The Cold War: Nuclear Deterrence and Containment

Two developments in the post-World War II years coincided to shape the zeitgeist of the entire era. The two factors were the emergence of the Soviet Union as a world power with its aggressive doctrine of the expansion of international communism along with the availability of nuclear weapons. These factors lead to a paranoia that molded the American personality and influenced American foreign policy decisions for decades. (Cantwell, pp. 158-159.)

During the wartime allied conferences at Malta and Yalta, when it was apparent that Germany and the Axis powers were going to lose the war, the leaders of the U.S. (Roosevelt), Great Britain (Churchill) and Soviet Russia (Stalin) met to discuss the post-war geography of Europe. Military realities shaped the discussions.

Russian forces were marching on Germany from the East and they would soon reach the outskirts of Berlin. The U.S. and British forces were coming from the West, through France, over the Rhine River and north through Italy. Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, agreed that, at least temporarily, the allies would govern the areas controlled by their armies; but, eventually democratic elections would be held to establish permanent governments.

Regarding Berlin, located in the area controlled by Russia, it was agreed that the city would be divided into four zones, with Russia on the east and the U.S., Britain and France on the west. However, the Russians reneged in the areas under their military control. (Anderson, pp. 4-6.) As a result, in the minds of the American public, the Communists (Russia) quickly turned from wartime ally to post-war devil.

After World War II, the world was essentially divided into two camps: the West, meaning pro-democracy United States and Western Europe, and the East, referring to the Soviet Union and the Eastern European states occupied by the Russians as they marched toward Germany and Berlin: Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, East Germany and, eventually, Czechoslovakia. Despite wartime promises, the Russians did not withdraw from these countries, nor did they allow the creation of democratic governments. Rather, they imposed satellite communist-style governments and erected physical barriers (guards, barbed-wire fences, minefields) to keep people from escaping west. Winston Churchill described the circumstance as an “Iron Curtain” separating the distinct philosophies, with this famous statement: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste on the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent [of Europe].” (Epstein, p. 98.)

Common thinking, which clearly remembered the results of pre–war appeasement of an aggressive Germany, believed that the East and the West were engaged in a struggle between democracy and totalitarianism for world domination and that backing down was not an option. The conflict between these competing philosophies was called “The Cold War.” The Cold War lasted from 1945 to 1991. There were two major “hot” conflicts during the Cold War: The Korean War and The Vietnam War. There were many smaller, less intense “East-West” confrontations involving Berlin, Cuba and other locations.

Foreign policy analysts at the time viewed communism as a monolithic (i.e. unified behind one leader) movement led by Russia, with the intent on spreading its socio-political system throughout the world. This led George F. Kennan, the United States ambassador to Russia, to develop the Containment Doctrine, which became the foundation of American policy toward Russia until the 1990s.

A corollary to the Containment Doctrine was the Domino Theory, which viewed unaligned countries as a row of dominoes; if one fell to communism the others would fall in succession. In order to prevent this from happening, Communism had to be contained. Thus, the objective of the Containment Doctrine was to prevent the expansion of Communism beyond the areas within the Soviet Eastern European sphere of influence.

Although the Russian Communists ruled the Eastern Block with an iron hand, there were fissures in the so-called monolith: the communist regime of Joseph Tito in Yugoslavia was always a maverick that got under the Russians’ skin; the citizens of Czechoslovakia tried to assert independence in 1948 and 1968, only to have the Soviets repress their democratic expressions militarily; there were democratic demonstrations in East Berlin in 1953 that met with strong-armed, state sponsored resistance; and in 1956, Russian tanks rolled into Budapest, Hungary to suppress that country’s uprising for self-determination. All of these nationalist, democratic stirrings would find periodic resurgence until the late 1980s when the Soviet Union collapsed.

The means of containing Russia and communism was primarily military and secondarily economic. Militarily, the U.S. was going to achieve containment by a two-part approach. First, the U.S. formed defensive alliances with other democratic countries. There were three main alliances: “NATO”- the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (U.S., Great Britain, France and other western European countries); SEATO – the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (Australia, France, New Zealand, Pakistan (including East Pakistan, now Bangladesh), the Philippines, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States), and ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand and United States). Russia countered the western alliances with an alliance of its own—The Warsaw Pact—made up of communist-dominated countries in Eastern Europe.

The second prong of the military containment policy was called “nuclear deterrence,” the concept that Russia would not engage the U.S. in a general war because the U.S. had the ability to destroy Russia with atomic weapons. When Russia successfully tested the atomic bomb in 1949, nuclear deterrence became bi-lateral, meaning that each side could annihilate the other, referred to as “assured mutual destruction” or “the balance of terror.” The U.S. developed the hydrogen bomb in 1953. Russia did the same a few months later, and the nuclear balance was maintained.

“Russians,sung by Sting, written by Sting and Sergei Prokofiev (1985) (, refers to the cold war antagonism between the U.S. and Russia. Sting appeals to the common humanity of Americans and Russians and urges them to pressure their governments for peace for the sake of their children. The reference to Khrushchev’s “we will bury you” comment is to a speech that he made while addressing Western ambassadors at a reception at the Polish embassy in Moscow on November 18, 1956; “Oppenheimer’s deadly toy” is the atomic bomb.

