The Cold War was a political rivalry between the United States, the Soviet Union, and their respective allies. What started as a feud between nations turned into a constant, everyday threat of nuclear annihilation.
The Cold War lasted for about 45 years and was made up of several different phases, some more intense than others. From the chaotic Cuban Missile Crisis to the beginning of space exploration, it was marked by many momentous occasions.
These facts about the Cold War shed light on the most interesting aspects of this era.
45 Facts About the Cold War
From ingenious spy gadgets to alien invasions and unique methods of communication, here are the most fascinating facts about the Cold War.
The term “Cold War” was coined by English writer George Orwell in 1945. He used it to refer to a nuclear stalemate between “super-states” that possessed weapons capable of wiping out millions of people in seconds.
Although the Cold War supported several major proxy wars worldwide, the US and Soviet Union never officially declared war against the other. Thus, it was a “cold” war.
The Berlin Blockade took place in 1948. It was an attempt by the Soviet Union to restrict the US, Great Britain, and France from traveling to their sectors in Berlin, Germany. This led to increased tension between the superpowers.
The Soviet Union erected the Iron Curtain, which was a military and ideological border meant to divide Europe into two separate areas.
There was the noncommunist Western European side and the Communist Eastern European side. It stretched for about 4,225 miles (6,779 km).
The Iron Curtain has been used as a metaphor since the 19th century. However, it came to prominence after British prime minister Winston Churchill gave his famous “Iron Curtain” speech in 1946. From then on, it became a household phrase.
The Iron Curtain was in place from after World War 2, in 1945, to the end of the Cold War, in 1991.
The heavily guarded Berlin Wall was a concrete barrier that physically and ideologically separated West Berlin from East Germany. It was in place from 1961 to 1989 and stood as a tangible symbol of the Cold War.
When Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin died in 1953, Cold War tensions somewhat relaxed. In 1958, however, the war escalated again when the US and the Soviet Union started developing intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Nikita Khrushchev took over as the leader of the Communist Party when Stalin died. He led the Soviets during the height of the Cold War era.
The Madman Theory was part of President Nixon’s foreign policy. It was meant to intimidate the leaders of communist nations by portraying Nixon as a crazy leader who was capable of anything, even launching a nuclear bomb. The hope of this was to encourage the enemy to back down during a conflict.
On October 30, 1961, the Soviet Union detonated the Tsar Bomba (King of Bombs) over Novaya Zemlya, an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. It was the largest nuclear weapon ever discharged, and it produced the most substantial human-made explosion ever recorded.
During the Cold War, the USSR created maps of the entire world. They were crafted with such accuracy and precision that the US State Department still uses them to this day.
The National Aeronautics and Space Act (NASA) was signed into law in 1958. The driving force was the Soviet’s launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957.
During the Apollo 11 mission, US astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin remembered their fallen Soviet cosmonauts. They left two medals on the moon; one honored Vladimir Komarov, and the other honored Yuri Gagarin.
Neil Armstrong was the first human to ever walk on the moon. He credited Cold War tensions with paving the way for the rapid development of technologies that led to space exploration.
Project A119 was a plan devised by the US Air Force to discharge a nuclear weapon on the moon. It was meant to display the military might and capabilities of the US against the Soviets. Luckily, the plan was never carried out.
Project A119 was kept top-secret until 2000 when it was made public by Leonard Reiffell, a former executive at NASA.
The Cold War led to some pretty innovative spy gadgets being created. One such was the “Rectal Escape Kit.” This small, pill-shaped container was placed inside a spy’s rectum so that it wouldn’t be discovered during a search. If a spy were captured, they’d have access to small escape tools.
During the Cold War, CIA agents used a communication method known as shoelace communication. It was based on the patterns they used to tie their shoelaces. They were able to convey simple messages by looking at each other’s feet.
Operation Tamarisk was a Cold War mission that entailed dumpster-diving. It was discovered that toilet paper had not been issued to the Soviet troops in East Germany. So instead, they would sometimes use official documents in place. Since this type of paper was not soluble, it was put in bins instead of being flushed down the toilet.
During the 1985 Geneva Summit, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev went on a walk to take a brief break from their negotiations.
In 2009, it was disclosed that during the walk, Regan asked Gorbachev point-blank that if aliens invaded, they could pause the Cold War and set aside their differences. Gorbachev agreed.
The Vietnam War was the deadliest proxy war in the Cold War era. It lasted from 1959 to 1975 and resulted in over 3.5 million deaths.
