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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Soviet Union
  • United States
  • Africa
  • Intelligence Wars
  • Latin America
  • Naval
  • Nuclear Weapons
  • End of the Cold War

Military History Cold War, 1945–1990
Mary Kathryn Barbier
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • 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, Britain, 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

General works on the Cold War cover a wide range of topics, countries, and time periods. Crowley 2006, an edited work with chapters by leading Cold War historians, is a good starting point for Cold War scholars. Westad set himself apart from other scholars with his international approach to the Cold War (Westad 2007). In doing so, he challenged other historians to use a wider lens when writing about the Cold War. By providing an international interpretation of the Cold War, Fink 2014 builds on Westad’s previous work. Arguing again that the Cold War was a global ideological confrontation is Westad 2017. As is frequently the case, political leaders can make a difference and leave their imprint on an era. Gaddis 2011, a biography of George Kennan, gives informed insight into the man who arguably contributed the most to the United States’ policy of containment, and Kaplan 1999 analyzes the impact of Metternich on Kissinger’s approach to foreign policy. In addition, Kennedy 1991 continues in this vein; the edited volume analyzes political leaders and their development of grand strategy. Some of the chapters directly relate to the Cold War. Bissell, et al. 1996 presents an interesting look, from an insider’s perspective, of the American U-2 program. A number of works—Gaddis 1982 and Mark 2004—focus on US national security policy or specific US Cold War foreign policy with regard to a specific nation, such as Hong Kong. Finally, a recent publication—Harper 2011—provides a sweeping analysis of the Cold War from its causes to its conclusion. All Cold War scholars must, however, consult the recently published Leffler and Westad 2010–2012.

  • Bissell, Richard Jr., Jonathan E. Lewis, and Frances T. Pudlo. Reflections of a Cold Warrior: From Yalta to the Bay of Pigs. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.

    This is a memoir written by an intelligence officer who participated in numerous important operations. Bissell helped develop “the U-2, the SR-71, and the satellite collection platform.” In addition to chronicling his own achievements, Bissell gives the reader insight into the attitudes that permeated US intelligence organizations.

  • Crowley, Robert, ed. The Cold War: A Military History. New York: Random House, 2006.

    This compilation of twenty-six essays is divided into five sections: “First Skirmishes,” “Police Action,” “The Deep Cold War,” “Vietnam: The Long Good-bye,” and “The End.” Leading historians—including David McCullough, Dennis E. Showalter, Douglas Porch, John F. Guilmartin Jr., John Prados, and Williamson Murray-contributed essays about the social, political, and economic connotations of the Cold War’s military history.

  • Fink, Carole K. Cold War: An International History. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2014.

    Building on the work of Westad 2007, Fink, while acknowledging the role of the United States and the Soviet Union, integrates other actors in her new history of the Cold War. She argues that while relations improved between the Soviet Union and the United States, the two nations became embroiled in the arguments between other nations.

  • Gaddis, John Lewis. Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy during the Cold War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

    Gaddis analyzes the US policies designed to “contain” the Soviet Union after World War II. He divides the period into five phases—George Kennan and the new policy of containment, NSC 68, Eisenhower and the New Look, Kennedy and flexible response, and détente. Gaddis argues that Franklin D. Roosevelt should receive the credit for devising the policy of containment.

  • Gaddis, John Lewis. George F. Kennan: An American Life. New York: Penguin, 2011.

    Gaddis, the leading Cold War historian, has written a Pulitzer Prize–winning biography of the “Father of Containment Strategy.” Using government documents and personally conducted interviews of Kennan, Gaddis chronicles the life of one of the most influential Cold War statesmen in US history.

  • Harper, John Lamberton. The Cold War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    Writing over a decade after the end of the Cold War, Harper provides a reassessment of the causes and end of the Cold War. He discusses why the conflict between East and West—the Soviet Union and the United States—remained “cold,” particularly in Europe. Harper argues that the end of the Cold War should evoke regret rather than feelings of triumph.

  • Kaplan, Robert D. “Kissinger, Metternich, and Realism.” Atlantic Monthly 283.6 (June 1999): 72–82.

    Kaplan argues that Kissinger’s experience with Nazism and Munich shaped his ideas, writing, and worldview, that he was a realist, and that Metternich’s influence is evident in Kissinger’s approach to foreign policy.

  • Kennedy, Paul M., ed. Grand Strategies in War and Peace. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991.

    Making a major contribution, Kennedy defines grand strategy as the ability of political leaders to utilize all of a nation’s resources to achieve long-term goals. The volume includes essays by leading historians—Michael Howard, Dennis Showalter, Douglas Porch, Condoleezza Rice—who contribute to an understanding of grand strategy.

  • Leffler, Melvyn, and Odd Arne Westad, eds. The Cambridge History of the Cold War. 3 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010–2012.

    Series brings together leading Cold War historians. Volume 1 focuses on the origins, causes, and early years of the Cold War. Volume 2 examines the Cold War as an “international system” in the 1960s and 1970s. The final volume explores the end of the Cold War—from the Helsinki Conference of 1975 to the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

  • Mark, Chi-kwan. Hong Kong and the Cold War: Anglo-American Relations 1949–1957. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199273706.001.0001

    Mark investigates the intersection of British and American early Cold War policies regarding Hong Kong. He evaluates the Anglo-American alliance and the Cold War problems with small allies. While Britain only viewed it as an economically valuable colony, Hong Kong played a strategically important role in US efforts to contain China.

  • Westad, Odd Arne. The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    Providing a revisionist interpretation of the Cold War, Westad argues that the key factors that shaped the Cold War were not military or strategic. Political and social developments in the Third World left their marks on the Cold War. He dismisses the prevailing view that the USSR–US contest for military and strategic power dominated the Cold War.

  • Westad, Odd Arne. The Cold War: A World History. New York: Basic Books, 2017.

    Westad contends that the Industrial Revolution and its ongoing global ramifications provide the roots for the Cold War. Arguing that the Cold War was a global ideological confrontation, he provides a new perspective of the Cold War that mirrors the current great power rivalries and ideological battles that have global outreach.

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