10 Key Events That Defined the Cold War


Beginning in 1947, a high stakes geopolitical game of chess kicked off between the United States and its “superpower” adversaries, China and the Soviet Union (aka USSR). Although no direct battles were fought, a steady series of proxy wars, threats, and bickering all contributed to defining the Cold War.  

Following World War II, U.S. President Harry S. Truman became hellbent on preventing the spread of communism. His policy took special priority in territories considered to be in America’s “backyard” — a concept open to the interpretation that harkened back to the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. Truman, having already dropped not one, but two nukes on Japan, served notice to the world that “Give ‘Em Hell Harry” could easily pull the trigger again. As a result, the nuclear age had dawned, in which all the major players now scrambled to stockpile bombs like nut-gathering squirrels on meth in a mad dash to the control (or obliterate) the planet.

10. The Berlin Airlift

As punishment for losing the war (and ensuring they’d forever play the bad guys in every WWII movie), Germany also suffered the indignity of having its country divided and chopped up like a plate of bratwurst. These new boundaries created an early power struggle between the Soviets and their former Allies in the West. Starting in the summer of 1948, Berlin became ground zero in a chaotic scene in which Soviet Leader Josef Stalin attempted to cut off all land and water paths between West Germany and West Berlin. The air, however, was something the Russian strongman couldn’t quite strangle with his bare hands — and thus began The Berlin Airlift.

For the next 11 months, U.S. and British planes provided West Berlin with 1.5 million tons of goods, landing an armada of aircraft day and night. The citizens of West Berlin received much-needed food and medical supplies — and above all, hope. Finally, on May 12, 1949, Stalin lifted the blockade rather than risk the chance of shooting down the planes and starting WWIII. The entire ordeal proved to be a huge embarrassment for the Soviet Union and gave the United States an early lead in the ongoing cloak and dagger shenanigans for global domination.

9. Hungarian Uprising

What started as a peaceful student protest against communist rule, later erupted into violence and bloodshed on the streets of Budapest. But like many old European relationships, bad blood between Hungarians and Russians went back centuries. Further complicating matters, Soviet Leader Nikita Khrushchev had recently sent mixed signals encouraging Eastern bloc nations to act more independently as part of the new, less repressive de-Stalinization policy.

Taking this as a cue, Hungarian Prime Minister Imre Nagy called for an end to the country’s one-party system, the total withdrawal of all Soviet troops and plans to exit the Warsaw Pact (the Soviet version of NATO). Khrushchev’s concept of “freedom” suddenly got lost in translation, and in the early morning hours of November 4, 1956, over 1,000 Soviet tanks and 150,000 troops poured into the Hungarian capital.

Nagy desperately appealed to the West for help, but with the Suez Crisis unfolding at the same time and President Eisenhower running for re-election, the Americans decided to send good ‘ol thoughts and prayers instead. By the time the smoke had cleared, 2,500 locals had been killed and another 200,000 fled the country as refugees. Nagy would be later convicted and hanged, transmitting a message loud and clear that any attempt to slip through the Iron Curtain would not be tolerated.

8. U-2 Incident

Disclaimer: this has nothing to do with either the superstar rock band from Dublin or stealth German submarines. Sorry. On May 1, 1960, the Soviet Union shot down an American spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers, who had been engaged in a covert mission as part of the CIA’s U-2 program. The Kremlin considered the intrusion as an aggressive act and blasted the aircraft with a surface-to-air missile near the industrial city of Yekaterinburg.

Immediately following the incident, officials in Washington D.C. went into damage control, spinning a yarn that Powers was simply er…well…in the neighborhood taking pictures of clouds in a “weather plane.” The only problem was the U-2 wreckage had been found relatively intact and contained sophisticated reconnaissance equipment designed to take high-resolution photography of military bases and other strategic sites at altitudes of 70,000 feet. Additionally, weathermen usually don’t carry a poison-laced suicide device around their necks just in case they crash.