The Korean War was the second deadliest proxy war. It lasted from 1950 to 1953 and resulted in 3 million deaths.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was created in 1949. It was formed to create an alliance between the US and several Western European countries and to combat and provide security against the threat of Soviet expansion.
The Warsaw Pact was formed in 1955 in response to NATO. It was a treaty signed by the Soviet Union and seven of its satellite states. The political and military alliance called on the member states to come to the defense of any nation attacked by an outside force.
The Bay of Pigs in 1961 was one of the most famous Cold War conflicts. It was a failed invasion during the Kennedy administration that was meant to remove Cuban leader Fidel Castro from power.
Part of the mission’s failure had to do with a difference in time zones. President Kennedy authorized a fleet of fighter planes to be deployed to combat Cuban forces, but the aircrafts arrived one hour late. The delay was likely due to confusion caused by the time zone change between Nicaragua and Cuba.
The Soviet Union secretly set up nuclear missile launches in Cuba that were capable of destroying major US cities. The launch sites were photographed by an American spy plane. This started the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The Cuban Missile Crisis, which happened from October 16 to October 28, 1962, is seen as the peak of the Cold War. This 13-day confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union was the closest the world has ever come to complete nuclear annihilation.
John F. Kennedy was in office during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was campaigning around the country when he got news of just how serious the threat of a missile strike from Cuba was. He needed to get back to Washington ASAP, but his schedule was full of public appearances, and he needed a reason to cancel that wouldn’t cause panic.
So, he informed the press that he was “running a fever”, and had to get back to Washington on “doctor’s orders.”
Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov was a Soviet navy officer who prevented a global catastrophe during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was one of three men on board the submarine B-59 when the conflict broke out.
The submarine was carrying a nuclear torpedo, similar in strength to the Atomic Bomb. It could only be detonated with approval from all three men on board the submarine. Two of the officers wanted to launch the missile; however, Arkhipov refused.
Had it been launched, the attack would have likely started a nuclear war.
Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov passed away in 1999. In 2017, nearly two decades after his death, he was honored with the “Future of Life Award.” His family was presented with the award, as well as $50,000.
President Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev were able to peacefully end the Cuban Missile Crisis. Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba in exchange for the US removing missiles from Turkey and agreeing not to attack Cuba.
Shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, a direct phone line was established between the White House and the Kremlin. The Soviet Union and the US had come very close to nuclear war, and tensions were raised by their slow and delayed communication systems.
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was signed in 1968. It was an agreement between the US, Soviet Union, United Kingdom, and several other non-nuclear states to stop the spread of nuclear technology.
Colonel Oleg Penkovsky was a Soviet spy that provided the CIA and British intelligence with valuable information regarding high-level Soviet military details. He passed on more than 5,000 photographs of classified documents. He was eventually found out and arrested by KGB agents in 1962. He died in 1963, either by execution or suicide.
The United States Pledge of Allegiance gained a couple of new words during the Cold War. To symbolize the opposition to communists, who were atheists, the US Congress added the phrase “Under God ” in June of 1954.
The Chrysler Air-Raid Siren was a Cold War-era siren that served to warn the American public of a nuclear attack. They could be heard from as far away as 25 miles (40 km).
The Cold War inspired many films. Here are some of the most popular: On The Beach (1959), Fail-Safe (1964), Red Dawn (1984), Firefox (1982), and The Falcon and the Snowman (1985).
Did you know that the term “first” and “third” world arose during the Cold War? This model of geopolitics emerged as a way of classifying the different countries in the Cold War.
The First World described the US and its capitalist allies. The Second World described the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies. The Third World referred to all the other countries not aligned with either side in the Cold War, which were mostly the impoverished territories.
CNN Founded Ted Turned made an end of the world video that was to be aired in the event of a nuclear holocaust. It was leaked to the public in 2015 and showed a band of members of the US armed forces performing the Christian song “Nearer My God To Thee”.
The Atomic Age was a period in time that spanned the 1940s to 1960s. It was characterized by developments in nuclear science and the production of the atomic bomb.
From 1989 to 1990, several things happened to end the Cold War. The Berlin Wall was torn down, borders began to open, and Communist regimes were ousted with free elections across eastern Europe.
The Cold War came to an end in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union.
Through different proxy wars fought during the Cold War, it’s estimated that roughly 11 million people lost their lives.
Historians largely agree that the US won the Cold War. This is mostly based on finance. The Soviet Union suffered a much more substantial economic drain than the US.