due to various factors, including the end of the Cold War, military reasons, and the policies of Mikhail Gorbachev. 

  • Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika aimed to liberalize the political landscape and introduce quasi-free market policies.

  • However, these policies led to criticism of the Soviet apparatus, loss of control over the media and public sphere, and growing disenchantment with the Soviet Union's economy, poverty, and unemployment. 

  • The Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989) also contributed to the collapse, draining the country's economic and military resources.


The US's victory in the Cold War transformed the world into a unipolar one. However, the US's power has become increasingly unstable due to invasions, security threats, economic instability, religious fundamentalism, and emerging economic powers. This has led to a multipolar world order and the potential decline of the West.

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