On the Origins and Evolution of the Cold War

The infamous Cold War of the mid-twentieth century sprung from the discord between the Soviet Union and the United States following World War II in 1945. This conflict led to several significances such as a second “Red Scare,” containment, a nuclear arms race, and the “Space Race.”

Beginning in the late 1940s, the United States grew increasingly wary of Soviet communism and Premier Joseph Stalin’s desire for expansion – and vice versa. For their part, the Soviets resented the United States for their refusal to accept their country as a formal entity.

Partners at one point, the growing differences in viewpoints between the prior allies, especially regarding the surviving European countries after the Allied victory of the Second World War, jumpstarted a frantic race between the two nations that lasted until December 1989 and resulted in the signing of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty on November 19, 1990. [1] The war is understood by analyzing events and conditions holistically to supplement the master narrative.

The Long Telegram
The Long Telegram

A mere five months after the end of World War II, George Kennan, a State Department official, sent an 8,000-word message from the U.S. embassy in Moscow to the Treasury department in Washington, D.C. on February 22, 1946. This message, known as the “Long Telegram,” detailed Soviet opinion and was the basis for American foreign policy and military decision-making for the next thirty years.

According to Kennan, Soviet leaders wanted to destroy their rivals and their influence over others in order to protect their country. [2] He further revealed that the Soviet Union, a totalitarian bureaucracy, would be unable to accept the prospect of a peaceful coexistence with the United States. Finally, he advised the American government to contain Soviet influence to the regions where it already existed and to prevent its political expansion into new areas. [3]

Across the globe, throughout the immediate years following the war, Great Britain remained busy occupying Greece and assisting the authoritarian government there in combating Greek communists. However, by March 1947, the British government could no longer afford to give their support to the royalists in Greece and anti-communists in Turkey and withdrew from the area. [4]

Alarmed by Soviet demands for a base in the Bosporus, the United States instantly stepped in with the Truman Doctrine. This dogma offered American backing to Greece and Turkey in three key ways: 1) financial aid, 2) weaponry, and 3) troops to train their militaries and reinforce their governments against communism.

Eventually, the Truman Doctrine was extended to include any state attempting to withstand a communist takeover and was a very important piece of Cold War policy. [5]

Another important factor that contributed to containment was the economy. While the American economy flourished by 1946, the situation in Europe was the opposite, allowing for communism to thrive.

West and East Germany

The end of the war resulted in the partitioning of Europe into East and West. Germany itself was formally divided into the states of the Federal Republic of Germany (F.D.R., or West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (G.D.R., or East Germany). [6]

This division of the continent, though representative of the victors of the war and their beliefs, did nothing to alleviate the estimated $1 trillion spent during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Additionally, global decolonization hindered the ability of European countries to recover as they no longer had access to the raw materials and manpower of those colonies. Even more, these newly independent entities easily fell prey to the woos of communism.

Thus, motivated by economic, political, and humanitarian factors, President Truman and Secretary of State George C. Marshall proposed the European Recovery Program to Congress. The plan provided over $13 billion to European nations between its implementation in April 1948 and its termination in 1951. To receive this service, nations had to simply work together (effectively combating communism) and spend the majority of the money on American goods. [7]

Unsurprisingly, the Soviet Union promptly rejected the Marshall Plan, as it came to be known, and forbade other communist states of Eastern Europe to accept the aid as well. In fact, the Soviets went so far as to cut off all land traffic from West Germany into West Berlin on June 24, 1948. [8] The year-long blockade that followed sparked the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the distinguished Berlin airlift. The operation itself eventually made some 20,000 flights and carried 1.5 million tons of goods into the city. [6]

NATO, established in April 1949, cemented the relationships between the western powers who participated in the war and operated on the basis of collective security. Certainly, since its founding, it has become one of the fixed points of international relations.

