The Cold War refers to the post World War II hostilities between the Soviet Union and the United States that eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Throughout the 45-year period, although no real battles were fought between the two superpowers, there was a threat of nuclear war on both sides, participation by proxy in the wars of their allied countries, a race for supremacy in space exploration, intense missile and nuclear weapon rivalry and economic competition in the form of American capitalism vs. Soviet communism.
This resource guide is not meant to be a comprehensive resource on the Cold War. Rather, it aims to provide an overview of the events leading up to the Cold War, the impact it created within and outside of Europe and how it was eventually resolved.
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Origins of the Cold War
Events leading up to the Cold War began when the alliance between the Soviet Union and its World War II allies, United States, France and Britain broke down in the years immediately after the war. Besides the clash in the diametrically opposing communist and democratic forms of government, Russia’s expansionist ambition to conquer the whole of Europe, beginning with setting up communist governments in Central and Eastern Europe (Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia) raised alarms among the Western democratic countries, who perceived Stalin and his ideology as threats to democracy. America and Russia also disagreed over the issue of nuclear weapons disarmament.
The Truman Doctrine, released on March 12, 1947, approving US$400 million to be given to Greece and Turkey to aid their fight against communism, signaled a formal declaration of Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. For the next three decades, America adopted a policy of containment against the Soviet Union, using political, economic and military strategies to stop the spread of communism in Europe and in Southeast Asia. The Soviet Union and its allied communist governments in Europe refused to participate in America’s Marshall Plan (1947), which aimed to provide financial aid to Europe to help them re-build their economies that had been devastated by World War Two.
The Berlin Blockade (24 June 1948 – 12 May 1949) was another attempt by the Soviet Union to gain control over another European country, Germany, which had been divided into four sectors after World War Two: the French sector, British Sector, American sector and the Soviet sector. This blockade however failed due to the Western allies’ Berlin Airlift operation, which succeeded in providing supplies to people in West Berlin after the Soviet Union had blocked railway and road access to areas under Allied control.
The formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949, with the United States pledging her commitment to protect Europe in the event of any attacks, further increased the antagonistic tension between the United States and the Soviet Union. Both countries intensified the rebuilding of their military forces, which soon escalated to a nuclear arms rivalry, with both countries racing to be the first to develop the most deadly of all bombs – the hydrogen bomb. In response to the Western alliance’s NATO, the Soviet Union established the Warsaw Treaty Organization of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance or Warsaw Pact in 1955, a defence strategy joined by eight communist states in Eastern Europe. These two opposing blocs and the continuing rivalry between both countries thus gave shape to the developments of the Cold War.
The sources on this page provide references to the origins of and developments in the Cold War in Europe after World War Two.
Origins of the Cold War – Newspaper Articles
(listed in alphabetical order)
The Berlin airlift, a joint operation between the Americans and British to fly food and supplies into Soviet-blockaded West Berlin, continues into its second year of operation, sustaining the lives of two million Berliners.
The Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union spills over to Latin America, with communist forces instigating revolutionary riots and acts of violence in Colombia. The Latin American front is seen as a Soviet push to extend its sphere of influence and gain control of strategic territory – there is a surge of communist movements in practically every Latin American country.
The United States prepares to implement the Marshall plan, a multi-billion-dollar foreign economic aid plan extended to Europe to help it recover after World War Two.
The article explores the history, ideology, and politics of the Soviet Union under the leadership of the Communist Party. It discusses in detail Stalin’s policies, and the Soviet ambition of spreading socialism across the world.
Russian Foreign Minister Molotov criticises the American proposal of a 25-year rearmament plan for Germany, accusing the Western powers of discarding the Potsdam agreement.
The Allied counter-blockade of the Soviet sector of Berlin is seriously hurting the Soviet economy, resulting in Soviet offers to resume some degree of trade between East and West Berlin.
The Western powers’ proposal to return the region of Trieste to Italy is construed as an attempt to influence the elections in Italy, swinging the vote against the Italian Communist Party. The Soviet Union comments that the United States, Britain, and France had acted behind its back, raising tensions between the two sides.
All over Eastern Europe, communist parties come to power through popular election or force. Some govern their countries through coalition governments, while others have total control of their state. The majority of the Eastern European communist regimes are modeled on the central command government of the Soviet Union.
President Truman announces a Pacific Doctrine – a pledge to commit its military to the defense of countries in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly those resisting communism, such as Indo-China and the Philippines.
- War or peace?. (1948, November 29). The Singapore Free Press, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
At the tail end of 1948, a tense year for East-West relations, international correspondents express the unlikelihood of the Cold War becoming an open military confrontation, although the political and ideological rift between the United States and Soviet Union looks to prolong their conflict for some time to come.
Origins of the Cold War – Books
(listed in alphabetical order)
The books below provide insights to understanding the events that led to the outbreak of the Cold War between the USSR and the United States.
