Despite the phrase, the cold war was not actually a continuous armed conflict. Rather, it was a tense political situation created by the aggressive policies of both the United States of America and the Soviet Union (USSR). It virtually ended with the dissolution of the USSR.
After the second World War, the USA and Soviet Union emerged as the two superpower nations in the world. They were powerful and influential economically and militarily but polar in ideologies, one an avid practitioner of capitalism and the other a staunch supporter of communism. Even though they fought the war on same side, their relation was filled with mutual distrust and suspicion. The two powers gradually began to extend their spheres of influence and and the world began to split into two blocs, the Eastern Bloc, led by Soviet Union and the Western Bloc, headed by the US. The USA formed military alliances such as NATO and SEATO. At the same time the Soviet Union began to practice their expansionist propaganda, leaving both the powers in a race for domination.
The term cold war was first used by renowned writer George Orwell in in his essay You and the Atomic Bomb in 1945. The first specific use of the term to denote post-war confrontation between the USSR and the United States was in a speech by Bernard Baruch on 16 April 1947. The term got wide popularity with the book The Cold War by newspaper columnist Walter Lippmann.
The Berlin Blockade (1948–49) was the first major crisis of the Cold War. It expanded with the Chinese Civil War and the Korean War (1950–53). The USSR and USA tried to assert their domination and bring the countries of Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia to their respective blocs.
Major crises, such as the Suez Crisis (1956), the Berlin Crisis (1961), and the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) followed. The Cuban crisis was particularly noted for escalating the tension almost to a direct confrontation between the two powers. Later, the USSR crushed the Prague Spring liberalization program in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and the US suffered a defeat in the Vietnam War that had been going for two decades.
During the 1980s, the Soviet economy began to suffer a stagnation. It was only aggravated by the two reforms introduced by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Glasnost and Perestroika. Gorbachev also ended the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan. At the same time, various republics in the USSR witnessed rising waves of national sentiments. Freedom revolutions hit the countries and the communist regime was peacefully overthrown in most East European countries. The only nation that witnessed bloodshed was Romania.
The Communist Party of the Soviet Union lost control of things and it led to the formal dissolution of the USSR in December 1991. Parallely, communist regimes in other countries such as Mongolia and Cambodia also collapsed.
The cold war inspired a new movement as well, the Non Aligned Movement. It was spearheaded by India, Egypt and Indonesia and included primarily the nations of Asia and Africa liberated from colonial rules. These nations didn’t align themselves with any of the blocs and stayed neutral in the situation.
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