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"We didn't win the Cold War, we were just a big bank that bankrupted a smaller bank because we had an arms race that wiped the Russians out."—Norman Mailer
The four minute warning. The balance of power. Mutually Assured Destruction. A massive number of movies. The Cold War's impact on the world was huge. This is the story in reasonably short form.
There are three approaches among politicial scientists regarding the Cold War, which can be summed pretty simply (they also somewhat overlap with views on the Soviet Union):
- Traditionalist - America good, USSR bad.
- Revisionist - Both bad, America worse.
- Post-revisionist - Both somewhat bad, USSR far worse.
The views of historians are much more divergent, and can be broken down into three methodological schools:
- National triumphalism (American or Russian)
- Marxist grappling with the problem of the Soviet Union, from Solidarity (UK)'s "a pox on both their houses" to the various "critical support" lines
- Attempts to understand the links between systems, cultures and individuals which caused the responses
This article's original author would call himself a post-revisionist with traditionalist leanings, but we'll be as neutral as we can.
Our story properly begins at the end of the Second World War. First, however, a prologue:
The Russian Civil War
From 1917 to 1923, The White Army, with the occasional aid of foreign troops , battled for control of Russia against the Bolsheviks, aka The Communist Red Army. It should be noted that the whites were not actually a single force, but several different armies led by different generals. In addition to fighting the Bolsheviks, these factions frequently fought each other as well. Both sides also had a tendency to be cruel to the local populations (and, for that matter, their own troops).
The Bolsheviks won, leading to the Soviet Union. From that point on, the West had made clear that they were the enemies of the Bolsheviks and Communism. The level of foreign intervention in the Civil War, the lack of international recognition of the new state, and the repeated espionage attempts led to what's often termed a “siege mentality” in the Soviet Union -- materially, this meant a massive military budget and repressive domestic policies aimed against spies and saboteurs. 
Most leaders of the West, including Winston Churchill, considered the Soviet Union the greatest threat to the world, only accepting the USSR as an ally when they finally realized that something worse had risen in the center of Europe. Ironically, Fascism had gained prominence mainly as an anti-Communist movement, and earned a great deal of respect throughout the West for that reason. 
In any case, after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Churchill said "If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons". This pretty much summed up the fact that he considered the USSR evil, just the lesser evil.
A New World Order -- Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam
In 1943, Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill met in Tehran, Iran. There they agreed that Germany's new eastern border would be the Oder-Neisse Line and that the Polish eastern border would pretty close to the Curzon Line, which was also very close to the division of Poland in 1939.  The Polish government-in-exile wasn't happy, but ultimately Stalin refused to reconsider. Naturally the Germans wouldn't be happy either, losing a quarter of their country, but for obvious reasons no one else was that bothered about them at the time.
By the Yalta Conference in February 1945, it was obvious to more or less everyone bar Hitler that Germany was going to lose the war. Stalin wanted a Soviet sphere of influence in Central and Eastern Europe, a "buffer zone" so to speak. No army had ever conquered the whole of the Soviet Union; they typically caused extensive death and destruction, which Stalin wanted to avoid. He got his buffer, in return for all the territories holding free elections. Roosevelt hoped that the United Nations- created by this same agreement- would restrain Stalin. It didn't. During the McCarthy period, Roosevelt and his allies - particularly the U.S. Democratic party - would often be called "soft on communism".
With Germany's defeat, the next conference was held in Potsdam, near Berlin. Here the borders were finalised. The conference is most notable for a discussion between Truman and Stalin. Truman told Stalin that the US had a powerful new weapon it would use against Japan.  The nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that would follow have divided historians and politicians for decades. It remains unclear just how likely an eventual Japanese surrender was beforehand.
However, just as the war in Europe is ending, there is serious consideration among some Western leaders to attack the Soviets while they are deployed in Europe. Winston Churchill has the British Joint Planning Staff draw up "Operation Unthinkable" (appropriately named) while General George Patton famously says he'll have the Germans rearmed for reinforcement against the Russians. Fortunately, much of the Supreme Allied Commander's staff are sane, knowing that even with America's industrial might they could never hope to defeat Russia militarily. Churchill is voted out of office in June 1945 while Patton tragically dies in a car accident. Any serious discussion of attacking the Soviets directly is quickly dropped.
There was also the question of what to do with the remains of Germany. Initially the Morgenthau plan proposed to essentially turn Germany into an agricultural state. However, the occupiers feared that the whole of Germany would go Communist as a response to industrial destruction and continued poverty. When details of the Morgenthau plan were leaked it was very publicly dropped, but Germany faced limits on its industrial production until the early 1950s. In its place, a new plan was formed: Germany would be divided into four "occupation zones" - French, British, American and Soviet. Berlin itself- being the seat of government- would also be divided into four occupation zones, as it was in the Soviet zone.
Half is Mine! –- the Iron Curtain is Raised
The Soviet Union had promised to hold free elections in the areas under its control. The elections held, however, are generally considered to have been unfree. Communist governments were slowly installed in the various states, who declared their allegiance to Moscow. The monarchies of Romania and Bulgaria were abolished, literally at gunpoint in Romania and with a ridiculously blatant rigging of a plebiscite in Bulgaria. 
In 1948, the Czechoslovak Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk was found below his bathroom window in Prague. He had played a role in the February 1948 Czech Coup, where non-communist members of the unity government quit trying to force elections. This led to the communists forming a new government instead. Masaryk had been unhappy about Czechoslovakia's decision not participate in the Marshall Plan. The government called his death a suicide, but his cause of death is debated to this day. Many call it the Third Defenestration of Prague 
The Communists weren't a hundred percent successful. Greece was undergoing a civil war that had been going on since before World War II started. The USSR did not actively support the Greek Communists, because Stalin had agreed at Yalta that Greece would fall under the Western sphere of influence. Somewhat surprisingly, Stalin kept his word. The Greek Communists saw this as a betrayal of their cause. Despite Soviet non-interference, the US government perceived a threat of a "domino effect" in which the "fall" of one nation to communism would be followed by others (an idea we'll visit again soon). This led to the Truman Doctrine. Truman called on the US to "support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures". One could sum up the entire of US Cold War foreign policy and indeed post-Cold War policy that way. (Although it would be a Broad Stroke.)
The Americans realized that most of Europe is not recovering from the war. Secretary of State George Marshall came up with a plan: give any country in Europe some free money, in exchange for them having a democracy. Theoretically an eastern bloc country could sign up, but never would; and the boost given to the Western powers would help stave off Communism's growth. For the most part the plan went off without a hitch, and Western Europe developed economically. Good luck muddling your way through the Eastern states. Things were a bit more....complicated there.) And then there was that business with Berlin...
Here come the Candy Bombers! -- The Berlin Blockade
Berlin, as mentioned earlier, had been split into four occupation zones. This meant that the three Western Zones of Berlin were 90 miles inside the Soviet Zone. The Western Allies had set up a new German currency, the Deutsche Mark, in their zones. The Soviets refused to honour it, as they did not want a revitalised Germany. However, the money was already flowing freely around the zones. Stalin decided the solution was simple -- Berlin must be 100% under Soviet control.
Access between West Germany and West Berlin was via designated road, rail and air routes. It would remain so later, when Germany was formally divided. The Soviet Union decided to shut down the first two- first partially, and then completely- using that much-loved excuse of "technical difficulties".
With West Berlin being faced with starvation, the West started a massive airlift to keep the city going, using the air corridors. On top of the massive amounts of staples like foodstuffs, medicines and fuel being delivered, the air forces jumped at pilot Gail Halverson's idea for the children of Berlin and dropped tons of candy in little parachutes for Berlin kids, becoming known as "Candy Bombers" to literally sweeten the propaganda effort. Since Stalin didn't want to start a war any more than the West did, he could do little to stop this. After about a year, the Soviets backed down, but the Western Allies remained in fear of the Soviets going for Berlin again.
The American, French and British sectors of Germany combined together, becoming West Germany. The Soviet sector became East Germany. Similarly, Berlin was split into East and West, although until the construction of the Berlin Wall people were still able to move freely between the East and West zones. As you might imagine, the movement was mostly from the East to the West.
