What Was the Cold War?

Aug 13, 2018

The decades-long “Cold War” (1947-1989) between the United States and the Soviet Union was so named because the two global powers never came to direct blows. Yet, the war was not without its victims. In fact, millions of Cubans, Koreans and Vietnamese suffered under Communist tyranny. In this video, Renowned British historian Andrew Roberts explains why “The Cold War” could just as easily be called “The Third World War.”

Click here to take a brief survey about this video.

The Cold War was, at its core, as clear a conflict of freedom vs. totalitarianism and good vs. evil as WWII had been.

  • The Cold War began as a conflict between the strategic interests of the Soviet Union, which wanted to spread communism, and the U.S., which wanted to stop its spread.View Source
  • Like World War II, the Cold War was a conflict of freedom vs. totalitarianism and good vs. evil.View Source
  • Related reading: “The Cold War: A New History” – John Lewis GaddisView Source

The Cold War was an unnecessary, costly, and for the Soviet Union, ultimately destructive conflict started by dictator Joseph Stalin. 

  • Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s aggressive actions started the unnecessary and costly Cold War, which ultimately led to the destruction of the Soviet Union.View Source
  • Stalin had been an ally against Germany in WWII and Western powers initially thought Stalin might be reasoned with. They were mistaken.View Source
  • In March 1946, Winston Churchill famously declared that “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”View Source
  • The term “cold war” was coined by George Orwell in 1945. Orwell predicted that nuclear stalemate between superpowers would arise from the ashes of WWII.View Source

After Stalin instigated the Cold War, the U.S. dedicated enormous amounts of resources and manpower to prevent the spread of communism. 

  • President Harry S. Truman realized that communist victory would undermine U.S. strategic interests and result in the spread of oppression, and thus had to be combated.View Source
  • “I believe we must assist free peoples to work out their destinies in their own way,” said Truman, who asked Congress for $400 million in aid to countries threatened by communism.View Source
  • When Stalin threatened both Greece and Turkey, the Marshall Plan was declared to give aid to any country under threat of communist take-over.View Source

While the U.S. and Russia never directly fought during the Cold War, they fought against each other through proxy wars.

  • The United States fought against the Soviet-backed North Korean communists in the Korean War.View Source
  • The U.S. lost 58,220 soldiers in Vietnam fighting against the Soviet and Chinese-supported Vietcong.View Source
  • The USSR lost over 14,000 men fighting in Afghanistan, in a war that saw over a million civilian casualties.View Source
  • WATCH: “Why Did America Fight the Vietnam War?” – Victor Davis HansonView Source

Those who fault the U.S. for the Cold War ignore the Soviets’ aggressive policies.

  • Detractors say that the U.S. was just as responsible for the Cold War as was the Soviet Union. This view ignores the role Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had in beginning hostilities in the first place.View Source
  • Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin's successor, stated Soviet intentions plainly in 1956: “We will bury you!” he told the West. This was not the declaration of a weak nation.View Source
  • The American diplomat George Kennan rightly directed the U.S. to “confront the Russians with unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interest of a peaceful and stable world.”View Source

The U.S. defeated the spread of communism not by containment, but by defeating the Soviet Union economically and ideologically.   

  • The Soviet Union could not have beaten the U.S. in a head-to-head confrontation, but it didn't have to.View Source
  • The Cuban Missile Crisis brought the threat of communism close to home, showing the dangers of attempting to just contain the spread of Soviet influence.View Source
  • U.S. failures in Vietnam challenged the strategy of containment. Later, a more successful approach in the 1980s included an attack on the Soviet system as a whole.View Source
  • The United States did not win the Cold War through containment but by beating the Soviet Union’s economy and ideas.View Source
  • Related reading: “Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy during the Cold War” – John Lewis GaddisView Source

The Berlin Wall fell not by appeasement, but by the strong leadership of America and its allies. 

