Do you know why the world came to the brink of nuclear war?

Two words – ‘Cold War’.

The Cold War was international affairs for the second half of the 20th Century. Nuclear weapons testing, civil wars in all corners of the globe and the race foreconomic dominance were all key spheres of the Cold War, although they werejust a few elements of a very complex global puzzle. More so than the greatbattles between Carthage and Rome in Ancient times or the Napoleonic Wars, the Cold War defined our world. But, there was one key difference between the Cold War and earlier major wars. Due to advances in technology and communications, the Cold War touched most countries on earth.

Get the Book on Amazon

This introduction to the early years of the Cold War is the debut book from George Levrier-Jones. He tells the story of the great clash between the Communist Soviet Union and thecapitalist USA. George’s fast-paced, concise writing style will allow you to quickly learn about the key events of the Cold War, and to find out how the world came to the cusp of nuclear annihilation.

Get the Book on Amazon

The topics in the book include:

  • The origins of the Cold War and why the USSR and USA emerged from World War 2 as super-powers
  • How the Soviet Union and the USA quickly went from war-time allies 
  • to enemies
  • The key changes in post-war Europe
  • The Berlin blockade and the building of the Berlin Wall
  • Events in East Asia - the Chinese Civil War and why the Korean War became integral to the Cold War
  • Nuclear weapons development
  • Uprisings and revolutions in Eastern Europe in the 1950s, including the Hungarian revolution
  • The most dangerous event of the early Cold War years, the Cuban Missile Crisis

The approximately 80-page book is the perfect complement to the Cold War History audio series that is available as part of the ‘History in 28-minutes’ podcasts.

Super-powers stopped the enslavement of the planet and a return to a new Dark Age. They are no more or less important than that.

What a dramatic way to start the post. Let me explain.

The leaders of the super-powers at the Yalta Conference

The leaders of the super-powers at the Yalta Conference

When I say super-power, I’m not talking about the type of super-powers that Spiderman or Batman have. I’m talking about countries. And the two super-powers that saved the world were the USSR and the USA. Their combined might, aligned with the British Empire (the third super-power) and a few others, allowed the world to be saved from much darker forces by 1945.

Having spent much of 2012 reading about the Cold War, it’s strange for me to think that the USSR and USA were ever friends, let alone countries that actually coordinated their efforts to overcome the Axis Powers.  But, over the course of several conferences during the World War 2, the powers discussed strategy, even if the conferences saw the powers turn against each other as Allied victory seemed increasingly likely. There were some particularly cozy moments in the relationships between the super-powers though. For example, at one stage Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin met in Moscow and made the ‘Percentages Agreement’, an agreement in which the relative influence of the powers was agreed. The two leaders agreed the percentage of influence they would have in several countries in Europe, Churchill write it down, and then Stalin ticked the agreement (this incident is mentioned in the Origins of the Cold War by Martin McCauley Amazon US | Amazon UK).


What is a super-power?

Super-powers are more powerful than Great Powers. In fact, they are countries so powerful that they have the ability to project influence and change events on a global scale. They are a new form of world power. New technology has transformed the ability of countries to exert political and economic force around the world and launch wars in far-flung corners of the globe. It allows them to move planes and destroyers and troops to wherever they want very quickly. And nuclear weapons have changed the game even more. Now powers can annihilate others in minutes with the press of a button.

In the way that I am using it, the term ‘super-power’ was coined about 70 years ago in the final years of World War 2 to refer to the British Empire, the USA, and the USSR. The British Empire soon collapsed and nobody called Britain a super-power after that time.

But, after the term was coined, there were debates on which countries in history can rightfully be called super-powers aside from the USA and USSR. The Roman Empire and Mongol Empire have been among those mentioned as super-powers, but the problem with saying that they were super-powers is that they did not have a truly global reach. Even if we exclude the ‘undiscovered’ Americas (and thus consider only the known world), we cannot really argue that either empire had a global reach. There are two countries that I think we could consider though...


A cartoon depicting the British threatening Emperor Tewodros II

A cartoon depicting the British threatening Emperor Tewodros II

Pax Britannica

The obvious one is Britain or the British Empire from the 19th Century. Britain had a vast land Empire that included colonies across all the continents of the world, and it could influence events more or less anywhere that it wanted with the support of its all-conquering navy. Now, rather than put forward a detailed argument on why I think that Britain was a super-power (that’s for another day!), I’m going to illustrate it with one example.

It was 1868. The British Empire was at its peak. And Emperor Tewodros II of Ethiopia (or Abyssinia) had insulted the British. He had imprisoned several British subjects, and then rebuffed attempts to try to get them released. Instead, he imprisoned the people that the British had sent to negotiate the others release. The British were not happy.

So Queen Victoria announced that the hostages would be rescued with force. And soon enough, Indian-based British forces were prepared and sent to Abyssinia. They landed and undertook a massive construction effort, including the building of a port. Under General Napier, the troops marched over hundreds of miles of mountainous terrain in order to battle Tewodros’s forces. They eventually got to his admittedly weak forces and trounced them in a battle. The hostages were released and the British left. On a sadder note, Tewodros II then committed suicide.

