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Key Events of the Cold War

Page history last edited by Robert W. Maloy 8 months, 3 weeks ago


Focus Question: What were the key events and developments of the Cold War era?


Map shows Troop strengths of NATO members in Europe, and of Warsaw Pact members, 1959


        Troop strengths of NATO members in Europe, and of Warsaw Pact members, 1959


Topics on the Page


A. the Korean War

  • The Domino Theory


B. the emergence of the People’s Republic of China as a major power


C. the 1956 uprising in Hungary


D. Soviet-U.S. competition in the Middle East

  • Iranian Hostage Crisis (1979-1981)


E. conflicts involving Cuba and Berlin Airlift





F. the Vietnam War



  Women and the Vietnam War


G. the “Prague Spring”


H. arms control agreements (including the ABM and SALT treaties) and détente under Nixon


I. the Soviet war in Afghanistan



external image 200px-Hebrew_timeline.svg.pngClick here for a timeline of events leading up to, and during, the Arms Race.


Cold War Timeline by Monica Berg


The Cold War 


  • The Cold War lasted from the late 1940's to early 1990's. There is no definitive start and end date to this war, because it was unlike any other war, there was no fighting. The Cold War was also known as an "arms race". This was a fight between mainly the United States and the Soviet Union for who was the main rising power of the world. 


  • The approach on communism for the United States was containment. The US wanted to contain communism and not let it spread to surrounding nations, post World War II.  


  • For example some of the main things that were being raced between the two was the Soviet Union was the first country to put a shuttle into orbit. To counter act that the United States landed a man on the moon. The next step was the nuclear power war. There was a constant fear that at any time, a nuclear war could break out. This was a dangerous time and a scary time to be living in this race. Here is an example of the procedure of steps they showed in classrooms, known as duck and cover, because there was the fear of actual atomic war.
  • https://online.norwich.edu/academic-programs/resources/5-key-cold-war-events: the most key events of the Cold war. 
  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I79TpDe3t2g: the Cold War summed up in 15 minutes.  



A) The Korean War


Click here for an Introductory Overview and Special Image Selection from the United States Department of the Navy.

  • Click here for a general overview of the Korean War


external image Chosin.jpg
The Korean War (June 251950-July 27, 1953), was fought in Korea which was divided by the post-World War II Soviet and American occupation zones, with large-scale participation by other countries.


  • The war began with the invasion of South Korea by North Korean forces in 1950 and ended as a stalemate between the two sides in 1953. 


  • The war was largely a proxy war, pitting South Korea (backed by the Democratic United States) against North Korea (backed by the Communist Soviet Union and the Communist People's Republic of China). 


  • The stalemate was prompted by Stalin's death. With the Soviet Union unable to continue, China backed out as well, causing the fighting to stop.

The Korean War portrays American Cold War sentiments perfectly.


  • At the end of World War II, the U.S.'s main goal was the containment of communism which they believed stemmed from the Soviet Union in Moscow. George Kennan, a U.S. diplomat to Moscow, articulated the containment theory which stated that the U.S. had to contain and defeat communism worldwide in order to protect democracy and freedom-loving countries. 


  • The U.S. and the Soviet Union would try to back and install puppet governments in under-developed countries all over the world. 


  • The Cold War was essentially spreading influence around the world along with major military/weapons build up. 


  • In North Korea the Soviets backed communist leader Kim Il-sung and created the North Korean Peoples' Army. This made the U.S. extremely nervous because it was believed that if North Korea attacked South Korea it would only be a matter of time before communism spread to Japan and the rest of the Pacific.


The Domino Theory

American actions gave rise to what has been called the Domino Theory when it came to the spreading of communism. America believed that if one country falls to communism, neighboring countries would follow suit until the entire world turned communist.

 Dwight Eisenhower was the first president to talk openly about the Domino Theory (Presidential News Conference, April 7, 1954), but it was around before he took office. North Korea invaded South Korea after a several years of skirmishes along the 38th parallel. During the war the advantage shifted sides rapidly up until the ceasefire in 1953. The war never officially ended, there are still U.S. troops stationed along the 38th parallel today.


 State-Level Lists of Casualties from the Korean War (1951-1957) from the National Archives


  Korean War Videos:



  • The United States had a propaganda campaign during the Korean War. Leaflets were air dropped over North Korea. 


 Women served in the Armed Forces during the Korean war too! Read about their contributions here.


