During World War II, tensions were high between the Soviet Union and the U.S., but they saw the German government as the greater of the two evils, and for that reason, they worked together. After World War II, they had no reason to be civil or work hand in hand. Both nations wanted to dominate international affairs and be the top country in power. The Soviets were communists, and the USA were capitalists. The Soviets were angry and paranoid, and the U.S. was in fear of communists taking over.
Both USSR and the U.S. wanted to help Europe build their economy but in different ways. It then became like a competition where they were trying to prove to one another and other countries (especially countries in Europe) that they were the best and should have overall power. They were building nuclear weapons and immensely trying to spread their style of government. The U.S. then created the Marshall Plan, where they offered aid to Europe and persuaded the communist countries to become capitalists. They weren't directly fighting initially. They fought through politics, propaganda, the space race, and their building of nuclear weapons. They wanted to instill fear in one another, but it ended up not being so successful when they caused crises in other countries. They also fought indirectly but violently overseas through a third-world party, also known as a proxy. A proxy would be a government or an armed group that was supplied training and weapons by the power country (USSR or U.S.).
The Americans and the Soviets both wanted to make the other side look bad so they could come out on top. Propaganda has played a large role throughout most of history. In the U.S. media, Russians were portrayed as antagonists who would be defeated. Almost everything was anti-communist, it was seen everywhere. The purpose of this was to get the American people on board with the situation of the war. They wanted to prove that they were right for being in the U.S. and wanted support and recognition from the citizens. The media in the Soviet Union portrayed the U.S. as a bunch of fat, greedy business people who enslaved their workers. One U.S. film, in particular, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," was ostracised to portray the U.S. as racist just to get their people on board.
There was the nuclear and space race. Building nuclear weapons increased tensions between the two countries even more. They had the ability to nuke each other to a wasteland at any given time. They instilled fear in one another with this immense power. The nuclear race resulted in the Cuban missile crisis, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. As for the space race, both countries wanted to make it to space to prove their intelligence and prove once again that they were the better country. The soviets launched their moving "star," Sputnik, into space. They did indeed beat the U.S. into space, but when the U.S. went to space, they did it bigger and better to prove their superiority. In 1969, the U.S. launched a rocket into space with two astronauts, Neil Armstrong, and Buzz Aldrin, and they landed on the moon. Need I say more... The U.S. may have come in second, but they came in a lot stronger.
They also fought with proxies. The purpose of fighting a proxy war is to avoid direct conflict while still exerting power and superiority over the opposing country. This was just another extension to win and spread their specific styles of government. The world was split up into three "worlds," First world countries being Western Capitalists, Second World (Eastern Bloc) being the Socialist and Communist countries, and the Third world countries being the developing countries. The Third world countries would be the proxies, where war was fought and where nuclear bombs and weapons were used to prove their point.
The Cold War was very cold, literally and figuratively. There wasn't much legitimate war. It was more about spreading bad rumors about the rival just to gain international power.
The space and nuclear races, the proxy war, and the brutal propaganda made the war so cold because it was just so cruel. Wars broke out in other countries, and more and more civilians were being killed just to prove that one country was better than the other.
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