On the 29th August 1949, the Soviet Union successfully detonated its first nuclear weapon codenamed RDS-1 and nicknamed First Lightning. The explosion had the power of 22 kilotons of TNT, and was 50% more destructive than its designers had expected.
The USSR started its nuclear program in 1943 after discovering the USA, Britain and Canada had begun bomb development. Assisted by intelligence from sources inside the USA’s Manhattan Project, the Soviet Union’s program developed quickly as the Soviets were able to replicate American successes while avoiding some of their costlier mistakes. Consequently, although the majority of Cold War academics accept that the USSR’s success had a lot to do with domestic expertise they recognise that intelligence helped to reduce the time it took for them to develop the bomb.
Work was accelerated after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in secret, purpose-built cities dedicated to the nuclear program known as Atomgrads. By 1949 the Soviets had developed two types of bomb, but opted to detonate the simpler of the two designs first since it was similar in design to the successful Fat Man bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki.
The RDS-1 test was conducted in secret in an attempt to avoid the USA increasing its own nuclear program, but the US Air Force began to detect radioactive fallout from the explosion a few days later and tracked the trail. Soviet success had occurred up to 4 years ahead of Western estimates, and the knowledge that the USSR now had ‘the bomb’ dramatically increased tensions in the early years of the Cold War.
At around 11pm on the 20th August 1968, troops from the USSR, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary entered Czechoslovakia in an invasion that brought the Prague Spring to an end. The invasion, known as Operation Danube, led to almost half a million soldiers crossing the border to bring Alexander Dubček’s reforms to an end.
The Prague Spring began in early January, shortly after Dubček became the leader of Czechoslovakia. Keen to push forward with de-Stalinisation within the country, he granted greater freedom to the press and introduced a programme of ‘socialism with a human face’ by which he intended to decentralise parts the economy and introduce some limited democratic reforms.
This new openness saw open criticisms of the Czechoslovakian government begin to appear in the press, which concerned the other Warsaw Pact countries. János Kádár, the leader of Hungary who came to power after the fall of Imre Nagy in 1956, even warned that the situation in Czechoslovakia seemed “similar to the prologue of the Hungarian counterrevolution”.
Concerned that Dubček’s reforms might spread to other Eastern Bloc countries and threaten the USSR’s security, the Soviet leader Brezhnev chose to open negotiations with the Czechoslovakian leadership that lasted into August. The talks ended in compromise, but Brezhnev continued to be unhappy with the situation and began to prepare military intervention.
Overwhelmed by the military invasion, Dubček asked his people not to resist. 72 Czech and Slovak soldiers and 108 civilians were killed, with a further 500 civilians injured. It later emerged that members of the Czechoslovakian government had asked for Soviet assistance against Dubček’s reforms.
On the 14th August 1980, workers at the Lenin Shipyard in the Polish city of Gdańsk led by electrician Lech Wałęsa began a strike that led to the formation of the Solidarity labour movement. A decade of economic and political crises preceded the 1980 strike, but the Gdańsk strike spread throughout Poland and galvanised various other strike committees to join together for a common goal.
The trigger for the strike was the firing of a popular worker at the shipyard, a female crane operator and activist called Anna Walentynowicz. Just 5 months before her planned retirement, she was sacked for being a member of an illegal trade union. This move proved highly unpopular with the shipyard workforce, who demanded that she be reinstated.
Just a week after beginning the strike a governmental commission began negotiations with the strikers and, on the 30th August, they and representatives of the Gdańsk workers signed an agreement in which many of the strikers’ demands were met. The fact that political change, including the resignation of the Polish Communist Party’s General Secretary, had come from the workers’ action emboldened the people of Poland and fuelled the formation of the national labour union Solidarity.
Within two years up to 80% of the entire Polish workforce had joined Solidarity or one of its suborganisations, and they continued to use strikes to achieve political change. In March 1981, the crippling effects of 12 million people going on a four-hour warning strike demonstrated that the Communist Party was no longer the most powerful force in the country.
Beginning at midnight on the 13th August 1961, East German police and army began to close the border with West Berlin. The barbed wire and mesh barrier that was constructed overnight was gradually replaced with a virtually impregnable ring of reinforced concrete that ran 155km around West Berlin.
