The Cold War Was Hot When It Was Young
By Adam Stengel
(AP/IB History, English Literature, English Language, History at The Edge Learning Center)
If you’re an IB History student studying the “Cold War: Superpower tensions and rivalries” for a World History Paper 2 topic, you’ll need to know a lot about the geopolitical awkwardness of superpowers that green-lit arms races, shape-shifted culture, catalyzed countless proxy conflicts, and dominated foreign policies from right after WWII until David Hasselfhoff, rocking a light-up jacket and a piano-key scarf, brought peace and freedom to the world forever and ever.
An important subtopic related to the Cold War, one that’s almost guaranteed to pop up as an essay option on the Paper 2, pertains to the various crises—some more obscure than others—that emerged during the conflict’s teenaged fever years (mid 1950s to early 1960s). Typical prompts will want you to compare the causes and/or outcomes (both global and local) of TWO of these crises, each chosen from a different region. Some examples, such as the Vietnam and Korean wars and the Sino-Soviet Split, are prolonged and complicated historical events that warrant blog posts unto themselves. Others, however, are relatively condensed and accountable. Below I will present the causes and ramifications of three of these early Cold War crises, emphasizing the local details, the superpowers’ employment of brinkmanship that pushed matters to their edges, as well as the notions of M.A.D. and peaceful coexistence that saved the day.
Crisis #1: The Suez Crisis
Where? Egypt (Middle East/Africa Region)
Why? Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal
- Gamal Abdel Nasser, a man who rose from obscurity to the rank of colonel in the Egyptian army, became president of Egypt in June of 1956. He had helped bring down old King Farouk in a nonviolent coup back in 1952, and he emerged as a staunch Arab nationalist. He wanted to modernize Egypt while providing some newfound social welfare to its people. His main two foreign policies: anti-colonialism and anti-Israel.
- Despite signing a treaty promising to bounce, the mid 1950s the British still kept a military presence in Egypt (a nation which had been a former British colony). In Nasser’s view, the reason for Britain’s colonial lingering was the Suez Canal. Nasser felt that nationalizing the canal—and thus the maritime route that connected the Nile to the Mediterranean—could provide Egypt with both economic and political boosts.
- In order to take greater control of the Nile, Nasser and his admin felt that they needed to construct a modern dam at Aswan. Originally the U.S. planned to significantly help fund the project, along with Britain, hoping this could mend Egypt’s relations with Israel. All that money being thrown at him made Nasser realize how valuable he was to the West, though he did NOT feel the need to pick a side in the East-West Cold War alignment.
- The Soviets started offering Egypt funding, and Nasser flirted back. Moreover, he decided to recognize the PRC as China, which was a direct affront to the pro-Taiwanese US. Overall, what we see is Nasser refusing to conform to the Cold War dichotomy—for him, the only concern was Egypt and the Arab world.
- Once the Suez Canal had been nationalized, an enraged Britain looked to France for assistance, as the French government also happened to be shareholders of the canal. The two European nations then cliqued up with Israel—a state Nasser publically expressed wanting to destroy—in an aggressive attempt to regain the canal. On October 26, 1956, Israeli troops, aided by France and Britain, entered the Sinai Peninsula, that notoriously disputed territory.
- Though the three combatants assumed that, in the face of a Middle East oil embargo, the US would back them up with Texas Tea, but the Eisenhower administration, as anti-imperialists, refused. The issue went to the UN—which already had its hands full with the Hungarian Uprising—and it proposed that Britain, France, and Israel should retreat. The UN sent their own forces to stabilize the region.
- Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev—much more on this dude to follow—didn’t trust the US, and thought they were aiding their European allies on the down low. Moreover, he threated the Sinai aggressors with nuclear retaliation, which only escalated things.
- Eisenhower condemned Khrushchev’s threats, but he also threatened Britain, France, and Israel with severe economic sanctions if they continued to occupy the Sinai.
- Facing economic pressure from the US, the British immediately withdrew their troops on November 7. Soon after, the French followed suit, then the Israelis, a bit more stubborn than their European counterparts, at last withdrew in March of 1957, and only after the UN sent an emergency peacekeeping force. As a matter of face, those UN forces happened to be history’s first Blue Helmets.
- Unlike other proxy conflicts, this Cold War crisis demonstrated the US and Soviet’s shared value (anti-imperialism) in siding with Nasser and Egypt—although the Eisenhower administration didn’t take to kindly to Khrushchev threatening Britain and France with weapons of mass destruction.
- When the Suez Crisis arrived, the UN sadly lost interest in Hungary, and thus nobody intervened on behalf the Hungarian people. It could be argued that this cold shoulder, in the long run, really hurt Eastern Europe.
- Poor Britain and France were forced to recognize that their international dominance was receding. Thus, in the emerging Cold War era, only two nations (the US and USSR) sat atop the global hierarchy.
- Though its nuclear bluff was condemned, the fact that their threat was taken so seriously by all nations involved meant that the Soviets had arrived in the nuclear era. Their interests in this region would continue throughout the Cold War.
- Though this incident would be the last time in the 20th Century that the US took action against Israel, the Eisenhower Doctrine was established to combat communism in the region.
Crisis #2: The Berlin Crisis
Where? Berlin, Germany (Europe)
Why? Tensions escalated regarding the status of Berlin
- At Potsdam, the Big Three had agreed on a convoluted four-way (Britain-France-United States democratic West Berlin/Soviet communist East Berlin) joint governance of Berlin, making the city a separate entity from both West and East Germany. Logistic access to the city, however, was never hashed out. This matter was especially complicated considering Berlin existed as a half capitalist oasis in the middle of a communist desert.
