Who Caused the Cold War?

This lesson was reported from:
Adapted in part from open sources.

The Cold War was a state of geopolitical tension after World War II between powers in the Eastern Bloc (the Soviet Union and its satellite states) and powers in the Western Bloc (the United States, its NATO allies and others). Historians do not fully agree on the dates, but a common timeframe is the period between 1947, the year the Truman Doctrine, a U.S. foreign policy pledging to aid nations threatened by Soviet expansionism, was announced, and either 1989, when communism fell in Eastern Europe, or 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. The term “cold” is used because there was no large-scale fighting directly between the two sides, but they each supported major regional wars known as proxy wars.

The “Big Three” at the Yalta Conference: Winston ChurchillFranklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin, 1945.

The Cold War split the temporary wartime alliance against Nazi Germany, leaving the Soviet Union and the United States as two superpowers with profound economic and political differences.

The USSR was a Marxist–Leninist state led by its Communist Party, which in turn was dominated by a leader with different titles over time, and a small committee called the Politburo. The Party controlled the press, the military, the economy and many organizations. It also controlled the other states in the Eastern Bloc, and funded Communist parties around the world.

At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union’s primary goals were (in no particular order):

  1. The spread of socialism as a moral imperative.  A major tenet of communist ideology is that capitalism is unjust – it denies basic necessities like shelter, food, and healthcare to workers, concentrating a society’s wealth instead in the hands of an elite, wealthy group of business owners.  What is more, the United States, both in rhetoric and in action, took steps to bolster and spread this capitalist system (paired with democracy when convenient) around the world.  It is important to understand that many Soviets really, sincerely believed in this cause was one of good versus evil, and that they were on the right side of history.
  2. A geographic buffer of friendly, socialist nations, primarily in Eastern Europe, providing the USSR with military and economic security.  All of this was meant to promote stability and even prosperity for the Soviet people.  This goal included keeping a post-World War II Germany weak – Europe’s second largest economy had been a major driver behind two wars in as many generations, costing the Soviet Union nearly 30 million lives in World War II alone.  The Soviets doubted whether a strong Germany could be a peaceful one.
  3. Balance with the United States, which as the leading capitalist nation and the world’s sole nuclear power, was regarded as not only hostile, but as an active threat.  It is also important to remember that during the Russian Revolution, the United States had militarily opposed the communists, and for nearly twenty years, until the rise of the Nazi military threat, had refused to acknowledge their legitimacy as the government of the Soviet Union – in short, the U.S. had been opposed to the very existence of the USSR for most of its history.  In particular, Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union during the initial years of the Cold War, was suspicious – some would say paranoid – about the hostility of the outside world toward the Soviet Union – and willing to take dramatic actions to secure its interests.
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Post-war territorial changes in Europe and the formation of the Eastern Bloc, the so-called ‘Iron Curtain’.

In opposition stood the capitalist West, led by the United States, a federal republic with a two-party presidential system. The First World nations of the Western Bloc were generally liberal democratic with a free press and independent organizations, but were economically and politically entwined with a network of banana republics and other authoritarian regimes throughout the Third World, most of which were the Western Bloc’s former colonies.

At the end of World War II, the United State’s primary goals were (in no particular order):

  1. Economic growth for the United States through free trade.  The U.S. sought to eliminate trade barriers to create markets for American agricultural and industrial products, as well as to ensure access to raw materials (such as oil) demanded by U.S. consumers.  The Great Depression (1929-1940) had really only ended with the coming of World War II, and American politicians and businessmen were determined that the end of the war not mean a reversal of American fortunes – what was good for business was good for the country.
  2. Supporting anti-communist governments abroad, whether democratic or not.  U.S. rhetoric emphasized the spread of democracy and the importance of individual freedoms such as the ones outlined in the U.S. Bill of Rights.  In reality, during the Cold War, the United States was typically far less concerned about the will of the citizens of foreign countries, and more interested in supporting anti-communist governments, coups, and rebels around the world, either through open military support, financial support, or covert action, regardless of their record on democracy or human rights.
  3. Balancing the strength of the Soviet Union in areas such as geographic influence, nuclear weapons, and general military power.  U.S. politicians frequently cited Soviet emphasis on collective management of the economy over individual rights and freedoms (such as in the U.S. system) as evidence of tyranny – and even evil.  The Soviet Union was perceived to be aggressive and expansionist, with immediate aims to take over the world.  U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt died in April, 1945, just months before the end of World War II, at a time before the wartime alliance was really tested by differing post-war goals.  However, his successor, Harry Truman, is widely considered to have believed in a tougher anti-Soviet position than Roosevelt.

