Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

14.2: The Cold War Begins

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    ( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorA}[1]{\vec{#1}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorAt}[1]{\vec{\text{#1}}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorB}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorC}[1]{\textbf{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorD}[1]{\overrightarrow{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorDt}[1]{\overrightarrow{\text{#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectE}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash{\mathbf {#1}}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    -ny9bj0-0 hwsygj page-content" tabindex="0">

    Learning Objectives

    By the end of this section, you will be able to:

    • Describe the origins of the Cold War
    • Analyze the effectiveness of the Truman Doctrine
    • Explain how U.S. foreign policy sought to prevent the spread of communism after World War II
    • Discuss the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Warsaw Pact

    Following the surrender of Germany in May 1945, the “Big Three” Allied nations of the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States began the massive task of recovering from the European phase of World War II. However, by no means did they agree on the manner in which to do so, and their differences in goals and political ideology threatened to plunge the world back into conflict almost as soon as it had emerged from it.

    The Superpowers Divided

    In the summer of 1945, the world looked much different from the way it had five years before. Of all the great powers, only the United States had been relatively unaffected by World War II. Its territory and national infrastructure remained intact, its economy was strong, and its civilian population had gone unharmed. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), while badly bloodied, had also emerged relatively whole; its immense size and population had spared it the scale of destruction suffered by the rest of Europe. Britain, though pounded by German air raids, had escaped invasion, but it had been severely weakened by the war and could no longer be the world leader it had been. It was about to be superseded by the United States and the Soviet Union, whose ideological differences shaped the postwar world.

    Postwar Goals

    The United States and the Soviet Union each saw themselves as the rightful leader of the world emerging from the ashes of the war. Although they had united to defeat Hitler, their deep-seated differences now returned to the fore. For the United States, the ideal world was one in which democratically governed nations would coexist peacefully, enjoying economic prosperity thanks to capitalistic endeavors. In the Soviet Union’s vision of the future, communism would lead the world’s countries to a peaceful, prosperous future, and it would never again fear invasion from the lands to its west. The latter goal was the reason Stalin insisted on establishing satellite states in Eastern Europe, countries the Soviet Union would control by installing communist, pro-Soviet governments within them.

    At the Moscow Conference of 1944, which U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt did not attend, Prime Minister Winston Churchill agreed to let Stalin install Soviet-allied communist parties to control the governments of Romania and Bulgaria, which had been German allies during the war. In exchange, Stalin promised to leave control of the Balkans to the British. By the time the victorious Allies met in Potsdam in the summer of 1945 to finalize plans to partition Germany and its capital city of Berlin, Churchill no longer wished Stalin to exercise so much power in Eastern Europe. He warned the new U.S. president, Harry Truman, who was unaware of what had been agreed to at the Moscow Conference, of the danger of allowing the Soviets to control the region. But Stalin then consolidated his grip on Eastern Europe by placing a pro-Soviet government in power in Poland.

    In March 1946, in a speech in Fulton, Missouri, Churchill warned his audience that “an iron curtain” had cut Europe in two, trapping half the continent under Soviet domination. This division of the world into United States–allied and Soviet-allied halves characterized the Cold War, a contest for ideological, social, economic, technological, and military supremacy that lasted until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The war was “cold” because it did not include actual fighting between U.S. and Soviet forces. (A “hot” war is a conflict in which countries engage in armed conflict with one another.)

    The splintering of Europe that Churchill described deepened in 1948, when a government composed of both communists and non-communists in Czechoslovakia was toppled and replaced by an all-communist government loyal to Moscow. In 1949, Hungary also came under the control of a communist party closely allied with the Soviet Union.

    The chief strategy of the United States in the Cold War was containment—an effort to confine Soviet influence to Eastern Europe. Containment was first mentioned by George F. Kennan, a U.S. diplomat stationed in Moscow, in a message to the State Department known as the Long Telegram. Kennan described the Soviet government as paranoid and committed to a war against capitalism. Soviet leaders, he believed, could not be moved by reason and understood only force. Their attempts to spread communism must thus be met with strong resistance.

    Link to Learning

    Read the text of George Kennan’s “Long Telegram” to the U.S. Department of State.

