The Causes of the Cold War

Isobel Egan, Dickson College, 2011

This essay was written as part of the International Relations: 1945 to the Present unit at Dickson College, Semester 2, 2011. It is an answer to the question: Was the Cold War inevitable? Isobel Egan has also contributed An Assessment of the Cuban Revolution to Clio.

From 1945 to 1991 tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were referred to as the Cold War. The Cold War was defined by political conflict and economic competition rather than armed military conflict. In analysing whether the Cold War was inevitable two factors must be considered. The first is whether conflict itself was inevitable and the second is whether the nature of conflict would inevitably be that of a cold war. A number of US political policies as well as key events further suggest that the Cold War was unavoidable. US political policies such as the policy of containment, fuelled by the ‘domino theory’, the conferences at Yalta and Potsdam, Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain Speech, the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan particularly demonstrate how tensions were exacerbated by the political differences of the Soviets and the US. Additionally, analysis of actual events and actions carried out by both the Soviets and the US including Soviet expansion, the Berlin blockade and airlift, proxy wars, the nuclear arms race and the Cuban Missile Crisis provide further evidence that the Cold War was inevitable.

The first element to consider in analysing the inevitability of the Cold War is the inevitability of conflict between the USA and the USSR in general. Historians agree that the root cause of the Cold War was tension between the US and the Soviet over contradicting ideologies.[1] The Soviet Union wished to expand their communist influence, believing global communist expansion was key to propelling the world into a better future. “The essence of the early Cold War was that the Soviet Union and its ideological clients were... expansionist” (Macdonald, 1995). The US, a capitalist nation, felt it was their responsibility to prevent this occurring.[2] They felt threatened by these expansionist aspirations, as communism had the potential of jeopardizing the US’ capitalist economic system and the international climate in which they operated. In turn, this would endanger their individual material wellbeing.

“Capitalist leaders wanted to make sure that [communist] countries would fail because...the goal of Communists is to develop a system free from private ownership, which is... not in the best interests of people who are wealthy due to private ownership.” (Rational Revolution, 2007).

These opposing beliefs prompted, in both countries, a desire for global ideological dominance, influence and power (Chung, 2007). However, tension between the US and the Soviet over their conflicting ideologies dates back long before the Cold War. The Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 saw a rift grow between the two nations as the US refused to recognise the Soviet Union as a sovereign state. This marked the beginning of the rivalry between the two countries (Kreis, 2009). In 1933 the US agreed to recognize the Soviet Union as its own nation and in 1939 the two became allies, united against a common enemy, Germany. “During the war a common interest in defeating the Axis overshadowed difficulties and facilitated cooperation” (Painter, 1999, p. 12). As the Second World War drew to a close however, tension over their ideologies became apparent once again. This inability to co-exist suggests that the incompatibility and contradictory nature of their ideologies would inevitably lead to conflict.

Related Article: Idealism, Self-Interest and the Vietnam War
In assessing whether or not the Cold War was inevitable, it is necessary to consider what the alternatives might have been. One question is whether it may have been possible for the US and the USSR to coexist peacefully. The evidence is that tolerance and co-existence was impossible as a way of resolving the disputes as it called for a compromise. To the Soviet government, dropping their expansionist policy to convert the entire world to communism would compromise the fundamental ideologies of Soviet communism (Macdonald, 1995). On the other hand, the United States’ economic values and vested interests were seen as fundamentally threatened by any spread of communism. The US feared for their way of life and believed their economic and social ‘freedom’ was at risk. In a Communist regime “the profit of any enterprise is equally shared by all the people... [in a capitalist structure] the profit... belongs to the private owner only.” (Prabhat, 2011). The other possibility might have been that tension between the Soviet Union and the United States could have led to a ‘hot’ war.[3] The likelihood of this occurring was slim given the situation in Europe and across the globe following the Second World War. Neither the United States nor the Soviet Union were economically prepared to re-enter into armed military conflict. Additionally, advances in nuclear technologies acted as a critical factor in determining and defining the type of warfare. Both sides had catastrophic nuclear capacity, which resulted in a standoff of mutually implied threat. “The [atomic] bomb... change[d] international politics. Another ‘hot war’ would kill all humankind.” (Clare, 2010). Therefore, the only and inevitable option was that of a ‘cold’ war. This option provided an outlet for the tension without actually requiring decisive, violent and mutually catastrophic action.

