The Cold War was a state of geopolitical tension, a proxy war between the two emerging international superpowers in the aftermath of World War II, the United States of America, and the Soviet Union which both represented opposing ideologies. This power struggle was one of communism versus capitalism as their political interests diverged sharply after the defeat of their common enemy, Nazi Germany and fascism. As long as they were fighting Nazi Germany, the United States and the Soviet Union had reason to preserve their alliance however with their common enemy now defeated and fascism quashed, with no common enemy both superpowers met each other in the heart of Europe to battle out this new rivalry (McMahon, 2003). It is evident that there was a sustained state of political and military tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, however, the debate is, was this battle of mistrust and war of power politics inevitable? They both had polarised ideologies of how their states should be organized. On the one hand the United States advocated liberal ideologies such as democracy and free-market capitalism, and on the other hand, the Soviet Union sponsored a Marxist Leninist ideology based around extensive central planning and vanguardism (Goedde and Immerman, 2013). Tensions began to rise as both sides wanted to universalize their ideologies and increase their global influence. It is contested amongst many historians whether this clash was enough for the onset of the Cold War. In this essay, it will be argued that World War II was a catalyst for these tensions to be even more contentious and that ultimately, these proxy wars of the left against right was the inevitable sequel to World War II.
The United States viewed Communism as a spreading virus that had to be contained to prevent revolutions spreading to the West, as the Soviet Union actively assisted Communist movements on a global level to increase their sphere of influence internationally. As a result of the United States’ attempts to isolate the Soviet Union, Russia swapped sides and agreed on a Nazi-Soviet pact in 1939 with the mandate of not going to war with each other. In the perspective of the Soviet Union, this was a means of self-preservation and security as the Nazi-Soviet pact also mandated that together they would invade Poland and split it between them (McMahon, 2003). This Nazi-Soviet pact appeared to be a marriage of convenience as Stalin chose a shocking alliance with The Third Reich, rather than with Britain and France. However, some historians argue that this pact brought the world closer to war as surprisingly Hitler broke the pact and invaded Russia in 1940. The threat of fascism at this point became ubiquitous and attempts by the USSR to spread their power over Eastern Europe had clearly been unsuccessful. Another surprise attack occurred a year later in 1941 on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, by the Japanese. These aerial attacks triggered the United States to enter World War II as they saw this as a declaration of war. As a result, allies of the Japanese declared war against the United States and climaxed a decade of worsening relations between the United States, Japan and their respective Axis powers. In this context, the Grand Alliance was formed to create a united front against The Third Reich. This alliance was also referred to as the ‘Strange Alliance’ because it joined the largest communist state with the largest capitalist state with the greatest colonial power (Brinkley and Ambrose, 2014).
However, it has been argued that this battle of mistrust was inevitable long before World War II, therefore, it is important to consider significant events in historical research that may have brought the war into forefront. While many historians trace the origins of the Cold War to the period immediately following World War II, others argue hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union began ever since the Great October Socialist Revolution in Russia led by the Bolsheviks and Vladimir Lenin in 1917 during the final phase of World War I. The United States being an advocate of Capitalism undermined the Bolsheviks’ regime and legitimacy during the Cold War due to their Marxist ideologies. Despite Stalin’s efforts to create a unified front between other European allies and the United States against Hitler’s Nazi-Germany, the West did not recognize the new Russian government until 1933. As a result, the Soviet Union was made to feel constantly abandoned by the West and thus severed ties from the beginning of their establishment (McMahon, 2003). It was feared that this Russian revolution and the ensuing civil war, which replaced Russia’s traditional monarchy with the world’s first Communist state, would spread beyond Russia’s borders.
The United States not only wanted to block the Soviets influence over the expansion of Communism in Europe but they also had other opposing goals. For example, the United States wanted to gain access to raw materials and markets to fuel booming industries. They also wanted to rebuild European governments to promote stability and create new markets for U.S goods. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union wanted to rebuild its war-ravaged economy using Eastern Europe’s industrial equipment and raw materials. They also wanted to control Eastern Europe to protect Soviet order and balance U.S. influence in Western Europe. Ultimately, the United States and the Soviet Union’s political beliefs clashed and after the end of World War II many conferences were held between allies regarding what post-war Europe should look like on the map and where borders should be drawn. For example, the meeting of Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin at Yalta in 1945, highlighted how each member of the ‘Big Three’ held dissimilar beliefs about the establishment of security in the post-war world and as a result, many separate deals were made with the Soviets (Sarotte, 2014).
It is evident that the United States and the Soviet Union both had the common goal of spreading their political systems all around Europe. An example of this was seen in July 1945 when Truman pressed Stalin to permit free elections in Eastern Europe. Stalin was reluctant to allow this free election in Eastern European nations, and to the United States, this was a clear violation of those countries’ rights. The United States believed the Soviet Union continually held a resistance against US demands in political affairs in other countries such as Greece and Turkey. President Harry Truman was particularly outraged by the Soviet Union’s rejection of the Baruch Plan regarding nuclear weapons. The Baruch Plan stipulated that the United States would surrender their stock of weaponry under the condition that all other countries would stop producing weapons. Signs of mistrust already started to manifest during this post-war period as the main reason the Soviets rejected this plan was that it was evident the United States and their Western European allies held the most shares and influence over the United Nations and thus could not be trusted to hold unbiased authority over atomic weapons.
