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The Origins of the Cold War

The Cold War, which lasted from the mid-1940s until the end of the 1980s, was a battle for longevity amid democratic and communistic governments. After WWII the western powers attempted to curtail the spread of communism but faced fierce opposition from Eastern Europe which sought to prevent the expansion of democracy. The origins of the Cold War can be traced through the motives of the US and USSR, containment policy, and the division of Germany. America’s emergence as a world power was a salient instigating factor of the conflict.

When America replaced Britain as the supreme world power it was forced to take on British responsibilities. Thus, when the Soviet Union, under Stalin, attempted to extend its control into central Europe, the Balkans and the Middle East, the United States inherited Britain’s task of restraining Russian expansion. The restriction was key in preventing the spread of communism; which threatened the existence of capitalistic and democratic nations such as the US. America was reasonable in its restrictions. It made no attempt to roll back Soviet power where it already existed. However, the United States had goals to make international governments resemble that of its own; including self-determination, autonomy, free trade, unlimited sea access and investment capability, and an Open Door policy in the economic sphere. As the strongest nation in the world, the United States would benefit handsomely if an international order based in such goals were established. Conversely, from the Soviet perspective, extending the borders of the USSR and dominating the formerly independent states of Eastern Europe would provide needed security and would be adequate compensation for the fearful losses the Soviet people had endured in the war. Thus, the Soviets understood American resistance to their expansion as a threat to their security and legitimate aims. Moreover, objections over the acquisition of Poland and other states were reasonably interpreted as an attempt to undermine regimes friendly to Russia and to encircle the Soviet Union with hostile neighbours.

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Consequently, in retaliation, it endeavoured to topple administrations affable to the United States in Western Europe and elsewhere. The growth of the communist parties in France and Italy clearly taking orders from Moscow led Americans to believe that Stalin was engaged in an international plot to destroy capitalism and democracy by subversion. Soon evidence of this hostility transpired. In February of 1946, both Stalin and his foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov gave public speeches in which they referred to Western democracies as enemies. Accordingly, soon Winston Churchill gave a speech in which he spoke of an Iron Curtain that had descended on Europe dividing a free and democratic West from an East under totalitarian rule.

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He advised against Communist subversion and advocated Western unity and strength as a response to the new menace. Meanwhile, technological advancements introduced atomic energy. In an attempt to prevent reckless behaviour, American members of the United Nations proposed a plan to place the manufacture and control of atomic weapons under international control, but Russians balked at requirements for on-site inspection and for limits on veto power in the UN.

Accordingly, the plan fell through and the United States and Soviet Union continued to develop their own atomic weapons in secrecy. In 1949, when the Soviet Union exploded its own atomic bomb, the race for nuclear weapons was on. The resistance of westerners to what they increasingly perceived as Soviet intransigence and communist plans for sedition soon took clearer form.

Soviet opposition became more resilient when the United States further intervened in European politics. In 1947, Greece had been enraptured in civil war for three years. The conflict was amid the royalist government restored by Britain and insurgents supported by the communist countries (chiefly Yugoslavia). In 1947, Britain turned to the United States (their ally), for assistance; informing President Truman that British funds were no longer sufficient to support the Greeks. Hence, Truman asked Congress to implement legislation that would provide funds to support Greece and Turkey (under Soviet pressure to yield control of the Dardanelles), Congress complied. In a speech to the legislative body that gave these actions much broader significance, the president set forth what came to be known as the Truman Doctrine.

The policy advocated support for nations resisting subjugation by outside forces anywhere in the world. For Western Europe, where postwar poverty and starvation fueled the menacing growth of communist parties, Americans devised the European Recovery Program. Deemed the Marshall Plan after the secretary of state who introduced it, this program provided broad economic aid to European states on the condition that they work together for their mutual benefit.