This position of mediation was evident in the CFE Treaty that signaled the end of the Cold War, and whose primary purpose was to prevent future major offensive operations and armed attacks in Europe. [9] This goal was accomplished by specifically limiting conventional armaments and equipment to 40,000 battle tanks, 60,000 armored combat vehicles, 40,000 pieces of artillery, 13,600 combat aircraft and 4,000 attack helicopters. [1]

The advent of nuclear weapons played a factor in international affairs and a huge role in the Cold War. Beginning with the Manhattan Project and the subsequent atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945, the United States pulled ahead of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) and the world in nuclear advancement, launching the Atomic Age.

Reunion of atomic scientists on the 4th anniversary (1946) of the first controlled nuclear fission chain reaction, December 2, 1942
Reunion of atomic scientists on the 4th anniversary (1946) of the first controlled nuclear fission chain reaction, December 2, 1942 [10]

The Manhattan Project, inspired by a letter written to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt from Albert Einstein in August 1939 (a month before Germany invaded Poland and instigated World War II), was established to pursue atomic research and development.

The 200,000 people that died in Japan as a result of the work completed by this group effectively garnered the attention of the world. After realizing the threat that the United States posed, Joseph Stalin authorized the Soviet atomic bomb project, successfully testing its first atomic weapon on August 29, 1949.

It was later revealed that this weapon was made possible because of secrets passed to the Soviets by a British physicist, an American scientist, and a U.S. Army engineer named David Greenglass. [11, 12]

At the time, America was in a frenzy over the suspicions that spies within the United States were passing bomb-making secrets to the Soviet Union and that communist sympathizers had withheld information from the government.

Additionally, in February 1950, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy accused the U.S. State Department of harboring communists. One allegation to note was that of German-born physicist Klaus Fuchs passing off nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. During Fuchs’ imprisonment and conviction in Great Britain, a number of Americans were implicated.

Two of these Americans were Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. While no evidence was found against them then, the trial was high-profile and resulted in their execution in June 1953. It was later discovered that Julius had, in fact, given information to the U.S.S.R., but that Ethel was seemingly innocent.

Determined not to lose nuclear superiority, President Truman approved the development of the hydrogen bomb in early 1950, a weapon projected to be hundreds of times more powerful than the plutonium and uranium bombs that wrecked the empire of Japan.

He had “given up hope for international control of atomic energy and…did not expect relations with the Soviet Union to improve.” [13] By the end of 1952, on November 1, his plan came to fruition when “Mike,” the world’s first hydrogen bomb, was detonated in the Pacific Marshall Islands. Yet, by 1953, the adversary caught up once more.

Thus, America had to find a way to ensure it stayed ahead of its rivals. The U.S. Armed Forces did so by creating a series of long-range ballistic missiles. These missiles were intercontinental, intermediate-range, and could be launched from submarines. No natural defenses could successfully counteract this offensive.

Perhaps the most impressive of these was Atlas, developed by the U.S. Air Force. As the nation’s first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), Atlas was America’s first weapon that could carry nuclear weapons from the homeland to targets almost anywhere on the globe in minutes. [14] In the realm of space exploration, Atlas later became the first to carry American astronauts into Earth orbit and was the primary launch vehicle for the early U.S. civilian and military space programs. [9]

Thus, with the performance of Atlas as a catalyst, the Soviet Union looked to extraordinary means to continue to compete with the United States.

Following the implementation of Fidel Castro’s socialist dictatorship in Cuba after his takeover in 1959, the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) attempted to invade the country on April 17, 1961 using Cuban exiles. Unfortunately, the outcasts landed at the Bay of Pigs and suffered a humiliating defeat.

Because of its relationship with Cuba and its rivalry with the U.S., the Soviet Union promptly increased its economic and military aid to Cuba, including building missile complexes just 90 miles away from the American coast. Intelligence confirmed this construction on October 15, 1962 when an Air Force U-2 reconnaissance jet took aerial photos of Soviet-made SS-4 and R-14 intermediate range ballistic missiles at a base in Cuba. [15]

Upon receiving the news of preparations of a potential Soviet nuclear attack on the homeland, President Kennedy began negotiating with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to remove the missiles in Cuba while imposing a naval blockade to prevent any more Soviet missiles from entering the country. However, the Soviets denied the presence of any missiles on the island, tensions increased, and Cuban air defenses shot down a U-2 piloted by Major Rudolf Anderson.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff immediately recommended an air strike, but President Kennedy held off. [16] Luckily, Khrushchev eventually agreed to dismantle and remove all missiles from Cuba in exchange for a promise that the U.S. would not attempt to invade Cuba again and that they would remove American missiles stationed in Turkey.

