A Timeline of the Cold War

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A Brief History

From 1945 to 1991, two superpowers (the capitalist United States of America versus the communist Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) challenged each other for dominance on the world stage.  This article presents a chronological timeline of some of the more bizarre events of the Cold War!

Digging Deeper

On August 8, 1946, the Consolidated Vultee B-36 Peacemaker nuclear bomber made its first flight.

On July 6, 1947, the Avtomat Kalashnikova went into production by the Soviet Union, hence the name AK-47.

On November 25, 1947, the United States was in the glow of having decisively won World War II and stepping up to become the major economic and military power in the world, the only nation with nuclear bombs.

On July 26, 1948, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which ordered the desegregation of the US military.  At times presidents cannot or will not wait for congress to act on a subject and they take it into their own hands by issuing an “Executive Order.”  

On June 25, 1950, over 75,000 North Korean soldiers flooded into the Republic of Korea, on the southern end of the Korean peninsula.

On June 28, 1950, the South Korean government, democratically elected allies of the United States and other Western allies, committed a massacre of suspected communist sympathizers in what is known as The Bodo League Massacre.  Somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 people are believed to have been executed, including girls as young as 12 or 13.  Sometimes the so called “good guys” do things that are not so good.  Any side is quick to point out the atrocities committed by the other side, but unlikely to acknowledge their own indiscretions.  

On November 8, 1950, a US Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star, America’s first operational jet fighter, shot down a Soviet built MiG-15’s piloted by a North Korean pilot early in the Korean War, the first air to air combat between jet planes in aviation history. US Air Force Lt. Russell Brown was the historic pilot flying the F-80 that day.

On April 11, 1951, President Harry Truman had had enough, and fired General of the Army (5 star general) Douglas MacArthur.  Firing the senior American general during a war, especially one that had been awarded the Medal of Honor (in World War II) and that was a national hero is not to be taken lightly; however, Truman had no choice and “Dugout Doug” was out.

On November 1, 1951, the US military conducted Operation Buster-Jangle, the exposing of US soldiers to atomic explosions in Nevada to study the effects. Nobody asked for the permission of the soldiers, and many of them were probably draftees as well. 6500 of these unfortunate men were used in the test of 7 separate explosions, 5 set off above ground (atmospheric) and 2 underground “cratering” tests. Of course, the men were lied to about the “safety” of these tests and they were exposed to harmful radiation from inhaling radioactive dust and marching over irradiated ground. Over the years the US government has engaged in a variety of activities that are positively bad for the health of the unlucky people participating either involuntarily or with false assurances of safety, including the public at large.

On April 8, 1952, President Truman ordered the Federal government to take control of the nation’s largest steel mills to prevent a strike that would interrupt steel production.

On April 15, 1952, a milestone in aviation history was crossed when the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress made its first flight!

On October 3, 1952, (October 2 local date), the British became the third country to boast the possession of atomic weapons when Operation Hurricane resulted in a successful nuclear blast in the Monte Bello Islands of Western Australia.

On April 13, 1953, Director of the CIA, Allen Dulles signed the order authorizing Project MKUltra, research into how to use mind control drugs against Soviet and Chinese targets during the Cold War.

On October 27, 1954, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. became the first African-American General (Brigadier, or 1 star) in the US Air Force. In 1998 he was promoted by President Clinton to (full) General (4 star rank). His accomplishment is all the more notable as his father, Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. had became the first African-American General in US Army history in 1940, a time when the US military was still segregated.

On July 1, 1957, the International Geophysical Year began.  The IGY was a cooperative scientific effort by 67 countries (there were under 100 countries in the world then, 200 now).  In an effort to minimize Cold War tensions, scientists from these countries would work in harmony for the advancement of mankind.  The IGY would last until December 31, 1958 (which you may notice is more than 1 year). 

On March 25, 1958, the Canadian supersonic interceptor, the Avro Arrow made its first flight. Designed to fly at Mach 2+ it seemed like a good airplane, but was mysteriously cancelled prior to production, with all partly assembled units and prototypes destroyed.

On May 27, 1958, the McDonnell Aircraft (later McDonnell Douglas) F-4 Phantom II naval interceptor made its first flight.  Designed as a carrier airplane to defend the fleet against Soviet supersonic bombers, the concept was to create an interceptor that could climb rapidly and fly fast enough to catch bombers before they got close enough to attack the fleet.

On January 7, 1959, the United States officially recognized the new government of Cuba, led by Fidel Castro who with his revolutionaries overthrew the corrupt dictator, Fulgencio Batista.

On February 9, 1959, a new a scary chapter in the atomic age began when the U.S.S.R. fielded the first intercontinental ballistic missile armed with a nuclear warhead, the R-7 Semyorka.

