The Cold War was a period of tension and hostility between the United States of America and the Soviet Union from the mid-40s to the late 80s. It began with the end of the Second World War. It was called the Cold War because there was no active war between the two nations, which was probably due to the fear of nuclear escalation. There were many indirect conflicts like the Vietnam and Korea wars. There was the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 which was the closest the world ever came to a nuclear war. An American U2 spy plane took photographs of Soviet intermediate ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear payloads. The Soviet Union sent a total of 42 medium range missiles and 24 intermediate range missiles to Cuba. The US threatened to invade Cuba over the issue. Ultimately the Soviets removed the missiles on America’s promise of not invading Cuba.

The cold war is not only a period in international history but also a description of the overall relationship between the USA and USSR during that period. There are three main views about the cold war. Each of them generates a set of discrete claims about the causes of the cold war, the nature of the cold war, the end of the cold war, and its legacy in contemporary international relations. Perhaps the most popular of these views is that the cold war was an intense struggle for power between the superpowers.

Underlying Causes

  1. Ideological: The United States and the Soviet Union represented two opposing systems of government. In the United States, the government was elected by free elections, unlike the Soviet Union. The people could form political parties to voice their political opinions.
  1. Economic: The United States wanted to encourage free trade throughout the world. The Soviet Union wanted to shield off her own sphere from international commerce. These differences led to much ill feeling between the United States and the Soviet Union.
  1. Power rivalry: After the Second World War, with the decline of Europe, power was largely shared between the Soviet Union and the United States. As one wanted ‘to dominate the other, conflicts were inevitable.

Immediate Causes Leading to the Cold War

The incipient conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States began at the peace-time conferences. Their conflict was intensified after President Truman declared the Truman Doctrine and launched the Marshall Plan in 1947.

Extension of Russian influence in Europe: Even before the end of the war, the Soviet Union had gradually extended her influence in Europe. As the war was drawing to a close in May 1945, the Soviet Union quickly consolidated her control of Eastern Europe.

The reactions of the United States: Despite the increasing Russian influence in eastern and central Europe, many politicians in the United States were optimistic about the chances of co-operation with the Soviet Union after the war and did not advocate strong resistance against Russian expansion. But from May 1945 onwards, the situation was changed. The U.S. government favored a policy of strong resistance against Russia.

These military coalitions put a greater threat behind the growing conflicts by involving more countries. These military alliances were supplemented by two edicts set by the Soviet Union and the United States. The United States issued the Truman Doctrine, which stated that they would support those countries resisting communism. Likewise, the Soviet Union later issued the Brezhnev Doctrine which decreed that the Soviet Union would intervene with force in order to protect communism in its satellites. One of the main issues that strained relations between the Soviet Union and the west was the threat of nuclear war.

Both the Soviet Union and the United States knew how to make nuclear weapons. This knowledge made the consequences of their actions much more cautious. This helped to cause the war during the Cuban Missile Crisis where the Soviet Union planted nuclear missiles at the United States from Cuba for a time.

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 Inter-Continental 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. (Essortment.com, 2010)

In the ’80s President Ronald Reagan of the US dubbed the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” and predicted that it would be consigned to the ash heap of history. He announced a major weapons buildup and the SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative) also dubbed “Star Wars”. The Soviet Union was too economically enfeebled to reply in kind. In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union. He adopted a conciliatory attitude towards the Americans and many arms reduction pacts were signed. In 1989 there was a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and in 1990 the Soviets agreed to the reunification of Germany. Movements against communist governments in Eastern Europe followed this. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 marking the end of the Cold War.

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