This book contains over 50 years of correspondence that John Lukacs (historian) wrote to George Kennan (ex-US Ambassador to the Soviet Union), to discuss Kennan’s strategy of using containment rather than military confrontation to resolve the Cold War. Through these letters, readers will get an insider perspective of the participants (US and the Soviet Union) involved in the Cold War.
This encyclopedic work analyses official documents of the Cold War and provides invaluable insights to the context, doctrines, diplomatic machinations, military power and defense strategies employed by both the United States and the Soviet Union.
This book paints a frightening scenario of how proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam, Syria and Afghanistan could have heightened the tussle for power between the United States and the Soviet Union and provoked the devastating outbreak of World War Three.
Relying on declassified materials from the American, Chinese, European and Soviet archives, Tudda reveals how the fostering of diplomatic ties between President Nixon and Chairman Mao Zedong helped in repairing Sino-US relations and turned the tide against the advancement of the Cold War.
This book examines the impact of the Cold War on the military defense, culture, media, identity, social practices and consumer lifestyles of people living in Eastern and Western Europe.
Origins of the Cold War – Websites
(listed in alphabetical order)
This BBC website provides information on four aspects of the Cold War: the Korean War (1950-1953), Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), Weapons of the Cold War, and the Fall of the Soviet Union (1985-1991).
This website provides a decade-by-decade overview of the Cold War from 1945, with links to a Cold War timeline, glossary and references for further reading.
This is one of the thirteen Presidential Libraries administered by the US National Archives and Records Administration. It focuses on the Truman presidency, which spanned the early years of the Cold War and its origins, and contains information, primary documents and photographs of key events such as the Berlin Airlift, the Truman Doctrine, and the Marshall Plan.
This site contains archival research on Cold War events and themes. Also provides links to an exhibit on nuclear weapons history and to the Journal of Cold War Studies, which “features peer-reviewed articles based on archival research in the former Communist world and in Western countries”.
This timeline lists significant developments and events that occurred during the Cold War period from 1945-1991. A link is also provided to the timelines for the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam War.
This museum serves to preserve Cold War history and to honour the people who were casualties of the war. Although this is a physical museum located in the United States, there is available online, a virtual museum, photo galleries and links to collections of Cold War related material.
End of the Cold War
Over the course of five decades, the Cold War underwent periods of fluctuating tension and confrontation, entering a period of cooperation during the 1960s and a period of détente during the 1970s (mid-point of the Cold War) which saw a general easing of strained relations between the Soviet Union and the United States.
During the 70’s, leaders of the two superpowers held a series of summits and several treaties were successfully reached through them, such as the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties (SALT I and SALT II), the installation of a direct hotline between Washington DC and Moscow that enabled both countries to communicate with each other in urgent situations and the Helsinki Declaration (also known as Helsinki Accords) signed by 35 nations to improve relations between Communist-led countries and the Western democratic countries.
The period of détente lasted barely a decade as several events led to its dissolution, such as the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 and the election of Ronald Reagan (who ran on an anti-détente campaign) as the new US President in 1980.
1979 to the mid-1980s marked a return to Cold War hostilities (second Cold War) with increased military tensions, due to the introduction of the Reagan doctrine, which included providing support to countries such as Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, who were trying to overthrow their Communist governments. The US also installed cruise missiles in Europe and introduced the Strategic Defence Initiative (also known as ‘Star Wars’) to shoot down missiles in mid-flight.
The early 1980s also saw an unprecedented splurge of military spending by both the Soviet Union (up to as much as 25 percent of its Gross National Product (GNP)) and the United States (up to 6.5 percent of its GNP) to shore up their military arsenal and armed forces in the midst of increasing Cold War tensions.
The oil glut in the 1980s and unsustainable military expenditures soon led to a stagnation in the Soviet Union’s economy. This was exacerbated by the increasing costs of its involvement in the on-going Afghanistan war.
1985-1991 marked the final years of the Cold War. When Mikhail Gorbachev became the General Secretary of the Soviet Union in 1985, he came up with several measures to help revive the flagging economy and direct the country’s resources away from the arms race to develop its domestic industries. One economic policy was perestroika (restructuring), introduced in June 1987, which facilitated private ownership of businesses and welcomed the influx of foreign investment and the other was glasnost (openness) that called for press freedom and transparency of government operations.
Relations between the United States and the Soviet Union began to mend with a series of summits held from 1985 to 1989, resulting in the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan and the reunification of Germany in 1990.
The Cold War was officially declared over by both superpower leaders, Gorbachev and George W. Bush, at the 1989 Malta Summit.
Shortly after in 1990, the Communist Party, which had retained its stronghold over the USSR for 73 years, surrendered in the face of dwindling Soviet military support. Communist-led countries in Central and Eastern Europe broke away from the USSR and formed the Commonwealth of Independent States in 1991. The Soviet empire was finally dissolved on December 25, 1991.