Sabres over "MiG Alley" -- The Korean War
Japan had also fought on the Axis side in the War, and so when they surrendered, Japanese territory was also divided into occupation zones. However, the Soviet Union had played only a minor role in defeating Japan, not declaring war until the day before the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Thus, when Japan was split into occupation zones, the Soviets only got some northern islands that Japan had taken from Russia in 1905, and a chunk of Korea north of the 38th parallel. Exhausted by the War, the other Western powers quickly turned over control of their occupation zones to the Americans, who ended up occupying all of Japan proper.
Korea had been a Japanese colony since 1910, and was supposed to become an independent (and united) country after the war. However, the Soviets and the West were as unable to agree on the form of government such a new nation would take in Korea as they were in Germany, and so Korea was split (without actually bothering to consult the Korean population). The Soviet occupation zone became the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), and got a Communist one-party government under the leadership of Kim Il Sung.  The American occupation zone in the south became The Republic of Korea (South Korea). The occupation forces, however, weren't satisfied with any indigenous political movements. They installed the suitably anti-communist Syngman Rhee, who had been in exile in the US. Rhee quickly set up a right-wing dictatorship.
On 25 June 1950 (which is why the war is known as the 6.25 War in Korea), North Korean forces unexpectedly crossed the 38th parallel into South Korea, using that age-old justification that they were attacked first. (In this case, they weren't.) When it became very clear that South Korea was losing badly, Truman went to the United Nations to get approval for what he termed a "police action". This rather strange term allowed him to avoid actually getting a declaration of war from Congress, which he felt would be too time-consuming. The legality of this is disputed, but it has since proved a useful maneuver in US foreign policy.
Jed Bartlet someone once said, "Decisions are made by those who show up". In this case, it was the Soviet Union who didn't. They boycotted Security Council meetings because of the China issue. For decades, there had been a civil war ongoing between the Communist Party of China and the U.S.-backed Chinese Nationalist Party (aka the Kuomintang). Finally the Communists won, and the Kuomintang set up shop in Taiwan. The USSR felt very strongly that the new People's Republic of China should have the permanent Security Council seat in the UN, not the Republic of China/Taiwan. Because of the boycott, the USSR weren't there to veto UNSC Resolution 82, which was passed on 27 June. For the first time in its history, the UN was going to war.
17 countries showed up, with nearly all the work being done by the US (who provided 88% of the UN task force) and South Korea. After initial setbacks the UN started to push the Communists back; when they pushed too far, the Chinese joined the party, worried that the west was planning an invasion. MacArthur got sacked for wanting to actually attack China itself. McCarthy got worked up, ruining many a Hollywood career. MASH dealt with a lot of incoming wounded.
Korea is notable for being the first jet war, where jet aircraft were used in a big way, especially the MiG-15 and F-86 Sabre. It was still, however, a guns only environment, since air-to-air missiles were not around yet. A lot of the North Korean pilots were actually Soviet. The UN knew this and decided to ignore it.
After a lot of mostly one sided battles (even the Chinese victories were usually pyrrhic at best) the war ended in a stalemate, unresolved to this day. Since the UN, China, and the Soviet Union never officially declared war, no treaty was signed. The two surface combatants, North and South Korea, still have not officially signed a treaty to end the war.
'Change Places!' -- Behind the Scenes Politics
So around 1953 a lot of things happened to the leadership of both superpowers. Harry Truman, who had proved to be unfortunately inexperienced at foreign policy (despite the fact that he had more sense than MacArthur in that he thought dropping the Bomb on China was a bad idea), was out as president. Dwight D Eisenhower was sworn in in his place on a strong anti-communist platform. As the former Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in the Second World War Senator McCarthy couldn't even begin to claim that he was soft on commies, which gave Ike much more room to decide his own foreign policy, unlike Truman who'd been pressured into a tough stance by the McCarthy brigade. It was Eisenhower that pushed the disastrous Korean War towards a close in the same year that he was sworn in.
Much more important than Eisenhower's presidency is the death of Josef Stalin in March of 1953 in suitably horrific circumstances. With his death, the Western World let out a sigh of relief. Despite the fact that they had been calling him Uncle Joe a little under ten years previously, Stalin had come to represent the evils of communism and the Soviet Union. What followed was a serious power struggle in the Soviet Union's leadership.
The first to come to power was Lavrentiy Beria, the former head of Stalin's secret police (the NKVD) and a particularly nasty individual. Unfortunately for him, his first attempt at policy was a suggested reunification of Germany, which everyone (including the Americans) thought was a ridiculous idea. As such there was a coup led by Marshal Georgy Zhukov, one of the heroes of Stalingrad, and Beria was arrested...and then shot for being 'a British spy'. Second to come to prominence was Georgy Malenkov - one of the few leaders of the Soviet Union to not be bald. During his premiership the Soviet Union invaded Hungary to suppress the popular anti-Soviet revolutions that were going on.
Malenkov's First Secretary was Nikita Khrushchev, who was quite influential in running the country during Malenkov's premiership. He was the first advocate of reducing nuclear arms in order to refocus the economy on consumer goods, which required peace talks with the US. Eventually Malenkov ran afoul of Khrushchev, who he referred to as "the moon-faced idiot", and was ousted as Premier and replaced with Nikolai Bulganin who basically just let Khrushchev run the country. Malenkov ended up as a manager of a hydroelectric plant in Kazakhstan.
The victor of Stalin's death is, without a doubt, Nikita Khrushchev. For most of his reign he was the First Secretary of the Communist party, but he was definitely in control of the Soviet Union until about 1963. His policy of 'Peaceful Coexistence' was essentially a rip-off of Malenkov's ideas - since the fall of the capitalist devils was inevitable, the USSR would have no need to oppose the US, because fate would take care of it for them. As such Khrushchev could focus more money on the Soviet domestic economy. Khrushchev was a fairly simple, plain speaking guy...which got him (and the world) into trouble a few times.  An important aspect of Khrushchev's reign was the policy of de-Stalinisation, whereby he discredited Stalin as being...quite evil. Some political prisoners were freed and some of the gulags were closed; a survivor of the gulags was even allowed to publish his experiences. However, Khrushchev stopped short of initiating a true political liberalisation.
My Nuke is Bigger than Your Nuke
On 29 August 1949, a 22 kiloton nuclear explosion happened in the Kazakh SSR. Called Pervaya molniya ("First Lightning"), RDS-1 or Joe-1, it was the first of the USSR's Mnogo Nukes. Thanks to the Soviet spies in the Manhattan Project, the Arms Race had begun. The two superpowers raced to develop, and test, more powerful nuclear weapons, with Britain, France and later China joining in. They also developed nuclear deployment systems, especially in the bomber field.
Neither side was really aware of how far the other had got. The Americans thought there was a "bomber gap" (there wasn't) and the Soviet leadership thought they were ahead (they were behind). Americans continued to overestimate Soviet nuclear capabilities throughout the Cold War.
The biggest nuclear explosion was the Tsar Bomba in 1961. It was capable of yielding 100 megatons, but was limited to "just" 50, which is big enough to level the whole of Central London and much of the East End. It broke windows as far away as Sweden. However, it was too big to be of practical use. The USSR was just showing off.
Predictably, the rapid build-up of ever more powerful nuclear arms by two ideologically-opposed superpowers seemingly on the brink of war scared quite a few people. The world had, after all, seen the terrible power of atomic weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and some of the new ones were hundreds of times more powerful than those from 1945. Nuclear testing has shown by the 1950s the dangers of radiation, or "fallout", which can result from a nuclear explosion. In the United States fallout shelters were built around the country and children learn to "duck and cover". Citizens were told to expect, and be prepared for, a nuclear attack at any time.
The race to build better delivery systems for nuclear weapons led to the development of powerful ICB Ms, rockets with enough power to reach the other side of the planet, or even into space. This led into the The Space Race.
The Easy Way or The Nasty Way: De-Colonisation
"Independence can only be obtained and secured by a nation that has its spirit raging with determination: "independence or death"!"—Sukarno
The end of the Second World War had meant that the colonial powers could no longer afford to maintain their empires. Ideas like democracy, self-determination and nationalism began to spread around the world and many in the colonies were no longer willing to tolerate colonial rule. Neither the Americans nor the Soviets were keen on colonies either, and called for "decolonization" in the name of self-determination and freedom.  As countries in the so-called "Third World" gained independence one by one, the West and the Soviet Union (and China too) competed in various morally-questionable ways to bring them into their respective spheres.
