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Cold War: Origin, Causes and Phases- NCERT Notes UPSC

Apr 11, 2022

Cold War: Origin, Causes and Phases

The Cold War referred to the competition, the tensions and a series of confrontations between the United States and the Soviet Union, backed by their respective allies. 

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The Cold War along with power rivalries, military alliances, and balance of power was accompanied by a real ideological conflict, a difference over the best and the most appropriate way of organizing political, economic, and social life all over the world. 

The western alliance, headed by the US, represented the ideology of liberal democracy and capitalism while the eastern alliance, headed by the Soviet Union, was committed to the ideology of socialism and communism.

The end of the Second World War was a major landmark in contemporary world politics, amongst other outcomes it set the stage for the beginning of the Cold War. 

End of the Second World War

  • The war had involved almost all the major powers of the world and spread out to regions outside Europe including Southeast Asia, China, Burma (now Myanmar) and parts of India’s northeast. 
  • The world war ended when the United States dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, causing Japan to surrender.
  • In 1945, the Allied Forces, led by the US, Soviet Union, Britain, and France declared victory over the Axis Powers led by Germany, Italy and Japan, ending the Second World War (1939- 1945). 
  • Some opinions say that the US decision to drop atomic bombs was in fact a strategy to show the Soviet Union that US was the supreme power and stop it from making gains in Asia and elsewhere.
  • However, others have argued that supporters have argued that it was necessary to stop further loss of lives and end the war quickly.

Results after end of the Second World War

  • The consequence of the end of the Second World War was the rise of two new powers on the global stage. With the defeat of Germany and Japan, the devastation of Europe and in many other parts of the world, the United States and the Soviet Union became the greatest powers in the world with the ability to influence events anywhere on earth. 
  • Concept of deterrence: Destruction caused by the use of atom bombs is too costly for any country to bear. When two rival powers are in possession of nuclear weapons capable of inflicting death and destruction unacceptable to each other, a full-fledged war is unlikely. 
    • In this sense, the concept of deterrence was also a reason of a Cold War instead of a full-fledged war. 
    • The Cold War - despite being an intense form of rivalry between great powers - remained a ‘cold’ and not hot or shooting war. 
    • The deterrence relationship prevents war but not the rivalry between powers.

The Emergence of Two Power Blocs

After the second world war two world power blocs, led by the US and the USSR arose.  

Concept of Power Blocs

  • The two superpowers (US and USSR) were keen on expanding their spheres of influence in different parts of the world. 
  • They came out with the alliance system, under which a state was supposed to remain tied to its protective superpower to limit the influence of the other superpower and its allies in the surrounding regions.  
  • The smaller states got the promise of protection, weapons, and economic aid against their local rivals, mostly regional neighbors with whom they had rivalries. 
  • The alliance systems led by the two superpowers threatened to divide the entire world into two camps. This division happened first in Europe. 
  • Most countries of western Europe sided with the US and those of eastern Europe joined the Soviet camp. That is why these were also called the ‘western’ and the ‘eastern’ alliances.
Map showing the way Europe was divided into rival alliances during the Cold War

Map showing the way Europe was divided into rival alliances during the Cold War

Reasons for Establishment of Alliance System 

  • Material Reasons: Superpowers could gain access to vital resources, such as oil and minerals, territory to establish military establishments, economic support, in that many small allies together could help pay for military expenses. 
  • Ideological Reasons: The subscription of allies, to a particular ideology of either communism or capitalism, proved that a particular ideology was superior and hence the superpower was winning. 


  • Formation of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO): The western alliance was formalized into an organization, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), established in April 1949
    • NATO was an association of twelve states which declared that armed attack on any one of them in Europe or North America would be regarded as an attack on all of them. 
  • Warsaw Pact: The eastern alliance, came to be known as the Warsaw Pact, established in 1955. 
    • Its principal function was to counter NATO’s forces in Europe. 
    • Europe became the main arena of conflict between the superpowers
  • In East and Southeast Asia and in West Asia (Middle East), the United States built an alliance system called, Southeast Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO) and the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO)
  • The Soviet Union and communist China responded by having close relations with regional countries such as North Vietnam, North Korea and Iraq. 

