Causes of the Cold War Summary & Analysis
When Warm Fuzzy Feelings Turn Cold
In 1945, the United States and Soviet Union were allies, jointly triumphant in World War II, which ended with total victory for Soviet and American forces over Adolf Hitler's Nazi empire in Europe. But within just a few years, wartime allies became mortal enemies, locked in a global struggle—military, political, economic, ideological—to prevail in a new "Cold War."
How did wartime friends so quickly turn into Cold War foes? And our burning question. Who started it?
Was it the Soviets? They backpedaled on their agreements to allow the people of Eastern Europe to determine their own fates and imposed totalitarian rule on territories unlucky enough to fall behind the "Iron Curtain."
Or was it the Americans? They ignored the Soviets' legitimate security concerns, sought to intimidate the world with the atomic bomb, and pushed relentlessly to expand their own international influence and market dominance.
Nobody Puts Poland in the Corner
The tensions that would later grow into the Cold War became evident as early as 1943, when the "Big Three" allied leaders—American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin—met in Tehran to coordinate strategy.
Poland, which sits in an unfortunate position on the map, squeezed between frequent enemies Russia and Germany, became a topic for heated debate. The Poles, then under German occupation, had not one but two governments-in-exile—one communist, one anticommunist—hoping to take over the country upon its liberation from the Nazis.
Unsurprisingly, the Big Three disagreed over which Polish faction should be allowed to take control after the war, with Stalin backing the Polish communists while Churchill and Roosevelt insisted the Polish people ought to have the right to choose their own form of government.
For Stalin, the Polish question was a matter of the Soviet Union's vital security interests. Germany had invaded Russia through Poland twice since 1914, and more than 20 million Soviet citizens died in World War II. The Soviets actually suffered nearly sixty times as many casualties in the war as the Americans did. Stalin was determined to make sure that such an invasion could never happen again, and insisted that only a communist Poland, friendly to (and dominated by) the Soviet Union, could serve as a buffer against future aggression from the West. Stalin's security concerns ran smack into Anglo-American values of self-determination, which held that the Poles ought to be allowed to make their own decision over whether or not to become a Soviet satellite.
At Tehran, and at the next major conference of the Big Three at Yalta in 1945, the leaders of the U.S., UK, and USSR were able to reach a number of important agreements—settling border disputes, creating the United Nations, organizing the postwar occupations of Germany and Japan.
But Poland remained a vexing problem. At Yalta, Stalin—insisting that "Poland is a question of life or death for Russia"—was able to win Churchill's and Roosevelt's reluctant acceptance of a communist-dominated provisional government for Poland. In exchange, Stalin signed on to a vague and toothless "Declaration of Liberated Europe," pledging to assist "the peoples liberated from the dominion of Nazi Germany and the peoples of the former Axis satellite states of Europe to solve by democratic means their pressing political and economic problems."
The agreements allowed Churchill and Roosevelt to claim they had defended the principle of self-determination, even though both knew that Poland had effectively been consigned to the Soviet sphere of interest. The provisional communist government in Poland later held rigged elections (which it, not surprisingly, won), nominally complying with the Declaration of Liberated Europe even though no alternative to communist rule ever really had a chance in the country.
The Cold War Heats Up
In the end, the Yalta agreements were not so much a true compromise as a useful (in the short term) misunderstanding among the three leaders. Stalin left happy he had won Anglo-American acceptance of de facto Soviet control of Eastern Europe; Roosevelt and Churchill left happy they had won Stalin's acceptance of the principle of self-determination. But the two parts of the agreement were mutually exclusive; what would happen if the Eastern Europeans sought to self-determine themselves out of the Soviet orbit? Future disputes over the problematic Yalta agreements were not just likely; they were virtually inevitable.
And the likelihood of future conflict only heightened on April 12th, 1945, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt unexpectedly died of a brain hemorrhage. Vice President Harry S. Truman—a former Missouri senator with only a high-school education, who had served just 82 days as vice president and had not been part of FDR's inner circle—suddenly became the President of the United States.