Anyway, the British had been having to deal with Indian civil disobedience for quite a while. So they decided to let India go. Messily, they attempted to appease two populations by splitting it into two states, India and Pakistan. This led to a great deal of violent chaos, one remnant of which is the "Kashmir Question" which lingers to this day. The partitions of Palestine and Cyprus, both British possessions, were also less than perfect, while the British fought bloody insurgencies in Kenya and Malaysia before granting both countries independence. The rest of the Empire went pretty quietly.
The French were a bit more reluctant to let their empire go. This was demonstrated via two conflicts. The first would later involve napalm and will be mentioned later. The second involved North Africa. The French tried very hard to hold onto Algeria. Their efforts included the ironic, if rather sick, use of the Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique by former Gestapo victims. The Battle of Algiers is a well-known film depicting the period. The war brought about the collapse of the Fourth Republic and the return of de Gaulle, who allowed the Algerians a vote. Naturally, they went for full independence. Some French people were not happy, to the point that they tried kill de Gaulle. Several times. The film The Day of the Jackal contains not only a fictional attempt that very nearly succeeds, but a pretty accurate account of a real one at the beginning.
The reason the French held onto Algeria for so long - apart from owning it for a hundred and thirty years - was the huge number of French settlers who lived there. There were over a million of them, making up some 10% of the Algerian population. These European settlers (known as the Pieds-Noirs, or "black feet") and their families had in many cases lived in Algeria for several generations, and they understandably ended up the most bitterly upset with de Gaulle. After independence they nearly all departed Algeria and "returned" to France to the apparent surprise of the French Goverment who had expected only a trickle of refugees, rather than the wholesale evacuation of the Europeans.
Other countries also had their share of decolonization mess; the Dutch with the bloody campaign to hold Indonesia, and the Belgians with their evacuation of the Congo and the horrific aftermath. Notably, Spain and Portugal, both ruled by quasi-fascist dictators, did not let go of their colonies until the mid-1970s when both countries became democracies. Angola and Mozambique, two Portuguese colonies in Africa, soon became the scene of bloody, decades-long proxy wars, fought between Soviet-backed and Western-backed rebel factions, with occasional Cuban and South African interventions, which continued long after the Cold War ended.
Gary Powers and Berlin
"As a free man, I take pride in the words "Ich bin ein Berliner."!"—John F. Kennedy
For a while, the CIA had been conducting secret reconnaissance overflights of the USSR using the U-2 spyplane. The U-2 was a powerful recon weapon because it flew too high for Soviet aircraft. It didn't, however, fly high enough for the S-75 Dvina missile, aka the SA-2 "Guideline". After spamming the plane with 14 of the things, it was shot down.
The Americans claimed that they'd lost a NASA plane due to the pilot losing consciousness. What they didn't know was that U-2 pilot Gary Powers had ejected and was in USSR custody. (Powers had been issued a Cyanide Pill for such an eventuality, but opted against using it.) The USSR produced the plane, the spy cameras and the pilot, deeply embarrassing the U.S.. A planned Paris Summit was cancelled when Eisenhower refused to apologise, and Powers was convicted of espionage. He would ultimately be swapped for a captured KGB agent.
There was another setback for the US. Getting increasingly worried about the larger numbers of East Germans leaving the GDR via Berlin, the East Germans and Soviets sealed the border with the Berlin Wall in 1961. NATO had to live with it, but there was quite a tense moment as American and Soviet tanks faced off at Checkpoint Charlie.
Communism does the Splits: the Sino-Soviet Cold War
"All the rest of the world uses the word "electricity." They've borrowed the word from English. But we Chinese have our own word for it!"—Mao Zedong
The People's Republic of China began in 1949, headed by Mao Ze Dong.  Mao was a Communist who had been a somewhat inspiring resistance leader against the Japanese and the Chinese Nationalists. Unfortunately once he became a national leader his home policies proved disastrous. The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, in particular, claimed lives in the tens of millions. These included many of the Communist Party’s own revolutionary leaders, unpersoned as “reactionary rightists”.
From about 1956-1961, China and the Soviet Union slowly split apart due to a myriad of issues and bad blood in general. One such issue was Stalin's insistence in the 1930s that the Communists remain allied with the Nationalists... at a time when the Nationalists were killing Communists. Mao for his part believed that Stalin's successors were too soft. In any case, tension mounted until it escalated into border clashes. China tested its own nuclear weapons partly as a deterrent against the Soviets. China began to compete with the Soviet Union for satellite states; notably, Enver Hoxha’s Albania switched to China’s side in 1961 
The break opened up China to America more, starting with sporting tournaments and building to Richard Nixon's famous visit in 1972.  Mao Zedong's death in 1976 brought the more capitalist Deng Xiaoping into power, and he instituted many economic reforms. By the end of the Cold War China had abandoned much of the Maoist ideology and fast moving towards becoming a market economy, though it remains to this day a one-party state.
Making a Pigs Ear of it -- Castro and the Bay of Pigs
"A revolution is not a bed of roses. A revolution is a struggle between the future and the past."
In 1958, a man with an impressive beard called Fidel Castro overthrew the Cuban leader Fulgencio Batista. Batista had been pro-big business. Cuba was a major exporter of sugar, was famous for its cigars, and The Mafia had set up shop there. However, the US government had not been totally in love with Batista guy, and had actually arms embargoed him.
Some of the Cuban revolutionaries were staunch Communists. Arguably, Castro had not been one of them, seeming interested in more general ideas of independence from U.S. and foreign capital. Given the political climate of the day, though, a side had to be chosen. Very soon after the revolution Cuba established a partnership with the Soviet Union. This did not go down well with the U.S., who had been taking a wait-and-see approach up to this point. They quickly put a trade embargo on the place that remains to this day.
Dwight D. Eisenhower decided to covertly fund a CIA invasion of Cuba via the Bay of Pigs. Policy makers believed they could cover up US involvement. The plan was not complete when JFK became president. JFK decided to go ahead anyway, believing that the CIA and military knew what they were doing. He didn't want to deal with the criticism that he abandoned Eisenhower's plan, and he also didn't like Communism.
It went wrong. It went seriously wrong. The "invading force" was a small, underfunded, underequipped band of refugees. They'd been quickly trained and set out on boats to get their revenge on the new government, and were mostly killed or captured. U.S. sponsorship of the whole thing soon became very clear.
Castro also survived a number of CIA assassination plots- one of his bodyguards calculated it at 638. Some of these took a turn for the very bizarre, such as an exploding cigar and a fungal-infected diving suit. Understandably, these turned him further towards the USSR. The Soviets had a little problem nuclear-wise. The island of Cuba, 90 miles from Florida, was the perfect solution...
He's pointing missiles at my holiday home! The Cuban Missile Crisis
"If you start throwing hedgehogs under me, I shall throw a couple of porcupines under you!"—Nikita Khrushchev
The Soviets’ ICBM forces were a) very few, b) very vulnerable as they were not in silos, and c) time-consuming to launch.
The USSR had another problem. The Americans had deployed Jupiter and Thor medium range ballistic missiles in Europe, especially Turkey. These allowed the US to hit Moscow within 16 minutes of a launch. The Soviets had no equivalent.
Soviet premier Nikita Khruschev was upset about this. He commented to a reporter that the Americans were targeting his "dacha", his summer home. He saw Cuba as a quick way to remedy the nuclear balance. The USSR started to deploy R-12 Dvina/SS-4 "Sandal" and R-14 Chusovaya/SS-5 "Skean" ballistic missiles to the island, sneaking them in on cargo ships. They also deployed some other stuff, like a regiment of MiG-21 fighters. The SS-5 was capable of hitting pretty much all of the continental US, including Hyannisport, JFK's own holiday home. Since most of the US early warning infrastructure was pointed north, (for example, the DEW line referenced in an Mystery Science Theater 3000 movie) this would reduce launch warning time to virtually zero.
