8.3: Effects of the Cold War

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Learning Objective 8C

Compare the ways in which the United States and the Soviet Union sought to maintain influence over the course of the Cold War.

Historical Development 1

The Cold War produced new military alliances, including NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and led to nuclear proliferation and proxy wars between and within postcolonial states in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.


The United States and the Soviet Union sought to maintain and expand their influence in various ways throughout the Cold War.

Military alliances

Soviet and American military alliances projected strength and offered security to states within the partnerships.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

The United States created and led the NATO alliance.

What is NATO?

NATO is a security alliance of 30 countries from North America and Europe formed in 1949. Article 4 of the NATO treaty ensures consultations among Allies on security matters of common interests. Article 5 of the Washington Treaty says that an attack against one Ally is an attack against all NATO members, which will lead all other NATO members to provide military support to the attacked alliance partner. This type of military alliance is known as collective security.

Why was NATO formed?

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created in 1949 by the United States, Canada, and several Western European nations to provide collective security against the Soviet Union. NATO’s fundamental goal is to safeguard the Allies’ freedom and security by political and military means. NATO remains the principal security instrument of the transatlantic community and expression of its common democratic values.

Who is a NATO member?

At present, NATO has 30 members. In 1949, there were 12 founding members of the alliance:

  • Belgium
  • Canada
  • Denmark
  • France
  • Iceland
  • Italy
  • Luxembourg
  • the Netherlands
  • Norway
  • Portugal
  • The United Kingdom
  • The United States

The other member countries that later joined the NATO alliance are:

  • Greece and Turkey (1952)
  • West Germany (1955)
  • Spain (1982)
  • The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland (1999)
  • Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia (2004)
  • Albania and Croatia (2009)
  • Montenegro (2017)
  • North Macedonia (2020)

The Warsaw Pact

The Soviet Union created and led the Warsaw Pact.

What was the Warsaw Pact?

The Warsaw Treaty Organization (also known as the Warsaw Pact) was a political and military alliance established on May 14, 1955, between the Soviet Union and several Eastern European countries. The Soviet Union formed this alliance to counterbalance the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a collective security alliance concluded between the United States, Canada, and Western European nations in 1949.

Which countries were in the Warsaw Pact?

The following were the original signatories to the Warsaw Treaty:

  • The Soviet Union
  • Albania
  • Poland
  • Czechoslovakia
  • Hungary
  • Bulgaria
  • Romania
  • the German Democratic Republic (East Germany)

How did the Warsaw Pact end?

By the 1980s, the Warsaw Treaty Organization weakened as the economies of Soviet countries in the Pact declined. Political changes in East European countries also moved countries away from Soviet communism. In September 1990, East Germany left the Pact in preparation for reunification with West Germany. By October, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland had withdrawn from all Warsaw Pact military exercises. The Warsaw Pact officially ended when the Soviet Union collapsed in the summer of 1991.

Nuclear proliferation and the arms race

The United States and the Soviet Union financially invested in promoting math and science. These investments supported the nuclear and military technology arms race between the two global powers. They also resulted in competition in aeronautics and space exploration.

The Space Race

The Space Race was a 20th-century competition between two Cold War adversaries, the Soviet Union and the United States, to achieve superior spaceflight capability. It had its origins in the ballistic missile-based nuclear arms race between the two nations following World War II. The Space Race brought pioneering launches of artificial satellites, robotic space probes to the Moon, Venus, and Mars, and human spaceflight in low Earth orbit and ultimately to the moon.

How did the Space Race start?

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the earth’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik-1. The successful launch came as a shock to experts and citizens in the United States, who had hoped that the United States would accomplish this scientific advancement first.

How did America react to Sputnik?

The fact that the Soviets were successful fed fears that the U.S. military had generally fallen behind in developing new technology. As a result, the launch of Sputnik served to intensify the arms race and raise Cold War tensions.

  • Although President Dwight Eisenhower had tried to downplay the importance of the Sputnik launch to the American people, he poured additional funds and resources into the space program to catch up.
  • On January 31, 1958, the United States succeeded in launching its first satellite, the Explorer. The Explorer was still slighter than Sputnik, but its launch sent it deeper into space. The Soviets responded with yet another launch, and the space race continued.

What were the other significant events and impacts of the Space Race?

  • The United States landed the first humans on the moon in 1969.
  • The Soviet Union built a modular space station in 1971.
  • The United States developed a reusable Space Shuttle that launched in 1981.
  • The U.S. and Russian Federation collaborated on the International Space Station, which launched in 1998.

The Arms Race

The nuclear arms race was a competition for supremacy in nuclear warfare between the United States, the Soviet Union, and their respective allies during the Cold War. This competition included developing atomic weapons and the delivery vehicles for the warheads.