The Korea War was the first war fought by the US after the integration of black and white troops in 1948. However, the 24th Infantry was still an all black troop.


Click here to read a transcript from an investigation of the treatment of black soldier by Thurgood Marshall. Click here to read more about the contributions from black soldiers during the Korean War.


Click here for a high school lesson plan on the Korean War.

B) The Emergence of the People's Republic of China


The Qing Dynasty was the last in Chinese History, ending in 1911 (see map below). From 1911 to 1949, China was ruled by a republican form of government.

On October 1, 1949, the People's Republic of China replaced the Chinese Republic.

In 1966, Mao and his allies launched the Cultural Revolution which led to a major upheaval in Chinese society. After Mao's death in 1976 and the arrest of the Gang of Four, Deng Xiaoping quickly wrested power from Mao's anointed successor Hua Guofeng.


  • Although Deng’s influence within the Party led the country to economic reforms. The Communist Party subsequently loosened governmental control over people's personal lives and the communes were disbanded with many peasants receiving multiple land leases, which greatly increased incentives and agricultural production. 


  • This turn of events marked China's transition from a planned economy to a mixed economy. The PRC adopted its current constitution on December 4, 1982.

To read the present Chinese Constitution, click here for the Constitution of the People's Republic of China (1982).

The world began to see China as less of a puppet regime serving the Soviet Union, wielding great power in its own right.


  • At this time, Nikita Khrushchev denounced former Soviet leader Josef Stalin. China began to feel their paths were no longer running the same course. 


  • They would now distance themselves from the power that had once had so much influence over China's policy. 


  • As the Soviet Union's power eventually begin to wane, China seized the opportunity to become a new Communist world power.

The emergence of China as a new communist superpower frightened leaders in the U.S. The U.S. now believed they would have to face two communist powers, one in Europe and the other in Asia.

  • The U.S. thought China and the Soviet Union were strong allies working together to defeat democracy worldwide. China entered a strategic alliance with the Soviet Union following WWII. But China felt that the Soviet Union's future goals did not match their own. 


  • Both countries wanted very different things and were not even working together after the Korean War. 


  • The U.S., fearful of both communist countries, cut ties with China altogether. As a result of China's emergence, U.S. Cold War policy got the U.S. involved in wars such as Korea and Vietnam. 


  • These wars were byproducts of the Cold War which tarnished U.S. reputation and changed the attitudes of Americans dramatically. In the late 1970s the U.S. and China reopened ties and began talks of cooperation.


Want more background on the rise of the People's Republic of China? Click here for a crash course!



C) 1956 Uprising in Hungary


Communist leader Mátyás Rákosi established Stalinist rule in Hungary. The rule of the Rákosi government was nearly unbearable for Hungary's war-torn citizens. This led to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and Hungary's temporary withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact.


  • It began as a student demonstration which attracted thousands as it marched through central Budapest to the Parliament building. The revolt spread quickly across Hungary, and the government collapsed. 


  • Thousands organized into militias, battling Soviet troops. Nearly a quarter of a million people left the country during the brief time that the borders were open in 1956.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union could not have a communist nation turn non-communist. Hungary was a Soviet satellite state and under Soviet control along with most of Eastern Europe.

  • The Soviets crushed the revolution just 12 days after it had occurred in 1956. 


  • Fear of losing ground to the U.S. in the Cold War, the Soviet Union had to maintain control of its Eastern European satellite states. 


  • During the Soviet invasion Hungary turned towards the United Nations and the United States for help in establishing the country's neutrality.

The U.S. could not do much in the way of aiding the rebels in Hungary. President Eisenhower said, "that there was little the United States could do short of risking global war to help the rebels."

With that being the case, the Soviets defeated the rebels within about a week. For the next three decades Hungary remained under the control of the Soviet Union. Only when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, did Hungary become free.

For a clear list of causes and effects of the Hungarian Uprising, click here.


Here is a 10 minute video overview of the Hungarian Uprising from YouTube here.


For more photos of the Hungarian Uprising, visit LIFE Magazine's photo gallery.



D) U.S.-Soviet Competition in the Middle East

See also World History II.38 on nationalist movements and World History II.47 on the rise of Islamic fundamentalism

The increasing importance of the oil industry marked the creation of the modern Middle East. These developments led to a growing presence of the United States in Middle East affairs.


