The United States and the Soviet Union emerged from World War II as the only nations with enough resources to consolidate themselves as the world’s new powers. But, despite having unified forces against Nazi Germany, the two countries’ political systems relied on radically opposed doctrines: capitalism (US) and communism (Soviet Union).
The tension that resulted from this ideological divergence looked as though another large-scale confrontation was just a matter of time. In the years to come, this clash of visions would become the fundamental theme of the Cold War (1947-1991).
The interesting thing about the Cold War is that, in many ways, it was a conflict that subverted the expectations of those who experienced it.
For starters, the Cold War saw the rise of a restricted form of warfare, one that primarily relied on the use of ideology, espionage, and propaganda to undermine the enemy’s sphere of influence. However, this doesn’t mean that there wasn’t any battlefield action during this period. Conventional hot wars were fought in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan, with the US and the Soviet Union alternating the role of the active aggressor in each conflict, but without directly declaring war on each other.
Another big expectation of the Cold War was the use of nuclear weaponry. This, too, was subverted, as no atomic bombs were dropped. Still, the sole possibility of facing nuclear annihilation at any moment set the tone for an era characterized by widespread fear and doubts about the future. Yet again, this atmosphere persisted, even though the Cold War never escalated into an openly violent worldwide conflict.
There are many interesting facts about the Cold War to gain a deeper understanding of this confrontation. Here’s a look at 15 interesting facts about the Cold war to help increase your knowledge of this unusual conflict.
1. Origin of the Term ‘Cold War’
The term ‘Cold War’ was first used by the English writer George Orwell in an article published in 1945. The author of Animal Farm used the term to illustrate what he thought would be a nuclear stalemate between two or three superpowers. In 1947, the American financier and presidential adviser Bernarch Baruch became the first to use this term in the US, during a speech given at the South Carolina’s State House.
2. Operation Acoustic Kitty
During the 1960s’, the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) launched many espionage and counter-intelligence projects, including the operation Acoustic Kitty. The purpose of this operation was to turn cats into spying devices, a transformation that required installing a microphone in the cat’s ear and a radioreceptor at the base of its skull via surgery.
It turned out that making a cyborg cat wasn’t that difficult; the hard part of the job was training the feline to fulfill its role as a spy. This problem became evident when the only acoustic kitty ever produced reportedly died when a taxi ran over it on its first mission. After the incident, Operation Acoustic Kitty was rendered impractical and, therefore, got canceled.
3. Bay of Pigs Invasion – An American Military Failure
In 1959, after deposing former dictator Fulgencio Batista, the new Cuban government, led by Fidel Castro, confiscated hundreds of companies (many of which were American). Little after, Castro also made explicit his desire for strengthening Cuba’s diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. Due to these actions, Washington started seeing Cuba as a potential threat to the American interests in the region.
Two years later, the Kennedy administration approved a CIA project for an amphibious operation intended to overthrow Castro’s government. However, what was supposed to be a quick assault with favorable results ended up being one of the most significant military failures in the history of the US.
The abortive invasion took place in April 1961 and was carried out by some 1500 Cubans expatriates that had previously received military training by the CIA. The initial plan was to launch an airstrike to deprive Castro of his air force, something necessary to secure the landing of the ships carrying the main force of the expedition.
The aerial bombing was ineffective, leaving six Cuban airfields practically unscratched. Furthermore, poor timing and intelligence leaks (Castro was aware of the invasion several days before it started) allowed the Cuban army to repel the attack by land without suffering significant damage.
Some historians consider that the Bay of Pigs invasion failed primarily because the US highly underestimated the organization of the Cuban military forces at the time.
4. Tsar Bomba
The Cold War was all about who could carry out the most prominent display of power, and perhaps the best example of this was the Tsar Bomba. Built up in the early 1960s by Soviet Union’s scientists, the Tsar Bomba was a 50-megaton capacity thermonuclear bomb.
