In many ways, the Cold War began even before the guns fell silent in Germany and in the Pacific in 1945. Suspicion and mistrust had defined U.S.-Soviet relations for decades and resurfaced as soon as the alliance against Adolf Hitler was no longer necessary. Competing ideologies and visions of the postwar world prevented U.S. president Harry S Truman and Soviet premier Joseph Stalin from working together.
Stalin intended to destroy Germany’s industrial capabilities in order to prevent the country from remilitarizing and wanted Germany to pay outrageous sums in war reparations. Moreover, he wanted to erect pro-Soviet governments throughout Eastern Europe to protect the USSR from any future invasions. Truman, however, wanted exactly the opposite. He believed that only industrialization and democracy in Germany and throughout the continent would ensure postwar stability. Unable to compromise or find common ground, the world’s two remaining superpowers inevitably clashed.
Truman’s Postwar Vision
Truman worked tirelessly to clean up the postwar mess and establish a new international order. He helped create the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund(IMF) and funded the rebuilding of Japan under General Douglas MacArthur. After prosecuting Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg trials, Truman in 1947 also outlined the Marshall Plan, which set aside more than $10 billion for the rebuilding and reindustrialization of Germany. The Marshall Plan was so successful that factories in Western Europe were exceeding their prewar production levels within just a few years.
Stalin’s Postwar Vision
Although Stalin joined with the United States in founding the United Nations, he fought Truman on nearly every other issue. He protested the Marshall Plan as well as the formation of the World Bank and IMF. In defiance, he followed through on his plan to create a buffer between the Soviet Union and Germany by setting up pro-Communist governments in Poland and other Eastern European countries. As a result, the so-called iron curtain soon divided East from West in Europe. Stalin also tried unsuccessfully to drive French, British, and American occupation forces from the German city of Berlin by blocking highway and railway access. Determined not to let the city fall, Truman ordered the Berlin airlift to drop food and medical supplies for starving Berliners.
The Berlin crisis, as well as the formation of the Eastern bloc of Soviet-dominated countries in Eastern Europe, caused foreign policy officials in Washington to believe that the United States needed to check Soviet influence abroad in order to prevent the further spread of Communism. In 1947, Truman incorporated this desire for containment into his Truman Doctrine, which vowed to support free nations fighting Communism. He and Congress then pledged $400 million to fighting Communist revolutionaries in Greece and Turkey. In 1949, Truman also convinced the Western European powers to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization(NATO), so that they might mutually defend themselves against the danger of Soviet invasion. Threatened, the USSR sponsored a similar treaty of its own in Eastern Europe, called the Warsaw Pact, in 1955.
Truman at Home
In the domestic policy arena, Truman signed the National Security Act in 1947 to restructure America’s defenses for the new Communist threat. The act reorganized the military under the new office of the secretary of defense and the new Joint Chiefs of Staff. It also created the National Security Council to advise the president on global affairs and the Central Intelligence Agency to conduct espionage. Truman’s leadership in confronting the Soviet Union and rebuilding Europe convinced Democrats to nominate him again for the 1948 election. His Fair Deal domestic policies and support for civil rights, however, divided the Republican Party and nearly cost Truman the election.
Developments in Eastern Europe, the fall of China to Communist revolutionaries in 1949, and the Soviet Union’s development of nuclear weapons terrified Americans, who feared that Communists would try to infiltrate or attack the United States from within. Congressman Richard M. Nixon and the House Un-American Activities Committee led the earliest Red hunts for Communists in the government, which culminated with the prosecution of federal employee Alger Hiss and the executions of suspected spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Truman initially supported these inquiries and even established a Loyalty Review Board to assist in the search. He eventually began to express concern, however, that the Red hunts were quickly devolving into witch hunts.