Truman, who may not have ever known just how much Roosevelt had actually conceded to Stalin at Yalta, viewed the Soviets' later interventions in Eastern Europe as a simple violation of the Yalta agreements, as proof that Stalin was a liar who could never be trusted. Truman quickly staked out a hard-line position, resolving to counter Stalin's apparently insatiable drive for power by blocking any further expansion of the Soviet sphere of influence, anywhere in the world. Under Truman, containment of communism soon came to dominate American foreign policy. The Cold War was on.
So, Uh, Back to the Bottom Line: Who Started It?
Well, in the early days of the Cold War itself, American historians would have answered, nearly unanimously, that the Soviets started the Cold War. Joseph Stalin was an evil dictator, propelled by an evil communist ideology to attempt world domination. Appeasement hadn't worked against Hitler, and appeasement wouldn't work against Stalin either. An innocent America had only reluctantly joined the Cold War to defend the Free World from otherwise inevitable totalitarian conquest.
In the 1960s, a new generation of revisionist historians—disillusioned by the Vietnam War and appalled by seemingly endemic government dishonesty—offered a startingly different interpretation. In this revisionist view, Stalin may have been a Machiavellian despot but he was an essentially conservative one:
- He was more interested in protecting the Soviet Union (and his own power within it) than in dominating the world.
- Americans erroneously interpreted Stalin's legitimate insistence upon a security buffer in Poland to indicate a desire for global conquest.
- Americans' subsequent aggressive efforts to contain Soviet influence, to intimidate the Soviets with the atomic bomb, and to pursue American economic interests around the globe were primarily responsible for starting the Cold War.
More recently, a school of historians led by Yale professor John Lewis Gaddis have promoted what they call a "post-revisionist synthesis," incorporating many aspects of the revisionist critique while still insisting that Stalin, as a uniquely powerful and uniquely malevolent historical actor, must bear the greatest responsibility for the Cold War.
In the end, "Who started the Cold War?" probably isn't the right question to ask. World War II destroyed all other major rivals to American and Soviet power. The U.S. and USSR emerged from the conflict as the only two nations on earth that could hope to propagate their social and political systems on a global scale.
Each commanded powerful military forces. Each espoused globally expansive ideologies. Each feared and distrusted the other. In the end, it may have been more shocking if the two superpowers had not become great rivals and Cold War enemies.
The Cold War – Who Was to Blame?
As early as 1948, blame was being placed for the yet to be concluded Cold War era. In that day, the predominant view was that the fault lay not on the West, despite the unclearness of intentions and the icy tone of the Truman administration’s relations with the USSR, but on the ever-secretive Russia. For over half a century the question of guilt in the Cold War has been debated; whether it was the west, with their lofty ideals and unclear aims, or the east, with their vast post-war expansions and unquestionable tyranny. This paper will point a literary finger at one side and defend that stance. The blame for the Cold War lies principally on the USSR.
The simple tendency for American political flaws to be paraded in public by the media, as opposed to the Soviet secrecy fetish, led to a revisionist view of the Cold War where the blame was almost entirely placed on the West. During the time of McCarthyism, two schools of revisionists, hard and soft, both felt this way, though with different specifics to their cases. Those of the hard revisionist camp believed that the Cold War was little more than a ploy by American industry, in conjunction with the military, to force the opening of eastern markets to the west. Those in the softer camp felt that the Cold War was the responsibility of Harry Truman and his administration for abandoning the cooperative framework established by Roosevelt and for using the atomic bomb as a scare tactic in negotiations with the Soviet Union. Upon close inspection, it is evident that these revisionist claims are based not on evidence of action or intent but on beliefs of motivation, both on the side of the United States and Russia. These new thinkers felt that Stalin was little more than a traditional Soviet leader attempting to protect Soviet interests.
