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Book Summary: The Cold War – A Very Short Introduction

The Cold War (2003) provides an overview of the conflict that defined the second half of the twentieth century. Beginning in the immediate aftermath of World War Two, it traces the Cold War’s development through the rest of the century, laying out its underlying causes and overall contours.


History, Politics, International Relations, World History, International and World Politics, Humanities, Military, War,

Introduction: Get a big-picture understanding of one of the twentieth century’s defining conflicts.

Whole books could be written – and have been – about each of the main events, trends, and leaders of the Cold War. The Arms Race, the Space Race, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Suez Crisis, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Harry Truman, Nikita Khrushchev – the list goes on and on.

With so much to cover, it’s easy to get lost in the details of the 45-year-long conflict that defined the second half of the twentieth century and had a major impact on nearly every corner of the globe.

But what was the Cold War all about? How did it start? Why did it spread? And how did it end? We’ll tackle these questions in the summaries ahead.

[Book Summary] The Cold War: A Very Short Introduction

In these summaries, you’ll learn

  • why Germany loomed large at the beginning of the Cold War;
  • why the conflict then shifted to Southeast Asia; and
  • why most of the conflict took place in the developing world.

The Cold War arose from the ashes of World War Two.

The year was 1945, and much of Europe and Asia lay in ruins.

After six years of global conflict, World War Two had finally ended. Sixty million people were dead. Another almost 60 million had been left homeless or uprooted. Large swaths of major cities had been reduced to rubble – including over 50 percent of Tokyo, 70 percent of Vienna, 80 percent of Manila, and 90 percent of Cologne, Düsseldorf, and Hamburg.

Meanwhile, the world’s international order was also in disarray. For 500 years, it had been dominated by Western European nations. In a historical chapter of an eye, the war had knocked them off their pedestal. In their place had risen two rival, continent-spanning superpowers: the United States and the Soviet Union.

The key message here is: The Cold War arose from the ashes of World War Two.

Tension and hostility ran between the US and the Soviet Union both before and during the second World War. As champions of capitalism, the US and its Western European allies viewed the Soviets’ communist ideology as a virus that needed to be contained. To that end, they had subjected the Soviet Union to nearly two decades of economic pressure and diplomatic isolation, starting right from the state’s inception in 1917.

World War Two brought the US, UK, and Soviet Union into an alliance against their common enemy: Nazi Germany. But the relationship between the US and the Soviets was more like a marriage of convenience than a genuine partnership.

The two nations couldn’t even agree on how to fight the war. The Soviet Union wanted the US and UK to open a front against Germany as soon as possible. Pushing back a massive German invasion of their territory, the Soviets were bearing the brunt of the Nazi war machine, and they wanted their allies to provide relief.

But much to the Soviets’ chagrin, the US and UK instead chose to focus first on North Africa and Italy in 1942 and ’43. By the time the US and UK finally invaded German-occupied Normandy in 1944, the Soviets alone were holding back over 80 percent of the Nazis’ military divisions.

Unable to see eye to eye when facing a common foe, the two sides became even more at odds with each other once that enemy was defeated – leaving a power vacuum to fill, a broken world to rebuild, and little agreement on how to proceed.

The Cold War was about to begin.

The US sought a favorable balance of power in Eurasia, a global sphere of influence, and superior military strength.

What would the postwar international order look like?

As the leaders of the US, UK, and Soviet Union met in a series of conferences at the end of World War Two, that was the question they faced.

Both the Soviets and the US agreed that international stability needed to be reestablished. But how? That was the sticking point. Each side envisioned the new world order through the lens of its own history, values, ideology, interests, and objectives. The resulting visions were at cross purposes with each other, leading to more and more conflict as the two superpowers began to pursue them.

So to understand the cause of that conflict, you need to understand where the two sides were coming from and what they wanted to achieve as they entered the postwar era. Let’s start with the US.

Here’s the key message: The US sought a favorable balance of power in Eurasia, a global sphere of influence, and superior military strength.

US strategists took away three main lessons from World War Two.

First, the US needed to prevent any other nation or alliance of nations from dominating Eurasia – particularly the so-called Eurasian heartland spanning the territory between Europe and East Asia. With its combination of abundant natural resources, industrial infrastructure, skilled labor, and military facilities, this region was the most economically and strategically important “prize” in the world. It was the fulcrum on which global power rested.

