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.
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?