The Cold War has been described as everything from absurd to inevitable. One of the 20th century’s most defining events, it was ‘cold’ because neither the United States or the Soviet Union and their respective allies ever officially declared war on one another.
Instead, what ensued from 1945 to 1990 was a number of conflicts and crises driven by powerful ideals and political commitments. By the end of the war, the world was dramatically altered and an estimated 20 million people had directly or indirectly lost their lives as a result.
Here’s a summary of the 4 key factors that led to the worsening of relations and slide into conflict.
1. Post-war tensions between superpowers
The seeds of the Cold War were already being sown before the Second World War was even over. In early 1945, the Allies, made up of the Soviet Union, Britain, France, and the United States, realised that they were well on their way to defeating the Axis powers of Nazi Germany, Italy, and Japan.
Recognising this, the different Allied leaders including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin met for the Yalta and Potsdam Conferences in February and August 1945 respectively. The aim of these conferences was to discuss how to re-divide and distribute Europe after the war.
During the Yalta Conference, Stalin was deeply suspicious of the other powers, believing that they delayed the Allied invasion of Italy and the invasion of Normandy to cause the Soviet Army to struggle alone against Nazi Germany, and thus wear each other down.
Later, during the Potsdam Conference, President Truman revealed that America had developed the world’s first atomic bomb. Stalin knew of this already due to Soviet espionage, and was suspicious that the US might withhold other important information from the Soviet Union. He was right: The US never informed Russia of their plan to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki, intensifying Stalin’s distrust of the West and meaning that the Soviet Union was excluded from a share of land in the Pacific region.
2. ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ and the nuclear arms race
At the beginning of September 1945, the world breathed a sigh of pained relief: the Second World War was over. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki catalysed both the end of the war and the beginning of the nuclear arms race.
Being unable to contain nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union weren’t able to directly challenge the United States’ nuclear power status. This changed in 1949, when the USSR tested its first atomic bomb, leading to a wrestle between the countries to have the most powerful nuclear weapons with the most effective delivery mechanisms.
In 1953, both the US and the Soviet Union were testing hydrogen bombs. This worried the US, who recognised that they were no longer in the lead. The arms race continued at great expense, with both sides fearing that they’d fall behind in research and production.
Eventually, both sides’ nuclear potential had become so powerful that it became clear that any attack from one side would result in an equal counter-attack from the other. In other words, no side could destroy the other without in turn being destroyed themselves. The recognition that the use of nuclear weapons would result in Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) meant that nuclear weapons eventually became a deterrent rather than a serious warfare method.
Though neither side was physically damaged by the use of weapons, the relational damage had been done, with Truman’s aim to intimidate the Soviet Union into compliance over Eastern Europe backfiring, effectively militarising both sides and bringing them closer to war.
3. Ideological opposition
The ideological opposition between the US and the Soviet Union, whereby the US practiced and promoted a system of democracy and capitalism versus the Soviet Union’s communism and dictatorship, further worsened relations and contributed to the slide into the Cold War.
After the Second World War had ended, the Allied countries liberated Europe from Nazi control and drove the German army back to Germany. At the same time, Stalin’s forces captured and kept control over the European territory that they liberated. This exacerbated an already difficult situation which was made clear during the Yalta and Potsdam Conferences regarding what to do with Europe.
The post-war period being such an economically and socially uncertain time meant that countries surrounding or captured by the Soviet Union were vulnerable to expansionism. United States President Harry S. Truman was anxious that the Soviet Union’s communist ideology was going to further spread throughout the world. The US thus developed a policy known as the Truman Doctrine, whereby the US and certain allies would aim to prevent and fight back against the spread of communism.
British leader Winston Churchill similarly accused the Soviet Union of trying to control Eastern Europe, famously stating during a speech in Missouri in 1946 that an ‘iron curtain [had] descended across the continent of Europe’. The schism between the ideologies of communism and capitalism was becoming yet more pronounced and unstable.
4. Disagreements over Germany and the Berlin Blockade
It was agreed at the Potsdam Conference that Germany be divided into four zones until it was stable enough to be reunified. Each zone was to be administered by one of the victorious Allies: the US, the Soviet Union, Britain, and France. The Soviet Union was also to receive the most repatriation payments to compensate for their losses.
The western allies wanted Germany to be strong again so it could contribute to world trade. Conversely, Stalin wanted to destroy the economy to make sure that Germany could never rise again. In order to do this, he took a great deal of their infrastructure and raw materials back to the Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, the Western powers implemented a new currency, the Deutschmark, for their zones which angered Stalin, concerned that ideas and currency would spread into his territory. He then created his own currency, the Ostmark, for his zone in response.
The blatant difference in the quality of life between the different zones in Germany was embarrassing for the Soviet Union. In 1948, Stalin blocked the Western Allies by closing all supply routes into Berlin in the hope that the Western powers might give Berlin entirely. The plan backfired again: for 11 months, British and American cargo planes flew from their Zones into Berlin at a rate of one plane landing every 2 minutes, delivering millions of tons of food, fuel, and other supplies until Stalin lifted the blockade.
The slide into the Cold War wasn’t defined by one action so much as a collection of events driven by ideology and post-war uncertainty. What has defined the Cold War, however, is a recognition of the intense and prolonged suffering that resultant conflicts such as the Vietnam War and Korean War caused and have seared into living memory.