The Cold War – The Brief History Overview

Atom Bomb Nuclear Explosion by Burnt Pineapple Productions, licensed under (CC0 1.0)

The Cold War was a long stand-off between the United States and the Soviet Union from 1946 to 1991. Both superpowers were backed by their respective allies. The Cold War was interesting because neither country ever officially announced that they were at war with each other. Instead, the war was marked by an arms race as both countries asserted their global dominance.

One of the most important factors of the Cold War was the development and spread of nuclear weapons. Citizens around the world lived in fear of opposing nations detonating weapons of mass destruction during the tense forty-year stand-off. In this article, we give a brief historical overview of the Cold War and its global impact.

Atomic Bombs & WWII: The Beginning of the Cold War

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Cold War map of Eastern and Western Blocs in Europe by UserGoldsztajn, licensed under (PD-US)

Before the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union fought together against Germany and Japan in World War II. However, the relationship between the nations was tense, to say the least. The communist government of the Soviet Union, along with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s tyrannical dictatorship, were seen as looming threats to the American way of life.


In 1945, the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These bombs caused devastation like never seen before, and to this day are the only instances of nuclear weapons being used in war.

The detonation of the first atomic bomb may have helped end World War II, but it also started the Cold War. For the United States, the invention of the first atomic bombs meant that they would need to rely less on the aid of the Soviet Union to fight Japan in WWII. The Russians knew about the bomb before it was ever dropped on Japan.

1539px Attlee Truman and Stalin at Potsdam
Group photograph of the Big Three heads of government at Potsdam, Germany by Army Signal Corps Collection in the U.S. National Archives, licensed under (PD-US)

During a gathering of allied world leaders in Potsdam, President Harry S. Truman had hinted to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin that the United States had successfully developed a weapon of unprecedented force. During the event known as the Potsdam Conference the leaders of Britain, America, and the Soviet Union gathered to discuss the future of Germany after WWII. The weapon that Truman was hinting at, a secretly developed uranium bomb, had been tested in the New Mexico desert just days before the conference.


Stalin did not show much interest during that initial conversation at Potsdam with Truman, but war historians now know that Truman’s words had more of an impact on Stalin than originally believed. From that moment on, the Russians began to accelerate their efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction of their own.

Japanese clock melted by WWII nuclear bomb Flickr maebmij
Japanese clock melted by WWII nuclear bomb by James, licensed under (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Just days after the Potsdam Conference, the United States deployed a uranium bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. The Japanese did not surrender right away, and the Soviet Union followed up the bombing by breaking their peace treaty with Japan and invading. The Soviet invasion made it clear to the Japanese government that there was no hope of the Soviets helping them negotiate with the US. When the United States dropped the second uranium bomb, this time on the city of Nagasaki, the death toll of innocent Japanese citizens rose as high as an estimated 300,000. This prompted the Japanese government to surrender.

Some war experts and scholars have speculated that Truman’s motive for dropping the atomic bomb may have been a decision made to intimidate the Soviet Union, which Truman saw as a growing threat to the United States. Meetings about the decision to drop the atomic bombs were so secretive that there is very little evidence to go on for historians trying to put together the pieces of the true story.


Early Years of the Cold War: Late 1940s

Cold War Memorial 21580687083
National Cold War Memorial, Spring Mountains Gateway Visitor Center by the US Forest Service, licensed under (PD-US)

In January of 1946, the General Assembly of the United Nations met to discuss the future of nuclear warfare. From this meeting came the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission whose goal was to eliminate and control the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

During the first commission meeting, the United States proposed that the Soviets should share every detail of their atomic energy research with the United States before they would share anything in return. Unsurprising to no one, Stalin declined. 

The Soviet Union successfully developed and tested their version of the atomic bomb by 1949, ramping up the arms race between the two powerful nations. For over forty years, the Soviet Union and the United States would be in fierce competition to see who could develop the most powerful weapons of mass destruction.


The Atomic Age of the Cold War: 1950s-1960s

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Marshall Islands by Keith Polya, licensed under (CC BY 2.0)

In response to the Soviet Union testing their atomic bomb, the United States fired back by announcing the development of their most powerful weapon of mass destruction yet, the hydrogen bomb. Once again, the Soviet Union ramped up its defense spending to keep up with the United States. The United States also quadrupled its spending budget for arms development. 

The hydrogen bomb also called the super bomb or h-bomb was first tested in the Marshall Islands. It turned an entire island into dust, creating a hole in the ocean floor. Tests conducted by the United States and the Soviet Union had harsh effects on the environment. Each bomb that was detonated came along with nuclear waste being dumped into the air, water, and soil.

