The Cold War was the periods of hostility and high tension between USA and USSR that stopped just short of war, in the time period 1945 to 1991, and sometimes dated back to 1917. It was essentially an ideological conflict between the communist USSR and the capitalist USA, which was marked with arms race, economic rivalry, development of huge espionage networks, propaganda and proxy wars, formation of the alliance system and spheres of influence. Although many of the Soviet Union’s (and, in fact, the USA’s) actions were significant to the Cold War, the differing aims and ideologies of USA and USSR, and the mistrust and competition between the two superpowers were more to blame for starting and escalating the Cold War than an individual country. These factors created a cycle of hostile actions and reactions and truly initiated the Cold War.
Following the October Revolution of 1917 in Russia, there were major ideological differences between the USA and the USSR. The USA was a capitalist democracy. Individuals elected the government from a range of political parties through voting. Individuals had certain rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press. There was a free market economic system with minimum state interference in private businesses. Since the USA had a lot of individual freedom and chances for an individual to prosper, it was seen as a ‘land of opportunity.’ Therefore, the Soviet Union felt threatened that USA’s political system would attract its people. This insecurity led to many of the actions that USSR took against USA and also started strong anti-capitalist propaganda in the country. Also, communists believed that the capitalist system allowed the rich to prosper at the expense of the poor and so was evil, and that the communist system was superior. USSR was intimidated by the capitalist system and wanted the communist way to spread throughout the world, which led to its expansionist policy.
On the other hand, USSR was a communist nation. There was a single party state which was supposed to represent the views of all citizens and rule on the behalf of the people. The government controlled all aspects of life and the rights of individuals were seen as less important than the good of the society as a whole. The economy was state-owned and all industries were owned and run by the government. Goods were distributed amongst people by the state and everyone had to work for the collective good of the society. Even though Stalin’s rule was more of a dictatorship than it was a communist regime, it still threatened the USA as communism promoted equality, especially economic equality, which was absent in the USA and may have appealed to American people. Similar to the USSR, this resulted in USA’s hostile attitude towards USSR and anti-communist propaganda. Also, the USA disliked Stalin’s dictatorship which had led to many deaths and the purges of 1935-1938, which made it even more antagonistic towards USSR. The USA was desperate to contain communism, as it threatened the capitalist way of life. As Stalin told a fellow Communist at the Yalta conference, “they [Roosevelt and Churchill] will never accept the idea that so great a space should be red.”
Even before 1945, which is generally taken to be the beginning of the Cold War, the USA and USSR had a history of mistrust. Some was, of course, due to their different political systems. Aside from that, USSR signing the Nazi-Soviet Pact and Stalin’s harsh dictatorship created mistrust from the USA’s side. The USSR was suspicious of the USA due to various other factors. In 1918-1919 the western states had intervened against the communist government in the Russian Civil War, which understandably led to hostility towards the western Allies. Also, the appeasement policy followed by the allied powers in the 1930’s showed to the USSR that they would rather ally with Hitler and use him to destroy communism. Lastly, Britain, France & USA delaying the opening of a second front during the Second World War in 1942 was seen as a deliberate act to weaken USSR so that it would not be in a position to demand at the post war conferences if the allies won. This mistrust between the two nations led to actions that further increased their enmity.
USSR’s actions from 1945 were important in escalating the Cold War. From 1945 to 1949, the Soviet Union rapidly took over most countries in Eastern Europe, which became one-party communist states controlled by the USSR. It had taken over Albania, Bulgaria, the Baltic States, Hungary, Romania, Poland and Czechoslovakia. This meant that Eastern Europe was now more or less a Communist bloc, which created a more tangible barrier between the West and the East. It led to the drawing of the Iron Curtain, the mythical division between the communist East and the democratic West. Churchill coined this term in his Fulton speech of 1946, where he said that that “an iron curtain has descended” over Europe. Soviet expansion also quickened the set up of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan.
Moreover, Stalin set up the Cominform (Communist Information Bureau) in 1947, to link Communist parties in Eastern Europe and worldwide in common action. USSR also came up with the Molotov Plan and set up the Comecon (The Council for Mutual Economic Assistance) in 1949, to coordinate and link economies of Eastern European countries. This was in retaliation to USA’s Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan and divided Europe more firmly.
