Image of (left to right) Clement Attlee, Harry Truman, and Joseph Stalin at the Potsdam Conference. This image is a work of a United States Department of Energy (or predecessor organization) employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.
Clashing ideologies, clashing countries
First of all, the Could War was a conflict between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
In the US, there were two major ideologies: Democracy and Capitalism.
Democracy is a type of political system. It means that the country is run by the citizens. In the case of a representative democracy like the US, the people elect the representatives that they think will do a good job and these representatives make decisions on behalf of the people that will serve the people’s needs. Power is distributed, not concentrated. Some communist countries like North Korea call themselves a Democratic Republic, but this is honestly untrue.
Capitalism is an economic system. In a capitalist country, citizens can own private property. They own their land (if they can afford it), they own their house, and they get paid for the work that they do. Private property is king. No one can take it away, in theory, if you really own it. The downside of earning money directly is that you have to buy everything for yourself. You have to buy food, shelter, and other basic necessities.
Communism was the economic system in the Soviet Union, and it took care of politics too.
Communism is an economic system. In communist countries, there is no private property. Everything is owned collectively by the government, or the people, depending on the way that you look at it. In the Soviet Union, the leaders of the Communist Party had all of the power and control. Joseph Stalin was the leader of the Communist Party and the absolute dictator of the Soviet Union from the mid-1920s to 1953. He could do what he wanted, including killing over ten million of his own people.
In a communist economy, the government pays for everything, including food for the people, but it also controls the means of production (like factories and farms), and it takes people’s salaries. It also owns people’s houses. If the communist dictators are corrupt, which they almost always are, the dictators and their friends end up getting more wealth than the rest of the people. This leads to starving people and rich leaders. That is basically what happened in the communist Soviet Union.
The three possible starting points of the Cold War
The beginning of the Cold War was either in 1947, 1949, or 1950. It can be argued that 1947 was the start because that is when US President Harry Truman put into place a policy that sought to make sure that communism would not spread out of the Soviet Union. This was called the Truman Doctrine, a policy of containment.
The start might also have been in 1947 because on the 19 of August Joe-1 (RDS-1) occurred at the Semipalatinsk test site in Kazakhstan. This was the first nuclear test by the Soviet Union. It was named after Joseph Stalin. When the Soviet Union became a nuclear power it instantly became a big threat to the US’ existence. It leveled the playing field and caused the US to view the Soviet Union as an adversary. The test was also interpreted by some as a sign of aggression. So in some ways, the Cold War started after the Soviet nuclear test in 1949.
Finally, in 1950, the first proxy war between the US and the Soviets started when communist North Korea invaded western-backed South Korea. This is was the first time that the Soviet Union and the US fought each other during the Cold War, albeit not directly. So this could also be interpreted as the beginning of the Cold War.
If one date had to be selected, 1947 would be the one. 1950 is ruled out because the time period is called the Cold War, not the long series of hot proxy wars. 1949 is ruled out because that was really when the Soviet Union became a bigger threat, not the start of the Cold War. So 1947, the Truman doctrine, is the winner. This is because it was a kind of declaration of Cold War on the USSR.
The Iron Curtain That Divided The World
The ‘Iron Curtain’ was a term that was used to refer to a wall. This wall fenced off the USSR from the Western European capitalist countries. On the USSR’s side of the curtain were a few other independent (but Soviet-influenced) Eastern European communist countries. Josep Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia, although communist, was on the western side of the curtain. The term was made popular in a 1946 speech by former British prime minister Winston Churchill. Churchill said, “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” This wall was both physical, guarded by the military, (the Berlin wall for example), economic, and ideological (communism vs. everyone else). But, the iron curtain was a very real barrier that fenced off the Soviet Bloc.
US Policy of Containment
The policy of containment was first suggested by an official in the state department who was actually not that high up in the totem pole. His name was George Kennan. The US did not have the strength (mostly mentally since WW2 was fresh in many people’s minds) to actually push the Soviet Union out of the places that they had gained control of and put inside the Iron Curtain. Places such as East Germany. So the policy of containment instead focused on making sure that more places would not become Communist. It sought to prevent red (the color of communism) takeover of France, West Germany, and places like that.
The Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan
Building on this policy of containment, Secretary of State George Marshall and US president Harry Truman put into effect the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine. These policies were intertwined and had similar goals. They sent seventeen billion dollars to several countries like France and even Britain. The Truman Doctrine sought to stop the spread of communism. The hope was that all this money would be enough to prevent European countries that were weakened by World War Two from going red, prevent the communists from taking over. It was kind of a bribe to lean towards capitalism over communism. The Marshall Plan was more focused on stimulating economic recovery and growth in Western European countries and the US. George Marshall wanted to make the world indebted to America because that would put the US in a position of power.
American officials were smart. They avoided directly calling the Soviet Union the enemy by saying that they were helping the countries for ‘humanitarian’ reasons. They even said that they were willing to give aid to some of the communist countries, the ones already in Stalin’s clutches. The Marshall Plan and Truman Doctrine were successes on both fronts. It caused an economic boom and stopped communism from creeping farther west.
NATO stands for The North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It was formed in Washington D.C. on April 4, 1949. Its purpose was to form a big and powerful group of nations, that together could beat communism. The whole thing was a sort of response to the emerging Soviet threat. Every nation that was a member of NATO agreed to come to the defense of any other country in case of an attack by the USSR.
The treaty had some military aspects and some political aspects. The political ones were that the member countries agreed to share information and collaborate with each other in order to form a stronger whole. They also wanted to work together to promote democracy over communism. The military aspect was the whole come to the aid of members under threat part. NATO was originally made up of the US and Western European countries. It still exists now and even includes some formerly communist countries, but not Russia.
China and the expansion of the Cold War
In 1949, the Cold War expanded to out of Europe after the Communists took over China. There was a revolution and a war called ‘The War of Liberation’. The Communists won this war and renamed China the People’s Republic of China. Mao Tse-Tung became the Chairman, the leader. This ended a two-thousand-year imperial period. The US thought of the situation as having lost China to communism. The US had been helping to fight against the Communists in the war of liberation. Then, in 1950 the Korean war started. This was a fight against Communists in the North. The US fought for the South. So the Cold War was now in Korea. And China was now another nation on the US’ list of communist enemies. Communism also spread to Vietnam and by 1964 the US was fighting against the communist Vietcong.
The major cause of the Cold War
The major cause of the Cold War was that there were two very different clashing ideologies in the US and the Soviet Union. Communism, the idea that there is no private property, and capitalism, the idea that private property reigns supreme, are polar opposites. If someone believes in one they certainly do not believe in the other. They feel threatened by the other. The capitalists do not want their property taken away, and the communists think that the capitalists have got it wrong.
So, during the Cold War, both sides had a strong mistrust of the other. This was because each of them believed that their ideology was better than the other’s and that the other’s was dangerous. Each sought to make sure that the other would not spread. They also wanted to limit the power of the other. So, this caused the Soviet Union and the US to start trying to limit the power of the other. Each side did not like the other and viewed them as the enemy. This caused a conflict, not necessarily confrontational, but a conflict still: the Cold War.
All of this was significant because both countries both had enough power to completely destroy each other. It was the nuclear age. At the beginning of the Cold War, each side had puny atomic bombs, similar to the ones that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These were destroyers of military bases, of neighborhoods, with their yield in the tens of kilotons. Members of the US Strategic Air Command (SAC) calculated that it would take around seven such bombs to fully destroy Moscow. But, in 1952 the US exploded Ivy Mike, a ten-megaton hydrogen device. And in 1953 the Soviet Union exploded their own ‘layer cake’ hydrogen device with a yield of 500 kilotons. And then, RDS-37 in 1955 confirmed the Soviets’ entry into the thermonuclear club. It had a yield of 1.6 million tons of TNT!
Now one small bomb could destroy all of New York or all of Moscow. And the entire world could be destroyed by the full arsenals of both sides. One missile with Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicles could wipe out Washington or St. Petersberg. This immense nuclear power caused the Cold War to be a source of constant fear in the minds of American citizens. It made the Cold War a lot more frightening. So, the mistrust caused by the different ideologies, combined with the sobering truth that both countries could destroy each other in half an hour with nuclear weapons, was the main cause of the Cold War. Without nuclear weapons, the Cold War would have been a period full of tension and proxy wars between capitalism and communism. The Soviet Union would not have been the threat that it was.
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“Containment and the Marshall Plan.” Ushistory.org, Independence Hall Association, www.ushistory.org/us/52c.asp.
“The Cold War: How Did It Start? How Did It End?” Constitutional Rights Foundation, Constitutional Rights Foundation, 2014, www.crf-usa.org/images/pdf/gates/Cold-War.pdf.