The Axis powers had seized control over most of it in the early 1940s. To prevent anything like that from happening again, the US and its allies had to maintain a favorable balance of power in the region.

Second, the Japanese attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, had demonstrated that the US could no longer rely on the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans to protect it from enemies abroad. Advancements in military technology had rendered the US vulnerable to long-distance attacks.

In the view of American strategists, the best way to counter this threat was to expand their nation’s sphere of influence by creating a global network of US-controlled air and naval bases. That way, the United States could project its military power around the world and snuff out enemies long before they had a chance to attack US territory.

But to do all that, the US needed to maintain superior military strength; that was the third lesson US strategists learned, and what we’ll look at next.

The US sought to complement its global military power with multilateral economic relationships based on free trade.

To establish and sustain global military dominance after World War Two, American strategists believed the US had to achieve multiple objectives at once.

For starters, it needed to maintain an unrivaled navy and air force, a formidable military presence in the Pacific, and outright supremacy in the Western hemisphere. It also needed to play a leading role in the postwar occupation and reconstruction of the defeated Axis countries – Italy, Germany, and Japan – which it wanted to prevent from becoming adversaries again. Finally, the US needed to preserve its monopoly on the biggest trump card in its arsenal: nuclear weapons – which, at the time, only it possessed.

But in the American strategists’ larger vision of the postwar international order, all that military might was only half of the equation.

The key message is this: The US sought to complement its global military power with multilateral economic relationships based on free trade.

US political and business leaders wanted to eliminate international barriers to trade, investment, and currency conversion so that goods and money could flow freely around the globe. In their view, a more economically “open” world would be a more prosperous, peaceful, and stable world.

The thinking here was that economic barriers led to rivalry and conflict between nations – with World War Two being the ultimate case in point. In contrast, free trade would bring the capitalist nations of the world closer together, create a web of multilateral economic relationships among them, and allow capitalism to flourish, to the benefit of everyone.

That was the idealistic side of the vision – but there was also a more self-interested one. By the end of World War Two, the United States was the leading capitalist nation on Earth, producing half of the world’s products and services. The more those products and services could be traded around the world, the more the US stood to benefit.

US strategists also believed that common prosperity under capitalism would make communism less appealing to the masses of Western Europe and Asia. This, in turn, would keep communist ideology from spreading and potentially fomenting unrest or even revolution, which would destabilize the US-led order.

Because of this, American strategists viewed their economic and military objectives as intertwined. The combination of unrivaled military power and common capitalistic prosperity would shore up the order it was seeking to create, as well as discourage any resistance or threats to it.

The Soviet Union sought to protect itself by keeping Germany weak and creating a buffer zone in Eastern Europe.

Even before World War Two ended, the US was already starting to pursue its vision of the postwar international order.

In late 1944, it struck a series of economic agreements with its allies at the Bretton Woods Conference, which also laid the foundation for establishing the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. By 1946, the US State Department had drafted an extensive list of “essential” sites for US military bases, which included locations in Ecuador, Panama, Peru, Cuba, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Senegal, Liberia, Morocco, Burma, New Zealand, and Fiji.

Most of the world’s major powers were falling in line with the US’s global vision – either voluntarily, as with allies like the UK and France, or involuntarily, as with defeated and occupied enemies like Germany and Japan. There was just one main obstacle remaining: the Soviet Union, which had its own vision.

The key message here is: The Soviet Union sought to protect itself by keeping Germany weak and creating a buffer zone in Eastern Europe.

The Soviet Union suffered huge losses during World War Two. At least 25 million Soviets died – many of them in the Nazi invasion of their territory. During that invasion, the Nazis occupied nine out of 15 Soviet Republics and destroyed 1,700 Soviet cities and towns, 70,000 villages and hamlets, 31,000 factories, and millions of acres of crops.

Just 25 years earlier, the same regions had been invaded during World War One, back when they were part of the Russian Empire. Both times, the invader was Germany. And both times, the invasion route was Poland.

