Cold war refers to the post world war 2 period till 1991 when there was a geopolitical game being played by two nations that emerged as super powers from the shambles of the world wars. This period was noted for the polarization of power and Russia and America were intensely battling out a strategic war game between them. It was a global conflict in every sense and even the continents of sub-Saharan Africa and South America which had immunity from the catastrophe of the previous two world wars were affected by it. The proxy war that was fought between these two global powers brought severe economic implications for the Middle East, Africa and other third world nations. The Truman doctrine (1947) is generally regarded as the important strategic initiative to counter the domination of communism in the European continent. Under the cushion of the United States the western European nations which bore the devastating effects of the Second World War made a rapid recovery. From 1946 till the crumbling of the Soviet republic in 1991, the cold war witnessed a struggle between economic and socialist systems that was unparalleled in the history of the world. A brief overview of the some of the important events that occurred in the cold war period would provide better insight into geopolitics that was existent during the time.
Cold War (Effect on Japan and West Germany)
Before we look at the impact of the cold war on the third world nations, which in fact bore the major burden of the proxy wars, it would be apt to discuss its effect on Japan and Germany. Ironical as it may seem, the United States which fought these two nations during the Second World War had deemed it necessary to redevelop them in order to build them as spheres of anti-communism in the European and Asian regions. The strategic idea behind this is that a resurgent Japan would stand as an effective threat to Soviet Union from the Siberian front. Japan’s prosperity and economic buoyancy was vital to U.S. security interests. This change in economic policy towards Japan was also matched by political reformations. The continuous pouring of U.S. war related funds and the U.S. backed rapid reindustrialization helped Japan achieve the pre-war living standards by 1952. Japanese leaders on the other hand were more than happy with the economic boom as well as the security that the U.S. assured them.
This strategic cooperation finally culminated in the form of the Japanese peace treaty in September 1951 which granted complete sovereignty to Japan while the U.S. still maintained its control over the Ryukyu base and had access to other bases in Japan. There was a “substantial reliance on Japan … For production of goods and services important to the security of the U.S. And the economic stability of non-communist Asia; cooperation with the U.S. In the development of raw material resources of Asia; development of Japan’s appropriate military forces as a defensive shield and to permit redeployment of U.S. forces.” [Martin Walker,81] Similarly the U.S. helped build up a Germany ravaged by war and with strategic interests in mind approved German rearmament. The Soviet Union had now to contend with a resurgent Japan at the Siberian front and a rearmed Germany on the western front. Thus, there was a new strategic climate in Europe and Asia and the U.S. And Soviet Union were trying to expand their spheres of influence and limit the opponents.
Effect on Third World Countries
As we know, the cold war was a globalized conflict which dragged every nation into the geopolitical game being played by USSR and the U.S. The third world nations of Africa, Middle East Asia and Latin America had severe economic repercussions under the shadow of the superpowers. Civil wars were rampant in many African countries, mainly instigated and supported by U.S. And USSR, each side trying all manipulations to gain political, economical and strategic control of these nations. The ‘Guatemalan affair’ for example is an instance of how the U.S. used its economic might to create instability in the Latin nation and use the opportunity to install a favorable puppet government.
The Guatemalan affair is a case of how the superpowers engaged in their ideological battle (capitalist vs. communist), created unrest and toppled elected governments in the third world nations. In 1950, the CIA funded guerillas to overthrow President Jacobo Arbenz who had won the Guatemalan elections by more than 60% of the votes. Backed by the U.S., Catillo Armas became the new president of Guatemala. The main factor that triggered this indirect U.S. intervention was that the Arbenz government was initiating anti-capitalistic reforms. These involved confiscation of private property which affected the interests of American capitalists and in particular the American “United Fruit Company’. The U.S. viewed these land reforms and other policies of the government as pro-communist and decided to halt the possibility of Guatemala developing into a communist state under the influence and support of the Soviet Union. Though there was peace for the first few years after the topple of the Arbenz government, it was not to last long. A civil war started in the late 1950’s and continued till 1996 creating severe economic, political and social instability and consequent poverty, corruption in the nation. [Stephen M. Streeter] This is a perfect example of how the proxy ideological battles of the cold war between Soviet Union and U.S. turned a country into virtual ruins and turmoil for more than 4 decades.
