In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cold War, 1945–1990

  • Introduction
  • Soviet Union
  • Naval
  • Nuclear Weapons
  • Science, Technology, and Space Race
  • Documentaries
  • End of the Cold War

Military History Cold War, 1945–1990
Mary Kathryn Barbier
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0146


The world viewed World War I as the “war to end all wars,” and then came World War II. It was a conflict that fostered alliances between traditionally ideological enemies. Despite wartime conferences and efforts to address possible postwar problems and areas of contention, the fragile alliance between the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union, which showed evidence of cracking during the war, fell apart shortly after the war. Analysis of the Yalta and Potsdam conferences—attended by Roosevelt and Truman, respectively—demonstrates a shift from an American willingness to act pragmatically and to establish an acceptable common ground with the Soviets to an American hardline approach to the spread of Soviet/Communist influence. As the split widened, two definite camps—East and West—emerged. The East encompassed the Soviet Union and eastern European countries—the Warsaw Pact countries. The West included western Europe, the United Kingdom, and the United States—countries that formed the NATO alliance. Before long, two major players—the United States and the Soviet Union—dominated the era. While tensions between the two countries waxed and waned, both participated in proxy wars that allowed these countries to “fight” without actually going to war against each other. Proxy wars included the Chinese Civil War, the Algerian War for Independence, the Indochina Wars, and several others. The last major proxy war after the Vietnam conflict began with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Shortly after the conclusion of that conflict, the world witnessed what it thought would never occur—the end of the Cold War. The years 1989–1991 marked the end of a conflict that had been fought for over four decades. Key events from that period include the destruction of the Berlin Wall, the opening of borders between East and West Germany, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. As more and more documents are opened to the public, historians are finding a treasure trove of sources that allow them to reassess the Cold War—origins, participants, specific events or “hot” wars, and the end. The items included in this article just touch the surface of the available Cold War historiography.

General Overviews

For the past seventy-five years, the Cold War, like many other global conflicts, has been the subject of intense historical study. In an effort to identify the causes, scholars have focused on the two main players—the United States and the Soviet Union. While some date the start of the “Cold War” in 1947, others cite Winston Churchill’s 1946 Iron Curtain speech. Most historians agree, however, that tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union commenced with the end of World War II hostilities. Although they acknowledge that the Cold War has ended, scholars continue to debate the official end date. The General Overviews of the Cold War presented here fall into one of two groups: General Overviews: Older Sources and General Overviews: More Recent Scholarship.

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