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Knowledge Bank: Glossary

  The following represents a sampling of words, phrases and acronyms associated with Cold War history. 
A   B   C   D   E   F   G   H   I   J   K   L   M

(Click for N-Z list)


ABM Antiballistic missiles, designed to detect and intercept incoming nuclear missiles.
Apollo-Soyuz First manned space flight conducted jointly by the United States and the Soviet Union during the era of detente. On July 17, 1975, the U.S. Apollo spacecraft and Soviet Soyuz vessel docked for two days of joint operations.
Arms race Competitive buildup of nuclear weapons between the United States and Soviet Union that began after the Soviets exploded their first atomic weapon on August 29, 1949 -- ending the U.S. nuclear monopoly.
Atlas Developed in the 1960s, these intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) were housed in deep underground concrete silos built to withstand a nuclear attack.
Atomic bomb First nuclear weapon used in wartime, by the United States on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945; an A-bomb explosion is created by the splitting of atomic nuclei and results in a huge release of energy.


B-1 Strategic U.S. heavy bomber with nuclear capacity, developed in the 1980s; unlike the B-52, the B-1 is capable of flying intercontinental missions without refueling.
B-52 Strategic U.S. heavy bomber with nuclear capacity, powered by eight turbojet engines; its range is extended by in-flight refueling. B-52s were the mainstay of U.S. nuclear forces in the 1950s.
Baghdad Pact Middle Eastern defense pact established in 1955 by Great Britain, Turkey and Iraq; would later include the United States, Iran and Pakistan.
Soviet missile-testing facility where rockets, spacecraft and satellites are launched; located in current-day Kazakhstan.
Bay of Pigs Landing area on Cuba's south coast where an American-organized invasion by Cuban exiles was defeated by Fidel Castro's government forces April 17-20, 1961.
Beatlemania Frenzy over the 1964 U.S. arrival of the British pop group The Beatles, whose music and style loosened American culture from the constraints of the 1950s.
Berlin airlift Successful effort by the United States and Britain to ship by air 2.3 million tons of supplies to the residents of the Western-controlled sectors of Berlin from June 1948 to May 1949, in response to a Soviet blockade of all land and canal routes to the divided city.
Black Panthers Militant African-American political organization founded in Oakland, California, in 1966 by Huey Newton; the group advocated revolution to achieve black equality in the United States.
Bolsheviks Precursor to the Russian Communist Party, they seized power in Russia in October 1918 under Lenin's leadership.
Bomber gap In the 1950s a number of U.S. military officials warned about a "bomber gap," alleging the Soviet Union had more planes than the United States that were capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
Broken arrow Any incident that includes the seizure, theft, loss or accidental destruction of a nuclear device.
Bunny girl Waitresses who worked in Playboy Clubs dressed in bustiers, satin ears and cotton tails; clubs opened in the 1960s as the U.S. sexual revolution was beginning. Celebrities who worked as bunnies before launching their careers include actress Lauren Hutton and rock star Deborah Harry.


CFE Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, signed November 19, 1990, by leaders of all NATO and Warsaw Pact countries; it reduced troop levels and the number of non-nuclear weapons on the continent.
Charter 77 Main Czechoslovakian dissident group, formed on January 6, 1977, when 230 intellectuals published a human rights manifesto in Western newspapers.
Border site between East and West Berlin where U.S. and Soviet tanks faced each other in a tense standoff in October 1961 before both sides withdrew.
CIA Central Intelligence Agency, established in 1947 by Truman; conducts U.S. intelligence and counterintelligence missions overseas.
Civil rights
Mass movement for political, social and economic equality by African Americans during the 1960s, mostly in the segregated cities of the Southern United States.
COMECON Council for Mutual and Economic Cooperation, formed in 1949 as a Soviet version of an economic community. Moscow's answer to the Marshall Plan.
COMINFORM International communist information bureau established by Stalin in 1947; dissolved by Khrushchev in 1956.
Containment Policy established by the Truman administration in 1947 to contain Soviet influence to what it was at the end of World War II.
Contras U.S.-backed counter-revolutionary forces opposed to Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government, which came to power in 1979.
Cruise U.S. missiles that use wings, a turbofan and computerized maps to fly like an airplane to its target; can fly at altitudes of 50 feet.
Cuban Missile
Week of international tension in October 1962 when the world stood at the brink of nuclear war, after the Soviet Union placed nuclear weapons on Cuba and the United States responded with a blockade of the island on October 22. The Soviets agreed six days later to withdraw the weapons.
Mass campaign in China ordered by Mao Tse-tung in 1966, aimed at renewing popular support for revolutionary communism; the nation nearly fell into civil war as so-called bourgeois elements in cultural circles and the government were purged.


D-Day On June 6, 1944, the Western Allies launched the biggest sea-borne invasion in history against the Nazis in France; it opened a second European fighting front to relieve the Soviets.
DEFCON System of defense conditions used by the U.S. military, ranging from DEFCON 5, the lowest state of alert, to DEFCON 1, indicating war.
Detente A thaw in Cold War relations between the United States and Soviet Union from 1969-1975, highlighted by the signing of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) treaty and the Helsinki Accords.
Dien Bien Phu Site of a French military garrison near Hanoi and where the French colonials were defeated by Vietnamese independence fighters on May 7, 1954.
DMZ Demilitarized zone between North and South Korea since 1953, when the Korean War ended. It is one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world, often described as the last frontier of the Cold War.


Eisenhower Doctrine Pledge by Eisenhower in 1957 to provide military and economic aid to any Middle Eastern country fighting communism.


