The Cold War began after World War II. The main enemies were the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States and the Soviet Union were the only two superpowers following the Second World War. The fact that, by the 1950s, each possessed nuclear weapons and the means of delivering such weapons on their enemies added a dangerous aspect to the Cold War. The Cold War world was separated into three groups. The United States led the West. The Soviet Union led the East. The non-aligned group included countries that did not want to be tied to either the West or the East.
As the Second World War neared its conclusion, the future of Eastern Europe became a point of contention between the Soviet Union and its Western allies. The Soviet Union was determined to install “friendly” regimes throughout Eastern Europe following the War. The Western democracies, led by the United States, were determined to stop the spread of communism and Soviet power. Harry Truman was the first American president to fight the Cold War. In June 1948 the Soviets blocked all ways into the western part of Berlin, Germany. The United States received help from Britain and France.
In the middle 1950s, the United States began sending military advisers to help South Vietnam defend itself against communist North Vietnam. In the 1950s, Israel invaded Egypt. France and Britain joined the invasion. The Suez Crisis was a political victory for the Soviets. In 1961, Cuban exiles invaded Cuba to oust the communist government of Fidel Castro. In Europe, tens of thousands of East Germans had fled to the west. East Germans built a wall separating the eastern and western parts of the city of Berlin (White, 2000). In 1963, the two sides reached a major arms control agreement.
In 1985, The Soviet withdrew their forces from Afghanistan. Soon, the Berlin Wall, the major symbol of communist oppression, was torn down in November. and two years later, after 45 years of protracted conflict and constant tension, the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Another approach of the Cold War claims that Soviet expansion was not a response to domestic insecurity but evidence of a sincere commitment to a more literal interpretation of communist ideology. At the end of the war the Soviets were bent on world revolution.
The Soviets’ rhetorical goals correspond to their actual foreign policy behavior. This means that the Soviets were trying to eliminate capitalism and create a monolithic communist world under their tutelage. Empire-building was different for the Soviets than it had been for the traditional imperialistic powers of the nineteenth century. The Soviets did not merely desire greater power and influence in the world, they sought to employ their power and influence to foster their ideological aspirations. This interpretation offers a rather one-sided view of the Cold War.
By minimizing American culpability for the conflict and placing the blame on Soviet ideology. Soviet ideology could not have caused the Cold War if it did not come in conflict with American values and beliefs. The inability of the Soviets and Americans to come to some consensus on how to achieve cooperation in the postwar world was due not just to different goals and desires. In fact, the failure of the two sides to come to some compromise that each side could accept and that would recognize each side’s vital national interests was caused by the irreconcilable nature of the ideological conflict that separated them.
Another orthodox interpretation of the origin of the Cold War portrays Soviet expansionary tendencies as that of a traditional great power. Many saw the Soviet annexation of spheres of influence as the expected if not the just spoils of the victor in war. However, the Soviets, even if they had a legitimate claim to increased influence in Eastern Europe after the war, sought to expand their area of hegemonic control even farther. This threatened legitimate American interests and its sphere of influence in Western Europe and justified the American effort to provide for the containment of Soviet expansionary tendencies.
This explanation of the Cold War interprets the rivalry in traditional balance of power terms. This “Great Power” interpretation proved to be less popular with the American public because it lacked the moralistic tone and ideological justification that the previous two explanations offered. 8 Nevertheless, this interpretation seemed more credible to scholars and many elites who were accustomed to analyzing relations between states in terms of the balance of power and other realist formulations (Friedman, 2002).
American public officials, however, often resorted to harsh ideological rhetoric in order to garner popular support for American containment policies when, personally, they viewed the Cold War as nothing more than a competition for power and influence. These revisionists have attempted to blame the United States for the collapse of wartime cooperation. Thus, they completely reject those who traditionally supported American foreign policy and tended to castigate the Soviets as the aggressors in the postwar world.
These revisionists believe that the American desire to create a friendly capitalist system everywhere on the globe interfered with legitimate Soviet national security concerns and with the sovereignty of non-aligned states. American insistence on available foreign markets and access to raw materials polarized the world against the United States’ effort to guarantee its economic dominance. While some differences exist among these scholars, the theme of American economic imperialism pervades the work.
According to authors, American leaders have historically interpreted the future prosperity of the United States in terms of the “Open Door,” the ideological goal of an open and global capitalist system (Siracusa & Joseph, 2001). By failing to formulate a settlement based on anything other than its grandiose design for the Open Door, the United States became the culprit in the Cold War because it transformed a negotiable conflict into an insoluble one. While Williams believes that the Americans were basically inflexible in their vision of the postwar world, he contends that the Soviets were rather conciliatory.
The pressure the United States placed on the Soviets only served to make them more determined to protect themselves from American control or intimidation. Because the Americans considered the Soviets evil, weak, and unwilling to launch war, the United States thought it would be able to exert its will on the Soviet Union. This would be necessary because without further economic expansion depression was likely. However, the Americans’ false and exaggerated vision of their own omnipotence led them to overplay their hand.
Thus, Williams considers American postwar foreign policy as fundamentally flawed because it lacked the means by which it could attain its objective. In general, revisionist accounts exaggerate the economic concerns of American policy-makers in the postwar period. American elites and the mass public genuinely supported national self-determination. In addition, political, military, and strategic factors tended to be more important for the United States than the operation of the international economy.
America has traditionally relied less on exports for its wealth and economic growth than most other states, and thus the United States has not been in desperate need of foreign markets. Moreover, the United States enjoys an unusual abundance of indigenous natural resources and is much less in need of imports of raw materials than almost any other industrialized state. Finally, a sincere belief in the benefits that accrue to all nations involved in a liberal trading system has motivated the United States to promote the open door, not a self-serving desire to exploit the less developed countries.
