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The Cold War (1945–1963)


Key Terms

terms Key Terms


Army-McCarthy Hearings

Congressional hearings that took place in 1954 as a result of Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy accusing ranking U.S. Army officers of being Communists and Soviet spies. Tens of millions of Americans watched the televised courtroom proceedings as McCarthy publicly humiliated himself without offering a shred of evidence. The hearings earned McCarthy an official censure from his fellow senators, finished his political career, and effectively ended the Red hunts.

Bay of Pigs Invasion

President John F. Kennedy’s failed plan to invade Cuba and topple revolutionary leader Fidel Castro with an army of CIA-trained Cuban exiles in 1961. Although Kennedy had originally intended to use the U.S. Air Force to help the exiled Cubans retake the island, he unexpectedly withdrew support shortly before the operation started. As a result, the invasion failed utterly, actually consolidated Castro’s power, and pushed Cuba into signing a treaty with the Soviet Union.

Berlin Airlift

The dropping of thousands of tons of food and medical supplies to starving West Berliners after Joseph Stalin closed off all highway and railway access to the city in mid-1948. Stalin hoped to cut off British, French, and American access to the conquered German city, but President Harry S Truman, determined not to lose face or the city, ordered American military planes to drop provisions from the air. The blockade was foiled, and Stalin finally lifted it in 1949.


A U.S. foreign policy doctrine that argued that the Soviet Union needed to be “contained” to prevent the spread of Communism throughout the world. First formulated by State Department analyst George Kennan during the Truman administration, it suggested that the United States needed to fight Communism abroad and promote democracy (or at least anti-Communist regimes) worldwide. Policy makers tied it closely with the domino theory. Kennan’s idea eventually developed into the single most important tenet of American foreign policy through the Cold War until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Cuban Missile Crisis

The crisis that occurred when Cuban leader Fidel Castro sought economic and military assistance from the Soviet Union after the United States’ failed 1961Bay of Pigs invasion. The Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, capitalized on the failed invasion, allied with Castro, and secured from Castro the right to place nuclear missiles in Cuba. Upon learning of the missiles, President John F. Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of the island in 1962 and demanded that Khrushchev remove them. Nuclear war seemed imminent until Khrushchev finally backed down, promising to remove the missiles if Kennedy ended the blockade. The United States complied and also agreed to remove from Turkey nuclear missiles aimed at the USSR. The Communist Party leadership in the USSR removed Khrushchev from power in 1964 for having backed down in the standoff.

Dien Bien Phu

A site in Vietnam where an important French outpost fell to Ho Chi Minh’s pro-Communist forces in 1954. After this defeat, an international conference in Geneva split Vietnam into two nations—North Vietnam and South Vietnam—with the dividing line at the 17th parallel. Ho Chi Minh established a government in the city of Hanoi in North Vietnam, while U.S.-backed Ngo Dinh Diem took control of the South Vietnamese government in Saigon.

Domino Theory

The belief that if the United States allowed one country to fall to Communism, then many more would follow suit, like a row of dominoes. Many foreign policy thinkers subscribed to this theory at the height of the Cold War, and this led the United States to support anti-Communist regimes throughout the world, whether or not they upheld democratic ideals. The domino theory also provided the primary rationale behind Lyndon Johnson’s massive escalation of the conflict in Vietnam to full-scale war.

Flexible Response

A doctrine of containment that provided for a variety of military and political strategies that the president could use to stem the spread of Communism. The flexible response plan was developed by Defense and State Department officials in the Kennedy administration who felt that Eisenhower’s “massive retaliation” doctrine restricted the president’s options too much.

House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC)

A committee established in 1938 by the House of Representatives to investigate individual Americans or organizations who might be linked to the Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan. After World War II, as fear of the Soviet Union spread, HUAC was used to investigate those suspected of having ties to Communism or of being Soviet agents. Congressman Richard M. Nixon played a key role on the committee and used his power to prosecute many, including federal employee Alger Hiss in 1950.

Marshall Plan

A plan devised by President Harry S Truman and Secretary of State George C. Marshall that committed over $10 billion to rebuilding Western Europe after World War II. Although the Soviet Union fiercely opposed the plan, Truman knew that rebuilding the region would provide stability and prevent another world war. The Marshall Plan was highly successful and enabled British, French, Italian, and German factories to exceed prewar production levels within just a few years.