Examination of a number of US political policies during the Cold War period, and the ways in which they were implemented, further demonstrates the inevitability of the Cold War. One major construct behind US policy was known as the ‘Domino Theory’. Although the term was not coined until the early 1950’s the ‘Domino Theory’ was the most influential US political policy in terms of US-Soviet relations. It was believed that if one state became communist, it would influence the surrounding states and nations and a domino effect would be created, with an accumulation of nations falling to communism. This sparked the adjoining theory, the policy of containment (Lippmann. 1947). Articulated in July 1947[4] , it outlined the importance of creating policies to contain the Soviet sphere of influence and halt the spread of communism so as to avoid the ‘domino theory’ occurring in practice. This exemplifies the US fear of Soviet communism and explains the actions taken to contain communism.

A third example of US political policy in action was the Yalta Conference in February 1945.[5] The purpose of the conference was to determine what was to happen to Germany at the conclusion of the war. Although the conference was deemed a success, tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union increased due to disagreements over war reparations and the future of Eastern European government systems.[6] The decisions made at the Yalta conference contradicted the wishes of the Soviet Union and angered Stalin. A further example of US political policy adding to tensions with the Soviet Union was the Potsdam Conference held in July 1945. Affected by outside factors[7] the Allies were not as willing to appease Stalin as they had been at the Yalta conference. This resulted in disagreements over how to divide Germany, the reparations Germany should pay and how much influence the Soviet Union should have in Eastern Europe. These disagreements contributed to the deterioration of relations between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The fifth political occurrence to exacerbate tensions was Winston Churchill’s ‘Iron Curtain Speech’. Although Churchill was the former British Prime Minister, his speech represented the feelings of their ally, the US, and thus increased the tensions between the Soviets and the US. His speech stated:

... an "iron curtain" has descended across the continent [Europe]. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe... in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject, in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow.” (Churchill, 1946).

These statements directly threatened Stalin, who claimed, “that Churchill’s speech was a declaration of war” (Clare, 2010).

The sixth critical US political policy was the Truman Doctrine, created in March 1947. Following an attempted Communist takeover in Greece, the US announced the Truman Doctrine. It stated that it would be "the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." (Truman, 1947). This implied the involvement of the US in any country in which communism was ‘a threat’. “In Russia, the rhetoric of Truman’s speech convinced the Soviets that America was indeed a threat to Soviet Communism, and it substantially enflamed the Cold War.” (Clare, 2010). The final example is the Marshall plan, a manifestation of the Truman Doctrine, created in June 1947. It involved providing financial aid to Europe in the belief that “prosperous, free people would not turn to communism. This caused tensions to increase as the Soviets “saw... Marshall Aid as an act of war.” (Clare, 2010). These seven instances of US political policy, driven by ideological imperatives, coming up against Soviet ideological imperatives, further suggest the inevitability of the Cold War between the two nations.

There are a number of further events in the post-war period in which the actions of both the Soviet Union and United States precipitated further conflict. Following talks at Yalta and Potsdam in 1945 the Soviets enforced communist regimes in the buffer states.[8]

By 1949 the Soviet Union had concluded twenty-year bilateral treaties of friendship, cooperation, and mutual assistance with Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Romania. These treaties prohibited the East European regimes from entering into relations with states hostile to the Soviet Union, officially made these countries Soviet allies, and granted the Soviet Union rights to a continued military presence on their territory. The continued presence of Red Army forces guaranteed Soviet control of these countries. (Curtis, 1992).

This prompted what became known as the salami theory in which little by little more and more states are converted to communism, as if slicing salami. “They took part in elections, and became government ministers, but then packed the army and police with communists, got non-communists discredited and arrested, and so took total control bit by bit – as Rakosi said in Hungary, ‘like slicing salami’” (Clare, 2010). Stalin reacted to the perceived threat posed by the other three allies (the US, France and Britain) who united in their management of their allocated quadrants of Germany[9] and ordered the Berlin Blockade.[10] In retaliation the US carried out the Berlin airlift in which they airlifted supplies to West Berlin. These two events, the blockade and the airlift, exacerbated tensions, heightening the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States.