Cold war and Africa
Africa had already witnessed a century of colonial occupation and it was the time of fervent nationalism and many of the countries got their independence. However there were more than 60 coups in the African continent and both the U.S. As well as the Soviet Union tried to exercise their control amidst this civil unrest. Both the superpowers were actively, though indirectly, engaged in supporting guerilla groups by providing arms and financial support. American interests in Africa was multi-pronged, as it depended on the continent’s mineral wealth for building its own military arsenal and industrial units as well as needed control of the region from a strategic perspective. It is essential to note that the U.S. imports 88% of its bauxite, 95% of manganese ore, and 90% of nickel and 100% of tin from Africa. Russia on the other hand was equally interested in extending its influence in the continent and hindering any possible economic relationships between the U.S. And Africa. [Steven MacDougall]
The result was a period of continuous unrest and civil wars. Supported by either U.S. Or Soviet Union, guerilla groups were engaged in an arms race resulting in social and political unrest. For example, America played a major role in the political turmoil in Katanga, a Congolese province, rich in mineral wealth. Patrice Lumumba was the democratically elected leader of Katanga. However in order to quell the rising insurgency against him by the neo-liberal parties he requested soviet assistance. This propelled the U.S. into action which was bent upon resisting any Soviet influence in the region. The result was an assassination plot against Lumumba. Though this assassination was not carried out the U.S. assisted the rise to power of Mobutu, a pro-western military leader. Katanga (renamed as Zaire by Mobutu) was really struggling under the dictatorship of Mobutu. While the Soviets supplied arms to the leftists to defeat the Mobutu dictatorship the U.S. continued to support him with arms supplies to the tune of $300 million in weapons and $100 million for training purposes. These figures indicate how the proxy wars between U.S. And the Soviet Union had literally torn apart the African nations. Africa, in short became an ideological battlefield for the superpowers and the result was decades of corruption, unrest and resulting lagging in development. [Steven MacDougall]
Similarly American foreign policies in the Middle East were motivated by both its ideological and economic interests. For example Iran was a wealthy oil exporting nation and America felt that it was imperative to prevent any possible communist influence, particularly in view of Iran’s proximity to the Soviet Union. Ever since the role of the United States in the ousting Muhammad Musadiq (1953) became public, there were deep cracks in the relationship between U.S. And Iran. This was further complicated during the Iranian revolution period in 1978 when the U.S. supported the Shah resulting in the famous Hostage crisis where 50 U.S. embassy officials were kept as hostages for more than 15 months. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini regime which emerged had bad relations with the U.S. In 1984 seven more Americans were kidnapped and the U.S. formulated a strategy of ‘Selling missiles’ in exchange for the hostages and transferring the profits to support the coup by the contra rebels in Nicaragua against the Sandinistas government. When the scandal got finally revealed it cast a bad image on U.S. In the global scenario. So the cold war was a battle of manipulations where the third world nations were the pawns in the hands of the super powers. [Ernest J. Wilson]
Cuban Missile Crisis
As a premise to the Cuban missile crisis it would be appropriate to mention here that the military strategies were drastically changed and both sides were improving rocket and missile technology. With the launch of the Soviet made sputnik the battle was already taken into the skies. Ever since the Cuban revolution in 1953, which saw the coming to power of Federal Castro the relationships between U.S. And Cuba has been strained. The Cuban revolution signaled the beginning of a new political climate and the declining influence of the United States in the politics of Latin American nations. The revolution marked the rise of a socialist economy in Cuba and the Soviets played an active role in the economic growth of the nation. American trade embargo and sanctions which were duly imposed continue to be in place for more than 40 years now.
