It’s a commonly-held misconception that the Cold War was a bloodless conflict between the two Cold war blocs led by the United States and the Soviet Union. While it’s true that there were no open hostilities between the two sides throughout this period, there were countless conflicts around the world that were openly or covertly supported by one of them. Some of these conflicts – like the Guatemalan Civil War, or the liberation war in Bangladesh – resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of people, making them some of the most destructive wars of the 20th century.
10. Suez Crisis
On October 29, 1956, Israeli forces invaded Egypt and were soon joined by British and French troops. It would come to be known as the Suez crisis, now remembered as one of the most important conflicts of the Cold War era. It began when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in July, 1956, which was previously controlled by French and British authorities. It was a response to the US and British refusal to finance the Aswan High Dam project, largely due to Nasser’s growing ties with communist nations like Czechoslovakia and the USSR.
All these events triggered responses from international factions, with the Soviet Union openly supporting Egypt and threatening nuclear retaliation against any military action on Egyptian soil. One exception was the United States, which called for de-escalation and the withdrawal of troops. Thanks to that and pressure from other countries, British and French forces left by December, and Israel gave up control of the canal to Egypt by March 1957.
While a minor event against all the other things going on around that time, the Suez Crisis had far-reaching consequences, as it was the beginning of the end for the British and French empires. The canal remains under Egyptian control today, with over 300 million tons of goods passing through it every year.
9. Bangladesh Liberation War
The Bangladesh Liberation War was a major conflict rooted in the complex colonial history of South Asia. Initially part of Pakistan after the 1947 partition of British India, East Pakistan – now Bangladesh – and West Pakistan were geographically, culturally, and ideologically distinct regions. Tensions started when East Pakistan began to seek autonomy within the larger Pakistan state, particularly due to its differences in ethnicity and language with West Pakistan.
The situation escalated when the Pakistani army launched Operation Searchlight in March 1971, aimed at suppressing the Bengali independence movement. As violence and civilian mass massacres erupted across the country, India intervened with its military in support of Bangladesh.
Concerned about Soviet influence in the region, the US supported Pakistan with military and economic aid. It was a brutal war with widespread atrocities, including ethnic cleansing and sexual violence, resulting in an estimated death toll of hundreds of thousands to around three million people.
8. Indonesian War Of Independence
Fought between 1945 and 1949, the Indonesian War of Independence was an armed conflict between the Republic of Indonesia and the Dutch Empire. It marked the end of Dutch colonial rule in the East Indies, beginning with Indonesia’s declaration of independence after the Japanese withdrawal in 1945.
The struggle for Indonesian independence involved both sporadic armed clashes and internal diplomatic tussles. The Dutch forces initially controlled major urban areas, though they struggled to assert authority in the countryside. International dynamics also played a major role in the conflict. With the Cold War intensifying around the world, the United States pressured the Netherlands to resolve the Indonesian issue, threatening to cut off economic aid. That – combined with pressure from other large powers and the Dutch military’s inability to subdue the rural areas – eventually led to the recognition of Indonesia’s independence in 1949. The revolution was the end of the Dutch colonial administration in the East Indies, except in New Guinea.
7. Algerian War
The Algerian War of Independence, also sometimes called the Algerian revolution, was an anticolonial armed conflict against French rule that began in 1954 and lasted until 1962. It was primarily fueled by broken promises of self rule following the Second World War, resulting in an all-out guerilla conflict by the National Liberation Front – or FLN – in November 1954. It was primarily fought in and around Algiers, notably during the Battle of Algiers in 1956 and 1957.
While France – with its massive force of 500,000 troops – deployed many brutal tactics to suppress the rebellion, the ferocity of the resistance ultimately forced it to the negotiating table. In the context of the Cold War, the FLN aimed to internationalize the conflict and gain support from the Eastern Bloc.
6. Guatemala Civil War
The civil war in Guatemala was triggered by the 1954 coup – a CIA operation to overthrow the democratically-elected President Jacobo Árbenz due to perceived communist threats, notably his land reforms. The coup installed Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, whose rule rolled back these reforms and curtailed voting rights for illiterate Guatemalans. The conflict was initiated in 1960 by left-wing paramilitary groups against the autocratic regime led by Gen. Miguel Ydigoras Fuentes, who came into power after Castillo Armas was assassinated in 1958.
It was one of the most brutal and longest-running conflicts of the Cold War. Also sometimes called the Guatemalan genocide, the civil war was marked by extreme violence primarily against the indigenous tribes, with many cases of mutilations, sexual violence, and public massacres across the country.