Given this history, Soviet strategists had two main objectives in mind with their vision of the postwar international order in Europe. First, they wanted to keep Germany weak so it could never threaten them again. Second, to prevent any future invasions, they wanted to create a buffer zone around their territory – including Poland in particular, but also the other Eastern European countries surrounding the Soviet Union.

In the end, this pair of objectives led the Soviet Union to install or promote communist regimes in East Germany, Poland, and a number of other Eastern European countries, such as Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary, which became the Soviets’ so-called “satellite states.” It also brought the Soviet vision of the postwar order into conflict with the American vision, giving rise to the Cold War – a story we’ll turn to next.

Disagreement over postwar Germany helped initiate the Cold War in Europe.

What would be done about Germany?

At the end of World War Two, this was the most vexing question facing the US and the Soviet Union. It was also very much a live question in which both nations already had a vested interest. The US and its allies occupied the western half of Germany, while the Soviets occupied the eastern half.

In negotiations near the end of the war, the two sides tried to come to an agreement over how and whether to reunify the two halves. In the end, they agreed to disagree – and the rest was history.

Here’s the key message: Disagreement over postwar Germany helped initiate the Cold War in Europe.

American strategists saw Germany as one of the linchpins of their vision for the postwar international order. That vision depended on the rapid recovery of Western European countries’ shattered economies; without those nations, the US would lack strong military allies and trading partners on the continent. That recovery, in turn, required the economic muscle of a revived, US-aligned Germany, which had the industrial infrastructure, skilled workforce, and technological edge needed to power the economic growth of the rest of Europe.

But the prospect of Germany regaining its strength ran directly counter to the Soviets’ vision of a postwar world in which they didn’t have to worry about the Germans invading them anymore. For their part, American strategists were concerned that unless the US called the shots in the country’s reconstruction, a reunified Germany might eventually gravitate toward the Soviet Union or declare itself a neutral nation. They preferred to keep Germany divided rather than risk such a possibility.

Facing a deadlock, the US and Soviets dug in their heels and became increasingly hostile toward each other – at first over Germany, but soon over Europe at large. Between 1946 and 1949, the US strengthened its economic and military ties to Western Europe through the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, and the implementation of the Marshall Plan – a $13 billion aid package. Meanwhile, the Soviets consolidated their power over Eastern Europe, tightening their political control over their Eastern satellite states, sponsoring a communist coup in Czechoslovakia, and repressing anti-communist resistance in Hungary.

By the end of 1949, East and West Germany were separate countries, with a Soviet-aligned government in the East and a US-aligned government in the West. A so-called “Iron Curtain” had fallen across Europe – dividing the Soviet-led East from the US-led West. The Cold War had begun.

As communist movements rose up around the region, Southeast Asia became another arena of the Cold War.

As the US and Soviet Union watched what was happening in Europe, both sides saw some of their deepest fears coming true.

For the Soviets, a serious threat seemed to be rising from the rubble of West Germany – the more economically powerful half of their former archenemy, which was now rapidly recovering from the war and had the weight of the US and its allies behind it. For the Americans, an equally serious threat seemed to be rising in the East, where it looked as if the Soviets were well on their way to establishing dominance over Eurasia.

Both nations’ postwar objectives appeared to be in jeopardy. That was cause enough for conflict – but it was just one of the two main arenas into which the Cold War would soon spread.

The key message is this: As communist movements rose up around the region, Southeast Asia became another arena of the Cold War.

In late 1949, a long civil war in China finally came to an end, with the triumph of the Chinese communist movement in mainland China. By the end of the year, the Soviet Union and the newly proclaimed People’s Republic of China were allies.

The next year, Soviet-aligned, communist North Korea invaded US-aligned South Korea, with backing from both China and the Soviet Union. Then the Soviet Union and China extended diplomatic recognition to the fledgling communist state of North Vietnam, and China began providing military equipment and training to the North Vietnamese communists, posing a threat to the French-backed and US-supported regime in South Vietnam.

Around this time, communist and anti-colonial uprisings were also spreading to many other parts of Southeast Asia, which had long been colonized by Western European countries, the US, and Japan. The US feared the region would increasingly fall into the orbit of the Soviet Union and China, so it sent economic and military aid to US-aligned regimes in South Vietnam, British Malaya, Burma, Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia. In 1950, the US threw its military into a bloody conflict in Korea, and over the next 25 years, it would get sucked into an even bloodier war in Vietnam.

