How Cold War tensions were intensified through proxy wars between the Soviet Union and the United States

During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union competed through manifestations of their very different ideologies:

  • An early Cold War goal of the Soviet Union was to support world revolution and the spread of communism, increasing their sphere of influence wherever possible.
  • The stated aim of the United States was to support democracy and stop the spread of communism.

With nuclear weapons snapping at each other’s throats, neither side could afford the risk of their differences escalating into a direct ‘hot war’ between them. A delicate balance developed that was rather like the stalemate of WW1 trench warfare. Each side constantly sought the military advantage needed to ensure that they could ‘win’ or ‘survive’ a Hot War. And ‘proxy wars’ fought on smaller nations’ soil became the battlegrounds where their capabilities could be tested.

A ‘proxy war’ is an armed conflict between smaller countries who are representing the interests of other, larger powers (1). The Cold War superpowers were usually not directly involved in the fighting. Instead, they provided countries they perceived as being ‘on their side’ with support including funding, military training, the provision of armaments or other material assistance (2).

Both sides manipulated smaller nations in their quest for global power and influence. Let’s take a look at four specific examples:

  • Korea, 1949 – 53.
  • Vietnam, 1965 – 75.
  • Afghanistan, 1977 – 89.
  • Grenada, 1983.

The first major test of the superpowers’ ideological resolve was the Korean War, 1949-53 (3).

In the closing days of WW2 the Soviets invaded Korea. The US reassessed its priorities in Asia and demanded that the Soviets shared control of the country – the US would occupy land south of the “38th parallel” (ie the line of latitude across the country at 38 degrees North), the Soviets would take the North. The US did not have troops in Korea and the Soviets were in position to take control of the entire territory. However, they agreed to this demand and control of the country was split.

The Soviets installed a strong communist structure in the North and resisted calls by the UN in 1948 for free elections (which could open the way for reunification of the country). Under a shadow of economic strain and poverty across much of Korea, by 1949 tensions were rising at the border between the Republic of Korea (south) and Deomcratic People’s Republic of Korea (north). Both the Soviet and US armies withdrew, leaving a power vacuum that was ripe for change… and conflict.

During 1949-50, Kim Il Sung, the North Korean leader, repeatedly sought permission to invade the South from both Stalin and Mao (the leader of the newly formed People’s Republic of China, PRC). Stalin initially refused, feeling that the Soviet Union was not strong enough to resist a response from the US. But by 1950 the Soviets had developed an atomic bomb and, combined with the formation of the PRC, he then believed that the international balance was swinging in his favour. He thought the US would not intervene over such a small territory and approved the invasion, which was then also supported by the PRC.

On the 25th June 1950, North Korean forces crossed the border and invaded the South. It was a complete surprise and the attacking army made swift progress.

But Stalin had miscalculated the United States’ resolve to resist the expansion of communism in Asia. With backing by the UN, the US and other countries quickly moved to support the South. 

A full blown proxy war was now in progress.

The Soviets supplied the North with significant quantities of arms, including T-34 tanks. The Chinese put ‘boots on the ground’ and sent troops.

The UN supplied the South with troops and weapons. 88% of their forces came from the US (4), and 21 countries came to their aid.

By September 1950 Kim’s army had pushed South Korean and US forces as far as the ‘Pusan Perimeter’, near the city of Pusan in the far south-eastern corner of the country.

The “tide of war” flowed North and South several times during this conflict and major cities like Pyongyang were flattened. Fighting on the ground was as visceral and bloody as ever:

 Killed / Wounded
United States forces54,000 / 100,000
South Korean forces415,000 / ?
Other UN forces3,000 / 12,000
North Korean forces~ 1,000,000 / ?
Chinese forces112,500 – 500,000 / ?

At the end of the fighting around 5 million civilians were refugees in the South (5).

In the air jet fighters faced each other for the first time in combat, with Soviet Mig-15s facing US F-86s. It is surprisingly difficult to find an accurate and verifiable report of the losses on both sides. The best estimate I could form comes from often repeated results from the post-war USAF “Sabre Measure Charlie” investigation (easily found on the internet), which suggests an F-86:Mig-15 kill ratio of 7:1, and that 78 F-86s were “lost in combat” (6), suggesting that around 550 Mig-15s were shot down by F-86s. It is clear that during the period of this war the US had a technologically superior fighter jet.

