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19 Characteristics of the Cold War

The Cold War was a period of global political tension between capitalist and communist nations in the period 1945 to 1991. The following are its basic characteristics.


The Cold War was primarily a standoff between the Soviet Union and the United States. These two nations were referred to as the superpowers as their military power far exceeded that of other nations in this period.

Divided Europe

In the last months of WWII the United States and the Soviet Union raced to liberate as much territory as possible. The United States feared that the Soviet Union would colonize any countries it liberated from Nazi Germany. This is exactly what happened as the nations in Eastern Europe liberated by the Soviet Union including Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania and East Germany had puppet governments installed that were essentially extensions of the Soviet Union.

Berlin Wall

The Soviet installed government in East Germany built a defensive wall and heavy defenses that divided Germany as a country and Berlin as a city. This also divided many German families for a more than a generation.

Iron Curtain

The Soviet Union together with its contiguous aligned states Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Albania formed a communism block that generally didn't allow citizens to travel outside to capitalist states. This gigantic network of border security that kept large populations from fleeing became a symbol of oppression known as the Iron Curtain.


The United States and Soviet Union both had significant allies. The allies of the United States in North America and Europe formed a formal military alliance known as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. The Soviet Union formed a similar military alliance with its allies in Eastern Europe known as the Warsaw Pact in 1955.


The Cold War was an ideological struggle with capitalism and democracy on one side and communism on the other.


Beyond ideology, capitalism and communism were both real systems that shaped the quality of life of nations. This became more apparent as time went on as the systems diverged with Western democracies producing a higher standard of living and providing more rights and freedoms than Soviet Bloc countries. For example, in 1973 GDP per capita was $6,058 in the USSR and $16,689 in the United States (as measured in international dollars).

Nuclear Weapons

The Cold War began shortly after the United States developed nuclear weapons and promptly dropped them on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. This put the Soviets on the defensive as they had suffered far greater losses than the United States in WWII and were completely exposed. The Soviets raced to develop nuclear weapons and had them by 1949.

Nuclear Testing

The magnitude of nuclear bombs quickly increased from the 21 kiloton bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945 to the Soviet RDS-220 hydrogen bomb test in 1961 that was about 58,000 kilotons. These tests involved the release of considerable amounts of radioactive materials directly into the environment. It soon become clear that this wasn't sustainable with about 360,000 kilotons of tests in 1961-62 alone. In 1963, the United States, Soviet Union and United Kingdom agreed to the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty that restricted testing to underground. This was an early success in cooling the escalation of Cold War activities that threatened global destruction.

Mutually Ensured Destruction

The United States and Soviet Union quickly produced thousands of nuclear weapons that peaked at around 40,000 globally by the end of the Cold War. Thousands of these were operationalized at any point in time such that they could be launched within a matter of minutes to hours. This situation was known as Mutually Ensure Destruction whereby the entire population of the world was theoretically within minutes of destruction. This was a vivid part of the experience of living through this age. For example, "duck and cover" drills in schools.

First Strike Capabilities

The United States and Soviet Union raced to improve their weapons in order to have the capability to strike faster than the other side. This was an important strategic consideration known as first strike capabilities that had startling implications. Tensions escalated as both sides developed capabilities to strike, detect strikes and counterattack quickly. This escalated risks as decisions had to be made in minutes. For example, on November 9, 1979 a computer error caused the United States to incorrectly detect 2,200 incoming missiles with an estimate that the President had 3-7 minutes to launch a counterattack. Mainframe computers used to perform this work could only perform about 2 million instructions per second meaning they were more than 1,000 times slower than a modern smart phone.

Cuban Missile Crisis

The Cuban Missile Crisis was confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union that was triggered by the revelation that the Soviet Union was deploying ballistic missiles in Cuba within a short distance of the United States potentially giving it first strike capabilities. This resulted in an intense standoff that brought the two military foes into close contact with several near misses that could have triggered a full scale conflict. For example, a Soviet patrol submarine B-59 almost launched a nuclear-tipped torpedo while under harassment by American naval forces.

