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The Best One Hour History

The Cold War

Books on the Cold War

What you need to know

Things:

  • Communism
  • Eastern Europe
  • Iron Curtain
  • Truman Doctrine
  • Marshall Plan
  • Containment
  • McCarthyism
  • Soviet A-Bomb/H-Bomb
  • Sputnik
  • Berlin Wall
  • Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty
  • Third World
  • Wars of National Liberation
  • Proxies
  • Détente
  • Perestroika
  • Glasnost

People:

  • Karl Marx
  • Roosevelt
  • Stalin
  • Churchill
  • George Kennan
  • Mao Zedong
  • Chang Kai-shek
  • Khrushchev
  • Mohammed Mosaddegh
  • Fidel Castro
  • Salvador Allende
  • Ronald Reagan
  • Gorbachev

Events:

  • Russo-Japanese War
  • Russian Revolution
  • White Counter-Revolution
  • Yalta
  • Potsdam
  • Hiroshima
  • Greece
  • Berlin Blockade
  • “Loss” of China
  • Korean War
  • Cuban Missile Crisis
  • Vietnam
  • Chile
  • Six Day War
  • Afghanistan
  • Fall of the Soviet Union

Works:

Questions to answer
  • Why was the U.S.S.R. hostile to the U.S. even before the end of World War II?
  • Why was the U.S. hostile to the U.S.S.R. even before the end of World War II?
  • Why was the Cold War Cold?
  • What are the First, Second, and Third Worlds?  Provide examples. 
  • Who was the main aggressor in the Cold War?
  • What does it mean, “The Last European Civil War”?
  • How did China complicate the course of the Cold War?
  • How did the developing world play into the Cold War?
  • Why was the Berlin Blockade a harbinger of the rest of the War?
  • Why was the Cuban Missile Crisis such a critical event in the War?
  • Explain Containment and give examples.
  • What role did the Truman Doctrine play in the War?
  • What was the role of economics in the War and its outcome?
  • Explain Perestroika and Glasnost and their roles in the end of the War.
Sample questions answered

Why was the U.S.S.R. hostile to the U.S. even before the end of World War II?

Soviet hostility to the U.S. during the Cold War had deep roots.  These roots included deep historical origins, came to blossom during World War I, and were exacerbated during World War II.  Therefore, even before World War II was over the pattern of hostility of the Cold War was set.

The deep historical origins of the Cold War go back to when Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812, burning Moscow to the ground.  This created fear and enmity in Russia toward the West.  These fears were exacerbated when Britain and France invaded Russia in the Crimean War of the 1850s.  They were amplified again when the U.S. helped Japan defeat Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. 

Then, during World War I, the Bolsheviks carried out the Russian Revolution, toppling the Tsar and installing the world’s first communist government.  This posed a threat to the capitalist governments of the West.  In response, the U.S. led a coalition of capitalist states that included England, France, Italy, and Japan that invaded Russia, attempting to overthrow the new government.  This “White Counter Revolution” deeply poisoned Russia’s attitude toward the U.S.

Finally, during World War II the Allies twice promised to open a western front to draw Hitler’s armies away from their attack deep into the Soviet Union.  They did not do so, leaving the Soviets to be savaged by German armies.  The Soviets understood this to be a deliberate ploy by its “allies” to use Germany to destroy it. 

In conclusion, the roots of the Cold War include deep historical events going back as far as Napoleon, direct attacks on Russia during World War I, and suspicions given substance during World War II.  Therefore, even before World War II was over the U.S.S.R. was hostile to the U.S. and the pattern of the Cold War was set. 

 

Explain Containment and give examples.

Containment was the doctrine the U.S. used to confront the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War.  The most conspicuous instances of its use were during the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

Containment was a doctrine and a strategy devised by George Kennan, formerly with the U.S. embassy in Moscow and later head of the State Department Policy Planning Staff.  It prescribed that the U.S. would confront the U.S.S.R. anywhere in the world that it tried to expand beyond its Eurasian territorial limits.  Confrontation would take economic, diplomatic, cultural form, but it’s most critical applications would be military. 

The Korean War was one of the first battlegrounds where Containment was applied.  The government of North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, attempting to unify the peninsula under communist control.  The U.S. responded by sending in Douglas MacArthur and the U.S. army to stop the invasion.  This containment operation was successful, with an armistice reached in 1953. 