 

Historians still bitterly dispute just how and why this tense state of affairs persisted for more than four decades.  Was it inevitable?  Could certain choices by either side have deescalated or even avoided the conflict all together?

Read the following four situation summaries, which are written as objectively as possible.  For each scenario answer the following three questions:

  1. Summarize the scenario from the point of view of the Soviet Union, making them the “good guys” of the story, taking into consideration that country’s goals (as enumerated above).  Do the same for the United States.
  2. In your opinion, who was the primary aggressor in this situation – the United States, the Soviet Union, or are they both equally to blame?  Why?
  3. What lessons might the Soviet Union and the United States draw about each other from this experience?  Can the other side be trusted?  Is the other side being confrontational?  Expansionist?  

Situation A: Atomic Diplomacy, 1945

(Adapted from “Milestones in the History of U.S. Foreign Relations” by the Historian of the U.S. Department of State)
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Atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, six miles from the epicenter.

During the Second World War, the United States, Britain, Germany and the U.S.S.R. were all engaged in scientific research to develop the atomic bomb. By mid-1945, however, only the United States had succeeded, and it used two atomic weapons on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to bring a rapid and conclusive end to the war with Japan. U.S. officials did not debate at length whether to use the atomic bomb against Japan, but argued that it was a means to a faster end to the Pacific conflict that would ensure fewer conventional war casualties. They did, however, consider the role that the bomb’s impressive power could play in postwar U.S. relations with the Soviet Union.

A nuclear bomb victim lies in quarantine on the island of Ninoshima in Hiroshima, Japan, 9,000-meter (9,843-yard) from the epicenter on Aug. 7, 1945, one day after the bombing by the United States.

While presiding over the U.S. development of nuclear weapons, President Franklin Roosevelt made the decision not to inform the Soviet Union of the technological developments. After Roosevelt’s death, President Harry Truman had to decide whether to continue this policy of guarding nuclear information. Ultimately, Truman mentioned the existence of a particularly destructive bomb to Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin at the Allied meeting at Potsdam, but he did not provide specifics about the weapon or its uses. By mid-1945, it was clear the Soviet Union would enter into the war in the Pacific and thereby be in a position to influence the postwar balance of power in the region. U.S. officials recognized there was little chance of preventing this, although they preferred a U.S.-led occupation of Japan rather than a co-occupation as had been arranged for Germany. Some U.S. policymakers hoped that the U.S. monopoly on nuclear technology and the demonstration of its destructive power in Japan might influence the Soviets to make concessions, either in Asia or in Europe. Truman did not explicitly threaten Stalin with the bomb, recognizing instead that its existence alone would limit Soviet options and be considered a threat to Soviet security.

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Joseph Stalin, Harry Truman meeting, and Winston Churchill at the Potsdam Conference, 1945.