Hence, Williams and other revisionists misrepresent the motives of Americans and their foreign policy (Schlesinger & Arthur, 2007). Several scholars have contended that the beginning of the Cold War actually predates the conclusion of World War II. During the war the Americans never truly trusted the Soviets and found it easier to deal with the British with whom they shared a common political and cultural heritage. The Americans’ previous antipathy toward the Soviets predisposed American official’s and the public at large to place little trust in the Soviets.
As a result, the United States was not the best of allies. This American behavior only helped to reinforce the traditionally hostile attitude the Soviets had held of the United States as a capitalist power. The Soviets had at least temporarily abandoned their traditional emphasis on the inevitable conflict of communism and capitalism during the period of wartime cooperation with Britain and the United States (Kennan & George, 1999). Thus, the failure of the United States to deal responsibly with the Soviets during the war led to the later enmity between the two emerging superpowers.
Although the United States’ behavior during the war may have increased the level of mistrust on both sides, those who stress the American failure to treat the Soviet Union as a trustworthy ally during the war fail to appreciate the underlying antagonism between these two nations. The poor performance of the Americans as a wartime ally is not a sufficient reason to explain the great hostility between these two nations. The lack of faith and trust shown among the allies indicates some fundamental differences in their values and goals in world politics.
These diverging interests are therefore the fundamental cause of the conflict that eventually led both to mistrust each other during the war and thereafter. This conflict resulted from the irreconcilable visions and desires of the two emerging superpowers. American interests in national self-determination, postwar order, and stability clashed with the security needs and ideological beliefs of the Soviet Union. The crux of the conflagration centered on the status and future of Eastern Europe.
The United States could not stand by and conduct normal relations with a state that prevented free and open elections in these countries as well as access to the world market. Meanwhile, the Soviets refused to acquiesce and allow hostile capitalist states to encircle it and threaten its security (Kennan & George, 1999). The dispute that spawned the Cold War, therefore, was not based on calculations of raw power or the spoils of war. For the Americans especially, the struggle was to determine the ideological fate of a group of nations.
While the conflict of ideologies is a rather new argument, some historians have historically emphasized this interpretation. Norman Graebner, writing in 1962, considered the Cold War tragic because the hostile rhetoric used by American leaders after the war convinced too many in the mass public that the Soviet menace could be removed. The attitude of retrenchment on the part of the Americans conceded nothing, but it assured there would be no settlement to the Cold War.
Thus, the United States gave itself little chance of pursuing a successful foreign policy. Continued dissatisfaction with Soviet behavior accumulated to become fervent and permanent disdain. There was little hope of good relations in this atmosphere of hostility. While historians had been able to utilize British archives, for example, to explain the role of Churchill and British policy in the origins of the Cold War, most of the formal diplomatic history had been written based almost exclusively on the evidence drawn from American sources until the 1990s.
With the end of the Cold War and with greater access to Soviet archives, a much clearer understanding of Soviet foreign policy is emerging and as a result much more balanced histories of the Cold War are being written. While there has not been a unanimous interpretation of the recently-opened archival evidence, most scholars have argued the evidence indicates that the Soviets did harbor ideological ambitions for expansion after World War II. However; these ambitions were tempered and shaped by considerations of power and the changing perspectives of Stalin and his advisors.
While appropriately emphasizing ideological factors, analysis of the origins of the Cold War needs to recognize that these factors did interact with the distribution of power at the end of World War II. Ideological conflict may explain the origin of the Cold War, but both the Soviets and Americans were cognizant of how their power might enable them to achieve their ideological goals. The limitations of their power also made both sides aware that total victory was impossible. Each side struggled within this context of superpower competition to maximize power and influence as a means of achieving an ideologically-driven agenda.
Another interpretation for the origin of the Cold War that emerged in the 1970s was less intent on placing blame on either the Soviets or the Americans but instead emphasized misperception. This post-revolutionist interpretation stressed that discrete events, individual perceptions and misperceptions and bureaucratic decision-making move history, not grand designs of policy-makers or theories of history. These multi-causal explanations lack an accusatory tone and are typically seen as more credible.
Nevertheless, this interpretation proves inadequate to the extent that it ignores or minimizes the ideological basis of the conflict. In the future both Russians and Americans will look back at the Cold War with mixed emotions. For Russians, an honest examination of their past will be an important part of their attempt to move beyond the confines of a closed and authoritarian political system, but reminiscing about the Cold War will also allow Russians to recollect about Soviet power in this era of superpower rivalry.
For Americans, the Cold War will be a source of pride and regret as they honor the achievements of Containment but learn of the mistakes made due to an excessive ideological zeal that could never be fully satisfied. As with all of history, the history of the Cold War will continue to be revised and retold to fit the need and interests of future generations.
White, Timothy J. 2000, Cold War Historiography: New Evidence Behind Traditional Typographies, International Social Science Review Siracusa, Joseph M. 2001,
The “New” Cold War History and the Origins of the Cold War, The Australian Journal of Politics and History, Vol. 47, Schlesinger Jr., Arthur. 2007. Origins Of The Cold War. Foreign Affairs, , Vol. 46 Issue 1, p22-52. Friedman, Hal M..2002. American identity and the cold war. National Identities, Vol. 5 Issue 2, p209. Kennan, George F.; Lukacs, John. 1999. From world war to cold war. By American Heritage, Vol. 46 Issue 8, p42.