The Vietnam War was another critical application of Containment.  In the early 1950s communists were in control of the domestic political situation and wanted to install a communist government throughout the country.  The U.S. responded by creating a new government in “South Vietnam” which was committed to the U.S. side in the Cold War.  Ultimately, this failed and the communists took over the whole country in 1975.  But it was still as classic application of the doctrine of Containment. 

The U.S. used the doctrine and strategy of Containment during the Cold War to limit Soviet expansion beyond its territorial boundaries.  Korea and Vietnam were instances of Containment in action where the U.S. challenged Soviet expansion through its local proxies. 

 

What does it mean, “The Last European Civil War”?

In 150 years, Europe had fought three continental civil wars.  These included the Napoleonic Wars, World War I, and World War II.  The Cold War was a fourth and final European Civil War.  This can be seen by understanding the ideological origins of the U.S., the comparable origins of the Soviet Union, and some of the War’s most important battlegrounds on the European continent.

The U.S. was a true genetic descendant of Europe.  It was populated by European emigrants and was founded and grown on the ideals of the European Enlightenment: democracy; capitalism; and science.  Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. offered these ideals and institutions as its vision of how the world should be organized. 

The Soviet Union was a less-pure descendant of Europe.  Its identity is a mixture of European, Slavic, and Asian influences.  But the ideology that it represented in the Cold War was of purely European origins.  That was the ideology of communism that came from Karl Marx. It was a materialist ideology that, like the U.S.’s, also originated in the Enlightenment but that included a critique of industrial capitalism and imperialism. 

Finally, while most of the action of the Cold War occurred in the developing world, some of its earliest and most contentious battled occurred in Europe proper.  These included the contest for the countries of Eastern Europe, as well as actual confrontations in such notable cities as Budapest (1956), Berlin (1948 and 1961), and Prague (1968).  And, of course, it was the unravelling of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s that proved the end of the Soviet system.

The Cold War originated in Europe, was fought by two genetic spawns of European civilization, and was brought to an end in Europe.  As such, it was the last of four great European civil wars. 

Original documents
Supplementary notes
Intro to the book

The Cold War was the dominant conflict of the Twentieth Century.  More than any other event, it defined the roles that virtually all nations played for almost 50 years.  It was a truly world-wide War, a contest between two rival superpowers—the U.S. and the Soviet Union—which for many years held the entire planet hostage to the threat of nuclear annihilation.  By the time it was over, its players had spent the staggering sum of $15 Trillion in one of the most intense, high stakes ideological struggles of the past thousand years. 

The War’s origins can be traced to the reign of Napoleon, if not earlier.  So deeply rooted were the U.S. and Soviet positions that even before the end of World War Itheir respective postures were basically fixed, with only the final outcome of the drama still to be known.  Events during World War II and in its immediate aftermath only served to confirm and harden both sides in their respective positions. 

The major events of the Cold War loom with iconic status over the landscape of the Twentieth Century:  the nuclear arms race; Berlin; China; Korea; Cuba; Vietnam; Afghanistan.  These and a hundred lesser skirmishes were carried out in a swirling global confluence of anti-colonialism, competing economic systems, and massive doses of traditional brutality, intimidation, and force.  The Cold War was both the best and the worst of both the old and the new. 

This book discusses the War’s background and origins, its early defining events, some of its most important conflicts, and some of its major themes.  It tries to avoid both the reflexive cheerleading and the hysterical demonizing that characterized discussion of the War while it was underway.  But it also recognizes the judgment of history:  that democracy and capitalism won while totalitarianism and communism lost.  The world we live in today is defined by that verdict.

Table of Contents to the book
  1. Introduction
  2. Background
    1. Deep Origins
    2. Soviet Fears at the End of World War II
    3. U.S. Fears at the End of World War II
    4. Protecting U.S. Interests
  3. Early Defining Events
  4. Major Events and Battlegrounds
    1. Berlin Blockade
    2. China Goes Communist
    3. The Korean War
    4. The Cuban Missile Crisis
    5. Conflicts in the Middle East
    6. Vietnam
    7. Afghanistan
    8. Central and South America
  5. Major Themes
    1. A Truly World-Wide Conflict
    2. The Last European Civil War
    3. Containment
    4. McCarthyism
    5. Anti-Colonial/Anti-Imperial Complications
    6. Cold War as Economic War
    7. Arms Races
    8. Brutal Communist Repression
    9. America’s Authoritarian Proxies
    10. Detente
  6. Collapse of the Soviet Bloc
  7. Timeline
Comments and Questions

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