The Cold War
"After the end of World War II, the world was split into two -- East and West. This marked the beginning of the era called the Cold War"
- – Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
The European Theater of World War Two ended with a race by the Western Allies (mostly the United States because the others were bankrupt after the war) and the Soviet Union to reach central Germany and take over. A result of this was that while the Soviets took the capital and most of Germany to the east, the West actually held the western half of Germany. During this the United States developed nuclear weapons. While too late to drop on Germany (as originally planned) they wound up using two of them to destroy the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Poor security on nuclear development led to the Soviet Union learning of these before the vice president did. Using their spies they promptly stole knowledge of how to make these weapons themselves.
At the dawn of the 20th century, the Russian Empire was a huge but largely backwards state. Its ruling class were both fiercely conservative in an age of reform and the monarchy absolutist. Most of its population lived as illiterate peasants (with minorities, curiously, having it slightly better, being exempt from conscription and some taxes). Industrialization was minimal with a large part of the existing industry being owned by transnational or foreign companies. Most peasants and urban workers were hard-pressed to feed themselves while the ruling nobles either had stuff made for them on their estates or imported manufactured goods from England, Germany, America, etc. What industry did exist done by the government for the military (the Czar builds steel mills, railworks and textile factories to make cannons and guns for the army, trains to move the army around and uniforms for soldiers, but it will prove woefully inadequate in the coming age of Materialschlacht). The Russo-Japanese War, meant to be a "short victorious one", resulted in humiliating defeat and First Russian Revolution of 1905. Tsar's government reforms in decade between it and the First World War were either half-assed or not as effective as expected. The Russians went into the Great War with a massive ten million man army, but ran out of shells after six months. This, and a whole lot of other reasons snowballing from at least Emancipation Edict of 1861, proved to be a fertile ground for revolution which culminated in the 1917 uprising when the Bolsheviks took power and after civil war led to the USSR being founded in 1922. In 1926, Stalin managed to come to power and began a set of crash economic programs which did rapidly increase industrial output. Preparing for coming war, he also achieved high centralization, that but came with a massive human cost, especially with purges spiraling out of control. In spite of facing the worst devastation of World War Two, the USSR did managed to emerge victorious against Nazi Germany and had grown into the second most powerful state on Earth.
And make no mistake, that made Soviet Union and communism quite popular with the masses, especially with colonial system crashing down after the WW2. While in most newly-freed colonies like India commies never came to power, even in old European countries like France and Italy communist parties were so successful they had to be excluded from government with US threats of no financial help being provided. USSR, a second-rate country at the start of WW2, came out of it as a superpower, and with much of the Eastern Europe turned into satellite states, it was feared they just wouldn't stop there.
Similarly, China, united by communists after a lengthy and bloody civil war (the one that, for all intents and purposes, hasn't ended yet, with both Republic of China (Taiwan) and PRC considering each other a non-legitimate state), stood up to UN forces spearheaded by Americans and fought them to a bloody stalemate during Korean War with only minimal support from its' northern neighbor. The death toll was horrific, but nonetheless it was obvious another major player emerged, quite different from pushover the Imperial China had been only 50 years before during Boxer Rebellion. Now communists controlled a large chunk of the globe, so Americans and Europeans were scared of Reds infiltrating the rest and taking over. In hindsight, it was ridiculous as Russian communists didn't care all that much for immediate revolutions in USA or Western Europe since the death of Lenin and the deposing of Trotsky, and lacked resources both for both major war or support for communist governments anywhere on the globe on a scale Americans could provide to their allies at the time, but nobody really knew what's going on behind the Iron Curtain.
To counter this massive, nuclear armed force the nations of the North Atlantic signed a Treaty to create the Organization known as NATO in 1949. This military alliance held that any attack against one of them would be an attack against all of them and lead to STANdardization AGreements to ensure compatibility standards all members would meet. These included various steps to ensure compatibility of items like ammo and gas mask filters, but also communications and general conduct like how prisoners are treated. In practice this was mostly a threat of "you attack us, the US nukes you". Due to the whole "North Atlantic" thing Australia, New Zealand and Japan weren't included, though they followed many of the STANAGs and were on the list of places the US would respond with nukes if attacked. The United Kingdom and France would develop nukes of their own within a few years, but most of the threat was still from the American nuclear stockpile.
