Origins of the Cold War

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The Cold War represents the conflict between the United States and its World War II allies and the Soviet Union and the Eastern European nations dominated by it. Beginning at the end of WW II, the conflict expanded into a global competition between Western non-communist countries and Eastern communist nations. It was a confrontation of fundamentally different political, social, and cultural systems that extended almost half a century.

This subject includes analysis of the origins of the Cold War, its conduct on several fronts, especially the Korean War when the conflict turned "hot," its political implications on both sides, the threat of global annihilation posed by nuclear weapons, and the impact on the American home front.

Books to consider:

  • John Lewis Gaddis. The Cold War: A New History. New York: The Penguin Press, 2005. 333 p. $27.95.

Gaddis' most recent work dealing with this period is suggested as an overview text. It incorporates source materials from the former Soviet Union that were unavailable for his previous books.

  • Ellen Schrecker, ed. Cold War Triumphalism : The Misuse of History After the Fall of Communism. New York: New Press, 2004. 304 p. $28.

Recognition of the Soviet Union

Before there was Cuba, before there was Korea, before there was Stalin, there was the Russian Famine of 1921; and in his book The Big Show in Bololand, Bertrand M. Patenaude relates the story of this famine, American attempts to aid its victims, and how this first contact between Communist Russia and Capitalist American impacted relations for a generation.

Patenaude makes the case that Soviet-American Relief Administration workers were adble to succor the victims of the famine, but serious irritants in the relationship precluded sincere cooperation. This lack of enduring trust would remain a feature of relations between the two countries for many years, until it became a tradition of Cold War.

Many commentators like John Lewis Gaddis place the origins of the Cold War in the closing days of WWI when Western troops were sent into the Soviet Union to assist White Russian forces fighting the Bolsheviks. Since the United States did not consider Lenin and the communists the legitimate government of Russia, it continued to support Kerensky and refused to recognize the Soviet Union. While this did not prevent unofficial commercial or humanitarian interaction between the two nations, it did create friction in the official arena, especially since most European nations did recognize the Soviet Union.

By 1933 the United States was the only nation that had not recognized the Bolsheviks as the legitimate government of the Soviet Union. Roosevelt corrected this omission in November 1933 during his first year in office. Recognition of the Soviet Union was controversial but had widespread support among those who hoped to increase trade, settle war debts, and promote good relations with the Soviet Union. It also represented an attempt to quiet communist opposition to the New Deal and curb communist propaganda in the US. The real watershed in relations did not happen until 1935 when the Communist International adopted the “Popular Front” movement. This movement sought to strengthen ties with anti-fascist parties and governments. The Party appeared to abandon its call for world revolution, and for a time it was able to openly participate in American society. Then in 1939 following the Rebbentrop-Molotov Pact, the anti-fascism of the Communist Party became international pacifism, only to return to anti-fascism after the German invasion in 1941.

With the opening of previously closed archives comes fresh perspectives on the Cold War. Historians previously barred from Chinese and Soviet archives are slowly gaining access to relevant Cold War archives. Aside from the foreign archives, American historians are looking at the history of the Cold War from different angles. (See especially John Ferris' article Coming in from the Cold War: The Historiography of American Intelligence, 1945-1990.)

"There are now two great nations in the world, which starting from different points, seem to be advancing toward the same goal: the Russians and the Anglo-Americans...[E]ach seems called by some secret design of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world." It is with this seemingly prescient quotation that Gaddis begins We Now Know, a book that promises to examine Cold War history from a new perspective. We Now Know allows the reader to read about various persectives of the Cold War, especially with the opening of previously closed archives.

Books to consider:

  • John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).
  • Bertrand M. Patenaude, The Big Show in Bololand: The American Relief Expedition to Soviet Russia in the Famine of 1921 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002).

The Second World War

Some historians consider the German-Soviet non-aggression pact of 1939 to be the result of a foreign policy failure of efforts to lure the Soviets to the side of the Allies against Nazi Germany. The pact is seen as a reaction by Stalin to the Munich agreement granting concessions to appease Hitler. Stalin knew that he could not trust Hitler, but he also distrusted the Allies and thought he could use the agreement with Hitler to buy time and let the Western European nations fight it out.