    The foreign policy goals of the Soviet Union following World War II were directly opposed to those of the United States. The USSR sought to protect itself and bolster its economy by strengthening its control over the communist states of Eastern Europe. It also encouraged communist revolution in other countries and maintained close ties with communist parties throughout the world. The Soviet Union regarded itself as the chief opponent of European and U.S. imperialism, and in this role, it supported independence movements in colonies in Asia and Africa. To the Soviet leadership, the United States was an aggressor nation bent upon world domination, and the spread of communism reduced the threat of future wars. To protect its own interests and those of its allies, the Soviet Union needed to be militarily and technologically superior.

    The Truman Doctrine

    The first test of U.S. resolve to counter the forces of communism came in 1947 in an unexpected place—Greece. During World War II, resistance to the German army occupying Greece had come from both supporters of the country’s Communist Party and loyalists of its monarchical government. In 1944, shortly after the withdrawal of the Germans, the occupying British forces and Prime Minister George Papandreou, who had returned from exile, jointly called for the disarmament of these resistance groups, and violence erupted. In 1946, following the triumph of monarchists in an election the Greek communists boycotted, civil war broke out. Communist forces sought the overthrow of King George II and his government (Figure 14.4). To prevent this, Britain provided the government with economic and military assistance, an extension of the aid it had given during the war. In 1947, however, Britain announced that it would no longer do so, most likely because it was experiencing economic problems.

    A poster shows an overly tall man in a long white shirt, black beaded vest, red belt, white leggings and red tasseled shoes holding a sign above his head with Greek lettering. Two smaller men, one in brown clothing dropping a knife from his bloody fingers, the other dressed in a red shirt with the letters “KK” and black pants, flee from the large man, with anger and fear showing on their faces. There is text in Greek across the bottom of the poster.
    Figure 14.4 Civil War in Greece. This anti-communist poster encouraged Greeks to support King George II in the 1940s Greek civil war. (credit: modification of work “1946-Greece-pro-royal-poster” by Commons, Public Domain)

    The events in Greece worried the U.S. government. Neighboring Turkey was regarded as the gateway to the Middle East and its crucial supplies of petroleum, upon which Western industry and transportation depended. Truman feared that, should Greece become a communist country, a communist uprising might occur in neighboring Turkey as well. This belief—that the neighbors of communist countries would in turn become communist themselves—is known as the domino theory.

    Both the United Kingdom and the United States were wary of Soviet activity in this region. In 1946, the Soviet Union had demanded that Turkey allow it to take shipping through Turkish-controlled straits from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. When Turkey refused, the Soviets increased their naval presence in the Black Sea and sent troops to the Balkans. The Soviet Union backed down and withdrew its forces when the U.S. bolstered its own naval presence in the region.

    The showdown in Turkey was the second time the postwar Soviet Union had found itself in conflict with its former allies. Earlier it had violated an agreement to withdraw from Iran, which it had occupied along with the British during World War II, by an agreed-upon date the British had honored. Truman now feared the Greek communists were not acting alone and that the Soviet Union was active in the country.

    However, Truman was mistaken in assuming all communists acted under the direction of the Soviet Union. The communist governments of Albania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia extended aid to the Greek communists, but most evidence indicates that the Soviet Union did not. The Soviets were largely uninterested in Greece, and at the Moscow Conference of 1944, Stalin had given control of Greece to Britain in exchange for the concessions that allowed him to decide the fate of Romania and Bulgaria. There is little to suggest that Stalin violated this agreement about Greece—until the United States got involved. Once the fate of Greece became of interest to Truman, Stalin took note of it as well.

    On March 12, 1947, Truman addressed Congress and requested aid for the governments of Greece and Turkey. He framed the appeal as part of the struggle against communism and argued that it was the duty of the United States to oppose “totalitarian regimes.” Congress approved his request for $400 million (approximately $5 billion in today’s money). The president’s pledge to help “free peoples” resist communist expansion, a promise that became known as the Truman Doctrine, formed the basis of U.S. foreign policy throughout the Cold War. Following the proclamation of the Truman Doctrine, Stalin channeled material support for the civil war to Greece’s communists, but covertly.

