Victoria Mouton

Last updated: 24/09/2015

The major crises of the Cold War

From the Berlin Blockade to the Euromissiles crisis, find out about the major international crises of the Cold War. This selection of documents illustrates some 40 years of international tensions between West and East, during which time the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war on several occasions.
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The major crises of the Cold War


The Cold War was a lengthy struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union that began in the aftermath of the surrender of Hitler’s Germany. The two superpowers gradually built up their zones of influence, dividing the world into two opposing camps. In Western Europe, the European integration process began with the support of the United States, while the countries of Eastern Europe became satellites of the USSR.

From 1947 onwards, the two blocs, employing all the resources at their disposal for intimidation and subversion, clashed in a lengthy strategic and ideological conflict punctuated by crises of varying intensity. Although the two superpowers never fought directly, they pushed the world to the brink on several occasions.

The first Berlin crisis: The Berlin Blockade (1948–1949)

Germany rapidly became a sparring ground for the Cold War. During 1945, the Allies began organising their respective occupation zones. In July 1946, the United States proposed a plan for economic unification of the occupied zones. Faced with the refusal of France and the Soviet Union, the British and Americans decided to unite their zones economically and created the Bizone. On 3 June 1948, the French occupation zone joined the Bizone, which then became the Trizone.

On 20 June 1948, the Western Allies introduced a new unit of account. The German mark, the Deutsche Mark (DM), was introduced in all the Western zones and replaced the Reichsmark. This monetary reform enabled the shops to be filled once again with goods that had, until then, only been obtainable on the black market. While the Communists took over nearly all the command posts in the Eastern zone, the ideas of the former Allies about the economic and political organisation of Germany became more at odds with each other every day.

Hoping to keep Berlin united in the heart of the Soviet zone, and denouncing what it called the Anglo-American policy of acting without consultation, the USSR reacted to this initiative on 24 June 1948 by imposing a total blockade of the Western sectors of Berlin. The city lay in the Soviet zone, but the Americans, the British and the French were established in their respective occupation zones. Access to Berlin by road, rail and water was impossible. Food supplies and electricity were cut. The introduction of the DM in the Western sectors of Berlin was the official cause, but the Soviet Union probably wanted to capture the capitalist island in its occupation zone by making the British, French and Americans leave Berlin. When Stalin decided to lift the blockade on 12 May 1949, the political division of the city was firmly established.

The Korean War (1950–1953)

On 25 June 1950, Communist troops from North Korea crossed the 38th parallel, the military demarcation line between the north and south of the country. The United States, determined to support the authorities in the south, took advantage of the temporary absence of the Soviet delegate from the United Nations Security Council to commit the UN to defending South Korea. North Korea enjoyed the support of the USSR and Communist China.

In 1951, US General MacArthur put a proposal to Harry Truman to bomb China and resort to atomic weapons if need be. The situation became extremely tense. But the President refused to use the atomic bomb and the war continued, despite constant diplomatic efforts to broker a ceasefire. The armistice was finally signed on 27 July 1953.

The Suez Crisis (1956)

Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, one of the participants at the conference of non-aligned African and Asian countries held in Bandung in 1955, was seeking to unify the Arab world around Egypt, of which he became President in June 1956. In order to stimulate the economic and agricultural transformation of the country, he planned the construction of a huge dam at Aswan, but the United States, despite seeing Nasser as a preferable alternative to communism, refused to contribute to the enormous building costs. So on 26 July 1956, Nasser announced his intention to nationalise the Suez Canal Company. The majority of shareholders in this internationally vital waterway were French and British, and their concession was not due to expire until 1968. For Nasser, the revenue from operating the canal was necessary to allow Egypt to finance the building of the Aswan Dam.

France, angered by the aid given by Egypt to the Algerian rebels, and Britain, which wanted to maintain its control over the strategically important Suez passage, decided to launch a joint military attack with a view to regaining control over the administration of the canal. They were supported militarily by Israel — a state that since its creation in 1948 had felt directly threatened by any hint of Arab expansionism or reinforcement. On 29 October 1956, Israeli forces took the Sinai Peninsula, a vital area for the protection of the Jewish state. One week later, Anglo-French troops disembarked in Port Said. The operation was entirely successful — the Egyptian army was defeated in a few days, even though Nasser had ordered the sinking of some forty ships in order to block the Suez Canal completely.

