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By the end of World War II, the United States had emerged as the world’s preeminent power. Anticipating an era of peaceful cooperation under the new United Nations, the United States quickly demobilized its army. At the same time, however, the Soviet Union redrew the borders of Eastern Europe in its favor and imposed “soviet” style governments in the nations occupied by its armies in Eastern Europe. By March, 1946, the reality of Soviet control was fully recognized and articulated by Winston Churchill in his “Iron Curtain” speech. The American response to these developments came to be called the policy of “containment”: Soviet expansion could be countered if the United States (and eventually its Western allies) retained its economic superiority, maintained a credible defense, and secured the cooperation of countries most threatened by the Soviets. In Europe this policy produced the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, and set the stage for decades of confrontation, known as the Cold War.

Between 1945 and 1970, confrontations in Europe between the Superpowers, as the United States and Soviet Union came to be known, arose on two principal issues: how to define the role of Germany and how to respond to the demands of allies (on both sides) for greater independence. After 1970, the notion of MAD (“mutual assured destruction”) took on new meaning as both sides deployed “intermediate range missiles” with nuclear warheads. Even more significant, and ultimately decisive in determining the end of the Cold War, was the increasingly obvious economic disparity between the two blocks.

Germany occupies a central position in the European Cold War for several reasons. In the years immediately following the war there was concern about whether Germany, after two wars, could live in peace with her neighbors. Moreover, and not unrelated, the great majority of American troops in Europe were stationed in Western Germany. Finally, it was in Berlin and Germany that the two Superpowers faced one another directly. If another war broke out, Germany would have been the battlefield.

The main frames provide an overview of the major encounters in the period from 1945 to 1990. A more specific perspective of the situation in Germany and Berlin is accessible from each frame by clicking on the magnifying glass icon in the caption. The module concludes with two graphs illustrating the costs of waging the Cold War as a proportion of gross national product.