The Cold War ran for nearly half a century – from the end of the Second World War in 1945 to 1991. It involved rivalry and fluctuating periods of tension between the communist countries, notably the Soviet Union and China, and the capitalist Western democracies, led by the United States.
The struggle between the two ideologies – between ‘east’ and ‘west’ – was viewed by both sides as irreconcilable. However, caution, reinforced by the growth of nuclear arsenals on both sides, prevented deep distrust from flaring into open war. There were probes of each other’s strength, efforts to recruit uncommitted countries, regional wars where Western and communist powers took opposite sides, and periods of acute tension. Yet over time, the socialist states’ belief in world revolution was supplanted by the need to maintain domestic stability – so their policies increasingly resembled those of their Western opponents.
The Cold War ended with the sudden and remarkably peaceful collapse of the Soviet empire into 21 independent states.
Like the other Western Allies, New Zealand emerged from the Second World War with a growing distrust of the communist Soviet Union (which had fought alongside the Allies). The Soviet Union’s installation of an unelected ‘Lublin Committee’ as the government of Poland in January 1945 angered New Zealand Prime Minister Peter Fraser, who became convinced that the Soviet Union intended to ‘sovietise’ the countries on its western border (Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Poland and Finland). Despite this, it was hoped that the erstwhile wartime allies – Britain, the US, the Soviet Union and others – would demobilise and cooperatively shape the post-war world.
Fraser fires off
It was midnight when telegrams from Churchill and Truman about the proposed Trieste intervention were read to Peter Fraser at his San Francisco hotel. He gave a wholehearted consent before the reading had finished. However, Fraser’s cabinet in Wellington hoped that negotiations with a spirit of goodwill could yet solve the problem. Fraser sent his colleagues a blazing telegram saying that New Zealand could not be a passive spectator of aggression, ending with a thinly veiled threat to resign over the issue.
New Zealand’s prequel to the Cold War was the Trieste crisis of May 1945. The city of Trieste and its surrounding territory were part of Italy but coveted by communist Yugoslavia. The New Zealand Second Division was stationed close to Trieste, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Harry Truman asked if the New Zealanders could forestall the Yugoslavs and occupy the city. Cabinet in Wellington blanched at the prospect that New Zealand might start a new war but Prime Minister Peter Fraser (in San Francisco) was unhesitating. The New Zealanders moved in, there was a tense standoff for a few weeks, and then the Yugoslavs withdrew.
Cold War begins
In May 1946 Churchill, now in opposition, declared an ‘iron curtain’ had descended over Europe, placing much of Eastern Europe under Soviet control or influence. In 1947 open discord replaced collaboration, as the US and Britain on one side and the Soviet Union on the other jockeyed for power. When Greece looked likely to fall under communist rule, the US shored up the government. It also introduced the Marshall Plan to aid European economic recovery and edged communists out of the Italian and French governments. Conversely, the Soviets replaced elected Hungarian and Czech governments with communist regimes.
In March 1946 the UK and the US signed an agreement to share intelligence material and not spy on each other (the UKUSA agreement). It formalised the ad-hoc sharing arrangements forged during the Second World War and was designed to better meet growing Cold War threats. New Zealand, Australia and Canada later signed the pact. The agreement survived the end of the Cold War and its details only became officially public in 2010.
In 1945 Germany had been divided into American, British, French and Soviet zones of occupation. The capital, Berlin, geographically in the Soviet zone, was also split four ways. In June 1948 the British, French and US zones formed an economic union in West Berlin. The Soviet Union, which controlled East Berlin, responded by blockading West Berlin, allegedly to starve it into submission. But the West was able to supply the city by air – including 473 sorties by New Zealand pilots – and the blockade was lifted the following May. The airlift was a successful demonstration of the United States’ containment strategy, which aimed at checking the Soviet Union by all means short (it hoped) of war. The state of affairs was described by Truman’s advisor Bernard Baruch as a ‘Cold War’. The term was popularised by Walter Lippman in a 1947 book.