What was the Cold War and why do we refer to it as such?

To put it simply, the Cold War was a political, ideological and economic conflict that broke out in the years after the Second World War and lasted up until 1991. The two main protagonists were the United States and the Soviet Union, along with their respective allies (the western and eastern blocs). Of course, it was much more complex than that.


As to the name: a war will turn ‘hot’ when it involves open fighting, whereas a ‘cold war’ is a battle of ideology. The Cold War of the second half of the 20th century did, in various instances, become a physical conflict as there were lots of wars by proxy, such as in Korea and Vietnam. But fundamentally it remained peaceful and certainly was not what the two world wars had been.


What were the ideologies of the two opposing sides?

The United States, and its chief ally Britain, were capitalist and democratic countries, while the Soviet Union was a communist state – the first significant communist country to come out of the First World War. The Soviet ideal was an internal system for making life more equitable and level, but more broadly there was a belief that if communism was to succeed then the Russians would have to export that mentality to other countries around the world.

So, in the interwar years – particularly after Joseph Stalin came to power – the idea of a global communist revolution took hold. This was strongly opposed by the west, but the two sides would become allies in the Second World War. In the aftermath of the war, Soviet expansion took on a renewed vigour and became more overt: not just in a political-ideological way, but increasingly in a military way, too. The east and west became embroiled in a battle for ideas, for people, for land and for territory.

And later, this battle would become characterised by the threat of nuclear war.

An American propaganda poster, dated c1920, offers an alarming depiction of life under communist rule
An American propaganda poster, dated c1920, offers an alarming depiction of life under communist rule. Long before the Cold War, the US sought to halt the spread of the ideology. (Photo by Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Was the Cold War inevitable after the Second World War?

The answer to this question is more complex than a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. On one level, there were substantial differences in the aftermath of the Second World War that had not existed at any previous time in history.

Take Germany: the four great powers who had won split the country into four zones, with the capitalist nations (the United States, Britain and France) combining their zones into what became West Germany.

The Soviets took East Germany. So, in one country, there was a stark division in politics, ideology, economy and allegiances. The hope that these two sides of Germany could live perfectly harmoniously was, at best, naive.

The construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 physically prevented East German citizens from entering the area of the city under western rule
The construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 physically prevented East German citizens from entering the area of the city under western rule. (Photo by Hilde/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

But one issue that pervaded the Cold War was trying to understand what was going on: the perception versus reality. One of the main difficulties that the west faced after the war was knowing what the Russians were up to.

Stalin and the Kremlin were fearful of a German invasion; a common fear for the Russians as they had been invaded numerous times in the preceding centuries. American, British and other western diplomats began focusing on the question ‘Is Stalin trying to expand the communist revolution outward, to make states to the west of the Soviet Union communist?’ Or was his intention, as others believed, to create a buffer zone between Germany in the centre of Europe and the Soviet Union?

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Events from 1947 onwards made the Russians show their hand, and that’s when the Cold War became a more crystallised conflict.

Listen: Historian Sean McMeekin discusses his revisionist history of WW2, which places Josef Stalin at the centre of the conflict. He shows how the Soviet dictator outmanoeuvred both enemies and allies to secure his own ends


How long after the start of the Cold War did the public know it was happening?

Between the end of the war in 1945 and 1947, not much happened. Countries were preoccupied with their own economies and with other forms of rebuilding after years of destruction. The big change came in 1947.

First, there was the Truman Doctrine, launched by US president Harry Truman in reaction to what he perceived as a communist threat to Greece and Turkey. This was essentially a promise that the US would come to the rescue of any country who was fighting political oppression. It didn’t name the Soviet Union directly, but it was a clear statement of intent: “We, the US, will support anyone standing up to the Russians.”

The Truman Doctrine was followed a few months later by the Marshall Plan, named after the then-US secretary of state George Marshall, which promised enormous amounts of economic aid to these countries. What you had with both of these was a political commitment to defend Europe (and other countries more broadly) against the Soviets. This was followed two years later with the creation of Nato.

So, by the late 1940s, the public was certainly aware that there was a growing antagonism between the US and the Soviet Union, if not a conflict.

Greek dockers unload sacks of American flour provided as part of the Marshall Plan
Greek dockers unload sacks of American flour provided as part of the Marshall Plan. The US scheme was designed to help Europe recover from the economic damage of the Second World War – although there was a crucial ulterior motive. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

How close did the Cold War get to becoming ‘hot’?

Arguably, the prospect of a nuclear war was actually less close than people appreciated, and feared, at the time. But a fundamental concern during the Cold War was misperception: if one side got it wrong in their judgment of what the other was up to, it had the potential to lead to a severe miscalculation that would result in a direct war – a nuclear war, at that.

The closest that they came was the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. This was a reasonably short-lived episode where the Russians secretly transported a huge number of nuclear missiles to Cuba, an island around 90 miles off the coast of Florida.

