A Quantitative Analysis of the Cold War

This page presents data that I have collated over the years pertaining to the Cold War. The idea of this project was to construct datasets which objectively measure various aspects of the political, economic, military, and social conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union between 1945 and 1991. The data therefore covers many areas, ranging from maps of alliances to GDP statistics and comparisons of military forces. The purpose of such data is to supplement narrative accounts of the Cold War, and provide some more objective quantitative basis for comparisons that are often made in such treatments.

In the following data, I often use the designations ‘national’, ‘alliance’ and ‘bloc’. These terms refer to different sorts of comparisons. National comparisons directly compare the USA and USSR. Alliance comparisons compare NATO with the Warsaw Pact. Finally, bloc comparisons compare all nations aligned with the USA to all nations aligned with the USSR. Alliances changed fairly little over the course of the Cold War, but many nations switched between blocs at different times, so the relevant document should be consulted to see which nations are included in which blocs for which years.

The information provided on this page consists mostly of summary graphs. Each sections links to an excel spreadsheet, which contains the raw data, as well as detailed information concerning sources, and often worksheets containing alternative representations of the data and intermediate calculations. If you wish to use any of these datasets or maps for a publication or other purpose, please send me an email first.

Political Alliances

Alliances maps every 5 years, based on this data. The colour coding is as follows:

  • Deep red: Soviet aligned communist states
  • Light red: Soviet-leaning socialist states
  • Beige: neutral states
  • Sky blue: colonies of American allies
  • Light blue: American-leaning anti-Communist states
  • Deep blue: American allied anti-Communist states
  • Dark grey: neutral Communist states

It should be noted that although all mainland Latin American nations are part of a defensive military alliance with the United States and hence are coloured deep blue, they are not included in the ‘Western Bloc’ in the following data, since they were not consistently aligned with US foreign policies and economic ideals in the way that other nations in the Western Bloc were.

Over the course of the Cold War, both sides funded insurgents and rebel groups within various countries in an attempt to destabalise hostile regimes, or bring into power a government that would be more conducive to their interests. A summary of the relevant conflicts is given in this dataset.

Economics

The following data pertain to an economic comparison between the Soviet and Western blocs. Most pertinent is the GDP comparison between the USSR and the USA, but comparison at the level of NATO/WTO alliances and total blocs are also presented. Data for population and geographic area are also given in spreadsheet form, but since these change little over time graphs are not shown. Data for production of key agricultural and industrial goods is also provided for the USA and USSR. Note that such production may not necessarily be indicative of production levels which would be possible under wartime conditions.

Military

There is a general perception of a continual military buildup over the course of the Cold War, however the data presented indicate otherwise. Comparisons of military personal and (inflation-adjusted) military expenditure show US buildups over the course of the Korean and Vietnam wars, as well as a buildup under the 1980s under Reagan. In contrast, Soviet personal numbers peak in the early 1950s during the Korean War, but otherwise are fairly constant. Soviet military expenditure increases fairly consistently over the course of the Cold War, before plummeting under Gorbachev’s cuts in the late 1980s. A comparison of US/USSR hardware levels every five years for tanks and aircraft indicate that the Soviets maintained a significant lead in tank numbers (though many were older models in storage), while the US generally maintained a smaller lead in aircraft numbers. The idea of a consistent military buildup applies best to the growth in warhead numbers and total megatonnage over the course of the 1950s and 1960s. It is interesting that total warhead numbers peaked in the US in the 1960s, whereas the USSR continued to build its stockpile until the mid 1980s.

Living Standards

Also important during the Cold War were the living standards of the populations of the competing powers. It is widely believed that disatisfaction of Russians and Eastern Europeans with living standards that lagged relative to the Western nations was a significant factor contributing to the collapse of communism in the late 1980s and early 1990s. There appears to be some support for this in the data, with measures of consumption such as TVs per capita, measures of physical health such as life expectancy, and measures of income such as GDP per capita, all showing Soviet-aligned nations stagnating and diverging from the West during the 1970s and 1980s.

National Pride Data

Also included are datasets pertaining to the space race and the competition at Olympic games.

Overall Observations

Examining these data, it appears that the Cold War can be roughly divided into two phases. During the first phase (1949-1969), the US maintained military superiority over the USSR (especially in nuclear weapons), while the Soviets gradually gained ground on the US in terms of living standards, production, and GDP. Military alliances were fairly static over this period, with the Sino-Soviet split being the major exception. The Soviet Union had little influence outside of neighbouring states in Eurasia, and was mostly surrounded by a ring of American allies. During the second phase (1969-1989), the Soviets continued to build up their military forces and eventually achieved superiority over the Americans. Meanwhile, the Soviet economy stagnated, and living standards began to diverge once again from those in the West. In the political realm, the system of US alliances was weakened by decolonisation, the Iranian Revolution, and Marxist insurgences, while the Soviets expanded their influence throughout the Third World, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa.

The overall conclusion I draw is that the Soviets over-invested in military and political expansion during the second phase, and failed to devote sufficient resources or political focus to improving living standards or reforming their economy. The result was that the burden of maintaining their huge military and global political engagements was increasingly born by a schlerotic economy and a disengaged population. The burden grew over the course of the 1980s, until the resulting tensions were released by Gorbachev’s reforms, eventually bringing the entire system down. It is interesting to speculate whether the Soviet Union could have avoided this outcome if they had enacted more economic reforms, focused more on improving living standards, cut military spending, and devoted less energy and resources to political expansion in the Third World. Obviously the answer will never be known, but I believe the data I have compiled do provide an interesting quantitative resource which can inform analyses of these and other questions pertaining to this great struggle for global dominance.