The border between East and West Germany – sometimes referred to as the inner-German border – had been closed since 1952, although the crossing between East and West Berlin remained open. This easy access proved highly problematic for the Communist government of East Germany, since people comparing the two parts of the city found West Berlin to be much more appealing.
Berlin became a focal point for East Germans who wanted to move to the West, and by 1961 an estimated 20% of the entire population had emigrated. The majority were young, educated, and skilled professionals. This so-called “brain drain” seriously depleted the workforce, and was hugely damaging to the political credibility of East Germany.
The erection of the Berlin Wall was intended to put a stop both of these problems, although it was presented to the East German people as the “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart”. The East German leader, Walter Ulbricht, had even denied any intention of building a wall just two months earlier despite pressuring USSR Premier Nikita Khrushchev to support him doing just that.
The construction of the Wall turned Berlin overnight from the easiest way to cross between East and West into the most difficult. It cut people off from their jobs, and divided families. The crossing was not opened again for 28 years.
The 16th July 1945 marked the start of the atomic age when the USA detonated the first nuclear bomb under the codename ‘Trinity’. Nicknamed ‘the gadget’ by the people working on it, the plutonium-based weapon was detonated at the Alamogordo Test Range in New Mexico. The explosion was equivalent to about 20 kilotons of TNT, and the blast-wave was felt by civilians up to 160 miles away. To maintain secrecy, a press release was issued shortly after the successful detonation that claimed a large ammunition storage magazine had exploded.
The development of nuclear weapons by the US Army in the Manhattan Project that began in 1942 at Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico started due to concerns that Nazi Germany would develop an atomic bomb. By 1944 scientists had designed an implosion-type device and proposed that a test take place. The location was chosen in September, and an on-site laboratory was set up.
President Truman was keen to test the bomb before the Potsdam Conference began on the 18th July, so the 16th was chosen to give time to try again in case it failed. However when the appointed hour came rain was falling, which would have increased radioactive fallout, and so the detonation time was pushed back from 4am to 5.30am. At 5:29am the “the gadget” was exploded on top of a 100-foot steel tower, known as Point Zero. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, later said that after the explosion he recalled a verse from Hindu scripture: ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’
Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon’s National Security Advisor, made a secret trip to China to meet with Premier Zhou Enlai.
Even before Nixon became president in 1969 he had expressed a desire to improve American relations with China. The USA had been virtually isolated from China since the Communists came to power in 1949, and Nixon was keen to end these two decades of mutual hostility. While part of his motivation was to contain China’s potential nuclear threat, he also sought to use China to find a way to end the Vietnam War while exploiting the increasingly poor relationship between China and the USSR.
Kissinger was given the delicate task of making contact with the Chinese government and, following the Chinese invitation to the American ping pong team in April 1971, it was clear that China was also interested in improving the relationship. However, without any direct channels of communication between the two countries, Kissinger was forced to use Pakistan as a third party through which the diplomatic visit would be organised.
Kissinger set out on a publicly announced trip to Vietnam, Thailand, India, and Pakistan in early July 1971. At the conclusion of his meetings in Pakistan, it was then announced that Kissinger was ill and would recuperate in a hill station. In reality the motorcade was a decoy, since Kissinger and a small group of advisors had boarded a Pakistani plane to Beijing.
They landed at noon, and spent a total of 49 hours in China. During this time they held a series of talks with the Chinese government that set out the parameters for a visit by President Nixon himself. On 15 July Nixon appeared on television from the Oval Office to announce that he would visit China the following year.
On the 4th July 1950, Radio Free Europe – founded the previous year to transmit uncensored information to audiences behind the Iron Curtain – completed its first broadcast. Although the station was uncensored in the sense that it shared information that was suppressed within the Communist Bloc, it’s important to remember that it was still a propaganda tool founded and principally funded by the United States government.
The task facing the journalists who worked for RFE was daunting. Since they broadcast to states that suppressed a range of information and news, the gathering of intelligence to provide broadcast material was an enormous challenge. They often relied on risky contact with émigrés and people who had traveled behind the Iron Curtain for eye-witness accounts, and closely monitored print and electronic media from the communist governments. It’s even been suggested that the quality and quantity of information was so comprehensive that the communist governments themselves used Radio Free Europe to gain information about what was happening within their own countries.