Powers, a former Captain in U.S. Air Force and veteran of numerous other top-secret operations, was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 10 years in a Russian prison and labor camp. Although he was freed two years later as part of a prisoner swap, the event caused a considerable escalation of Cold War tensions. Later, Powers’s son, Gary Jr., founded The Cold War Museum in Warrenton, Virginia.

7. The Bay Of Pigs

President John F. Kennedy faced his first serious test as Commander-in-Chief only a few months after taking office. A paramilitary unit of Cuban exiles, trained and financed by the CIA, planned to invade Cuba in the spring of 1961 and topple the Pro-Soviet, communist government of Fidel Castro. The operation had been initially green-lit by then President Dwight D. Eisenhower, with hopes that the invaders would trigger a counter-revolutionary uprising across the island nation. It didn’t. In fact, everything that could’ve gone wrong did just that along the south coast of Cuba in an area called Bahia de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs), where 17th-century pirates had once hunted wild pig.

At the core of the fiasco, the rebels never really had much of a chance of succeeding. Castro had proven himself as a popular leader and effective military strategist; two years earlier, he led a spirited people’s revolution to overthrow General Fulgencio Batista, a corrupt dictator propped up by Washington to protect U.S. corporate interests (and mafia-run casinos). Kennedy, fearing international blowback for being an imperialist aggressor (as well as not wanting to poke the Russian bear), reluctantly allowed the plan to move forward as long as no American soldiers were directly involved. He also scratched air cover in the last minute — a move that all but sealed the fate of the doomed mission.

After landing ashore at dawn on April 17, 1961, Brigade 2506 quickly realized they were no match for Castro’s well-organized Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR). After all, the men and women of Cuba were battle-tested and confident, having fought for two and a half years during the Cuban Revolution. Furthermore, Castro’s arsenal now included Soviet T-34 tanks, tank destroyers, and anti-aircraft artillery. The end result proved to be a complete disaster for the insurgents — the majority of whom would be taken as prisoner, killed or wounded. The one-sided affair dealt the U.S. a humiliating defeat and set the stage for a major mano a mano showdown with the Soviet Union in the months to come.

6. Cuban Missile Crisis

On the morning of October 16, 1962, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy alerted President Kennedy of an emerging situation brewing 90 miles off the coast of Florida. Two days earlier, a U.S. military surveillance plane captured hundreds of aerial photographs, revealing a Soviet missile base under construction near San Cristobal, Cuba. What transpired over the next 13 days became the most harrowing encounter of the Cold War — a crisis that would not only define the Kennedy legacy but bring the world to the brink of nuclear war.

The threat of a Soviet ICBM strike (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile) hitting American soil rapidly turned into a frighteningly real possibility. Over the next two weeks, Kennedy huddled with senior White House officials, including Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, and members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to discuss military options. The debate centered around whether to invade Cuba, launch air strikes or push for a diplomatic solution. On Day 8, Kennedy ordered a naval blockade in the Caribbean and placed all U.S. military forces at DEFCON 3 (increased readiness).

As Soviet ships and submarines sped towards the quarantine line, Khrushchev relayed orders for them to hold their positions temporarily. Meanwhile, additional reconnaissance photos confirmed the presence of Soviet MIGs at air bases in Cuba only heightened the mounting tension. In the next 48 hours, fear and anxiety became palpable, atheists found religion, and American armed forces reached DEFCON 2, the highest in U.S. history. Khrushchev then issued a pair of letters stating the Soviets would remove their missiles if the U.S. publicly guaranteed not to invade Cuba, and that the U.S. remove its missiles from Turkey. Finally, on the 13th day, the two sides relented and settled on an agreement.

Years later, McNamara shed light on a story underscoring just how close a nuclear war nearly occurred. While on patrol during the blockade, a U.S. Navy destroyer, the USS Beale, dropped warning depth charges on top of a Soviet submarine armed with a 15-kiloton nuclear torpedo. Unable to make radio contact with its base, a heated argument ensued among the sub’s three ranking officers whether to surface or go on the attack. Fortunately (and for the sake of humanity), cooler heads prevailed, and the rest, as they say, is history.  

