The onset of the Cold War

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The Cold War consumed not only the two superpowers involved, the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, but the entire world that fell beneath their influence.  This essay will discuss the theories behind the cause of the conflict, namely the Traditionalist, Revisionist and Post-Revisionist theories of how the conflict was created, as well as using the levels of analysis as developed by Joseph Nye in his book “Understanding International Relations”.  This essay will also show the events that were crucial in creating one of the longest and most dangerous standoffs between nations in human history.

The origins of the Cold War extend beyond its immediate beginnings at the end of World War II.  In 1917, the Bolshevik revolution swept through what became the Soviet Union, and the ruling Tsar, part of a dynasty that ruled Russia for 400 years was forced to abdicate, ceding power to the communists seeking power.  The United States, being a capitalist nation, saw the dangers of communism and sent troops to defend the imperial government before it was overthrown.  Although US President Woodrow Wilson eventually recognised the revolution against tsarism, it is to be noted that he did not support the new government.  It was said that “defenders of Americanism urgently demanded intervention in Russia to safeguard the United States from the influence of the Russian revolutionary example” (Foglesong, 1995, p26).  The isolationist governments after World War I did not wish for intervention fearing further war, but the US-Soviet relations began on shaky ground, from which it rarely recovered.  The US only formally recognised the communist government of the Soviet Union in 1933.  With such a delay between this diplomatic formality, it is clear that the United States did not wish to deal with the new communist nation.

During World War II, both the US and Soviets declared war upon Nazi Germany, with both denouncing Hitler and his fascist regime’s bid for European hegemony.  The common enemy meant that they co-operated; most notably along with the UK at the Yalta and Potsdam conferences in 1945 to discuss the conclusion of the war.  US President Roosevelt and Soviet Premier Stalin built up, to an extent, a level of trust and mutual respect that meant that progress was made when they met, such as at the Yalta conference.  Roosevelt’s sudden death in April 1945 changed US-Soviet relations entirely, with Harry S. Truman taking charge.

Stalin’s trust was not fully earned by the new President, with the US development of the atomic bomb, and their secrecy towards the Soviets regarding the bomb, being regarded as an insult. Stalin already knew from various spy sources about the US atomic efforts. This heightened Stalin’s paranoia, and this Individual cause is defined by Nye’s ‘Levels of Analysis’ as a cause of the Cold War (2009, p152).  It is widely believed that the secrecy around the bomb was intentional, not only for security reasons, but to create an American show of force, as said by Bernstein: “The death and destruction would not only intimidate the surviving Japanese into pushing for surrender, but, as a bonus, cow other nations, notably the Soviet Union” (1995, p142). The Revisionist theory, which blames the United States for provoking the Soviet Union into the Cold War, uses this event as a crux of its’ argument.  The Soviet Union, for its’ own protection, needed to develop its own nuclear weapon to protect against the threat of US attack.  Several years later, it exploded its own nuclear weapon, RDS-1, on August 29th 1949. This action frightened the US considerably, who relied on their nuclear monopoly as a form of international security.

The Post-Revisionist argument is hard to deny as a factor in causing the Cold War.  Before the war, seven superpowers of the world existed, but afterwards, only the United States and the Soviet Union remained in a position of power.  Both powers worked together to fight Nazi Germany, and to an extent the Empire of Japan, in World War II.  Systemically though, according to Nye’s ‘Levels of Analysis’, “the bipolarity that followed the collapse of all the other great powers in World War II and the resulting power vacuum changed  the relationship” (2009, p156).  The issue of a bipolar world meant that conflict between the two countries was inevitable.  The mutual paranoia between the two nations as a result of each others’ actions was understandable given the power each wielded, and as said by Nye: “it is very hard in a bipolar world to distinguish offense from defense.” (2009, p158)

After the war, the territory of Eastern Europe was divided again into smaller states but the independence they craved after years of Nazi control was not given to them.  The Red Army had advanced to Germany during the war, liberating Eastern Europe slowly as they passed, but retreated even more slowly to Soviet borders after the war was over.  The Soviets kept large military forces in these countries after the war to coerce the population to vote for the communist parties in these states.  Between the years 1945 and 1947, “about half a million Soviet troops were stationed in Poland” (Frucht, 2004, p32). The Soviets wanted to use these states as a buffer between themselves and the West, out of Stalin’s fear of invasion, and they installed many puppet governments in these countries so that the Soviets had influence over them.  These new governments began to slowly create more ties with Moscow, and less with Western Europe.  Winston Churchill famously said in a speech in Fulton, Missouri in 1947 that: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”  Traditionalists argue that this control over Eastern Europe was as a Soviet threat to Western Europe.