The details of all these developments are extremely complicated and difficult to hold together as a single narrative. But if you zoom out, you can see a bigger picture that’s easy to understand.

The Cold War was largely fought in and over the so-called “Third World.”

What made Southeast Asia so important to the Soviet Union and the US from the 1950s onward?

Well, by this point, the two sides already viewed each other as enemies, thanks to what had happened in Europe. As the conflict expanded to Asia, each side followed the logic that a setback for their enemy was an opportunity for them.

The US wanted its vision of the postwar order to extend to East Asia – particularly Japan, which relied on Southeast Asia for trading partners. If most of the region turned communist and aligned itself with the Soviet Union and China, this vision would be jeopardized. Japan might even align itself with the communists.

Both sides knew this, which motivated one of them to promote communism and the other to push back against it in the region. But there was also a larger context to this story.

The key message here is: The Cold War was largely fought in and over the so-called “Third World.”

Some of the terms are now considered outdated, but during the Cold War, the US and its allies were called the “First World,” or “the West,” while the Soviet Union and its allies were the “Second World,” or “the East.” The rest of the planet – most of Africa, Asia, and Latin America – was the “Third World.”

Before World War Two, much of the Third World was ruled by Western nations as colonies. After the war, more and more of those colonial governments were being overthrown and replaced by independent nations. As these new nations and movements emerged, they faced a pivotal question: Should they align themselves with the West or the East?

Of course, the US and Soviet Union had their own rather biased opinions on the matter. Throughout the 1950s, ’60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, they made those opinions known in a variety of economic, political, militaristic, and clandestine ways. They sent military trainers, equipment, and funding to the movements and nations they wanted to court. They orchestrated coups and assassinations against the ones they wanted to undermine. Sometimes they even went to war against them, as the US did in Vietnam and the Soviets did in Afghanistan. In fact, almost all of the actual wars that happened during the Cold War took place in the Third World.

To the victors of these conflicts went the spoils: economic resources, military bases, allies, and prestige for the Soviets or Americans, depending on which side won. But it was the people of the Third World who largely paid the price. Of the estimated 20,000,000 human beings who died during Cold War conflicts, 19,800,000 of them lived in the Third World.

The Cold War ended where it began: Europe.

To make a long story short, the rest of the Cold War played out as a series of variations on the themes we’ve already covered. In Southeast Asia and the Third World as a whole, the Soviet Union and the US continued to duke it out with each other indirectly by supporting pro-Soviet or pro-US regimes and movements.

From the 1950s to the ‘80s, the conflict ebbed and flowed, as tensions heated and cooled between the superpowers. Sometimes it boiled over into crises that nearly brought them to the brink of war. In the 1950s and ‘60s alone, flashpoints arose in Iran, Guatemala, Indochina, the Taiwanese Strait, the Suez Canal, Lebanon, Indonesia, Cuba, and the Congo.

Notice how the list doesn’t include a single European nation? What happened to Europe? That brings us to the end of the story.

Here’s the key message: The Cold War ended where it began: Europe.

The initial flashpoint of the Cold War was Europe – particularly Germany. But starting in the 1950s, it became the most stable arena of the conflict. There were a couple of crises centering on Berlin, but otherwise, things were relatively calm, if chilly.

Basically, each side was resigned to letting the other have its sphere of influence in its half of Europe. The two superpowers and their European allies were so heavily armed that any direct conflict would lead to devastating death and destruction for both of them.

That became increasingly true after the Soviets developed nuclear weapons and the two sides entered an arms race in the 1950s and ‘60s. In addition to greatly expanding their conventional military forces, each side built up more and more nuclear missiles to catch up with or stay ahead of the other.

By the end of the 1960s, each of them had thousands of nuclear missiles. If a direct war broke out between them, they’d annihilate each other – a grim prospect that became known as Mutually Assured Destruction.

With this in mind, neither side wanted to risk a direct conflict, and the idea of either side invading the other in Europe became increasingly unthinkable. In the 1980s, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev decided it was pointless to continue pouring resources into defending the Soviet Union against an invasion that would never happen. In 1988, he scaled back the Soviet Union’s armed forces, reduced its military presence in Eastern Europe, and loosened its grip on the region.