  • American military planners began developing ballistic missiles that could deliver nuclear weapons across the world immediately after World War II.
  • In 1949, when the Soviet Union developed its atomic bomb, America responded by creating the more powerful hydrogen bomb (H-bomb). Successfully tested in 1952, the H-bomb gave America the nuclear advantage.
  • But in August 1953, the Soviets exploded their own H-bomb.
  • By 1957, the Soviets had developed the R-7, the first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). First launched on May 15, 1957, the R-7 rocket had a delivery range of nearly 4000 miles, placing almost American and European cities within range of Soviet nuclear weapons.
  • Less than a month later, on June 11, 1957, the United States launched its first ICBM, the Atlas A.

The connection between the Arms Race and the Space Race

The Space Race and the nuclear arms race were closely linked. The Americans and the Soviets used many early ICBMs as orbital launch vehicles in early space flight programs.

  • An R-7 rocket placed the Soviet Sputnik (the first satellite) into orbit in 1957.
  • The first human spaceflight in history was accomplished on a derivative of R-7, Vostok, on April 12, 1961, by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.
  • NASA used the Atlas rocket in its Mercury space program, which launched the first Americans into orbit.
  • The United States developed the Titan rocket in 1959 and used it for the Gemini space missions and as a delivery vehicle for nuclear weapons launchable from underground silos.
  • NASA also used Atlas rockets, first developed in 1957, to send astronauts to the moon during the Apollo missions and various deep space probes to explore planets and celestial bodies outside of the earth’s orbit. The U.S. military only used Atlas missiles as ICBMs briefly until 1965.

Proxy wars

Proxy wars were an enduring feature of the Cold War period and took place on all continents except Antarctica.

What is a proxy war?

A proxy war is an armed conflict between two or more powers that do not engage in direct armed conflict. Instead, they provide financial and military support to others who engage in armed struggle.  

What were the significant proxy wars during the Cold War?

  • The Chinese Civil War
  • Korea
  • Vietnam
  • The Algerian War
  • The Suez Crisis
  • The Congo Crisis
  • The Angolan Civil War
  • The Soviet-Afghan War
  • The Sandinista-Contra conflict in Nicaragua

Why did the Soviet Union and the United States use proxy wars?

The Americans and the Soviets used proxy wars to increase their influence globally without having to directly fight each other militarily, which could have led to the use of nuclear weapons.

The Korean War

The Korean War began on June 25, 1950, when the Northern Korean People’s Army invaded South Korea along the 38th parallel, the line dividing communist North Korea from the non-communist Republic of Korea in the south. North Korea aimed to conquer South Korea militarily and unify Korea under the communist North Korean regime. Concerned that the Soviet Union and Communist China might have encouraged this invasion, President Harry S. Truman committed the United States military to the defense of the non-communist Republic of Korea in its defense.

The result of the Korean War: America’s entry into the Korean War prevented North Korea from imposing its communist rule on South Korea. Modern Korea remains divided between communist North Korea and non-communist South Korea. Technically, the war continues as no formal peace treaty ending the war was signed. The border between North and South Korea is one of the most militarized locations on earth.

The Angolan Civil War

The Angolan Civil War was a civil war in Angola, beginning in 1975 and continuing for several decades. The war started after Angola became independent from Portugal in November 1975. The war was a power struggle between two former anti-colonial independence groups, the communist People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the anti-communist National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). The Soviet Union supported the MPLA, and America supported UNITA.

The Results of the Angolan Civil War: The war lasted until 2002. Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90s, the war only ended after the death of Jonas Savimbi, the longtime leader of UNITA.

  • The Republic of Angola continues to be led by the MPLA, which is now a political party, not a fighting movement.
  • Angola is a one-party state led by MPLA that has been in power since Angola became independent in 1975.
  • While no longer a militant movement, UNITA remains the largest political opposition party in Angola.

The Sandinista-Contras conflict in Nicaragua

The Sandanista-Contra conflict began after Sandanista rebels overthrew the government of longtime American-backed Nicaraguan dictator Anastacio Somoza in 1979. American president Ronald Reagan stopped aid to Nicaragua and the Sandanista government, claiming the Soviets and other communist groups supported the Sandanistas. In 1981, Reagan secretly authorized funding to the anti-Santanista Contra fighters stationed in Honduras and Costa Rica. Fighting between the Sandanista and Contras continued throughout the 1980s.

The result of the Sandanista-Contras conflict: After a decade of fighting, in 1989, Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega met with the leaders of neighboring Latin American countries and developed a peace plan. Nations with Contra bases agreed to close those bases down if Ortega allowed free and fair elections in Nicaragua. The Ortega government held these elections in February 1990. Opposition candidate Violeta Barrios de Chamorro defeated Ortega,  and the Sandanistas also lost control of the Nicaraguan Congress.