However, the world powers did not appreciate the actions of France and Britain in the slightest. The Soviet Union, which was in the process of forcibly putting down the insurrection in Hungary, threatened Paris and London with nuclear reprisals. For their part, the United States, despite being traditional allies of the European powers, complained that they had not been consulted beforehand. They did not appreciate this kind of neo-colonial gunboat diplomacy at all, and exerted enormous financial pressure on the United Kingdom through the United Nations — so much so that the Anglo-French force had to withdraw despite its military success. Israel also evacuated Sinai. The UN took on the task of repairing the Suez Canal, which was reopened to shipping in April 1957. In the meantime, Nasser had ordered the destruction of several oil pipelines, meaning that Western European countries faced their first cuts in fuel supplies.

The repression of the Hungarian Uprising (1956)

In late October 1956, Hungarian intellectuals and students embittered by the Communist regime took to the streets of Budapest in protest. Riots soon broke out and some members of the Hungarian army fought on the side of the rebels. A new Hungarian Government supported the cause; it called for the withdrawal of Soviet troops and abolished the one-party system before announcing Hungary’s unilateral withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact and proclaiming the country’s neutrality.

On 1 November 1956, the Red Army seemed to be withdrawing. But on 4 November 1956, Nikita Khrushchev ordered the Red Army to put down the Hungarian Uprising by force. Soviet troops attacked en masse and Hungary was subjected to merciless repression.

The second Berlin crisis: The building of the Berlin Wall (1961)

In June 1953, strikes broke out in East Berlin and spread rapidly throughout East Germany, but they were immediately repressed by the Soviet army. The failure of this uprising led several hundred thousand East Germans to flee to the FRG. More than two million people crossed from East to West in less than ten years.

In order to stop this mass exodus, the GDR finally decided to prevent people crossing to the West. During the night of 12 to 13 August 1961, East German workers, flanked by soldiers, built a wall between East and West Berlin that made passage impossible. This closed border, known as the ‘wall of shame’, became the most tangible symbol of the Cold War and the division of Europe.

The Cuban crisis (1962)

Since the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista’s military dictatorship in January 1959, Cuba was ruled by Fidel Castro. In the course of agricultural reform, Castro nationalised the Cuban property of American undertakings, thereby incurring the wrath of Washington. In response, the pro-Communist Cuban leader moved closer to the USSR, which was delighted to find a new ally in the western hemisphere and inside the American security zone. The Cuban and Soviet regimes signed successive agreements on trade and military cooperation. In April 1961, the United States attempted to overthrow the new regime by arranging for anti-Castro exiles to land in the Bay of Pigs. The operation failed and ultimately only strengthened Castro’s position.

Then on 14 October 1962, US spy planes observed launchers for Soviet missiles under construction in Cuba, posing a direct threat to the United States. So Kennedy decided to impose a naval blockade. For two weeks, the world stood on the brink of nuclear war. On 28 October, a compromise was secured at the eleventh hour and a nuclear conflict was narrowly avoided.

The crushing of the Prague Spring (1968)

In Czechoslovakia, the Communist Party had ruled since the 1948 Prague coup. In January 1968, the Stalinist Antonin Novotný was overruled and replaced by the liberal Communist Alexander Dubček. The regime began to liberalise: censorship was abolished and Czech citizens were permitted to travel abroad. The USSR expressed its dissatisfaction, but Prague refused to comply. In fact, as the pressure increased, so did the liberalisation. On 21 August 1968, troops from the Warsaw Pact countries, with the exception of Romania, invaded the country and arrested the ‘deviant’ leaders. Dubček was replaced by the pro-Soviet Gustáv Husák, who oversaw a return to normality.

The Euromissiles crisis (1977–1987)

The Euromissiles crisis erupted in the late 1970s. The focus of this tense diplomatic battle was the installation by the United States of cruise missiles and Pershing II missiles in Europe as a counterbalance to the threat posed by the deployment of Soviet SS-20 missiles aimed at Western Europe. The actual deployment of US missiles in some Western European countries from 1983 onwards gave rise to large-scale campaigns by European pacifists and also led to a frenzied arms race, at the centre of which was the US ‘Star Wars’ programme. In December 1987, the two superpowers finally signed the first real nuclear disarmament agreement, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.