Massive Retaliation

A primary component of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s New Look foreign policythat threatened massive nuclear retaliation against the Soviet Union for any Communist aggression abroad. Designed to save the U.S. government money on defense spending, this policy effectively tied Eisenhower’s hands because it limited his options when addressing smaller crises, such as the 1956Hungarian Revolution. Kennedy later dropped the threat of massive retaliation in favor of the doctrine of “flexible response, which gave the president more options.

Montgomery G.I. Bill

A bill passed in 1944 that provided federal grants for education to returning World War II veterans. Also known as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, the bill also awarded federal loans to vets to purchase new homes, farms, and businesses. Millions of veterans took advantage of these grants and loans to go back to school and purchase new suburban homes, making the act one of the most significant pieces of postwar legislation.

National Security Act

An act passed in 1947 that reorganized the U.S. military and espionage services in order to better meet the Soviet threat. The act placed the armed forces under the new secretary of defense and Joint Chiefs of Staff and also created the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council to advise the president.

National Security Council Memorandum 68 (NSC-68)

A classified 1950 proposal that the United States quadruple defense and military spending in order to counter the Soviet threat. NSC-68 set a precedent for increasing defense spending throughout the Cold War, especially after North Korean forces attacked South Korea in June 1950.

New Frontier

Kennedy’s collective bundle of domestic policies, which called for increased social welfare spending to tackle the growing poverty rate. Opposition in Congress from Republicans and southern Democrats, however, blocked the passage of most New Frontier legislation.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

An organization formed in 1949 that bound the United States, Canada, most of Western Europe, and later Greece and Turkey together in a mutual pact of defense against the USSR and Eastern bloc countries. The treaty had the additional effect of permanently tying American interests to political and economic stability in Europe.

Red Hunts

The wrongful persecutions of thousands of Americans for being Communists or Soviet spies that took place in the 1940s and 1950s and were led by the Loyalty Review Board and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Congressman Richard Nixon, Senator Joseph McCarthy, and others led these Communist “witch hunts,” often without any shred of evidence. Liberal playwright Arthur Miller, himself among the accused Communists, criticized the Red hunts and McCarthyism in his critically acclaimed play The Crucible, which dealt with the Salem witch trials in seventeenth-century New England.

Space Race

The Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union for primacy in the exploration of outer space. The space race was prompted by the USSR’s launch of the first orbiting space satellite, Sputnik I, in 1957. The Sputnik launch prompted President Eisenhower to form NASA and Kennedy to push for a lunar landing by the end of the 1960s.

Sputnik I and Sputnik II

The first orbiting space satellites, launched by the Soviet Union beginning in 1957. The launch of these satellites astonished the world and scared many Americans into believing that the USSR had the capability to attack the United States with long-range nuclear missiles. President Eisenhower responded by forming the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to coordinate American endeavors to explore space. Congress also passed the National Defense Education Act, which provided more federal dollars for science and foreign language instruction in public schools. American and Soviet competition to explore space quickly became known as the space race.

Suez Crisis

The crisis that erupted after Egypt’s nationalization of the British-controlled Suez Canal, which took place in 1956 after negotiations over international aid among the United States, Great Britain, and Egypt collapsed. Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the canal, which links the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. Although Eisenhower protested the move, he also condemned the joint British, French, and Israeli invasion of Egypt to retake the canal. The three nations eventually halted their attack and withdrew, under heavy diplomatic and economic pressure from the United States.

Truman Doctrine

A doctrine articulated by President Harry S Truman that pledged American support for all “free peoples” fighting Communist aggression from foreign or domestic sources. Truman announced the doctrine in 1947, then convinced Congress to grant Greece and Turkey $400 million to help fight pro-Soviet insurgents. Besides committing the United States to the policy of containment, the language of the Truman Doctrine itself help characterize the Cold War as a conflict between good and evil.

U-2 Incident

The crisis that arose after the USSR shot down an American U-2spy plane flying over the USSR on a reconnaissance mission in 1960. President Dwight D. Eisenhower initially denied that the incident occurred until Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev presented the captured American pilot. The president’s refusal to apologize or halt future spy missions caused the collapse of a joint summit among Great Britain, France, the United States, and the USSR in May 1960.

Warsaw Pact

A pact signed by the USSR and Eastern European countries under Soviet influence in 1955. By signing the pact, they pledged mutual defense in response to the formation of NATO.

The Cold War (1945–1963): Popular pages