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The Cold War Chronology

Get your head around some important dates and events that took place during the war

1945-53 – The Outbreak

February 1945 – Yalta Conference

July-August 1945 – Potsdam Conference

August 1945 – Dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki

February 1946 – The Fulton Speech

March 1947 – The Truman Doctrine is announced

June 1947 – Marshall Aid begins

June 1948 – June 1949 – Berlin Blockade

April 1949 – NATO is formed

1949 – The Soviet Union tests their first atomic bomb

October 1949 – The People’s Republic of China is announced

June 1950 – Korean War breaks out

March 1953 – Stalin dies

July 1953 – Korean War armistice

1954-1960 – The Thaw

By the mid-1950s, there was the potential for co-operation between the Soviets and Americans. Stalin’s successors promoted a policy of ‘peaceful-coexistence’ and Eisenhower’s pragmatism caused him to reduce military spending. In both Europe and Korea, there was an uneasy acceptance of the other side’s sphere of influence and a reluctance to engage in direct fighting. This era has therefore been seen as a thaw in Cold War tension. However, the conflict was far from over; nuclear arms production spiralled and the potential for violent crises remained. America’s increasing belief in the Domino Theory led to escalated involvement in Vietnam and action to protect the status of Taiwan. In Eastern Europe, Khrushchev reacted violently to any attempt to break from Soviet control.

Key dates include:

June 1954 – The Geneva Accords

August 1954 – First Taiwanese Straits Crisis

May 1955 – The Warsaw Pact

July 1955 – The Geneva Summit

February 1956 – Khrushchev’s Secret Speech

October 1956 – Uprisings in Poland and Hungary

August 1958 – Second Taiwanese Straits Crisis

May 1960 – A U2 spy plane is shot down over Russia

1961-1968 – Height of Tension

During the 1960s, Cold War, tensions were high, with intelligence gathered through espionage fuelling fears of nuclear war. The world came closest to this during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the use of atomic weapons was only narrowly avoided by tense negotiation between Kennedy and Khrushchev. The latter had already provoked tension by building the Berlin Wall, which became a symbol of the Cold War divide. This decade also saw the deployment of US troops against communist forces in Vietnam and the Soviets using force to maintain control over Czechoslovakia. Newly independent third world nations were drawn into the ideological conflict between capitalism and communism and there were barely any diplomatic meetings between the superpowers.

Key dates include:

April 1961- Bay of Pigs invasion

April 1961 – Soviet Yuri Gagarin becomes the first man in space

August 1961 – Berlin Wall is built

October 1962 – Cuban Missile Crisis

November 1963- Assassination of John Kennedy

October 1964 – Khrushchev is replaced by Leonid Brezhnev as leader of the USSR

July 1965 – US ground troops deployed in Vietnam

January 1968 – Prague Spring

1969-1978 – Détente

The 1970s saw a renewed optimism about the superpowers’ potential to co-exist peacefully. For the first time since 1945, talks between the two sides produced tangible outcomes in both the SALT I agreement and the Helsinki Accords. The fear of nuclear war and Soviet isolation following the Sino-Soviet split made it logical to limit arms development and begin negotiations. America also finally withdrew from Vietnam, despite a fierce escalation in bombing after Nixon’s election. Relations were improved, but not always harmonious, however. The Americans were increasingly critical of human rights abuses within the Soviet sphere and American agreement, with China caused genuine fear within the USSR.

Key dates include:

February 1972 – Nixon visits China

May 1972 – SALT I is signed

June 1972 – SALT II negotiations begin

August 1973 – The Paris Peace Accords are signed

August 1974 – Nixon resigns over the Watergate scandal

August 1975 –

The Helsinki Accords are signed

1979-1984 – The New Cold War

The détente of the 1970s was severely undermined by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and neo-Conservatives in the US gained popularity by recommending less compromise with communist enemies. Ex-Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan responded to this by embarking on ‘Star Wars’, an ambitious space satellite programme that reignited the nuclear arms race. Both superpowers stepped up their involvement in the Third World to ensure friendly governments who shared their ideological beliefs and the Soviet Union’s economy increasingly struggled under the weight of the Cold War conflict. Meanwhile in Poland, the trade unionist group Solidarity was beginning to challenge communist control.

Key dates include:

December 1979 – Soviet invasion of Afghanistan

August 1980 – Solidarity is formed

December 1981 – Martial law is introduced in Poland

February 1982 – Reagan announces the Caribbean Basin Initiative

March 1983 – Reagan announces his Strategic Defence Initiative

September 1983 – Soviet fighters shoot down a Korean passenger plane

1985- 1990 – The Ending

It would have been hard for anyone to predict the speed at which the Cold War came to an end in the 1980s. A combination of pressure from the US, the rising tide of protest across Eastern Europe and the failure of the Soviet economy all caused Mikhail Gorbachev to accept that the communist sphere of influence could no longer be maintained by force. He was also willing to engage in nuclear reduction talks with Ronald Reagan, resulting in the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. When Polish efforts to gain democracy spread to surrounding countries and the Berlin Wall was torn down, the Soviets took no action. This was quickly followed by the reunification of Germany; the source of much Cold War conflict and division was now removed and the collapse of Soviet power in Europe was followed by the internal collapse of the USSR itself.

Key dates include:

March 1985 – Mikhail Gorbachev becomes leader of the Soviet Union

December 1987 – The INF Treaty is signed

May 1988 – The Soviets begin withdrawing from Afghanistan

August 1989 – A non-communist president is elected in Poland

November 1989 – The Berlin Wall is torn down

December 1989 – The Malta Summit

October 1990 – Germany is reunified

December 1991 - The USSR ceases to exist