However, RFE was still fundamentally a broadcaster that promoted anti-communist ideas and was therefore a significant threat in the countries it targeted. The USSR tasked the KGB with establishing expensive radio jamming facilities to try to block broadcasts, while in 1981 a terrorist group funded by the Romanian regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu detonated a bomb at RFE’s Munich headquarters.
Despite these challenges Radio Free Europe and its partner station Radio Liberty continued broadcasting, and even after the end of the Cold War has continued to broadcast to countries where a free press is not established.
US President Harry S. Truman ordered air and naval forces to assist South Korea against an invasion by North Korea.
Towards the end of the Second World War in 1945 the ‘big three’ powers of the USA, the USSR and Great Britain met at the Yalta Conference. As part of a wide-ranging series of agreements, Korea was divided along the 38th parallel with a Soviet occupied zone in the north and Americans in the south.
In May 1948 the north, led by Kim Il-sung, declared itself the communist Korean Democratic People’s Republic. The democratic Republic of Korea soon followed in the south, and within a year both the USSR and the USA had withdrawn the majority of their troops. Meanwhile, the two Korean nations claimed the right to rule the other.
In the early morning of 25 June, North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel and invaded South Korea. The action was condemned later that afternoon by the United Nations Security Council, who issued UN Security Council Resolution 82 which called for the North to immediately draw back to the 38th parallel. Two days later, on 27 June, the Security Council approved Resolution 83 which recommended providing military assistance to South Korea. The USSR could have been expected to veto both of these resolutions, but at the time was boycotting the Security Council over its refusal to admit the newly-proclaimed People’s Republic of China.
Truman announced American intervention shortly after Resolution 83 to broad approval from both Congress and the public. Fighting continued until 27 July 1953 when an armistice was signed that established the Korean Demilitarized Zone along the 38th parallel. A peace treaty was never concluded.
On the 26th June 1963 American President John F. Kennedy declared US support for West Berlin with the phrase, “Ich bin ein Berliner” – I am a Berliner – 22 months after the Soviet-supported DDR, more commonly known as East Germany, built the Berlin Wall.
Berlin had been a focal point for Cold War tensions ever since the Yalta and Potsdam conferences in 1945 divided the city – and the rest of Germany – between the four victorious powers at the end of the Second World War. When the USSR imposed the Berlin Blockade from 1948-49, the Western allies made it clear that they were not willing to back down in their support for West Berlin by airlifting supplies into the city.
Although the airlift secured West Berlin’s survival, it further increased tensions between the USSR and its former allies as East Germans crossed the border in order to defect to the West. This placed an enormous economic strain on the East, which began suffering labour shortages. In response, the government of East Germany erected a barbed wire fence around West Berlin that eventually developed into the imposing Berlin Wall, although the government claimed that it was to keep out spies and agitators rather than stop people from leaving.
It was against this background of heightened tension that Kennedy delivered his rousing speech on the steps of the Rathaus Schöneberg, the seat of the state senate of West Berlin. While the speech effectively recognised East Berlin as part of the Soviet Bloc, it also reaffirmed America’s commitment to defend West Berlin against Communist expansion.
On June 16th 1958, Hungarian Communist politician Imre Nagy was executed. Arrested after Soviet forces brought the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 to an end, Nagy was found guilty of treason in a secret trial and executed by hanging.
Nagy had been sacked from his position as Chairman of the Council of Ministers in April 1955 due to his independent attitude that favoured a “New Course” in Socialism. Although his moderate reforms were met with hostility from the USSR, they garnered significant support within Hungary where opposition to the hard-line government of Mátyás Rákosi had grown since the death of Stalin in 1953. Nagy’s popular support led to him being appointed Prime Minister on October 24th 1956, the day after the Revolution began.
After a week of violence, Nagy recognised the crowd’s desire for political change. Despite being an ardent Marxist he began moves towards introducing a multiparty political system and, on November 1st, announced Hungary’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact and its status as a neutral country. This proved too much for Khrushchev in the USSR, who moved his troops into Budapest and seized control of most of the city by the 8th November. Nagy took refuge in the Yugoslavian embassy, but was arrested when he was given false promises of safe passage to leave Hungary on the 22nd November. He, and other leading members of the deposed government, were imprisoned in Romania until 1958 when they were returned to Hungary for trial.
News of Nagy’s trial and execution were only made public after the sentence had been carried out.