These claims are easily debunked. Historical studies have found little or no evidence in support of these claims. It is unarguable that western society has been opposed to Communism since at least 1917, but the assertion that the Cold War was little more than a ploy to gain access to eastern markets is unfounded, as there is no proof to support such claims and the markets of the poor east would hold little, if any, impact on the western economy. The counter to this argument is that the motives of the westerners were so ingrained that they were never committed to paper. This attempt at proof without evidence is little more than a poor joke. As for the profession that the blame lies on the Truman administration, and that the atomic bomb was a negotiating tool aimed at Russia, not Japan, all evidence indicates that the decision to use the bomb was based purely on military concerns and no administration, since the founding of the United States, has existed without flaw. However, no flaw in the Truman administration was great enough to warrant the tremendous burden the revisionists believe it deserves. While this new school of thought successfully confirmed the previous belief that that the blame is to be shared, they did not effectively show that the majority of it belonged to the west.
Proponents of the traditional view, that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is primarily to blame for the Cold War, generally cite Joseph Stalin’s policies, both foreign and domestic, as their justification. They say that Stalin’s complaints about losses during World War II, totaling over twenty million, are more than offset by the equal, if not greater, number of Russians killed by his own domestic policies. They will say that Russia’s claiming of border states in the post-war years was reminiscent of Hitler. These traditional thinkers will cite, as did Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., that Truman’s containment policy was, “the brave and essential response of free men to communist aggression.” For all of these reasons, the fault for Cold War lies on Russia.
In 1934, Stalin began a new domestic policy of terror. Using the excuse of the assassination of Sergey Kirov, Stalin’s leading colleague and greatest potential rival, he began a series of mock trials leading to the execution of four high ranking government officials. It was widely hinted that Stalin himself had arranged the assassination, even by the likes of Khrushchev. Several head military leaders were reported as court-martialed and executed at the time as well. These were only the most recognized of Stalin’s “liquidations.” Most of Russia’s elite-the artists, scientists, philosophers, semi-independent Bolsheviks, and other powers-were all eliminated. Add to this tally the civilian casualties and the deaths are most efficiently measured in tens of millions. In this manner, Stalin tamed the unruly Communist Party in Russia as well as the surviving elite class of Russians. This reign of terror persisted until Stalin himself gave the order to reduce it. If this is not justification for fear and misunderstanding on the part of the westerners, there is no feasible justification.
Stalin’s terror policies had taken effect and no one in the country would dare go against his wishes. At this point, Stalin had reached the pinnacle of a historic, quarter century reign during which many say he possessed more unquestioned power than any leader before or since. He began a policy of claiming bordering free states as Soviet protectorates. The only disruption to this policy was the defection of Titoist Yugoslavia. To illustrate that he still remained in complete control and to deter any other of the now Soviet affiliated nations from following Tito’s example, Stalin staged a series trial much like those during the Great Purge, whereupon he coerced foreign Communist leaders into confessing to Tetoism and then promptly had them executed.
With his unquestioned authority, Stalin needed no justification for any of his actions. However, his primary motivation in the claiming of bordering countries was the ever-present Soviet paranoia of invasion, founded primarily on the groundless invasion by Germany during the war. Regardless of his excuse, Stalin’s forced subordination of neighboring countries was reminiscent of Hitler’s “salami” tactics, and led to further misunderstanding and fear by the west.
Once World War II was concluded and Hitler could no longer act as Stalin’s arch-nemesis, he turned on the United States to fill this new vacancy. The Soviet Union began to downplay the achievements of all other nations and to aggrandize those of Russia. It was the job of Stalin’s chief ideological hatchet man, Andrey Zhdanov, to make this happen. The project’s goal was to instill a feeling of superiority, or at least equality, as well as independence in the minds of all of the Soviet citizens. Similarly, once Stalin caught wind of the US developing a weapon of “uncommon destructive ability” he ordered immediate action. By the end of 1944, there were over 100 scientist working on the project. The day after the worlds first tactical nuclear bomb was drooped on Hiroshima, Stalin ordered an expansion of the project and that it take top priority, above all other scientific concerns and placed his chief of secret police at the head of the Russian version of the Manhattan Project. On August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union announced its entrance to the world as the second nuclear power with the detonation of a ten to twenty kilo ton bomb. Needless to say, this action was counterproductive to Stalin’s aims of superiority in that it scared the United States into an arms race that the Soviet Union could not win.
