Cold War Origins

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Cold War Origins
Cold War is the term used to describe the intense rivalry that developed after World War II between groups of Communist and non-Communist nations. On one side were the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) and its Communist allies, often referred to as the Eastern bloc. On the other side were the United States and its democratic allies, usually referred to as the Western bloc. The struggle was called the Cold War because it did not actually lead to fighting, or "hot" war, on a wide scale.

The Cold War was characterized by mutual distrust, suspicion, and misunderstandings by both the United States and the Soviet Union, and their allies. At times, these conditions increased the likelihood of a third world war. The United States accused the Soviet Union of seeking to expand Communism throughout the world. The Soviets, meanwhile, charged the United States with practicing imperialism and with attempting to stop revolutionary activity in other countries. Each bloc's vision of the world also contributed to East-West tension. The United States wanted a world of independent nations based on democratic principles. The Soviet Union, however, attempted to tightly control areas it considered vital to its national interest, including much of Eastern Europe.

Though the Cold War did not begin until the end of World War II, in 1945, relations between the United States and the Soviet Union had been strained since 1917. In that year, a revolution in Russia established a Communist dictatorship there. During the 1920's and the 1930's, the Soviets called for world revolution and the destruction of capitalism, which was the economic system of the United States. The United States did not grant diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union until 1933.

In 1941, during World War II, Germany attacked the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union then joined the Western Allies in fighting Germany. For a time early in 1945, it seemed possible that a lasting friendship might develop between the United States and the Soviet Union based on their wartime cooperation. However, major differences continued to exist between the two, particularly with regard to Eastern Europe. As a result of these differences, the United States adopted a "get tough" policy toward the Soviet Union after the war ended. The Soviets responded by accusing the United States and the other capitalist allies of the West of seeking to encircle the Soviet Union so they could eventually overthrow its Communist form of government.

Two great blocs came into being. The United States led the Western bloc. By the early 1950's, this group included the United Kingdom, Canada, France, West Germany, Japan, the Philippines, and many other countries of Western Europe and Latin America. The Soviet Union led the Eastern bloc, which included Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Romania. China joined the Eastern bloc following the Communist take-over of its government in 1949. The nonaligned or neutral nations—those in neither bloc—included India, Indonesia, Cambodia, and most of the African states.

During the late 1940's and the 1950's, the Cold War became increasingly tense. Each side accused the other of wanting to rule the world. Each side believed its political and economic systems were better than the other's. Each strengthened its armed forces. Both sides viewed the Cold War as a dispute between right and wrong. They saw every revolt and every international incident as part of the Cold War. This situation made it difficult to settle any dispute peacefully through compromise, with each side giving up something. Fear grew among all peoples that a local conflict would touch off a third world war that might destroy humanity.

The nature of the Cold War began to change in the 1960's. Neither the East nor the West remained a monolith (united bloc). Communist China challenged Soviet leadership. China accused the Soviet Union of betraying Communism and being secretly allied with the United States. Some Communist countries followed China's leadership, and others remained loyal to the U.S.S.R.

Among the nations of the Western bloc, France harshly criticized many U.S. policies and demanded independent leadership in Europe. West Germany also acted independently of U.S. policies. It searched for new economic and political relationships with other European countries, including East Germany.

Economic developments caused major shifts in the world balance of power during the 1960's. The rapid industrialization of Japan and West Germany made them important nations in the struggle for power. Their emergence and the growing strength of China led to new relationships. In 1970, Soviet and West German leaders signed a treaty pledging peaceful relations between their nations. The long-disputed status of West Berlin was settled in 1971 when the United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States agreed that the city was not part of West Germany. But the four powers also provided for economic and political ties between West Berlin and West Germany. Also in 1971, China joined the United Nations (UN). The United States established diplomatic relations with China in 1979.

Cold War tensions rose again after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Soviet leaders said the invasion was designed to help defend Afghanistan's pro-Communist government from Afghan rebels. In the late 1980's, however, Cold War tensions began to ease sharply after the signing of a major U.S.-Soviet arms-control agreement and after the U.S.S.R. removed its troops from Afghanistan.


Tensions further decreased after major democratic reforms took place in Eastern Europe. In 1991, the Soviet Union broke up into a number of independent, non-Communist states. These reforms and other developments marked the end of the Cold War.

The coming of the Cold War

Historians do not agree on exactly when the Cold War began. But most agree that the Yalta Conference, a meeting of Allied leaders in February 1945, marked the high point of wartime good will between the United States and the Soviet Union. Most historians also agree that relations between the two countries deteriorated noticeably within the first year after the conference.