    The Marshall Plan

    The U.S. effort to combat the expansion of communism also led to the creation of the European Recovery Program, named the Marshall Plan for Secretary of State George C. Marshall. In 1947, Marshall called for economic assistance to rebuild postwar Europe. Realizing the attractions of communism to impoverished, war-ravaged Europeans, Congress approved the Economic Cooperation Act in 1948 to pump an eventual total of $12 billion into Europe’s economy (about $147 billion today). The funds were vital in assisting Western Europe as a whole to rebuild their infrastructure and restore their industrial capacity. Because necessary materials often needed to be purchased from the United States, aid given through the Marshall Plan also helped ensure that the U.S. economy did not slide into an economic depression now that the war had ended.

    U.S. aid was offered to all European nations, including Germany and the Soviet Union. Stalin, however, rejected it and forbade Eastern Europe’s communist-governed states within the Soviet sphere of influence to accept it. Instead, the USSR proposed the Molotov Plan, which gave aid to and established trade agreements with the communist nations of Eastern Europe: Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and the Soviet zone in Germany that later became the German Democratic Republic, commonly known as East Germany. Finally, in 1949, the United States developed the Point Four Program to provide technical assistance to industrializing countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia for improving their standard of living.

    Western and Eastern Blocs

    The tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union that had built up slowly through the later 1940s came to a head in 1948. Believing a strong Germany was vital to Europe’s economic recovery and a necessary bulwark against the spread of communism, the United States, Britain, and France planned to reunify the three zones of Germany they had occupied since the end of World War II. United, these zones would dwarf the Soviet zone in size, population, and wealth and, by sharing a single currency, play a major role in Europe’s postwar economy.

    The Soviet Union hoped to keep Germany disunited and weak and thus objected. In March 1948, it withdrew from the Allied Control Council that coordinated Allied actions in Germany. In June, the United Kingdom and the United States introduced a new currency, the Deutschemark, into their zones as well as into the western portions of Berlin they controlled, in order to dispense Marshall Plan funds. Infuriated, the Soviet Union cut off all ground routes into West Berlin. No food or fuel could enter the city by road, railroad, or canal. The Soviets planned to starve the Western Allies out, forcing them to abandon their sections of Berlin and thus their toehold within the Soviet zone.

    Realizing that air was their only way around the blockade, the United Kingdom and the United States swiftly formulated plans to supply the besieged city by plane. For nearly a year, they carried out the Berlin Airlift, an extensive operation that at one point had a British or U.S. plane taking off from Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport every forty-five seconds (Figure 14.5). Recognizing they could not defeat the resolve of the Western Allies, the Soviets ended the blockade in May 1949. Two weeks later, the Western Allies unified their occupation zones to form the new country of the Federal Republic of Germany, usually referred to as West Germany, with the city of Bonn as its capital.

    A photograph shows a cargo airplane with two propellers on each wing and its landing wheels down flying closely over a large crowd of people. Men, women, and children are standing on a hill as the plane passes above them.
    Figure 14.5 Berlin Airlift. Residents of West Berlin watch as a U.S. cargo plane bearing crucial supplies lands at Tempelhof Airport in 1948. (credit: “Berliners watching a C-54 land at Berlin Tempelhof Airport, 1948” by Henry Ries/U.S. Air Force/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

    The Western Allies then took another step to guard against potential Soviet aggression. In 1948, Belgium, France, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom had signed the Treaty of Brussels, forming a military alliance for purposes of protection against the Soviet Union. In 1949, shortly before the Berlin blockade ended, the United States joined those nations as well as Canada, Portugal, Italy, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland to form the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), an alliance for military assistance and mutual defense. Should one of the member nations be attacked, the others agreed to come to its aid. The capitalist democratic countries that joined NATO formed a bloc, a group of countries united for a common purpose, that became known as the Western Bloc. The Western Bloc opposed communist expansion in Europe by the countries of the Eastern Bloc, composed of the Soviet Union and its allies.

    In 1955, when West Germany also joined NATO, the Soviet Union formed a military and political alliance of its own, the Warsaw Treaty Organization or the Warsaw Pact. Its other members were the communist nations of Eastern Europe: Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), formerly the Soviet occupation zone. The Soviets regarded the pact as a vital defense against a united Western Europe and resurgent Germany. NATO and the Warsaw Pact represented the nations on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain and hardened the lines that had been drawn between them (Figure 14.6). The Western and Eastern Blocs soon faced off against one another, not only in Europe but in the rest of the world as well.