The war ended in 1996 with over 200,000 deaths, with about 83% of them belonging to the indigenous Maya community. According to a 1999 UN Truth Commission report, around 93% of the human rights violations during the war were committed by state forces and pro-government militias.
5. Ifni War
Often referred to as the Forgotten Spanish War, the Ifni War was an armed conflict between Spain and Moroccan rebels in Spanish West Africa. After Morocco’s independence from France in 1956, tensions started rising in the other Spanish-held enclaves in the region historically considered to be Moroccan territory, including Ifni and parts of the Spanish Sahara.
The Moroccan Army of Liberation launched an invasion of the two regions in November 1957, with around 12,000 fighters drawn from tribal populations and volunteers. Under siege and cut off from reinforcements, the outnumbered Spanish garrison in Ifni still managed to maintain a defensive perimeter around the capital of Sidi Ifni. They also prevailed in the Spanish Sahara and drove the MLA out of the territory by early 1958, aided by French fighters. Sidi Ifni remained under Spanish control until 1969, when it was returned to Morocco due to international pressure.
4. South African Border
Also known as the Namibian War of Independence, or the Angolan Bush War in South Africa, the South African Border War was a series of asymmetric conflicts between apartheid South Africa and various armed groups, including the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia and the armed wing of the South West African People’s Organization. Primarily an anti colonial war of independence, it was fought between August, 1966 and March, 1990, making it one of the longest conflicts of the Cold War era. It was also closely related to the Angolan Civil War, with the involvement of Cuba, USSR, and other Cold War powers.
The conflict began with South Africa’s refusal to grant Namibia – then known as South West Africa – independence, despite international pressure and multiple United Nations resolutions. SWAPO, with support from the Soviet Union, China, and other sympathetic African states, formed PLAN in 1962 and started an armed struggle. The war escalated in August, 1966, when fighting broke out between the insurgents and South African authorities, followed by South Africa organizing massive raids against PLAN bases in Angola between 1975 and 1988. While they enjoyed some early victories, the well-supplied South African military would be defeated by 1990, resulting in complete Namibian independence.
3. Soviet Invasion Of Czechoslovakia
While most people know about the Soviet invasion of Hungary, far fewer are aware of its military incursion into Czechoslovakia. On August 20, 1968, tens of thousands of Warsaw Pact troops led by the USSR launched a full-scale invasion of communist Czechoslovakia. It was a response to the Prague Spring – a period of liberalization and reform spearheaded by the Czechoslovakian First Secretary Alexander Dubcek.
The Prague Spring promised democratic elections, increased autonomy for regions like Slovakia, freedom of speech and religion, the end of censorship, and major economic reforms. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, wanted to maintain orthodox communism as the primary ideology in the region, triggering an armed response. The invasion crushed the Prague Spring and resulted in the deaths of over 100 protesters.
2. Angola Civil War
The Angolan Civil War was one of the most prolonged and devastating conflicts of the 20th century, lasting from 1975 to 2002. It resulted in the deaths of nearly one million people and the displacement of four million others. The conflict had its roots in Angola’s struggle for independence from colonial rule, which began in 1975 following the hasty withdrawal of Portugal from the region. This departure left a political vacuum in the country, with multiple independence movements suddenly springing up and fighting for control.
Over the years, the Angolan Civil War turned into one of the many active military theaters of the Cold War. It was a proxy battle between the communist bloc, supported by the USSR and Cuba, and the Western alliance, assisted by South Africa, the US, and the UK.
The conflict escalated throughout the 1980s, resulting in the deadly Battle of Cuito Cuanavale in 1988, where both sides claimed victory and nearly 10,000 soldiers lost their lives. A temporary ceasefire was established until 1992, followed by elections supervised by the United Nations. The war went on for another decade until 2002, when one of the competing leaders – Jonas Savimbi – was killed by government forces.
1. Greek Civil War
The Greek Civil War was a forgotten conflict fought in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Beginning merely weeks after the end of the German occupation of Greece, it began when the communist-controlled EAM-ELAS established a provisional government in the Greek mountains, while British forces wanted to maintain a coalition government in Athens, which soon collapsed due to the resistance and triggered the civil war.
The conflict escalated in 1946 when the communists, now largely operating underground, launched a full-scale guerrilla war against occupying forces. Great Britain eventually handed over its role to the US government, thanks to the emerging Cold War dynamics around the world. The Cold War Truman Doctrine was formed in response to this crisis, which provided massive military and economic aid to Greece to suppress the rebellion. The Greek government managed to clear the communist rebel strongholds by 1949, effectively ending the conflict on October 16.