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The origins and development of the Cold War, 1945–85


The Scottish Qualifications Authority regularly reviews the arrangements for National Qualifications. Users of all NQ support materials, whether published by Learning and Teaching Scotland or others, are reminded that it is their responsibility to check that the support materials correspond to the requirements of the current arrangements.

The publishers gratefully acknowledge permission from the following sources to reproduce copyright material: image of ‘Europe after 1945’ from Mastering Modern World History by N Lowe, Macmillan, reproduced with permission of Palgrave Macmillan; extract from ‘The Truman Doctrine’ from Major Problems in American History since 1945 by R Griffith © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Company; the NATO logo from; extract from The Cold War 1945–1991 by JW Mason, Routledge, 1996; image of a crowd scene in Budapest, image of tanks and extracts of text from Cry Hungry reprinted by permission of PDF on behalf of R Gadney © Cry Hungary by R Gadney and G Mikes, Weidenfeld & Nicolson; extract from Soviet Military Intervention in Hungary, 1956 by J Gyorkei and M Horvath, 1999; image from The Last Division – Berlin and the Wall by A Tusa, 1996; adapted text from Documents in Berlin, 1943–1963 by Wolfgang Heidelmeyer and Guenther Hindrichs, 1963; extracts from The Burden and the Glory by A Nevens, Harper and Row, 1964; images of ‘US intelligence photograph of Soviet missile sites in Cuba’, ‘US naval vessel alongside a Soviet ship with missiles on board as it approaches the quarantine line’ and ‘A US B52 Stratofortress dropping bombs on targets in North Vietnam’ all ©; extract from Memories by Andrei Gromkyo, republished by Hutchison, reprinted by permission of The Random House Group Ltd; cartoon ‘OK Mr President – Let’s Talk’ from The Cold War 1945–1991 by D Murphy, Collins Education, 2003; text of song ‘Feel like I’m going fixing to die rag (next stop Vietnam)’ by Joe MacDonal, 1965; extracts from Major problems in the history of the Vietnam war (pages 208–9, 210–11, 484–5, 435–6) by RJ Mahon, DC Heath and Co © 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Company; extracts from The Prague Spring (pages 93, 456–9) by J Navratil, Central European University Press, 1998; extract from Soviet War Policy since World War II by Nogee and Donaldson © Pergamon Press, 1988, reprinted by permission of Pearson Education Inc; extract from The Cold War – The Great Powers and Their Allies by John Dunbabin, Longman, 1994, reproduced by permission of Pearson Education Ltd; image of Ronald Reagan © Bettmann/Corbis; images of Gorbachev with his wife Raisa in Kuybyshev, 8 April 1986 © RIA Novosti; images of B52 and ICBM from

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Learning and Teaching Scotland gratefully acknowledges this contribution to the National Qualifications support programme for History.

© Learning and Teaching Scotland 2008
This resource may be reproduced in whole or in part for educational purposes by educational establishments in Scotland provided that no profit accrues at any stage.
Introduction 4
Section 1: Opening moves 9
Section 2: The Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe 15
Section 3: The pace quickens: the Berlin Crisis, 1948–9 18
Section 4: The nuclear arms race 22
Section 5: The Cold War in Asia 27
Section 6: The Hungarian uprising of 1956 30
Section 7: The Berlin Crisis, 1961 44
Section 8: The Cuban Missiles Crisis, 1962 53
Section 9: The war in Vietnam 66
Section 10: Czechoslovakia, 1968 84
Section 11: The changing nature of Superpower leadership 95
Section 12: How important was ideology in the conflicts of the Cold War? 101
Section 13: Attempts to improve relations between the superpowers 105
Section 14: Afghanistan 116
Section 15: Poland 117
Section 16: The end of détente 120
Section 17: The endgame 122
Reference sheets 125
Glossary 130
The Cold War is the name given to the period from the end of the Second World War in 1945, until 1989. During this time, the two most powerful countries on earth, the United States of America (USA) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), confronted and challenged each other. The Cold War was a time of extreme tension, and threat of war. These two countries are often known as Superpowers – for the simple reason that they were far stronger and more powerful than any other countries.
Yet, although the fear and threat of war was very real, and there were times when the risk of mutual annihilation seemed imminent, the USA and the USSR never went to war with each other. There certainly were occasions when they threatened each other, or squared up to each other. However, on these occasions, both sides were fully aware of the consequences of a war involving nuclear weapons. As a result, as each crisis developed, attempts were always made to resolve it by non-violent means – by diplomacy, or negotiation. The confrontation between the USA and the USSR remained a cold war: direct conflict between them had to be avoided at all costs – and it was avoided.