Scholars debate the extent to which Truman’s mention of the bomb at Potsdam and his use of the weapon in Japan represent atomic diplomacy. In 1965, historian Gar Alperovitz published a book which argued that the use of nuclear weapons on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was intended to gain a stronger position for postwar diplomatic bargaining with the Soviet Union, as the weapons themselves were not needed to force the Japanese surrender. Other scholars disagree, and suggest that Truman thought the bomb necessary to achieve the unconditional surrender of recalcitrant Japanese military leaders determined to fight to the death. Even if Truman did not intend to use the implied threat of the weapon to gain the upper hand over Stalin, the fact of the U.S. atomic monopoly following the successful atomic test at Alamogordo, New Mexico in July of 1945 seemed to have bolstered his confidence at subsequent meetings, making him more determined to obtain compromises from the Soviet government. Even so, if U.S. officials hoped that the threat of the bomb would soften Soviet resistance to American proposals for free elections in Eastern Europe or reduced Soviet control over the Balkans, they were disappointed, as the security issues raised by the dawn of the atomic age likely made the Soviet Union even more anxious to protect its borders with a controlled buffer zone.

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In the years that immediately followed the Second World War, the U.S. confidence in its nuclear monopoly had ramifications for its diplomatic agenda. The fact of the bomb was useful in ensuring that Western Europe would rely on the United States to guarantee its security rather than seeking an outside accommodation with the Soviet Union, because even if the United States did not station large numbers of troops on the continent, it could protect the region by placing it under the American “nuclear umbrella” of areas that the United States professed to be willing to use the bomb to defend. The U.S. insistence on hegemony in the occupation and rehabilitation of Japan stemmed in part from the confidence of being the sole nuclear power and in part from what that nuclear power had gained: Japan’s total surrender to U.S. forces. Though it inspired greater confidence in the immediate postwar years, the U.S. nuclear monopoly was not of long duration; the Soviet Union successfully exploded its first atomic bomb in 1949.

Situation B: The Truman Doctrine, 1947

(Adapted from “Milestones in the History of U.S. Foreign Relations” by the Historian of the U.S. Department of State)

With the Truman Doctrine, President Harry S. Truman established that the United States would provide political, military and economic assistance to all democratic nations under threat from external or internal authoritarian forces. The Truman Doctrine effectively reoriented U.S. foreign policy, away from its usual stance of withdrawal from regional conflicts not directly involving the United States, to one of possible intervention in far away conflicts.

The Truman Doctrine arose from a speech delivered by President Truman before a joint session of Congress on March 12, 1947. The immediate cause for the speech was a recent announcement by the British Government that, as of March 31, it would no longer provide military and economic assistance to the Greek Government in its civil war against the Greek Communist Party. Truman asked Congress to support the Greek Government against the Communists. He also asked Congress to provide assistance for Turkey, since that nation, too, had previously been dependent on British aid.

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At the time, the U.S. Government believed that the Soviet Union supported the Greek Communist war effort and worried that if the Communists prevailed in the Greek civil war, the Soviets would ultimately influence Greek policy. In fact, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had deliberately refrained from providing any support to the Greek Communists and had forced Yugoslav Prime Minister Josip Tito to follow suit, much to the detriment of Soviet-Yugoslav relations. However, a number of other foreign policy problems also influenced President Truman’s decision to actively aid Greece and Turkey. In 1946, four setbacks, in particular, had served to effectively torpedo any chance of achieving a durable post-war rapprochement with the Soviet Union: the Soviets’ failure to withdraw their troops from northern Iran in early 1946 (as per the terms of the Tehran Declaration of 1943); Soviet attempts to pressure the Iranian Government into granting them oil concessions while supposedly fomenting irredentism by Azerbaijani separatists in northern Iran; Soviet efforts to force the Turkish Government into granting them base and transit rights through the Turkish Straits; and, the Soviet Government’s rejection of the Baruch plan for international control over nuclear energy and weapons in June 1946.

cold warIn light of the deteriorating relationship with the Soviet Union and the appearance of Soviet meddling in Greek and Turkish affairs, the withdrawal of British assistance to Greece provided the necessary catalyst for the Truman Administration to reorient American foreign policy. Accordingly, in his speech, President Truman requested that Congress provide $400,000,000 worth of aid to both the Greek and Turkish Governments and support the dispatch of American civilian and military personnel and equipment to the region.

