The twentieth century witnessed several major conflicts that affected the whole world. World War I and II led to the creation and destruction of entire countries, political regimes, and alliances. The events following the end of World War II (WW2) ushered the new era which gained the name of the Cold War. While the timeframe of this period is not specific, it started after WW2 in 1946 or 1947. Furthermore, scholars consider 1991 to be the final year of this time of conflict.1 Before the start of the geopolitical tension that lasted almost 50 years, two world powers emerged – the United States and the Soviet Union. Their political, economic, and ideological influence split the world and resulted in a multitude of armed conflicts and shaky alliances.
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The first side of the Cold War was the United States. Coming out of WW2, the previous alliances between the US and other countries to counter fascism were weakened, as the nations had different political ideologies. The US had a strong liberal democratic vision powered by capitalism and individualism. These political and economic stances were in opposition to the communist Soviet Union. Thus, in 1947, President Harry S. Truman presented the Truman Doctrine – a newly developed foreign policy for America to openly oppose the expansion of communist ideology supported by the USSR.2 The commitment of the US to counter the Soviet actions became the significant first step in starting the Cold War.
The second major power was the Soviet Union, otherwise known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). After defeating the fascist armies, the USSR began exporting its ideology – communism – to other countries, supporting political power shifts and providing financial aid to the economies destroyed by the fascist regime.3 As a result, several states in Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America adopted the vision and installed new government structures and laws. The US, in contrast, strived to oppose this influence by supporting counteraction and financing anti-communist operations.
It is clear that the foundations of this conflict were connected to the countries’ political and economic views. Capitalism was in direct opposition to communism in the economic sphere, while liberal democracy and Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism were the two main political regimes.4 However, the rise of the two superpowers and their increased tension after WW2 could also be explained by their alliances when the international struggle against fascism started.
The USSR’s communist regime affected its place in the world and created tension with other countries that adopted a different economic position. Thus, the Western countries were hesitant to become allies with the USSR in dealing with Nazi Germany.5 Major disagreements that arose out of Britain and France’s appeasement and the USSR’s strong opposition were temporarily neglected when Germany invaded the Soviet Union and declared war in 1941. However, the nations’ opposing views did not change after the end of the conflict.
The post-war period revealed the intention of the countries that led the fight against Nazi Germany and retained political and economic power. While most countries of the world were devastated because of the war, the UK, the US, and the USSR maintained their independence. This access to the potential of rebuilding the post-war political system led to disagreements based on the nations varying expectations. While the US wanted to expand its economic supremacy and dominate the world through financial achievement, the USSR chose an ideological approach for rebuilding internal structures inside its numerous republics.6
During and after the war, the USSR occupied most of Eastern and Central Europe, which gave it a significant advantage in economics and politics. In contrast, Western Europe had many stations of the American and British forces. This segmentation of the continent and the powerful nations’ contrasting views laid the foundation for later conflicts and turned an unstable alliance into a relationship based on mutual mistrust.
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Key Political Events
Although the period of the Cold War did not see any explicit armed conflicts between the US and the USSR, the two nations’ military powers supported and elevated tensions in other parts of the world. The two powers used their influence gathered before, during, and after WW2 to force new alliances, occupy other regions, and support sides in countries with ongoing or developing civil wars.7 The first key event that started the Cold War era was the presentation of the Truman Doctrine mentioned above. This document outlined the threat that the Soviet Union presented to the Western world and urged countries to oppose the ideology of communism.
Truman viewed the actions of the USSR as a coercion of the free nations, believing that the national security of the US was at risk as a result. On the side of the USSR, the commitment of the US to help countries in Europe was seen as a strategy of the West to assume control of the territories occupied by the Soviet Union.
In 1949, the creation of NATO became the next political change with major European nations agreeing on their plans of reconstructing the region.8 After that, the USSR and Western European countries became divided on their views of rebuilding Germany. This led to the establishment of the German Democratic Republic from the zone occupied by the Soviet country. The same year, in China, the US-backed government of Kuomintang was overthrown by the People’s Liberation Army under the authority of Mao Zedong.9 This series of events initiated countries’ search for new allies and signaled their further involvement in the conflicts of other nations.10
The next major war in which the US and the Soviet Union supplied one of the sides started in Korea. In 1950, the North Korean People’s Army, led by Kim Il-Sung, invaded South Korea.11 The US entered the war with the initial aim to stop the conflict and help South Korea to regain its independence, but their military power encouraged them to push further with the hopes to overthrow the communist regime of the occupying nation.
After the period of tension and involvement in the first military conflicts, the US and USSR experienced government changes that led to the escalation of the conflict. In the US, Eisenhower came to power after Truman, and, in the USSR, the death of Stalin prompted the introduction of a new leader, Nikita Khrushchev. Although both governments changed their approaches to dealing with the conflict, their beliefs stayed the same – America upheld its policy of containment, and the USSR continued to believe in the idea of world communism.