The Korean War
Cold War tensions between the United States and the USSR eventually exploded in Korea when Soviet-backed North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950. Determined not to let Communism spread in East Asia, Truman quadrupled military spending and ordered General MacArthur to retake the southern half of the peninsula. MacArthur succeeded and then pushed the North Koreans almost up to the Chinese border. Threatened, over a million soldiers from Communist China poured into Korea, forcing MacArthur to retreat back to the 38th parallel, which had originally divided North Korea from South Korea.
When MacArthur began to criticize Truman publicly for his unwillingness to use nuclear weapons in Korea, Truman was forced to fire his top general for insubordination. United States forces remained entrenched at the 38th parallel for two more years, at the cost of more than 50,000 American lives. Both sides declared a cease-fire only after the new U.S. president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, threatened to use nuclear weapons in 1953.
Eisenhower’s election in 1952 ushered in an unprecedented era of economic growth and prosperity in the United States. The average national income doubled during the 1950s and then doubled again the following decade, primarily due to continued defense spending and to the 1944Montgomery G.I. Bill, which helped returning veterans buy homes and go back to school. The postwar “baby boom” contributed to population growth, while the Great Migration of African-Americans to northern cities, “white flight” from the cities to the suburbs, and the rush to the Sun Belt altered population demographics. By 1960, most American families had a car, a television, and a refrigerator and owned their own home. Popular television sitcoms like Leave It to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet glamorized suburbia and consumerism.
“Ike” Eisenhower had entered the White House determined to block the creation of new social welfare programs, which he called “creeping socialism.” He did not, however, cut federal funding from existing New Deal programs. In fact, he expanded Social Security and the Federal Housing Administration and even set aside tens of millions of dollars for the creation of the first interstates under the Federal Highway Act. Still a conservative, though, Eisenhower refused to endorse the blossoming civil rights movement and signed the Landrum-Griffin Act, also known as the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, in the wake of numerous AFL-CIO labor union scandals in the mid-1950s.
First-term Wisconsin Republican senator Joseph McCarthy, meanwhile, exploded onto the national political scene in 1950, when he accused more than 200 federal employees of being Communists. Even though McCarthy had no proof to support these claims, Americans supported his endeavors to find more “Soviet agents” hiding in Washington. Thousands of former New Dealers and Red-hunt critics from all walks of life were wrongfully persecuted. McCarthy’s influence eventually waned after he humiliated himself during the nationally televised Army-McCarthyhearings in 1954.
Ike’s New Look
In addition to halting “creeping socialism” at home, Eisenhower also wanted to “roll back” Communist advances abroad. Along with Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower devised a New Look at foreign policy that emphasized the use of nuclear weapons, rather than conventional weapons and troops, to contain Communism. Eisenhower threatened the USSR with “massive retaliation,” or nuclear war, against Soviet aggression or the spread of Communism.
Eisenhower also made full use of the newly created CIA to help overthrow unfriendly governments in developing countries. He resolved the Suez crisis peacefully before it led to war and committed American funds to fighting Ho Chi Minh’s pro-Communist forces in Vietnam after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellites in 1957 started the space race, prompting Eisenhower to create the National Aeronautics and Space Administration(NASA), and sign the National Defense Education Act. In his farewell address in 1961, he warned Americans of the growing military-industrial complex that threatened to restrict civil liberties and dominate American foreign policy making.
Kennedy and the New Frontier
Facing term limits, Eisenhower endorsed Vice President Richard Nixon for the Republican presidential nomination in 1960. Democrats countered with World War II hero and Massachusetts senator John F. Kennedy. After a close race, Kennedy defeated Nixon, thanks in large part to the African-American vote and Kennedy’s polished performance in the first-ever televised presidential debates.
As president, Kennedy pushed for a package of new social welfare spending programs that he called the New Frontier. Hoping to inspire a new generation of young Americans, he told them to “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Republicans and conservative southern Democrats, however, blocked most New Frontier legislation in Congress.
Because Eisenhower’s threat of “massive retaliation” had proved too stringent and binding, Kennedy and his foreign policy team devised a new doctrine of “flexible response” designed to give the president more options to fight Communism.
