The Superpowers
The Superpowers
Socialist East vs. Democratic West

The Leadership

Nine Presidents Endured

Updated July 2024
Posted February 2024

Holding Peace in Their Hands
Nine presidents of the United States bore the burden of leadership during the Cold War. During that same period, the Soviet Union was led by six different men. The relationships between these leaders as they pursued both their nation's interests and a path to peace helped define the Cold War.

COLD WAREisenhower and Khrushchev
During the eight years he served as president, Dwight D. Eisenhower held only one substantive meeting with his Soviet counterpart, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev. Shortly after Vice President Richard Nixon returned from Moscow in July 1959, Eisenhower invited Khrushchev to visit the United States.

The Soviet leader arrived in Washington on September 15, 1959, for a 13-day visit. Khrushchev embarked on a coast-to-coast tour of the United States before returning to Washington to meet with Eisenhower.

Eisenhower hosted Khrushchev at Camp David for two days of talks. At the conclusion of their talks, on September 27th, the two leaders issued a joint statement. The two leaders acknowledged having "a frank exchange of opinions," but went on to agree "that their exchanges of view will contribute to a better understanding of the motives and position of each and thus to the achievement of a just and lasting peace."

They also "agreed that all outstanding international questions should be settled not by the application of force but by peaceful means through negotiation." The meetings were applauded as creating a new "Spirit of Camp David," signaling a reduction in tension between the two nations.

After the conclusion of their meetings, Khrushchev invited Eisenhower to visit the Soviet Union during the spring of 1960. But shortly after Soviet Air Defense Forces shot down an American U-2 spy plane on May 1, 1960, capturing pilot Gary Francis Powers, Khrushchev withdrew the invitation. The Spirit of Camp David was dead.

Eisenhower Camp David
Camp David
  • A favorite place to conduct international diplomacy, President Dwight D. Eisenhower Eisenhower stands with the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev outside of Aspen Cabin at Camp David, the presidential retreat located in Maryland's Catoctin Mountain Park

The term DEFCON (DEFense Readiness CONdition) is widely misunderstood.

DEFCON was developed during the Cold War to signal the threat level to the United States and the level of military readiness needed in response to the threat level.

DEFCON is divided into five levels. Although it is commonly thought that DEFCON 5 means a nuclear war is just minutes away, in fact the opposite is true.

DEFCON 5 indicates that the United States military is at a normal level of military readiness during peacetime.

DEFCON 1, on the other hand, means war is imminent.

DEFense Readiness CONdition
DEFCON 1CRITICALMajor combat expected
DEFCON 2SEVEREU.S. Military to be prepared for large scale military conflict
DEFCON 3SUBSTANTIALIncreased force readiness and expansion of Air Force's deployable assets
DEFCON 4MODERATEIncreased intelligence watch and strengthened security measures
DEFCON 5LOWLowest state of readiness

During most of the Cold War, the United States was at DEFCON 4, meaning military readiness was just above normal.

Only twice has the level been raised to DEFCON 3, which puts the military on increased alert:

  1. The Yom Kippur War in 1973
  2. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

DEFCON 2, which puts all or part of the military on heightened alert, has only been reached twice:

  1. The Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962
  2. The start of the Gulf War in January 1991.
  3. The United States has never moved to DEFCON 1.

DEFCON 5The next time someone tells you that a situation is spiraling so rapidly out of control that they are at DEFCON 5, they are using the term incorrectly. That might not be the best time to correct them though, it could lead to a jump all the way to DEFCON 1

Political Cartoon I'll Bury You

COLD WARKennedy and Khrushchev
President John F. Kennedy had a difficult relationship with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. The two leaders met only once, for two days in Vienna, Austria in June 1961.

The summit meeting convened just weeks after the disastrous U.S.-backed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, which was intended to overthrow Cuba's communist dictator, Fidel Castro. Kennedy went to Vienna wanting to prove that the Soviets should not take the failure in Cuba as a sign of American weakness.

