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From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of central and eastern Europe.

—Winston S. Churchill
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World War II Victory. By 1944 it was becoming clear that the Axis powers, Germany, Italy and Japan, were being rolled back. Stalingrad had been the great turning point on the Eastern front in Europe. On June 6, 1944, D-Day, the Allies land successfully on the European continent to begin their final assault on Germany. The final surrender came on May 8. 1945. In the Pacific, the battle of the Philippine Sea, the capture of the Marianas, including Saipan, and MacArthur's reutrn to the Philippines spelled the end for Japan. Allied leaders began to think about the postwar world.

By the time of the Yalta conference in February 1945, postwar issues had grown in importance to each of the major powers. Germany was on its last legs, and the invasion of Okinawa would move the Allies in the Pacific one step closer to the homeland of Japan. Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin clashed at Yalta over postwar issues, and it is not too much of a stretch to say that the Cold War actually began at that juncture. Churchill's speech quoted at the top was given in 1946, and by then it was clear from his comments, as well as from speeches by Joseph Stalin, that an intense struggle between the democratic capitalist nations and Communism was underway.

The Cold War kept the world on edge for over 50 years, and the best that can be said of it is that it never erupted into the holocaust of nuclear war that many feared. For a time, during the 1950s, the question of the Third World War was less a matter of “if” rather than of “when?” People built bomb shelters in their back yards and school children practiced a-bomb drills. It seemed inevitable. People talked about what it would be like after the third world war. I can remember my history teacher In the late 50s saying, “The third world war will kill a lot of people, but watch out for the damn Germans in world war four.” Under that shadow of a potential holocaust, the NATO and Warsaw Pact (or Eastern Bloc) nations twisted and turned to advance their goals while avoiding the spark that might instigate a war of surpassing destruction. Then came the Cuban Missile Crisis, and for those thirteen days, it seemed as if the unthinkable might really be about to happen.

The Cold War Era was characterized by one factor: the “balance of terror,” or nuclear standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union. Under that shadow of potential nuclear holocaust, the NATO and Warsaw Pact (or Eastern Bloc) nations twisted and turned to advance their goals while avoiding the spark the might instigate a war of surpassing destruction. Both sides tested massive nuclear weapons that had 1,000 times more destructive power many times that of the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Most events of the period of international significance, from trouble in the Middle East, to wars of national liberation, to issues of developing nations in Africa and Latin America, were played out against the backdrop of the Cold War.

The Cold War had many ramifications for the American people. The anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1940s and 50s, including those carried out under Senator Joe McCarthy, caused untold misery on the American people. Hundreds of entertainers, teachers, college professors and government officials lost their jobs. People were harassed in their homes, and many were jailed. In Hollywood it was the time of the blacklist, people who could not get jobs in the motion picture industry. In a number of cases it even led to the breakup of families and even suicides. The Korean and Vietnam wars belonged to the Cold War era, and both were fought under the overhanging threat of total nuclear war. In 1962 the Cuban missile crisis brought the United States and Russia to the brink of what could've been a disaster, as the Soviets were placing missiles in Cuba that could reach most American cities in a matter of minutes.

The collapse of the Soviet Union ended the Cold War, but the remnants of that age—the thousands of nuclear warheads still in existence—are still with us. This section will be devoted to examining how the United States and its allies and adversaries dealt with the momentous issues of that time. We should heed the lessons of the Cold War to see what was done right, as well as what might, tragically, have gone wrong. We are still not out of the woods.

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Topics

cold war

Documents

  • Churchill Iron Curtain Speech
  • Truman Doctrine: Containment
  • The Marshall Plan
  • General MacArthur Farewell
  • Eisenhower Doctrine/Domino Theory
  • John F. Kennedy on Berlin
  • The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution
  • Johnson Speech on Vietnam
  • Secretary McNamara on Vietnam
  • President Nixon on Vietnam
  • President Reagan in Berlin
  • External Sites

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    Sage History Home Post-World War 2 Post-WW2 Domestic Updated April 25, 2020