Hardly Britain’s finest hour, but it illustrates my point. That’s what a super-power can do.

But there is one other super-power contender...

To the East

A friend of mine works in an art gallery in Shanghai, China. She recently told me that Westerners that visit the gallery sometimes ask about the voyages that the Chinese undertook in the early 15th Century. At the time China was the world’s most powerful country and the country undertook voyages in which they (apparently) discovered the world. In the book 1421 by Gavin Menzies (Amazon US | Amazon UK), the author asserts that under Admiral Zheng He, China launched voyages in which it discovered the Americas and circumnavigated the world. And they did so some 70 years before Columbus made his discovery of the Americas. Menzies’s book has come in for strong criticism from various quarters (although it is still an interesting read), but what is undisputed is that around this time China sent massive fleets to the coasts of Africa as well as much of Asia.

Whether China discovered the Americas or not, my point is that China could have had a global reach if it wanted at the time. It would not have been able to move as quickly as the US can today or even the British in the 19th Century; however, the power and wealth of China combined with the size of the Chinese fleets in its accepted voyages indicates that China had the resources to reach and attack all countries in the known world if it wanted to.

And that, my friends, is a super-power.


Was China really a super-power? Or conversely, do you think that I have been too conservative in only classing a few countries as super-powers?

Let me know what you think. After all, history is here to be debated...

George Levrier-Jones


This post was written as part of a regular series of (sometimes) humorous introductions to topics in history as part of ‘117-second History’.

We discuss how the USA and USSR emerged as  super-powers, in our book, “Cold War History - To the brink of nuclear destruction - From World War 2 to the Cuban Missile Crisis - Part 1: 1945-1962 (Required History)” – available by clicking here.

I thought that I would be refreshing my knowledge for this blog post. But, it would be much more than that. The Great Powers blog post took me back to the depths of organized civilization. I mused, “that’s history in a nut-shell – it goes very far back.”

That is a very obvious thing to think.

Personally, I’ve read about the great powers, most notably in Paul Kennedy’s classic, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (Amazon US | Amazon UK), but what I didn’t realize were the sheer number of Great Powers over the centuries, especially in the pre-European age (by which I mean, the age before Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas). Sure, I was aware of the Mongols and the great Ancient Empires, but there are so many powerful empires in history.

The history of the Great Powers is truly a history of the world. Even in a world as disconnected as that of 100AD. Of course, in 100AD it was hard for leaders to control territory as effectively as they do now, or to quickly send armies to far flung parts of the globe, but nonetheless there were Great Empires that controlled large parts of the densely populated parts of the earth.

There were great Ancient Empires in many parts of Asia, from Babylonia in the Middle East to China in the Far East, while there were also several great African Empires amongst others.

And then I remembered

Ethiopia 2 069.JPG

I’ve been fortunate enough to travel quite a bit to some of the lesser visited regions of the globe. And soon enough, it hit me. I remembered learning about some of these kingdoms. Take the Axumite Kingdom (or the Kingdom of Aksum). It consisted of parts of several modern-day countries in Africa and the Middle East, and came into being sometime around 100AD. I visited the town of Axum, in northern Ethiopia, the former capital. The main site that remains from the days of the Axumite Kingdom is a series of stelae in many fields within and around the town. While there I was told about Axum’s Ancient glories, but it was hard to recognize that this was the center of a truly Great Power. It was only when I started to read more about it that I understood its importance as a base between modern-day Egypt and India.

The same thing happened when I visited Georgia (the country, not the state!). While there I was told of it’s (albeit quite brief) glorious age, but again I found myself surprised on finding out about its regional influence during the Georgian Golden Age around the year 1200.

Not truly Great Powers, but..

A great power can be defined as a country that has significant extra-territorial influence, but there is a problem that I have when thinking about countries such as Georgia in the year 1200 as Great Powers. And this is in spite of being well-read in the European Great Powers over the past centuries.

The problem is the Cold War. I compare such powers to the USSR and USA, and think of how little influence they actually had outside of their own regions. But, that is why the USA and USSR were known as super-powers, not merely Great Powers.

There’s most certainly a lesson here. History stretches back a very long way and just because things are as they are now, it doesn’t mean they’ve always been that way. By which I mean, the word super-power was coined for a reason.

Anyway, the point of this blog post was to provide an introduction to the two powers in the Cold War as an introduction to some posts covering topics in the Cold War. I guess that I will have to do a post on the super-powers first now.

“Oh, why must history go so very far back?”, I just lamented.

Is there a Great Power that intrigues you?

If so, please tell us a little about it so that we can learn something from you!

George Levrier-Jones


This post was written as part of a regular series of (sometimes) humorous introductions to topics in history as part of ‘117-second History’.

We discuss how the USA and USSR emerged as Great Powers (or super-powers), in our book, “Cold War History - To the brink of nuclear destruction - From World War 2 to the Cuban Missile Crisis - Part 1: 1945-1962 (Required History)” - available by clicking here.