  • The U.S. was the ultimate guarantor of the stability of the region, and from the 1950s the dominant force in the oil industry. 


  • When republican revolutions brought radical anti-western regimes to power in Egypt in 1954, Syria in 1963, Iraq in 1968, and in Libya in 1969, the Soviet Union sought to open a new arena of the Cold War in the Middle East. 


  • The American and Soviet presences were just another situation of the powers using smaller countries as proxies to push their agendas. 


  • The Cold War was a time when a head to head battle between powers could result in a nuclear holocaust, these proxy wars were the closest that the powers could really get to fighting without scaring themselves with their enemy's capabilities.



The U.S. did get involved in the Middle East due to the massive oil reserves in those countries. The Soviet Union moved ever closer towards the Middle East in the late 1960s/early 1970s which made the U.S. react.


  • The CIA would establish harsh pro-American rulers in Middle Eastern countries to make sure U.S. oil interests were safe. 


  • For example in 1953 the U.S. backed a coup to overthrow Mohammed Mosaddeq, the nationally elected ruler of Iran. Mosaddeq nationalized the oil reserves in Iran causing the price of oil to increase which upset the U.S. greatly. 


  • In his place the U.S. established the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who lowered prices of oil for the U.S. in return for support and weapons.

The Shah became extremely unpopular in Iran because he used his police, the SAVAK, like SS troops. They ruled with an iron fist killing any civilian opposing the regime.

  • The Shah also kept asking the U.S. for more and more weapons in order to keep rule. This upset many Islamic fundamentalists in Iran because they viewed the Shah as a pawn of the U.S. Islamic fundamentalists wanted Iran to be ruled by traditional Muslim rulers and Muslim way of life.

The high leader of the Islamic fundamentalists was the Ayatollah Khomeini, who was exiled to Iraq, but still spoke out against the Shah. He had a great following of Iranians and eventually they overthrew the Shah in the late 1970s. Before the overthrow, the U.S. got into a hostage situation at its embassy in Terhan, Iran in 1979.

Iranian Hostage Crisis (1979-1981)


A group of Iran radical students opposing the Shah's rule took 55 Americans hostage in the US embassy for 444 days which came to be known as the Iranian Hostage Crisis.


  • This hostage situation was the result of secret CIA missions and coups during the Cold War. 


  • President Carter took most of the blame and the hostage crisis became one of the low points of his presidency.

Click here to read material from Iran Hostage Robert C. Ode's diary.

Click here for an ABC News Report six days into the hostage crisis.

Six US State Department employees were able to escape the Embassy and take refuge in the homes of Canadian Embassy officers. The US Government developed several major operations to address this national crisis. Among them was a scheme developed by a small team of CIA operatives to disguise and false-documentation specialists to exfiltrate the “Canadian Six” (as they became known) from the country.

Click here for a video created in 1980, highlighting the events along with interviews from the people involved.

In 2012, a movie was released entitled, Argo, based on the true story of a CIA operation to rescue six American's in Tehran during the crisis.

Click here for an NPR article about the movie, and the experiences of those involved.

Click here for an article published by TIME magazine, which highlights the efforts of Canada in this operation.


E) Cuban Missile Crisis and Berlin Wall and Airlift





F) The Vietnam War


The Vietnam War was a military conflict in present day Vietnam occurring from 1959 to April 301975.

The conflict was a successful effort by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV or North Vietnam) and the indigenous National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam, (also known as the Việt Cộng, or more informally as the "Charlie", "VC" or "Cong") to establish a communist system by defeating the South Vietnamese Republic of Vietnam (RVN).

The North Vietnamese army and those fighting for a communist Vietnam were led by a widely loved man named Ho Chi Minh,

The Vietnam War was largely a "proxy war" between the U.S. and its Western allies against the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China supporting the DRV.

As a result of this, the Vietnam War is often considered part of the Cold War.

As in many Cold War proxy wars, the United States' aim was to stop the spread of Communism in other countries, fearing that these Communist regimes would become puppet governments of their main rival, the Soviet Union.


  • This war would become one of much debate in the United States and became unpopular for countlesss Americans fostered a significant antiwar effort on the homefront as many atrocities committed by the US military were being uncovered.


  • The United States was not successful in the war for several reasons including, a lack of knowledge of the Vietnamese land, a lack of popular support for a democratic government in Saigon, very poor morale by American troops and a mass anti-war movement by the American people. 


