Beginning after World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union competed with each other for international influence and allies in the Cold War. Both countries attempted to gain international power by influencing other governments in their favor, often with military or economic aid.
The Cold War was characterized by mutual distrust, suspicion, and misunderstandings between the two sides. These conditions led to occasional confrontations. For example, the two sides supplied military aid to opposing forces in the Korean War. Another confrontation came in 1962, when the United States learned that the Soviet Union had secretly installed missile stations in Cuba that could launch nuclear attacks on U.S. cities. After a week of extreme international tension, the Soviet Union agreed to United States demands that the missiles be removed.
Alarmed by Communist expansion in Eastern Europe and in China, the United States and its allies began giving military and economic aid to non-Communist countries. They also pledged to help nations threatened by Communist take-overs. In 1949, Western nations formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). This alliance provided its members with mutual defense against a possible attack by the Soviet Union or any other aggressor. In 1955, the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies signed the Warsaw Pact, a treaty to provide for their common defense. The signers claimed they drew up the pact in response to the creation of NATO. Each side invested in a massive arms race, a competition to acquire nuclear weapons and other arms.
In the 1950’s, fear of Communism in the United States led to widespread accusations and investigations of suspected Communist activities. This pursuit of Communists came to be called McCarthyism, after Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, a Wisconsin Republican. McCarthy charged that many individuals were Communists or Communist sympathizers, usually with little evidence to support his charges. Nevertheless, many people lost their jobs or suffered lasting career damage as a result of such accusations.
By the late 1970’s, Communism was in crisis in many parts of the world. The population of Communist China had almost doubled under Mao Zedong, and the Chinese government was barely able to provide adequate food for its people. Dissatisfaction with Communism in the Soviet-controlled countries of Eastern Europe was growing stronger.
The Soviet Union was confronted with serious economic problems, a dissatisfied middle class, and disappointment with the Communist political system among key members of the political elite. Hostility among the country’s numerous ethnic groups had smoldered for years. Many non-Russians resented the power of ethnic Russians and began to demand more control over their own affairs. In addition, corruption was growing among members of the Communist Party bureaucracy. In Western Europe, Communist parties faced declining electoral support by the late 1970’s.
By the late 1980’s, most Communist countries had experienced long periods of little or no economic growth. Centralized planning proved to be inefficient, and it hindered the development of new technologies. As a result, most Communist countries could not compete economically with Japan and the industrial powers of the West.