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How the Cold War Started

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To what extent was the Cold War inevitable?

With the relieving end of the Second World War, a new period of tensions in international relations began shortly after with the start of the Cold War. Despite there being a general consensus concerning certain aspects of the Cold War, different types of historians have approached the underlying origins and the war’s inevitability through contrasting lenses. Traditionalist, revisionist and post-revisionist express notably different views on which side was to blame for the start of the Cold War and also offer a deeper understanding of its origins, causes and extent of inevitability. It is, however, clear to see that United States’ and Soviet Union’s relations spiraled down after the end of World War 2 – especially due to a clash of systems, a power vacuum and an evident arms race. The two superpowers’ rivalry escalated rapidly after certain documents, like the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan, were created. Through an analysis of Cold War origins, ideological rivalry and role of nuclear weapons, it becomes apparent that the Cold War was, to a large extent, inevitable between the United States and Soviet Union.

The Cold War has been described to be as an “ideological, geopolitical and economic international rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union” that lasted almost half a century (Roberts, 2000: 26). In order to argue that the Cold War was inevitable, an understanding of its causes is necessary. The end of the Second World War unveiled hidden tensions between the United States and Soviet Union; the death of President Roosevelt and Truman’s reversion of the former’s policies eliminated all possibilities of peaceful democratic cooperation in a “world community” (Fleming, 1959: 112). Truman’s doctrine, influenced by Kennan’s telegram expressing his worry of Soviet expansionism, menace to the West and a need of containment, heavily altered US-Soviet relations which unavoidably resulted in an unavoidable war. With the addition of the Marshall Plan that focused on protecting European states from communism with its economic and military power, United States’ actions incontestably heightened tensions between the two superpowers and perhaps “led ultimately to the division of Europe” and thus the beginning of an Iron Curtain (Artaud 1993, Trachtenberg 2005, 135). The containment policies developed after the Yalta and Potsdam conferences also highlighted the superpowers’ different political agendas; the Soviet Union viewed Poland as an ideal “buffer zone” between it and Germany, and a Westernised Poland would derange USSR’s security plans against future potential invasions from Germany (Trachtenberg, 1999). The Soviet Union’s goal was to destabilise and wreck East Germany and its economy whilst the United States wanted to reconstruct and make it into a prosperous, democratic state which in turn caused Stalin to blockade East Germany.

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From a revisionist standpoint, the death of Roosevelt and Truman’s new policies such as the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan all were a clear path to an inescapable war – the United States “deliberately abandoned the wartime policy of collaboration” as well as tried to establish a self-interested relationship with Germany in order to have a new trading partner (Schlesinger 1967: 3). An orthodox perspective, however, blames the USSR for the degradation of the superpowers’ relations due to its imposition of communism to neighbouring countries and was what led to Truman making executive decisions on communist containment. Although the relationship between the two major powers started off as relatively courteous due to their shared interest during the Second World War, certain choices made by both parties led to an unpreventable strain on their relationship, which consecutively conduced a Cold War. Orthodox and revisionist perspectives both acknowledge the origins of the war and provide an understanding of how the US-Soviet tensions and actions were an inevitable catalyst for the Cold War.

The ideological rivalry between the United States and Soviet Union played a major role in the creation of Cold War and was a crucial reason to the war’s inevitability. Cooperation and civil relations between the two superpowers were merely unimaginable due to their drastically different and incompatible ideological views. The capitalistic values the United States offered were presumed to expand throughout the globe during President Wilson’s era, as he was a firm believer in “liberal capitalism” and cooperation with other states (McCauley 1983). However, after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 and incorporation of a Marxist ideology in Russia, the ties between the two major states were seen as less likely as tensions rose. Although the two states cooperated during the Second World War because of a common enemy, the ideological, economic and political tensions escalated after its end as the power vacuum left out in Europe caused “both superpowers to seek European allies against one another” (Kramer, 1999: 547). In turn, the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan were ways to contain the spread of Communism as it was perceived as a threat to Western capitalism, but also to ensure that the United States kept steady trading relations with Western Europe. Containing communism and spreading capitalism throughout Western Europe and Japan was a clear route to a war – their fear of Soviet diffusion would have affected America’s economy so a containment policy, despite being a factor that led to war, was their only resource (Bossuat 1999: 287).

