World History 2 239 - 14.1.3 Cold War Strategies

The Cold War between West and East was fought on many fronts with many strategies. Both sides provided aid and technical assistance to countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, many of which had been European colonies until the end of World War II. Through such aid, the United States hoped to contain the spread of communism by depriving countries of an economic reason for aligning themselves with the Soviet Union. Communism was attractive to many poor people. It promised that a nation’s wealth would be used to provide for all its citizens, and under the Soviet system, people were provided with jobs, housing, education, health care, and public transportation. Although the standard of living was lower than in the West, for poor people who lived with the constant threat of hunger and homelessness and saw no chance of improving their situation, communism was an attractive alternative.

Propaganda in the form of literature, visual imagery, and films was also used by each side to shore up support for its policies and political ideology, and to damage the credibility and prestige of the other side. In 1950, the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe began broadcasting news to the countries of the Eastern Bloc, and in 1953, Radio Liberty began broadcasting to the Soviet Union. Radio Free Europe and the Free Europe Committee, an organization of American business executives and lawyers established by the U.S. government, printed leaflets and posters touting the superiority of life in democratic, capitalist countries and dropped them from weather balloons over East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary.

Soviet propaganda stressed the USSR’s desire for world peace and praised the communist ideals of a classless society in which people were treated equally regardless of race or gender. This message had a strong appeal for people in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Some African Americans, confronted by racism and segregation in the United States, were also attracted by these promises. Indeed, opponents of the civil rights movement in the United States often denounced it as communist in nature.

Sometimes propaganda took the form of athletic competitions in which each side used its swimmers, runners, weightlifters, and gymnasts to display the superiority of its system. Sports and news broadcasts kept a close watch on the number of medals won by U.S. and Soviet athletes during Olympic competitions. At other times, cultural exchanges took place. Soviet ballet dancers toured the United States, while American jazz musicians and symphony orchestras visited Eastern Bloc countries.

Beyond the Book

Cold War Propaganda

Both the United States and the Soviet Union used propaganda to convince their own citizens as well as those of the other country that their way of life was superior. U.S. propaganda touted the benefits of capitalism and democracy and warned of the lack of freedom under communism. The Soviet Union boasted of the productivity of its citizens and ridiculed the softness of capitalists. Soviet propaganda also routinely invoked the lack of freedom for people of color in the United States.

Following are two propaganda cartoons. The first is an American video called Make Mine Freedom that was made in 1948.

In it, viewers are warned about the dangers of “ism,” which listeners in the United States would understand to mean “communism.” Please note that the video contains racist imagery, as did many American cartoons from this time period. The salesman peddling “communism” to gullible Americans is wearing a zoot suit, a style of dress associated with men of color.

The second video is a Soviet cartoon called The Millionaire that portrays the behavior of the wealthy in the United States.

As you watch the videos, look for the claims each side makes about the other.

  • How does the American cartoon depict the United States? How does the Soviet cartoon depict the United States?
  • To what extent is what the United States says about itself true? To what extent is the Soviet depiction of American life accurate?

Both sides highlighted their ingenuity and technological achievements. At a 1959 exhibition in Moscow, U.S. vice president Richard Nixon proudly showed off American technology to Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in the form of a model kitchen. Khrushchev’s response to the labor-saving gadgetry on display was to inquire whether American families also had machines to save them the effort of putting food in their mouths and swallowing it. The two countries competed to dominate space as well. In 1957, the United States suffered a serious blow to its pride when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first satellite (Figure 14.7). In response, in 1958 President Dwight D. Eisenhower called on Congress to establish an agency to explore space. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was established that year. In 1961 the Soviet Union sent the first astronaut into space. In 1969 the United States put the first humans on the surface of the moon.

Part a is a drawing that shows a top portion of the Earth in the bottom right of the drawing. An orb with four projections coming off of it, one in each direction, is shown in the middle of the drawing floating in space above the Earth. Part b is a stamp that includes a dog. The stamp reads “Posta R.P.Romina” and “Kaika Primul Calator in Cosmos.”
Figure 14.7 The Soviet Union’s 1957 launching of the satellite Sputnik, shown here in an artist’s rendering, spurred the United States to create NASA, its own space agency. The following month, the Soviets topped their achievement by sending a dog, Laika, into space aboard Sputnik 2 (b), commemorated in this 1959 Romanian stamp. (credit a: modification of work “First report of Sputnik” by Universal Newsreel/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain; credit b: modification of work “Laika, dog launched into space on stamp from Rumania Posta Romania, 1957” by Unknown/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Link to Learning

The late 1950s and 1960s witnessed the efforts of the United States and the Soviet Union to outdo one another in the area of space exploration. Visit the online exhibition dedicated to the history of the space race at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

Espionage was another important tool, carried out by the United States through the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) formed in 1947, and by the USSR with its spy agency the KGB. Besides surveilling the other nation, these agencies also plotted, assisted in, and carried out acts of sabotage and the assassination of those deemed enemies of their country. Both the CIA and the KGB fomented discontent in foreign nations as well, trained fighting forces, and encouraged revolution and insurgency to topple foreign governments and install leaders who would be friendly to their respective countries. The CIA, for example, trained Cuban insurgents with the goal of overthrowing the Caribbean island’s communist government under Fidel Castro in 1961. Similarly, the KGB gave assistance to Vietnamese communists attempting to defeat the government of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

The most dangerous venue for competition, however, and the two sides’ chief means of reining in aggression on the part of the other, was the stockpiling of massive nuclear arsenals. In 1949, the Soviet Union detonated an atomic bomb, ending the U.S. monopoly on nuclear weapons. In 1952 the United States took the next step, one opposed by some of the same atomic scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II, and developed the hydrogen bomb, testing it on the Pacific atoll of Eniwetok in 1952. This missile was one thousand times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. U.S. development of such a weapon meant the Soviet Union needed to do the same.

In the 1950s, both the United States and the USSR developed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) as well. Now missiles armed with nuclear warheads could be launched from within the home country’s own territory or within the borders of satellite nations; an air force capable of intercepting bomb-bearing planes was no longer sufficient to protect against nuclear attack. Although countries in both the Western and Eastern Blocs prepared for potential war by creating shelters to protect citizens in the event of nuclear war, neither side put great faith in its ability to emerge victorious. Both the United States and the USSR quickly came to believe that the key to survival lay in building an immense retaliatory capacity, the ability to unleash devastation so great that the other side would never detonate the first bomb for fear of its own annihilation. In the United States, this defense policy came to be referred to as “mutually assured destruction” (MAD). Should these nuclear stockpiles prove unsuccessful at deterring a conflict, the large military forces the rivals built up during the Cold War, along with billions of dollars’ worth of battleships, submarines, and fighter jets, ensured they possessed the capacity to fight a conventional war as well.

This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax