Following World War II, the two remaining superpowers—the United States and the Soviet Union—entered the Cold War, an ideological contest in which each side competed for supremacy through the use of economic aid, military assistance, technology, and propaganda. U.S. foreign policy was focused on containment, preventing the influence of the Soviet Union and the ideology of communism from spreading beyond Eastern Europe. A major test of each nation’s resolve to defeat the other came with the Soviet Union’s blockade of West Berlin in 1948–1949. The United States emerged victorious and with its Western Bloc allies formed the mutual defense organization known as NATO. The Soviet Union responded by forming the Warsaw Pact with the Eastern Bloc countries of Eastern Europe.
In 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) led by Mao Zedong defeated the Guomindang (GMD, the Nationalists) led by Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi) and founded the People’s Republic of China, which the United States refused to recognize. Communism spread elsewhere in Asia as well. In 1950, the communist leader of North Korea invaded South Korea and called on the Chinese to help him defeat South Korean and UN forces led by the United States. Communists also assumed power in North Vietnam after Vietnam was divided following a war of independence with France. The United States, in an effort to stop the further spread of communism, supported South Vietnam as it had South Korea, while China and the Soviet Union gave aid to North Vietnam. Within China itself, people struggled to industrialize the nation under Mao. Many died in the resulting famine and in the Cultural Revolution that followed.
Not all nations chose to align themselves with the United States or the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In Europe, Yugoslavia chose to remain outside the Soviet orbit even though it was a communist country. Many former European colonies became members of the Non-Aligned Movement, which sought to find a path to development that did not require becoming a satellite of either of the superpowers. Among the leaders of this movement were Indonesia, India, and Egypt, which still all found themselves accepting aid from the United States, the USSR, or both. Egypt, however, was drawn closer to the Soviet Union because of Western support for Israel and the belief that Western powers were thwarting its plans to become the leader of the Arab world.
The Cold War was marked by global tensions. In Europe in the 1950s and 1960s, Soviet satellite states in the Eastern Bloc tested Moscow’s resolve to maintain control as their citizens pushed for greater freedoms and an end to Soviet domination. Rebellions in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia were quickly crushed by the USSR. The United States attempted to stem the tide of communist expansion in both Latin America and Asia as it intervened in Guatemala, Cuba, and Vietnam. At times, as in Berlin in 1961 and Cuba in 1962, the United States came perilously close to military conflict with the Soviet Union. By the late 1960s, however, a split between the USSR and China gave the United States greater opportunities to maneuver on the world stage. As the Western and Eastern Blocs faced off against one another in Europe, Asia, and Latin America, in Africa the inhabitants of British, French, Belgian, and Portuguese colonies were fighting for their independence.
In the 1980s, communism began to loosen its grip on parts of the world in which it had once been dominant. The Soviet Union found itself divided by the need to provide for its citizens at home, maintain control over its satellite states in Eastern Europe, fight a war in Afghanistan, and respond to the buildup of nuclear and conventional weapons that took place during the administrations of U.S. presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Mikhail Gorbachev’s efforts to strengthen the Soviet Union through perestroika and glasnost proved unsuccessful. When the Warsaw Pact nations sought independence in the late 1980s, the Soviet Union was unable to respond as it once had, and faced with liberation movements in its own republics, the USSR disbanded in 1991. Although China did not turn its back on communism, the death of Mao allowed Deng to institute reforms that introduced elements of capitalism to the Chinese economy.