Rival ideologies

The ideological rivalry between the Superpowers is central to an understanding of the Cold War. Each side had its own distinct ideology, a body of beliefs and values, which influenced all its policies and initiatives, as the Cold War unfolded.
The United States
The central focus of the American ideology was a strong commitment to democracy and to free enterprise, or capitalism. This can be characterised briefly by:

  • free elections, with a choice of parties for voters to choose from

  • democratic freedoms – freedom of speech, expression and assembly

  • free mass media – independent newspapers, radio and television, not run by the state

  • free enterprise – business, manufacturing, banking, etc, with individual or corporate control of the means of wealth creation

  • individual rights – the right to vote, the right to a fair trial.

The Soviet Union
The Russian communist ideology was based on Marxism/Leninism, with a strong commitment to equality. This can be exemplified by:

  • a one-party state, with the Communist Party being the only permitted party

  • a totalitarian system, with all aspects of life being influenced and directed by the prevailing ideology of communism

  • an emphasis on equality at all levels of society

  • strict control of the mass media – extensive censorship

  • state control of the means of wealth creation – no independent enterprise

  • suppression of dissenting opinions and opposition – with strict enforcement by a political police, or ‘secret’ police.

1. Draw up a comparison between the ideologies and beliefs of the United States and the Soviet Union. You can do this in a table if you like.

How was the cold war ‘fought’, or conducted?
The Cold War was conducted in a number of ways, always short of direct conflict between the USA and the USSR.
The arms race
The two sides engaged in an ongoing nuclear and conventional arms race from 1945 onwards. Each side tried to develop increasingly powerful and sophisticated weapons systems, in frantic efforts to maintain a lead over its rival. Both sides were aware that these nuclear weapons were never intended to be used.
Both sides had sophisticated networks of spies, secret agents and double agents, engaged in gathering intelligence and information. The US made extensive use of the Central Intelligence Agency for this purpose, and the USSR used the KGB for the same purpose.
The American radio station ‘Voice of America’ broadcast continually to the USSR and Eastern Europe. Radio Moscow, in turn, broadcast to the West.
Alliances were a key feature of the rivalry during the Cold War: NATO for the USA and Western Europe, and the Warsaw Pact for the USSR and its satellite states. Both Alliances had well-organised command networks, and carried out regular drills and exercises.
The Space Race was configured by the Cold War. The USSR derived great prestige from the launch of the first space satellite, Sputnik I, in 1957 – the Americans did likewise, with the success of their Moon landing in 1969.
Even international sport was affected by Cold War rivalry, with Americans and Russians competing over gold metals at the Olympics.
Aid programmes
During the Cold War, both sides attempted to extend their influence by offering to aid to other countries urgently in need of help. This was begun by the American Marshall Plan in the late 1940s. In the 1950s, the USSR began offering aid to some of the newly independent countries in Asia and Africa – the USA did the same. Each side was attempting to influence the recipients into being more favourably disposed towards them.
Crisis management: Tests of leadership for the superpowers
On a number of occasions during the course of the Cold War, serious episodes of tension and crisis developed. The confrontation between the USA and the USSR became more serious, dramatic and tense, increasing the risk of armed confrontation, and war between the two countries.
In some cases, the crisis involved only one Superpower. The clearest examples of this were the intervention of the USSR in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. In both instances, the USA avoided becoming directly involved, limiting its response to diplomatic protests at the Soviet action. The USA was tacitly accepting in both cases that the action, while cruel and repressive, was taking place in the USSR’s zone of influence in Eastern Europe and, in consequence, there was relatively little that the Americans could do.
The war in Vietnam was certainly the bloodiest episode of the Cold War. The USA intervened in Vietnam in strength, and made a major commitment towards checking the advance of communism. In this case, the USSR limited its own action to supplying military resources to North Vietnam, and did not get directly involved, even though North Vietnam was a communist state under attack.
The Berlin Crisis in 1961 was potentially very serious, with at one point a confrontation between US and Soviet forces. However, the confrontation remained limited, and tensions eased.
The Cuban Missiles Crisis of 1962 was the ultimate crisis. The USA and the USSR confronted each other directly, and war became very close indeed. However, common sense prevailed, and the crisis came to an end. World War III was avoided, and an agreement reached to resolve the difficulties.
The leaders of the Superpowers – Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Khrushchev, Brezhnev – were intelligent and rational men. They were fully aware of the risks of nuclear war and, as each crisis unfolded, they made massive efforts to ensure that the confrontation remained as limited as possible. The American and Russian leaders knew that if they ever got it wrong and war broke out, the consequences for them, and possibly for the planet, could be catastrophic.
Therefore, a key aspect of the study of the history of the Cold War is to consider and judge how each successive crisis was managed, and how effectively (or otherwise) the leaders of the USA and the USSR dealt with the issues of the time.
1. Make up a set of revision notes for younger pupils, explaining the most important differences between the USA and the USSR. Give your notes the title ‘Understanding the Differences’. You should focus clearly on the main points of difference between the two countries – on how the governments of the two countries worked and how their economies were organised.
2. Draw a spider diagram showing the different ways in which the Cold War was ‘fought’. Think carefully about all the ways in which the USA and the USSR competed against each other.
3. Explain why, during the Cold War, the Superpowers had to make sure that, as far as possible, they never came into direct conflict with each other.
Section 1: Opening moves
The Cold War began as World War II came to an end. In the struggle against Nazi Germany, the United States and the Soviet Union had been allies, and had co-operated actively with each other. However, as the war drew to an end, it became increasingly obvious that tensions and strains were starting to develop, and the wartime Grand Alliance was beginning to crumble.
The USA and the USSR became increasingly suspicious of each other as time passed. This became apparent first at the two conferences held as the Second World War came to an end – at Yalta and Potsdam.