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Resistance to the Alliance System

  • The Cold War threatened to divide the world into two alliances. Under these circumstances, many of the newly independent countries, were worried that they would lose their freedom. 
  • Communist China quarreled with the USSR towards the late 1950s, and, in 1969, they fought a brief war over a territorial dispute. 
  • Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) also emerged as a new organization which gave the newly independent countries a way of staying out of the alliances. 

Benefits of smaller states for Superpowers

the smaller states were helpful for the superpowers in gaining access to: 

  • vital resources, such as oil and minerals, 
  • territory, from where the superpowers could launch their weapons and troops,
  • locations from where they could spy on each other 
  • economic support, in that many small allies together could help pay for military expenses.
  • They were also important for ideological reasons. The loyalty of allies suggested that the superpowers were winning the war of ideas as well, that liberal democracy and capitalism were better than socialism and communism, or vice versa.

Arenas of the Cold War

Arenas refer to the areas where crisis and war occurred or threatened to occur between the alliance systems but did not cross certain limits. Certain such instances include:

  • Confrontations happened in Korea (1950 - 53), Berlin (1958 - 62), the Congo (the early 1960s), Vietnam and Afghanistan
  • Many lives were lost in these arenas however it did not lead to a full-scale nuclear war. 

Impacts of these crises

  • Mutual suspicions led the alliances to arm themselves to constantly prepare for war. 
  • Huge stocks of arms were considered necessary to prevent wars from taking place. 
  • The two sides understood that war might occur in spite of restraint. 

Efforts at reducing Cold War crises

  • Non-aligned countries played a role in reducing Cold War conflicts and averting some grave crises. 
    • Jawaharlal Nehru — one of the key leaders of the NAM — played a crucial role in mediating between the two Koreas. 
  • In the Congo crisis, the UN Secretary-General played a key mediatory role. 
  • Most importantly, it was the realization on the part of the superpowers, that maximum restraint should be followed in International Affairs and war to be avoided as far as possible. 

Realization about Arms Control

  • Since the Cold War did not eliminate rivalries between the two alliances, for the time being therefore, the US and USSR decided to collaborate in limiting or eliminating certain kinds of nuclear and non-nuclear weapons. 
  • Thus, a system of ‘arms control’ was to be established. 
  • Starting in the 1960s, the two sides signed three significant agreements within a decade. These were: 
  • Limited Test Ban Treaty
  • Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
  • Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty
Realization about Arms Control

Arms Control Activities

  • Thereafter, the superpowers held several rounds of arms limitation talks and signed several more treaties to limit their arms.
Cuban Missile Crisis: 
In April 1961, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was worried that the United States of America (USA) would invade communist-ruled Cuba and overthrow Fidel Castro, the president of the nation. 
Cuba was an ally of the Soviet Union.
Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union, decided to convert Cuba into a Russian base. 
In 1962, Khrushchev placed nuclear missiles in Cuba. The installations could be used to target the US at their home.  The US became aware of it and wanted to counter it.
The US President, John F. Kennedy, and his advisers were reluctant to do anything that might lead to full-scale nuclear war between the two countries.
Kennedy ordered American warships to intercept any Soviet ships heading to Cuba as a way of warning the USSR of his seriousness. This came to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis
The prospects of this clash made the whole world nervous due to the confrontation between two nuclear armed superpowers and the destructive capabilities with them.

The Cold War Timeline

Challenge to Bipolarity (NAM)

Bipolarity is a term used to describe the system of world order during Cold War, where Global Influence was spread between two states of US and USSR. 

  • Non-Alignment, came as an alternative structure and provided newly decolonized counties an alternative, of not joining any power bloc.

This, came in the form of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM)

  • The roots of NAM went back to the friendship between three leaders Yugoslavia’s Josip Broz Tito, India’s Jawaharlal Nehru, and Egypt’s leader Gamal Abdel Nasser supported by Indonesia’s Sukarno and Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah
  • These five leaders came to be known as the five founders of NAM. 

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Evolution of NAM

  • Three major factors contributed to the formation of NAM:
  • Cooperation among these five countries.
  • Growing Cold War tensions and its widening arenas
  • The dramatic entry of many newly decolonized African countries into the international arena. 
  • The first non-aligned summit was held in Belgrade in 1961, which led to its formal establishment (attended by 25 member states). Over the years, the membership of NAM has expanded. 
  • As non-alignment grew into a popular international movement, countries of various different political systems and interests joined it. 
  • The latest meeting, the 18th summit, was held in Azerbaijan in 2019. It included 120 member states and 17 observer countries. 

