CAUSES OF THE COLD WAR
Lasting from the end of World War II in 1945 until the early 1990s, the Cold War was one of the most significant events of the 20th century. At its heart, the Cold War was essentially a ‘face off’ or competition between the United States and the Soviet Union after World War II. Historians have identified several causes that led to the outbreak of the Cold War, including: tensions between the two nations at the end of World War II, the ideological conflict between both the United States and the Soviet Union, the emergence of nuclear weapons, and the fear of communism in the United States.
The first major cause of the Cold War was the increased tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union at the end of World War II. During the Second World War, the Soviet Union under the leadership of Joseph Stalin, was allied with Britain, France, and the United States against Nazi Germany, Italy and Japan. At the time, the alliance was based around destroying the fascist regimes in the Europe and Japanese expansionism in the Pacific. However, by 1945 the major fighting in both the European Theater and Pacific Theater began to come to an end. For example, World War II in Europe essentially ended with the death of Adolf Hitler on April 30th, 1945. Japan was defeated soon after in August of 1945 with the atomic bombing of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. During these final stages of World War II, the partnership between the Soviet Union and the other Allied nations began to fall apart. This is best evidenced by the Allied wartime conferences in Yalta and Potsdam.
The Yalta Conference, along with the Potsdam Conference, was an important event for the end stages of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War. The Yalta Conference occurred from February 4th to the 11th in 1945 and was a wartime meeting of the Allied leaders, including: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. The meeting took place near Yalta, which is now a city in Crimea, Ukraine. The purpose of the conference was for the three Allied powers to begin discussing how to reorganize Europe once Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany were defeated. While, World War II in Europe was not over yet, the Allies could see that the end of the war was near and that Germany would soon be defeated. The hope was that the three leaders could agree on how to divide Europe following the war.
However, the Yalta Conference is now viewed as a major event in the Cold War as well, because it highlighted the divide between Stalin and the other two leaders. Neither side trusted the other and Joseph Stalin was resentful of the other two believing that they delayed the Normandy Invasion and Allied invasion of Italy to cause the Soviet army to struggle alone against Nazi Germany. This divide would be further highlighted at the later Potsdam Conference.
The Potsdam Conference occurred from July 17th to August 2nd in 1945 and was a wartime meeting of the Allied leaders, including: Harry S. Truman, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. Truman had just replaced Franklin D. Roosevelt as President of the United States following his death. The meeting took place in Potsdam, which at the time was in the Allied controlled area of Germany. The purpose of the conference was for the three Allied powers to begin discussing how to handle the defeat of Nazi Germany, which had occurred just recently. Other goals focused on how the world would carry on after the war. While, World War II in the Pacific was not over yet, the Allies could see that the end of the war was near and that Japan would soon be defeated.
The hope was that the three leaders could agree on how to handle world issues after the war was over, including: peace treaty issues and the effects of the war. However, the Potsdam Conference is now viewed as a major event in the Cold War as well, because it highlighted the divide between Stalin and the other two leaders similar to the earlier Yalta Conference. As well, it is at the Potsdam Conference that Truman made Stalin aware of the American atomic weapons program (Manhattan Project) and that the Americans had developed the world's first atomic bomb. It was also at this conference that a deep divide was created between the United States and the Soviet Union specifically. Truman was incredibly suspicious of Stalin and his intentions and Stalin felt a similar way towards Truman. In general terms, the seeds of the Cold War were planted at the Potsdam Conference. The United States would bomb Hiroshima just days after the conference ended and World War II would be over in the just a few weeks, while the Cold War was just beginning. As such, many historians view the Yalta and Potsdam Conferences as the start of the Cold War since they highlighted the growing mistrust and tensions between Truman of the United States and Stalin of the Soviet Union.
The next major cause of the Cold War was the emergence of nuclear weapons at the end of World War II. As stated previously, World War II ended in Europe by May of 1945 with the defeat of Nazi Germany by the Allied Powers, but the war did not officially end in the Pacific Theatre until the atomic bombing of Japan in August of 1945. The United States had developed its atomic weaponry during the final years of the war through its secretive program called the Manhattan Project. With the atomic bombing of Japan, the United States had begun the era of nuclear weapons and the nuclear arms race.
At the outset of the Cold War, the United States was the only nation in the world to contain atomic weapons, such as those used against Japan in 1945. As such, the Soviet Union was not able to militaristically challenge the United States and worked to develop their own atomic weapons. However, on August 29th, 1949, the Soviet Union performed a test of their first atomic bomb codenamed ‘First Lighting’. These early years were important to the growing tensions and anger between the two superpowers. Because of the development of nuclear weapons, the two nations did not trust each other. As a result, they each spent the first few decades of the Cold War developing large arsenals of nuclear weapons. By the 1950’s each country had developed enough nuclear weapons to destroy the other. This development was an important aspect of the Cold War, as the stockpiles of nuclear weapons acted as a means of defense. Essentially, each nation was deterred from going to war with other, or from escalation tensions, due to the fear of a nuclear war. Historians refer to this idea as Mutual Assured Destruction (M.A.D.) since any escalation to war could result in the total destruction of both countries. Regardless, this nuclear arms race between the two nations showed the growing divide between the two nations. As such, the initial development of nuclear weapons in the 1940s and 1950s is considered to be a cause of the Cold War because it increased the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union and caused them to enter into a dangerous nuclear arms race.