The Yalta Conference

This conference was held in February 1945, at Yalta in the Russian Crimea. It was attended by President Roosevelt of the USA, Josef Stalin, the Soviet dictator, and Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister. A number of decisions were made.

  • The final defeat of Germany and Japan – Stalin agreed to join the war against Japan within three months of the defeat of Germany.

  • It was agreed that Germany and Austria would be occupied by the four victorious powers – USA, USSR, the UK and France; the two capital cities, Berlin and Vienna, would also be under four-power occupation.

  • Free, democratic elections would be held in Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe, which was, at that time, occupied by Soviet troops.

  • There would be territorial changes in Eastern Europe – Poland would lose 30% of its territory to Russia, but would be given large areas of Eastern Germany.

The Potsdam Conference

This conference was held at Potsdam, just outside Berlin, in July and August 1945. There were some changes of leadership, with Truman taking over as US president after Roosevelt’s death, and Attlee replacing Churchill.

  • Agreement was reached on the occupation zones in Germany and Austria.

  • The allies agreed on the trial of Nazi leaders for war crimes.

  • There would be free elections in Germany.

  • Germany would pay war damages, mainly to the USSR.

  • The German-speaking population in Eastern Europe would all be compelled to live in Germany.

The first signs of tension

Even with the onset of victory over Nazi Germany, and the widespread rejoicing at the establishment of peace, indications of disagreement and tension between East and West surfaced quickly. This became evident at the Potsdam Conference.
Eastern Europe
The Russian Army was now the dominant military force in almost all the countries of Eastern Europe. Although Stalin had promised that free elections would take place, there were already indications of problems there – the power of local Communist Parties was being strengthened and increased, while non-Communist parties faced hostility and difficulties from the Russians. The Western powers became concerned that free democratic elections in Eastern Europe would never take place.
The atomic bomb
At the Potsdam Conference, President Truman informed Stalin that the USA had successfully tested an atomic bomb. Stalin became immediately suspicious of this, since the Americans had never informed him that they were working on such a device. He ordered teams of Russian scientists to commence work on a similar weapon. Stalin became convinced that the Americans were attempting to achieve military superiority over the USSR, and was determined that this would not happen.
In effect, this marked the beginning of the Arms Race between the two powers, and the onset of the Cold War.
The shape of post-war Europe: conflicting aims
A key feature of international politics at this time was that it became increasingly obvious that the two Superpowers disagreed fundamentally about what Europe should be like after World War II.
The USA generally favoured the establishment of democratic governments in Europe. It looked to a Europe of well-structured democracies, with free and regular elections, a choice of political parties, the democratic rights of free speech, freedom of expression, and the rule of law. The Americans believed that this would be best for Europe and would prevent the growth of authoritarian regimes such as Nazi Germany.
For Stalin, the overwhelming need was for security, to ensure that the Soviet Union was never again faced with an invasion on the scale of Hitler’s attack in 1941. Russia had paid a terrible price for that invasion, with almost 20 million deaths. As a result, Stalin saw the role of Eastern Europe in the post-war world as being to safeguard Russia from any attack from the West. The countries of Eastern Europe would act as a buffer or shield. For this to happen there would have to be close links between Russia and Eastern Europe – Russia would have to dominate the area.
Stalin had no interest in the development of democracy in Eastern Europe – quite the reverse!