Truman justified his request on two grounds. He argued that a Communist victory in the Greek Civil War would endanger the political stability of Turkey, which would undermine the political stability of the Middle East. This could not be allowed in light of the region’s immense strategic importance to U.S. national security. Truman also argued that the United States was compelled to assist “free peoples” in their struggles against “totalitarian regimes,” because the spread of authoritarianism would “undermine the foundations of international peace and hence the security of the United States.” In the words of the Truman Doctrine, it became “the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”

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Truman Doctrine Cartoon by Granger, 1947.

Truman argued that the United States could no longer stand by and allow the forcible expansion of Soviet totalitarianism into free, independent nations, because American national security now depended upon more than just the physical security of American territory. Rather, in a sharp break with its traditional avoidance of extensive foreign commitments beyond the Western Hemisphere during peacetime, the Truman Doctrine committed the United States to actively offering assistance to preserve the political integrity of democratic nations when such an offer was deemed to be in the best interest of the United States.

Situation C: The Marshall Plan

One of a number of posters created to promote the Marshall Plan in Europe. Note the pivotal position of the American flag.
(Adapted from “The Marshall Plan” by the Historian of the U.S. Department of State)

In the immediate post-World War II period, Europe remained ravaged by war and thus susceptible to exploitation by an internal and external Communist threat. In a June 5, 1947, speech to the graduating class at Harvard University, Secretary of State George C. Marshall issued a call for a comprehensive program to rebuild Europe.

The Marshall Plan was an American initiative to aid Western Europe, in which the United States gave over $13 billion (nearly $110 billion in 2016 US dollars)[2] in economic assistance to help rebuild Western European economies after the end of World War II. The plan was in operation for four years beginning on April 3, 1948.  The Marshall Plan’s official mission was to give a boost to the European economy: to promote European production, to bolster European currency, and to facilitate international trade, especially with the United States, whose economic interest required Europe to become wealthy enough to import US goods. Another unofficial goal of the Marshall Plan was the containment of growing Soviet influence in Europe, evident especially in the growing strength of communist parties in Czechoslovakia, France, and Italy.  The Marshall Plan required a lessening of interstate barriers, a dropping of many regulations, and encouraged an increase in productivitytrade union membership, as well as the adoption of modern business procedures.  

 

Countries that received Marshall Plan aid. The red columns show the relative amount of total aid received per nation.

The Marshall Plan aid was divided amongst the participant states roughly on a per capita basis. A larger amount was given to the major industrial powers, as the prevailing opinion was that their resuscitation was essential for general European revival. Somewhat more aid per capita was also directed towards the Allied nations, with less for those that had been part of the Axis or remained neutral. The largest recipient of Marshall Plan money was the United Kingdom (receiving about 26% of the total), followed by France (18%) and West Germany (11%). Some eighteen European countries received Plan benefits.

Although offered participation, the Soviet Union refused Plan benefits, and also blocked benefits to Eastern Bloc countries, such as Hungary and Poland. In a statement, the Soviet Union argued that through the Marshall Plan, “the bosses of Wall Street” were “tak[ing] the place of Germany, Japan and Italy […] the American plan for the enslavement of Europe.”  The Soviets further described the world now breaking down “into basically two camps—the imperialist and antidemocratic camp on the one hand, and the antiimperialist and democratic camp on the other.”

US aid to Greece under the Marshall Plan.

The years 1948 to 1952 saw the fastest period of growth in European history. Industrial production increased by 35%. Agricultural production substantially surpassed pre-war levels. The poverty and starvation of the immediate postwar years disappeared, and Western Europe embarked upon an unprecedented two decades of growth that saw standards of living increase dramatically. Additionally, the long-term effect of economic integration raised European income levels substantially, by nearly 20 percent by the mid-1970s. There is some debate among historians over how much this should be credited to the Marshall Plan. Most reject the idea that it alone miraculously revived Europe, as evidence shows that a general recovery was already underway.