Within a year, its former satellite nations began to declare independence, and by 1990, Germany was reunited. The Cold War was over, and the Soviet Union itself collapsed the next year.

Final Summary

The key message in these summaries:

The Cold War began as a conflict between the US and the Soviet Union’s competing visions for a new international order after World War Two. The conflict centered around the two superpowers’ national security concerns and geopolitical ambitions. Beginning in Europe, it soon spread to Southeast Asia and the rest of the world.

About the author

Robert J. McMahon is Professor of History at the University of Florida, and President of the Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations. Among his many acclaimed books are The Cold War on the Periphery: the United States, India, and Pakistan (1994), and The Limits of Empire: the US and Southeast Asia since World War II (1999). He has held visiting professorships in Britain and Ireland as well as in Asia and around the US. He received the Bernath article prize from SHAFR in 1989 and the Bernath lectureship in 1991.

Robert J. McMahon is the Ralph D. Mershon Professor of History Emeritus at Ohio State University. The author of several books on U.S. foreign relations, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War, he previously taught at the University of Florida and has held visiting professorships at Williams College, the University of Virginia, University College Dublin, and the Free University (Berlin). McMahon served as president of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations in 2001.

Table of Contents

Preface viii
List of illustrations x
List of maps xii
1 World War II and the destruction of the old order 1
2 The origins of the Cold War in Europe, 1945–50 16
3 Towards ‘Hot War’ in Asia, 1945–50 35
4 A global Cold War, 1950–8 56
5 From confrontation to detente, 1958–68 78
6 Cold wars at home 105
7 The rise and fall of superpower detente, 1968–79 122
8 The final phase, 1980–90 143
Further reading 169
Index 175


Very Short Introductions: Brilliant, Sharp, Inspiring

The Cold War dominated international life from the end of World War II to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. But how did the conflict begin? Why did it move from its initial origins in Postwar Europe to encompass virtually every corner of the globe? And why, after lasting so long, did the war end
so suddenly and unexpectedly? Robert McMahon considers these questions and more, as well as looking at the legacy of the Cold War and its impact on international relations today.

The Cold War: A Very Short Introduction is a truly international history, not just of the Soviet-American struggle at its heart, but also of the waves of decolonization, revolutionary nationalism, and state formation that swept the non-Western world in the wake of World War II. McMahon places the
‘Hot Wars’ that cost millions of lives in Korea, Vietnam, and elsewhere within the larger framework of global superpower competition. He shows how the United States and the Soviet Union both became empires over the course of the Cold War, and argues that perceived security needs and fears shaped U.S. and Soviet decisions from the beginning–far more, in fact, than did their economic and territorial ambitions. He unpacks how these needs and fears were conditioned by the divergent cultures, ideologies, and historical experiences of the two principal contestants and their allies. Covering the
years 1945-1990, this second edition uses recent scholarship and newly available documents to offer a fuller analysis of the Vietnam War, the changing global politics of the 1970s, and the end of the Cold War.

ABOUT THE SERIES: The Very Short Introductions series from Oxford University Press contains hundreds of titles in almost every subject area. These pocket-sized books are the perfect way to get ahead in a new subject quickly. Our expert authors combine facts, analysis, perspective, new ideas, and
enthusiasm to make interesting and challenging topics highly readable.

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“A riveting read that brings order to complexity. McMahon is a brilliant guide to the major events of the Cold War and has a gift for clear-headed analysis of the controversies that swirl around it.” – Professor Barbara Keys, Durham University

“In concise and compelling prose, Robert McMahon offers critical insights about the truly global dimensions and profound legacies of the Cold War.” – Dr. Wen-Qing Ngoei, author of Arc of Containment

“Robert McMahon’s The Cold War: A Very Short Introduction is an extraordinary work of both concision and analysis. It incorporates the most up-to-date scholarship in the field, while giving students and excellent overview of this crucial period in international history. The book is truly unique in
its short length and clear and concise summary of the main issues of the Cold War, while written with grace and subtlety. A masterful achievement!” – Professor Thomas Schwartz, Vanderbilt University

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