Decode the Cold War: Your Go-to Glossary for Critical Terminology

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World War II led to worldwide death and destruction, including two examples of the horrible possibilities of nuclear weapons. Two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, remained. They had competing cultures and ideologies but feared the deadly effects of direct conflict. The result was a Cold War, which still had a lot of troubles, but not a nuclear winter. It ended with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

There are many basic terms we use when studying the Cold War. Let’s delve right in. 

Cold War Terms In Alphabetical Order 

An Arms Race 

developed between the United States and the Soviet Union in which each side competed for military supremacy by trying to obtain more weapons than the other side.  

Balance of Power 

is an effort to obtain relatively equal levels of power on both sides of a conflict. During the Cold War, superpowers tried to retain a balance of power and not appear weak and vulnerable.  

Bay of Pigs 

was a failed United States supported attempt in 1961 to overthrow Fidel Castro’s government.  

The Berlin Airlift  

The United States effort to provide food and supplies to West Berlin when the Soviet Union blocked access to the area (Berlin Blockade).  

Berlin Blockade 

An attempt by the Soviet Union after World War II to block access to West Berlin.  

Berlin Wall 

A border built by East Germany to separate East and West Berlin to prevent people from freely leaving Communist-controlled areas.  


A strategic policy of purposely escalating a dangerous situation with the hope of forcing the other side to back down. 

Checkpoint Charlie

A crossing point between East and West Berlin when the two locations were divided by the Berlin Wall. A popular spy novel reference.  

The Cold War 

was a post-World War II worldwide conflict over communism. The war was “cold” because it was not a direct shooting war between the two superpowers.  


is a political and economic philosophy that favors the collective ownership of resources as well as the distribution of wealth according to each individual’s contribution. The Soviet Union was a communist country.  


is an attempt to keep something at its current status. During the Cold War, the United States tried to contain communism, preventing it from spreading into new places.  

The Cuban Missile Crisis 

arose when the Soviet Union began building missiles in communist-controlled Cuba. The United States found out and demanded the missiles to be removed. The resulting conflict brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of war.  


is the process after World War II of giving European overseas colonies their independence.  


are various things done to prevent something from happening. Nuclear deterrence was the belief that a large nuclear weapon arsenal would prevent the other side from attacking.  


were efforts between the United States and the Soviet Union to reduce tensions such as arm reduction agreements.  

The Domino Theory

was the United States’ belief that if one nation became communist, many more would follow.  This concern motivated the U.S. intervention in many foreign nations’ affairs.  

Eastern Bloc 

was a name given to the Soviet Union and its communist-controlled states in Eastern Europe.

Fidel Castro 

was a Cuban revolutionary who set up a communist state in Cuba.  


was a policy introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev that allowed for more openness (“glasnost”) in the Soviet government, including an increase in the acceptance of freedom of dissent.  

The Iron Curtain 

was the name given by Winston Churchill to the symbolic border between communist and non-communist controlled Europe.  


stands for mutually assured destruction. This was the Cold War concept that one side would not strike first (“first strike”) because they knew the other would retaliate.  

Marshall Plan 

Financial aid was given by the United States to European countries to rebuild after World War II partially to help prevent the spread of communism. The Soviet Union rejected the money, helping the division between the two superpowers.  


was the name given to the threat to civil liberties in the United States arising from the fear that communism was threatening our society. It was named after Senator Joseph McCarthy, who used anti-communism to obtain political power.  

Military-Industrial Complex 

was a supposed joint effort between politicians, the military, and industry to encourage the development of more weapons, including instigating wars. President Eisenhower in his farewell speech warned about the danger of a military-industrial complex.  

A Missile Gap 

was a belief in the 1950s that the Soviet Union had more ballistic weapons than the United States. This turned out to be incorrect but encouraged an arms race.  


stands for North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which is a Western European defense coalition originally formed to guard against Soviet Union communist expansion.  

Non-Aligned Nations

Nations not formally associated (aligned) with the two superpowers (U.S. and Soviet Union) during the Cold War. They tried to stay neutral. India was a major non-aligned nation. 

Nuclear Winter

a hypothetical scenario of global cooling after a nuclear war, caused by smoke and dust blocking the sun’s rays. 


was a term used by Mikhail Gorbachev to describe a reconstruction (“perestroika”) of the Soviet economy and industry.  It included some acceptance of free market policies. 

A Proxy War 

is the use of third parties instead of fighting each other directly. For instance, the Korean War and the Vietnam War were about the spread of communism,  but the two superpowers did not fight each other directly.  Civil wars in each case were “proxy wars.”  

Red Scare 

was the belief in the United States that communism was a major threat to American life and that strong methods were necessary to address the situation.  


stands for Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. They were two rounds of negotiations and resulting treaties to help contain the number of nuclear weapons on each side.  

Satellite Nations 

are nations dominated by another politically and economically. Many Eastern European nations during the Cold War were satellite nations of the Soviet Union.  

Security Council  

The United Nations branch established to help secure international peace and security. The United States and the Soviet Union are permanent members with veto power.  


A trade union campaign in Poland. Solidarity inspired other efforts in Eastern Europe to oppose communist control.  It was led by Lech Walesa who became President of Poland in 1990.

Space Race

Battle for supremacy between the Soviet Union and the United States over the development of exploration of outer space.  


was the first man-made satellite put in space. Sputnik helped the United States to fear that it was lagging behind the Soviet Union and encouraged the American space program. 


Nations that have the military, political, and economic power to influence world events. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were the two primary superpowers. 

Third World 

The developing nations, often former European colonies, were often proxies for Cold War battles. The “First World” was the U.S. and its capitalist allies and the “Second World” was the Soviet Union and its communist allies.   

The Truman Doctrine 

stated that it was the United States’ policy to use economic and military aid to protect free people from tyranny. This was used to explain the importance of economic aid to Turkey and Greece to help stop the spread of communism in those nations.   


The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.); the official name of the Soviet Union.


was an American spy plane used during the Cold War to obtain intelligence. The Soviet capture of a U-2 in 1960 resulted in an international incident.  

United Nations

is an international peacekeeping association formed in 1945. 

The Warsaw Pact 

was a defense treaty between the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries to provide a balance of power between them and United States backed nations (NATO).

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