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Cold War is the term used to describe the state of conflict, tension and competition that existed between the United States and the Soviet Union (USSR) and their respective allies from the mid-1940s to the early 1990s. Throughout this period, rivalry between the two superpowers was expressed through military coalitions, propaganda, espionage, weapons development, industrial advances, and competitive technological development, e.g., the space race. Both superpowers engaged in costly defense spending, a massive conventional and nuclear arms race, and numerous proxy wars.
In the absence of a declared war between the US and the Soviet Union, the rival states participated in a half-century of military buildup and political battles for support around the world. These activities included the significant involvement of allied and satellite nations in local "third party" wars. Although the US and the Soviet Union had been allied against the Axis powers, the two sides differed on how to reconstruct the postwar world even before the end of World War II.
The United States, taking the lead against the expansion of Soviet influence, rallied the West with the Truman Doctrine, under which immediate aid was given to Europe. USA inaugurated the European Recovery Program, known as the Marshal Plan, which helped to restore prosperity and influenced subsequent growth of Europe.
The communist block subsequently formed (1955) the Warsaw Treaty Organization as a counterbalance to NATO.
The Cold War period was characterized by international crises such as the Berlin Blockade (1948-49), the Korean War (1950-53), the Berlin Crisis of 1961., the Vietnam War (1959-1975). the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-89), and especially the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world came to the brink of a Third World War.
In 1948 the Soviet Union directly challenged the West by instituting a blockade of the western sectors of Berlin, but the United States airlifted supplies into the city until the blockade was withdrawn.
In Asia, the Communist cause gained great impetus when the Communist under Mao Zedong gained control of mainland China in 1949.
In 1950 Communist forces from North Korea attacked South Korea, precipitating the Korean War. Chinese Communist troops entered the conflict in large numbers, but were checked by UN forces.
In Europe, the East German government erected the Berlin Wall in late 1961 to check the embarrassing flow of East Germans to the West. In 1962 a tense confrontation occurred between the United States and the Soviet Union after US intelligence discovered the presence of Soviet missile installations in Cuba. Direct conflict was avoided, however, when Premier Khrushchev ordered ships carrying rockets to Cuba to turn around rather than meet US vessels sent to intercept them (Cuban missile crisis).
The last such crisis moment occurred during NATO exercises in November 1983. The Cold War era also witnessed periods of reduced tension as both sides sought detente. Direct military attacks on adversaries were deterred by the potential for mutual assured destruction using deliverable nuclear weapons.
The Cold War drew to a close in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. With the coming to power of US President Ronald Reagan, the US increased diplomatic, military, and economic pressure on the Soviet Union. In the second half of the 1980a, newly appointed Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduced perestroika and glasnost. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, leaving the United States as the sole superpower in a unipolar world.