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Key Facts & Summary
- It was caused by the rivalry between the U.S. and USSR.
- It was waged on political and economic grounds, however, and no weapons were used.
- The U.S. was capitalistic whereas the Soviets favoured communism.
- For a long time, Stalin refused to join the United Nations.
- While at the Tehran Conference in 1943, Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill disagreed on how much control Stalin would have over the countries of Eastern Europe.
- Top on the agenda for Britain and the U.S.A. was to protect democracy and to help Germany to recover from the Nazi era. They were concerned about the large areas of Eastern Europe that were being seized by the Soviet Union.
The onset of the War
Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin were engaged in a number of deliberations before the onset of the Cold War. The President of the U.S.A. during World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt, saw that their alliance with the Soviets was crumbling but also knew that they had to stay allies until the end of the war. They managed to compromise and sort out their differences. When signs of the war being over emerged, more and more cracks appeared in the alliance until it finally split apart and the once-allies of the war became enemies.
The major differences were that the Soviet Union was a communist country, which was ruled by a dictator who put the needs of the state ahead of personal human rights, whereas the U.S.A. was a capitalist democracy, which valued personal freedom and feared communism. This signalled the start of the Cold War.
The American way of life was, and is, based upon the will of the majority, and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections and guarantees of individual freedom, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression. The communist Soviet way of life, however, was based upon the will of a minority, the state, forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relied upon terrorising and oppressing citizens, which was made possible through a controlled press and rigged elections.
These differences in ideologies, plus the countries involved resenting each other historically, resulted in a series of events that led to the collapse of the alliance and turned the allies of the war into enemies.
- Ideology: The United States and the Soviet Union represented two opposing systems of government.
- Economic: The United States wanted to encourage free trade throughout the world. The Soviets, however, wanted to close themselves off from the world and international trade and solely benefit from its resources. These differences led to resentment between the United States and the Soviet Union.
- Power Rivalry: After the decline of Europe following the Second World War, power was largely shared between the Soviet Union and the United States as they were considered the newly formed superpowers. They wanted to dominate each other and spread their ideologies.
America Dreading Communistic Attack and the USSR’s Fear of American Attack
This was highlighted by the Cuban Missile Crisis that involved a political and military standoff. As part of the deal, America secretly agreed to remove nuclear weapons in the form of missiles from Turkey. These weapons were originally placed there to ward off any invasion attempts from the Soviets. The Soviet Union would also publicly remove missiles it had placed in Cuba.
Differences Between America's President Truman and Soviet Leader Joseph Stalin
President Harry S. Truman (1945-1953) simply disliked Stalin and the Soviets. This is quite evident from the signing of a U.S. foreign policy known as the Truman Doctrine, which vowed to help countries under threat from the Soviets. It is worth noting that the Soviet Union later issued the Brezhnev Doctrine, which decreed that the Soviet Union would intervene with force in order to protect communism in its satellites. One of the main issues that strained relations between the Soviet Union and the West was the threat of nuclear war.
America’s Refusal to Help in Russia’s Post-war Economic Reconstruction
Poor relations between the United States and the Soviet Union escalated even further when the Land-Lease was abruptly terminated by the United States and Russia’s request for American economic aid for the purposes of post-war reconstruction fell on deaf ears. During the Second World War, the U.S. supplied much-needed war material to Allied nations through the Lend and Lease programme and this abrupt refusal did not go down well with the Russians.
Support of Proxy-wars
Proxy wars didn’t necessarily cause the Cold War but worsened it. The two superpowers often wrestled for superiority when it came to third world countries, supporting proxy wars in which they typically supplied and advised opposing factions in civil wars, including the Vietnam War to the U.S. backing the Ethiopian government and the Soviets going with next-door rival Somalia in the 1970s. This goes to show that their alignments were often arbitrary.
USSR’s Fear of America’s Atomic Bomb
The Soviet Union was extremely concerned about its security after being invaded twice in the twentieth century. In 1945, America created and used the atomic bomb against Japan and the USSR was determined to create one of its own. Both the USSR and the U.S.A. built up huge arsenals of Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). The United States tested a hydrogen bomb in 1952 and in November 1955, the USSR developed one too. After that, the U.S. moved its bombers into Europe. In 1955, West Germany was allowed to re-arm and join NATO. Russia responded by forming the Warsaw Mutual Defense Pact with its buffer zone neighbours.
USSR’s Expansion West into Eastern Europe and Broken Election Promises
Even before the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union had gradually extended her influence in Europe. As the war was drawing to a close in May 1945, the Soviet Union quickly solidified her control of Eastern Europe. The Red Army began by influencing the post-war elections. Although the non-communists could still gain some votes, most of the votes went to the communists as the elections were neither free nor fair. Many politicians in the United States had high hopes of America working with the Soviet Union after the war and did not advocate strong resistance against Russian expansion, but this soon changed. The U.S. government now favoured a policy of strong resistance against Russia.
From May 1945 onwards, the situation changed. The United States became alarmed with the growth of communism in Europe and put in place a plan known as the Marshall Plan in order to counteract the spread of communism. It was an economic support programme funded by the United States. They gave relief money to war-torn democratic countries to rebuild their economies. They did not give money to the Soviet Union and any of its satellites. The United States' motivation for doing this was to provide themselves with trading partners and to economically isolate the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union also formed an exclusive economic federation between all the states in the Soviet Union called COMECON. This restricted trade to within the Soviet Union. These measures to isolate the enemy and set up economic barriers helped to provoke the Cold War.
The Soviet Union and the West also formed political alliances to combat the opposing side. Western Europe and the United States, through NATO, formed a military pact. The Soviet Union created a similar pact, the Warsaw Pact, between the states within the Soviet Union.
USSR’s Actions in Germany
The Soviet Union could not forget that, in 1918, Britain and the U.S. had tried to destroy the Russian Revolution. Britain and the U.S. could not forget that Stalin had signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact with Germany in 1939. Neither side trusted the other. Because they were so different, each side saw each event differently and believed they were in the right. So every action they took made them hate each other more.
The Blame Game
This ensued even after the war ended as various historians argued their different points of view.
- Russian View
Most Russian historians blame the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the American President Truman. They state that Truman and Churchill instigated the war and wanted to destroy the USSR, which was just defending itself.
- The Traditional View
At first, western writers blamed Russia. They said Stalin was trying to build up a Soviet empire.
- The Revisionist View
This view was developed by Western historians who blamed America, citing their main reason as Truman’s lack of understanding of how much Russia had suffered in the Second World War.
- The Post-Revisionists
This view was developed by historians with an element of neutrality. They stated that both sides were to blame for the war and that there was hatred on both sides.
Modern historians agree, however, that the Cold War was primarily a clash of beliefs - mainly communism versus capitalism. The Soviet Union wanted to spread its ideology of communism worldwide, which antagonised the Americans who believed in democracy. The acquisition of atomic weapons by America caused fear in the Soviets. Both countries feared an attack from each other and built up counter-measures.