Cold War (1948-1991): East against West

Cold War (1948-1991): East against West

Legacy of the Second World War, the Cold War will oppose for more than four decades two irreconcilable worlds, the western camp and the soviet camp, in a confrontation barely tempered by the threat of nuclear weapons. As a balance of terror atomic, the rivalry between the two blocs will move towards peripheral conflicts on all continents. The collapse of the communist world from 1989 gave way to a new world order (or disorder) and saw the emergence of new threats.

The causes of the Cold War

While the Second World War is not yet over, the future victors discuss in 1943 the new world order that will emerge from the end of the conflict, and the areas of influence of each. Thus from 1945, defeated Germany was divided into four occupation zones under Soviet, American, French and British control, a pattern reproduced in its very capital, Berlin. In Eastern Europe and despite the commitments made by Stalin, elected governments are gradually being replaced by pro-Soviet regimes.

On March 5, 1946, in Fulton in the United States, Winston Churchill gave a famous speech in which he used the expression "iron curtain", an expression which immediately became symbolic of the entry of the world into the Cold War: "From Stettin over the Baltic to Trieste on the Adriatic, an iron curtain has fallen and divides the continent. Behind this line are all the capitals of the former states of central and eastern Europe ... subject ... to Soviet influence. " The former prime minister immediately pleaded for a new alliance between Western democracies to counter Soviet expansionism.

This necessity became all the more imperative that two years later, in 1948, the Soviets attempted to push back the other forces present outside West Berlin by isolating their sector. Only a vast airlift of supplies organized by the western camp made it possible to save West Berlin from famine. In 1949, Germany was divided into two quite distinct countries. That same year, the Soviet Union developed its own atomic bomb and was now in a position to compete with the United States.

To stem Soviet influence, the United States is implementing the Marshall Plan, which aims to accelerate the reconstruction of Europe, and deploying significant forces in Germany. In 1949, they formed with Canada and ten Western European countries (later 14) a defensive military alliance, NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization). Following West Germany's (FRG) membership in this organization in 1955, the Soviet Union responded by creating the Warsaw Pact, a military bloc that included the popular democracies of Eastern Europe.

The balance of terror

The United States and the Soviet Union then embarked on a frantic race to develop thermonuclear (hydrogen) bombs, with the destructive power many times greater than that of fission bombs. With this type of weaponry and the rapid development of missile launching systems, it became possible, in all-out war, to wipe out all life on earth several times. The two superpowers are increasing their stockpiles of nuclear weapons tenfold to maintain the guarantee of Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D) in the event of conflict, and thus deter the opposing camp from resorting to the bomb first.

The Korean War, which arose out of the invasion of South Korea by North Korea, has, in the context of the Cold War, taken on the shape of a localized international war, involving the United States and China in particular. Contrary to the fears that it may have aroused at first, it did not lead to a Third World War because of the will of the United States and the Soviet Union not to engage in a face- face to face.

It was after this conflict that the two opposing blocs put in place the principles of "peaceful coexistence". Aware of generating a powder keg that could lead to the annihilation of the planet, the belligerents are concerned to avoid escalation and diplomats outline a common discourse of aspiration to peace. A complete disarmament being unrealistic and impossible to control, we then opt for a policy of control. The International Atomic Energy Agency (A.I.E.A.) was established in 1957 to monitor the development and proliferation of nuclear technology and materials.

The balance of terror shifts the antagonism between the two blocs towards peripheral local conflicts. Thus, the Americans engage in the Vietnamese War, a deadly war that claims the lives of 57,000 Americans in the vain attempt to prevent the Communists from taking control of the country. Fear of communism also prompts the United States to support coups d'état against democratically elected leftist governments in Guatemala (1954) and Chile (1973).

During the Bay of Pigs invasion (1961), the Americans could not overthrow the Cuban communist government of their close neighbor Fidel Castro. In 1962, the Cold War reached a dangerous peak with the Cuban crisis, the Soviets seeking to install ballistic missiles on this island a few hundred kilometers from the American coast. A blockade put in place by the American fleet forces the Soviets to withdraw.

Towards East-West relaxation

Following this incident, the two blocs began a process of detente in order to ease international tension and promote peaceful coexistence. Despite the rise in tension which marked the crushing of the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops in 1968, negotiations followed which led to the SALT (Conference on the Limitation of Strategic Arms) agreements. What gives detente all its strength and which at the same time constitutes its main motivation is the effort to reduce military competition and in particular the danger of nuclear war.

