While both sides accepted the status quo in Europe and embraced mutual deterrence through MAD (mutually assured destruction), the Cold War continued to rage in the so-called Third World of developing nations. From 1946 to 1960, thirty-seven new nations emerged from under a history of colonial domination to gain independent status. Both the United States and the Soviet Union, backed by their respective allies, competed intensively for influence over the new nations of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. Strategists in both camps believed that ultimate victory or defeat in the Cold War depended on the outcome of Third World conflicts. Moreover, many of these areas harbored vital natural resources, such as oil in the Middle East, upon which the developed world had become dependent. With American and allied automobiles, industry, and consumerism dependent on ready access to vast supplies of crude oil, maintaining access to foreign energy sources emerged as a key element of U.S. foreign policy.
Both the United States and the Soviet Union abhorred neutralism, that is, they demanded that their allies and Third World nations side with them against their Cold War rival. Both powers equated neutralism with appeasement and sought to punish not just states that sided against them but those that attempted to remain equivocal. Both the United States and the Soviet Union worked tirelessly in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East to convince Third World leaders that their ideology was on the right side of history and held out the best hope for those nations to grapple with their pressing social problems, including poverty, disease, and rampant population growth. The Soviets had less money and a weaker economy than their Western rivals, but they did have the advantage of arguing that communist ideology offered liberation from the legacy of colonialism.
Adopting a much harsher line toward the West than Khrushchev, China's leader, Mao Zedong, called on Third World revolutionaries to launch "wars of national liberation" against the capitalist world. The message had resonance since the overwhelming majority of Third World states had been under the control of foreign powers, including Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Holland, and the United States, for much of the previous century. Washington sought desperately to counteract the Soviet message and to contain revolutionary movements in the Third World. U.S. leaders went to great lengths to stave off defeat in even the most obscure and strategically insignificant corners of the globe out of fear of a bandwagon or domino effect. They insisted that a communist victory anywhere would encourage other revolutionaries and thus precipitate the much-feared red avalanche.
While the United States was most sensitive to revolutionary movements in neighboring Latin America, Cold War intervention was a global phenomenon. For years Washington coveted as a strategic partner South Africa, at the time a racist white minority regime that attempted to isolate and contain black radical movements in southern Africa. In North Africa and the Middle East, Washington backed Egypt and Israel against more radical regimes, some of which, such as Syria, became close Soviet allies. The United States and the Soviet Union supported different sides in the Middle East Arab-Israeli conflict. The United States backed the Zionist state, a policy supported by most American Jews—the largest population in the world in any one country—but also by a majority of overall public opinion. While Washington became Israel's chief diplomatic benefactor and weapons supplier, the Soviet Union embraced the cause of Arab nationalism and Palestinian statehood. When wars erupted in 1956, 1967, and 1973, however, Washington and Moscow ultimately found the common language to work together to prevent the conflicts from escalating into longer wars.
While the Soviets and Chinese appealed to the Third World on the basis of Lenin's theory of imperialism, Washington offered its democratic ideology as well as its advanced economy to woo Third World nations. Through its supervision of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the United States offered aid and loans on the condition that the recipients join the capitalist camp in the Cold War struggle. The United States confronted serious obstacles, however, in its efforts to win over the Third World. First of all, most of the Third World consisted of populations of people of color. The leaders and peoples of those nations condemned America's history of slavery, racism, and support for imperialism based on a racial hierarchy. Many scholars believe, in fact, that the Cold War played a significant role in the slow emergence of federal government support for the civil rights movement, which culminated in the United States in the mid-1960s. U.S. leaders recognized that they could not hope to appeal successfully to the Third World while sanctioning segregation, denial of voting rights, and other forms of racial discrimination in the United States itself.