The expansion of the Soviet Union was not limited to the Eastern European buffer states.  The geopolitically important countries of Iran, Turkey and Greece were all targeted, because of their access to the Persian Gulf (and its’ oil reserves) in Iran’s case, and the Mediterranean Sea for Turkey and Greece.  The Soviets occupied Iran in 1946, and this occupation drew strong rhetoric from both the US and UK, a historic power in the country, that “signalled the intention of London and Washington to resist further Soviet advances in the region” (Keylor, 2001, p256). The actions of the Soviets were perhaps out of a domestic fear of military inferiority, where they believed that access to the sea, and therefore a stronger navy, was important for their defence.

In reaction to feared Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, the US adopted the Truman Doctrine, which the President himself told Congress on March 12, 1947 that it was: “the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” (Beschloss, 2006, p194).  This was a clear warning to the Soviet Union that the United States would stop any advance on Western Europe, and many would regard it as the first direct word of aggression by one of the Cold War powers against each other.  The US also instigated a massive program of funding European reconstruction, dubbed the “Marshall Plan” or more formally the “European Recovery Program”, in the hope of boosting the economies of Europe, who were still the US’ major trading partners.  The total aid given to Europe was $13.2 billion, which would exceed $1 trillion in today’s money.  The UK received $3.2 billion, France received $2.7 billion, Italy received $1.5 billion and the Allies-occupied Germany received $1.4 billion (Keylor, 2001, p263-264).  The Soviet Union was invited to the agreement of the plan, and could have received aid, but it “denounced the project and forbade the governments of its East European ‘protégés’ to have anything to do with it” (Keylor, 2001, p262).  The Soviet Union did not want to submit to the economic control that the US would subsequently have over the country, which the Soviets felt would damage their sovereignty.

The Soviet Union was economically destroyed after World War II, as well as suffering the deaths of as many as 26.6 million people in the war (Ellmann & Maksudov, 1991, p671) as well as suffering massive economic losses. The nation was intent on rebuilding after conflict rather than expanding, say Revisionists.  Therefore the American paranoia about Soviet invasions of Western Europe was unfounded and the actions taken by the Americans, such as the “Truman Doctrine” and Marshall Plan, served only to provoke the Soviets into action they had not planned.  Nye’s ‘Levels of Analysis’ suggest that this “weakening” of the Soviet Union, on the contrary, resulted in “tighter ideological controls”, which helped increase the tension between the two superpowers (Nye, 2009, p155).

By the beginning of the 1950s, the Cold War was well and truly underway.  After World War II, the Korean peninsula was divided across the 38th parallel, with “Americans would receive the surrender of Japanese forces south of the parallel and the Russians would have the same responsibility to the north” (Hermes, 1966, p4).  Both partitions of Korea eventually formed themselves into distinct nations, with very different lifestyles in the more rural and industrial North compared to the densely populated urban South.  Like in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union “was able to direct and control the North Korean political system” (Kim, 1970, p238). On the 25th of June 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea.  The capitalist South was then backed by the US, via large deployments of US troops to assist with what was officially a UN mission to defend South Korea.  This was the first of many proxy wars that took place over the next forty years in countries such as Vietnam and Afghanistan, where both Cold War powers backed different factions in territorial disputes.

The Cold War was created in the crucible of Europe after World War II, with both the US & Soviets taking different approaches to Europe’s restoration. Traditionalists will point to the Soviet control of Eastern Europe as a trigger for the escalation of conflict between the US and Soviets; Revisionists will say that the Soviets were taking actions to defend from US nuclear attack.  Either may be seen as true, but it is clear that in a world with only two superpowers left, as Post-Revisionists would note, there was always going to be conflict.  It was lucky, though, that the two giants of the US & Soviets did not directly fight each other; as the world would likely be a much worse place because of it.



Bernstein, B. J., 1995, ‘The Atomic Bombings Reconsidered’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 74 (1), p135-152, Council on Foreign Relations

Beschloss, M., 2006, Our Documents: 100 Milestone Documents From the National Archives, Oxford University Press

Ellmann, M & Maksudov, S., 1994, ‘Soviet Deaths in the Great Patriotic War: A Note’, Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 46 (4), p671-680, Glasgow: University of Glasgow

Foglesong, S., 1995, America’s Secret War against Bolshevism: US intervention in the Russian Civil War, 1917-1920, Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press

Hermes, W. J, 1966, Truce Tent and Fighting Front, Washington D.C: Center of Military History

Keylor, W. R., 2001, The Twentieth-Century World, New York: Oxford University Press.

Kim, J.A., 1970, ‘Soviet Policy in North Korea’, World Politics, Vol. 22 (2), p237-254, Cambridge University Press

Nye Jr., J. S & Welch, D.A, 2009, Understanding Global Conflict and Cooperation: An introduction to theory and history, Pearson

Wróbel, P., 2005, ‘Poland’ p1-61, in Frucht, R. (ed), Eastern Europe: an introduction to the people, lands, and culture, ABC-Clio

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