In addition, Kennedy committed thousands of American troops to South Vietnam to support Ngo Dinh Diem’s corrupt regime but claimed the troops were merely “military advisors.” In Latin America, Kennedy took a different approach, funneling millions of dollars into the Alliance for Progress to thwart Communists by ending poverty. Despite the new doctrine, Kennedy was unable to prevent Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev from constructing the Berlin Wall in 1961.
The Cuban Crises
Kennedy’s greatest Cold War challenge came in Cuba. Hoping to topple Cuba’s new pro-Communist revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro, Kennedy authorized the CIA to train and arm a force of more than 1,000 Cuban exiles and sent them to invade Cuba in the spring of 1961. When this Bay of Pigs invasion failed embarrassingly, Kennedy authorized several unsuccessful assassination attempts against Castro. Outraged, Castro turned to the USSR for economic aid and protection.
Khrushchev capitalized on the opportunity and placed several nuclear missiles in Cuba. Kennedy consequently blockaded the island nation, pushing the United States and the USSR to the brink of nuclear war. Khrushchev ended the terrifying Cuban missile crisis when he agreed to remove the missiles in exchange for an end to the blockade. Kennedy also removed American missiles from Turkey and agreed to work on reducing Cold War tensions. Tragically, Kennedy was assassinated in late 1963, just as tensions were rising in Vietnam—which would prove to be the next, and most costly, theater of the Cold War.
Causes of the Cold War Summary & Analysis
When Warm Fuzzy Feelings Turn Cold
In 1945, the United States and Soviet Union were allies, jointly triumphant in World War II, which ended with total victory for Soviet and American forces over Adolf Hitler's Nazi empire in Europe. But within just a few years, wartime allies became mortal enemies, locked in a global struggle—military, political, economic, ideological—to prevail in a new "Cold War."
How did wartime friends so quickly turn into Cold War foes? And our burning question. Who started it?
Was it the Soviets? They backpedaled on their agreements to allow the people of Eastern Europe to determine their own fates and imposed totalitarian rule on territories unlucky enough to fall behind the "Iron Curtain."
Or was it the Americans? They ignored the Soviets' legitimate security concerns, sought to intimidate the world with the atomic bomb, and pushed relentlessly to expand their own international influence and market dominance.
Nobody Puts Poland in the Corner
The tensions that would later grow into the Cold War became evident as early as 1943, when the "Big Three" allied leaders—American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin—met in Tehran to coordinate strategy.
Poland, which sits in an unfortunate position on the map, squeezed between frequent enemies Russia and Germany, became a topic for heated debate. The Poles, then under German occupation, had not one but two governments-in-exile—one communist, one anticommunist—hoping to take over the country upon its liberation from the Nazis.
Unsurprisingly, the Big Three disagreed over which Polish faction should be allowed to take control after the war, with Stalin backing the Polish communists while Churchill and Roosevelt insisted the Polish people ought to have the right to choose their own form of government.
For Stalin, the Polish question was a matter of the Soviet Union's vital security interests. Germany had invaded Russia through Poland twice since 1914, and more than 20 million Soviet citizens died in World War II. The Soviets actually suffered nearly sixty times as many casualties in the war as the Americans did. Stalin was determined to make sure that such an invasion could never happen again, and insisted that only a communist Poland, friendly to (and dominated by) the Soviet Union, could serve as a buffer against future aggression from the West. Stalin's security concerns ran smack into Anglo-American values of self-determination, which held that the Poles ought to be allowed to make their own decision over whether or not to become a Soviet satellite.
At Tehran, and at the next major conference of the Big Three at Yalta in 1945, the leaders of the U.S., UK, and USSR were able to reach a number of important agreements—settling border disputes, creating the United Nations, organizing the postwar occupations of Germany and Japan.