The growing development of outright hostility between the Soviet Union and the US was exemplified by two of the largest proxy wars of the Cold War. These were the Korean War (1950-1953) and the Vietnam War (1955 - 1975). Although these wars were very different in many ways, in both cases the Soviet Union was in support of the Communist North, attempting to enforce communism on the non-communist South of each respectively, while the US supported the South to resist a communist take-over. Each of the big powers were ideologically driven to support and defend regimes following their respective social and political systems, inevitably bringing them into direct conflict with each other.

The decisive use of atomic bombs at the conclusion of the Second World War sparked enormous interest in nuclear weapons for both the US and the USSR. Over the subsequent years the US continued to develop nuclear technologies, developing the first hydrogen bomb, known as the H-Bomb. This was perceived as a significant potential threat by the Soviets and kick started a nuclear arms race between the US and the USSR. It was felt by both sides that the country with the most powerful nuclear weapons would possess dominance in the Cold War. This gave rise to conditions of mutually assured destruction (MAD).[11] The nuclear arms race culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis, when in 1962 the Soviets placed nuclear missiles in Cuba as a direct threat to the US. After delicate negotiations the Soviets removed all missiles in exchange for US agreement not to invade Cuba (Thinkquest, 2010).

These global events in the post-war period demonstrate the ways in which the ideological starting point for both the US and USSR made tension and conflict inevitable. These events worked to crystallise the ideological incompatibility into direct action, resulting in measures which were often extreme but stopped short of direct conflict.

The Cold War was the culmination of tension between the Soviet Union and the United States. Their ideological differences and incompatibility made conflict unavoidable. The nature of this conflict was determined by a number of factors. Firstly, neither nation was willing to compromise any element of their beliefs. This meant that co-existence was not viable. Secondly, the Second World War left Europe in ruins and both countries economically unable to reopen armed military conflict. Along with this, the catastrophic threats of nuclear weapons made a ‘hot’ war an impossible outcome. This demonstrates that a cold war was the only possible option given the circumstances. Additional factors such as US political policy as well as key events during the Cold War exacerbated tensions further, suggesting the inescapability of conflict between the Soviets and the US. It can therefore be seen that the Cold War was indeed inevitable.


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  1. ^ There are three historical views on what the caused the Cold War. These are the Orthodox view, which places the blame on Soviet expansion, the Revisionist view, stating that American imperialist capitalism led to conflict and the Post Revisionist view which places the responsibility on both the Soviets and the US. All three viewpoints share the belief that the actions that led to war were initiated by strong ideologies. (Bastian, 2009)
  2. ^ Various documents were created including the Truman Doctrine in 1947, which expressed this.
  3. ^ Armed, military conflict.
  4. ^ The policy of containment was created by the Deputy Chief of Mission of the United States to the U.S.S.R, George Keenan.
  5. ^ The conference was held between the ‘Big Three’: Josef Stalin, Franklin D Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, the leaders of USSR, USA and Britain.
  6. ^ Against the wishes of the Soviet Union, the Allies published a Declaration of Liberated Europe, which announced a policy of democracy and self-government in Eastern European countries, including Poland, which involved “the holding of free elections.”
  7. ^ a) Following his death, US President Franklin Roosevelt was replaced by Harry S Truman, a strong anti-communist. Truman was not as lenient in terms of Stalin’s desires, which increased tensions as it reduced the amount the Allies gave to Stalin. b) The US was also in possession of the atomic bomb, which gave them a huge military advantage over the Soviet Union. This meant that the US did not need the military assistance of the Soviet Union and could therefore afford to be more abrasive with Stalin.
  8. ^ Many of the surrounding countries on the Soviet’s Western border were allotted to the Soviet to act as buffer states, a precaution against future invasion, keeping western ideologies out of the Soviet Union and containing Soviet communism.
  9. ^ Following the Yalta and Potsdam Conferences it was agreed that Germany would be divided between Britain, France, the US and the Soviet. The British, French and US then combined their zones to created a unified tri-zone.
  10. ^ Stalin had all of the roads and railways into West Berlin blocked so as to cut off US ability to deliver supplies to West Berlin.
  11. ^ “It was suggested that the Soviet Union make the United States vulnerable to a nuclear attack. Khrushchev became convinced that if the United States knew they would suffer badly in a nuclear war, they would not start such a war.”(Spartacus, 2010)