Sputnik 1 Satellite
Sputnik 1 Satellite Credit: Erik Simonsen

On October 4, 1957, the U.S.S.R. launched Sputnik, the world’s first official artificial satellite, into a low Earth orbit, sending the United States into yet another panic and prompting the Eisenhower administration to question its abilities. [17]

Unpredictably, the launch was quiet and modest as Khrushchev did not want to be “accused of just jabbering to have a psychological effect on the people in capitalist countries and of just, to put it simply, boasting. For this reason “[sic] we decided to…announce [the launch] when [Sputnik] was already circling the earth.” [18]

Though unimpressive by modern standards, at less than 60 centimeters (~24 inches) in diameter and circling the world at a height of less than 600 kilometers (~373 miles) before falling back to Earth after a mere 70 days, [19] Sputnik I could hardly have made a greater impact.

On February 6, 1958, a Senate Special Committee on Space and Aeronautics was called, as well as a Presidential Science Advisory Committee (PSAC). By July 29 of that year, the National Aeronautics and Space Act was passed and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was established in Washington, D.C. on October 1st. [20]

The Kennedy administration set its sights high for the nation and thought that the United States “should commit itself to achieving the goal…of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth” by January 1, 1970. [21] But, it took much work before this objective could be accomplished.

Seven Mercury astronauts made flight in the early 1960s while the Gemini and Apollo programs prepared for an eventual lunar landing. Finally, in July 1969, nearly a year ahead of schedule, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin successfully landed on the moon.

American Astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the moon, July 1969

In Europe, the continent was split not only by the so-called Iron Curtain but also by class and politically. The decades of the Cold War may have centered on the nuclear arms and space race, but Euro-terrorism and demonstrations were also an issue, as seen in the Prague Spring of 1968 and the resulting Brezhnev Doctrine.

In Czechoslovakia, Communist Party First Secretary Alexander Dubcek led a movement that sought to strengthen the country’s socialist system by effecting political and economic reforms. Though the campaign enjoyed widespread popular support from both Czechs and Slovaks, the Soviet Union and four other Warsaw Pact nations crushed the crusade in an invasion. [22]

To ensure something similar would not happen again, the Soviet Union adopted a policy for combating “anti-socialist forces” in November of that year. [23] Movements such as these occurred all over Eastern and Western Europe in the late 1960s and 70s in an attempt to contain the Soviet Union as famously prompted by the United States.

The end of the Cold War, though often credited to the United States, was the result of the policies of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s. His reform efforts not only contributed to ending the Cold War but ended the political supremacy of the Communist Party and dissolved the Soviet Union. [24]

Gorbachev established close relations with a number of Western leaders. In 1986 and 1987, he made proposals for the elimination of intermediate-range nuclear weapons in the continent and promised to eliminate all nuclear weapons by 2000.

East and West German people celebrate the end of cold war on top of the Berlin Wall, 10 November 1989
East and West German people celebrate the end of cold war on top of the Berlin Wall, 10 November 1989. Credit: Peter Horvath/REX/Shutterstock

His two major acceleration reforms, perestroika (“reconstruction”) and glasnost (“liberation” or “opening”, allowed for Soviet hegemony over Eastern Europe to loosen, leading to basic freedoms that precipitated the opening of the gates of the Berlin Wall and its subsequent destruction in the fall of 1989. With the end of communist rule in the annus mirabilis (“year of miracles”), the Cold War was over.

The end of the Second World War saw the end of an alliance between the United States and the rest of the Western powers and the Soviet Union. This split, both physically and ideologically, caused a second Red Scare, was the basis for containment, and provoked a nuclear arms and space race. Throughout the decades that follow, internal issues in Europe added to the fire. However, with new political reforms, the Cold war came to an end in the late twentieth century.