  • The debate raging over this war had caused a rift between the right and left more than ever before and a general distrust of the government.

Anti-War Protests and Kent State Massacre

The US became bogged down in Vietnam for many years. It tarnished US credibility and made many US citizens upset. The public protested the war for many years all around the US.


  • This war drained Americans mentally, especially the soldiers who never knew exactly what they were fighting for.


  • They would march all day, come into contact with the enemy, have small firefights, and then return to base. There was no taking or capturing territory.


  • The loss in Vietnam was a gain for the Soviet Union because they considered a US loss a Soviet victory during the Cold War.

Anti-war campaigns taking place in America included a large college involvement.


  • One particular protest occured in Kent State University, which resulted in shooting of unarmed college students by the Ohio National Guard. Four students were killed in what is known as the Kent State Shootings or Kent State Massacre. 


  • Along with countless protest, popular singer, Neil Young released a song, Ohio, in response to the shootings. 
      • Click here for a recording of the song along with lyrics and pictures connecting to the event.

Click here to read about the legacy of the Vietnam War.



The contributions of African-American soldiers in the Vietnam War are often not recognized. For a NY TIMES article on African-American soldiers in the Vietnam War, click here.


  Vietnam War Videos





G) Prague Spring


The Prague Spring was a period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia starting January 51968, when Alexander Dubček came to power, and running until August 21 of external image 105684-004-CA60C07B.jpgthat year when the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies invaded the country.


  • The Soviet Union considered countries like Czechoslovakia their own. They liberated Eastern Europe from Nazis after WWII but established their own oppressive rule. 


  • Before the invasion the Soviets wanted the Czechs to sign treaties and summons in Moscow, none of which benefited Czechoslovakia. 


  • The Czechs refused to attend the summons and sign the papers which lead to the invasion. The Soviets were certain that the US would not respond because of their war in Vietnam. 


  • On the night of August 20, 1968, the Soviets captured Dubcek along with several of his colleagues. 


  • The next morning the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia with 200,000 troops coming from Eastern Europe. 


  • There was no bloodshed because Dubcek renounced his ideals and agreed to Soviet control. Dubcek remained the leader of the country, but as a puppet of the Soviet Union. He told his people that they had to bend to the Soviet will and accept their rule. By doing this Dubcek allowed Soviet troops to remain on Czechoslovakian soil. 


  • The Prague Spring was a small and costly victory for the Soviets mainly because it made them appear like warmongers to the rest of the world. The Vietnam War had a similar effect on America's reputation. The Soviets and communism appeared oppressive after the invasion of Czechoslovakia.

A good description of causes and effects of Prague Spring can be found here.

Click here for an article reviewing and remembering the events of the Prague Spring.


Click here for a 20 minute documentary on the Prague Spring.

To see President Obama describing the impact of the 40th Anniversary of the Prague Spring, click here. In his address, President Obama makes an interesting comparison to the Russia’s intrusion on Georgia in 2008.

H) Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (1972)

Anti-ballistic missile launch
Anti-ballistic missile launch

The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty or ABMT) was a treaty between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the limitation of the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems used in defending areas against missile-delivered nuclear weapons. On May 261972President Richard Nixon and the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev, signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

The goal behind this treaty was to deter either country from launching nuclear missiles. Both countries agreed to the treaty, but obviously watched each other very closely. In the mid-1980s president Reagan funded a space defense program called "Star Wars." The idea was to develop a massive force field-like shield in outer space which would protect the US from a nuclear attack. The program cost the US billions of dollars and was never seriously tested. The technology was not available and the program also went against the ABM treaty. The Soviets were outraged at the U.S. and complained to the UN. The U.S. cut the program rather quickly and instead used funds to bolster the defense of missile silos around the country.

The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks refers to two rounds of bilateral talks and corresponding international treaties between the Soviet Union and the United States, the Cold War superpowers, on the issue of armament control. The United States and the Soviet Union limited the countries' stock of nuclear weapons in 1968.

The treaties resulting from these negotiations are called SALT I and SALT II.


In 2001, President George W. Bush announced that the US would be withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Click here for a video of C-SPAN explaining this event. Watch Bush' speech here.

I) Soviet war in Afghanistan


  • As part of a Cold War strategy, in 1979 the United States government under President Jimmy Carter began to covertly fund and train anti-government Mujahedeen forces through the Pakistani secret service agency known as Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).