As a result, in 1947, the Truman Doctrine was introduced to give aid to any country that rejected communism thus an attempt to counter the Soviet geopolitical expansion during the Cold War. Following this, the British government declared their inability to fund the Kingdom of Greece in their civil war against Communism, therefore, the United States adopted the geopolitical strategy of ‘Containment’ to stop the expansion of Communist-led insurgents. Truman claimed that totalitarian regimes needed to be contained as they were a threat to free peoples and a threat to international peace and to the national security of the United States. The Truman Doctrine was then unveiled as a foreign policy tool to counter Soviet geopolitical expansion during the Cold War period in 1947. Truman further stipulated that threats should be contained in Greece and Turkey by providing financial aid to their respective militaries rather than direct US military force. In subsequent years, this led to the establishment of NATO in 1949. Socialism, at least as Marx constructed it, wanted to take over the world and many Soviets saw themselves in a conflict with Bourgeoisie capitalism itself. They also saw American rebuilding efforts in Europe and Japan as the United States trying to expand its markets. Whilst the United States feared that the Soviet Union wanted to destroy democratic and capitalist institutions; the Soviets feared that the United States wanted to use its money and power to dominate Europe and eventually destroy the Soviet systems. Both parties were right to be worried and this geopolitical struggle was new for world history in the sense that the outcome could potentially lead to a nuclear war.
Immediately after World War II, the Soviets created a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe dominating the countries where the Red Army had pushed back the Nazis, which is why Winston Churchill famously said in 1946 that, “an iron curtain has descended across the continent” and that Soviet power was growing and must be stopped (YouTube, 2013). It is clear the onset of the Cold War dated back to when Churchill used this imagery of an “iron curtain” complaining to Truman that it is being drawn down across the Russian front and that they do not know what is going on behind the curtain of information. This was later seen as the Soviet control over large areas of Europe. Stalin interpreted this speech as a declaration of war and therefore set up the Leninist Communist International to ensure countries obeyed the Soviet rule.
A number of historians agree that the Cold War actual started during World War II and not just between 1945 and 1990. Stalin’s distrust of the United States and Britain kept growing as they refused to invade Europe and open up a second front against the Nazis. It has also been argued that the decision to drop the first atomic bomb on Japan was motivated in part by a desire to intimidate the Soviet Union (Larres, 2009). This worked in so far as it motivated the Soviet Union to develop their own atomic bombs in which they successfully tested in 1949. In the beginning, it appeared as though the United States had the advantage due to their better finances and power providing Europe with protection as they implemented the $13 billion Marshall Plan in economic support to help rebuild Western European economies at the end of World War I (Haslam, 2011). The Marshall plan was successful in that it provided food, machinery, and other materials to rebuild Western Europe, however, the Soviet Union responded by holding Western Berlin hostage, which in turn increased Western Europe’s fear of Soviet aggression.
Later, in 1961, Eastern Germany built a wall to separate the East and West of Berlin. This division paved the way for the Cold War metaphorically as the Soviets completely disregarded and isolated themselves from the alliance they once had. It is contested that if the superpowers at the time had accepted one another’s political systems this would have all been avoided. However, it was clear at the time as Stalin stated in a speech in 1946 that, “communism and capitalism cannot exist in the same world.” Europe was the first battle ground of the Cold War; especially Germany which was divided into two parts with the former capital Berlin also divided into two parts (Buchanan, 2009). In 1948 the Soviets tried to cut off West Berlin by closing the main road that led into the city but the Berlin Blockade stopped them. In 1961 the Soviets tried again and this time they were much more successful building a wall around West Berlin although it wasn’t up for long.
Much later, in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin War, historians agree this ended the Cold War however the subject of debate is how it began. Revisionists accuse Truman of setting the stage for the Cold War with the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945 and his embrace of “atomic diplomacy” against the Soviet Union. Hitler concluded in 1945 that the defeat of the Third Reich would leave “only two Great Powers capable of confronting each other…the United States and Soviet Russia” (Dunbabin, 1994). Truman’s support for pro-Western governments in Greece and Turkey in 1947 followed logically from his earlier resistance to Soviet plans to acquire military bases along the Dardanelles and in the Mediterranean. Any chance of averting a global confrontation between the two emerging superpowers was overwhelmed by the nuclear arms race, which also began in this six-month period.