The meetings did not, however, go as Kennedy hoped. Shortly after the summit concluded, Kennedy confided his impressions to James Reston of the New York Times:

JOHN F. KENNEDY: Khrushchev just beat the hell out of me. It was the worst thing in my life. He savaged me.

Khrushchev tested Kennedy's resolve 16 months later. In early October 1962, aerial surveillance revealed that the Soviets were getting ready to deploy ballistic missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles off the coast of the United States. Kennedy went on national TV to demand that the Soviets stop.

After a tense 13-day stand-off, during which the two powers seemed to be on the brink of nuclear war, the crisis ended. The Soviets agreed not to station nuclear missiles in Cuba and the United States agreed not to invade Cuba again and to remove missiles it had stationed in Turkey near the Soviet border.

Kennedy Khrushchev Vienna
Vienna, Austria
  • Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy engaged in tense discussions in Vienna, Austria on June 3, 1961.

Kennedy Khrushchev
Khrushchev and Kennedy
  • Surrounded by interpreters and aides, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev forcefully drives home a point to President John F. Kennedy.
Kennedy's Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, would later recall, "Kennedy was very upset. He wasn't prepared for the brutality of Khrushchev's presentation."

Kennedy Humidor
  • This silver, gold, and niello inlay humidor was presented to President John F. Kennedy by USSR Premier Nikita Khrushchev during their June 4, 1961, meeting in Vienna, Austria.

Kennedy Humidor

Kennedy Pushinka Dog
  • Pushinka (right) poses on the South Lawn of the White House with Charlie, another Kennedy family dog. Pushinka would later give birth to four puppies sired by Charlie.
In June 1961, a six-month old, white, mixed breed dog arrived in Washington, D.C., carrying, of all things, a Soviet passport. The dog, named Pushinka ("Fluffy" in Russian), was a gift from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to the President and Mrs. Kennedy and their two children.

Before the dog was delivered to the White House, the CIA checked her into the Walter Reed Army Medical Center for tests. The tests were looking for bugs - not fleas or ticks - but electronic bugs that might have been implanted in the pup to listen in on White House conversations. After a series of X-rays and other tests found the pooch was not a canine spy, she was delivered to the First Family.

Of course, the gift also carried a political meaning. The Soviets were very proud that they were the first nation to send a living creature - a dog named Strelka - into space and return it safely to earth. Pushinka was one of Strelka's puppies. So, the cute little dog was also a furry reminder to President Kennedy that the Soviets were ahead in the Space Race.

PUSHINKA: Tyav, tyav! [Woof, woof!]

- Pushinka, 1961

Kennedy Pushinka Passport
Pushinka's Passport
  • Pushinka, the dog given to the President and Mrs. Kennedy by Soviet leader Khrushchev, was issued her own Soviet passport for travel to the United States.

COLD WARCuban Missile Crisis
In the Summer of 1962, the Soviet Union agreed to Cuba's request to build nuclear weapon launch sites in a Secret agreement. The Soviets snuck nuclear missile engineers into Cuba under the guise of general and agricultural construction workers. On October 14, an American U-2 spy plane captured images of a missile site at San Cristobal, under construction.

MRBM Launch Site San Cristobal
MRBM Field Launch Site 2 San Cristobal
  • October 14, 1962

INTELLIGENCE BRIEFING: There are 6 missile transporters and 3 launchers visible in this site on Mission 3113 (19 October). The launchers have not been placed in operational positions but preparation of these positions has been started. There are two missile-ready buildings. Nine oxidizer and 5 fuel trucks have been identified. Improvements noted on 19 October coverage causes us to revise the estimated date of full operational capability to 22 October. An emergency capability was probably reached on 17 October.

The next day, the CIA's analysts identified the site as a nuclear launch site for the medium range SS-4 missiles, thanks in part to a Soviet double agent named Oleg Penkovsky. The site was capable of launching nuclear missiles at the south-eastern half of the United States, and striking with speed that made detection and retaliation difficult.

