The Cold War’s Most Iconic Pictures

A period of geopolitical tension between the USSR and USA that lasted from 1945 until 1991, Cold War is a term used to describe a state of diplomatic and military confrontation after World War II between powers in the Western Bloc (the United States, its NATO allies and others) and powers in the Eastern BlOC (the Soviet Union and its allies in the Warsaw Pact). The divisions between the two blocs were not absolute; some countries like Yugoslavia or China could go either way. It ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union on December 26, 1991.

The Cold war was characterized by proxy wars, espionage, weapons development, invasions, propaganda campaigns, and the space race. During this period, the superpowers never engaged directly in any full-scale armed conflict. However, both sides were involved in covert operations and military skirmishes throughout the world – including the Korean War (1950–1953), Vietnam War (1959–1975), and the Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979–1989).


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The iconic images you’re about to see were seen by hundreds of millions of people around the world — helped create the world as we know it today.

The Cold War's Most Iconic Pictures
A picture of Allied leaders at the Yalta Conference, which took place at the Livadia Palace in Livadiya, Soviet Ukraine, in February 1945. Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin are shown on the left. The conference was called to plan Europe’s future organization over the following years.
The Cold War's Most Iconic Pictures
The use of the atomic bomb against Japan by the United States in August 1945 was credited with bringing World War II to an end. Hundreds of thousands perished instantly or succumbed to radiation-induced sicknesses in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the bombings. Roger Viollet/Getty Images
The Cold War's Most Iconic Pictures
On April 26, 1945, US and Soviet troops of the 69th Infantry Division exchange greetings in a staged photo on the destroyed bridge over the Elbe in Torgau, Germany, to commemorate the previous day’s joint linkup between US and Soviet forces.
The Cold War's Most Iconic Pictures
Harry S. Truman (to the left of the podium) listens to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered a speech about Communist danger in which he utters his famous phrase: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an Iron Curtain has descended across the continent.” George Skadding/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock
The Cold War's Most Iconic Pictures
On June 24, 1948, the Soviet Union attempted to seize control of Berlin by closing all land access to the city. Berlin was divided into four sectors under US, British, French, and Soviet supervision, but the entire city was within Communist-occupied eastern Germany. From June 1948 until May 1949, US and British aircraft transported 1.5 million tons of supplies to West Berlin’s residents using a total of 200,000 flights. The USSR lifted its blockade in 1970. A group of Berliners stand amongst the ruins near Tempelhof Airfield as a C-47 cargo plane delivers food to the city in this photo from 1970. Walter Sanders/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock
The Cold War's Most Iconic Pictures
On Aug. 29, 1949, President Harry S. Truman signs the North Atlantic Treaty in Washington, D.C.
The Cold War's Most Iconic Pictures
In December 1949, Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin met in Moscow. Chinese Communists announced the victory of their Nationalist opponents over Chiang Kai-shek’s forces on June 14, 1949, who subsequently fled to Taiwan. On October 1, Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China. Mao traveled to Moscow in late November to meet with Stalin and discuss the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance. Sovfoto/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
The Cold War's Most Iconic Pictures
On March 29, 1951, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to death for treason for selling US atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. Despite protests from liberals who saw the couple as victims of a communist witch hunt, they were executed in 1953.Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The Cold War's Most Iconic Pictures
The corpse of Joseph Stalin is seen in his coffin after the dictator’s death on March 5, 1953. Serge Plantureux/Corbis/Getty Images
The Cold War's Most Iconic Pictures
In celebration of Stalin’s death, a waitress outside her cafe displays a notice that invites customers to “enjoy free borsht.” Commissioner George Monaghan, Mayor Vincent Impellitteri, and other city officials survey the media’s coverage of Stalin’s passing at Madison Square Garden while watching a boxing match.
The Cold War's Most Iconic Pictures
On May 13, 1955, a Soviet delegation arrives at Warsaw Airport to attend the Communist Bloc Conclave, which took place prior to the signing of the Warsaw Pact on May 14. The agreement was signed in response to West Germany’s NATO membership that year.
The Cold War's Most Iconic Pictures
On October 4, 1957, Sputnik 1 became the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth and sparked a rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The Cold War's Most Iconic Pictures
In 1959, Fidel Castro’s leftist revolutionaries took power in Cuba and overthrew Fulgencio Batista. Castro rapidly nationalized the sugar industry and established trade agreements with the Soviet Union. His administration seized US assets on the island the following year.
The Cold War's Most Iconic Pictures
In 1961, Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth in full during his historic spaceflight. Gagarin was killed in a crash test for the MiG-15 seven years later.
The Cold War's Most Iconic Pictures
Workers place pieces of shattered glass on the newly constructed Berlin Wall to prevent East Berliners from escaping. The Berlin Wall divided East and West Berlin for more than two decades until it became a powerful symbol of the end of that era. In 1989, there was a rush among people from both sides to cross over through checkpoints opened by agreement between the East German government and Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev. In October 1990, East Germans could freely travel to West Germany via Hungary or Czechoslovakia – within a year almost 3 million had done so.
On December 22, 1989, the East German government announced that its citizens could travel directly to West Germany and other Western European countries.
The Cold War's Most Iconic Pictures
In the early 1960s, many journalists documented US President John F. Kennedy sitting behind his desk as he signed the Cuban arms embargo. The embargo had a powerful impact on Cuba’s economy and society. In 1961, Castro’s troops defeated an invading force of 1,400 Cubans backed by the United States at the Bay of Pigs. Mr. Kennedy accepted full responsibility for the failure.Bettmann/Getty Images
The Cold War's Most Iconic Pictures
Customers in California gather in an electronics department to listen as President Kennedy delivers a live speech to the nation about the Cuban missile crisis.
The Cold War's Most Iconic Pictures
In Red Square, motorized launchers piled with Lyulev 2K11 Krug surface-to-air missiles are carried through, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Soviet Union.
The Cold War's Most Iconic Pictures
In 1965, the United States sent troops to South Vietnam after reports surfaced that North Vietnamese patrol boats had attacked the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin. The conflict in Vietnam dragged on for nearly a decade, claiming over 58,000 lives among American soldiers. Tim Page/Corbis/Getty Images
The Cold War's Most Iconic Pictures
On Dec. 21, 1968, the first humans into the moon’s orbit lifts off from Cape Kennedy (also known as Cape Canaveral) in Florida aboard Apollo 8.
The Cold War's Most Iconic Pictures
On July 20, 1969, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr., one of the crew members on Apollo 11, walked on the moon. He and Neil Armstrong became the first people to walk on the moon; their mission was regarded as an American victory in the Cold War and a conclusion to NASA’s space race with Russia, fulfilling President Kennedy’s aim of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth” before 1970 ended.NASA/AFP/Getty Images
The Cold War's Most Iconic Pictures
During the summit’s closing ceremony, U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Bettmann / Bettmann Archive
The Cold War's Most Iconic Pictures
In November 1989, a demonstrator hammers away at the Berlin Wall. Gorbachev renounced the Brezhnev Doctrine, which promised to use Soviet force to defend Communist Party interests in Eastern Europe. Jacques Langevin/Sygma/Getty Images
The Cold War's Most Iconic Pictures
Gorbachev’s announcement of his resignation on December 25, 1991, marks the end of his nearly seven years in office and the Soviet Union.AFP/Getty Images
The Cold War's Most Iconic Pictures
Alexander Nemenov / AFP / Getty Images
More info: Cold War History
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