The resources here examine the developments that lead to the resolution of the Cold War.
End of the Cold War – Newspaper Articles
(listed in alphabetical order)
NATO considers a shift away from its questionable nuclear defence strategy to a conventional arms-based force. The push to develop conventional weapons to counter Soviet aggression is supported by the US as a more stable approach to deterrence in Europe, but some European nations oppose the significant expenditure that such a programme would entail.
Driven by economic need, many Eastern European countries turn away from Soviet central planning and communist dictatorships to free markets to rejuvenate their economies.
- Gorbachev’s dilemma.(1989, September 28). The Straits Times, p. 26. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Soviet leader Gorbachev faces the impending dissolution of the Soviet Union, as its satellite states in Eastern Europe and Soviet states in the Baltics and the Soviet inner rim demand independence from Moscow, inspired by Gorbachev’s own failed policies of glasnost and perestroika.
The United States receives lukewarm support at best for its strategic defence initiative (SDI), a research programme aimed at developing a missile defence system based in space. Many of its detractors are concerned that the SDI research will fuel a dangerous and costly arms race in space.
The Soviet Union criticises the Reagan Administration’s strategic defence initiative (Star Wars), claiming that it was dangerous and futile, even as they expand their own anti-ballistic missile defence system in continuation of the ongoing US-Soviet arms race.
President Reagan and Soviet leader Gorbachev sign a treaty banning short and medium range nuclear missiles and pledge to work toward banning long range nuclear missiles, which would significantly reduce the threat of nuclear war.
President Bush lauds the developments in Eastern Europe which see the overthrowing of authoritarian communist regimes, and urges President Gorbachev to work with him to bring an end to the Cold War.
American historian, John Lewis Gaddis, argues in his book that the Cold War was one of the most peaceful periods in European history, with the delicate balance of nuclear power and Mutual Assured Destruction dissuading direct military conflict, international relations seeing a decline in brutality, and the rise of economic strength as it replaced open warfare in amassing power.
Gorbachev is reinstated as President of the Soviet Union by the Soviet parliament after the coup against him fell apart. Restrictions imposed by the “emergency committee” of the coup leaders in Moscow, including military curfew, were lifted. According to several sources, the coup’s eight leaders were trying to flee the country. Although the coup has been overturned, the damage to the Soviet leadership’s credibility remains.
Leaders of the republics of Russia, Ukraine, and Byelorussia declare the Soviet Union dead, and invite all former Soviet states to join a new Commonwealth of Independent States. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union as a political entity, Gorbachev is stripped of his office and authority.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies warns that the Reagan Administration’s strategic defence initiative could increase the risk of nuclear war by making arms control agreements more difficult and raise the feasibility of a first-strike strategy.
Eleven former Soviet republics form a new Commonwealth of Independent States in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Commonwealth is welcomed by the United States, although Washington stops short of extending recognition to the new republics.
End of the Cold War – Books
(listed in alphabetical order)
The books below provide insights to understanding the events that led to the escalation of the second Cold War during the 1980s and thereafter to the end of the Cold War.
Mann examines Reagan’s role in ending the Cold War and reveals previously undisclosed information such as “secret messages between Reagan and Moscow; internal White House intrigues; and … private and public battles with … Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, who repeatedly questioned Reagan’s unfolding diplomacy with Mikhail Gorbachev.” (Extracted from the book jacket).
This book investigates the final years of the Cold War, discussing the Reagan and Gorbachev relationship whose unprecedented, historic cooperation worked against the odds to end the arms race.
End of the Cold War – Websites
(listed in alphabetical order)
- Brown, A. (2011, February 17). Reform, Coup and collapse: The end of the Soviet state. Retrieved March 20, 2017, from BBC website:
This article gives an account of the transformation of the Soviet economy under Gorbachev and how it led to the end of the Soviet Union.
- Central Intelligence Agency. (2013, February 5). At Cold War’s end – US intelligence on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, 1989-1991. Retrieved March 20, 2017, from Central Intelligence Agency website:
This website from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) offers an overview of the events that led to the collapse of the Soviet empire. It also provides links to “newly declassified US intelligence documents covering the years 1989-1991” and lists a chronology of significant events that occurred during those two years.
- Cox, M. (2017). Ronald Reagan and the end of the Cold War: The debate continues. Retrieved March 20, 2017, from The Guilder Lehrman Institute of American History website: https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/age-reagan/essays/ronald-reagan-and-end-cold-war-debate-continues
This essay discusses President Reagan’s role in bringing the Cold War to an end, examining his policies and their impact in weakening the Soviet Union. It also takes a historiographical look at the widespread opposition to the Great Man school of thought that hails Reagan as the West’s Cold War hero.
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Nathaniel Chew (updated by)
The information in this resource guide is valid as at Mar 2017 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history on the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
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