When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the Allies came to Stalin's aid. America and the other Allies were aware of the atrocities that Stalin was committing in the Soviet Union and realized that he was not a reliable ally, but they believed that he was a lesser threat than Hitler. American Lend-Lease aid and convoys to Russia kept her in the war, but Stalin wanted a second front to put more pressure on the Germans. He suspected the Allies of delaying the opening of a second front to allow Germany to weaken the Soviet Union.

Russian losses in WW II far exceeded Allied losses, and Stalin believed that the postwar settlement should reflect that fact. According to Gaddis, Stalin's postwar goals were security, compensation for losses, and eventually the establishment of political domination of Europe. American goals included security in the form of collective security arrangements to avoid future wars and the restoration of economic vitality to Western Europe. Stalin got most of the territorial concessions he sought and rolled down the "iron curtain," walling off Eastern Europe and setting the stage for the East-West Cold War competition.


Gerhard L. Weinberg. A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II. 2d edition. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley, FDR and the Creation of the U.N. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.

Post World War II

The postwar division of Germany into occupation zones and the division of Berlin led to immediate confrontation by the Allies with the Soviet Union. The Truman Doctrine was pronounced in 1947 to counter Communist agitation in Greece and Turkey. The Marshall Plan was instituted that year to promote European economic recovery. Stalin was offered a chance to participate but refused and prohibited Eastern European countries from participating. Stalin attempted to force the Allies out of Germany by blockading Berlin in 1949, but the Allies called his bluff with a successful airlift to relieve the city. The Soviet Union's clear indication of hostile intentions led the Allies to form NATO in 1949, establishing a military alliance to counter Soviet aggression in Europe. This alliance formalized the policy of "containment" first enunciated by George Kennan in his famous "long telegram" from Moscow in 1946.

The Cold War expanded in October 1949, with the communist victory over nationalist forces in China and the proclamation by Mao Zedong of the formation of the People's Republic of China. In December 1949 Mao journeyed to Moscow and after two months of negotiations entered into a Sino-Soviet Treaty, a mutual assistance pact analogous to the North Atlantic Treaty.

The Cold War heated up when North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950. Led by Americans a United Nations force pushed the North Koreans back until in November Chinese forces numbering 300,000 joined the fight. According to Gaddis, the Korean War "challenge[d] the entire structure of postwar collective security." (p. 43) After three years of inconclusive fighting causing the deaths of almost 37,000 Americans, 600,000 Chinese troops, and over 2,000,000 civilian and military Koreans, the war ended in a truce at the original starting point.

The confrontation which occurred on the Korean Peninsula between the end of the Second World War and 1953 was the first confrontation of the Cold War, and to author William Stueck in his book Rethinking the Korean War: A New Diplomatic and Strategic History, the conflict had implications far beyond its geographic limits. For Stueck, the conflict which began as a regional civil war took on a special character when 1. It failed to escalate into a wider conflict 2. Lasted almost two bloody years after its scope had been curbed. In the establishment of this model, the US and Soviet Union found a non-lethal way to compete for global dominence.

After the truce in Korea, the U.S. intervened to fight communism in various countries around the world.

  • Bitter Fruit: The Story of an American Coup in Guatemala. By Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer. Introduction by John Coatsworth. Foreword by Richard A. Nuccio. The David Rockefeller Center Series on Latin American Studies. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1999. Photographs. Maps. Notes. Bibliography. Index. xxxviii, 331 pp. Paper, $19.95.

The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 marked the closest the US and Soviet Union came to launching an all-out nuclear war. Both nations pulled back from the precipice and began contemplating steps to limit nuclear arms. Gaddis points out that The Kennedy administration was appalled to find that the only war plan left by the Eisenhower administration was the simultaneous use of all nuclear weapons against all communist countries. (p. 79) A Limited Test Ban Treaty was signed in 1963, followed by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968 and in 1972 the Strategic Arms Limitation Interim Agreement and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

The Vietnam War was part of the continuing struggle of the US to prevent communist expansion. The communist insurgency in South Vietnam was viewed as part of the global communist conspiracy led by China and the Soviet Union. US leaders, following the "domino" theory, believed that the fall of South Vietnam would lead to the communist takeover of all of Southeast Asia.

