“I am getting confused about all these wars we are studying,” one of my college students confessed to me years ago. After we discussed the various nations who fought in World Wars I and II, she asked: “Now, who fought in the Cold War?”

I told her the Cold War was not an actual war. Unlike the two world wars, there were no physical battles between the major adversaries. It was, instead, an extended competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, along with their respective allies. In 1991, the Soviet Union split up into 15 countries, the largest of which is Russia.

But back then, both of these two so-called superpowers wanted to be the most powerful nation in the world, building themselves up while simultaneously trying to reduce the power and influence of the other. Washington and Moscow competed in numerous ways: over money and natural resources like oil, over allies, over weapons technology, over influence and prestige, over space exploration, over ideas.

The Cold War relationship between the two rival nations was often tense. Once, it led to the threat of nuclear war breaking out because Russia wanted to place nuclear missiles in Cuba, very close to the U.S. That brought the world to the brink of what would have been a catastrophic conflict.

But through skill, prudence or luck – or all three – American and Soviet leaders managed to avoid direct combat with each other from 1945 to 1989, the basic period of the Cold War.

A war without fighting?

My student could be forgiven for her confusion. The very term “Cold War” is contradictory and confusing. It was first used in 1947. By using the word “war,” it captured the seemingly life-or-death struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union and between capitalism and communism. But by describing this war as “cold,” it indicates the struggle did not involve weapons and did not result in rival armies seeking to destroy each other.

How could a war be cold? Essentially, by being fought not in the traditional manner of clashing armies, but by all other means short of actual combat.

The Cold War stayed cold for a variety of reasons. Most importantly, the advent of nuclear weapons meant that any conflict between the superpowers risked a nuclear exchange that could have claimed tens of millions of lives and left a swath of destruction in both the Soviet and American homelands.