San Cristobal Launch Capabilities

The President assembled his top advisors (EXCOMM) and began weighing his options. President Kennedy requested airtime to directly address the American people on October 22, informing the public of increased military tension with the Soviet Union and the establishment of a naval blockade by the U.S. Navy around the island of Cuba.

MRBM Launch Site San Cristobal
MRBM Field Launch Site 1 San Cristobal
  • October 25, 1962

INTELLIGENCE BRIEFING: This site contains four launchers which have been placed in their operational positions. Fourteen oxidizer and 8 fuel vehicles have been identified. Six missile-ready buildings have been erected. At least seven missile transporters are present. The latest coverage available (Mission 3113 on 19 October) tends to confirm that it has full operational capability.

After Kennedy's Oval Office address, the nuclear readiness level for the Strategic Air Command was raised, for the first time in history, to DEFCON 2, one step away from war. The nation was gripped with fear that the long-dreaded nuclear war might finally erupt.

After several tense days, the threat of war passed. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed to stop construction on the missile bases and pledged that the Soviet Union would not place nuclear weapons on Cuban territory. In return, President Kennedy secretly agreed to remove nuclear missiles the United States had installed in 1961 in Turkey, near its border with the Soviet Union.

President Kennedy traveled to Berlin to see for himself the wall that in August 1961, just seven months into his presidency, the communist East German government had begun to erect to end the flow of East Berliners to the West. Speaking in front of a huge, enthusiastic crowd in front of West Berlin's city hall, Kennedy uttered the famous words, "Ich bin ein Berliner" — I am a Berliner.

Kennedy Berlin Wall
Berlin Wall
  • Standing atop a platform, President John F. Kennedy peers across the Berlin Wall into East Berlin while visiting Germany in the summer of 1961.

COLD WAR TREATIES1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty
Banned the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, outer space, and under water
  • Kennedy and Khrushchev

Johnson Hollybush Summit
Hollybush Summit Luncheon
  • This luncheon menu and plate are from the June 25, 1967, meeting of the Hollybush Summit at Glassboro State College.
During the June 23 - June 25 summit, President Lyndon B. Johnson and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin discussed current issues for nearly 10 hours. The two leaders did not reach any new agreements, but the talks helped calm Cold War tensions between the superpowers.

Johnson Hollybush Summit

RICHARD NIXON:The United States and the Soviet Union cannot afford to go to war against each other, at any time or under any circumstances. Each side's vast military power makes war obsolete as an instrument of national policy.

- Richard Nixon, Real Peace

Political Cartoon Break Through

COLD WARCienfuegos
In autumn of 1970, a U-2 spy plane captured photos of the construction of a new submarine base in southern Cuba, at a small port city called Cienfuegos. Further analysis revealed the base to be a major Soviet Naval base, capable of repairing and refueling nuclear armed submarines. Its construction came with the broader aim of expanding Soviet naval power in the region.

Cienfuegos Submarine Base

When the Soviet Union began moving nuclear powered submarines capable of launching nuclear weapons into the base, the Nixon Administration saw this as a violation to the 1962 agreement that ended the Cuban Missile Crisis. Instead of broadcasting the imminent threat to the American people, President Nixon pursued back channel negotiations with the Soviets.

Cienfuegos Naval Ships

President Nixon decided not to publicly confront his Soviet counterpart, but instead first work to resolve the threat quietly through diplomatic channels. Although word of the Soviet's ongoing activity in Cuba was leaked to the media, and inadvertently confirmed by a Pentagon official, the Nixon administration downplayed the reports. Instead, a series of confidential toughly worded messages from Washington were conveyed to Moscow through the Soviet ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin.

Cienfuegos Soviet Naval Activity

The Soviets initially acted as if the construction of the submarine bases was unimportant. When, however, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger told Dobrynin that President Nixon saw the sub base as a violation of the Soviet pledge to keep nuclear weapons out of Cuba, the Soviets blinked. Although Moscow reaffirmed, in a diplomatic note, its 1962 pledge, it also stopped construction at Cienfuegos. The potential crisis passed, without igniting a worldwide panic.