The two sides realized that any attack would result in Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) due to how many nukes they both had and avoided doing that directly. Instead conflict was conducted through spies and proxy conflicts where, using their newfound power, the communists would prop up other communist revolts across the globe. In response the United States would prop up their opposition, regardless of how blatantly evil they were. At least twice this went as far as outright military action by both sides during the Korean War and Vietnam War. In response to these proxy wars and people simply leaving their shithole by the millions, the Soviets built a large wall across their western border known as the Berlin Wall. They also had a falling out with the Chinese, which split the two.
MAD would take a new level with the development of InterContinental Ballistic Missiles. Developed from the V-2 rocket of Nazi Germany these rockets and their nuclear armed warheads could strike almost anywhere in the globe and ensured even perfect anti-air defense wouldn't stop MAD. Development was facilitated by a "space race" between the Soviet Union and United States. Allegedly a peaceful contest to reach space and put man on the moon first, it was an open secret this was mostly an excuse to develop better rocketry and rocketry guidance while the main point of getting to space was to put spy satellites and weapons there. This interest in space and the demonstration of the awesome power of technology by nuclear bombs would fuel the creation of modern science fiction.
End of the Cold War
Eventually this era ended from the Soviet Union imploding than anything else. Already a command economy that is more concerned with building military hardware than economy boosting utilities and consumer goods, its fortunes were often dependent on natural gas and oil exports seeing no one takes its currency seriously. Things first began to fall apart when Russia decided they wanted to have their own Vietnam and invaded Afghanistan, leading the US to support local tribes who eventually turned Jihadist and would plague the world for the years to come, to the point it's expected Taliban will come to power within a year of USA forces leaving Afghanistan. Soviet Union also failed to modernize its bureaucracy into digital systems, ideologically opposed to cybernetics, so importing IBM's and trying to produce replacement parts locally failed, so there's that too. Then a nuclear reactor in the Ukraine exploded so hard you could get your tan on walking fully clothed at night, and that took about a thousand regiments of the Death Korps of Krieg to clean up. This was followed by a series of revolutions in Soviet states would lead to East Germany (lead by hardline Stalinists to the end) giving up, opening the border and reunifying with West Germany within a year. This caused further turmoil in Russia by a failed coup that lead to the end of the Communist Party and fall of the Soviet Union. With generations that expected the cold war to end in some world sundering conflict, many westerners found "your enemy implodes politically without much direct provocation by you" to be an extremely underwhelming ending, with a CIA official complaining that "instead of a dragon, now we have a jungle of snakes to keep track of". Those on the east of the wall are often a bit annoyed that decades of communism has left their economies severely stunted compared to the west (to this day, decades latter, eastern Germany is still far behind the west economically), and within Russia proper there is nostalgia for the Soviet Union (communism itself less so).
Legacy of the Cold War
"When I saw those shelves crammed with hundreds, thousands of cans, cartons and goods of every possible sort, for the first time I felt quite frankly sick with despair for the Soviet people. That such a potentially super-rich country as ours has been brought to a state of such poverty! It is terrible to think of it."
- – Boris Yeltsin, after vising a Randalls grocery store in Texas
Techwise, the main advances of this era for civilians were plastics, aluminum, computers, air flight, satellite (which played a huge role in navigation and communications), and eventually the cellphone. Most of these spawned off military development from the Cold War and/or proceeding World War II.
Plastics existed since the Industrial Revolution, and by The World Wars had uses in clothing (Nylon) and small, non-moving, components had serious use, but now they had matured enough they were considered a major construction material. Being lightweight, cheap, relatively sturdy for its weight, non-conductive, immune to rust (as well as most other forms of corrosion), able to be made into a wide variety of shapes, and having minimal waste of material during construction with easy recyling of the little that was wasted made plastics a wonder material.
Similiarly aluminum had continued its falling prices due to increased demand for military applications in and after World War II (it's great for making aircraft out of), and the falling cost of electricity. While aluminum is really common on Earth, without the Hall–Héroult process (and the high amounts of electricity required) and Bayer process for refining it, it's near impossible to get pure and previously more precious than gold (hence why the Washington Monument is topped with it), and still energy intense enough it's often cheaper to ship ore to a different country to refine with cheaper electricity and ship it back. By the 1960s people were making disposable cans out of it. In 1956 Eugune Stoner of Armalite invented the AR10, which used plastics and aluminum for large portions of its components and allowed it to be a full pound lighter than other contemporary rifles. Despite early success, military hardware that made extensive use of plastics was derided as "toys" (with persistent and baseless rumors the components really were made by the toy company Mattel) and plastics would not see widespread acceptance for serious applications till after the 1960s. This was not helped by a series of bureaucrats screwing the M16 (a scaled down AR10) over repeatedly, giving it ammo that was deliberately made wrong, a sub-standard barrel, telling people it didn't need to be cleaned and to reuse the disposable magazines, resulting in a faulty, unreliable weapon cursed by an entire generation.