 

The political effects of the Marshall Plan may have been just as important as the economic ones. Marshall Plan aid allowed the nations of Western Europe to relax austerity measures and rationing, reducing discontent and bringing political stability. The communist influence on Western Europe was greatly reduced, and throughout the region, communist parties faded in popularity in the years after the Marshall Plan. The trade relations fostered by the Marshall Plan helped forge the North Atlantic alliance that would persist throughout the Cold War in the form of NATO. At the same time, the nonparticipation of the states of the Eastern Bloc was one of the first clear signs that the continent was now divided.

Situation D: The Berlin Blockade, 1948-1949

(Adapted from “Milestones in the History of U.S. Foreign Relations” by the Historian of the U.S. Department of State)
Post-war Allied occupation zones in Germany.

At the end of the Second World War, U.S., British, and Soviet military forces divided and occupied Germany. Also divided into occupation zones, Berlin was located far inside Soviet-controlled eastern Germany. The United States, United Kingdom, and France controlled western portions of the city, while Soviet troops controlled the eastern sector. As the wartime alliance between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union ended and friendly relations turned hostile, the question of whether the western occupation zones in Berlin would remain under Western Allied control or whether the city would be absorbed into Soviet-controlled eastern Germany led to the first Berlin crisis of the Cold War. The crisis started on June 24, 1948, when Soviet forces blockaded rail, road, and water access to Allied-controlled areas of Berlin. The United States and United Kingdom responded by airlifting food and fuel to Berlin from Allied airbases in western Germany. The crisis ended on May 12, 1949, when Soviet forces lifted the blockade on land access to western Berlin.

U.S. Navy and Air Force aircrafts unload at Tempelhof Airport during the Berlin Airlift.

The crisis was a result of competing occupation policies and rising tensions between Western powers and the Soviet Union. After the end of the Second World War, the future of postwar Germany was plagued by the divisions within and between Allied powers. The only decision of significance that emerged from wartime planning was the agreement of zones of occupation. Even after the end of hostilities, the problem of what to do about Germany was not successfully addressed at the July 1945 Potsdam Conference. Not only was there a lack of consistency in the political leadership and policymaking among the British and the Americans, occupation policy on the ground also confronted unforeseen challenges. Two and a half million Berliners, spread between four zones of occupation, faced profound privations: Allied bombing had reduced the city to rubble, shelter and warmth were scarce, the black market dominated the city’s economic life, and starvation loomed. While mired in such conditions, Berlin emerged as a forward salient in the Western struggle against the Soviet Union.

The year 1947 saw major shifts in occupation policy in Germany. On January 1, the United States and United Kingdom unified their respective zones and formed Bizonia, which caused tensions between East and West to escalate. In March, the breakdown of the Moscow Conference of Foreign Ministers and the enunciation of the Truman Doctrine served to harden the lines of an increasingly bipolar international order. In June, Secretary of State George Marshall announced the European Recovery Program. The purpose of the Marshall Plan—as the program came to be called—was not only to support economic recovery in Western Europe, but also to create a bulwark against Communism by drawing participating states into the United States’ economic orbit.

In early 1948, the United States, United Kingdom, and France secretly began to plan the creation of a new German state made up of the Western Allies’ occupation zones. In March, when the Soviets discovered these designs, they withdrew from the Allied Control Council, which had met regularly since the end of the war in order to coordinate occupation policy between zones. In June, without informing the Soviets, U.S. and British policymakers introduced the new Deutschmark to Bizonia and West Berlin. The purpose of the currency reform was to wrest economic control of the city from the Soviets, enable the introduction of Marshall Plan aid, and curb the city’s black market. Soviet authorities responded with similar moves in their zone. Besides issuing their own currency, the Ostmark, the Soviets blocked all major road, rail, and canal links to West Berlin, thus starving it of electricity, as well as a steady supply of essential food and coal.