  • In order to bolster the local Communist forces, the Soviet Union—citing the 1978 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Good Neighborliness that had been signed between the two countries—intervened on December 24, 1979. According to media and official government sources, between 110,000 to 150,000 Soviet troops, assisted by another 100,000 or so pro-communist Afghan troops, were present in Afghanistan.


  • The Soviet occupation resulted in a mass exodus of over 5 million Afghans that moved into refugee camps in neighboring Pakistan, Iran, and other countries.


  • The Soviet Union invaded the country in order to back the pro-Marxist government in Afghanistan against Mujahedeen resistance supported by the U.S. along with other anti-communist nations. At first the Soviet Union crushed the ill-equipped resistance.


  • When the U.S. started supplying the Mujahedeen with stinger missiles, the tide turned against the Soviets. Many historians see the invasion of Afghanistan as the Soviet's Vietnam. They became bogged down in a win-less war until they exited Afghanistan in 1989.

See also, Timeline: Soviet War in Afghanistan from BBC News.


CNN Presents produced a documentary called “The Soldiers of God” describing the War in Afghanistan between the Soviet Union and Afghanis. The transcript is available here.

external image Red_apple.jpgSoviet Invasion of Afghanistan was not a Grand Design but a Grand Entanglement from the National Security Archives at George Mason University.

With U.S. Set to Leave Afghanistan, Echoes of 1989 from the New York Times, January 1, 2013

[1] The Korean War: An Overview. Retrieved on March 3, 2010 from the BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/coldwar/korea_hickey_01.shtml
[2] Mao’s China and the Cold War. Retrieved on March 3, 2010 from UNC Press: http://www.ibiblio.org/uncpress/chapters/chen_maos.html
“[3] The 1956 Hungarian Revolution: A History in Documents. Retrieved on March 3, 2010 from George Washington University: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB76/
[4] The Prague Spring of 1968. Retrieved on March 3, 2010 from the Western College of New England: http://mars.wnec.edu/~grempel/courses/world/lectures/praguespring.html
[5] The Korean War – Police Action. Retrieved on March 3, 2010 from EDSITEment: http://edsitement.neh.gov/view_lesson_plan.asp?id=684
[6] Korean War Special Images. Retrieved on March 3, 2010 from the Department of the Navy: http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/events/kowar/kowar.htm
[7]State-listed Casualties of the Korean Conflict. Retrieved on March 3, 2010 from the National Archives: http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/events/kowar/kowar.htm
[8]The People’s Republic of China. Retrieved on March 3, 2010: http://www-chaos.umd.edu/history/prc.html.
[9] Mátyás Rákosi. Retrieved on March 3, 2010 from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M%C3%A1ty%C3%A1s_R%C3%A1kosi
[10] Hungarian Uprising. Retrieved on March 3, 2010 from YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LVdQ9PK9Q5o.
[11] The People’s Republic of China Constitution. Retrieved on March 3, 2010: http://english.people.com.cn/constitution/constitution.html
[12] Iran Hostage Robert C. Ode's diary. Retrieved on March 3, 2010 from the Jimmy Carter Library & Musuemhttp://www.jimmycarterlibrary.org/documents/r_ode/index.phtml
[13] Cuban Missile Crisis Interactive Activity. Retrieved on March 3, 2010 from Teaching American History: http://www.teachingamericanhistory.org/neh/interactives/cubanmissilecrisis/
[14]Clip from Thirteen Days. Retrieved on March 3, 2010 from YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iZAwvCKoSi8&feature=related
[15] The Berlin Wall. Retrieved on March 3, 2010: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iZAwvCKoSi8&feature=related
[16] “Vietnam” Lecture by Jennifer Burns. Retrieved on March 3, 2010 from UC Berkley: http://webcast.berkeley.edu/course_details.php?seriesid=1906978276
[17] “Women, the Unknown Soldier.” Retrieved on March 3, 2010: http://www.deanza.edu/faculty/swensson/bestresearch_womensoldiers.html
[18] “40th Anniversary of the Prague Spring”. Retrieved on March 3, 2010 from YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GGScGoGtbO0
[19] ATM Treaty. Retrieved on March 3, 2010 from the Department of State: http://www.state.gov/www/global/arms/treaties/abmpage.html
[20] Cultural Revolution and the Five-Year Plan of China http://departments.kings.edu/history/20c/china.html#Great


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