Understanding the Cold War
The single most impactful event of the first half of the 20th century was World War II. This event changed the world in many ways that would lead to inevitable situations. One such inevitable outcome was the Cold War. WWII would set the stage for the cold war and would create situations for most of the nations of the world in which they would ally themselves with the democratic forces of the west or with communist countries being led by the USSR.
With the fall of Germany at the end of WWII world politics were altered due to the emergence of the United States and Russia as the reigning world powers. This change would illicit tensions between these two powers in the aftermath of WWII. The Cold War would be both a conflict rooted in ideology as well as land and military power.
The Cold War was a period of economic, political and military tension between the United States and Soviet Union from 1945 to 1991 (Gaddis, 2006). Following the end of the Second World War, complications arose centering on the shifting of international power. The Soviet Union wanted to acquire additional territory while the United States attempted to limit the gains desired by the Soviets. This battle of ideologies resulted in increased national security, diplomatic tension and proxy wars between the two powerful nations (Gaddis, 2006).
When one looks at the Cold War objectively it is difficult to point blame in any direction or to any one party. In many ways, the Cold War was simply the result of ideological differences which were so diametrically opposed that it would have made cooperation at the time extremely difficult. For this reason, one can see that the Cold War was inevitable.
The US and the USSR were both obstinate when it came to making decisions at the end of WWII. Many of the decisions that were made were done so in the interest of expanding either Democracy or Communism. The arguments over areas such as Poland and Germany would provide the catalysts for the Cold War.
If any one event was the foundation for the Cold War it would be the Potsdam Conference of 1945 (Gaddis, 2006). The Potsdam Conference was a meeting in which the USSR, USA and United Kingdom met to discuss the post war state of Europe. During this meeting, talks between the US and USSR would begin to breakdown because both the US and USSR could not agree on the fate of countries such as Poland. The USSR wanted to control Eastern Europe as a means of protecting itself from future attacks. This meant controlling neighboring countries. The conference ended in the Potsdam Declaration which would give much of Eastern Europe over to Soviet control including Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, after the war East Germany (Gaddis, 2006). This breakdown in communication at the conference and the division of Europe would highlight the ideological differences between the two super powers.
Starting at the end of WWII, the Cold War would characterize the 20th century (Gaddis, 2006). The distrust between the Soviet Union and the US was so great that it would launch the nuclear arms race (Gaddis, 2006). Both countries took a position of building arms and controlling territories. Both Vietnam and the Korean War were instigated by the Cold War era. Both Vietnam and Korea became divided between the Communist controlled north and Democratic controlled south of both countries (History, 2014).
Some might argue that the United States was trying to further its anticommunist policies, but the reality of the Soviet threat seemed real. The communist bloc countries were seen as the same threat as the Nazi’s, as country after country fell under German control. In retrospect, it is easy to look at the US policies in a superficial manner and see them in a one-sided manner. However, Stalin in many ways was a real potential threat. History shows that Stalin was a ruthless dictator who committed many atrocities on his own people. The threat of Soviet Expansion under Stalin would have seemed real to the US.
Stalin ruled by terror and with a totalitarian grip in order to eliminate anyone who might oppose him. He expanded the powers of the secret police, encouraged citizens to spy on one another and had millions of people killed or sent to the Gulag system of forced labor camps. During the second half of the 1930s, Stalin instituted the Great Purge, a series of campaigns designed to rid the Communist Party, the military and other parts of Soviet society from those he considered a threat (History, 2014).
It should be noted that until Stalin died, in 1953, there was very little progress made in ending the Cold War. After Stalin’s death the USSR slowly became more open to negotiations. By 1972 President Nixon was able to visit the Soviet Union and met with Russian President Leonid Brezhnev. The two countries would agree to sign the first Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty (SALT I), which set limits on the production and deployment of ballistic missiles and antiballistic missiles (State Department, 2014). Eventually, the Cold War would officially end in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the USSR by 1991.
Gaddis, J. L. (2006). The Cold War: A New History. New York: Penguin Books.
History. (2014, January 22). Joseph Stalin. Retrieved from History: http://www.history.com/topics/joseph-stalin
History. (2014, January 22). Korean War. Retrieved from History: http://www.history.com/topics/korean-war
State Department. (2014). A Short History of the Department of State. Retrieved from US Department of the State Office of the Historian: http://history.state.gov/departmenthistory/short-history/nixon-foreignpolicy