The first half of the 1970s marked the height of detente, as evidenced by developments in Europe. Relations between West Germany and its Polish and East German neighbors, as well as with the Soviets, are normalized. President Richard Nixon visited Moscow in 1972 and received Leonid Brezhnev in Washington the following year. Finally, the Helsinki Agreements signed by 35 European countries recognize the existing borders and provide for the strengthening of respect for human rights as well as technical cooperation between East and West.

But, an ephemeral state which in reality does not induce structural change in the division of the world into two blocks, detente is at the mercy of the slightest evolution in the policies of the two great. Thus, the resumption of the expansionist line by the Soviets in the mid-1970s and the election of Ronald Reagan as President of the United States marked the return of tension between the two blocs.

The end of the Cold War?

In March 1983, President Ronald Reagan announced the launch of a vast US military research program known as "Star Wars", which challenged the doctrine of the balance of terror. The Strategic Defense Initiative aimed to develop a system capable of intercepting and destroying enemy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached US soil or that of its allies. This relaunch of the arms race, involving huge investments in research and development, was accompanied by a new policy of firmness on the part of the West against the Soviets. More or less realistic and achievable, this project highlights above all the inability of the USSR to continue technological competition in the field of armaments in the long term.

Since the mid-1970s, the Soviet Union has been in decline. Its Conservative government is sclerotic and refuses innovations, its agriculture and its industry are in disarray. Its rich natural resources are found in remote areas and remain untapped. Huge spending on defense (twice as much as other industrialized countries) and on competing with Western technological advances prevent any rise in living standards. Strict censorship and the ban on political freedom continue to be rife in Eastern Europe as well as in the Soviet Union. In 1979, international relations were broken when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan; It is the start of an endless and terrible war that will be compared to the Vietnam War for Americans.

The reformer Mikhail Gorbachev took power in 1985, after the death of two leaders of the old guard, Andropov and Tchernenko. The Soviet leader then began negotiations with the United States aimed at reducing nuclear weapons, liberalizing political and economic life and pledging to withdraw Red Army troops from Afghanistan. At the end of 1989, the communist regimes of Eastern Europe collapsed one after the other under the pressure of popular revolutions. After months of protests, East Germany (GDR) opens its borders and the Berlin Wall collapses. A year later, after 40 years of divorce, the two Germans are reunited. In 1991, the Soviet Union broke up to be replaced by a short-lived Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

A new world order

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many new independent states were divided by ethnic tensions or border disputes with their neighbors. Moldova, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan and Georgia, all were the scene of civil wars or terrorist acts during the 1990s. A terrible war raged between 1994 and 1996 when Muslims in Chechnya tried to secede from the Russian Federation .

In Eastern Europe, the dismantling of Yugoslavia causes the most serious carnage that Europe has seen since World War II. Between 1992 and 1995, the new republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina was the setting for a civil war between a predominantly Muslim population, the Serbs wanting to be part of the Greater Serbia, and the Croats wishing to join Croatia. On both sides the worst atrocities are being committed; the Serbs are guilty of genocide by practicing a policy of ethnic cleansing. It is the reign of deportations, internments and massacres of all non-Serbs. The United Nations sent troops but could not stop the massacre.

Soviet disintegration brought the Cold War to an end, and both sides embarked on a policy of disarmament and disengagement from peripheral conflicts. The end of Soviet support for Ethiopia enabled the Eritrean rebels to finally win their long war of independence in 1993. The economy of Cuba, the Soviet Union's ally in America, collapsed as soon as Russian aid dried up. The United States withdrew its support for the racist white regime in South Africa, which had served as a bulwark against communism, and in 1994 the first black-majority government was elected.

A multipolar and uncertain world

On September 11, 2001, the United States was hit by the greatest terrorist attack of all time. Two of the four civilian planes hijacked by Islamist Al-Qaida terrorists target the two tallest skyscrapers on Manhattan Island, New York: the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Weakened by the violence of the impact and by the spread of fire, the two towers collapsed shortly after, taking their occupants with them. In total, nearly 3,000 people (employees, visitors, relief workers and flight passengers) disappear with the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The shock is global. A new war is opening against a new threat: terrorism.

History of the long-lasting antagonism between two great powers, the Cold War still has harmful consequences on the balance of the world, for example on the treatment of international terrorism. NATO's extension to Eastern Europe has degraded relations between Russia and the West, and the emergence of China is giving rise to new political and economic tensions in a world that has become multipolar and still also uncertain.

For further

- The Cold War: 1943-1990, by Georges-Henri Soutou. Plural, 2011.

- The Cold War, by Catherine Durandin. PUF pocket, 2019.

- Atlas of the Cold War: A global and multifaceted conflict. Editions Autrement, 2017.


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