Notes and References:

[1] North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Warsaw Pact member countries, Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), Paris, November 19, 1990.

[2] Scott P. Corbett et al., U.S. History (Houston: OpenStax, 2017).

[3] George Kennan, “George Kennan’s ‘Long Telegram,'” History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, National Archives and Records Administration, Department of State Records (Record Group 59), Central Decimal File, 1945-1949, 861.00/2-2246; reprinted in US Department of State, ed., Foreign Relations of the United States, 1946. Volume VI, Eastern Europe; The Soviet Union (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1969): 696-709, February 22, 1946.

[4] “The Reconstruction of Europe after the Second World War,” in 8.3.3: Reconstruction of Western Europe, 8.3: Consequences, Unit 8: The Second World War and the New World Order, HIST 103: World History in the Early Modern and Modern Eras (1600-Present) (Washington, D.C.: Saylor Foundation, 2014).

[5] “Truman Doctrine, ‘Recommendations for Assistance to Greece and Turkey,'” History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Truman Library, March 12, 1947.

[6] “World War II,” in International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, edited by William A. Darity, Jr., Vol 9, 2nd ed (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2008): 147-151.

[7] George C. Marshall, “The Marshall Plan, Speech by US Secretary of State George C. Marshall,” History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Congressional Record, June 5, 1947.

[8] “The Origins of the Cold War,” in 8.3.2: United States and USSR Emerge as Global Superpowers, 8.3: Consequences, Unit 8: The Second World War and the New World Order, HIST 103: World History in the Early Modern and Modern Eras (1600-Present) (Washington, D.C.: Saylor Foundation, 2014).

[9] James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Middlebury Institute of International Studies, “Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE),” Treaties and Regimes, Nuclear Threat Initiative.

[10] Reunion of atomic scientists on the 4th Anniversary (1946) of the first controlled nuclear fission chain reaction, December 2, 1942, pictured in front of Bernard A. Eckhart Hall at the University of Chicago. University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf3-00232, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

[11] Sam Roberts, “The Manhattan Project,” The New York Times 145, 3 (October 8, 2012): 18-21.

[12] Greenglass was arrested in 1950 and later testified against his sister and brother-in-law, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, dooming them to the electric chair.

[13] Barton J. Bernstein, “Truman and the H-bomb,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 40, no. 3 (March 1984): 12-18.

[14] Christopher Gainor, “The Atlas and the Air Force: Reassessing the Beginnings of America’s First Intercontinental Ballistic Missile,” Technology and Culture 54, no. 2 (April 2013): 346-370.

[15] Louis A. Arana-Barradas, “On the Brink of Doom,” Airman 45, no. 10 (October 2001): 20-27.

[16] United States Air Force, “1.13. Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), Chapter 1: Air Force Heritage,” The Airman Handbook (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Air Force, October 1, 2017): 37-38.

[17] Henry J. Sage, “Sputnik: The Space Race Begins,” America and the Cold War: The Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy Years, American Sage History, May 8, 2017.

[18] Tamara Eidelman, “Sputnik,” Russian Life 50, no. 5 (September 2007): 19-21.

[19] Howard A. Doughty, “Eisenhower’s Sputnik Moment: The Race for Space and World Prestige,” College Quarterly 16, no. 3 (2013): 1.

[20] “Enactment of Title 51- National and Commercial Space Programs,” Public Law 111-314, December 18, 2010.

[21] John F. Kennedy, “Special Message to the Congress on Urgent Nation Needs, May 25, 1961,” in John F. Kennedy Speeches, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, May, 25, 1961.

[22] Pete Dolack, “Prague Spring,” in Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Justice, edited by Gary L. Anderson and Kathryn G. Herr (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2007).

[23] L. S. Stavrianos, “The Brezhnev Doctrine, 1968,” in The Epic of Man (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1971): 465-466.

[24] Raluca Cozma, “Gorbachev, Mikhal (1931 -),” in Encyclopedia of Political Communication, edited by Lynda Lee Kaid and Christina Holtz-Bacha (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications Inc., 2008): 278.

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