The bombing of civilians continued during the Korean war, with the USAF dropping over 600,000 tons of bombs on the North (more than was dropped on Germany during all of WW2 (see ‘Cold War’, Isaacs and Downing).

The superpowers’ acceptance of aerial bombardment had clearly continued after WW2. Indeed, General MacArthur suggested the bombing of Chinese cities before Truman replaced him with Ridgway.

The US air force was at risk of being over-extended and the threat of nuclear force was always present. Truman sent B-29s to both the UK (in range of the Soviet Union) and Guam. In November 1950 he told the press that he would do whatever was necessary to win the war in Korea, not excluding the use of nuclear weapons (7). In April 1951 he allowed 9 atomic bombs, with their cores, and B-29s capable of dropping them to be sent to Okinawa – thankfully these were sent back to the US in June.

There was no formal end to the Korean War. Today, North and South face each other down each day across an armistice line called the “Korean Demilitarized Zone” (DMZ).

The next major proxy war fought during the Cold War is the Vietnam War. Most associated with the US intervention in the country between 1965-1975, the country had previously fought against French colonialism (First Indochina War), finally forcing them out at the 1954 siege of Dien Bien Phu. With echoes of the Korean War, Vietnam was then split along the 17th parallel, with Ho Chi Minh’s communist government controlling the north, and Ngo Dinh Diem’s US-supported government ruling the south.

The communist north started a guerilla war against the south and the US, reluctant to enter another war so soon after Korea, shored up Diem’s government with hundreds of millions of dollars of aid. Increasing communist infiltration into South Vietnam brought the country into focus for President Kennedy’s administration. Kennedy ruled against sending US combat troops to support the South, but he did send more ‘military advisors’…

Boots were on the ground and the stage was set:

  • on one side was Ho Chi Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam, supported with arms by China and the Soviet Union.
  • on the other side was Diem’s Republic of Vietnam, supported by the US.

An increasingly major guerilla war was then fought from 1965-75. The communist North had gained a lot of experience of this style of fighting against the French. Neither side could back down. The US was convinced that China and the Soviet Union were supporting a potential communist takeover of the South. President Kennedy wanted to prevent a ‘domino effect’ (8) from happening, whereby if one country fell under the influence from communism then surrounding countries would follow, reducing the influence that the United States wanted for themselves (9)

Under the ‘Kennedy doctrine’, the US would “pay any price, bear any burden” to offer support to nations trying to establish democracy as a way in which to counter the communist advances in Asia.

After Kennedy’s assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson greatly increased US involvement in the Vietnam War. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution gave him the authority to use military force without having to declare war. There was then a gradual build-up of economic and military aid, including US combat soldiers on the ground.

The Vietnam War was widely reported in the global media and in part became a showcase for US military technology. From M16s and M4 carbines, claymores, howitzers and M48A3 tanks, the iconic Bell UH-1 “Huey” helicopter, to AC-130 gunships and F-4 Phantom IIs, there seemed no end to firepower the West could bring to bear.

The South Vietnamese army, ARVN, fought hard but were unable to deter attacks from the north. US forces were increasingly completing combat missions and by the end of the war over 58,000 Americans had been killed or were missing in action (10).

1,100,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters were killed, along with 200 – 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers. Despite the economic and technological superiority that the US could bring to bear, the North Vietnamese won this Second Indochina War and the last US personnel withdrew from Saigon on 30th April 1975.

  • Korea: stalemate
  • Vietnam: Communists ‘win’

After the Vietnam experience the US did not engage in such an extensive ground war again during the Cold War. The Soviets however did, reluctantly, engage in the Soviet-Afghan war during the 1980s.

In 1973, Mohammed Daoud Khan overthrew the ruler of Afghanistan, king Zahir Shah, in a coup. With echoes of ‘The Great Game’ (11) that had been played across the region during the 19th Century, the US drew Afghanistan into its sphere of influence with offers of aid for economic redevelopment. Daoud’s government banned the Communist Party and in 1977 walked out of a meeting with Brezhnev, breaking the final link with Moscow. The Soviet’s would not let that situation stand, and in 1978 Daoud was assassinated in a coup led by Soviet-trained officers.

