Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
Teaser Image


Title:  Love Your Motherland poster
Button: Click to display an enlarged version of the image.
Political and social movement seeking to promote the interests of an individual nation at the expense of the wider international community but also to rid nations or regions of colonialism and to actualize self-determination based upon ethnic, racial, or religious cohesiveness. During the Cold War, nationalism was often used as an instrument of leverage by the Western and communist blocs to attract new allies and to gain or maintain hegemony in certain states or regions. Eventually, nationalism led to the collapse of the communist bloc, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the fragmentation of artificially incorporated national entities such as the former Yugoslavia.

Following World War II, nationalist movements blossomed throughout the world. The main contributors to this development were the principles of self-determination and decolonization. These in turn were driven by economic and political forces and were pushed forward by several labor parties, most notably those in Britain and France. This ultimately brought about the independence of most African and Asian nations.

In addition, the role of native intellectuals educated in Western Europe or the United States, and there exposed to Western political and economic thought, strongly impacted the domestic and foreign policies of the newly independent states. The geopolitical climate of the Cold War brought strong pressures on every new nation to align with either the United States or the Soviet Union. In their desperate search for new allies, both nations sponsored national liberation movements that often bred corruption and human rights abuses.

The Soviet Union played the role of the anti-imperialist power, opposing Western colonialism in favor of nationalist causes and striving to associate national liberation with socialism. The Americans were similarly driven by ideology. Often in favor of native peoples struggling for independence, they liberated the former Commonwealth of the Philippines in July 1946 and transformed Puerto Rico into a self-governing commonwealth in 1952. The United States intervened in almost every nationalist dispute in the world, ostensibly to defend democracy and champion the national cause.

In January 1961, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev pledged Soviet support to wars of national liberation, as in Vietnam. This point was amplified by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev when he reasserted in the Brezhnev Doctrine of November 1968 the rationale already used to justify the crushing of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution—that the Soviet Union had the right to intervene in the internal affairs of a socialist state in order to preserve socialism there.

The American policy toward nationalism, launched in 1947, was predicated on the Truman Doctrine, which pledged support to any nation under siege by internal or external communist forces. In Europe, U.S. policy relied on the Balkanization of the communist bloc based on nationalism. Exploitation of nationalist movements was a common modus operandi of U.S. foreign policy in Yugoslavia, the Baltic states, and Eastern Europe as a means of weakening Soviet control and influence. In Greece, just after the 1945 liberation, a leftist nationalist uprising led by the National Popular Liberation Army (ELAS) and helped by communist Yugoslavia tried to overthrow the authoritarian British-backed government. Fearing a communist victory, President Harry S. Truman asked for and obtained from Congress $400 million in aid to Greece and Turkey to support democratic movements.

Despite ideological similarities with the Soviets, Yugoslavian leader Josip Broz Tito's interpretation of communism and nationalism alarmed the Soviets after 1945. Pan-Slavism was invoked by both the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. While the USSR used this to contain centrifugal forces, particularly in Ukraine, Tito's attempt to form a southern Slavic union with Bulgaria alarmed Soviet leader Josef Stalin and contributed to the 1948 Soviet-Yugoslav split.

Nationalism was a dangerous force inside the USSR itself. Apart from nationalist movements in the Baltic region, the Soviet Union was at risk from internal ethnic strife. Indeed, the risk of Pan-Turkish nationalism had informed Stalin's decision to separate the Turkish peoples of Central Asia into five distinct republics. From the Khrushchev era on, while stressing the importance of policies of nativism, the creation of the Homo Sovieticus was enhanced. Mixed marriages, forced migration, and the mandatory use of Russian were used to de-emphasize the separate nationalities and form a Soviet citizen who, regardless of his place of birth, was faithful to Moscow. For this reason, in the Soviet empire the word "patriotism" was always preferred to "nationalism."

Despite the 1947 Asian Relations Conference, which pledged support for all national movements against colonial rule, both the Americans and the Soviets continued to justify their intrusions in domestic politics under the guise of national liberation support. The two superpowers chose as one ground for confrontation the divided Korean Peninsula, each backing a different regime claiming to be the legitimate government for all Korea. The Korean War, a result of this policy, lasted for three years (1950–1953).

In Vietnam, nationalists led by veteran communist leader Ho Chi Minh succeeded in driving France out of the northern part of the country in 1954. The 1954 Geneva Conference temporarily divided Vietnam at the 17th Parallel, pending national elections to reunify the country in 1956. Because Ho was a communist and was supported by the communist bloc and because the communists had never voluntarily relinquished power once they had secured it, President Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration chose to support South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem when he refused to hold the elections in the Republic of Vietnam (ROV, South Vietnam) as scheduled. The United States supported Diem in his stand. This failure to hold the elections called for by the Geneva Accords in effect led to the renewal of warfare and the start of what became known as the Vietnam War. This struggle, which began in earnest in 1957, would not end until the fall of Saigon in April 1975.

