The tensions of the Cold War are hard to imagine in the current era, even with the fear of ‘terror’ and living in what some call the ‘age of terrorism.’ For example, in the United States, Cold War paranoia reached untold heights, with secret bunkers and installations built across the country in case of nuclear attack. The United States and the Soviet Union built nuclear arsenals capable of destroying the world many times over. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 effectively ended the Cold War era but the legacy of that epoch lingers on the world scene today in Cuba and North Korea.
Though never characterized by violent conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union directly against one another, the Cold War did have massive and destructive wars in the form of the continuing Chinese Civil War after World War II (1946 – 1950), the Korean War (June 25th 1950 – July 27, 1953), the Cuban Revolution (1953 – 1959), the Bay of Pigs (April 1961), the Vietnam War ( 1 November 1955 - 30 April 1975) and the Soviet War in Afghanistan (December 24, 1979 - February 15, 1989).
The Cold War can trace its beginnings to the conclusion of World War II, the most violent conflict mankind has ever known. The overcoming of the Nazi terror by the Allies had catapulted the once backward and impoverished Soviet Union onto the world stage while the once staunchly isolationist United States now found itself at the apex of the Western world.
The Potsdam Conference was the first meeting between Truman and Stalin and is the conference in which tensions first emerged between the wartime Allies. Stalin’s intentions with regard to the West were unclear and fervently anticommunist elements insured that postwar peace between the Allies would be difficult. Prior to World War II, the West actively worked to destroy the Bolshevik Revolution in the former Russian Empire thus making the future alliance between Soviet Union, Britain and the U.S. one born out of desperate convenience rather than actual amicable feelings between the states.
As described before, the United States was an isolationist nation and in 1929, with the collapse of the stock market, the United States became even more inwardly concerned since many of the difficulties that arose during the Great Depression were due to foreign investment abroad. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program injected a somewhat socialist element of government intervention in the national economy. F.D.R.’s administration also recognized the Soviet regime in Russia, inaugurating relations between the two states for the first time since the conclusion of the Bolshevik Revolution.
Stalin’s collectivization program of private farmland in the Soviet Union led to the deaths of many peasants and widespread famine. Stalin’s direction of the economy was brutal and his will throughly enforced. His desire to “build socialism in one country” rather than focus on world revolution led to very harsh economic policies. Stalin maintained power through fear and intimidation, relying upon the phantasm of western intervention in the Soviet Union and the conjuring up of imaginary enemies of the regime.
The Moscow Trials revealed the Soviet regime as a dictatorship of a tyrant rather than one of a “Worker’s Paradise.” Even with this revelation, because the communist Soviet Union faced down fascism and Hitler, they still drew support from the world community and communism continued to grow as a governmental philosophy. Prior to World War II, much of the West was concerned with the spread of communism and after the West allowed the Nazis to seize the Sudetenland from the Czechs, Stalin surmised that the West would not begin war against Germany first. To buy time Stalin and his foreign minister Ribbentrop made a pact with Nazi Germany.
Some argue this was to buy time for the Soviet Union, although an excellent argument can be made in the other direction, that Stalin actually desired alliance with Hitler and this can be seen in his agreement to divide Poland with Nazi Germany. When the war began, the paranoia the Soviet populace had been inculcated to fear about the West coupled with the invasion of the Nazis only further strengthened Stalin’s hold on his people. After the defeat of the Nazis, this power would only continue to grow in scope and control.
Stalin expressed desires to have the Soviet Union’s postwar borders pushed to the Baltic and to encompass the majority of what would become the Warsaw Pact states. The Allies agreed that eastern Europe would be a Soviet zone of influence, in spite of western misgivings about Stalin’s intentions after the war. Most of these decisions were agreed upon at the Yalta Conference. Further, how could the other allies enforce anything agreed to on paper when the reality was that Russian troops were liberating and occupying the former Nazi held territories? The noncompliance with wartime promises by the Soviet Union helped chill relations between the former Allies and contributed to the dichotomy of the world experienced during the Cold War.
At Potsdam, the site of the third summit between the Allies and occurring after the defeat of Nazi Germany, U.S. President Truman pointed out the noncompliance by the Soviet Union with the Yalta Conference directives. Division between the Allies began to creep up at the conference. Prior to this, the United States completed work on the atomic bomb to deploy in Japan.
This information was shared by Truman with Stalin, though as to whether or not he understood the gravity of what President Truman was telling him was unclear. It was later revealed that Stalin was more than aware of the Manhattan Project because of extensive Soviet espionage. Churchill was not reelected in Britain and the rapport developed between Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt was not replicated by Truman, Stalin and newly elected British Prime Minister Clement Atlee. Indeed, relations among the allies were strained both personally and ideologically, hampering the likelihood of future cooperation.
The use of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki signaled the beginning of a pall that would hang over the world during the Cold War. This threat of the utter annihilation through nuclear conflict contributed to the perpetuation of these post-war tensions and insured division of the world into two rival spheres of interest for decades to come.