Showing only the actions of the Soviet Union as well as those of her leader, it is apparent whom to blame for the initiation and escalation of the Cold War. From the unimaginably harsh domestic policy to a foreign policy reminiscent of Hitler’s, from misinforming its own peoples with the aims of creating an enemy out of the west to the construction of a nuclear weapon, the response to which was undeniable, the blame lay squarely on the USSR. Now, one may be questioning the one-sidedness of this presentation. The other side will be presented in full, if not for the sake of balance and fairness, then to strengthen the case at hand.
The actions of the west, primarily the United States under the leadership of Truman, were aimed not at creating or escalating a Cold War, but to preventing and limiting it. Policies such as the Truman Doctrine, promising aid to Greece and Turkey, the Marshall Plan, The organization of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the formation of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Berlin airlift, and the development of the hydrogen bomb all took aim at stopping the Cold War. The question has been raised whether the United States was incorrect in trying to persuade the rest of the world to follow its own ideals, but the proof of the United State’s correctness lies in the present, with the success of the US as a nation.
The Truman Doctrine acted as the opening to the containment policy. It’s purpose was to send aid to Greece, threatened by a Communist insurrection, and to Turkey, under extreme pressure from the Soviet Union as part of Stalin’s plan to assume control over several neighboring countries. Great Britain was previously responsible for care of these countries, but felt it was unable to aid them in its postwar economic situation. America feared Soviet expansion into these Mediterranean areas, and with it the spread of Communism. The United States Congress responded promptly to the request from Truman, appropriating $40 million to the cause. This step was not in any way one of provocation to Russia, but instead was merely aimed at preserving a peaceful balance of power.
What was originally called the European Recovery Program, and was later termed the Marshall Plan, was one of the United States most successful foreign aid programs. It consisted of offering a self-help aid program to several western and southern European nations in order to prevent the feared slide into Communism. It was believed that the post war conditions-unemployment, poverty, dislocation, and disillusion-would add to the appeal of Communism in many of these countries. Initially, in an act of kindness to the USSR and illustrating the United States anti-Cold War goals, aid was offered to all nations, including those occupied by Soviet troops. Quickly, the USSR denied assistance, as did the countries now under its control. In the end, the countries receiving aid were Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and western Germany. Special institutions in the US and Europe were establishment for the distribution and implementation of the funds. In the end, over $13 billion of aid was offered from the United States with the overwhelming majority in the form of grants and some as loans. This program was so effective, raising the GNP of all participating countries 15-25% during the period it was in effect, that it was used in other under developed countries under the Point Four Program.
In a further attempt to save postwar Europe from the imminent failure of Communism, the United States aided in establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), an organization designed to unite the countries of the west in defense against Communism. With Stalin’s forced industrialization of the Soviet Union, Russia gained great military power. A balance was needed in the West, especially in defense of the less powerful European countries. To facilitate this, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, the United States and, eventually, Greece, Turkey, Germany (or West Germany, 1955-90), Spain, entered into a pact of mutual defense against Communist nations and their pressures, militarily and otherwise. This, again, shows the determination of the west to maintain peace and prevent a Cold War by means of a show of joint power and mutual disapproval of the actions of the Soviet Union.