The United States and United Kingdom had few immediate options if hostilities broke out. Because of the draw down in U.S. and British combat forces since the end of the Second World War, the Red Army stationed in and around Berlin dwarfed the Western Allied military presence. On June 13, 1948, the administrator of U.S.-occupied Germany General Lucius Clay reported to Washington that “There is no practicability in maintaining our position in Berlin and it must not be evaluated on that basis…. We are convinced that our remaining in Berlin is essential to our prestige in Germany and in Europe. Whether for good or bad, it has become a symbol of the American intent.” The Truman administration agreed. Based upon written agreements with the Soviet Union in 1945, the only connections to Berlin left to the Western Allies were air corridors from West Germany used to supply Berlin by air. The administration calculated that if the Soviets opposed the airlift with force, it would be an act of aggression against an unarmed humanitarian mission and the violation of an explicit agreement. Thus, the onus of igniting a conflict between the former allies would be on the aggressor.

The only three permissible air corridors to Berlin.
Berliners watching a C-54 land at Tempelhof Airport (1948).

The United States launched “Operation Vittles” on June 26, with the United Kingdom following suit two days later with “Operation Plainfare.” Despite the desire for a peaceful resolution to the standoff, the United States also sent to the United Kingdom B-29 bombers, which were capable of carrying nuclear weapons. The beginning of the airlift proved difficult and Western diplomats asked the Soviets to seek a diplomatic solution to the impasse. The Soviets offered to drop the blockade if the Western Allies withdrew the Deutschmark from West Berlin.

Loading milk on a West Berlin-bound aircraft.

Even though the Allies rebuffed the Soviet offer, West Berlin’s position remained precarious, and the standoff had political consequences on the ground. In September 1948, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), the German Communist Party of the Soviet zone of occupation, marched on the Berlin City Council and forced it to adjourn. Fearing that the Western Allies might halt the airlift and cede West Berlin to the Soviets, 300,000 West Berliners gathered at the Reichstag to show their opposition to Soviet domination. The turnout convinced the West to keep the airlift and the Deutschmark.

In time, the airlift became ever more efficient and the number of aircraft increased. At the height of the campaign, one plane landed every 45 seconds at Tempelhof Airport. By spring 1949, the Berlin Airlift proved successful. The Western Allies showed that they could sustain the operation indefinitely. At the same time, the Allied counter-blockade on eastern Germany was causing severe shortages, which, Moscow feared, might lead to political upheaval.

On May 11, 1949, Moscow lifted the blockade of West Berlin. The Berlin Crisis of 1948–1949 solidified the division of Europe. Shortly before the end of the blockade, the Western Allies created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Two weeks after the end of the blockade, the state of West Germany was established, soon followed by the creation of East Germany. The incident solidified the demarcation between East and West in Europe; it was one of the few places on earth that U.S. and Soviet armed forces stood face-to-face. It also transformed Berlin, once equated with Prussian militarism and Nazism, into a symbol of democracy and freedom in the fight against Communism.

Activities

  1. Identify a situation from later in the Cold War.  Explain how both the United States and the Soviet Union might have viewed their actions as justified in the grander scheme of their goals as identified in this article.

Further Reading

For the Soul of Mankind by Martin Leffler.

The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb by Gar Alperovitz.


THIS LESSON WAS MADE POSSIBLE THROUGH GENEROUS SUPPORT AND COOPERATION FROM ROSSOTRUDNICHESTVO.

One of the most positive expressions of the Cold War was the space race, commemorated here in The Monument to the Conquerors of Space, erected in Moscow in 1964 to celebrate achievements of the Soviet people in space exploration. It depicts a starting rocket that rises on its exhaust plume. The monument is 107 meters (351 feet) tall, has 77° incline, and is made of titanium. (Moscow, Russia, 2018.)

You can actually visit parts of the world featured in this lesson:

  • A Guided Tour of Moscow is a curated photo essay for use in middle and high school social studies classrooms.  The essay offers a brief, completely non-comprehensive overview of Russian history and culture circa 2017 and is meant to present these topics in an unconventional way – that is, as if the student were travelling through, wandering, and exploring Moscow on their own.  Explore Red Square and Gorky Park, commute through the Moscow Metro, and participate in the 2017 Victory Day celebrations commemorating the end of World War II.
  • Live From Moscow, 2018:

 

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