Books to consider:

Christian G. Appy, editor. Cold War Constructions:The Political Culture of United States Imperialism, 1945-1966. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000.

John Lewis Gaddis. The Cold War: A New History. New York: The Penguin Press, 2005.

William Stueck. Rethinking the Korean War: A New Diplomatic and Strategic History. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2002. Pp. xiv, 285. $29.95.

William Stueck, editor. The Korean War in World History. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. 2004. Pp. 203. $35.00.

Robert D. Schulzinger. A Time for War: The United States and Vietnam, 1941-1975. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Robert Bowie and Richard H. Immerman. Waging Peace: How Eisenhower Shaped an Enduring Cold War Strategy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Bowie, an official in the Eisenhower administration, and Immerman, an expert on Eisenhower and Dulles, argue that Eisenhower deserves credit for shaping a winning Cold War strategy. Although a few scholars might credit Truman, Bowie and Immerman state that Truman left office having produced, "a confused legacy of objectives, policies, and programs in disarray." (3)

The Nuclear Arms Race

Tha atomic bomb explosions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1946 brought WW II to an end. The US maintained a nuclear monopoly until the Soviet Union detonated an atomic bomb in 1949, thus beginning the nuclear arms race. Despite an overwhelming superiority in nuclear weapons over the Soviet Union, the US refrained from using them in the Korean War. Truman maintained civilian control over the weapons and refused to allow plans for their use. Under Eisenhower the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) was implemented whereby only an all-out nuclear war was contemplated. As Gaddis says, "the implications of "equality in annihilation" were clear; because a war fought with nuclear weapons could destroy what it was intended to defend, such a wear must never be fought." (p. 65)

The Cuban missile crisis came close to bringing on nuclear war and caused the US and Soviet Union to pull back from the brink. The bankruptcy of the MAD policy was exposed, and a series of arms limitation agreements ensued. A policy of detente'" was implemented to establish a more predictable relationship between the nuclear powers and reduce the risk of nuclear war. However, detente had the unintended consequence of freezing the Cold War in place. Gaddis finds that instead of bringing about an end to the conflict, it only established rules for its conduct. (p. 198) Reagan recognized this and repudiated the MAD doctrine. He believed detente' only perpetuated the Cold War. He advocated a missile defense system, the Strategic Defense Initiative, and, according to Gaddis, "challenged the argument that vulnerability could provide security." (p. 226) The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought an end to the Cold War, but Russia and the US continue to maintain huge arsenals of nuclear weapons. At the same time, other nations have acquired nuclear weapons, while others are seeking to do so. The Cold War may have ended, but the nuclear arms race has not.

Books to consider:

  • Paul Boyer, By the Bomb's Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1994.
  • Walter A. McDougall, ...The Heavens and the Earth " A Political History of the Space Age]] Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.
  • Anne Hessing Cahn, Killing Detente: The Right Attacks the CIA. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1998.
  • Francis Gary Powers, Operation Overflight: A Memoir of the U-2 Incident. Washington, DC: Brassey's Inc, 2004.

Mrs. Smith has a unique perspective, given that she was married to a scientist involved atomic experiments. This book is valuable as a history of science and a history of the political process, as it shows how scientists became a powerful lobby in the wake of WW II and the dropping of the bomb. Scientists, heretofore silent on political issues, lobbied for world peace and the sharing of nuclear ideas.


The Cold War is as significant for what did not happen as for what did happen. What did not happen was full-scale war between the US and the Soviet Union, a war that could have ended civilization. What did happen was the discrediting of communism as a political and economic system. As Gaddis says, "communism had promised a better life but failed to deliver." (p. 264) Capitalism, despite its drawbacks, proved a far superior system in delivering the goods than the centralized planning of communism. The repressive authoritarianism of communism also failed to deliver political and social justice. Democracies multiplied during the last half of the twentieth century because they generally outperformed autocracies in raising living standards.

  • John Lewis Gaddis. The Cold War: A New History. New York: The Penguin Press, 2005.

--Tdemharter 10:24, 24 Sep 2005 (EDT)

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