One of the most memorable players of the Cold War, the Warsaw Pact, was let free of Soviet military control this day in 1991. The USSR had absorbed Eastern European states since the 1950s, forming a militarized buffer against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The Pact is where the phrase “military buildup” took on a whole new meaning. This is where mechanized and armored tank divisions, bomber wings, attack helicopters, and hordes of infantry were carefully placed. Strategists knew all too well that if World War III became reality, it would open in the horrid theater of NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Eastern European countries would be forced to endure Western retaliation, defend their own borders, or commit their sons to the Red Army. This tumultuous array of nations weathered a great deal for over thirty years.
Pact members were much more than puppet states or NATO punching bags. They were also the “middle men” for moving tons of weapons and equipment to third world countries. The Cold War was also fought abroad in small nations that were ripe for infiltration, destabilization, insurrection, and remote control. To get the ball rolling in these shadow wars, you needed to ship in the guns. According to Glenn E. Curtis of the Library of Congress’s Federal Research Division,
Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany were the principal Soviet proxies for arms transfers to the Third World. These NSWP [non-Soviet Warsaw Pact] countries supplied Soviet-manufactured equipment, spare parts, and training personnel to various Third World armies. The Soviet Union used these countries to transship weapons to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) in the early 1970s, Soviet-backed forces in the 1975 Angolan civil war, and Nicaragua in the 1980s. The Soviet Union also relied on East German advisers to set up armed militias, paramilitary police forces, and internal security and intelligence organizations for selected Third World allies.¹
Warsaw Pact countries were not fortunate enough to receive new toys. Although they were expected to combine forces with their Soviet allies against NATO, they received older Russian hardware for the job. Curtis hints this could have been a Soviet check against possible anti-Communist revolts and an easy way of knocking down resistance.
Miraculously, the buildup of troops and materials in Europe never unleashed the invasion or nuclear holocaust feared by millions. Citizens of Pact states came to reject Soviet influence with a general removal of Communist oversight from 1989 to 1991.
¹ Excerpted from Czechoslovakia: A Country Study, Glenn E. Curtis, ed. (Washington, D. C.: Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress, 1992) at http://www.shsu.edu/~his_ncp/WarPact.html
Other sources: History.com, Wikipedia.org,