In Asia, the Communist cause gained great impetus when the Communists under Mao Zedong gained control of mainland China in 1949. The United States continued to support Nationalist China, with its headquarters on Taiwan. President Truman, fearing the appeal of Communism to the peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, created the Point Four program, which was intended to help underdeveloped areas. Strife continued, however, and in 1950 Communist forces from North Korea attacked South Korea, precipitating the Korean War. Chinese Communist troops entered the conflict in large numbers, but were checked by UN forces, especially those of the United States. The focus of the cold war in Asia soon shifted to the southeast. China supported insurgent guerrillas in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia; the United States, on the other side, played a leading role in the formation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization and provided large-scale military aid, but guerrilla warfare continued.
The newly emerging nations of Asia and Africa soon became the scene of cold-war skirmishes, and the United States and the Soviet Union (and later China) competed for their allegiance, often through economic aid; however, many of these nations succeeded in remaining neutral. As the cold-war struggle continued in Southeast Asia, in the Middle East, in Africa (in nations such as Congo (Kinshasa), Angola, and others), and in Latin America (where the United States supported the Alliance for Progress to counter leftist appeal), both the Soviet Union and the United States supported and maintained sometimes brutal regimes (through military, financial, and other forms of aid) in return for their allegiance.
In Europe, the East German government erected the Berlin Wall in late 1961 to check the embarrassing flow of East Germans to the West. In 1962 a tense confrontation occurred between the United States and the Soviet Union after U.S. intelligence discovered the presence of Soviet missile installations in Cuba. Direct conflict was avoided, however, when Premier Khrushchev ordered ships carrying rockets to Cuba to turn around rather than meet U.S. vessels sent to intercept them (see Cuban Missile Crisis). It was obvious from this and other confrontations that neither major power wanted to risk nuclear war.
Hopes for rapprochement between the Soviet Union and the West had been raised by a relaxation in Soviet policy after the death (1953) of Joseph Stalin. Conferences held in that period seemed more amiable, and hopes were high for a permanent ban on nuclear weapons. However, the success of the Soviet artificial satellite Sputnik in 1957, attesting to Soviet technological know-how, introduced new international competition in space exploration and missile capability. Moreover, both Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles grimly threatened "massive retaliation" for any aggression, and the Soviet Union's resumption (1961) of nuclear tests temporarily dashed disarmament hopes. While Khrushchev spoke of peaceful victory, extremists in both camps agitated for a more warlike course, even at the risk of nuclear catastrophe. China began to accuse the USSR of conciliatory policies toward the West, and by the early 1960s ideological differences between the two countries had become increasingly evident.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.