Tactical nukes had been shipped to the Soviet forces for use on the Il-28 bombers and artillery weapons, but it appears that release authority was never given. Another account says it was given, but only for extreme circumstances, and that was later rescinded by Khrushchev when the US appeared to be preparing for an attack.
The Executive Committee of the National Security Council (EXCOMM) discussed what to do about the missiles on Cuba. JFK secretly recorded the meetings, which helps historians a lot. The Joint Chiefs were being General Ripper before that trope first appeared. Indeed Curtis LeMay- the inspiration for Ripper- was at the meetings advocating air strikes. Eventually they settled on a blockade. Since that is legally an act of war, they called it a "quarantine" and JFK announced the existence of the missiles to the world. The SAC went onto DEFCON 2 for the only time in its history.
After a few very tense days, two contradictory letters, and the Soviets deciding not to challenge the quarantine line, a deal was reached. The missiles would be removed from Cuba, and the US would not invade Cuba. The US also secretly agreed to remove the Jupiter and Thor missiles, but they were obsolete anyway as the ICBM force was coming on-stream. When the dust settled, Kennedy looked like the victor, Nikita suffered a blow to his prestige that would later see him lose his job, and the world breathed a sigh of relief that the "Thirteen Days" had not been their last. To make further crises easier to solve, the Hot Line was set up.
We came much closer to World War III than most people realized, though. The US was helped through the crisis by the presence of a mole in the GRU, Oleg Penkovsky. Penkovsky was caught during this and suddenly his handler received a coded message (involving breathing down a phone line) indicating an imminent Soviet nuclear attack. He wisely ignored it. Penkovsky was tried as a traitor and shot. Some reports claim he was actually thrown alive into a furnace.
Quagmire, American, French and Australian style: Vietnam
"All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness"—The US Declaration of Independence as quoted by Ho Chi Minh in the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence, 1945
(see also The Vietnam War article)
As mentioned above, the end of the Second World War meant the colonial empires were collapsing. A particularly important case was French Indochina, i.e. the states of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The French tried to keep this area under their control with covert American help, but failed. On May 7, 1954, the French lost the Battle of Dien Bien Phu to a Vietnamese independence movement known as the Vietminh. The subsequently withdrew from the area.
Vietnam was split, on a supposedly temporary basis, into two zones: the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), a Communist nation, and the State of Vietnam (South Vietnam), which was capitalist and French/US backed. The southern state was only supposed to be temporary, and a planned election in 1956 was meant to reunify the country. It never happened. It was realized that Ho Chi Minh and the Communists would win the elections, so the south refused to hold them. This piece of irony is mostly forgotten in the United States. For even more irony, Ho Chi Minh, during the war with French, actually sought US backing. The US opted for French imperialism over communist insurgency.
Ngo Dinh Diem was chosen by the Americans as South Vietnamese leader, apparently because he was the best of a very bad lot. In particular, the fact that he was reportedly a fan of Adolf Hitler tends to cause awkward mumblings when brought up. He proceeded to crack down harshly on political opponents that he labelled as communists, especially the Buddhist population. (Diem was a strict Catholic.) An insurgency began in South Vietnam, authorized by Ho Chi Minh. They attacked local government officials to begin with. Then they started on school teachers and health workers, as symbols of the status quo.
In 1960, the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam was created. We'll call it NLF, but it was widely known among Americans as the Việt Cộng ("Vietnamese Communists"), often shortened to VC, Victor Charlie or just Charlie. The popularity of surfing among them is unclear.
John F Kennedy increased aid to South Vietnam and sent more military advisors, but Diem was getting increasingly unpopular, and the NLF were getting increasingly popular. A monk burned himself to death in public protest. The US administration, fearing a "domino effect" if Vietnam went Communist, backed the overthrow and murder of Diem without Kennedy's advance knowledge or approval.
Three weeks after Diem's death, Kennedy was himself killed. The incidents were probably not related. Lyndon Johnson--the new President--initially did not make Vietnam a priority. That would soon change.
On 2 August 1964, USS Maddox fired on several torpedo boats that had been stalking the Gulf of Tonkin. Initial claims that the North Vietnamese fired first were revealed to be false, although the Maddox fired warning shots and may well have been the target for an attack anyway. Two nights later, the Maddox and another destroyer fired on phantom targets. The North Vietnamese were doing nothing on that night.
Precisely what Johnson, McNamara or anyone else knew is unclear, but they were probably not telling the whole story. Johnson sought and got the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution from Congress, authorising full-scale American intervention in Vietnam.
By 1970, face of rising domestic and international disapproval and mounting casualties, the United States was looking for a way out. A ceasefire was declared in January 1973, with military forces from the U.S., South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and Thailand leaving the country by the end of March.  Fighting between Vietnamese forces resumed within months. On April 30, 1975, after thirty years of war in Vietnam, first involving the French and then the Americans, the government of South Vietnam surrendered unconditionally to North Vietnam.
The Vietnam War had a massive impact, not just in Vietnam. Figures for deaths widely vary, but 3 million is a good figure. While they killed far more North Vietnamese, the US lost 58,217 personnel, a figure only exceeded only by the American Civil War and the two World Wars. The South Vietnamese forces lost a lot, but the civilians really suffered- 500,000 to 2 million in both Vietnams and more in Cambodia. The figures are vague because the insurgent forces didn't wear uniforms, and thus it was difficult to tell an insurgent corpse from a civilian corpse. The political agenda of the writer is also a factor. Additionally, Large areas of Vietnamese farmland were rendered at least temporarily unusable via napalm damage. Chemical defoliants like Agent Orange would continue to poison the population for years to come.
Lyndon Johnson's attempt to finance both this and The Great Society led directly to the collapse of the "Bretton Woods" system of fixed exchange rates. It also meant the end to the last attempt the United States has made to eliminate domestic poverty.
A very large number of refugees, known as the "boat people", resulted from the fall of Saigon, the Cambodian Genocide and the 1979 Vietnam-China War. They mostly headed east for international shipping lanes, frequently suffering from hunger, thirst and pirate attacks. 823,000 Vietnamese refugees were ultimately taken by the United States, with Australia and Canada taking 137,000 each.
Year Zero Hope: Cambodia
The worst result of all of this was the taking over of Cambodia by a group called the Khmer Rouge ("Red Khmer"). They renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea and proceeded to move the urban population out to the countryside. They were told that this was to protect them from US bombing and they would be back in a couple of days.
The Khmer Rouge, led by a man called Pol Pot, had a less strictly Marxist philosophy than that espoused by, say, the North Koreans. Or, for that matter, by the Dutch. "Communism" in this case was a purely agrarian utopia for peasants only, and required the elimination of industry, modern technology, the urban environment, and anyone guilty of propagating these social ills. Since all other Communists regarded modern technology and industry as the best thing since sliced bread, this quickly resulted in the Khmer Rouge having no friends.
Monks, priests and imams were killed en masse. If you wore glasses, you were considered an intellectual (not as stupid as it sounds, since you had almost certainly received them from the old government). Hundreds of thousands died in labour camps and skulls were piled in pyramids. The death toll is estimated at between 1.4 million and 2.2 million.
Eventually, a long-running border dispute with Vietnam kicked off into a full-scale war. The Vietnamese invaded, occupied the country and pulled off a successful humanitarian intervention. The piles of skulls shocked the world. The fact that it was a bunch of Communists who stopped Pol Pot is almost never mentioned. Piles of skulls are still found in memorials in the country.
Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge leaders fled into the countryside. Ironically, the Vietnamese invasion would trigger another war against China (so much for socialist solidarity), which had backed Pol Pot. The Khmer Rogue would fight a guerrila war against the new Vietnamese-installed government of Cambodia for another decade with clandestine backing from the United States, Britain, China and Thailand. Pol Pot himself died in 1998.
The Mideast Conflicts
"Extraordinarily interesting"—Arthur Balfour, on the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1925
(see also the Arab Israeli Conflict article)
After WWII, the Middle East was undergoing considerable changes with many new states being created and given independence from the UK and France. during this time, the UN voted on enforcing a 1922 League of nations resolution and partitioning an area called Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. Unfortunately, the area was already full of Arabs who objected to the establishment of a Jewish state in the area. You are probably familiar with the results.