It should be noted that the abundance of significant events and the powers’ intrusion into the politics of states on several continents creates a complex combination of influences and factors that changed the political climate constantly. In the 1960s, a number of crises heightened the tension and almost led the two major nations to a nuclear war. First, the Cuban revolution led to the change of the political regime in the country to Marxism-Leninism and the alliance between Cuba and the USSR.12 Second, in 1961, the conflict between West and East Germany and the Soviet Union’s wish to stop East German’s emigration from the territory led to the establishment of the Berlin Wall.
The interpretation of communist ideology by different countries led to some other conflicts in the alliances of the USSR. One of the most substantial losses for the Soviet Union was the Sino-Soviet split which created a rift between countries supporting the Soviet or Chinese view of Marxism-Leninism.13 This particular change in relations determined the course of the Cold War since it contributed to the reestablishment of Chinese-US ties and shifted the influence of communism in the world.
Apart from using other countries to establish the influence of a particular political structure, the US and USSR raced each other to develop and gather resources for military and intellectual advantage. For combat power, both nations engaged in nuclear armament, threatening each other and the world to start World War III.14 Apart from that, a “space race” was initiated in which the nations wanted to show their technological advancement through space exploration. In 1962, the first of the races led to a severe missile crisis in Cuba which initially increased the risk of starting a nuclear war, but resulted in the first actions towards nuclear disarmament.15
The next period could be categorized by the diminishing power of the US and USSR over countries rebuilding after the war. Japan and Western Europe improved their economies, and the Vietnam War, waged by the US and Vietnam for more than a decade, lowered the status of Western power. On the other hand, the stagnation of Eastern Europe’s development and the influence of other movements increased states’ desire for independence. As a result, the 1960s-1970s was a period of détente – temporary de-escalation of the tension. Nevertheless, the relationship between the powers deteriorated in the late 1970s, when the arms race started again, and the two nations engaged in new military conflicts in Afghanistan.
In the final years of the Cold War, the burden of the arms race had a significant impact on the economy of the USSR. The new leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, made substantial attempts to revive the country. He established a new ideology that shifted the focus from military production and sharp reaction to criticism to the reformation of communism and glasnost – media transparency.16 As a result, the USSR withdrew forces from Afghanistan and Europe, and the two countries came to agreements in disarmament, intervention, and economic support.
The examination of the Cold War-era demonstrates how the rise of two superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union – after WW2 led to a series of conflicts all over the world. Different values formed before the war drove the nations’ opposition to each other’s political ideology, but the integrational conflict acted as a catalyst by making the majority of other countries powerless against exploitation and occupation.
All events that happened during the Cold War revealed the powers’ use of propaganda which split the world and increased the levels of misinformation, driving the tension to the brink of nuclear war. As prominent political influences, the US and USSR utilized a significant part of their resources to uphold their position, which eventually resulted in the change of borders and a massive recession.
Buzan, Barry. The US and the Great Powers: World Politics in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004.
Cull, Nicholas J. “The Cold War and the United States Information Agency: American Propaganda and Public Diplomacy, 1945–1989.” Naval War College Review 62, no. 2 (2009): 14.
Gavin, Francis J. “Same as It Ever Was: Nuclear Alarmism, Proliferation, and the Cold War.” International Security 34, no. 3 (2010): 7-37.
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Kalyvas, Stathis N., and Laia Balcells. “International System and Technologies of Rebellion: How the End of the Cold War Shaped Internal Conflict.” American Political Science Review 104, no. 3 (2010): 415-429.
Kanet, Roger E. “The Superpower Quest for Empire: The Cold War and Soviet Support for ‘Wars of National Liberation’.” Cold War History 6, no. 3 (2006): 331-352.
Leffler, Melvyn P., and Odd Arne Westad, eds. The Cambridge History of the Cold War. Volume 1: Origins. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Trachtenberg, Marc. The Cold War and After: History, Theory, and the Logic of International Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012.
- Marc Trachtenberg, The Cold War and After: History, Theory, and the Logic of International Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), 238.
- Melvyn P. Leffler and Odd Arne Westad, eds., The Cambridge History of the Cold War. Volume 1: Origins (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 88.
- Roger E. Kanet, “The Superpower Quest for Empire: The Cold War and Soviet Support for ‘Wars of National Liberation,” Cold War History 6, no. 3 (2006): 331.
- Leffler and Westad, The Cambridge History, 32.
- Ibid., 30.
- Nicholas J. Cull, “The Cold War and the United States Information Agency: American Propaganda and Public Diplomacy, 1945–1989,” Naval War College Review 62, no. 2 (2009): 14.
- Stathis N. Kalyvas and Laia Balcells, “International System and Technologies of Rebellion: How the End of the Cold War Shaped Internal Conflict,” American Political Science Review 104, no. 3 (2010): 416.
- Trachtenberg, The Cold War, 122.
- Leffler and Westad, The Cambridge History, 353.
- Barry Buzan, The US, and the Great Powers: World Politics in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004), 72.
- Leffler and Westad, The Cambridge History, 266.
- Ibid., 306.
- Trachtenberg, The Cold War, 256.
- Francis J. Gavin, “Same as It Ever Was: Nuclear Alarmism, Proliferation, and the Cold War,” International Security 34, no. 3 (2010): 8.
- Gavin, “Same as It Ever Was,” 30.
- Leffler and Westad, The Cambridge History, 314.