    The legend explains the color-coding of the map and indicates the following information: The Soviet Union (USSR) is highlighted red. USSR aligned nations (Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania) are highlighted pink. The former USSR aligned country (Albania, aligned until 1960) is highlighted orange. The non-aligned country (Yugoslavia) is highlighted green. The neutral countries (Finland, Switzerland) are highlighted gray. The neutral countries, Western-aligned (Austria, Ireland, Sweden) are highlighted purple. The Western aligned countries (Greece, Norway, Iceland, United Kingdom, France, Denmark, West Germany, Italy, Turkey, Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg) are highlighted blue.
    Figure 14.6 The Cold War in Europe. After West Germany joined NATO in 1955, the Soviet Union and other nations formed their own alliance, resulting in the creation of the Eastern Bloc. Yugoslavia, although a communist nation and considered part of this bloc, had officially divorced itself from Soviet control prior to the Warsaw Pact. (credit: modification of work “Allegiance of European countries during the Cold War” by “UserGoldsztajn”/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

    Link to Learning

    Access the Wilson Center’s Cold War International History Project to find additional information about many different aspects of the Cold War.

    Cold War Strategies

    The Cold War between West and East was fought on many fronts with many strategies. Both sides provided aid and technical assistance to countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, many of which had been European colonies until the end of World War II. Through such aid, the United States hoped to contain the spread of communism by depriving countries of an economic reason for aligning themselves with the Soviet Union. Communism was attractive to many poor people. It promised that a nation’s wealth would be used to provide for all its citizens, and under the Soviet system, people were provided with jobs, housing, education, health care, and public transportation. Although the standard of living was lower than in the West, for poor people who lived with the constant threat of hunger and homelessness and saw no chance of improving their situation, communism was an attractive alternative.

    Propaganda in the form of literature, visual imagery, and films was also used by each side to shore up support for its policies and political ideology, and to damage the credibility and prestige of the other side. In 1950, the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe began broadcasting news to the countries of the Eastern Bloc, and in 1953, Radio Liberty began broadcasting to the Soviet Union. Radio Free Europe and the Free Europe Committee, an organization of American business executives and lawyers established by the U.S. government, printed leaflets and posters touting the superiority of life in democratic, capitalist countries and dropped them from weather balloons over East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary.

    Soviet propaganda stressed the USSR’s desire for world peace and praised the communist ideals of a classless society in which people were treated equally regardless of race or gender. This message had a strong appeal for people in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Some African Americans, confronted by racism and segregation in the United States, were also attracted by these promises. Indeed, opponents of the civil rights movement in the United States often denounced it as communist in nature.

    Sometimes propaganda took the form of athletic competitions in which each side used its swimmers, runners, weightlifters, and gymnasts to display the superiority of its system. Sports and news broadcasts kept a close watch on the number of medals won by U.S. and Soviet athletes during Olympic competitions. At other times, cultural exchanges took place. Soviet ballet dancers toured the United States, while American jazz musicians and symphony orchestras visited Eastern Bloc countries.

    Beyond the Book

    Cold War Propaganda

    Both the United States and the Soviet Union used propaganda to convince their own citizens as well as those of the other country that their way of life was superior. U.S. propaganda touted the benefits of capitalism and democracy and warned of the lack of freedom under communism. The Soviet Union boasted of the productivity of its citizens and ridiculed the softness of capitalists. Soviet propaganda also routinely invoked the lack of freedom for people of color in the United States.

    Following are two propaganda cartoons. The first is an American video called Make Mine Freedom that was made in 1948.

    In it, viewers are warned about the dangers of “ism,” which listeners in the United States would understand to mean “communism.” Please note that the video contains racist imagery, as did many American cartoons from this time period. The salesman peddling “communism” to gullible Americans is wearing a zoot suit, a style of dress associated with men of color.

    The second video is a Soviet cartoon called The Millionaire that portrays the behavior of the wealthy in the United States.