Cuba was a communist country led by Fidel Castro, a great friend of the Soviet Union. After American intelligence spotted the missile sites on the island, a tense 13-day standoff followed. There were calls for an invasion, and, famously, Curtis LeMay, head of Strategic Air Command (one of the US’s nuclear arms) – a characteristic, cigar-chomping Air Force man – just said, “Let’s bomb them!”

Fortunately, saner heads prevailed. Under President John F Kennedy, there was instead a blockade, which stopped more Russian ships getting in, and clandestine negotiations. Eventually, an agreement was reached whereby the missiles would be dismantled and removed.

The US destroyer USS Barry (bottom) and a Navy plane escort the Soviet freighter Anosov (top) away after the conclusion of the Cuban Missile Crisis
The US destroyer USS Barry (bottom) and a Navy plane escort the Soviet freighter Anosov (top) away after the conclusion of the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

The Cuban Missile Crisis was regarded at the time as the moment the world stepped back from the brink, and is still remembered as such to this day.


How did the US resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis?

It is with the benefit of hindsight that there is a greater understanding of the stand-off between Kennedy and the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev. The latter was notorious for using bluff as a main method of dealing with people, so he was unlikely to back down publicly in October 1962, despite the scale of the American anger at having missiles so close to their mainland. There was a great sense that this could all-too easily lead to an escalation of the Cold War.

Yet the tense situation was diffused with help from a Soviet spy: a colonel in military intelligence named Oleg Penkovsky, who passed information to the Americans and British about the missiles and the Soviet nuclear programme. Thanks to this, the Americans knew that Khrushchev’s policy was based on bluffing, and that the best way of dealing with a bully like that was to stand up to him.

That’s what Kennedy did, and Khrushchev backed down. In return, the Americans secretly agreed to remove their missiles in Turkey, the presence of which had partly prompted the Russians to send missiles to Cuba in the first place, in a sort of quid pro quo.

One intriguing detail, which didn’t come out until the 1990s, was that in addition to the missiles that the Americans had known about on Cuba – had tracked and watched being dismantled – the Russians had actually managed to get some tactical nuclear weapons onto Cuba. These were never spotted by the Americans.

Listen: Michael Goodman tells you everything you need to know about the Cold War


What was the significance of espionage in the Cold War?

Policymakers in both the east and west continuously supported and financed their intelligence communities throughout the Cold War; clearly it was felt there was a great need for the information they provided and the misinformation they spread to the other side.

There were a number of episodes that were a direct consequence of the information gained through espionage. For example, technical intelligence acquired by the Russians – such as blueprints during the Second World War from a variety of different scientists – influenced the way they built their atomic bomb.

Then there was the intelligence passed on to the British by Russian double-agent Oleg Gordievsky. In particular, he was good at sharing information about the mentality of the Kremlin. In the early 1980s, Leonid Brezhnev, leader of the Soviet Union from 1964 until his death in 1982, was by then an old man and hugely paranoid. He heard US president Ronald Reagan’s speeches calling Russia “the evil empire” and became convinced that the west was going to launch a nuclear strike.

Soviet double agent Oleg Gordievsky
Soviet double agent Oleg Gordievsky would later help Britain and the US make tricky policy decisions in the 1980s. (Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images)

Gordievsky’s intelligence prompted the British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, to tone down her rhetoric about the Russians and also to convince Reagan – with whom she had developed an extremely close relationship – to change his speeches. So, this is a key example of where you can almost draw a direct line between espionage information and a change in policy.

Listen: Bestselling historical author Ben Macintyre talks to us about his book, The Spy and the Traitor, which tells the remarkable story of a KGB double agent who risked his life to help the west during the Cold War


How did the way in which wars were fought change in the second half of the 20th century?

One of the biggest innovations of the Second World War was the construction of the atomic bomb. Fundamentally, it arose out of a fear that the Germans would be the first to develop this technology.

The atomic bomb was one of the biggest secrets of the war – the science behind it and the fact it was being constructed on such a massive scale – and the dropping of bombs on Japan was a real watershed moment. It changed warfare.

So, as the antagonism between the east and west grew during the postwar period, one of the key questions for the Americans and their allies was: when will the Russians get the atomic bomb and how will that change warfare? It was assumed from the outset that any future war would be a nuclear war.


Who ‘won’ the Cold War?

The easy answer is: the west won. The Cold War ended in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union; the Soviets’ political-ideological system imploded, as did all the countries that were allied with them – they became independent and shed their Soviet allegiances. Of course, there’s a much more complex answer to the question, but I think on a basic level, as an ideological political conflict, you can say the Soviet system lost.


Michael Goodman is professor of intelligence and international affairs and head of the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. He has published widely in the field of intelligence history and scientific intelligence