Themes of the Cold War

The hostility between the superpowers gave shape to the main themes that dominated the Cold War:

Expansionism and containment

  • After World War Two, the Soviets operated a policy of expansionism and attempted to spread communism throughout Eastern Europe.
  • The USA and its allies sought to prevent the spread of communism and operated a policy of containment.
  • As the Cold War progressed, there were attempts by both superpowers to extend their power and influence globally – sometimes officially, sometimes not - from the jungles of Vietnam to the beaches of the Caribbean, and from Angola in south-west Africa to Afghanistan in Central Asia.

Nuclear War and the Arms Race

  • From the USA’s first explosion of an atomic bomb in 1945, one of the most striking features of the Cold War was a growing threat of nuclear war.
  • The USSR had developed its own nuclear capability by 1949 ending the USA’s monopoly on atomic weapons.
  • Throughout the 1950s both sides accumulated ever more powerful nuclear weapons, a process known as the arms race, leading to the threat of mutually assured destruction (MAD).
  • The threat of MAD eventually led to a cautious willingness by both sides to limit nuclear arms production by the 1960s.
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To understand what’s going on as you read through the main events of the Cold War, it’s useful to think about:
  • Who was to responsible for the tension caused by each event?
  • How could these events affect relations between the superpowers?
  • What role was played by the different leaders on both sides?
  • What were the consequences for the wider world?