The Cold War lasted over forty-years of the twentieth-century. Why was the Cold War important? This study guide helps to answer that question.
Soon after the Second World War, the democratic nations of the world perceived the growing Soviet Union and the spread of communism as a threat akin to the fascism defeated in the war. Germany became the pawn in a power struggle between the Western allies (United States, Great Britain and France) and the Soviet Union. It was thought that a Germany governed by the USSR could create a socialist Europe. Thus, Germany was split between the four nations; the US, Great Britain, and France eventually joined their zones. The conflict over Germany, especially Berlin, and the fear of Soviet expansion spurned a hostile rivalry that would last for more than four decades. In other words, the Cold War.
So, why was the Cold War Important? This can be answered in many ways and the response would depend on who is being asked. An American who lived during the era would probably have a very different answer than a Polish citizen who witnessed the end of the Soviet Union. One possible answer is hinted at in the preceding paragraph. Containment of the growth of new communist and socialist states was the overall goal during the Cold War years. While it is true that nations were absorbed into the Soviet Union, and communism spread to China and other nations, containment was basically an effective policy. The world, particularly Europe, was not tilted heavily towards communism. This achievement was an expensive one however.
The perceived menace the other side posed caused the two superpowers to stockpile, and improve their weapons of mass destruction. The Cold War was a war of avoidance, not combat. (It didn’t always work; i.e., Korea, Vietnam, Grenada) Defense systems were heavily funded as deterrence to actual war, the belief being the risk of mutual annihilation would be too great to be the side to make the first move. The Soviet Union told its people that sacrifices must be made in order to prevent the devastation endured during the Great Patriotic War (the name for World War II in the USSR). This was the justification for spending 60% of the Soviet Union’s budget on defense. In the United States, huge amounts of money were spent on missiles, nuclear weapons, and anti-missile defense system research right up to the waning years of the Cold War. These expenditures turned into very real threats in the form of nuclear submarines and bombs, strategic missiles, and military buildup. The mere existence of these dangers may have contributed to the atmosphere that fostered the signing of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1968 and the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty SALT I in 1972. These treaties helped to stem the tide of increasingly dangerous weapon development, and can be viewed as a positive outcome of the Cold War. Years of paranoia and watching "the Doomsday Clock" had taught us how capable we were of our own destruction.
The Cold War was significant because it greatly affected the history of the twentieth century, and continues to do so today. It shaped the world we live in and, had there not been a Cold War, that world might be quite different. That’s not to say the world would be worse off or better had there not been a Cold War, just that it had an irrefutable impact. And that is a powerful reason as to why the Cold War was important.
Hodgson, Godfrey, (1998). People’s Century. New York, NY: Time Books.