The ‘bay of pigs’ invasion served a threat to Federal Castro who requested the assistance of the Soviets which was instantly provided. With continued attempts of coup by U.S. And the possibility of the U.S. invasion becoming real the Soviet Union responded by sending nuclear missiles that were even ready to be launched into the heartland of the U.S. This was the first serious and direct threat between the superpowers. On Oct 22, 1962 U.S. intelligence reports confirmed that the Soviets had been preparing nuclear bases in Cuba that were only 90 miles from Florida. President Kennedy ordered a naval blockade on the Cuban waters to prevent reinforcement from Soviet Union and also asked the Soviets to remove the dangerous nuclear arsenal. In response the soviet premier ‘Nikita S. Khrushchev’ ordered his troops to deploy the nuclear missiles against American if there was an invasion into Cuba. It is to be noted that America also had its missile base in Turkey which is just 150 miles away from soviet territory. [Jerry Goldman]
The crisis ended with the agreement that the Soviets will remove the Cuban base while the U.S. will dismantle its base in Turkey. In president Kennedy’s words, “The most important thing has been achieved: the Soviet Union knows that the United States does not intend to invade Cuba and the United States knows that the Soviets have removed missiles from Cuba. This is the gist of the agreement between the two Heads of State.” [Robe] American anti-communist agenda is nowhere more pronounced than the unsuccessful Vietnam War which ended in 1973 after almost 2 decades of fighting. This war was another important event during the cold war era. The American combat troops directly took part in the war in 1965. It incurred a total expense of more than $150 billion and a loss of more than 54,000 American soldiers.
Gorbachev and the End of Cold War
Gorbachev’s presidency marked a new dawn in the relationships between U.S. And the Soviet Union. It was during his tenure that the INF treaty (Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces) was signed that eliminated all nuclear arms in the range of 500 and 5500 Kilometers. [David J. Smith]. The early nineties however meant an economic downturn for the soviets and many European countries and the soaring unemployment under the socialist policies created poverty and social unrest. The Soviet Union was forced to enter the open market in exchange for aid. The ensuing coup saw the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the declaration of independence by the republics. Thus the death of the soviet empire marked the end of the cold war.
The cold war was more than a mere triumph of U.S. democracy over communist Russian policies and its grueling impact was mostly borne by the third world countries. It was a proxy battle between these two superpowers vying against each other in an ideological battle. The proxy nature of the wars, as many historians rightfully predict was indeed a blessing in disguise, as otherwise a full blown third world war would have decimated every nation on the face of earth. The Cuban missile crisis was the highpoint of cold war when the superpowers were on the verge of an impending nuclear catastrophe. The Cold war spurred scientific research as both the super powers stretched every bit of their resources to achieve strategic parity with the other. The outcome of the cold war was unknown for four decades until the disintegration of the Soviet Union signaled an American triumph and an end to the cold war era.
1) Martin Walker, “Cold War,” Published By ‘Fourth Estate Limited’, London 1993
2) Steven MacDougall, Ed Redmond & Bob Schurtz, “The Hot Side of Cold War,”
Accessed on November 25th 2004,
3) Jerry Goldman and Giel Stein, “The Cuban Missile Crisis,” October 18-29, 1962
Accessed on November 27th 2004,
4) RABE, STEPHEN G, “After the Missiles of October: John F. Kennedy and Cuba,
November 1962 to November 1963,” Presidential Studies Quarterly, 12/1/2000
5) Stephen M. Streeter, “Interpreting the 1954 U.S. Intervention in Guatemala:
Realist, Revisionist, and Postrevisionist Perspectives,” ‘The History Teacher’,
Vol 34, No 1, Nov 2000
6) Ernest J. Wilson, “The Iran-Contra Affair – Errant Globalism in Action,” National Journal of Political Science, Vol. 1, 1989, pp. 110-113.
7) David J. Smith, “Time to Face INF and START Treaty Obstacles to Missile
Defense,” Inside Missile Defense, Vol 8, No. 3 February 6, 2002,