The Impact of the Cold War On American Life 

22Nuclear bomb only in America22 graffiti
Nuclear bomb – only in America” graffiti by Peter Morrell, licensed under (PD-US)

Americans were impacted by the stress of the constant threat of an incoming nuclear bomb from the Soviets. Schools, communities, and families practiced bomb drills regularly. Many people built bomb shelters on their properties in case of an emergency. People were rightfully terrified of the mass casualties and unthinkable devastation caused by nuclear warfare.


It was hard for Americans to escape the sense of impending doom during the Cold War and paranoia about Communist spies spread. Movies and entertainment reflected the political climate of the Cold War and showed horrifying visions of mutant beasts from nuclear reactions.

The “red scare” in the 1950s and 1960s was a reaction to the Cold War that took place in politics and the workplace. The House Un-American Activities Committee would accuse hundreds of citizens of being communists or communist sympathizers. In Hollywood, directors and actors would be blacklisted and fired in mass due to accusations of being communist sympathizers. Senator Joseph McCarthy was so famously anti-communist that his probes on government employees became known as “McCarthyism”. People with left-wing, liberal political beliefs were subject to probes at work, with many losing their jobs and even facing criminal charges. 

The Space Race: How the Cold War Put a Man On the Moon

Aldrin Apollo 11
Aldrin Apollo 11 by NASA, licensed under (PD-USGov-NASA)

The competition between the Soviet Union and the United States didn’t stop with nuclear weapons. They also competed in a race to be the first nation to explore the last frontier: space.


America and the Soviets both invested a huge amount of time and money into developing satellites, rovers, and finally spaceships to send men into space. The Soviets were the first to send a man into space in 1961, and America was soon to follow with a manned space mission of their own the following month.

By the end of the decade, the nations were competing to be the first to put a man on the moon. When Niel Armstrong and the rest of the Apollo 11 crew landed on the moon in 1969 and planted an American flag on its surface, they sent a strong message to the Soviet Union.

The Vietnam War: The Global Impact of the Cold War

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Vietnam War protestors at the March on the Pentagon (1967) by Frank Wolfe, licensed under (PD-US)

The rest of the world was not unphased by the growing tension between the two superpowers. When North Korea, which was backed by the Soviets, invaded South Korea in 1950, America feared that it was the start of a plot for a worldwide communist takeover. For the next forty years, the American military would commit itself to a controversial campaign to slow the spread of communism worldwide. 


During the Vietnam War in the 1960s, the US deployed thousands of troops to Vietnam to fight against a communist government takeover. Over 50,000 American troops died in the conflict. America’s participation in the Vietnam War was part of a greater effort to prevent the spread of communism in other countries. 

The End of the Cold War 

Mao Zedong, Zhang Yufeng, and Richard Nixon (1972) by White House Photo Office, licensed under (PD-US)

President Richard Nixon took office in 1969 and decided to take a different approach to foreign affairs. He convinced the United Nations to acknowledge the Chinese Communist Party and developed diplomatic relationships between the nations. He took a more relaxed approach to affairs with the Soviet Union and China, and in response, the Soviets also relaxed. 

Nixon and the Soviets signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, which was the first step to ending the arms race. The treaty limited the manufacturing of nuclear weapons by both sides. For a while, it seemed like the tensions between the Soviet Union and America were coming to an end, but when Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 it would become clear the Cold War was not yet over. 

President Ronald Reagan holding a Stop Communism T Shirt
President Ronald Reagan holding a Stop Communism T-Shirt (1986) by National Archives Catalogue, licensed under (PD-US)

Under the Reagan administration, efforts to stop the spread of communism ramped up once again. Ronald Reagan saw the spread of communism as a threat to American freedom and worked tirelessly to prevent communist governments from taking power. His focus was primarily on communist countries in Central America

While Reagan was in office, the Soviet Union had begun to fall. It had a problematic internal political and socio-economic climate that was continuing to get worse. Knowing that a collapse was imminent, the Soviet Union attempted to repair foreign affairs by enacting new policies.  By the end of the 1980s, most of the communist countries in Eastern Europe were starting to replace communist governments with non-communist governments. 

West and East Germans at the Brandenburg Gate in 1989
West and East Germans at the Brandenburg Gate in 1989 by unknown author, licensed under (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The moment that truly symbolized the end of the Cold War was when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. The wall had represented an ideological divide between the West and the communist East, and its demolition was a sign that the Cold War was coming to an end. By the end of 1991, the Cold War had officially ended along with the fall of the Soviet Union.  


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