Cold War Glossary

Learn the Special Terms of the Cold War

Grungy Flags of Soviet Union and USA
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Every war has its own jargon and the Cold War, despite the fact that there was no open fighting, was no exception. The following is a list of terms used during the Cold War. The most worrisome term is definitely the "broken arrow."


Anti-ballistic missiles (ABMs) are designed to shoot down ballistic missiles (rockets carrying nuclear weapons) before they reach their targets.

Arms race

Massive military build-up, especially of nuclear weapons, by both the Soviet Union and the United States in an effort to gain military superiority.


Purposely escalating a dangerous situation to the limit ( brink), while giving the impression that you are willing to go to war, in the hope of pressuring your opponents to back down.

Broken arrow

A nuclear bomb that is either lost, stolen, or accidentally launched that causes a nuclear accident. Though broken arrows made great movie plots throughout the Cold War, the most serious real-life broken arrow occurred on January 17, 1966, when a U.S. B-52 crashed off the coast of Spain. Though all four of the nuclear bombs aboard the B-52 were eventually recovered, radioactive material contaminated large areas around the crash site.

Checkpoint Charlie

A crossing point between West Berlin and East Berlin when the Berlin Wall divided the city.

Cold War

The struggle for power between the Soviet Union and the United States that lasted from the end of World War II until the collapse of the Soviet Union. The war was considered "cold" because the aggression was ideological, economic, and diplomatic rather than a direct military conflict.


An economic theory in which collective ownership of property leads to a classless society.

The form of government in the Soviet Union in which the state owned all means of production and was led by a centralized, authoritarian party. This was viewed as the antithesis of democracy in the United States.


Fundamental U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War in which the U.S. tried to contain Communism by preventing it from spreading to other countries.


An acronym for "defense readiness condition." The term is followed by a number (one to five) which informs the U.S. military to the severity of the threat, with DEFCON 5 representing normal, peacetime readiness to DEFCON 1 warning the need for maximum force readiness, i.e. war.


The relaxing of tension between the superpowers. See details in Successes and Failures of Détente in the Cold War.

Deterrence theory

A theory that proposed a massive build-up of military and weaponry in order to threaten a destructive counter-attack to any potential attack. The threat was intended to prevent, or deter, anyone from attacking.

Fallout shelter

Underground structures, stocked with food and other supplies, that were intended to keep people safe from radioactive fallout following a nuclear attack.

First strike capability

The ability of one country to launch a surprise, massive nuclear attack against another country. The goal of a first strike is to wipe out most, if not all, of the opposing country's weapons and aircraft, leaving them unable to launch a counter-attack.

Glasnost ​

A policy promoted during the latter half of the 1980s in the Soviet Union by Mikhail Gorbachev in which government secrecy (which had characterized the past several decades of Soviet policy) was discouraged and open discussion and distribution of information was encouraged. The term translates to "openness" in Russian.

Hotline ​

A direct line of communication between the White House and the Kremlin established in 1963. Often called the "red telephone."


Intercontinental ballistic missiles were missiles that could carry nuclear bombs across thousands of miles.

iron curtain ​

A term used by Winston Churchill in a speech to describe the growing divide between western democracies and Soviet-influenced states.

Limited Test Ban Treaty

Signed August 5, 1963, this treaty is a worldwide agreement to prohibit nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere, outer space, or underwater.

Missile gap ​

The concern within the U.S. that the Soviet Union had greatly surpassed the U.S. in its stockpile of nuclear missiles.

Mutually assured destruction ​

MAD was the guarantee that if one superpower launched a massive nuclear attack, the other would reciprocate by also launching a massive nuclear attack, and both countries would be destroyed. This ultimately became the prime deterrent against a nuclear war between the two superpowers.

Perestroika ​

Introduced in June 1987 by Mikhail Gorbachev, an economic policy to decentralize the Soviet economy. The term translates to "restructuring" in Russian.


Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) were negotiations between the Soviet Union and the United States to limit the number of newly created nuclear weapons. The first negotiations extended from 1969 to 1972 and resulted in SALT I (the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty) in which each side agreed to keep their strategic ballistic missile launchers at their current numbers and provided for the increase in submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) in proportion to the decrease in number of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). The second round of negotiations extended from 1972 to 1979 and resulted in SALT II (the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty) which provided a broad range of limitations on offensive nuclear weapons.

Space race 

A competition between the Soviet Union and the United States to prove their superiority in technology through increasingly impressive accomplishments in space. The race to space began in 1957 when the Soviet Union successfully launched the first satellite, Sputnik.

Star Wars 

Nickname (based on the Star Wars movie trilogy) of U.S. President Ronald Reagan's plan to research, develop, and build a space-based system that could destroy incoming nuclear missiles. Introduced March 23, 1983, and officially called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).


A country that dominates in political and military power. During the Cold War, there were two superpowers: the Soviet Union and the United States.


The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.), also commonly called the Soviet Union, was a country that consisted of what is now Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.

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Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Cold War Glossary." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2023, April 5). Cold War Glossary. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Cold War Glossary." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 11, 2023).