Purpose of NAM

  • Due to the membership of varied political systems, the movement became less homogeneous and it became more difficult to define that what exactly NAM stood for. 
  • NAM was easier to define in terms of what it was not. It was not about being a member of an alliance. 
  • Non-Alignment is not isolationism since isolationism means remaining aloof from world affairs. 
    • In comparison, the non-aligned countries, including India, played an active role in mediating between the two rival alliances in the cause of peace and stability. 
  • Non-alignment is also not neutrality which refers principally to a policy of staying out of war. 
    • States practicing neutrality are not required to help end a war. They do not get involved in wars and do not take any position on the appropriateness or morality of a war. 
  • They also worked to prevent war between others and tried to end wars that had broken out.

New International Economic Order

  • A majority of Non-Aligned countries were categorized as the Least Developed Countries (LDCs). 
  • Economic development was also vital for the independence of the new countries. 
  • To remain free of influence in true sense, a country needs to be economically developed. 
  • This realization led to the idea of a New International Economic Order (NIEO).  
  • Linked to this idea, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) brought out a report in 1972 entitled Towards a New Trade Policy for Development. 
  • The report proposed a reform of the global trading system so as to: 
  • Give the LDCs control over their natural resources exploited by the developed Western countries
  • Obtain access to Western markets so that the LDCs could sell their products and, therefore, make trade more beneficial for the poorer countries. 
  • Reduce the cost of technology from the Western countries.
  • Provide the LDCs with a greater role in international economic institutions. 

Gradually, NAM started giving more importance to economic issues and slowly became an economic pressure group. Although, by 1980s NIEO faded due to opposition from developed countries. 

India in NAM during the Cold War

India’s response to Cold War was two-fold: 

  • Staying away from the two alliances. 
  • Raising voice against the newly decolonized countries becoming part of these alliances. 

Also, as a leader of NAM, India’s policy was not that of fleeing away from world affairs but involved active participation in world affairs to ease out the rivalries. India played an active role, in preventing differences to rise to a full-scale war. India also tried to involve other international organizations, which were not part of the alliance system to partner in this pursuit.   

Positive impacts of NAM on India

  • India could take a stand on global issues based on its own interests. 
  • India could tilt the balance in favor of one superpower if neglected by the other. Hence it could not be bullied easily

Criticism of India’s NAM Policy 

  • India’s policy was unprincipled that is in the name of national interest, India did not speak upon some crucial international issues. 
  • India’s policy was inconsistent, while criticizing others for joining alliances, India itself signed a Treaty of Friendship in August 1971 with the USSR for 20 years. 
  • Government of India however holds that India needed diplomatic and possibly military support during the Bangladesh crisis and hence signed the treaty. 

With time and circumstances NAM has lost some of its’ earlier relevance, however apart from being a movement it was based upon the core ideas that small nations could become powerful if united and democratization of international order to bridge inequalities. 

Read more: Contribution of Tribal Movement in Freedom Struggle UPSC

Interesting Points

A brief about the founding fathers of NAM: 

  • Josip Broz Tito (1892-1980): Fought against Germany in World War II; communist; maintained some distance from the Soviet Union; forged unity in Yugoslavia.
  • Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964): First Prime Minister of India (1947-64); made efforts for Asian unity, decolonization, nuclear disarmament; advocated peaceful coexistence for securing world peace. 
  • Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-70): Ruled Egypt from 1952 to 1970; espoused the causes of Arab nationalism, socialism and anti-imperialism; nationalized the Suez Canal, leading to an international conflict in 1956.
  • Sukarno (1901-70): First President of Indonesia (1945- 65); led the freedom struggle; espoused the causes of socialism and anti-imperialism; organised the Bandung Conference; overthrown in a military coup
  • Kwame Nkrumah (1909-72): First Prime Minister of Ghana (1952- 66); led the freedom movement; advocated the causes of socialism and African unity; opposed neocolonialism; removed in a military coup.
  • ‘Fat Man’ and ‘Little Boy’: bombs dropped by the US on Hiroshima (the bomb was codenamed ‘Little Boy’) and Nagasaki (code-named ‘Fat Man’). The yield of Little Boy and Fat Man were 15 and 21 kilotons respectively. 
  • Division of Countries:
 First, second and Third world Countries

First, second and Third world Countries

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