On February 16, 1960, the US Navy submarine, USS Triton SSRN-586, set out on a voyage of circumnavigation of the Earth, the first time anyone had made such a voyage completely underwater!

On May 1, 1960, CIA employee Gary Powers was flying a reconnaissance mission over the Soviet Union when his high flying top secret U-2 spyplane was shot down by an SA-2 surface to air missile.

On April 30, 1961, the Soviet Union was proud to commission their first nuclear armed submarine, the K-19.

On July 9, 1962, the United States Defense Atomic Support Agency and Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) launched a rocket from a remote Pacific Ocean island called Johnston Island (Or Johnston Atoll), a rocket carrying a thermonuclear bomb (aka, Hydrogen Bomb) into space.

On March 17, 1968, the US Army proved just how dangerous it is to play with weapons of “maaaass” destruction!  (Yes, we went there…)

On October 31, 1968, in a political move intended to help Hubert Humphrey win the Presidential election, President Lyndon Johnson announced what became known as The October Surprise, a halt to all bombing and bombardment of North Viet Nam. The publicly given reason for this halt was because North Viet Nam had supposedly shown good faith bargaining toward ending the Viet Nam War.

On March 25, 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono came up with a unique way to celebrate their honeymoon, by inviting friends and reporters to spend the day in their hotel bedroom each day for a week!

On July 3, 1969, the Soviet Union’s dreams of a moon rocket went up on the launch pad as the largest explosion of any rocket in history.  The Soviet N1 rocket booster was a giant rocket meant to carry objects or people beyond Earth orbit, basically to the moon.  Its first stage is the most powerful single stage of any rocket ever made, and that includes the American counterpart, the Saturn V.

On July 25, 1969, President Nixon declared the “Nixon Doctrine,” stating that from this point on Asian countries were expected to defend themselves rather than rely on the US to defend them.  This policy began the pathetic process of “Vietnamization” of the Viet Nam War, turning over responsibility for the war to South Viet Nam.  Presidents have been declaring “doctrines” all the way back to James Monroe.  

On May 15, 1970, President Richard Nixon appointed Anna Mae Hays a brigadier general in the US Army, the first female general in American military history.

On June 8, 1972, Nick Ut of the Associated press took his famous photograph of a 9 year old Vietnamese girl running naked from a US napalm attack.  For this poignant photo Ut won a Pulitzer Prize

On May 12, 1975, the Cambodian Navy seized the US freighter, SS Mayaguez from international waters.

On November 9, 1979, the computers that served NORAD, the American and Canadian anti-nuclear defense agency, wrongly reported a massive Soviet nuclear strike was on the way, triggering an alert that nearly caused the US to launch a massive retaliatory nuclear strike.

On March 23, 1983, President Ronald Reagan proposed the development and deployment of what he called The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which would become known as “Star Wars” and would cost around one trillion dollars!  Unfortunately, the commendable idea of making the US invulnerable to attack by Soviet ballistic missiles had 2 major problems, besides the economy ruining cost.  The first problem was that if it could work, the so called Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) theory that kept either side from nuking the other which would result in everybody gets blasted would be obsolete.  The second major problem is there would be no realistic way for a perfect umbrella of anti-missile defenses to actually work beyond blocking maybe 75% of incoming warheads, meaning we would still be nuked into the stone age.  Plus, the Soviets would certainly employ all sorts of ingenious countermeasures to defeat our defenses anyway.

On September 6, 1983, a Soviet Su-15 Interceptor was scrambled to intercept an airplane that had violated Soviet airspace. Suspecting the jet liner was actually a US spy plane, the Soviet fighter fired 2 air to air missiles, easily shooting down the lumbering airliner.

On September 26, 1983, the Cold War between the Soviet Union and their allies versus the United States and their allies nearly erupted into full blown nuclear Armageddon when the early warning system employed by the Soviet military falsely reported the launch of United States Air Force Minuteman ICBM’s.

On June 22, 1990, Checkpoint Charlie, the best known crossing point between Soviet-occupied East Germany to Western-occupied West Germany was torn down, a sign that the Cold War that had threatened the world with nuclear annihilation since 1947 was drawing to an end.

On September 9, 1991, the Tajik SSR received its independence from the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Reputlics) as part of the disintegration of the USSR and became the sovereign nation of Tajikistan.

Questions for students: What do you think was the most interesting event of the Cold War and why?

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Gaddis, John Lewis. The Cold War: A New History. Penguin Books, 2006.

The featured image in this timeline, a photograph of East German construction workers building the Berlin Wall in 1961, is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.

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About Author

Dr. Zar

Dr. Zar graduated with a B.A. in French and history, a Master’s in History, and a Ph.D. in History. He currently teaches history in Ohio.