The tensions of the Cold War caused governments in the USA and the USSR—and, often but now always, in their respective allies—to view events in the world entirely through the filters of communism vs. capitalism and totalitarian control vs. freedom. Even internally, the two governments responded to their citizens based upon the rhetoric of Cold War opposition.
Since their governments were totalitarian, the USSR and its allies could be expected to shut down opposition. Citizens were watched, jailed, put on trial, imprisoned, and even executed for speaking against the government and its actions. The Soviet Union sent soldiers and military equipment into Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968) to quell opposition and stifle revolutions. The USA warned that it would not tolerate similar interference with the people of Poland when they resisted their government in 1980; still, the Polish armed forces grew suddenly with soldiers who spoke no Polish and wore hastily-made uniforms, using military equipment recently repainted to obscure the identification marks of the USSR.
Communist leanings had been socially acceptable in the United States in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. Those same leanings, or a history of such, were no longer tolerated in the 1950s. Government workers, entertainment figures, and other citizens were questioned by Congress about their sympathies toward Communism. Some lives and careers were unfairly maligned by these hearings, but a few traitors were also detected. Government officials (notably, J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI) continued to suspect Communist influence in mass movements of the 1960s, including Civil Rights demonstrations and anti-war protests. For the most part, though, freedom prevailed in the United States. Progress was made in the area of human rights, and government officials continued to respond to the feelings and opinions of American citizens. An air of mutual suspicion continued, however, and its effects are felt down to the present.
In Europe, the allies of the USA reduced their military capacities, having endured the horrors of two World Wars in the twentieth century. Sheltered under the umbrella of NATO, they trusted the Americans to stand up to the Soviets and prevent a military take-over of western Europe. Reduction in military spending allowed western European governments to experiment with non-Marxist forms of socialism, with varying results. These governments also sought greater economic power in the world by combining their resources. Beginning with the economic alliance of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg (which was named “Benelux”), the alliance gained more members and became the European Common Market. Assets of the Common Market were greatly strengthened when the United Kingdom joined in 1972. These countries were prepared for an even stronger economic union when the Cold War ended and several nations leaving the Warsaw Pact sought a place in the Common Market. This delayed the implementation of Union for a few years.
A major turning point occurred when the government of Egypt seized the Suez Canal in 1956. Britain and France wanted to intervene militarily to keep European control of the Canal, but the United States demurred, seeing an opportunity to gain friends in the so-called “Third World.” As a result, Britain and France became less involved in other events outside of Europe, which is why the Korean War saw an international alliance battle communism in eastern Asia, but the United States was left on its own to battle communism a decade later in Vietnam.
The label “Third World” was coined in the nineteenth century after the colonies of the western hemisphere—the “New World”—became independent. Colonialism continued in Asia, Africa, and the Pacific, and those colonies were called the Third World. During the Cold War, Latin America was added to the perceived Third World, as it became a description of those places where agents of the USA and the USSR openly competed for political control. In Latin America, hostility toward the United States had been growing ever since Napoleon III attempted to establish an empire in Mexico. Occasional military intervention by the United States and major economic control of the region prompted resistance. Communist movements existed in nearly every country of Latin America, where most governments still belonged to caudillos, the wealthy (and generally white-skinned) elite. Fidel Castro led one of the few successful overthrows of an American ally in Latin America during the Cold War, and Cold War tensions involving Cuba brought great trauma to the United States. American foreign policy in the Third World assumed that “the enemy of my friend is my enemy.” Therefore, if a dictator professed allegiance to the United States and its values, the United States supported that dictator against any danger of rebellion.
This same principle was followed in Africa. Following the Second World War, European governments granted independence to their African colonies. The same borders drawn by European governments to establish their colonies were used to designate the borders of the new countries, meaning that many tribes were split among more than one country, and many countries contained portions of tribes who had battled one another for generations. Violence in Africa continued beyond the Cold War and still exists today. But during the Cold War, the United States always responded to violence in Africa in light of professed Cold War loyalties. Even in South Africa, the United States supported a government opposed to civil rights while it spoke about civil rights in Communist countries and even offered increased civil rights to minorities in the USA.
Since the end of the Cold War, democratic governments have been given greater opportunity to arise and thrive in Africa. Tribal rivalries remain a problem, and dictators still tend to seize power over African nations. The biggest tension in Africa today, though, is between Christian and Muslim populations. This difference, fueled by tribal differences, remains a source of conflict among Africans in the twenty-first century.
Still to come: the Cold War in Asia. J.