President Nixon, just weeks after taking office, visited West Germany to affirm America's commitment to the people of that nation and to the people of West Berlin.

Making a four hour stop in West Berlin, Nixon directed his motorcade to the Wall. With thousands of West Berliners cheering him on, he climbed onto a viewing platform to gaze over into East Berlin. As the grim faced East German border guards focused in on him with their binoculars, Nixon waved back to them.

Nixon West Berlin
Berlin Wall
  • President Nixon and Chancellor Kurt Kiesinger wave to a large and enthusiastic crowd in West Berlin, February 1969.

COLD WARNixon and Brezhnev and Mao
When Richard Nixon came to the presidency in 1969, relations with the Soviet Union were troubled. Soviet and Chinese support of the communist government in North Vietnam was hindering progress toward ending the Vietnam War. Since 1949 the United States had not had any contact with the communist-controlled People's Republic of China.

President Nixon sought to create a new structure of peace in which the United States and the Soviet Union would begin to reduce tensions and improve relations through the process of detente. Nixon also decided to end the two decades of what he called "angry isolation" between the United States and China.

Nixon's historic visit to China in February 1972, including his meetings with Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai, opened a new chapter in American foreign policy. Nixon's "triangular diplomacy" helped to disrupt the once-close relationship between China and the Soviet Union.

Nixon's May 1972 visit to the Soviet Union for a summit with General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev marked the first time an American president had met a Soviet leader in Moscow. The two leaders signed the first treaties of the Cold War to limit both strategic nuclear weapons and anti-ballistic missile systems.

Nixon and Brezhnev would meet twice more, in the United States in June 1973 and again in Moscow, in June 1974.

Although the Cold War would not end until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, many see Nixon's efforts to build a structure of peace as the beginning of the end of this long period of conflict.

Richard Nixon Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong
  • President Richard Nixon and Chinese leader Chairman Mao Zedong shake hands as they end more than 20 years of isolation between the two nations.
The two leaders met in Mao's home in Beijing on February 21, 1972.

Richard Nixon Leonid Brezhnev Handshake
Leonid Brezhnev Handshake
  • In Moscow, on May 27, 1972, President Richard Nixon and Soviet Leader Leonid Brezhnev seal the the handshake the historic agreement to limit nuclear arms they just signed.

COLD WAR TREATIES1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I)
Froze the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missile
  • Nixon and Brezhnev

COLD WAR TREATIES1972 Treaty on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems
Limited the deployment of anti-ballistic missile systems to two locations in each country
  • Nixon and Brezhnev

Richard Nixon Leonid Brezhnev
Leonid Brezhnev
  • In the East Room of the White House on June 21, 1973, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and President Richard Nixon sign an historic treaty to limit the use and stockpiling of nuclear arms.

COLD WAR TREATIES1973 Agreement on the Prevention of Nuclear War
The United States and the Soviet Union agreed to "prevent the development of situations capable of causing a dangerous exacerbation of their relations" that could lead to nuclear war
  • Nixon and Brezhnev

Brezhnev Town Car Diplomacy
Town Car Diplomacy
In 1973, Richard Nixon hosted Leonid Brezhnev for their second summit meeting. During a visit to Camp David, Nixon presented Brezhnev with a new, dark blue Lincoln Continental, donated by the Ford Motor Company.

Brezhnev, a collector of luxury cars, couldn't wait to get behind the wheel to try out the latest addition to his collection, with the President riding shotgun.

Nixon would later recall:

RICHARD NIXON:The head of my Secret Service detail went pale as I climbed in and we took off down one of the narrow roads that run around the perimeter of Camp David... At one point there was a very steep slope with a sign at the top reading, "Slow, dangerous curve."

Brezhnev was driving more than 50 miles an hour as we approached the slope. I reached over and said, "Slow down, slow down," but he paid no attention. When we reached the bottom, there was a squeal of rubber as he slammed on the brakes and made the turn.

Brezhnev drove the car back to where they started, much to the relief of both the Secret Service and Brezhnev's security detail. As Nixon would later observe, "Diplomacy is not always an easy art."