- Before the Wall, Berlin was open, which meant West Berliners and Easter Berliners were free to travel across the city. The effect was a drain of skilled workers in the East, who fled west for better wages and a more stable society. Furthermore, West Berliners could cross to the East and buy up all the cheap stuff with their superior wages, creating a scarcity of goods for East Berliners.
- Though a reunified Germany was, due to Cold War circumstances, impossible, Khrushchev sought the formal recognition of two German States and the establishment of Berlin as a free city.
- On November 10, 1958 Khrushchev game a speech seeking for the end of the four-way occupation of Berlin. On November 27 he sent not to Britain, France, and the US proposing a peace treaty that would set up Berlin as a free city. The allies, however, weren’t buying it.
- On January 10, 1959 Khrushchev got nervy and sent a draft of said treaty. He also threatened a Soviet withdrawal from its part of the city, which would mean that the allies would have to negotiate with the hostile East German regime to fully access Berlin. The US knew that another airlift wouldn’t work and felt that Khrushchev really wanted to integrate Berlin into East Germany.
- The Soviets felt a lack of a treaty with Germany was a threat to their own security. Also, they found a strong West Germany as a threat, while the West German Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, who was strongly supported by France, rejected the Soviet notion of peaceful coexistence.
- By 1961, with no treaty signed, 2.7 million folks had left East Berlin—with 30,000 on the fly in July alone! On the evenings of August 12 and 13, with backing from Moscow, the East Germans erected a wall separating the eastern and western parts of the city.
- Obviously the construction of a barbed wire barrier dividing Berlin caused some immediate tension. East German officers (based on Soviet suggestions) had ordered to shoot anybody trying to climb over the wall. The social and physical geography of Germany’s once-and-future capitol was dramatically altered, literally overnight.
- On October 27 and 28, for about sixteen hours, US and Soviet tanks squared off with each other at Checkpoint Charlie, an instance of brinkmanship that nearly resulted in a Wild West-style shootout.
- The Berlin Crisis almost destroyed Western alliances, as West Germany felt neglected by the United States, France too felt unloved, and Britain’s input was pretty much ignored.
- The wall’s construction highlighted the weaknesses of the Soviets, as what they really wanted was a peace treaty—and they couldn’t get it. Thenceforward, the USSR switched its global schemes to wars of liberation in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
- The event served as foreshadowing for things to come: the Soviets, under Khrushchev, huffing and puffing, then backing down at the last minute. This is the course brinkmanship would take during the 1960s.
Crisis #3: The Cuban Missile Crisis
Where? Cuba (North America)
Why? Soviets put missiles in Cuba, the US freaked out
- Communist and global beard icon Fidel Castro took control of Cuba after the Caribbean nation’s 1959 revolution. Initially, it’s important to understand, he didn’t see himself as an active player in the escalating Cold War. However, he did want to rid Cuba of the United States’ neo-imperial dominance. His social and economic programs were monetarily draining his government, so he accepted Soviet oil at a cut price. US petroleum companies on the island refused to refine Russian oil, so Castro went and nationalized the refineries. Oh snap!
- More nationalizing followed, and a disgruntled Eisenhower decided to OK a sinister CIA plan: Cuban exiles, backed by the US Air Force, would launch an invasion of Cuba for the purpose of destabilizing and overthrowing Castro’s regime—AKA the Bay of Pigs Invasion.
- This mission was kept in the can until Kennedy replaced Eisenhower and, always wanting to appear tough on communism, JFK finally OKed the invasion, which took place April 17-19 1961 and ended up being a total disaster. 200 of the Cuban exiles involved were killed and the rest (over 1,000) were captures. Ridiculously, at the last minute, the US did not end up providing Air Force support.
- Even though he came out on top, Castro was shaken by the invasion, and he turned to the Soviets for help. Khrushchev saw a strategic military opportunity in the form of this Cuban olive branch. The US had missiles sights all over Europe and, more importantly, at bases in Turkey, not too far at all from Moscow. Given Cuba’s close distance to the US (see image above), developing a military presence in the Caribbean wouldn’t be too shabby for the Soviets. So in the summer of 1962 they began installing medium-range nuclear missiles on the shores of Cuba, in secret of course.
- In October, an American U-2 spy plane flying above Cuba captured images of the Soviet nuclear stockpile, of which President Kennedy was immediately informed. Between October 16 and 22 Kennedy deliberates with his cabinet on how to handle the situation. On the evening of the 22nd, he goes on TV to tell the American people what’s what, calling for an immediate quarantine of Cuba, mentioning that any shipment of arms to the island would be seen by the US as an act of aggression.
- As M.A.D. and was becoming a terrifying reality, the Soviets dispatched a ship to Cuba, in direct defiance of Kennedy’s warning. However, at the last minute, Khrushchev avoided a nuclear holocaust by ordering the ship to turn around before it made it to Cuban waters. Close one!
Short-term and Long-term Effects:
- The crisis left Castro’s regime untouched, and Cuba became the regional center for revolutionary training and guerilla tactics for years to come.
- The United States would continue its boycott of Cuba, not allowing American citizens to travel there, and closing its embassy.
- For the Cold War to come, brinksmanship would be the method, proxy conflict the stage, and MAD the model of deterrence.