The Cold War was a period of military and political tensions between the Soviet Union (and Warsaw Pact members) and the US (and NATO allies). The Cold War lasted roughly from 1947-1991.
After the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, the two wartime allies – the Soviet Union and the US became increasingly split on ideological and political grounds. This led to the division of Europe into the Eastern (Communist) block and Western Europe (democracy)
Throughout the ‘Cold War,’ the two main protagonists the Soviet Union and the US, avoided direct confrontation, but there was a confrontational build up in nuclear weapons and, during the ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’ of 1961, the two sides came close to war. Also, throughout the period, minor conflicts, such as the Korean War and the Vietnam War, were played out in proxy between the major powers and their allies.
Key events in the Cold War include
- Berlin Blockade (1948-49) the Soviet Union trying to gain control of the whole of Berlin
- Korean War (1950-53) US fighting Communist North Korea.
- Berlin Crisis (1961) – Building of Berlin Wall to stop people leaving the East
- Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) – Closest to nuclear war as the Soviet Union moved nuclear missiles towards Cuba.
- Vietnam War (1955-75) US involved in fighting Vietcong Communist forces
- 1970s – Strategic Arms limitations talks leading to a period of détente.
- 1979 – Soviet invasion of Afghanistan restoring tensions.
- 1980 – Olympic boycott. First by the US in Moscow then by the Soviet Union in US 1984.
- Mid-1980s – Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduces perestroika (reorganisation) and glasnost (openness).
- 1989. Gorbachev allows Eastern European countries to break away from Warsaw Pact and overthrow the Communist one-party state.
- 1991 – Formal dissolution of the USSR.
Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965) After leading Great Britain in the Second World War, he was one of the first leaders to raise the spectre of an ‘Iron Curtain’ descending across Europe.
Dwight Eisenhower (1890 – 1969) Eisenhower was supreme military commander of Allied forces in Western Europe. When President of the US 1953-61, he articulated a domino theory – arguing Communism should be stopped before allowing it to spread. He ended the Korean War in 1953, but sent the first US troops to Vietnam and prepared to intervene in Cuba. He made some attempts to limit nuclear weapon proliferation, but this was generally unsuccessful, and nuclear stockpiles increased on both sides.
Joseph Stalin (1879 – 1953) Leader and dictator of the Soviet Union. After the end of the Second World War, Stalin was committed to taking ideological and political control of Eastern Europe. He saw this as a buffer zone against the West. This attempt to control Eastern Europe was one of the main factors in the birth of the Cold War.
John F. Kennedy (1917 – 1963) US President (1961-63) As President he helped to defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis which came perilously close to escalation. He delivered a famous speech in West Berlin arguing the Berlin Wall showed the failure of Communism. In 1961, he ordered the expanse of the Space Race programme.
Nikita Khrushchev (1894 – 1971) Successor to Stalin. He led the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964 during the tense years of the Cold War. He cut conventional forces, but built up the number of nuclear missiles and was involved in the stand-off when in 1962 missiles were sent to Cuba – an ally of the Soviet Union.
Leonid Brezhnev (1906-1982) Brezhnev took over from Khrushchev in 1964. He followed a policy of détente with the West – signing treaties to limit the proliferation of nuclear arms. He also ordered the invasion of Czechoslovakia in the Prague Spring of 1968. Brezhnev also ordered Soviet troops into Afghanistan in 1979, rekindling Cold War tensions.
Willy Brandt (1913-1992) German politician and statesman. After WWII he became the Mayor of Berlin – playing a key role during the Cold War tensions, centred around Berlin. Brandt became Chancellor of Germany in 1979. He sought rapprochement with the East and creating a stronger, united Europe.
Charles de Gaulle (1890 – 1970) Under de Gaulle’s presidency, France became a member of the EEC, and de Gaulle encouraged a European federation. However, he sought to lead France on a non-aligned course and withdrew France from NATO in 1969. He criticised the US involvement in the Vietnam War.
Yuri Andropov (1914 – 1984) As Soviet Ambassador to Hungary, he ordered the suppression of the Hungarian revolution of 1954. He was later elected to Chairman of KGB, where he suppressed dissent and encouraged the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. He was the leader of the Soviet Union for 15 months in 1982-84.
U Thant (1909 – 1974) was a Burmese diplomat and the third United Nations Secretary-General. U Thant played a crucial role in diffusing the Cuban Missile Crisis and was widely respected for his calmness, detachment and commitment to conflict resolution in his role as UN Secretary-General 1961-1971.
Mikhail Gorbachev (1931 – ) Russian President from 1984-1991. Gorbachev initiated a policy of Glasnost and Perestroika. These policies of reform and openness led to a decline in Cold War tensions, the fall of the Berlin wall and the ending of Communist party rule in the Soviet Union. He negotiated with Reagan to reduce nuclear weapons, and unlike his predecessors, allowed Eastern European countries to leave the Warsaw Pact and become independent democracies.
Lech Walesa. (1943-) Leader of the Polish Solidarity Movement – he helped to bring about the end of one-party Communist rule. Became first non-Communist President in 1991. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983.
Pope John Paul II (1920 – 2005) Pope John Paul met with the main protagonists of the Cold War and led to improved relations between the Soviet Union and the Vatican. Considered a moral force for reducing Cold War tensions.
Neil Armstrong (1930 – 2012) US Pilot and astronaut. In 1969, Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to successful land and walk on the moon, giving the memorable quote. Armstrong saw the Space Race as a helpful diversion from Cold War Tensions
Lyndon Johnson (1908 – 1973) – US President 1963-69. Johnson took over from the assassinated JFK. He expanded America’s role in Vietnam and took a hard line against Communism.
Ronald Reagan (1911 – 2004) – US President (1980 – 1988) Reagan pursued an aggressive anti-Communist foreign policy. But, in his second term was involved in negotiations which led to arms reductions.
Samantha Smith (1972 – 1985) Samantha was an American schoolgirl. In 1982, she wrote a leader to the leader of the Soviet Union, Yuri Andropov, asking why relations between the US and the Soviet Union were so tense. Her letter was published in Pravda, and later Andropov replied. Smith was also invited to visit the Soviet Union, which she did – saying she found Russians to be just like Americans.
George Orwell (1903 – 1950) – English author. Famous works include Animal Farm, and 1984. Both stark warnings about the dangers of totalitarian states. Orwell was one of the first to coin the term ‘Cold War’ back in 1945.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Famous People of the Cold War”, Oxford, www.biographyonline.net, 4th February 2015. Updated 12 January 2018.
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