But Poland remained a vexing problem. At Yalta, Stalin—insisting that "Poland is a question of life or death for Russia"—was able to win Churchill's and Roosevelt's reluctant acceptance of a communist-dominated provisional government for Poland. In exchange, Stalin signed on to a vague and toothless "Declaration of Liberated Europe," pledging to assist "the peoples liberated from the dominion of Nazi Germany and the peoples of the former Axis satellite states of Europe to solve by democratic means their pressing political and economic problems."
The agreements allowed Churchill and Roosevelt to claim they had defended the principle of self-determination, even though both knew that Poland had effectively been consigned to the Soviet sphere of interest. The provisional communist government in Poland later held rigged elections (which it, not surprisingly, won), nominally complying with the Declaration of Liberated Europe even though no alternative to communist rule ever really had a chance in the country.
The Cold War Heats Up
In the end, the Yalta agreements were not so much a true compromise as a useful (in the short term) misunderstanding among the three leaders. Stalin left happy he had won Anglo-American acceptance of de facto Soviet control of Eastern Europe; Roosevelt and Churchill left happy they had won Stalin's acceptance of the principle of self-determination. But the two parts of the agreement were mutually exclusive; what would happen if the Eastern Europeans sought to self-determine themselves out of the Soviet orbit? Future disputes over the problematic Yalta agreements were not just likely; they were virtually inevitable.
And the likelihood of future conflict only heightened on April 12th, 1945, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt unexpectedly died of a brain hemorrhage. Vice President Harry S. Truman—a former Missouri senator with only a high-school education, who had served just 82 days as vice president and had not been part of FDR's inner circle—suddenly became the President of the United States.
Truman, who may not have ever known just how much Roosevelt had actually conceded to Stalin at Yalta, viewed the Soviets' later interventions in Eastern Europe as a simple violation of the Yalta agreements, as proof that Stalin was a liar who could never be trusted. Truman quickly staked out a hard-line position, resolving to counter Stalin's apparently insatiable drive for power by blocking any further expansion of the Soviet sphere of influence, anywhere in the world. Under Truman, containment of communism soon came to dominate American foreign policy. The Cold War was on.
So, Uh, Back to the Bottom Line: Who Started It?
Well, in the early days of the Cold War itself, American historians would have answered, nearly unanimously, that the Soviets started the Cold War. Joseph Stalin was an evil dictator, propelled by an evil communist ideology to attempt world domination. Appeasement hadn't worked against Hitler, and appeasement wouldn't work against Stalin either. An innocent America had only reluctantly joined the Cold War to defend the Free World from otherwise inevitable totalitarian conquest.
In the 1960s, a new generation of revisionist historians—disillusioned by the Vietnam War and appalled by seemingly endemic government dishonesty—offered a startingly different interpretation. In this revisionist view, Stalin may have been a Machiavellian despot but he was an essentially conservative one:
- He was more interested in protecting the Soviet Union (and his own power within it) than in dominating the world.
- Americans erroneously interpreted Stalin's legitimate insistence upon a security buffer in Poland to indicate a desire for global conquest.
- Americans' subsequent aggressive efforts to contain Soviet influence, to intimidate the Soviets with the atomic bomb, and to pursue American economic interests around the globe were primarily responsible for starting the Cold War.
More recently, a school of historians led by Yale professor John Lewis Gaddis have promoted what they call a "post-revisionist synthesis," incorporating many aspects of the revisionist critique while still insisting that Stalin, as a uniquely powerful and uniquely malevolent historical actor, must bear the greatest responsibility for the Cold War.
In the end, "Who started the Cold War?" probably isn't the right question to ask. World War II destroyed all other major rivals to American and Soviet power. The U.S. and USSR emerged from the conflict as the only two nations on earth that could hope to propagate their social and political systems on a global scale.
Each commanded powerful military forces. Each espoused globally expansive ideologies. Each feared and distrusted the other. In the end, it may have been more shocking if the two superpowers had not become great rivals and Cold War enemies.