This powerful bomb was detonated in a test over Novaya Zemlya, an island located in the Arctic Ocean, on 31 October 1961. It’s still considered the largest nuclear weapon ever set off. By mere comparison, the Tsar Bomba was 3,800 times stronger than the atomic bomb dropped in Hiroshima by the US during the Second World War.
5. Korean War Casualties
Some scholars claim that the Cold War received its name because it never heated up to the point of starting a direct armed conflict between its protagonists. However, during this period the US and the Soviet Union did become involved in conventional wars. One of these, the Korean War (1950-1953) is particularly remembered for the enormous number of casualties that it left behind, despite having been relatively brief.
During the Korean War, almost five million people died, of which more than half were civilians. Nearly 40,000 Americans also died, and at least another 100,000 were wounded while fighting in this conflict. The sacrifice of these men is commemorated by the Korean War Veterans Memorial, a monument located in Washington D.C.
In contrast, the USSR lost only 299 men during the Korean War, all of whom were trained soviet pilots. The number of losses by the side of the Soviet Union was much smaller, mainly because Stalin wanted to avoid taking an active role in a conflict with the US. So, instead of sending troops, Stalin preferred to assist North Korea and China with diplomatic support, training, and medical aid.
6. Fall of the Berlin Wall
After World War II, Germany was divided into four occupied allied zones. These zones were distributed among the United States, Britain, France, and Russia. In 1949, two countries officially emerged from this distribution: The Federal Republic of Germany, also known as West Germany, which fell under the influence of the Western democracies, and the German Democratic Republic, which was controlled by the Soviet Union.
Despite being within the limits of the German Democratic Republic, Berlin was also split into two. The west half enjoyed the benefits of a democratic administration, while in the east, the population had to deal with the authoritarian ways of the soviets. Due to this disparity, between 1949 and 1961, approximately 2.5 million Germans (many of whom were skilled workers, professionals, and intellectuals) fled from East Berlin into its more liberal counterpart.
But the Soviets soon realized that this brain drain could potentially damage the economy of East Berlin, so to stop these defections, a wall enclosing the territory under the Soviet administration was erected in late 1961. Throughout the late decades of the Cold War, the ‘Berlin Wall,’ as it became known, was considered one of the main symbols of communist oppression.
The Berlin Wall began to be dismantled on 9 November 1989, after one East Berlin’s Communist Party representative announced that the Soviet administration would uplift its transit restrictions, thus making the crossing between the two parts of the city possible again.
The fall of the Berlin Wall marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union’s influence over the countries of Western Europe. It would officially come to its end two years later in 1991, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
7. The Hotline between the White House and the Kremlin
The Cuban Missile Crisis (October 1962), a confrontation between the US and the Soviet governments that lasted for one month and four days, brought the world dangerously close to the outbreak of a nuclear war. During this episode of the Cold War, the Soviet Union attempted to introduce atomic warheads to Cuba by sea. The US responded to this potential threat by placing a naval blockade on the island, so that the missiles didn’t reach it.
Eventually, the two parties involved in the incident reached an agreement. The Soviet Union would retrieve its missiles (the ones that were underway plus some others that were already in Cuba). In return, the US agreed never to invade the island.
After the crisis ended, the two parties involved recognized that they needed some way in which they could stop similar incidents from repeating. This dilemma led to the creation of a direct communication line between the White House and the Kremlin that began functioning in 1963 and is still working today.
Although it’s often referred to as the ‘red telephone’ by the public, it’s worth noting that this communication system never used a telephone line.
8. Laika’s Space Oddity
On November 2, 1957, Laika, a two-year-old stray dog, became the first living creature to be launched into Earth’s orbit, as the sole passenger of the Soviet artificial satellite Sputnik 2. Within the context of the space race that took place during the Cold War, this launching was considered a very important achievement for the Soviet’s cause, however, for decades the final destiny of Laika was misrepresented.