Additionally, the Berlin Blockade that lasted from 1948 to 1949 largely resulted from USSR’s hostility. In June 1948, USA and Britain introduced the new revalued currency Deutschmark into the Trizonia and then into West Berlin creating a crisis as East Germans rushed in to change their currency. Stalin believed that the new currency would undermine Sovie control of Eastern Germany and so, on 24th June, Stalin blocked all road, river and rail traffic into West Berlin, which cut all essential supplies to the region. The Western Allies decided to airlift supplies to West Berlin and finally, Stalin lifted the Blockade in My 1949. The Blockade was the first open Cold War conflict between the two sides and divided the world into two clear blocs between the two superpowers. It created a world wide awareness of the conflict and deepened of the Cold War. Additionally, it led to the formation of NATO and consequently, the Warsaw Pact. Historian Jack Watson rightly puts it, saying “Above all confrontation made both sides even more stubborn.”
Also, in 1955 West Germany joined the NATO and the USSR retaliated by setting up its own organisation, called the Warsaw Pact. This formally tied the Eastern European countries of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Albania , Bulgaria, Romania and later East Germany in a military alliance to the USSR. This divided the world into two armed camps, the NATO and the Warsaw, and further solidified the Cold War.
However USA’s actions were no less responsible for the Cold War. For instance, even though Stalin majorly instigated the Berlin Blockade, it was a result of the Western Allies’ wish to make West Germany strong. Thus, the Blockade was not just the fault of the USSR.
Roosevelt died in April 1945 and was replaced by Harry Truman, who adopted a more hardline and ‘get tough’ policy towards the Soviets. Truman was much more anti-communist and was very suspicious of Stalin. Truman stated that he was “tired of babying the Soviets” and he and his advisors saw Soviet actions in Eastern Europe as preparations for a Soviet take-over of the rest of Europe.
In addition, the invention of the atomic bomb was an important conflict between the two superpowers. On 16 July 1945, USA tested its 1st atomic bomb without informing USSR until the Potsdam Conference. Stalin was annoyed and deeply insulted by this as he thought that being a wartime ally of USA, USSR had a right to be informed of this. The atomic bomb made Stalin more suspicious and distrustful of USA’s motives. Stalin was convinced that USA would use the bomb to win worldwide power and intimidate USSR. Stalin asked his scientists to start working on the Soviet bomb, which USA saw as a threat to its superiority. The atomic bomb started a nuclear arms race between the two nations.
Furthermore, the Truman Doctrine was a foreign policy announced by Truman in a speech to the US Congress in March 1947, where he said that USA should support “free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressure,” which implied pressure from the Soviet Union. For the first time, conscription was introduced in USA in peacetime in 1948. The Doctrine showed USA’s determination to contain communism. Additionally, Truman publically stated that the world was divided between the free and oppressed ways of life. He strongly criticized communism and by implication, USSR. The Truman Doctrine intensified the Cold War and deepened the divide between USA and USSR.
Also related to the Truman Doctrine was the Marshall Plan. Officially called the European Recovery Plan, the Marshall Plan was announced in June 1947 by US Secretary George Marshall, and put the Truman Doctrine into action. It was a programme of aid to help war torn Europe to revive agriculture, industry and trade. USA offered money, equipment and goods to European states. USSR called the Plan ‘Dollar Imperialism’ and highly criticized it. Europe became more firmly divided between the eastern and western bloc due to the Plan. Also, an armed, strong and hostile West Germany was now on USSR’s border which made USSR feel even more threatened by the West.
Additionally, the USA formed a defensive military alliance called the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in 1949. The original members included USA, Britain, France, Italy, Greece and West Germany. The members agreed that an “armed attack against one or more of them…shall be considered an attack against them all.” The formation of the NATO meant a permanent US force in Europe. Never before had the USA been a part of peacetime military alliance, which showed the western determination to contain communism even by force if needed. It was a radical departure from USA’s pre-World War Two isolation policy. The USSR saw this as an act of war and called the NATO an ‘aggressive alliance.’ Stalin also speeded up the plans for the Warsaw Pact.
In conclusion, "neither side can bear sole responsibility for the onset of the Cold War", as said by John Lewis Gaddis. Both USA and USSR were struggling to stamp their dominance over the new world that was emerging after the end of the Second World War. A power vacuum had been created in central and Eastern Europe and this provided greater opportunities and much higher stakes for both the USSR and the West to pursue their foreign policy aims and thus come into conflict with each other. The underlying cause for most of USA and USSR’s actions lay in their lack of understanding of each other’s needs and ideologies, which led to a cycle of actions and reaction that further increased tensions and mutual hostility. Thus attempts by both USA and USSR to safeguard their security interests resulted in less security for both sides. - Suhasni