This was seemingly an altruistic plan but Stalin was aware that it was yet another attempt to Americanize Europe, thus forbade satellite states to participate; fearing the American economic aid would attract many satellites out of their orbit. The Marshall Plan was successful in not only restoring prosperity to Western Europe but also in keeping communist influence at bay outside the Soviet sphere in Eastern Europe. However, to Stalin, containment appeared to be a renewed attempted by the West to isolate and encircle the USSR. In return, he annihilated all multiparty governments behind the Iron Curtain and replaced them with communist parties under his control. He also called the assembly of all communist parties of the world of Warsaw in 1947. There they organized the Communist Information Bureau (a revival of the old Comintern) which was dedicated to proliferating communism. Stalin’s policies had many supporters. In Western Europe, the establishment of the Cominform meant that the cooperation of communists with non-communist groups was officially over.

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Communist leaders in the West who favoured friendship, collaboration and reform were replaced by hardliners who attempted to sabotage the new structures. In 1948, Stalin enacted his policy with the expulsion of democratic members of the coalition government of Prague. President Eduard Benes was forced to resign and Czechoslovakia was brought fully under Soviet Rule. The Soviet Union went on to conquer other subject governments in Eastern Europe. Stalinist policies including dictatorship, military cooperation with the Soviet Union and domination of educational institutions (Stalin understood that with education came the awareness that unjust policies and thus the tendency to revolt). Always paranoid that his power might be usurped, Stalin ordered the execution of communist party officials. He feared that other Eastern European states might follow the Yugoslav example (Yugoslavia successfully rebelled against Soviet domination) and moved to prevent them from doing so. These Soviet actions increased determination in America to proceed with its own agenda in Germany.

During WWII, the allies never decided how to treat Germany after its defeat. They initially believed it should be dismembered (they were aware that a divided Germany be weak and would not pose a threat) but differed on how. Churchill soon began to fear Russian control of Eastern and Central Europe and accordingly, opposed Germany’s division. The Allies also differed on economic policy. The Russians began to dismantle German industry in the eastern zone, but Americans acted differently in the west. The US concluded that if it followed the Russian example, they would have the burden of financially supporting Germany for the foreseeable future. It would also cause political chaos and allow the introduction of communism.

Thus, they preferred to make Germany self-sufficient by restoring rather than destroying industrial capacity. America’s plans were frightening and unacceptable to the Soviets who claimed the right to industrial equipment in all the zones. America resisted the demands understanding that forgoing the industrial equipment of a leading manufacturing nation was to give the Soviet Union complete control of Germany. Therefore, when the Western powers agreed to go forward with a separate constitution for the western sectors of Germany in February 1948, the Soviets walked out of the Allied Control Commission. The Western powers issued a new currency in their zone. Berlin, though clearly within the Soviet Zone was governed by all four powers. Thus, when the new currency began to circulate Berlin at better rates than their own, they outrageously chose to seal the city off by closing all railroads and highways to West Germany, in an attempt to drive out competition. The allies responded cleverly and defiantly by airlifting supplies to the city. Aware they could not win; the Russians opened access to Berlin. This incident hastened the separation of Germany into two states. West Germany formally became the German Federal Republic in September 1949, and the eastern region became the German Democratic Republic a month later. Meanwhile, the nations of Western Europe were coming closer together because of the Marshall Plan.

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In March 1948, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxemburg, France and Britain signed the Treaty of Brussels, providing for cooperation in fiscal and military problems. In April 1949, these nations joined with Italy, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, and Iceland to sign a treaty with Canada and the US (and later with West Germany, Greece and Turkey) which formed the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement. NATO was a support system in that mutual assistance was provided in the case that any member was attacked. NATO formed the west into a bloc. The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe formed a similar bond in 1949; the Council of Mutual Assistance (intended to integrate their economies). However, unlike the NATO states, the Eastern alliance system was under direct Soviet domination through local communist parties controlled from Moscow and overawed by the presence of the Red Army. The Warsaw Pact of May 1955, (which included Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania and the Soviet Union) merely gave formal recognition to the already implemented system. Europe had been divided into two antagonistic blocs and the Cold War had taken firm shape.

During the Cold War international politics were heavily shaped by the intense rivalry between the two great blocs of power and the political ideologies they represented: democracy and capitalism in the case of the United States and its allies, and Communism in the case of the Soviet bloc. The inauguration of the conflict can be traced through the varying motives, the containment policy and the partitioning of Germany. Political relationships were everlastingly altered as a result of the Cold War.

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