    As you watch the videos, look for the claims each side makes about the other.

    • How does the American cartoon depict the United States? How does the Soviet cartoon depict the United States?
    • To what extent is what the United States says about itself true? To what extent is the Soviet depiction of American life accurate?

    Both sides highlighted their ingenuity and technological achievements. At a 1959 exhibition in Moscow, U.S. vice president Richard Nixon proudly showed off American technology to Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in the form of a model kitchen. Khrushchev’s response to the labor-saving gadgetry on display was to inquire whether American families also had machines to save them the effort of putting food in their mouths and swallowing it. The two countries competed to dominate space as well. In 1957, the United States suffered a serious blow to its pride when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first satellite (Figure 14.7). In response, in 1958 President Dwight D. Eisenhower called on Congress to establish an agency to explore space. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was established that year. In 1961 the Soviet Union sent the first astronaut into space. In 1969 the United States put the first humans on the surface of the moon.

    Part a is a drawing that shows a top portion of the Earth in the bottom right of the drawing. An orb with four projections coming off of it, one in each direction, is shown in the middle of the drawing floating in space above the Earth. Part b is a stamp that includes a dog. The stamp reads “Posta R.P.Romina” and “Kaika Primul Calator in Cosmos.”
    Figure 14.7 The Space Race. The Soviet Union’s 1957 launching of the satellite Sputnik, shown here in an artist’s rendering, spurred the United States to create NASA, its own space agency. The following month, the Soviets topped their achievement by sending a dog, Laika, into space aboard Sputnik 2 (b), commemorated in this 1959 Romanian stamp. (credit a: modification of work “First report of Sputnik” by Universal Newsreel/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain; credit b: modification of work “Laika, dog launched into space on stamp from Rumania Posta Romania, 1957” by Unknown/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

    Link to Learning

    The late 1950s and 1960s witnessed the efforts of the United States and the Soviet Union to outdo one another in the area of space exploration. Visit the online exhibition dedicated to the history of the space race at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

    Espionage was another important tool, carried out by the United States through the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) formed in 1947, and by the USSR with its spy agency the KGB. Besides surveilling the other nation, these agencies also plotted, assisted in, and carried out acts of sabotage and the assassination of those deemed enemies of their country. Both the CIA and the KGB fomented discontent in foreign nations as well, trained fighting forces, and encouraged revolution and insurgency to topple foreign governments and install leaders who would be friendly to their respective countries. The CIA, for example, trained Cuban insurgents with the goal of overthrowing the Caribbean island’s communist government under Fidel Castro in 1961. Similarly, the KGB gave assistance to Vietnamese communists attempting to defeat the government of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

    The most dangerous venue for competition, however, and the two sides’ chief means of reining in aggression on the part of the other, was the stockpiling of massive nuclear arsenals. In 1949, the Soviet Union detonated an atomic bomb, ending the U.S. monopoly on nuclear weapons. In 1952 the United States took the next step, one opposed by some of the same atomic scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II, and developed the hydrogen bomb, testing it on the Pacific atoll of Eniwetok in 1952. This missile was one thousand times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. U.S. development of such a weapon meant the Soviet Union needed to do the same.

    In the 1950s, both the United States and the USSR developed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) as well. Now missiles armed with nuclear warheads could be launched from within the home country’s own territory or within the borders of satellite nations; an air force capable of intercepting bomb-bearing planes was no longer sufficient to protect against nuclear attack. Although countries in both the Western and Eastern Blocs prepared for potential war by creating shelters to protect citizens in the event of nuclear war, neither side put great faith in its ability to emerge victorious. Both the United States and the USSR quickly came to believe that the key to survival lay in building an immense retaliatory capacity, the ability to unleash devastation so great that the other side would never detonate the first bomb for fear of its own annihilation. In the United States, this defense policy came to be referred to as “mutually assured destruction” (MAD). Should these nuclear stockpiles prove unsuccessful at deterring a conflict, the large military forces the rivals built up during the Cold War, along with billions of dollars’ worth of battleships, submarines, and fighter jets, ensured they possessed the capacity to fight a conventional war as well.

    This page titled 14.2: The Cold War Begins is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by OpenStax.

    • Was this article helpful?