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The Cold War

During the Second World War, the United States and the Communist Soviet Union were allies in the fight against Nazi Germany. As it did with Great Britain, the United States shipped weapons, ammunition, and essential supplies to the Soviet Union. As soon as the war was over, perhaps even in its final months, tensions over spheres of influence in Europe began to escalate. In the words of Winston Churchill, an “iron curtain” imposed by the Soviets split Europe in half.

The resulting “Cold War” lasted for 45 years. One of the flashpoints of conflict was the future of West Berlin, an enclave within the Soviet-controlled East German zone. In 1948, the Soviets blocked land access to West Berlin. For almost a year, American and British airplanes supplied the city, until the blockade ended. Following this era, the nations of West Germany and East Germany came into being. With American encouragement, West Germany achieved extremely rapid economic growth, while East Germany stagnated.

In 1949, the stakes between the Americans and the Russians increased when the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb. Between 1950 and 1953, the two sides faced off in Korea, until an uneasy armistice, which still stands today, left the borders between North and South Korea where they had been before the conflict started. The 1950s saw propaganda wars between the two sides. When the Soviets beat the Americans into space, both with unmanned craft (Sputnik 1 in 1957) and with the first man in space (Yuri Gargarin in 1961), the Americans were stunned. American pride only returned in 1969 with the first Apollo moon landing.

Although no one knew it at the time, 1961 and 1962 would turn out to be pivotal years in the Cold War. Emigration from East Germany to West Germany through the porous border between East and West Berlin became a veritable flood. Crisis conditions in 1961 between the two superpowers were the result, with nuclear options discussed. At a certain point, Soviet and American tanks faced each other at the border at point blank range. As tragic as it turned out to be, the East Germans construction of the “Berlin Wall,” cutting off all but tightly controlled access between the city’s halves, ended the crisis. The wall came to act as a strong iconic symbol of the divide between the Communist bloc and the “Free World.”

In October of 1962, the most dangerous crisis of all occurred when the American learned that the Soviets were installing offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba, within reach of most American population centers. Fortunately, despite extremely tense times, the “Cuban Missile Crisis” was resolved through diplomatic means.

Soon after the Cuban crisis ended, the United States began a long and tragic military presence in Southeast Asia, leading to the Vietnam Conflict against the Soviet supported regime of North Vietnam. More than 50,000 Americans died before the military withdrawal from the region in 1975. In the 1980s, the Soviet Union would lose more than 20,000 troops in its unsuccessful occupation of Afghanistan. Both these conflicts were “proxy wars,” elements of the long struggle between the superpowers in which neither side faced each other directly. Both these conflicts were disasters for the countries involved, generating a great deal of internal protest, but the more flexible United States bounced back more readily than did the Soviet Union. When the Berlin Wall began to crumble on November 9, 1989, the “iron curtain” quickly came down. Within a few years, Germany would reunite, the Soviet Union’s client states in Eastern Europe would all embrace democracy, and the Soviet Union would itself dissolve. International terrorism replaced the Russians as the major threat to the security of the United States.

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