5. Sputnik 1

Sputnik. Despite its funny-sounding name, most Americans saw little humor in the Soviet Union’s launch of earth’s first artificial satellite on October 4, 1957. The United States had been caught by surprise, assuming it held the inside track on advanced rocket technology; its stellar team of scientists included legendary ex-Nazi, Wernher Von Braun, who helped Germany developed the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile. But with the launch of Sputnik 1, the Soviets took the early lead in what became known as “The Space Race.”

In addition to the initial shock (as well as a bruised ego), the U.S. had to act fast in order to keep up with their rival’s accelerated program. President Eisenhower called it the “Sputnik Crisis” and citizens from coast to coast became gripped with paranoia, wondering what exactly this chunk of metal overhead meant for the future of life on earth. A few months later, concerns became further magnified when the American Vanguard TV3 satellite mission only managed to get four feet off the ground before exploding — a stinging failure dubbed “Flopnik” and “Kaputnik.”

The Soviets also claimed bragging rights for putting the first animal, man and woman in space on subsequent missions. Eventually, the U.S. would hit its stride and prove it had the right stuff after all. Eight years after President Kennedy famously declared the U.S. would put a man on the moon, Apollo 11 accomplished the historic feat with astronaut Neil Armstrong declaring, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

4. Chilean Coup d’état

After becoming President of Chile in a democratically-held election, Salvador Allende soon faced a much bigger opponent: Uncle Sam. The Nixon administration, along with the CIA, viewed the Marxist leader as a grave threat and feared radical, leftist governments would take root throughout South America. The Americans’ well-funded, covert operation worked to methodically destabilize Allende’s government and cripple his country’s economy. Moreover, the U.S. cultivated a coup d’etat by the Chilean military, adhering to the anti-communist rally cry of, “Better dead than red.”

On September 11, 1973 (yes, 9/11), armed forces attacked La Moneda, the Presidential Palace in Santiago with tanks, infantry and fighter jets. Allende escaped the initial wave but later committed suicide with an automatic rifle given to him by Fidel Castro. The victors established a military junta immediately afterward and installed General Augusto Pinochet, who proclaimed himself “Supreme Chief of the Nation.”

Pinochet (he later officially changed his title to “El Presidente”) would rule his Andean fiefdom for the next 17 years — a dark period marked by brutality and murder, making Idi Amin look like Nelson Mandela. During his reign of terror, Pinochet ordered the execution of more than 3,000 political opponents as well as the torture and imprisonment of tens of thousands of Chileans. His secret police, DINA (Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional), conducted a wide variety of abuses at the notorious Villa Grimaldi complex — a house of horrors that probably warrants a grisly top ten list of its own.

3. Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan

By the early 1970s, Cold War troubles began to slightly ease following the historic sit down between President Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev that produced a peace treaty known as SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks). But the short-lived goodwill between the two superpowers later turned salty when the USSR invaded Afghanistan in December of 1979

Soviet tanks rolled into the Eurasian country in response to anti-communist Muslim guerrillas called the Mujahideen (“those who engage in jihad”) and their attack on the Afghans pro-Soviet government. The U.S. quickly condemned the act of aggression and countered with an ambitious covert plan called Operation Cyclone, providing substantial financial aid and arms to the rebels.

The nasty conflict eventually lasted nine years — and has been characterized by many historians as the Soviet Union’s version of the Vietnam War. Afghanistan, a landlocked, mountainous nation known for its extreme weather, fierce fighters, and supplying 90% of the world’s heroin, boasts a long history of dispatching foreign invaders. In fact, the territory is known as the “graveyard of empires” and has never been completely conquered — an impressive streak dating back to Alexander The Great. Not surprisingly, the Soviets found themselves trapped in a costly quagmire, resulting in the death of over 14,000 soldiers and over 50,000 wounded. The nearly decade-long war also saw hundreds of thousands of Afghan civilians killed and millions more flee their homeland, primarily to Pakistan and Iran.

