COLD WAR IN THE GLOBAL SOUTH
While the confrontation in Europe (centered on the future of Germany) stabilized into an uneasy standoff after the 1958-61 Berlin Crisis (and the building of the Berlin Wall), the global South became the main – and often violent — battleground of the superpower competition. Khrushchev had boldly vowed Soviet support for wars of liberation across the developing world. Many in the United States, led by President John F. Kennedy, felt that the global balance of power was at stake if the new post-colonial states gravitated to the Soviet orbit. With economic aid considered the most effective tool to win favor with the developing world, thousands of U.S. economic, political and military advisers became Cold War combatants. The Kennedy administration’s boldest Third World program was the “Alliance for Progress” which sought to use economic largesse to spur modernization, alleviate poverty and address educational and health needs in Latin America. Similarly, the Peace Corps that sent thousands of young idealistic volunteers to some of the world’s least developed countries sprang from a wider strategic vision that emphasized the need to wage the Cold War in the Third World with greater effectiveness. That effort also included devising new ways to deal with revolutionary insurgencies, including the creation of “Special Forces” that sought to apply new counterinsurgency techniques to combat guerilla movements. In what became the United States’ longest, costliest and most controversial intervention in the Global South, the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson resorted in 1965 to a full-scale U.S. military intervention and an ambitious if ultimately failed nation-building project in South Vietnam, hoping to prevent the Viet Cong (Vietnamese communists) from taking over the country.
President Richard Nixon’s détente policy sought to extricate the United States from Indochina without appearing to have been forced out, to stabilize the Cold War by engaging the USSR in arms control and economic negotiations, and, through his spectacular diplomatic opening to the People’s Republic of China, to regain the advantage in the Cold War. The Nixon strategy of establishing a “linkage” between inducements and constraints led to the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam and a series of high-level summits and strategic arms control agreements. Yet Soviet interventions in Angola, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan, crises in the Middle East, and U.S. domestic constraints (anti-war protests, Watergate) caused a collapse of the superpower détente by the end of the 1970s. Superpower relations turned frigid in the “second Cold War” of the 1980s; by the early 1980s the nuclear danger was greater than at any point since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
END OF THE COLD WAR
Yet within a few years the Cold War came to a peaceful end. Soviet “imperial overstretch” in the Third World compounded a “crisis of legitimacy” that had been rotting the Soviet system at its core (1953 East German Uprising, 1956 Hungarian revolution, 1968 Prague Spring, 1980/81 Polish Martial Law). The growing economic, technological and military disparity between vibrant democratic capitalism in the West and faltering state socialism in the East finally produced the “basic change” in Soviet foreign policy that the West had sought all along: under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev the USSR abandoned expansionist ambitions and embarked on domestic reforms. President Ronald Reagan found in Gorbachev a negotiating partner who came to share his vision of ending the Cold War. No longer propped up by Soviet support, communist regimes in Eastern Europe collapsed in the face of popular protests in 1989, leading to the fall of the iconic Berlin Wall in November of that year, and two years later, to the dissolution of the USSR. The West had emerged victorious from the Cold War.
Three decades after the end of the conflict, the world looks much different: the disintegration of the USSR and Western victory in the Cold War produced for a few years a “unipolar moment” (with the United States as the sole superpower) that has since given way to a multipolar system that for centuries has been the normal state of international politics. Yet the Cold War’s legacies are still with us today: the Western victory brought democratic governance and market economies to large areas in the world once under communist dictatorships. The acute threat of a nuclear Armageddon has lessened. The ideological confrontation between capitalism and communism has faded. Yet the Cold War’s last impact is also visible in regimes from China to North Korea that still claim authoritarian forms of legitimacy that originate in the Cold War. In the Cold War’s battlegrounds in the global South, from East Africa to Afghanistan, humanity still deals with the environmental threats, social and racial divides, and ethnic conflicts caused, stimulated or perpetuated by the Cold War. The Cold War’s scars continue to pose challenges to the world in the 21rst century.