Special Report

The Cold War's Most Pivotal Events

No sooner had World War II ended, then another conflict began. This was the Cold War – an ideological battle between the United States and the Soviet Union and its allies that would last roughly 45 years. (The term was apparently coined by George Orwell in a general sense in 1946 and first applied to the U.S.-Soviet rivalry the following year by the financier and statesman Bernard Baruch.) For much of its duration, the Cold War would be a low-boil struggle between the two superpowers, interrupted by several incidents that could have triggered an all-out nuclear war and the end of civilization.  

To assemble a list of the most important events of the Cold War, 24/7 Tempo culled information from sources such as the websites of the National Archives, the FBI, the CIA, the National World War II Museum, NATO, and Britannica, as well as various media sources. We exercised editorial discretion in choosing what we believe to be the pivotal moments of the Cold War, from the end of World War II to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. (For conflicts that weren’t so “cold,” read how every war in American history ended.)

Even before the last shots of World War II were fired, tensions between the U.S. and its allies on one hand and the Soviet Union on the other were rising. The Soviets reneged on the promise of free elections in the Eastern European countries and instead embarked on a program of imposing communist governments on them. A divided Germany would be the locus of flashpoints culminating in the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961.

All areas of international interaction became politicized – sports, culture, education, science, and of course national defense. For most of the Cold War period, the threat of nuclear annihilation hung over civilization. Both sides tried to avert catastrophe by better communications and a series of treaties limiting testing and weapons inventory. (Here are 25 misunderstandings that almost started nuclear war.)

Click here to read about the most important events of the Cold War

It became clear by the early 1980s that communism in Eastern Europe was a spent force. Decades earlier, U.S. foreign policy expert George Kennan had predicted the Soviet Union would collapse because of internal contradictions within its economic system. His prediction would be realized in 1991.

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