The official accounts given by the Soviets at the time explained that Laika was supposed to die euthanized with poisoned food, six or seven days after the beginning of the mission in space, hours before its ship ran out of oxygen. However, official records tell us a different story:
In reality, Laika died of overheating within the first seven hours after the takeoff of the satellite.
Apparently, the scientist behind the project didn’t have enough time to adequately condition the satellite’s life support system, because the Soviets authorities wanted the launching to be ready on time to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. The true account of Laika’s end was only made public in 2002, almost 50 years after the launching.
9. Origin of the Term ‘Iron Curtain’
The term ‘Iron Curtain’ referred to the ideological and military barrier erected by the Soviet Union after the end of World War II to seal off itself and separate the nations under its influence (primarily Eastern and Central European countries) from the West. The term was first used by former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in a speech given in March 1946.
10. Soviet Union’s Occupation of Czechoslovakia – The Aftermath of the Prague Spring
The name ‘Prague Spring’ is used to describe a brief period of liberalization introduced to Czechoslovakia thanks to a series of democratic-like reforms promulgated by Alexander Dubček between January and August 1968.
Being the First Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, Dubček claimed that his reforms were intended to instill a “socialism with a human face” in the country. Dubček wanted a Czechoslovakia with more autonomy (from the centralized Soviet administration) and to reform the national constitution, so that rights became a standard guarantee for everyone.
Soviet Union authorities saw Dubček’s leap towards democratization as a menace to their power, and, as a result, on 20 August, Soviet troops invaded the country. It’s also worth mentioning that the occupation of Czechoslovakia brought back the government’s repressive policies applied in previous years.
Hopes for a free, independent Czechoslovakia would remain unfulfilled until 1989, when the Soviet domination of the country finally came to its end.
11. Gulf of Tonkin Incident
1964 marked the beginning of a much heavier involvement on the US part into the Vietnam War.
Under Kennedy’s administration, the US had already sent military advisors to Vietnam to help to stop the expansion of communism throughout Southeast Asia. But it was during Johnson’s presidency that large numbers of American troops started to be mobilized to Vietnam. This major display of power also included the bombing of large areas of Vietnam’s countryside and the use of dangerous herbicides with long-lasting effects, such as Agent Orange, to defoliate the thick Vietnamese jungle.
However, something that generally gets overlooked is that the resolution that allowed Johnson to engage with full ranged forces in Vietnam was based on a rather obscure event whose veracity was never confirmed: we are talking about the Gulf of Tonkin incident.
The Gulf of Tonkin incident was an episode of the Vietnam war that included two supposedly unprovoked attacks by some North Vietnamese torpedo bombers against two US destroyers. Both offensives took place near the Gulf of Tonkin.
The first attack (August 2) was corroborated, but the USS Maddox, the main target, went out without damage. Two days later (August 4), the two destroyers reported a second attack. This time, however, the captain of the USS Maddox soon clarified that there wasn’t enough evidence to conclude that another Vietnamese offensive had indeed occurred.
Still, Johnson saw that the seemingly unmotivated North Vietnamese retaliation made Americans more prone to support the war. Thus, taking advantage of the situation, he asked the US Congress for a resolution that allowed him to take whatever actions he considered necessary to stop any future threats to the American forces or its allies in Vietnam.
Soon after, on August 7, 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin resolution was passed, granting Johnson the permission he needed to make the US forces take a much more active role in the Vietnam war.
12. Enemies that Couldn’t Turn Each Other In
Espionage and counterintelligence games played a significant role in the Cold War. But at least on one occasion, players from different teams found a way to understand each other.
In the late 1970s, CIA agent John C. Platt made arrangements to meet Gennadiy Vasilenko, a KGB spy working for the Soviet Union in Washington, at a basketball game. They both had the same mission: to recruit the other as double agents. Neither succeeded, but in the meantime, a long-lasting friendship was established, as both spies discovered that they were similar; the two of them were very critical of the bureaucracy of their respective agencies.