The third main cause of the Cold War was the ideological conflict that existed between the United States and Soviet Union. At the time, the Soviet Union was a communist nation that was based on the principles of collectivism or socialism, while the United States was a modern liberal democracy nation based primarily on the principles of individualism. This means that the Soviet Union was positioned on the far-left side of the economic spectrum, while the United States was position on the right side. This difference in ideology was a major source of the conflict between the two nations because throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union sought to expand communism to other regions and the United States sought to stop it with its policy of containment. As such, many people now view the Cold War as a conflict of the left and right sides of the spectrum, among other things.
To better understand the ideological conflict of the Cold War it is first important to understand the main principles of capitalism, communism, democracy and dictatorship. During the Cold War, the United States was based upon capitalism and democracy while the Soviet Union was based upon communism and dictatorship.
At its heart, capitalism is an economic system based upon the values of individualism and promotes individual liberty over government regulation and control. For example, laissez-faire capitalism is a form of the ideology that translates to “leave us alone” meaning that the government should remain out of the economy and instead allow individuals to freely carry out their own economic affairs. The development of capitalism as an economic system, sought to reject the idea of government control of the economy and instead put the focus on individuals. On the economic spectrum, capitalism is a right-wing ideology that is fundamentally based on: private ownership, competition, free trade, self-reliance, self-interest, and the principles of supply and demand. Capitalist societies are often based on free-market economies. This system differs from communism wherein the government usually controls the means of production and makes all important economic decisions.
Democracy is a political system that is associated with the idea that power or authority in a society rests with the people. In general, the people exercise their authority through elections in which they choose others to represent their interests in a formal legislative structure. This system differs from dictatorships wherein many of the decisions are made by the government which is often a single person and single political party.
Communism is an economic system that is based on the principles of socialism, especially the earlier development of Marxism and the ideas of Karl Marx as expressed in the Communist Manifesto. Similar to Marxism, communism is centered on the idea of establishing a society based upon public ownership of the means of production and the removal of any form of social classes. For example, communism generally focuses on the conditions of the working-class, and the wide income gap that existed in laissez-faire capitalist societies. Communist countries such as the Soviet Union are also often dictatorships. Communism differs from capitalism because it focuses on the government having much more control over the economy, and is often referred to as a command economy.
A dictatorship is a form of government in which most or all authority of the country is in the hands of a single individual; the leader. While the term has been used several times throughout history, most common usage of the term is in relation to different types of dictatorships that existed in the 20th and 21st centuries. For example, famous dictators include: Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany, Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union, Benito Mussolini in Italy, Kim Jung-un in North Korea and Fidel Castro in Cuba. In general, a dictatorship is the opposite of democracy, which is a system of government in which the people hold the power and the ability to choose who represents their government. Essentially, in a democracy the people have the power over the major aspects of government and have the responsibility to elect their leaders. In contrast, a dictatorship is ruled by a single person who generally acts to protect his own position and power over the welfare of the citizens.
This ideological conflict caused the Cold War because it displayed the difference in worldview between the two nations. As such, the United States and the Soviet Union differed greatly in their views of how the world should be organized following the major events of World War II. For their part, the United States feared Soviet expansionism into regions in Europe and around the world. As a result, the United States President at the start of the Cold War, Harry S. Truman, developed a policy in which the country would work to contain the spread of communism. Historians refer to this as the Truman Doctrine.
As such, the final cause of the Cold War was the American fear of the spread of communism around the world. As stated above, there was a major ideological conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union at the outset of the Cold War. The United States, led by Harry S. Truman feared that communism as an ideology would spread throughout Europe and the rest of the world. For example, after World War II both Greece and Turkey were facing financial crisis. Due to their proximity to Soviet territory and the rise of communism in recent decades it was feared that the two countries might fall into the Soviet sphere of influence and become communist. In a speech in 1947 on the crisis facing both countries Harry S. Truman stated: “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. I believe that we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way. I believe that our help should be primarily through economic and financial aid, which is essential to economic stability and orderly political processes.” In this passage, Truman is promoting the idea that the United States should financially support the two nation to avoid them turning to communism. This approach by Truman formed the basis of American foreign policy throughout the remainder of the Cold War in the form of containment, which historians refer to as the Truman Doctrine. Essentially, the Truman Doctrine was the idea that the United States should attempt to contain the Soviet sphere of influence and the spread of communism. This foreign policy caused the United States to enter into conflict with the Soviet Union as it attempted to thwart Soviet expansionism in events such as: Berlin Blockade, Korean War, Vietnam War, etc. As such, many historians view this as a cause of the Cold War because it increased tensions between the two superpowers and led to several conflicts between the two superpowers.