The Cold War: A Struggle for World Dominance

The Washington D.C. White House on one side and the Moscow Kremlin and St. Basil’s Cathedral on the other side. The image represents how the U.S. and the Soviet Union measured their strength against each other.
A 1980 Cold War map. Dark blue and medium blue: the USA and its allies. Three shades of red: The Soviet Union and its allies. X:es on individual countries represent guerilla groups. Light blue represents non-aligned countries.
American soldiers in Vietnam during the Vietnam War.
Vietnam shown in red on a map.
Reacting to propaganda in a newspaper.
Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan War in the 1980s.
Fighters of Mujahideen, a U.S.-backed guerilla group during the Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s.

By the time World War II ended, in 1945, it became clear that two superpowers had emerged on the world stage: the largely capitalist United States and the largely communist Soviet Union. These two giants, as one could naturally assume, wanted to cooperate with other countries, especially economically and militarily, because the more partners they had around the world, the richer they would become and the stronger their power positions would be. Diametrically opposed to each other as the two superpowers were, the world was now divided up between countries who preferred to cooperate with the capitalist United States and those who chose to partner with the communist Soviet Union.

Proxy wars

In line with their power aspirations, in what quickly turned into a cold war, as soon as any of the two great powers saw a chance, they fomented rebellions in countries that had partnered with their superpower rival. This was done to try to replace hostile governments with friendly ones, change countries’ economic systems from capitalism to communism or vice versa, and undermine the respective Cold War adversary.

Neither the United States nor the Soviet Union, of course, was happy to lose any allies. Consequently, when, in any country in the world, a Soviet-backed armed rebellion risked overthrowing a government loyal to the United States, the United States would send arms, advisors and sometimes soldiers to fight the rebel group. This happened, for example, in Vietnam in the 1960s. Conversely, when a U.S.-backed guerrilla group violently threatened a government loyal to the Soviet Union, such as in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Soviet Union would send weapons and military personnel to keep their favored government in power. Nevertheless, though superpower proxy wars like those in Vietnam and Afghanistan were commonplace during the Cold War, the U.S. and the USSR were careful not to fight a direct war against each other on their own soil. The reason for this was the knowledge that both countries possessed so many nuclear weapons that they could practically wipe out each other’s civilizations within minutes if such a war was to break out.

Propaganda

Still, though staying shy of a direct war, both sides spread propaganda that painted their superpower opponent as a villain who wanted to take over the globe. The Soviet Union, for this purpose, made themselves out to be the victims of American aggression, while the United States underscored that evil Soviets bullied the free world. Both parties’ contentions, one could argue, were correct, even though the propaganda primarily served to justify one’s own country’s power aspirations. If people, both at home and abroad, could be made to think that the other superpower was evil and megalomaniacal, strategy said, it was easier to motivate intervening militarily against its allies and thereby increase one’s own country’s sphere of influence.

To sum up, lastly, despite the name, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was not a direct war. Instead, beginning in 1945, it was a 46-year race between two superpowers to win money, prestige and influence throughout the world.