For this exercise, you should work with a partner. One of you will represent the USA – the other person represents the USSR.
Present a clear statement of the reasons why serious disagreements developed between the USA and the USSR in the years after 1945. Each person should present a list of reasons, setting out clearly why you dislike and distrust the other Superpower.
Here are some questions that could help with the presentation.

  • In what ways did the conferences at Yalta and Potsdam reveal growing tension and suspicion between the USA and the USSR?

  • How did the Soviet view of Europe, in the post-war years, differ from that of the USA?

  • What territorial changes took place, affecting the borders of some of the East European states?

  • In your opinion, how serious was the development of the atom bomb by the United States in increasing suspicions and tensions with the USSR?

Soviet pressure starts to increase

Within a short time, it became obvious that pressure from the Soviet Union was beginning to increase in a number of areas, and cause growing suspicion in the West.
During World War II, it had been agreed that Soviet forces should control the northern areas of Iran until hostilities ended. However, the Russians delayed the departure of their soldiers until 1946, causing Western concern at their prolonged presence in a vital oil-producing region.
Turkey came under Soviet pressure in two areas, over land frontiers, and also the right of Soviet warships to pass through the Dardanelles Straits. The USA declared strong support for Turkey over this.
A civil war was raging in Greece at this time, and the USA believed strongly that Greek Communists were receiving Soviet backing. This was not the case, although communist Yugoslavia was involved. However, yet again, the West became very concerned at the actual and perceived threat from the USSR

The Truman Doctrine

In a key speech on 12 March 1947, President Harry Truman spelt out the American position very clearly. In his speech, which formed the basis of the ‘Truman Doctrine’, the President swung the strength of the USA behind freedom and democracy.
The following is an extract from President Truman’s speech.
The gravity of the situation which confronts the world today necessitates my appearance before a joint session of Congress …
One of the primary objectives of the foreign policy of the United States is the creation of conditions in which we and other nations will be able to work out a way of life free from coercion …
At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life. The choice is too often not a free one.
Our way of life is based upon the will of the majority, and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression.
The second way of life is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio, fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms …
I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.’
Truman then asked the United States Congress to agree to substantial financial support for both Greece and Turkey. This was agreed, and the threat of communist pressure in these countries began to recede.

The Marshall Plan

The USA believed that communism flourished and grew strong wherever there was poverty and hardship. Large areas of Europe were still devastated after the end of World War II, and President Truman was concerned that this would facilitate the spread of communism. He noted with concern the large communist parties existing in France and Italy.
Truman’s Secretary of State, George Marshall, drew up a comprehensive plan for the economic recovery of Europe. From 1947 to 1951, American aid worth over $13,000 million was sent to Western Europe, aimed primarily at encouraging the recovery of industry and agriculture in the war-damaged countries. The programme of Marshall Aid was of immense assistance to the countries that received it, and contributed towards the European economic boom of the 1950s.
Marshall Aid was also offered to Eastern Europe, but the USSR rejected it, as did the other East European states, by now under strong Soviet influence.
1. For what reasons did the United States become concerned about the development of Soviet pressures at this time?
2. Read the extract from the speech by President Truman. According to him, what choices did many countries have to make about the way they were governed?
3. What response does he urge the United States to make?
4. For what reasons did the United States develop the Marshall Aid programme?
5. How important was Marshall Aid in helping the economic recovery of Western Europe?

Section 2: The Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe
The creation of the satellite states
Since the end of the Second World War, the countries of Eastern Europe had been under the occupation of the Red Army. Stalin now began to move much more strongly to bring these countries under very strict Soviet domination, with all effective power over them in Russian hands.
The countries of Eastern Europe were to become satellite states of the Soviet Union. In effect, they would be smaller versions of the Soviet Union, with political and economic systems that would be identical to those developed by Stalin, in Russia. At all times, these satellite states would support the Soviet Union, and follow its lead.

  • The USSR began to give massive support to national Communist Parties in the East European states.

  • Democratic politics, with voters having a choice of parties, would come to an end. Only the Communist party would be permitted to exist, and its leaders would have to be approved by Moscow. All other parties would be banned.

  • Democratic freedoms (freedom of speech, freedom of expression, etc) would come to an end.

  • There would be strict censorship of the mass media – of newspapers, radio, films and, later, of television. The Communist Party would control everything that was issued by the mass media.

  • Private enterprise would come to an end. Industry, land, banks, transport, etc, would be taken over by the state.

  • A powerful political police, or secret police, would be set up to ensure obedience, and to deal with any opposition to the Communist system.

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