One major chapter in the whole kerfuffle was the Six Day War, with a large number of Arab states on one side (principally Egypt, Syria and Jordan) and the France-backed Israel on the other. Naturally the Soviet Union wanted in on this, and helped the Arab states as best they could. The war began with pre-emptive Israeli airstrikes which all but destroyed the air forces of the Arabs, and ended six days later with Israel in control of Sinai, the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Ironically, it was faulty Soviet intelligence which caused the rapid escalation of existing tension which led to war and Arab defeat in the first place. 
In 1973, the Arab states tried again. They launched their attack on Yom Kippur, thinking that Israel would be at its most vulnerable. They were right. Yom Kippur is the holiest day in the Jewish Calendar. The country was at a complete standstill, as nearly everybody was fasting and forbidden to work. Israel knew about an Arab attack, but they underestimated the extent of Arab pre-war deception and the Egyptians' capability of quickly breaching and overcoming the Bar-Lev defense line.
The war lasted 17 days and was terminated via a cease-fire. While the Israelis eventually had the upper hand, the myth of its military invincibility that was uphold by the Six-Day War was broken. In terms of proportion, though, Israel suffered three times more casualties in three weeks than the US in the whole of Vietnam. The war saw the first missile boat vs. missile boat fight, the Battle of Latakia.
The US had become the main power arming Israel after the French had stopped. OPEC, highly annoyed at US support for Israel, proceeded to stop the sale of oil to many of the Western states, resulting in the 1973 energy crisis (the UK and France had been neutral in the war, and so received supplies mostly uninterrupted). Oil was restored after six months, but the crisis lasted longer. This caused fuel shortages, job losses, price rises, at least one change of government (in the UK), smaller cars for the future and The Man with the Golden Gun.
Geopolitically, the war ended up being a victory for the US; Secretary of State Kissinger got the Egyptians - previously a major Soviet satellite - to switch arms suppliers to the U.S.. This put Israel and a big part of the Arab side into the Western sphere. The end result was a bit strange, though. The U.S. ended up bribing both countries not to shoot at each other by providing vast amounts of weaponry for use against Soviet-backed countries.
We're bringing sexy Backfire: SALT I and II
Eventually, the two superpowers decided that things had just started getting silly and it was best to put a limit on the Arms Race. There were increasing numbers of anti-ballistic missiles being deployed and missiles were starting to get multiple warheads. In 1969, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) started. They lasted three years before reaching a deal, with the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and the Interim Agreement, known as SALT I.
SALT I created the following limits on boomers and ICBM, lasting from 1972 to 1977:
- SLBM - US: 710 missiles on up to 44 submarines, USSR: 950 missiles on up to 62 submarines.
- Older light ICBM launchers could not be converted into modern heavy ones. Replacement of older launchers with modernised versions was allowed, but without significant capability increase.
- No new ICBM could be started, but those under construction could be finished -- limiting the superpowers to 1,054 and 1,618 respectively for the U.S. and USSR.
- Current ICBM could not be relocated.
A number of the deactivated SS-20 and Pershing II missiles were allowed to be kept for display purposes. One of each are on display in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC and the Central Armed Forces Museum in Moscow.
Quagmire, Soviet Style- Afghanistan
In 1973, power in Afghanistan was seized from the monarchy in a coup by a former Prime Minister (and the King's cousin) named Daoud. Daoud had been appointed by the King, but that King was no longer well-liked, so Daoud abolished the monarchy. However, he didn't prove a very successful leader, and in the past couple of decades the monarchy's corruption had made the local Marxist party - the PDPA - quite popular. Despite having split in 1967 into the parcham (Flag) and khalq (Masses) factions, it remained fairly powerful. Daoud did his best to repress them, using all the ordinary means.
In 1978, Daoud was overthrown by the Afghan Army, who sympathized with the PDPA. The result was the Marxist-led Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, which lasted eighteen months. The PDPA offended many traditionally-minded Afghans with reforms of marriage customs. Their outlawing of usury- both deeply Islamic and socialist- made bitter enemies of wealthy landlords. And the brutality of their enforcement of land reforms made them unpopular all-around. Combined with factionalism in the PDPA itself, the result was civil war and general chaos.
The Soviet Union had been aiding Afghanistan since 1919; they'd had a military cooperation agreement since the fifties. As things got worse at home, the newly-Marxist Afghan government began asking the USSR for help. The requests kept going out for months, increasing in scale as the PDPA's situation became more tenuous. The USSR, however, seemed unenthusiastic about invading another country to prop up its flagging government.
The U.S., on the other hand, just couldn't resist. Long before any hint of Soviet involvement, the mujahideen rebels were getting American aid, and Jimmy Carter had set the CIA loose in Afghanistan's alleyways. The aim, unknown to the mujahideen, was to provoke an invasion by the USSR. In an advisor's words to Carter, "We now have the opportunity of giving to the Soviet Union its Vietnam War."
It worked of course: Soviet tanks rolled in, brand new hatreds were forged, many lives were lost, neighborhoods destroyed, economies ruined. This adventure severely drained the Soviet Union's material wealth. When they finally gave up, were hurting quite a bit more economically than the US had due to Vietnam. The war lasted 10 years (roughly the same as Nam), USSR lost 15 thousands of people, Afganistan lost from 1 to 2,5 millions people depending on who you ask.
However, the U.S. took significant karmic backlash. The mujahideen counted a Saudi named Osama bin Laden among them, and al-Qaeda would later be formed from its members.
As it turned out, the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan survived the Soviet Union by four months, before falling to the mujahideen in April of 1992. Peace proved elusive, however.
Pioneer vs. Pershing: The European Missile Crisis and Able Archer
In 1976, the Soviet government started the deployment of RT-21M Pioneer/SS-20 "Saber" missiles to the western USSR. They were probably intended to replace the "Sandal" missiles. However, they were considerably better than the SS-4. They had a range of at least double the SS-4s and the capacity to carry three independently-targetable warheads.
At this time, NATO were behind the Warsaw Pact in the arms race and probably could not have defended Western Europe without resorting to Superior Firepower. This would be rectified when "emerging technologies" such as JSTARS, SADARM and development of operational-level thinking by the 1990s. Until then, however, the SS-20 missiles, could hit the UK from behind the Urals and were perceived as a major threat. The USSR could take out the entire theater nuclear capability of NATO in Europe before it would have a chance to fully respond.
NATO's decision was to deploy Superior Firepower to Western Europe, especially Britain. Two types of new missiles were deployed. One was the Pershing II. The other was a subsonic cruise missile called the BGM-109G Gryphon, aka the Ground Launched Cruise Missile, GLCM, or just Cruise. Thinking that the latter was designed to help the Americans "win" a tactical nuclear war, a massive protest movement grew in Europe. Culturally, this whole fear was reflected in stuff like The Day After, When the Wind Blows and Threads.
"So, who are we shipping stuff to this month?"
Way back in 1823, President James Monroe had stated that the United States would not permit European powers to try and gain influence over the newly independent US states. Since the USSR was a European power, this meant that the US paid particular attention to those parts of the world that no longer officially belonged to it. This meant propping up pro-American leaders in the area- even if they weren't especially democratic. They helped overthrow the democratic government of Guatemala, leading to four decades of military rule before the CIA helped restore democracy in 1993. They also supported a coup against Salvador Allende in Chile, a popular left-wing leader who the US was afraid would go Soviet. The coup went off on 11 September 1973 -- a fact noted 30 years later on the second anniversary of 9/11. Allende's fall led to the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, a rather nasty piece of work. The US involvement in Latin American politics caused a great degree of lingering resentment and partly explains Hugo Chávez.
Proxy Wars, African Style
Africa had not been ignored by the superpowers during this time. The two sides courted the various African states, supplying them with weapons and general aid. The Soviet Union and People's Republic of China particularly wanted to destabilise the western powers there and create pro-communist states.
One of the more notable cases was Mozambique. FRELIMO, a Marxist-Leninist organisation, started an uprising in 1964 that led to Portugal getting involved in its equivalent of The Vietnam War. Portugal lost 3,500 soldiers. The war and the costs involved led to a military coup and the democratisation of Portugal. During this FRELIMO received considerable support from the Warsaw Pact, including military advisors. After independence, another civil war broke out. The new Communist government was attacked by an anti-Communist group backed by the states of Rhodesia and South Africa- the apartheid states (Angola also suffered from a similar civil war).