Traditionalist views on the states’ ideological rivalry suggests that the Soviet Union was the one to blame and the one that started the inevitable war. With Stalin’s Yalta conference violations and role in Eastern European conflicts, the actions left the West with no other solution than to confront the USSR forcefully. Nevertheless, even “the most rational of American policies could hardly have averted the Cold War” – conveying its inevitability no matter what was done (Schlesinger 1967: 13). The United States defended itself and democracy which unavoidably resulted in the start of the Cold War. On the other hand, revisionist scholars argue that from an ideological stance, it was America’s “drive for world empire, motivated primarily by the requirements of capitalism” and economic expansion through the Marshall Plan that led to the “Cold War being unavoidable” (Gaddis 1983: 175). Such actions by the United States left the Soviet Union in a defensive rather than offensive state, which rose tensions higher than before and aggravated the relations of the two states and led to an inevitable war. Contrarily, a post-revisionist perspective examines that both parties sought to expand in Europe after being left in a power vacuum and “view[ed] the other through the prism of a modernising ideology – one capitalist and the other Communist – that made each assume the worst about the other” (Merrill, 2006: 30). Despite differing perspectives, all three theories ultimately show that the Cold War, was to a large extent, completely inevitable.

Finally, another important factor that led to the inevitability of the Cold War was the role played by nuclear weaponry. The bombs dropped by the United States on Hiroshima and Nagasaki played an immense role in the deterrence of US-Soviet relationships and the beginning of an inevitable Cold War. The Manhattan Project – the research and development of first nuclear weaponry – was taking place when President Roosevelt was in office. Winston Churchill, despite being in a Grand Alliance with the US and USSR, advised Roosevelt to “maintain the Anglo-American atomic monopoly as a diplomatic counter against the post war ambitions” of the Soviet Union (Sherwin 1994,60). Years later, President Truman failed to tell Stalin about the atomic bomb explosions on Japan’s cities – an act that caused irreversible tension between the two superpowers as it underlined the states’ rivalry and fundamental lack of trust and cooperation. Henceforth, the atomic bombings on Japan and leaving Stalin in the dark only added to the decision of the Soviet Union being “mainly concerned with protecting their newly enlarged frontiers” and “creating a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe” for their own protection (Shapiro 1998: 28). Such actions essentially were catalysts for the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan that had been major causes for an inevitable war. From a revisionist perspective, the atomic bombs on Japan and not telling the Soviet Union about them were a way for the United States to climb higher on the competitive ladder, as well as a “crucial element in the war of nerves” as it “cast a pervasive shadow over Soviet relations with the US” (Garthoff 2001, Holloway 1994, 87). Furthermore, orthodox theorists argued that since Stalin was already aware of the Manhattan Project long before Truman was, the Soviet Union wanted to expand their sphere of influence as an attack on the Western ideology and to show their power whilst the United States’ was essentially responding to “Communist aggression” (Campbell and Radchenko 2008, Schlesinger 1967, 2). Although they provide differing perspectives, revisionist and orthodox theorists both provide evidence for the large inevitability of Cold War.

Ultimately, the Cold War was, beyond doubt, inevitable to a large extent. Analysing the origins and causes of the war, in addition to ideological rivalry and the role of nuclear weapons, provided evidence to prove that no matter such factors had a domino effect and influenced other events and decisions made. Without the power vacuum post-World War Two or the Potsdam conference, the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan would probably not have existed – two factors that played a major role in the degradation of US-Soviet relations. Moreover, a war was doomed to happen because of the ideological clash and incompatibility of Communism and capitalism that led both parties to view each other as threats – a conflict that “would have been appreciably different in the absence of ideological considerations” (Kramer 1999: 576). All in all, whether it being an orthodox or revisionist perspective, it is clear that the Cold War was unavoidable to a large extent due to the circumstances at the time.

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