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Strategic Stability in the Cold War: Lessons for Continuing Challenges

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Extending from roughly the end of the Second World War to the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989-1991, the Cold War period witnessed--among other upheavals--significant conflicts in East Asia and the Middle East, the end of European colonial empires in Africa and Asia, and a remarkable competition between the United States and the Soviet Union across virtually every aspect of endeavor, from economic and cultural activities to military, nuclear, and space capabilities. In this era of great instability scores of new states gained their independence, some great powers lost stature and influence in comparative terms, and millions of people perished in civil and interstate wars and at the hands of repressive governments. Yet it was during this period that the phrase strategic stability gained currency both as an objective and as an apt way of describing four dominant features of the period. First, the United States and the Soviet Union never went to war, although there were several occasions when some observers saw war as a genuine possibility, including the Berlin and Cuban crises, the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, and the war scare of the early 1980s. Second, neither these powers nor any others detonated nuclear weapons to inflict damage on an enemy, though they relied on them for deterrence, alliance cohesion, and other purposes. Third, the configuration of political alignments in Europe and Northeast Asia was remarkably stable from the mid-1950s to the end of the Cold War in 1989-1991. Fourth, the proliferation of nuclear-weapon states was contained to a much lower level than feared by some observers in the 1950s and 1960s. This paper concentrates on the first of the four elements of strategic stability in the Cold War listed above the fact that the two superpowers did not engage in a direct hot war with each other.

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  • Government and Political Science
  • Nuclear Weapons

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