Brezhnev Town Car Diplomacy

Nixons Portraits
  • Gift of Leonid I. Brezhnev to President Richard Nixon and First Lady Pat Nixon, 1972

Brezhnev American State Flags
Assemblage of American State Flags
  • Gift of Leonid I. Brezhnev to President Richard Nixon and First Lady Pat Nixon, 1972
Brezhnev American State Flags

Brezhnev Bolshoi Ballerina Pointe Shoes
Bolshoi Ballerina Pointe Shoes
  • During First Lady Pat Nixon's Moscow trip, she visited the Bolshoi Theater School of Choreography on May 25, 1972, and received these ballet shoes from the director of the Bolshoi Academy.

Brezhnev Malachite Jewelry Box
Malachite Jewelry Box
  • Gift of Leonid I. Brezhnev, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, to First Lady Pat Nixon, 1973

Brezhnev Polished Amber Jewelry Set
Polished Amber Jewelry Set
  • Gift of Leonid I. Brezhnev to President Richard Nixon and First Lady Pat Nixon, 1973

COLD WAR TREATIES1979 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II)
Further limited the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine- launched ballistic missiles
  • Carter and Brezhnev

Jimmy Carter SALT II
  • Surrounded by American and Soviet government and military officials, President Jimmy Carter and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev signed a second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II) while meeting in Vienna, Austria on June 18, 1979.

Political Cartoon Nuclear Thaw

The final, and perhaps most memorable, visit of an American president to the Berlin Wall took place on June 12, 1987. President Ronald Reagan, with the Berlin Wall and the Brandenburg Gate visible behind him, issued a ringing challenge to his Soviet counterpart: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

Reagan Brandenburg Gate
Berlin Wall
  • Against the dramatic backdrop of the Berlin Wall and the Brandenburg Gate, President Ronald Reagan urges Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "Tear down this wall", June 12th, 1987.
The Wall would fall less than 2 1/2 years later.

Reagan Moscow State University
Moscow State University
  • President Ronald Reagan speaking at Moscow State University on May 30, 1988 against the backdrop of a giant bust of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union.

Reagan Statue of Liberty
Statue of Liberty
  • With the Statue of Liberty standing proudly behind them, President Ronald Reagan, Vice President George H.W. Bush, and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (second from left) on Governor's Island in New York Harbor, December 1988.

Medallion CCCP

Reagan Soviet Medallions
Soviet Socialist Republic Medallions
  • These medallions were a gift from Mikhail Gorbachev for President and Mrs. Reagan's trip to Geneva, Switzerland.
Each of the fifteen bronze medallions depicts the name of a Soviet Socialist Republic and its flag.

COLD WAR TREATIES1987 Treaty on Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF)
Eliminated all intermediate and short-range nuclear ballistic missile, with verification
  • Reagan and Gorbachev

COLD WAR TREATIES1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START)
Reduced the number of missile launchers and cut the number of nuclear warheads on "heavy" intercontinental ballistic missiles
  • George H.W. Bush and Gorbachev

George H.W. Bush START
  • On July 31, 1991, President George H.W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in the Kremlin in Moscow.

George H.W. Bush Barbed Wire
Barbed Wire
  • Hungarian Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth presents President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker with two pieces of barbed wire, parts of the 'Iron Curtain", that ran alongside the Hungarian-Austrian border.

George H.W. Bush Iron Curtain Plaque
Iron Curtain Plaque
  • This plaque, commemorating the dismantling of the Iron Curtain along the Austro-Hungarian border, was presented to President George H.W. Bush.

This piece of BARBED WIRE is a part of the "IRON CURTAIN" alongside the Hungarian -Austro border, that palpably represented the division of the Europian continent into two halves. Its dismantling was made possible by the will of he HUNGARIAN PEOPLE and the recognition of peaceful co-existence and mutual interdependence. We believe that the artifical, physical and spiritual walls still existing in the world, some day shall collapse everywhere!