For their part, the U.S. paid a steep price as well. Operation Cyclone would go down as one of the longest and most expensive CIA operations in its long, spooky history. On one hand, the concerted effort helped draw the USSR into a protracted and expensive war that ultimately hasted their demise; however, the impact created further instability to an already volatile region. Consequently, this indirectly led to the disastrous rise of global Islamic terrorism, including Osama bin Laden’s development of al-Queda.

2. Olympic Boycotts

The war in Afghanistan prompted U.S. President Jimmy Carter to U.S. boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. This led to reciprocity four years later in which the USSR and other Eastern Bloc countries and their allies refused to compete at the Games of the XXIII Olympiad in Los Angeles. For those keeping score, the number of wasted Olympic years: Politicians 8, Athletes 0.

Over the years, the heralded, quadrennial athletic competition has seen its share of protests, providing a platform for various political causes and declarations. From the iconic raised fists of Tommy Smith and John Carlos in 1968 to the tragic murder of 11 Israeli team members by Palestinian terrorists in 1972, the Olympics often features more than just sports. Adolf Hitler used the occasion at the 1936 Games In Berlin to promote his ideology of Aryan race supremacy in an egregious bastardization of the event’s intended celebration of global unity through athletics. Under the Führer, the Germans also pioneered the development of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), and Jesse Owens aside, the home team easily won the lion’s share of medals across the board.

It’s worth noting that the boycotts of the 1980s resulted in countless missed opportunities for athletes whose shot at Olympic glory only comes around once every four years. Decathlete Bob Coffman is just one of many examples of someone poised for greatness only to wind up as a sad anecdote in an article about the Cold War. Leading up to the Games, Coffman had been ranked #1 in the world in the grueling 10-event decathlon, training countless hours for his chance at immortality. That day never arrived — underscoring the randomness of fate which relegates some into obscurity while others are allowed to grace the box of Wheaties and become a Kardashian.

1. Fall of the Berlin Wall

By the late 1980s and over four decades of Cold War feuds, the USSR could no longer sustain themselves economically. Mikhail Gorbachev, a decidedly more progressive Soviet leader than his hardline predecessors, attempted to save his crumbling nation by allowing democracy to gradually take hold in satellite regimes, including the communist stronghold of East Germany (DDR). The Berlin Wall, a long-standing ideological symbol of division (both literally and figuratively), would become the centerpiece that ended Iron Curtain dominance, and punctuated by U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s demand, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

In post-war Germany, the country had been split into four “Occupation Zones” controlled by the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. The city of Berlin, although located within the Soviet zone, was divided gain as the Allies established West Berlin and the Soviet sector became East Berlin. In 1961, the communist government of East Germany began constructing a barbed wire and concrete Antifascistischer Schutzwall (antifascist bulwark), primarily to stem the mass number of defections of its citizens to the West.

The makeshift barrier eventually became a 12-foot-high, 4-foot-wide fortress of reinforced concrete, stretching nearly 100 miles. The heavily guarded wall and buffer area made escape far more challenging than the gnarliest obstacle course on American Ninja Warrior;  Berlin’s version featured a “Death Strip” consisting of soft sand, floodlights, attack dogs, trip-wire machine guns, and itchy-fingered soldiers with orders to shoot on sight. Additionally, the DDR installed 12 checkpoints, including the infamous “Checkpoint Charlie” in the American sector and the scene of some of the most iconic images of the wall.

On November 9, 1989, East German officials announced the border was officially free to cross with impunity. A mass crowd of people gathered at the wall that soon turned into an unbridled celebration as revelers used hammers and picks to help tear down the wall. They would later be joined by bulldozers and earth movers, paving the way for the eventual reunification of Germany in 1990.

Although the Soviet Union officially collapsed in 1991, sadly, the Cold War never really ended. It just thawed a bit. And when a former KGB officer with a Napoleon complex named Vladimir Putin got himself elected as President of Russia with an impressive 110% of the vote, he quickly served notice that the big, bad bear was back. No word yet from Las Vegas oddsmakers on who’s the favorite to win, but smart money knows that intelligence trumps ignorance every time.

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  1. You forgot about “Able Archer” 1983, when we came as close to nuclear war as 1962. The Soviets fingers were resting on the button.