The alliance breaks up. With Germany nearly defeated, the leaders of the Big Three nations met at the Yalta Conference to plan for the peace that would follow the war. These leaders were President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the United States, Prime Minister Winston Churchill of the United Kingdom, and Premier Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union. At Yalta, the leaders agreed to set up occupation zones (areas controlled by the Allies) for postwar Germany and made plans to form the United Nations. In addition, Stalin promised that the U.S.S.R. would go to war against Japan within three months after Germany surrendered.

The Allied leaders also developed the Declaration on Liberated Europe, in which they pledged to hold democratic elections in countries freed from the control of Germany and its allies. The Soviet Union failed, however, to keep this agreement. At the time it was made, Soviet forces had driven German troops out of most of Eastern Europe and had established a pro-Communist government in Poland. In spite of the Declaration on Liberated Europe, Stalin was determined to maintain tight control over Eastern Europe. He especially felt that control of Poland, which had been used as a route to invade the Soviet Union, was necessary to Soviet security. The United States felt betrayed by Stalin's refusal to carry out all of his promises and by his determination to establish a "sphere of influence" in Eastern Europe.

Roosevelt died in April 1945 and was succeeded as president by Harry S. Truman. Germany surrendered in May 1945. The main Allied leaders met for the final time at Potsdam, near Berlin, in July 1945. Just before the meeting, Churchill's Conservative Party was defeated in an election. Clement R. Attlee succeeded Churchill during the Potsdam Conference.

At Potsdam, the Allies agreed that the German people should be allowed to rebuild their lives "on a democratic and peaceful basis." However, serious disagreements arose. The United Kingdom and the United States charged that the U.S.S.R. was communizing the countries of Eastern Europe. Even before World War II ended, the U.S.S.R. had taken over the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania; parts of Poland, Finland, and Romania; and eastern Czechoslovakia. Soviet troops occupied a third of Germany and all of Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, and Romania. Nevertheless, the Western nations reluctantly agreed to a Soviet-backed transfer of 40,000 square miles (100,000 square kilometers) of German territory to Polish control.

The Iron Curtain descends. During 1945 and early in 1946, the Soviet Union cut off nearly all contacts between the West and the occupied territories of Eastern Europe. In March 1946, Churchill warned that "an iron curtain has descended across the Continent" of Europe. He made popular the phrase iron curtain to refer to Soviet barriers against the West. Behind these barriers, the U.S.S.R. steadily expanded its power.

In 1946, the U.S.S.R. organized Communist governments in Bulgaria and Romania. In 1947, Communists took control of Hungary and Poland. Communists seized full power in Czechoslovakia early in 1948. These countries became Soviet satellites (nations controlled by the U.S.S.R.).

Albania already had turned to Communism. Enver Hoxha, who led the Communist National Liberation Army in an Albanian civil war during World War II, established a Communist government in 1944.

Yugoslavia also joined the Communist bloc. The Communist Party of Yugoslavia had helped drive out the Germans near the end of the war. Communists led by Josip Broz Tito then took over the government.

East and West opposed each other in the United Nations. In 1946, the U.S.S.R. rejected a U.S. proposal for an international agency to control nuclear energy production and research. The Soviet Union believed the United States had a lead in nuclear weapons and would have a monopoly if controls were approved. The Soviet Union pictured itself as a defender of peace and accused the United States of planning a third world war.

The West holds the line

The Containment Policy. In the fall of 1946, Greek Communists revolted against the Greek government. The United Kingdom had been giving military and economic aid to Greece. But the British told the United States they could no longer give enough help to the Greeks. The British also warned that they could not help Turkey resist Communist pressure.

Truman Doctrine

In March 1947, President Truman declared that the United States would help any free nation resist Communist aggression (attack). Congress granted his request for $400 million for aid to Greece and Turkey. With this aid, both Greece and Turkey successfully resisted Communism. The new American policy became known as the Truman Doctrine. Aimed at Soviet expansion in Europe and the Middle East, the Truman Doctrine developed into the Containment Policy. The Containment Policy was designed to contain (hold back) the expansion of Communism throughout the world.

The foreign ministers of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and the Soviet Union met in Moscow in March and April 1947. They tried to draw up a German peace treaty. But the ministers could not agree on ways to end the occupation or on how to unify Germany.