  • At the close of the 1980s, the Soviet Union was economically crumbling, militarily exhausted, no longer able or willing to enforce its will.View Source
  • President Ronald Reagan saw past the Soviet Union’s appearance of vitality and took advantage of its weakened economic and social system by supporting the Solidarity movement and levying economic sanctions to force reform.View Source
  • British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher rejected appeasement and took a confrontational stance against Russia until the Berlin Wall fell.View Source
  • Pope John Paul II inspired the people of his native Poland to reject communist rule by forming the Solidarity movement.View Source
  • On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, signaling the end of communism’s grip on eastern Germany.View Source
  • WATCH: “The Fall of the Berlin Wall” – HistoryView Source

From the end of World War II, the United States and its Western European allies were involved in a nearly half-century long, titanic struggle with the Soviet Union known as “the Cold War.”

It was cold only in the sense that the Russians and the Americans never came to direct blows.

But it was certainly not cold for the Cubans, Koreans, Vietnamese, and others who got caught up in the Communists' relentless drive to destabilize the free, democratic, capitalist world.

There were, to be sure, many morally complex moments during this long struggle, but the Cold War was, at its core, as clear a conflict of good versus evil as World War II had been. Just like that war, the Cold War was a death match between the forces representing freedom and the forces representing totalitarianism.

Because hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—died in it, the Cold War can, with good reason, be described as 'the Third World War.'

The instigator of this war was Josef Stalin, the mass-murdering dictator of Russia and of the many non-Russian peoples he had incorporated into what was known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or Soviet Union for short.

Stalin knew that his Soviet armed forces could not take on the might of the free West. Instead, he decided to wage this fight through the use of proxies, and by a massive use of disinformation and misinformation.

His initial prey was Eastern Europe: the Baltic States—Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia—as well as Poland, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia. Stalin had troops in all these countries at the end of the war. Despite what he promised American President Franklin Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference, the Soviet leader had no intention of removing them. And gaining control over their governments proved to be quite easy.

In March 1946, Winston Churchill famously declared that “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”

When Stalin threatened both Greece and Turkey, President Harry Truman finally had enough. The so-called Truman Doctrine was born. The United States and its allies would not permit any further expansion of the communist empire.

The Cold War was on.

For the next five decades, and across four continents—Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America—the US and the Soviet Union battled for influence—sometimes overtly, like in Korea and Vietnam; and sometimes covertly, through their various spy agencies. But the moral lines of this battle never changed: the freedom of the West versus the communist tyranny of the Soviet East.

There are, nonetheless, as there were even at the time, those who argue that the Cold War was an over-reaction by the West: that the ambitions and strength of the Soviet bloc were greatly exaggerated; and that America, with its massive defense build-up, was just as responsible for the Cold War as was the Soviet Union. But this simply isn't true—as an immense amount of archival evidence from Russia, not available until after the Cold War ended, now proves.

Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin's successor, stated Soviet intentions plainly in 1956: “We will bury you!” he told the West.  Nor would any amount of negotiation—"détente,” as it was called then—have led to a just conclusion of the war.

The American diplomat George Kennan rightly warned that, short of becoming a Communist country, there was nothing the United States could do to gain the Kremlin's trust. The Soviets could not be appeased; only contained.

But even containment was an inadequate strategy. Yes, the Soviet Union could not have beaten the US in a head-to-head confrontation, but it didn't have to.

Victory in the Cold War would have allowed it—through intimidation and subversion—to dominate the globe, making Communism, rather than democracy and capitalism, the preeminent ideology.

There were many times during the five decades of the war that it seemed like this would be the case. But thanks primarily to the strong leadership shown by Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II, the Cold War ended not with a bang, but a whimper.

The Soviet Union was, at the close of the 1980s, to use historian Paul Johnson's description, “a bewildered giant”—economically bereft, militarily exhausted, no longer able or willing to enforce its will.   

Communism had failed in every possible way—economically, politically, morally. It had tried to create a Utopia on earth and instead created hell for all of the nations that came under its sway.   

Yes, the forces of liberty eventually won the Cold War. But this triumph offers little consolation to millions who died or suffered needlessly, through no fault of their own, for a never-viable and now badly discredited cause.

I'm Andrew Roberts for Prager University.

Download a PDF of this Transcript

PragerU is changing the minds of millions worldwide.Help us keep our videos FREE!

More 5-Minute Ideas

God vs. Atheism: Which is More Rational?


As the Rich Get Richer, the Poor Get Richer


Walt Disney: American Dreamer


What They Haven't Told You about Climate Change


Churchill: The Man Who Saved the Free World