Apartheid naturally had a Cold War dimension. South Africa was engaged in an occupation of what would become Namibia, being resisted by Soviet-backed guerrillas. The US and UK both had commercial interests in the area, especially the gold and diamonds. Many saw South Africa as a bastion against Communism. The African National Conference- which would eventually overthrow the apartheid government- was an avowedly socialist organisation, and still is. The US and UK put it on the terrorist organisation list, as the organisation carried out acts of sabotage and bombings which did kill civilians, as Nelson Mandela admits. He and ANC members would not be removed from the US list of terrorists until July 2008. This kept them from going anywhere in the US, bar the United Nations headquarters in New York City, without a waiver from the US Secretary of State.
ANC socialism soon proved to be of a rather moderate sort; the more radical leftists who'd fought alongside ANC leaders called for redistribution of wealth held by those who'd been privileged by the racist system. However, in terms of material goods, the most Mandela's government has provided to the poor in South Africa is free lunches for schoolchildren. There was certainly no alliance with the Soviet Union, though that may be because the USSR would soon be in no position to help anyone.
"OK, who decided to arm both sides?" -- Iran-Iraq
The Iran-Iraq War- known as Holy Defense and Imposed War in Iran and as Saddam's Qādisiyyah in Iraq- lasted from September 1980 till August 1988. Iraq invaded on the 22nd of September, because of fears of a Shia insurgency among Iraq's oppressed Shia majority and long-standing border disputes.
For backstory, we have to go back to WW 2. Britain and Russia both invaded Iran, both to stop Hitler from using the oil fields of the Middle East and to grab those fields for themselves. They installed Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as the Shah of Iran. He fled the country in 1953 when the popular Mohammad Mossadegh was democratically elected as Prime Minister. The CIA and MI 6 launched a coup d'état that removed Mossadegh and reinstalled the Shah. The autocracy then secularized and Westernized the nation- often ignoring the Iranian Constitution. This caused nationalist, Leftist and Islamist groups to resist, though usually they weren't united. This is possibly why conspiracy theorists lump Communists and Islamists together, despite many of them hating the other with a passion. The tension from the suppression and fighting culminated in the Iranian Revolution in 1979, leading to the current Islamic Republic of Iran, led by the Ayatollah Khomeini.
The Ayatollah despised Saddam's Iraq for its secularism and suppression of its Shia population, which made up the majority in both countries. Saddam tried to take advantage of the chaos in Iran following the revolution and invaded. The effect on Iran's forces could be compared to Germany's invasion of the USSR. Troops weren't organised and many were taken prisoner. The war quickly developed into a stale mate as the people rallied around the Ayatollah. By 1982, all of Iraq's forces were pushed back and Saddam withdrew his troops and deployed them along the border, often called his wisest decision during the war.
Afterwards, Saudi Arabia tried to organise a conclusion by offering Iran $70 billion in reparations and the complete removal of Iraqi troops from Iran. Iraq agreed to this, and critics of the Iranian government called it a very favourable agreement. Iran said it wanted Saddam's removal, the return of 100,000 Iraqi refugees, and $150 billion in reparations. When these weren't met, Iranian troops crossed the border on the 13th of July. The war soon ended up into a stale mate (again) as both sides ran out of air power and self-propelled artillery, and Iraq's more professional troops couldn't defeat Iran's more numerous infantry. The war degraded into both sides launching Scud missiles and bombing raids against each others cities. Civilian targets were usually hit, with Iraq especially bombing civilian neighbourhoods and attacking civilian trains and aircraft.
On the 20th of August 1988, Iran agreed to a UN resolution and borders returned to their pre-war boundaries. After Iran signed to it, insurgency groups began a ten day offensive, with Iraqi support. However, pressure from other countries forced Iraqi planes from Iran, allowing them to destroy the insurgency.
The war is frequently compared to WW 1 through the use of trench warfare, massive bombardments, human wave attacks (Iranian) and use of gas( Iraq). At the start, the balance of power was relatively equal, but by 1988, Iraq had a clear advantage in terms of machinery (armour, artillery, aircraft, etc). Iran started off with a stronger air force, but ended up only with much more infantry. Human rights abuses were committed on both sides. Iran used many teenage soldiers, and employed children as mine clearers (yes, the hard way). Iraq attacked many civilian targets, killed hundreds-of-thousands of Kurds in the conflict and widely used biological and chemical weapons. Iran's officials state about 188,000 dead altogether (troops, civilians, etc), with other estimates up to 800,000. Iraq lost an estimated 300,000.
There was large scale international involvement on both sides. The USSR supported both sides, as did the USA. The bulk from both countries went to Iraq, despite Iraq killing 37 American sailors. America launched military action against Iranian ships and aircraft. The USA also shot down one civilian passenger liner by mistake. Iran says differently, but it was a mistake, nonwithstanding the USA's refusal to apologize or admit fault. Saudi Arabia, Italy, France, the UK and Singapore both supported Iraq; North Korea was the only country to exclusively support Iran. American support has been seen as revenge for the Iranian revolution, as they especially glossed over Iraqi human rights abuses. Ironically Donald Rumsfeld met Saddam Hussein in 1983 as part of a special envoy. Twenty years later he would be part of the government that invaded Iraq and deposed Saddam.
Glasnost, Perestroika, the fall of the Warsaw Pact and Malta
Solidarity in Poland
Poland has its national consciousness tightly connected to the Catholic Church. It was one of the few countries behind the Iron Curtain where the Church had greater power than in the west. Poles are to this day maintaining that the church represents the nation more accurately than the state. The Communists did not like it, and they weren't subtle about it.  Numerous strikes in Poland (Poznan in 1956, Bydgoszcz in 1976) were caused by rises in prices of staple food, the literal "bread and butter". Sometimes these increases would be as high as 50%. The Church attempted mediation, but ultimately nothing could be done.
Then, in 1978 something changed. For the first time in history, a Pole had been chosen as The Pope. That was in a way a slap in the face for the Polish and Russian Communists. He visited his motherland the next year, drawing incredible crowds. The Poles for the first time in history since 1569 had a powerful ally, and the feelings of national pride resurfaced. He publicly claimed that this land needs change.
In 1980, hunger struck once again. Price of meat rose by 60%. People started to strike, though this time they did not come out on the streets, so that no one could be shot by the militsya. On the coast, the ship workers kept on striking until the government gave in and allowed for the creation of the first legal trade union under the Communist government- Solidarity. It was one of the few democratic institutions that were allowed to work, and it was obviously based heavily on Catholic teachings, including the very name of the union. Many priests, including Jerzy Popiełuszko, were murdered by the Polish secret police.
Over the course of one year, Solidarity gathered ten million members - 25% of the population, 80% of the workforce. The strikes could- and did- completely paralyze the country. Ironically, this is the sort of coordinated workers' action best advocated by Marx himself.
The government was forced by the Soviet Union to "calm the country down". They introduced martial law, interred Solidarity leaders, let the ZOMO riot police attack workers still on strike, and generally hurt the public image of themselves. This caused the international reaction, including Ronald Reagan introducing import sanctions on Poland. This is quite possibly the only time in history when someone has helped a foreign nation by not trading with it. The American support to Solidarity is one of the reasons why today's Poland is one of the most pro-US countries in the world.
Solidarity moved underground. When the government was forced to lift the martial law, it resurfaced. Not-so-coincidentally, this occurred alongside Gorbachev's promises of Change, or "Perestroika".
Even Newer Economic Policy: Perestroika
Mikhail Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the CPSU in 1985. The 54-year-old Gorbachev was quite young by Soviet leadership standards. Although a believer in Communism, he realized the importance of reform in the Soviet Union, which has been stagnating in just about every aspect since the early 1970s.
Soon after he came to power Gorbachev announced Perestroika or "restructuring" and it means precisely that: Gorbachev set out to reconfigure Soviet society. He began to overhaul the Soviet command economy, reducing central control to allow for more efficient and realistic planning to meet consumer demands, and eventually transferring decision-making powers to local workers. He began to allow small-scale private enterprise and encourage foreign investment, while combating corruption and cutting military spending.