Socialist changes with land reforms and literacy for women resulted in the Mujahideen fighting back against the new “godless regime”. Afghan leader Taraki appealed for help from Moscow. It took 3 days for the Kremlin to decide to send advisors and arms, but no ground troops. The Soviets were well aware of the history of conflict in the country (‘easy to enter, hard to leave’) and wary of provoking Islamic fundamentalism within their own borders.

Advisors – Aid – no ground troops. Echoes of the Vietnam War…

… but this time the Soviets had to face the challenge. And like the fighting in Vietnam, they faced a well-motivated guerrilla army who were increasingly supported with arms purchased on the open market by the US CIA.

By the end of 1980 the Kremlim had around 125,000 soldiers in the country. The Afghan army supported the Soviet Red Army, however they were not well trained and poorly equipped. The Mujahideen on the other hand were becoming heavily armed. Convoys were attacked, soldiers died, the casualties mounted.

Hind helicopter gunship – type used by Russia in Afghanistan – Public Domain

“Hit and run attacks” enabled the Mujahideen to take control of the rural and mountainous areas of Afghanistan. The Soviets tried to eliminate the support they were getting from civilians by bombing and depopulating rural areas. This sparked a flood of refugees. By 1982, an estimated 2.8 million Afghans had fled to Pakistan to seek asylum, and a further 1.5 million fled to Iran.

The Mujahideen eventually neutralised the Soviet’s advantage in the air with shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, supplied by the US.

Ultimately the Soviets were forced to withdraw in 1989 under pressure from the United Nations and economic sanctions by the US. They had lost 15,000 troops and badly damaged the image of Soviet power. An estimated one million Afghan civilians had been killed, along with 90,000 Mujahideen fighters and 18,000 Afghan troops. Afghanistan was literally left in ruins and a civil war raged on (12).     

  • Korea: stalemate
  • Vietnam: Communists ‘win’
  • Afghanistan: Communists ‘lose’

One of the more extreme actions that the superpowers took was in attempting to change or overthrow the governments of smaller nations, particularly those with political weaknesses or which were perceived as being as ‘unfriendly’ foreign governments. For example, on 25th October 1983 the US (and a coalition of 6 Caribbean nations) attacked Grenada, an island in the West Indies.

St George’s Town, Grenada – Public Domain

Grenada had a population of less than 100,000 people and, after gaining independence in 1974, was a member of the British Commonwealth until a ‘moderate’ communist coup in 1979. Another coup occurred in 1983 when Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard, backed up the Grenadian army, placed Prime Minister Maurice Bishop under house arrest. Bishop was released by supporters protesting on the streets and attempted to regain power by marching on the island’s military headquarters. When the shooting stopped, he and seven of his closest supporters were executed.

Coard’s action was seen as being a hardline communist coup. The US, led by hawkish President  Reagan, feared that the island would fall under Soviet and Cuban influence. Grenada could then become a potential refuelling stop for Cuban planes carrying mercenaries to Central America. Reagan decided to take action.

Even though Grenada was still technically a member of the British Commonwealth, Reagan sent 7,000 soldiers to the island under the pretext of protecting U.S. citizens and other civilians. US interference in Grenada’s internal affairs caused outrage around the world and 108 United Nations member states condemned the invasion.

US forces left in December 1983 once a pro-American government had been installed. 45 Grenadians were killed and 337 wounded during the US-led intervention.

From Syria (1949), the Bay of Pigs (1961), Dominican Republic (1965), Laos and Cambodia (‘65 – ‘73), to Afghanistan and Grenada, it is clear that where the superpowers believe their interests are threatened, that proxy wars and ‘interventions’ will follow.


1 – “Proxy war” –

2 – “Proxy war” –

3 – “Korean War” – Encyclopedia Britannica –

4 – “Six of the Deadliest Proxy Wars of the Cold War” –

5 – “Cold War” – Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing – Bantam Press (1998)

6 – “United States Air Force, Statistical Digest, Fiscal Year 1953” – p.60 –

7 – “The President’s News Conference – November 30 1950” –

8 – “Domino Theory” – –

9 – “Kennedy Doctrine” –

10 – “Vietnam War” – Encyclopedia Britannica –

11 – “The Great Game” –

12 – “The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan” –

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