Platt and Vasilenko continued to have regular meetings until 1988, when Vasilenko was arrested and brought back to Moscow, accused of being a double agent. He wasn’t, but the spy who turned him in, Aldrich H. Ames, was. Ames had been sharing information from the CIA’s secret files with the KGB for years.
Vasilenko was imprisoned for three years. During that time, he was interrogated on multiple occasions. The agents in charge of his custody would often tell Vasilenko that someone recorded him talking to a US spy, giving the American chunks of classified information. Vasilenko reflected on this accusation, wondering if Platt could have betrayed him, but ultimately decided to remain faithful to his friend.
It turns out the tapes didn’t exist, so, without enough evidence to prove him guilty, Vasilenko was freed in 1991.
Soon after, Platt heard that his missing friend was alive and well. The two spies then re-establish contact, and in 1992 Vasilenko obtained the required permission to leave Russia. He subsequently headed back to the US, where he settled down with his family and founded a security firm with Platt.
13. GPS Technology Becomes Available for Civilian Use
On September 1, 1983, a South Korean civil flight that had inadvertently entered Soviet forbidden airspace was shot down by Soviet fire. The incident occurred while a US aerial reconnaissance mission was taking place in a nearby area. Supposedly, the Soviet radars capture just one signal and assume that the intruder could only be an American military aircraft.
Reportedly, the Soviet Sukhoi Su-15, which was sent to stop the trespasser, fired a series of warning shots at first to make the unknown plane turn back. After getting no response, the interceptor proceeded to shoot the aircraft down. The 269 passengers of the flight, including one US diplomat, died due to the attack.
The Soviet Union didn’t take responsibility for the collision of the South Korean airliner, despite having found the site of the crash and identified the aircraft two weeks after the incident.
To avoid similar events from happening again, the US allowed civilian aircraft to use its Global Positioning System technology (so far limited only to military operations). This is how GPS became available worldwide.
14. The Red Guards Offensive Against the ‘Four Olds’
During the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the Red Guards, a paramilitary force made mainly of urban high school and university students, were told by Mao Zedong to get rid of the ‘Four Olds” .i.e., old habits, old customs, old ideas, and old culture.
Red Guards executed this order by harassing and humiliating members of the Chinese Communist Party leadership in public, as a way to test their loyalty to Mao’s ideology. Throughout the early stage of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, many teachers and elders were also tortured and beaten to death by Red Guards.
Mao Zedong launched the Chinese Cultural Revolution in August 1966, in an attempt to rectify the course adopted by the Chinese Communist Party, which had been leaning towards revisionism in recent years, due to the influence of its other leaders. He also commanded the military to leave the Chinese youth to act freely, when the Red Guards started to persecute and attack anyone they considered a counter-revolutionary, a bourgeoise, or an elitist.
However, as the Red Guard forces grew strong, they also split into several factions, each of which claimed to be the true interpreter of Mao’s doctrines. These differences quickly gave place to violent confrontations among the factions, which ultimately made Mao order the Red Guards to be relocated to the Chinese countryside. As a result of the violence during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, at least 1.5 million people were killed.
15. A Subtle Modification to the Pledge of Allegiance
In 1954, President Eisenhower prompted the US Congress to add “Under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. It’s generally considered that this modification was adopted as a sign of American’ resistance to the atheistic visions promulgated by communist governments during the early Cold War.
The Pledge of Allegiance was originally written in 1892 by the American Christian socialist author Francis Bellamy. Bellamy’s intention was for the pledge to be used in any country, not only in America, as a way to inspire patriotism. The 1954 modified version of the Pledge of Allegiance is still recited in the American government’s official ceremonies and schools. Today, the complete text reads as follows:
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
The Cold War (1947-1991), the conflict that had the United States and the Soviet Union as its protagonists, saw the rising of an unconventional form of warfare, one that relied mainly on espionage, propaganda, and ideology to undermine the opponent’s prestige and influence.