With the invasion of Ukraine by Russia the term ‘Cold War’ has returned to be part of the reporting and conversation.
But how many these days remember the so-called Cold War, with the exception of us old farts?
Well since it is history the Old Professor is here to help…..after 30 years there needs to be a refresher……
The Cold War (1947–91) was known as such because the presence of nuclear weapons made a traditional war between the rival parties (in this case the United States and the Soviet Union) unlikely as they each had the power to destroy each other and in doing so jeopardise human civilisation as a whole. This was known as ‘Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)’. For that reason, smaller-scale conflict and competition existed but a major ‘hot’ war, such as those in prior decades, was avoided. This period also underlined the importance of ideology in shaping global conflict, principally between capitalism and communism, which produced two incompatible international systems.
The Cold War was responsible for the historical image of a world divided into three zones. The ‘First World’ was the ‘Western’ nations (this is where the term ‘the West’ comes from). These states were allied with the United States, broadly followed an economic system of capitalism, and (at least aspirationally) a political system of liberal democracy. The ‘Second World’ was the Soviet Union and a range of ‘Eastern’ states that were governed predominantly by communist (or socialist) parties who rejected capitalism as an economic model. This conflict between the first and second world went beyond economics and created two irreconcilable international systems – leaving other states a stark choice to operate within one system or the other. That led to some states opting out and declaring themselves ‘non-aligned’ – creating a ‘Third World’. As most of those states were newly formed and/or developing it became a term often used to describe economically poorer states and is still sometimes used as such.
Despite the added ideological element of communism versus capitalism, the Cold War resembled other wars before it in that it became a battle for control over territory. Instead of meeting directly on the battlefield, both sides took part in ‘proxy wars’ as they fought to either support or oppose elements within states who sought to (or appeared to) move between the First and Second Worlds. The most well-known instances of this occurred in Asia, in Korea (1950–3) and Vietnam (1955–75), each of which resulted in several million deaths. As this took place in a time of decolonisation, the goal in this period was not to be seen to directly conquer other states, but to influence their political and economic development and in doing so increase the power of one ‘World’ and diminish the other.
What was old is now new again.
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