In Latin America, economic interests were not easily subordinated to the natives' cause. In Guatemala in 1954, a coup led by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) overthrew the nationalist and reformist government of Jacobo Arbenz, which had tried to expropriate the lands of a U.S.-based company. The Arbenz regime was replaced by a pro-American government. After Fidel Castro's 1959 coup in Cuba, his nationalization of land and companies resulted in a full-blown crisis in U.S.-Cuban relations. This precipitated an ongoing U.S. effort to dislodge Castro from power, including the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, and drove the Cuban government closer to the Soviet Union.

Arab nationalism emerged as a driving force during the Cold War, although not necessarily aligned with the two superpowers. In 1945 seven nations—Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, North Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Transjordan (Jordan since 1948)—created the Arab League, which was destined to expand to more than twenty countries by the end of the century. Its aim was mutual aid and the improvement of economic conditions in Arab states. Beginning in the 1970s, the Arab League helped financially strapped African nations reduce their economic dependence on the United States and the Soviet Union.

The United States feared Arab nationalism in the Middle East. In April 1955, Britain and the United States pushed Turkey and Iraq into forming the Baghdad Pact, a mutual defense pact also known as the Middle East Treaty Organization. Iran and Pakistan joined later that same year. In 1959, on the departure of Iraq from the organization, it became known as the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO). CENTO was dissolved in 1979 with the withdrawal of first Iran, following the overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and then Pakistan.

During the Eisenhower presidency, containing Arab nationalism by offering help to individual Arab states was a chief priority. Thus, policy was aimed at keeping the Middle East under Western control. It was also a way to contain the nationalist forces unleashed by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

In 1958 Egypt and Syria joined to create a new nation, the United Arab Republic (UAR). Attempts to include neighboring Yemen failed. After the 1961 military coup in Syria, Egypt remained the only country in the new republic, which ceased to exist in 1971.

Nationalist motivations were behind the March 1951 murder of Iranian Prime Minister Haji-Ali Razmara, who had opposed nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1951. Mohammed Mossadegh took control of Iran and subsequently nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, run by the British and paying royalties only to the shah of Iran. These events caused a rupture in Iranian relations with the Western powers. Consequently, the CIA sponsored a coup to topple Mossadegh, who was arrested in August 1953 and was replaced by General Fazlollah Zahedi.

The desire for independence pushed the National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algeria to begin a guerrilla war there against France in November 1954. After prolonged warfare and much bloodshed, France gave Algeria its independence in 1962. Continuing the nationalist tradition that engaged him in the 1948 Israeli-Palestinian War, Nasser assisted the FLN in Algeria, gradually shifting both Algeria and Egypt toward a socialist orientation, although both nations were technically part of the Non-Aligned Movement.

In 1956, meanwhile, the United States and Britain reneged on an agreement to help finance the building of Egypt's Aswan Dam, provoking Nasser's decision to nationalize the Suez Canal to make up for the lost funding. This in turn led to the October 1956 Suez Crisis in which British, French, and Israeli forces attacked Egypt. Due to strong U.S. pressure, the three powers soon withdrew, but the attack nonetheless served to strengthen Nasser's nationalist and Pan-Arab agenda.

Libyan President Muammar Qadhafi has also been a staunch promoter of Arab unity based on ethnoreligious similarities. In December 1969 he signed the Tripoli Charter, calling for a flexible federation with Sudan and Egypt. On 1 January 1972, the Federation of Arab Republics, consisting of Egypt, Syria, and Libya, came into existence. Unity with Syria (in September 1980) and Morocco (in August 1984) was attempted but never came to fruition.

Nationalism, of course, contributed to the collapse of the communist bloc and the Soviet Union beginning in 1991. After failed attempts at liberalization during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the Prague Spring of 1968, the Solidarity movement in Poland finally arranged for free elections in that nation in 1989. Hungary followed suit, and by the fall of 1989 the Velvet Revolution, made possible because of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's refusal to employ force, had swept through Eastern Europe, completing the process of democratization and the reassertion of national sovereignty. Demands for independence in the Soviet Baltic Republics and the nationalist Rukh movement in Soviet-controlled Ukraine played a main role in the December 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, formally ending the Cold War. That same year, the dismantlement of Yugoslavia unleashed nationalist forces that engulfed the region in civil war for more than a decade.

The Cold War was over, but nationalism continued to exact a frightful toll in terms of human suffering in the Horn of Africa, Sudan, the Yugoslav successor states, Sri Lanka, and many other places around the globe.

Abel Polese

Further Reading
Duiker, William. Sacred War: Nationalism and Revolution in a Divided Vietnam. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994.; Gellner, Ernst. Nations and Nationalism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983.; Peterson-Royce, Anya. Ethnic Identity: Strategies of Diversity. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.; Smith, Graham. The Nationalities Question in the Soviet Union. White Plains, NY: Longman, 1991.; Walker, Connor. Ethnonationalism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.; Yaqub, Salim. Containing Arab Nationalism: The Eisenhower Doctrine and the Middle East. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

  About the Author/Editor
ABC-cLIO Footer