The failure of the conference convinced U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall that the U.S.S.R. would not help Europe recover from World War II. In June 1947, Marshall proposed giving U.S. economic aid to all European nations that would cooperate in plans for their own recovery. This proposal grew into the European Recovery Program, or Marshall Plan, which began in 1948. The United States believed that a strong, stable Western Europe would block the spread of Communism. Meanwhile, in September 1947, the U.S.S.R. and eight other European Communist parties set up the Cominform, a new version of the Communist International.

Czechoslovakia and Poland wanted to take part in the Marshall Plan, but the U.S.S.R. would not let them accept U.S. aid. Instead, the Soviet Union set up the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) in January 1949. This organization was designed to unite the East European satellites economically and politically.

In June 1948, the Western Allies announced plans to unify their German occupation zones and establish the West German Federal Republic (West Germany). West Germany was formally established in September 1949. It had independence in some of its internal affairs, and it joined the Marshall Plan.

Also in June 1948, the U.S.S.R. harshly criticized Tito, the Communist leader of Yugoslavia. Tito then began to develop his own style of Communism for Yugoslavia, free from Soviet control.

The Berlin blockade was the Soviet answer to the West's plans for West Germany. In June 1948, Soviet troops blocked all railroad, highway, and water traffic through East Germany to West Berlin. The city lay 110 miles (177 kilometers) inside the Soviet occupation zone. The Soviet leaders thought their blockade would force the West to leave Berlin. Instead of pulling out of West Berlin, the Americans, British, and French set up the Berlin Airlift. For 11 months, West Berlin was supplied with food and fuel entirely by airplanes. The U.S.S.R. lifted the blockade in May 1949. The Allies ended the airlift in September.

The West rearms. Military strength became more and more important in the late 1940's. During the Berlin blockade, the United States pledged continuing military aid to Western Europe. The United States, Canada, and 10 Western European nations signed the North Atlantic Treaty in April 1949. This mutual defense treaty set up the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a military alliance. The goals of the alliance included the prevention of Soviet expansion and the defense of West Germany. In September 1951, the United States signed the ANZUS mutual defense treaty with Australia and New Zealand.

The nuclear arms race began on Aug. 29, 1949, when the Soviet Union tested an atomic bomb. Until then, the United States had been the only nation that knew how to make the atomic bomb.

Communist expansion in Asia. During the 1940's, Communist strength increased in the Far East. The U.S.S.R. had occupied Manchuria just before the end of World War II. After they left in 1946, the Chinese Communists took over most of northern Manchuria. The U.S.S.R. also set up a North Korean "people's republic."

In China, Mao Zedong's Communist troops fought the Nationalist armies of Chiang Kai-shek. The United States gave military aid to Chiang. Late in 1949, Chiang and his government fled to the island of Taiwan, near the mainland of China. The conquest of China by Mao's forces put China into the Communist bloc.

The Korean War. At the end of World War II, Soviet troops occupied North Korea and U.S. forces occupied South Korea. The North Koreans had a strong army. They got Soviet military aid even after Soviet troops withdrew from North Korea late in 1948. The United States withdrew its forces from South Korea in June 1949.

North Korean troops invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, and the Korean War began. On June 27, President Truman sent U.S. forces to aid the South Koreans. At the request of the United States, the United Nations Security Council voted to send UN troops to help South Korea. The Soviet delegation was boycotting (not attending) the council, and missed a chance to veto the decision. Sixteen UN member nations sent troops to help South Korea, and Chinese Communist troops aided the North Koreans.

Peace talks began in July 1951. They went on for two years while bloody fighting continued. Finally, in July 1953, representatives of the UN and the Communists signed an armistice. In 1954, representatives of both sides met in Geneva, Switzerland, to discuss a political settlement. But they could not agree on a way to unite North and South Korea.

The Korean War was the first war in which troops of a world organization fought an aggressor nation. For the first time, Americans fought a "hot war" against Communism. Some historians believe the Korean War was a major turning point in the Cold War. It extended the Containment Policy to the Far East. It also introduced limited warfare to the East-West conflict as a substitute to all-out—and possibly nuclear—war. Each side avoided attacking targets that could have led to expansion of the war. And each side limited the weapons it used and the territory in which it would fight.



Members of NATO and year joined:


Members of Warsaw Pact:

United States '49
United Kingdom '49
W. Germany '55
France '49
Italy '49
Canada '49
Belgium '49
Netherlands '49

Denmark '49
Norway '49
Spain '82
Turkey '52
Greece '52
Portugal '49
Luxembourg '49
Iceland '49

E. Germany

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