The Cold War (September 2, 1945 - December 26, 1991) was the conflict between the United States and its NATO allies - loosely described as the West - and the former Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies - loosely described as the Eastern Bloc. A full-scale "east versus west" war never actually broke out, hence the metaphor of a "cold" war, rather than a "hot" shooting war. Instead, the conflict was fought primarily on economic, philosophic, cultural, social, and political levels. It continued from the end of World War II until the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Except for the Korean War, Vietnam War and the conflict in Afghanistan, the aggression between those two parts of the world never shaped in an armed conflict, but was conducted by or against surrogates and through spies and traitors which were working undercover. In each of those conflicts, at least one of the major powers operated mainly by arming or funding surrogates. Because of that, the population of the major powers were rarely directly impacted by this "war".
In the war between the U.S.S.R. and U.S.A. a major arena was the strategy of technology. This cold war also involved covert conflict, through acts of espionage. Beyond the actual fighting and killing that went on through intelligence services, the Cold War was heavily manifest in the concerns about nuclear weapons and the wars which could be fought with them, as well as in the propaganda wars between the United States and the USSR. It was far from clear, going through these times, that global nuclear war would not result from the smaller arenas of conflict, giving each of them an added degree of concern. These pressures impacted many aspects of life throughout the world, much more so than the actual fighting going on between intelligence services.
One major hotspot of conflict was Germany, particularly Berlin. Arguably, the most vivid symbol of the Cold War was the Berlin Wall, isolating West Berlin (the portion controlled by West Germany and allied with France, England and the United States) from East Germany, which completely surrounded it. Many East Germans risked death attempting to cross the defenses surrounding the wall to reach freedom in West Berlin, and many were killed in the attempt. President Ronald Reagan's challenge "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" in 1988 seemed mere grandstanding, yet the wall was torn down within two years -- not by Premier Gorbachev's order, but by the citizens of East and West Berlin.
A major difference of opinion between the two sides was over the merits of the political philosophy of communism. The West, which opposed communism, called itself the "Free World" - arguably a misnomer, as many of the nations on the Western side of the conflict were dictatorships. In some cases, the United States overthrew democratic governments and replaced them with dictatorships friendly to its interests, such as Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973.
The cold war was waged through attempts to gain influence over intermediary countries, with popular conception making much of spies and traitors working undercover. The Korean War, the Vietnam War and the conflicts in Afghanistan, Grenada, Chad, Angola, Cuba and of course the Middle East were aspects of the Cold War. The war was also fought by intelligence organizations like the CIA (United States), MI6 (United Kingdom), Mossad (Israel), BND (West Germany), Stasi (East Germany) and the KGB (USSR).
The very word escalation comes from Cold War lingo.
On October 4, 1957 the so-called Sputnik crisis occurred when the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik 1 satellite. The USA had believed itself to be the leader of space technology and thus a leader of missile development. The Sputnik launch proved it was not so. After this, the Space Race began, leading up to the Apollo program and the moon landings in 1969.
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The militaries of the concerned countries were heavily involved in this war. Military agencies were involved in intelligence gathering, massive war games in "forward" areas, and the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, MAD. MAD required large numbers of troops in forward areas (for America: West Germany, Japan, Korea, for Russia: Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia), ICBM emplacements, round-the-clock nuclear bomber flights, and nuclear-armed submarine patrols. Submarine patrols in advanced areas may have resulted in some casualties.
The armies of the countries involved rarely had much participation in the Cold War; the war was primarily fought by intelligence agencies like the CIA (United States), MI6 (Great Britain), BND (West Germany), Stasi (East Germany) and the KGB (USSR). The major world powers never entered armed conflict directly against each other.
The agent war of mutual espionage both of civilian and military targets may have caused most casualties of the Cold War. Agents were sent both to the east and the west, and spies were also recruited on location or forced into service. When detected, they were either killed instantly or exchanged for other agents. Spy airplanes and other surveillance aircraft were likewise regularly shot down upon detection.
Many observers of varied political persuasions today think that the United States acted in ways their own constitution and national sentiment would not support (such as fighting undeclared wars without the explicit approval of Congress). Leaders in the U.S., both political and military, commonly cite the perceived threat to their security as justification for their actions. In many areas of the world, the local populations feel they were manipulated and abused by both powers. Much of the anti-Americanism in countries such as Afghanistan is attributed to the actions by the U.S. During the Soviet conflict with Afghanistan, the U.S. funded and armed the Mujahedeen in their fight to repel the Soviet occupation, but pulled out and left them to fend for themselves once the USSR had pulled out of the region.
The civilian population (at least in America) was subject to air-raid drills (hide under your desk!) and encouraged to build personal bomb shelters in the 1950s. This level of fear faded; however, awareness of the war and its potential consequences was a constant. Fallout shelter signs in large buildings, protests over the placement of short-range nuclear missiles in Germany, the oft-quoted nuclear doomsday clock[?], photographs of dead bodies in the barbed wire of the Berlin Wall, as well as movies such as WarGames, Threads, Red Dawn[?] and The Day After kept awareness high.
The Cold War also inspired many movie companies and writers, resulting in an enormous number of books and movies, some more fictional (such as James Bond) and some less, in particular Tom Clancy made himself a name as a master of vividly describing the agent and espionage war under the surface.
Enormous defense spending by America (the implications of which were first hinted at by President Eisenhower's speech on the military-industrial complex) under President Ronald Reagan is often seen as a major factor in the end of the war. According to this theory, the robust Western economies could absorb the expenses of programs such as the Star Wars missile defense but the Eastern bloc countries crippled themselves trying to match them. However, Reagan's policy towards the Soviet Union, as elaborated by Jeanne Kirkpatrick and others, defined Eastern bloc governments as "totalitarian", under a doctrine which denied that such regimes could ever undergo internal transformation towards democracy. Thus Reagan's foreign policy was never intended to bring about the changes which actually occurred in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
Corrupt governments and citizens' desire for greater personal freedom and greater individual wealth were also major factors in the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite countries.