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Conflicts During the Cold War: Examples & Causes

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  • 0:02 Cold Ware Conflicts &…
  • 1:42 Brezhnev Doctrine
  • 3:02 Korea and Cuban Missile Crisis
  • 5:03 Vietnam
  • 6:32 Afghanistan
  • 7:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore several of the world's conflicts in the second half of the 20th century that ended up becoming proxy wars between the United States and the Soviet Union in their Cold War standoff.

Cold War Conflicts

In some ways, the name Cold War that was given to the 20th century's tension-filled standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union is deceiving. Sure, the United States and the Soviet Union never officially fired shots at each other, but the two states fought numerous proxy wars intending to foster the growth of capitalism or communism in certain parts of the world. When you couple these wars with the continuous spying and espionage the two countries took part in against each other, the Cold War begins to look very hot indeed!

Domino Theory

One of the main reasons the United States felt the need to fight communist uprisings in several smaller, strategically unimportant nations was the domino theory. The domino theory was propagated after WWII ended, largely as a result of a communist uprising in French-controlled Vietnam. Policy analysts in Washington worried that a successful communist revolt in Vietnam would encourage the communist factions of other Southeast Asian nations to similarly rise, causing the other precarious monarchical, capitalist states of Southeast Asia to fall to communism one after another, like dominoes. This theory was first articulated to the American public by President Dwight Eisenhower in an April 1954 speech. Eisenhower was trying to bolster domestic support for increased aid to the French forces and government in South Vietnam, and he stated his fears that the loss of Vietnam to communism might encourage the rest of the region to become communist too, perhaps even endangering Japan who depended upon Southeast Asia for trade. The domino theory largely motivated American foreign policy in Asia over the following decades.

Brezhnev Doctrine

American motivations to fight communism on all fronts were not borne out of anti-communist paranoia; the Soviet Union was actively promoting communism abroad and aiding fledgling communist movements and uprisings in places like Vietnam and Korea. Indeed, even prior to the end of WWII, agents of Soviet Russia were active in China during that country's long civil war which eventually resulted in victory for Mao Zedong's communist party.

Furthermore, the Soviet Union called for all communist, Soviet, and Warsaw Pact states to aid one another in maintaining and spreading communism throughout the world. This policy has become known as the Brezhnev Doctrine, named for the Russian premier Leonid Brezhnev, who led the Soviet Communist Party from 1964 to 1982. According to Brezhnev, each communist country was not only responsible for spreading the movement, but also for ensuring that other communist countries did not stray far from the course. Perhaps the most violent example of this policy was the violent crackdown on moderation in Czechoslovakia in 1968. When the Czechoslovakian government attempted to remove barriers to free trade and allow multiple political parties in the country, Soviet troops invaded and occupied the country.

Korea and Cuban Missile Crisis

As a result of these two proactive policies from opposing nations, conflicts throughout the world in the second half of the 20th century largely became proxy wars between the United States and the Soviet Union as both nations picked sides. The first of these conflicts - the Korean War - occurred only a few years after the end of WWII. The Korean War was instigated by North Korea when it invaded its democratic neighbors, South Korea, in June 1950. Before the end of the summer, the United States had sent troops to aid the South Koreans, viewing the war as an ideological fight against communism.

Despite initial setbacks, the United States and South Korea forced the North Koreans back over the border, and advanced further into North Korea. At this point, North Korea's fellow communist neighbors worried what a strong, U.S.-backed South Korea would mean for the balance of politics in East Asia, and China began sending troops and weapons to aid the North Korean war effort. China was especially worried about full-scale war breaking out if U.S. troops crossed the North Korea-China border in its push north. The influx of Chinese reinforcements equalized the war, and the conflict ground to a stalemate. With all sides wanting to avoid World War III, peace talks were started in 1951, and an armistice was signed in 1953.

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