In Europe and America there’s a growing feeling of hysteria
Conditioned to respond to all the threats
In the rhetorical speeches of the Soviets
Mister Khrushchev said, “We will bury you”
I don’t subscribe to this point of view
It’d be such an ignorant thing to do
If the Russians love their children too

How can I save my little boy
From Oppenheimer’s deadly toy?
There is no monopoly on common sense
On either side of the political fence
We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology
Believe me when I say to you
I hope the Russians love their children too

There is no historical precedent to put
Words in the mouth of the president
There’s no such thing as a winnable war
It’s a lie we don’t believe anymore
Mister Reagan says “We will protect you”
I don’t subscribe to this point of view
Believe me when I say to you
I hope the Russians love their children too
We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology
What might save us, me and you
Is if the Russians love their children too

Representative of the fear associated with nuclear weapons is the Doomsday Clock, a theoretical clock created in 1947 by physicists at the Bulletin of Atomic Sciences to reflect international tensions. In the analogy, midnight represents the occurrence of a global nuclear war. The closer the minute hand of the theoretical clock is to midnight, the greater the perceived threat of a nuclear disaster. The physicists meet and assess the international political circumstances twice a year. They then issue a statement moving the minute hand backward or forward, or leaving it the same, depending on their view of international stability. The Clock was initially set at seven minutes to midnight (11:53) and has been moved back and forward numerous times. The Clock was closest to midnight in 1953, when it was set to 11:58, as a result of both the United States and Soviet Union successfully testing hydrogen weapons.

Although this song was written decades after the early days of nuclear paranoia, it does reflect the mind set of those times. “Doomsday Clock,Smashing Pumpkins (2007). (

Is everyone afraid?
Is everyone ashamed?
They’re running towards their holes to find out
Apocalyptic means are lose among our dead
A message to our friends to get out
There’s wages on this fear
Oh so clear
Depends on what you’ll pay to hear

They’re bound to kill us all in whitewashed halls
Their jackals lick their paws

Please don’t stop it’s lonely at the top
These lonely days when will they ever stop?
This doomsday clock ticking in my heart
Not broken

I love life every day
In each and every way
Kafka would be proud, to find out
I’m certain of the end
It’s the means that has me spooked
It takes an unknown truth to get out
I’m guessing I’m born free, silly me
I was meant to beg from my knees

Please don’t stop it’s lonely at the top
These lonely days when will they ever stop?
This doomsday clock ticking in my heart
These lonely days when will they ever stop?

We gotta dig in
Gas masks on
Wait in the sunshine, all bug-eyed
If this is living?
Sakes alive!
Well then they can’t win
No one survives

Is everyone afraid?
You should be ashamed
Apocalyptic screams mean nothing to the dead
Kissing that ‘ol sun to know all there is
Come on, last call
You should want it all

Ah, it’s lonely at the top
These lonely days when will they ever stop
This doomsday clock ticking in my heart
These lonely days when will they ever stop
This ticking in my heart
Is everyone afraid?

The effectiveness of the “nuclear deterrence” policy in part depended on the contradictory belief that the other side was willing, if necessary, to use atomic weapons. American songwriters reinforced this concept. A song that was not shy about advocating the use of nuclear weapons against the Communist devils was “Advice to Joe [Stalin], written and performed by country star Roy Acuff (1951). (

There’s a Communist ambition now to rule or wreck us all
With atomic ammunition they would like to see us fall
Peaceful men of every nation would become as common slaves
We’ll prevent that situation better we shall fill our graves

Refrain: You will see the lightnin’ flashin’ hear atomic thunders roll
When Moscow lies in ashes God have you mercy on your soul
Here’s a question Mr. Stalin and it’s you who must decide
When atomic bombs start falling do you have a place to hide?

Uncle Sam will still be living when the smoke of battle’s o’er
He will make a noose to fit you God will close up Heaven’s door
You’ll come face to face with Satan see the loved ones who have died
So be sure that when bombs start falling that you have a place to hide


Just remember Mr. Stalin how we both fought side by side
When Hitler and Mussolini had you whipped and how you cried
Uncle Sammy came to help you, gave you strength, we gave you all
And now your great ambition is to see our nation fall


Another song that took a hardline against the Communists and issued a warning to the Soviet Union that America was not afraid was “The Fiery Bear” by Jack Holden and Frances Kay (1950). The image of a bear was often used as a symbol of the Russian armed forces. (

We fought a battle in freedom’s name
To keep our colors pure
We showered the Axis with misery and pain
And gave them all a cure

In ’45 we thought we were through
In our fights for things good and fair
All we wanted was brotherhood
But there stood the fiery bear

You bear, you bear, you fiery bear
Is there no stopping your prowl
You bear, you bear, you fiery bear
We’re not afraid of your growl

We love our baseball and apple pie
We love our county fair
We’ll keep Old Glory waving high
There’s no place here for a bear

They know not the terms or the Bible’s words
They laugh at the Golden Rule
They’ve never seen the Great Speckled Bird
They don’t teach those things in their schools

You bear, you bear, you fiery bear
Is there no stopping your prowl
You bear, you bear, you fiery bear
We’re not afraid of your growl

We don’t like to think of atomic power
The weapon we’d rather not use
But now we enter the critical hour
And there you’re holding the fuse

You bear, you bear, you fiery bear
Is there no stopping your prowl
You bear, you bear, you fiery bear
We’re not afraid of your growl