What Were The Causes Of The Cold War?

What Were The Causes of The Cold War?

In the annals of history, the Cold War stands out as a period of intense rivalry that shaped the world order for nearly half a century. This era, spanning from the end of World War II in 1945 to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, was not marked by direct military confrontation between the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, but by political, economic, and ideological battles that had global repercussions. Understanding the causes of the Cold War is crucial for grasping the complexities of international relations and the dynamics that have shaped the modern world. This article aims to demystify the origins of the Cold War, breaking down its complex causes into understandable elements while speaking directly to you, the reader, in simple and engaging terms.

Ideological Clash: Democracy vs. Communism

In 1945, just after World War II, the alliance between the United States, Britain, and the USSR ended. An intense rivalry between communist and non-communist nations led to the Cold War. It’s called the Cold War because it never led to armed or “hot” conflict.

At the end of World War II, at the Yalta Conference, Germany was divided into four occupied zones controlled by Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States. Berlin was also divided into four sections. The lack of a mutual agreement on German reunification marked the start of the Cold War. When the USA decided to drop the atomic bomb on Japan, the USSR was upset that America had secretly developed the bomb. Churchill, Truman, and Britain’s Atlee were angry that Stalin had already signed a border treaty agreement with Poland.

By 1948, Russia controlled Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia. Churchill was the first to refer to this as an Iron Curtain that divided Europe. The Allies were angered that the free elections promised by Stalin at the Yalta Conference were not held and adopted a new foreign policy of containment to keep communism in the areas where it was already in effect. The Truman Doctrine of 1947 stated that America would help any non-communist country to resist communist pressure. The Marshall Plan involved sending large amounts of American money to help non-communist countries recover from World War II.

The Western Allies unified West Germany to form the German Federal Republic (GFR). The USSR reacted by placing a blockade on Berlin. All food and other necessities had to be airlifted to West Berlin until May 1949. The Russian zone became the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

In 1949, Mao Zedong’s communist forces won a victory in China, and this added another front to the Cold War.

The Cold War was the result of a clash between communism and capitalism, two opposing world views. Another cause of the build-up to the Cold War was the intransigent attitude of both sides. The Soviet Union was extremely concerned about its security after having been invaded twice in the twentieth century. In 1945, America created and used the atomic bomb against Japan, and the USSR was determined to create one of its own. Both the USSR and the USA built up huge arsenals of intercontinental ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). The United States tested a hydrogen bomb in 1952, and in November 1955, the USSR developed one too. After that, the USA moved its bombers into Europe. In 1955, West Germany was allowed to re-arm and join NATO. Russia responded by forming the Warsaw Mutual Defense Pact with its buffer zone neighbors.

In 1957, the Soviets used a missile to launch Sputnik 1 into orbit around the earth. The arms race evolved into a space race as the United States rushed to launch its own satellites. The space race was an opportunity for the two nations to show their technological superiority. The Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the first orbiting satellite, on October 4, 1957. On November 3, they launched Sputnik II with the first living creature, a dog named Laika.

Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik I on October 4, 1957

On January 31, 1958, the United States launched Explorer I, its first satellite. The U.S. began its Mercury program with an 18-minute flight on January 31, 1961, that carried a chimpanzee. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, had its Vostok program, and on April 12, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space and completed one orbit aboard Vostok 1. In June 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. The United States started to catch up on February 20, 1962, when John Glenn orbited the Earth three times. The US Apollo 11 mission was launched on July 16, 1969, and Neil Armstrong became the first person to step on the moon.

The Berlin Wall was built in 1961 and brought more tension to the Cold War. The open border between East and West Berlin had permitted thousands of East Europeans to escape from Soviet rule. This had a negative economic impact on Eastern Europe and was a political embarrassment for the Soviet Union. On Sunday, August 13, 1969, East Germany blocked off East Berlin from West Berlin with barbed wire. A few days later, the Berlin Wall was built to replace the barbed wire. From 1961 to 1981, there were 37,800 successful escapes across the Berlin Wall from the East to the West. The reunification of Germany took place on October 3, 1990.

In 1962, Cuba was convinced that the USA was planning to attack them and asked the Soviet Union for military assistance. The USSR sent Cuba materials to build missile bases and launch sites. When President Kennedy realized that Cuba could launch missiles into America, he demanded that the USSR remove its weapons and troops. The Americans formed a naval blockade as the world stood nervously on the edge of a nuclear war. The USSR removed its weapons despite protests from Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

The Effects of the Cold War

The United States believed that the Soviet Union’s expansion threatened the developing nations of the world. So, in 1949, President Truman and Congress approved nearly $400 million for technical development programs in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. The goal of this Point Four Program was to modernize and strengthen developing nations and discourage the growth of communism.

Gorbachev’s policy of Glasnost eliminated the strict censorship practiced for hundreds of years. Glasnost stands for openness, and Soviet citizens were now allowed to speak openly about their country’s problems. Perestroika, or “restructuring,” was Gorbachev’s attempt to end the inefficiency and corruption in government.

The United States and other Western nations decided to form alliances against possible Soviet attempts to extend their sphere of influence. In April 1949, the United States signed the North Atlantic Treaty. Members agreed that an attack on one of them would be considered an attack on all of them. The Soviets later formed an opposing alliance known as The Warsaw Pact. Because of the arms race, many countries in the world now own nuclear weapons.

The causes of the Cold War were multifaceted, rooted in ideological differences, the aftermath of World War II, nuclear rivalry, espionage, and proxy wars. This period of history was marked by moments of intense fear and brinkmanship but also by significant scientific advancements and cultural exchanges. The end of the Cold War did not mean the end of international tensions, but it did usher in a new era of global relations, with the United States emerging as the sole superpower.

Understanding the origins of the Cold War is more than an academic exercise; it provides insights into the challenges of diplomacy, the dangers of ideological extremism, and the importance of international cooperation. As we navigate the complexities of the 21st century, the lessons of the Cold War remain relevant, reminding us of the need for understanding, dialogue, and collaboration in addressing global issues.

Nancy Vawter
Nancy Vawter

Nancy Vawter has been a reporter and writer since shortly after her graduation from the University of Arizona. She spent seven years with the New York Post, working as a national feature writer in New York. She later taught journalism as an assistant professor at American University in Washington.