Well before the bombing of Hiroshima, the Russians and the Americans were engaged in a frenzied competition to locate bomb-making materials amid the ruins of the Third Reich and sign up German scientists for their nuclear and missile projects. Once Stalin knew that the Americans had an atomic bomb, he was determined to acquire one, too. However, there is plenty of evidence that neither side wanted a Cold War. Stemming from the allies conniving about what to do with Germany, the two superpowers wanted to implement their ideologies upon the newly formed world. It is debatable however to what extent this difference in ideology caused the Cold War. Although Stalin predicted a confrontation as inevitable over the long run, a period of détente would have much been preferred which would have allowed Russia to repair the devastation caused by the war. However, he did not want to sacrifice the territorial gains he had acquired in Eastern Europe (Buchanan, 2011). Stalin was ready to divide up the continent, according to the principle that “Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach.” The incompatibility of the two competing ideologies was clear as while ‘The Big Three’ were trying to plan for the joint occupation of Germany at Potsdam, their soldiers were already at war with each other in the streets of Berlin (Kissinger, 2001).
Another determinant for the beginning of the Cold War was the strategy of containment that George Kennan sent to the State Department in February 1946. Kennan was convinced for a while that Soviet Russia was unfit to work alongside the United States and had advocated the division of Europe into American and Soviet spheres of influence. This U.S. policy used numerous strategies to prevent the spread of communism abroad and was a direct response to the series of moves made by the Soviet Union to enlarge its communist sphere of influence not only in Eastern Europe but also in Korea, Vietnam and China (Kissinger, 2001). Furthermore, as the Red Army drove the Nazis away whilst occupying large areas of Eastern Europe, Churchill proposed in the Percentages agreement with Stalin that Eastern Europe could be a Soviet sphere of influence therefore predominant.
Three months before the end of the war in Europe, in 1945, the Yalta conference occurred as Germany was facing defeat. The ‘Big Three’ came together, to agree that Germany would have to pay reparations for the damages caused and that half of the approximately 21 billion USD paid will go to the Soviet Union. This imminent victory meant that the Soviets were satisfied with finally coming to a consensus with the United States in their conflict with Japan by giving over territories. This conference seemed to be a start to a harmonious future and was seen as a triumph.
Further, it was planned that Germany should be de-Nazified and disarmed. However, disagreements arose when on the topic of post-war Poland. It was agreed with Stalin that the Polish border should move back to where it had been before the war of 1921 (Gaddis, 1972). This served to the Soviet Union as a buffer zone to enable them enough time to react in case a country should attempt an attack. As a response, Poland would be compensated with land from Germany. Western allies were not in agreement with these plans of the Soviet Union as this was a sign of going against the agreement made at the conference. They would have preferred the Soviet Union to not be involved with anti-communist Polish people. However, these difficulties such as the borders of Poland were discussed successfully. This issue did create further mistrust especially between Churchill and Stalin, however, this did not have any greater effects in the Yalta conference. Thus the allies thought that the foundation had been laid for a stable post-war modern world. Furthermore, Stalin agreed to join the United Nations and fight in the Japanese war.
However, at the Potsdam conference, the final meeting the day after, the state of the war was again discussed which was that war was still raging in Japan. After that, the state of Germany was discussed and although they agreed that Germany had to be demilitarised and de-Nazified it could not be agreed on how it should be done (Larres, 2009). ‘The Big Three’ agreed that each should carry it out their own way in their respective zones. The reparations which were meant to be paid had not been paid at all and Truman decided that instead of talking with a tone of cooperation like at Yalta which did not work out with Stalin, he now decided to take a more confident approach as he then had possession of an atomic bomb. Truman had a more radical approach to the Soviet Union and did not approve of the decisions made about Poland. According to him, a biased vote had been made and a new government should be established.
The confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States that took centre stage following the defeat of Nazi Germany during World War II marked the beginning of the nuclear age. The rest of the world fell behind until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. It is evident that the Second World War played an important role in catalysing the conflicts between the two superpowers. It can be reasoned that these were the first steps towards the Cold War; that the reparations had not been paid and the fact that there were no free elections in Poland marked the first clash of ideologies. The Soviet Union being a communist state, wanted to create a buffer zone with a friendly government. However, the United States wanted to achieve a liberated free-market Europe and therefore wanted completely free elections in Poland. This caused the rivalry to deepen and created more competition between the two competing ideologies. Being the only two superpowers after the war, tensions rose at the Yalta Conference when Stalin revealed his intentions to take over Poland and most of Eastern Europe and create it into a communist area, while the United States had a more democratic future in mind for Poland. Eventually, these conflicts and tensions became too much to ignore and became out of control, with the only solution being war.
Conclusively there is sufficient evidence that the Cold War in Europe was inevitable as it was mainly a consequence of the disagreements following World War II (Larres, 2009). If World War II had not occurred the two superpowers may not have had this prolonged state of indifferences since during the war the United States and the USSR fought together as allies. However, Americans had long been concerned with Stalin’s tyrannical, dictatorial rule of Russia. For the Soviet Union’s part, the refusal of the United States to treat them as a legitimate part of the international community increased the mutual distrust between them as well as their delayed entry into World War II, which resulted in the deaths of approximately 20 million Russians. The grievance from this ripened into enmity and the Soviet Union began to resent the United States’ aggressive, interventionist approach to their foreign affairs. Naturally, Stalin wanted to create a buffer zone of friendly states around Russia to make sure that Russia could never be invaded again. In this environment, it is clear that no single party was entirely to blame for the Cold War proving that in fact, it was inevitable.