There were cautious political reforms as well. Using his position to force hardliners out of office, Gorbachev introduced multi-candidate (but not multi-party) elections and reduced the Communist Party's control over administration. Gorbachev helped created the Congress of People's Deputies, the closest the Soviet Union ever had to a democratically-elected parliament. While the Communist Party remained powerful, and in fact most of the seats in the new parliament was held by or reserved for hardline Communists, reformist voices began to be heard. Predictably, those who did well under the old system, namely, those who run the Soviet bureaucracy, did not take this at all well and constantly undermined Gorbachev’s efforts.
Openness Can Be a Double-Edged Sword: Glasnost
The other side of the Gorbachev's reforms is Glasnost, openness. This one aimed to give more civil rights to Soviet citizens. Political prisoners were pardoned and exiled dissidents allowed to return, government archives were open to the public and limited criticism of the government were tolerated. Part of the reason for initiating Glasnost was to encourage debate and discussion on Perestroika, to counter the influence of the Communist hardliners within the CPSU.
It didn't take long for Glasnost to backfire. As a result of Glasnost, the Soviet people were given more civil and political freedoms than ever before... and they soon wanted more. Now that past and contemporary Soviet crimes, misrule and mistakes are now out in the open and being debated, the authority and legitimacy of the CPSU were being compromised. Worse still, nationalist sentiments which previously was either suppressed, controlled or otherwise made insignificant, began to fueled ethnic tension across the Soviet Union. "Socialist brothers" in Armenia and Azerbaijan in particular were at each other's throats over Nagarno-Karabakh (a messy situation involving an Armenian state surrounded by Azeri territory which remained unresolved to this day). Gorbachev, under attack from reformists, conservatives and nationalists, were unable to reconcile them.
Gorbachev was rather more successful on the international front. Relations between the USA and USSR began to improve. Gorbachev agreed to disarmament treaties and planned the withdraw Soviet troops out of Afghanistan, which was just as well - military spending had been crippling to the Soviet economy.
They Just Pact'd Up: the Sinatra Doctrine and the Revolutions of 1989
Soviet reforms were watched closely in the communist states of Eastern Europe. Their leaders were under increasing pressure to reform, from both their own people and from Moscow. Many of the ruling elite feared they were about to lose their hold on power. They were right.
From Gorbachev's point of view, the Soviet satellite states of Eastern Europe were not only embarrassingly poor and oppressive (at a time when he's trying to make a name for himself as a reformer), they were also a drain on the Soviet economy. In the end he decided to adopt what the Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze (later President of Georgia) named the Sinatra Doctrine - the Soviet Union would no longer control the internal affairs of their Warsaw Pact allies. The people of Eastern Europe can now decide their future "their way". They can now have a say in how their countries are run, or overthrow the ruling Communists if they wanted to.
Gorbachev wanted to see Eastern Europe embrace its new freedoms and establish moderate Communist regimes similar to his own. Eastern Europe, however, was force-fed Communism by Moscow for 40 years and decided it had enough. Instead of a revitalized Warsaw Pact, within two years all the Eastern European countries would abandon communism and the Warsaw Pact itself would cease to have any relevance whatsoever. The events of 1989 came to be called the "Autumn of Nations", but here at Tv Tropes it was the "Hole in Flag Revolution" 
Poland was the first to go. Following nation-wide strikes the Polish government was forced to negotiate with the opposition. Solidarity, after years of operating underground, was legalized and did extremely well in the election in June 1989, despite most of the seats in the Sejm being reserved for the Communists and allied parties. Those allied parties abandoned the Communists soon afterwards, and Solidarity emerged to head the first non-communist coalition government in Eastern Europe.
In Hungary, as in Poland, the Communist Party held round table talks with their opponents. The Communists initiated political liberalization, dissolved themselves, and held free elections. They also opened their borders with Austria. When East Germans heard about this, they came in the tens of thousands to Hungary and over the border to Austria and West Germany. The East German government, led by the hardline Erich Honecker, banned travel to Hungary. Citizens then began camping outside the West German embassy in Prague, and the government banned travelled to Czechoslovakia as well. Now people began pouring out into the streets to demand the resignation of the government, which tried in vain to get them to stop. Gorbachev was unsympathetic... to Honecker. Eventually, the East German government caved in. On November 9, the Berlin Wall was opened. The communist Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschland lost power soon afterwards, and Germany was reunified on October 3 of the following year.
Czechoslovakia had their own "Velvet Revolution". The country paralyzed by protests and strikes, and seeing their Communist comrades losing power one by one, the Czechoslovak communists yielded and gave up power. Writer Vaclav Havel became Czechoslovakia's first non-communist President since 1948. 
Romania was a special case. It was ruled by one Nicolae Ceauşescu, a hardline, oppressive and possibly insane Stalinist.  An arrest of a local minister triggered riots in Timişoara, which then sparked protests around the country. Protesters were shot by the secret police, the militia and the Army, before the Army switched sides and began fighting on the same sides as the protestors, and the tide turned. Ceauşescu and his wife were captured and shot on national television.
By 1991, all the Soviet satellite states of Eastern Europe, plus Albania, had thrown off Communist rule. Communist Yugoslavia, though not part of the Warsaw Pact, was also collapsing as different ethnic groups started killing each other. The only Communist state left in Eastern Europe was the Soviet Union itself. For the moment.
No, You Can't Go Back To Leningrad - the Fall of the USSR
The Communist governments of Eastern Europe had been overthrown. U.S.-Soviet relations had never been better, and the Soviet Union itself was embracing democratic ideals. Gorbachev still hoped to keep the Soviet Union intact.
This was becoming increasingly difficult. The various Soviet Republics, previously in thrall to Moscow, gained more freedom from the Central Government and quickly decided they liked this freedom. The republics, especially the Baltic states, now wanted full independence. Gorbachev's own insistence on political freedom now saw him quickly losing control of the Soviet Union to nationalist leaders such as Boris Yeltsin. Gorbachev was forced to send in troops to quell nationalist demonstrations across the country - this only made matters worse.
Gorbachev decided to hold a democratic referendum on the future of the Soviet Union. Though it was marred by boycotts in six of the fifteen republics, in the rest of the USSR voter turnout was 80%, and most wanted to keep the country together in a renewed form. But it all came to nought, because of what happened next.
In August 1991 a cabal of hardline Communists decided to take matters into their own hands and staged a coup d'etat in an attempt to restore Communist orthodoxy. They soon realized that few shared their enthusiasm for a return to totalitarianism. The coup collapsed. Gorbachev was returned to power, but in name only while Boris Yeltsin was hailed as a hero for leading the resistance. The coup had dealt Soviet authority a fatal blow, and now the "unbreakable Union" was breaking apart as power passed from the Soviet government to the Republic governments.
The Baltic States - Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania - had decided to secede from the Soviet Union long before the August Coup. Now the rest of the Republics began to leave. In November 1991 Yeltsin banned the Communist Party. The Soviet Union itself was dissolved on December 8, 1991. Gorbachev, no longer with a country to rule, resigned as President of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day, 1991. That night, the Hammer and Sickle was lowered for the last time over the Kremlin.
Afternote: The first CNN war: The Persian Gulf War
The Cold War was all but over at this point, but it served as a demonstration of what the United States could have been capable of if it had wound up turning hot in the 1990s or later. However, it must be kept in mind that while Iraq used some Soviet equipment, it did not fight in a Soviet manner and was not at all representative of the Soviet military.
On 2 August 1990, Saddam Hussein, interpreted a comment by US Ambassador April Glaspie ("we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait") as a green light to launch a military invasion of Kuwait, a small emirate that borders Iraq. He also thought that the Soviet Union would veto any attempt to take firm diplomatic action. He figured very wrong.
The initial US and allied move was to increase the defense of Saudi Arabia, moving aircraft there in case Saddam tried to make a move on that country too. UN resolution after UN resolution calling for an Iraqi withdrawal were ignored and the US built up a coalition of 34 countries- the final total build-up of troops was over half a million and six US carrier groups were involved. With a troop drawdown happening in Europe, the US was free to shift over an entire corps-sized formation from Germany to the Middle East.