Titanium similarly fell in price, but its use was limited by requiring magnesium (which actually is rare) until the 2000s (and that was under patent protection till the late 2010s) and by the largest deposits being on the eastern side of the iron curtain.
The advancements of computers is obvious: you're reading this on one (or were a smart ass and printed it out with one). While early computers were used in World War II to break encryption, their use would become standard during this era. Computers made large scale data computation simple and fast while allowing vast amounts of information to be stored with tiny physical space. Linking together computers in a network for data sharing led to the internet you obtained this text from. By the end of the Cold War and beyond, computers had become so important to life that the late Cold War and beyond are often dubbed the "Information Age" where, like stone and bronze before it, information was the big deal of the day.
Computer development got a big boost from SPACEEEEE!!!! Space travel had been a feature of science fiction for close to a century but it took the Cold War to actually make it happen. Ex-Nazi rocket engineers were snapped up by both sides to make rockets for weapons, and once that problem was solved the USA and USSR needed something for them to work on next. Space travel became a prestige achievement for the superpowers, each trying to top the other's achievements with cost-no-object super projects that provided huge technology boosts (such as the development of compact, insensitive computers). The USSR ultimately put the first man in space, in orbit, and launched the first space station, while the USA put flags on the moon and got all of the firsts for sending probes beyond Mars.
The appeal of the Cold War
The appeal of the Cold War in fiction comes mostly from the spy game. Since the end of the Cold War, the role of espionage has greatly fallen. If you want to do a work of fiction about spies and don't have a specific setting, it will generally involve the Cold War or at least former Cold War spies.
More generally there's a bit of nostalgia for the west having a clear enemy to stand against and one that, if you weren't a spy, you'd generally see coming. The CIA director after the end of the Cold War told Congress "We have slain a large dragon. But we live now in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes. And in many ways, the dragon was easier to keep track of." Now the main enemy is one half of politicians and most entrainment production try to prevent being demonized (regardless of what it does) or being fought seriously. This enemy can kill thousands of civilians in a night and, not being a state, you can't send an army after them in response. You might not even know who did it, even after lengthy and costly investigations, if they don't take credit for it.
There's also appeal in the general military conflict of the era, but this is mostly appeal of the Vietnam War as a setting and appeal of "what if all those cool toys NATO and the Soviets made actually saw use?".
Cold War inspired Games, Factions and Settings
- Anything set in the modern world that was made after 1945 and before 1991.
And quite a bit of contemporary "fantasy" roleplaying could not resist dipping into the 1970s-80s Zeitgeist.
The Known World soon Mystara posited the conflict between Thyatis and Alphatia, which adventures themselves ground into the ugly stalemates of Masters series modules M1-3. As the Cold War looked to be winding into some sort of denouement, in the middle 1980s, we got M5: Talons of Night, where the two sides work to an agreement.
Cold War Gone Hot
"Critics might quibble with this depiction of the climatic battle of the Cold War because, while awesome, in real life there was no climatic battle, there was no battle with or without Velociraptors. The Cold War was won without firing a shot."
- – Senator Mike Lee
- A nuclear and devastating "World War 3" is in the background of most post-apocalyptic works and and a few sci-fi ones. Gamma World is the gold standard here, for that.
- Team Yankee
In high fantasy, Greyhawk had the Rain of Colorless Fire coupled with the Invoked Devastation, Twin Cataclysms as backstory to why the horrific deserts keeping the PCs from wandering too far off-map. A teachable moment about Mutual Assured Destruction... These deserts also worked to demonstrate just how powerful magic could get around here, setting the stakes for Sean Reynolds' The Star Cairns.
|Historical Time Periods|
|Premodern:||Stone Age - Bronze Age - Classical Period - Dark Age - High Middle Ages - Renaissance|
|Modern:||Age of Enlightenment - Industrial Revolution - The World Wars - The Cold War - Post-Cold War|