One Party State

The Soviet Union was a one party state where freedom of speech, press and assembly weren't guaranteed and political opposition was essentially a crime. Perceived "anti-Soviet" thinking was also pathologized and medicalized such that it was treated as a psychological condition.


In the United States, perceived communists were persecuted with a system known as McCarthyism that prevailed in the period 1945 to the mid-1950s. The term McCarthyism, is named after Senator Joseph McCarthy who created an environment of fear and self-censorship by persecuting political adversaries by accusing them of serious crimes such as subversion or treason. Being accused alone was enough to be blacklisted in your profession. Government employees were evaluated for their "Americanism" resulting in thousands of dismissals and pressured resignations. This period is also known as the Red Scare to denote the palpable fear of Soviet espionage that prevailed after WWII.

Proxy Wars

The United States and the Soviet Union engaged in soft power campaigns to influence the political systems of other nations. In the case of the Soviet Union, this often involved the support and development of revolutions to overthrow capitalist systems. This resulted in the United States directly entering the Korean and Vietnam wars. These are viewed as proxy wars whereby the United States and Russia couldn't fight directly due to their overwhelming destructive capacity so that they engineered wars in developing nations.

Anti-War Movement

The spectre of the Vietnam War was broadcast nightly on the evening news in America creating awareness of its human costs including a large number of military and civilian casualties. The United States had a system of conscription from 1940 until 1973 and used it to compel 2,215,000 men into military service during the Vietnam War. These two factors made the war increasingly unpopular resulting in a large Anti-War movement beginning in 1964 in the United States that eventually spread to all developed nations. This produced a youth culture known as the Hippie movement that greatly influenced these societies for a generation.

Space Race

The Space Race was a competition between the United States and Soviet Union to achieve milestones in space exploration and technology. The Soviets achieved the first successful space launch on October 4, 1957 with the orbiting of Sputnik 1. The United States responded with massive spending to achieve the far greater milestone of landing humans on the moon on July 20, 1969 with the Apollo 11 mission.


Perestroika was a liberalization and restructuring program launched by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986. Perestroika led to a warming of ties between Russia and the West and deescalation of the Cold War such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1988.

Dissolution of the Soviet Union

The liberalization of the Soviet Union introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev led to limited tolerance of political opposition that allowed the system to collapse into protest. This resulted in full scale revolution in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Romania. Communism as a system in Europe essentially collapsed and the USSR disintegrated into 15 sovereign states. The Cold War was over and the iron curtain collapsed ending the isolation of former communist states in Europe.
Overview: Cold War
A period of global political tension between capitalist and communist nations in the period 1945 to 1991.
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Kotkin, Stephen. "Modern times: the Soviet Union and the interwar conjuncture." Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 2.1 (2001): 111-164.
Davies, R.W. (1998). Soviet Economic Development from Lenin to Khrushchev. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Norris, Robert S., and Hans M. Kristensen. "Global nuclear weapons inventories, 1945–2010." Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 66.4 (2010): 77-83.
Borning, Alan. "Computer system reliability and nuclear war." Communications of the ACM 30.2 (1987): 112-131.
Savranskaya, Svetlana V. "New sources on the role of Soviet submarines in the Cuban missile crisis." Journal of Strategic Studies 28.2 (2005): 233-259.
Wilkinson, Greg. "Political dissent and" sluggish" schizophrenia in the Soviet Union." British medical journal (Clinical research ed.) 293.6548 (1986): 641.
Schrecker, Ellen. Many are the crimes: McCarthyism in America. Princeton University Press, 1999.
Mumford, Andrew. Proxy warfare. John Wiley & Sons, 2013.
Angrist, Joshua D., and Alan B. Krueger. Estimating the payoff to schooling using the Vietnam-era draft lottery. No. w4067. National bureau of economic research, 1992.


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