Fallout shelter Underground concrete structures, often stocked with food and water supplies, designed to withstand fallout from a nuclear attack; popular in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s.
First strike
The capacity to launch a nuclear strike without fear of a nuclear counterattack from the enemy; the United States enjoyed first strike capability over the Soviet Union until the late 1950s.
The U.S. policy of maintaining both conventional and nuclear forces to have flexibility in dealing with communist threats.
FNLA National Front for the Liberation of Angola, a U.S.-backed faction that fought against the Soviet-backed MPLA for control of Angola after the Portuguese withdrew in 1975.


GDR German Democratic Republic, or East Germany; it was proclaimed in October 1949 and encompassed the Soviet occupation zone in postwar Germany.
Signed by the Soviet Union, United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan in 1988, it called on the Soviets to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan by February 1989.
on Indochina
Established a North and South Vietnam, with a border along the 17th parallel, following the defeat of French colonial forces at Dien Bien Phu.
Glasnost Policy of openness initiated by Gorbachev in the 1980s that provided increased opportunities for freedom of speech, association and the press in the Soviet Union.
Great Leap
Chinese economic plan launched by Mao Tse-tung in 1958 that included farm collectivization and state-sponsored industrialization. It caused massive famine in the early 1960s.
Great Society Domestic U.S. social program initiated by Johnson in the 1960s that included civil rights legislation, improved health care and a general "war on poverty."


Declaration signed in 1975 by the United States, Canada and every European nation except Albania, that postwar European borders were permanent and that the countries would respect their citizens' human rights and freedoms.
Ho Chi
Minh Trail
A network of dirt roads and trails that carried supplies from North Vietnam through Laos, Cambodia and South Vietnam to Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces fighting to topple the Saigon government.
Members of the Screen Actors Guild who refused to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, during the height of U.S. anti-communist hysteria.
Hot line Direct phone line between Washington and Moscow established after the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Mass uprising that began with reformist efforts by Hungarian Communist Party leader Imre Nagy; crushed by Soviet troops and tanks November 3-4, 1956.
First tested in 1952 by the United States and in 1953 by the Soviets; a nuclear weapon hundreds of times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


ICBM Intercontinental ballistic missiles; land-based nuclear weapons with a range of more than 3,500 miles.
INF Treaty Signed by Reagan and Gorbachev in 1987, the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty eliminated an entire class of missiles deployed in Europe: the U.S. cruise and Pershing II missiles and Soviet SS-20s.
Iran hostage
In January 1979, an Islamic revolution led by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini forced the U.S.-backed leader, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, to flee. Students seized the U.S. Embassy on November 4, 1979, and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days before releasing them unharmed.
IRBM Intermediate-range ballistic missiles; can reach targets between 600 and 3,500 miles away.
Iron Curtain Term used by Churchill in 1946 to describe the growing East-West divide in postwar Europe between communist and democratic nations.


Jupiter Class of U.S. intermediate-range ballistic missiles developed in the 1950s by a team led by Wernher Von Braun, who developed V-1 and V-2 rockets for Nazi Germany.


Kent State On May 4, 1970, at Kent State University in Ohio, four students protesting the Vietnam War were shot to death by Ohio National Guard troops; the incident galvanized popular support for the U.S. anti-war movement.
KOMSOMOL Communist organization for Soviet youths aged 14 to 28; patterned after the Communist Party, its goals were to indoctrinate and train future members.


La Coubre Freighter carrying arms and munitions that exploded in Cuba's Havana harbor in 1959, killing more than 100 people; CIA sabotage was suspected but never proved.
Limited Test
Ban Treaty
1963 agreement signed by the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union that prohibited the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, space and underwater.
Linkage U.S. negotiating policy developed by Kissinger to offer concessions on technology and trade in exchange for a more responsible Soviet foreign policy.
Los Alamos U.S. nuclear research and testing facility in the New Mexico desert where the world's first atomic bomb was developed during World War II.


MAD Mutual assured destruction, a Cold War theory in which the United States and Soviet Union each used its ability to launch a nuclear counterattack to deter a first strike from the other side.
Malta Summit between Bush and Gorbachev on warships near the Mediterranean island of Malta in December 1989, weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall; both leaders agreed to pursue further conventional and nuclear weapons cuts.
Code name for U.S. and British development of the first atomic bomb; it began in 1944 at Los Alamos, New Mexico.
Marshall Plan Postwar European recovery plan organized by U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall that was also intended to bolster Western democracy; nearly $13 billion was spent from 1948-1952.
Eisenhower administration policy that pledged U.S. attacks in response to Soviet expansion; relied heavily on nuclear, rather than conventional, military forces.
McCarthyism U.S. campaign to root out communists in government and society during the late 1940s and 1950s led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy; accusations were often based on rumors and half-truths.
Minutemen Land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) developed by the United States in the 1960s; deployed in silos, they replaced dependency on bombers.
MIRV Multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicle; first deployed in the 1960s, MIRV technology enabled missiles to carry a number of warheads aimed at separate targets.
Missile gap Charges by critics of the Eisenhower administration that the United States had fallen behind the Soviet Union in the production of nuclear missiles, especially intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
MPLA Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, one of three groups that vied for power after Portugal withdrew in 1975; members of the leftist group received military training in Cuba and arms from Moscow.
Mujahedeen U.S.-supported Islamic rebels opposed to the Soviet-backed 1979 coup in Afghanistan. Term means "soldier of god."
MX U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with a range of 5,000 miles and 10 warheads, each with an explosive yield of 500 kilotons.

(Click for N-Z list)

Sources: COLD WAR, Jeremy Isaacs Productions; Encyclopedia of the Cold War, Thomas S. Arms; The Cold War, 1945-1991, Benjamin Frankel, editor; The Cold War: A History, Martin Walker; Cold War Chronology, Soviet-American Relations 1945-1991, Kenneth L. Hill; Encyclopedia Britannica.

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