When World War II ended, majority of American officials were in agreement that the best defense against the Soviet threat was a strategy called “containment.” This meant a patient but firm, vigilant and long-term containment of Russian expansive tendencies. President Truman agreed and declared before Congress in 1947 that it must be the policy of the United States to support free individuals who are opposing attempted subjugation “… by outward pressures.” This method of thinking would mold American policy for the next 40 years.
The Atomic Age
The containment strategy also supplied the rationale for an unequalled arms buildup in the US. Specifically, US officials supported the development of atomic weapons similar to the ones that ended World War II. Thus commenced a deadly arms race. The Soviets tested an atomic bomb of their own in 1949, and in response, President Truman declared that the US would build an even more lethal atomic weapon: the “superbomb,” or hydrogen bomb. Stalin did the same.
Therefore, the stakes of the Cold War were dangerously high. The first Hydrogen bomb test in the Marshall Islands demonstrated just how deadly the nuclear age could be. It made a 25-square-mile fireball that vaporized an island, blew a giant hole in the ocean floor and had the power to demolish half of Manhattan. Successive Soviet and American tests emitted poisonous radioactive waste into the atmosphere.
The consistent threat of a nuclear annihilation had a huge impact on US domestic life as well. In their backyards, people built bomb shelters. They practiced attack drills in public places such as schools. In these and other ways, the Cold War was a continuous presence in the everyday lives of Americans.
The Cold War spreads to space
Space exploration was another considerable arena for Cold War competition. On 4 October 1957, the Soviets launched “Sputnik” (Russian for traveler), world’s first man-made object to be placed into Earth’s orbit, and the world’s first artificial satellite. This launch came as an unpleasant surprise to most Americans. It was important not to lose too much ground to the Soviets.
The US launched its own satellite in 1958, the Explorer I. President Dwight Eisenhower signed a public order in the same year creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which was dedicated to space exploration, as well as various programs aiming to exploit the military potential of space. However, the Soviets remained one step ahead, sending the first man into space in April 1961.
The Cold War: The Red Scare
Beginning in 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) ushered the Cold War home in another way. They started a series of hearings designed to demonstrate that communist subversion in the US was alive and well.
Soon, thousands of federal employees were investigated, prosecuted or fired. While this anticommunist hysteria grew throughout the 1950s, people were requested to testify against their colleagues, liberal college professors lost their jobs and “loyalty oaths” became commonplace.
The Cold War Abroad
In June 1950, the initial military action of the Cold War started when the Soviet-backed North Korean People’s Army attacked its pro-Western neighbor to the south. A lot of American officials were worried that this was the first step in a communist movement to take over the world and considered that nonintervention was not an option. The American military was sent into Korea, but the war dragged into an impasse and ended in 1953. There were subsequent international disputes including Cuba and Vietnam.
The End of the Cold War
As soon as President Richard Nixon took office, he started to implement a new strategy to international relations. Instead of seeing the world as a hostile, “bi-polar” place, he suggested using diplomacy instead of military action to make more poles. With that in mind, he encouraged the United Nations to acknowledge the communist Chinese government, and started to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing. Simultaneously, he adopted a policy of “relaxation” toward the Soviet Union. He and Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet premier, signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I), which banned the manufacture of nuclear missiles by both countries.
Despite Nixon’s attempts, the Cold War flared up again under President Ronald Reagan who believed that the expansion of communism anywhere threatened freedom everywhere. He therefore worked to supply military and financial aid to anticommunist governments around the world.
As Reagan fought communism in Central America, the Soviet Union was disintegrating. Every other communist state in Eastern Europe replaced its government with a noncommunist one in 1989. In November, the Berlin Wall – the most visible sign of the decades-long Cold War – was finally brought down.