For all that, though, the US almost did not enter the war. Iraq had the world's fifth largest military and a very capable air force. (On paper, at least.) Remembering Vietnam, many US legislators were very reluctant on the issue. Kuwait hired a PR firm and had a woman testify before the Senate that Iraqi troops had removed babies from incubators and left them to die. It was completely false. That and other atrocities that did occur proved enough to get the resolution approving the US involvement passed.
On 29 November 1990, the United Nations Security Council by a 12-1 vote, passed Resolution 678 , which stated:
Authorizes Member States co-operating with the Government of Kuwait, unless Iraq on or before 15 January 1991 fully implements, as set forth in paragraph 1 above, the above-mentioned resolutions, to use all necessary means to uphold and implement resolution 660 (1990) and all subsequent relevant resolutions and to restore international peace and security in the area;
That meant - get out of Kuwait or face war. Saddam didn't get out, so he faced war.
On 17 January, Operation Desert Storm began. Iraq possessed one of the densest air defence systems in the world, equivalent to the USSR but with older weapons. It basically lasted one night due to the Americans' secret weapon. OK, the F-117 had already been revealed and taken part in the DEA operation that was Panama, but that had been easy. This was harder and it proved itself. An EF-111 got a kill without firing a shot, B-52s set the world record for a long-distance air strike by flying from the US to Saudi Arabia, firing cruise missiles and going home and Iraq's air defences were crippled. Iraqi fighters didn't do much better. Some pilots ejected when they saw the enemy and eventually the Iraqi Air Force left en masse for Iran, who said "Thanks for the planes" and duly confiscated them.
The Gulf War was notable for the levels of use of precision-guided weapons. They had not been used to this level before, leading to the war being called the first "computer war". Comparisons of night-vision video footage to video games were abundant for a few years after, including by Terry Pratchett.
Saddam, who understood the psychological impact of ballistic missiles even before they started falling on him, decided to launch modified "Scuds" at Israel and bring it into the war. He hoped to shatter the UN coalition, many of whom didn't like Israel and might balk at helping defend it. US MIM-104 Patriot anti-ballistic missiles made a go at stopping them, but faced with missiles that accidentally broke up on re-entry and Saddam not aiming them at anything, they couldn't do much.
Attempts to find and destroy the launchers in Western Iraq had limited success- mainly because they were mobile. Two future military novel authors along with other SAS members ended up getting captured by the Iraqis while doing this in the Bravo Two Zero mission. Ultimately, Israel was kept out of the war with finesse rather then firearms. Elsewhere, Saddam's forces dumped oil into the Persian Gulf and burnt Kuwaiti oil wells.
After six weeks of air strikes (one of which killed hundreds of civilians in a shelter), the ground liberation of Kuwait began. The UN forces, led by "Stormin' Norman" Schwarzkopf, then pulled the oldest trick in the book. They made noise in the press about an amphibious Marine invasion from the east, launched a feint attack from the south, and sent the bulk of their forces into the western desert to swing around and cut the Iraqis off from behind. It turned into a rout. A group of retreating Iraqis got subjected to air strikes for several hours, which played badly in the world press. For whatever reason, a full-scale invasion of Iraq did not take place. Kurdish and Shia uprisings against Saddam were brutally crushed. In essence, the United States conducted the sort of offensive that they had planned to defend against.
On 28 February 1991, a ceasefire came into force. 379 UN soldiers had died, but only 190 to enemy fire. Iraqi military deaths were at least 20,000, while the number of civilian deaths was the subject of much debate. In Moscow, the head of the Voyska PVO, the USSR's air defence armed force, had to explain how the Iraqis lost so convincingly. Iraq's weapons of mass destruction were not used because it was made very clear to Saddam that nuclear weapons would follow. This issue would not go away. Iraq would stymie UN weapons inspectors for years afterwards, until the US finally ousted him from power.
But that, as they say, is a story for another day...
- ↑ (Japanese, British, Canadian, French, American, German, Australian- including two who received the Victoria Cross for their actions against the Red Army- , Greek, Czechoslovak)
- ↑ It's worth noting that, in turn, the most memorable repressions in the 20th century U.S. (the 1950's "Red Scare", etc.) were justified/excused by the "Red Menace" -- which was certainly a less dire threat than the "imperialist aggression" used as an excuse by the Soviets.
- ↑ Winston Churchill was a big fan of Mussolini, and admiration even for Hitler was okay in mixed company until they surprised everyone by attacking Western nations instead of the USSR.
- ↑ The Curzon Line had been an earlier proposed Polish-Russian border- based on the third partition of Poland in 1795- which had a lot of Soviet ethnicities on the east side.
- ↑ Stalin already knew about the weapon (before Truman was briefed, no less) thanks to Soviet infiltration of the American nuclear weapons project.
- ↑ In a strange twist, Simeon II, last Tsar of Bulgaria, would much later be democratically elected prime minister of that country.
- ↑ (after the First Defenestration that had started the 15th-century Hussite Wars and the Second Defenestration that started the Thirty Years War).
- ↑ Kim had played some ill-defined role as a Communist rebel leader against the Japanese before and during the war; his official biographers give him a heroic role, but outside observers claim he did little but sit in Soviet territory and make
unrealistically grandiosesurprisingly practical plans.
- ↑ An improvement from Stalinist times; in the past he might have been shot
- ↑ Such as his accusation, on being barred access from Disneyland, that the US government was keeping secret nuclear missiles hidden under Tomorrowland - presumably in the same place they're keeping Disney's frozen corpse.
- ↑ Arguably this was hypocritical given that America had itself had been a major colonial power in the pre-war period. America was also quite happy to subvert governments of various important countries, installing dictators who would stand against Communism. Of course, the Soviets did the same thing.
- ↑ You may know him as Mao Tse-tung.
- ↑ After Mao’s death Hoxha would pursue a paranoid isolationist policy, denouncing both the PRC and the USSR, and proclaimed Albania to be the world’s only Marxist-Leninist state
- ↑ As an aside, the saying "only Nixon could go to China" is symbolic of Nixon's conservatism- a liberal would've been accused of being a Communist.
- ↑ To give an example, the Americans had just put Polaris sub-launched missiles into service. These (the A1 version) had a range of 1,367 miles (2,200 km), could be launched submerged and 16 could be carried by the George Washington class of converted Skipjack nuclear submarines. The best Soviet SSBN at the time was the Project 658 "Hotel" class, which had R-13/SS-N-4 "Sark" missiles with a range of only 404 miles (650 km), and had to launch them surfaced. This process took twelve minutes. Surfacing when you're a boomer is a pretty bad idea.
- ↑ There were approximately 1000 U.S. advisors in Vietnam when Eisenhower left office. That number rose to 16,000 under JFK
- ↑ Though the English-speaking world generally refers to this period as the Vietnam War, the U.S. Congress never approved a declaration of war. Officially, this was a police action, like the one conducted by the UN in Korea. Government publications prefer the name "Vietnam Conflict"
- ↑ The Nobel Peace Prize went jointly to North Vietnamese Foreign Minister Lê Đức Thọ and U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Lê Đức Thọ, however, declined the award.
- ↑ Notably, during this war, an Egyptian missile boat became the first to sink another vessel with guided missiles.
- ↑ This isn't to say that there weren't some Islamist leftists; indeed, one of the biggest Islamist factions, the Mojahideen-e-Khalq (People's Mojahideen) followed the Islamic Socialism of Ali Shariati, which tried to synthesize Islam and socialism.
- ↑ In Stalin's times Cardinal Wyszynski- the leader of the Polish Church- suffered three years of house arrest, priests and bishops were sent to prisons, and even convents were raided by the police.
- ↑ so-called because when nationalists and democrats marched against the ruling Communists in 1989 and brought them down they were flying flags with the Communist state symbols cut out.
- ↑ Alexander Dubcek, the moderate communist leader who was the architect of the reformist "Prague Spring" in 1968 and was later ousted by Soviet troops, returned in triumph as Chairman of the Federal Assembly.
- ↑ However, he was praised by Western leaders for pursuing his own foreign policy independent of Moscow.