At the request of not only domestic but also foreign pressures, the Truman administration created the Central Intelligence Agency to centralize information collected about foreign affairs, primarily those of the Soviet Union. This organization, though disorganized in its founding, collected much of the data used to stop the spread of Communism and to prevent the escalation of the Cold War from a war of fear and inaction to one of violence and mass destruction. It was not only a tool used in the interest of the United States, but to the benefit of all western powers and the populous of the world as a whole, since the event of a Third World War between two supper powers, such as the US and the Soviet Union, bearing nuclear arms, would lead to the ultimate demise of a massive portion of the world population. The CIA was a service provider to the United States and the world as a whole, and once again depicts the United State’s commitment to a peaceful, non-Cold War environment.
As further illustration of the hostility of the Soviet power, during the years of 1948-49, the Soviet Union instituted a barricade of all communications and supplies into the Allied controlled West Berlin in response to a decision by the aforementioned Allied powers to unite their portions of control and institute a new currency. After the June 24 proclamation by the Soviet Union that the four-power administration of Berlin had ended, the United States, aided by Great Britain, began a $224 million airlift of supplies-food, medical supplies, fuel, machinery, and other supplies-into the starved West German capital, as well as a reverse airlift of the diminished exports of Berlin. This process proceeded for eleven months, until May 12, 1949, when the Soviets finally lifted the blockade, due mainly to pressure form a Western embargo on key exports from the eastern bloc and a crackdown on communications. This is a prime example of the Soviet desire to perpetuate and escalate the Cold War situation as well as the West’s desire to end it.
In an attempt to maintain the power bargaining chip over the already proven hostile Soviets, the United States urged development of the hydrogen Bomb, a fusion device 1,000 times more powerful than the then prevalent atomic weapons. The goal of this effort was to develop a tool to force peace with the Soviet Union. It was felt, at the time, that at the rate Soviet military power was escalating, the United States would have to be converted into a police state whose sole purpose was the development and production of military capability. On the other hand, if the United States could develop a single, all powerful weapon, the peace could be preserved, forcibly, at a far smaller cost. Following this train of thinking, the US set about developing the first fusion device and successfully tested it in November of 1952. Unfortunately, the Soviet Union felt compelled to continue competing in an endless arms race and so, through methods of espionage, developed their own fusion device in August of 1953. This situation represents another opportunity held and passed up by the Soviets to end the Cold War. Instead of excepting a position of second in world military power and containing their beliefs to those nations who voluntarily adopted them, the Soviet Union saw fit to increase its power to continue to threaten the United States and to continue to apply pressure to surrounding nations to fall into its communist doctrine.
Each of these actions, inherently, were to further the position of the United States in world affairs, as can only be expected, but secondly, and more importantly, they were all aimed at preventing, reducing, or ending the Cold War. This contrasts greatly with the actions of the Soviet Union, which were shown to have been hostile to the west, as well as un-aiding in the effort to prevent and or end the Cold War. In this respect, the Cold War, as well as most of its consequences, is the fault of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and not that of the West, led by the United States of America. This confirms traditional thought, coincides with the vast majority of evidence available on the subject, and simply makes the most logical sense, or, in the immortal words of one of the more intellectual of my associates, “It is self evident.”
1. Harry S. Truman, Memoirs, 2 vol. (1955-56, reprinted 1986-87).
2. George F. Kennan, Memoirs, 2 vol. (1967-72).
3. Paul Seabury, The Rise and Decline of the Cold War (1967).
4. William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, 2nd rev. ed. (1972).
5. Vojtech Mastny, Russia’s Road to the Cold War: Diplomacy, Warfare, and the Politics of Communism, 1941-1945 (1979).
6. Marshall D. Shulman, Stalin’s Foreign Policy Reappraised (1963, reissued 1985).
7. William Taubman, Stalin’s American Policy: From Entente to Detente to Cold War (1982).
8. Gar Alperovitz, The Use of the Atomic Bomb and the American Confrontation with Soviet Power, rev. ed. (1985).
9. Sam H. Booth, quoted from conversation.
Filed Under: American Politics, History, Law & Politics, The Cold War