The Cold War
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The Global Cold War
With roots all the way back into World War II, the Cold War was one of the most dominant issues of the 20th century. Until recently in the United States the Cold War has been taught as a series of aggressive moves by the Soviets, countered by U.S. efforts to stop the spread of communism and to promote democracy. Recent scholarship, however, has the benefit of viewing the Cold War from Soviet perspectives as well. What we see now is a more complete picture.
The Cold War boiled down to two opposite ideas. On the one hand was communism and the Soviet Union; on the other, the United States and Capitalism. Both sides actively sought to build their allies and to spread their way of life into other countries. Neither side believed the other would allow them to exist; both the Soviet Union and the United States believed that the other superpower was attempting to destroy them. These fears were justified, to an extent, but were largely self perpetuating and exaggerated.
Tensions Grow During the War
Soviet distrust and fear grew when the United States and England did not immediately open up a western front to take pressure off the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin (the "Big 3") met several times during the war - planning both how to defeat Germany and how to shape the peace that was to follow. At those meetings, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to invade Western Europe and Stalin agreed to join the war in the Pacific after Germany's surrender. However, each year that went by without an invasion in Western Europe angered Stalin more. He thought that Roosevelt and Churchill were trying to let the Soviets and Germans batter each other to near oblivion so that the Soviet Union would be easier to defeat.
As war in Europe wound down, Stalin found himself in a position of strength. In their drive to Berlin, forcing the German Army to retreat in front of them, the Soviet Army established control over much of Eastern Europe as well as Germany. This complicated the alliance between the Big 3 even further. How should the governments in countries freed from Nazi Germany be formed? The Soviet Union wanted to keep the governments in power that they had helped to set up in places like Poland. The United States and England, however, wanted to hold new democratic elections. Many of the nations that came under Soviet influence/control did not hold free elections until after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
What to do with postwar Germany was perhaps the biggest sticking point. It was agreed that Germany had to be divided, but how was the main question. In the end, this was decided based on troop locations after Hitler was defeated. Each ally was given control of a portion of Germany where their armies already were in place. The capital city, Berlin (which was deep in the Soviet controlled zone) was also divided. For much of the Cold War, Germany and Berlin were the focus of tension between the United States, the Soviet Union, and their allies.
Post War Ideologies: The United States
The most influential post war ideology for the United States was the idea of Containment. In February of 1946, the American diplomat George Kennan wrote "The Long Telegram." This report gave his opinion of Soviet beliefs, motivations, and goals. According to Kennan, the Soviet Union was moving like a wind-up toy car "headed in a given direction, stopping only when it meets unanswerable force." Although he did not use the phrase, Kennan was referring to what became known as the "Domino Theory." According to this idea communism, unless stopped, would continue to expand from one country into another, like a series of dominoes falling over. Kennan believed the only way to stop the Soviets from world domination was by meeting each Soviet move around the world with an American counter move - to use the threat of war to stop the Soviet Union from expanding. Together, these counter moves would contain communism, prevent it from spreading, and give it time to eventually die out. Kennan's ideas became the foundation of American Cold War policies.
Communism was not just a military threat in the eyes of many Americans. Communism, it was feared, spread through secret agents and spies - communists who hid themselves inside the United States and spread lies and corruption. The Red Scare had deep, lasting effects on American society. The war against Communism, many people believed, had to be fought at home as well.
Post War Ideologies: The Soviet Union
Central to Soviet thought was the belief that capitalist nations would inevitably cause wars to expand their control. From the Soviet perspective this made sense. In less than 150 years they had been invaded twice: first by Napoleon in 1812 and then by Germany during World War II. The German invasion cost more than 26 million Soviet lives. For the Soviet Union, it was imperative to protect themselves from another such invasion. Following World War II, they feared this invasion would be sparked by the United States.
The Soviet diplomat Nikolai Novikov outlined much of what guided the Soviet Union in a telegram of his own in September of 1946. Novikov believed that the United States had intentionally delayed opening a second front during World War II in order to weaken the Soviet Union. He also said that the United States was trying to build an empire and was preparing for war with the Soviet Union.
Spheres of Influence
In reality, both the United States and the Soviet Union were actively trying to expand their spheres of influence, just in different ways. For the Soviets, this meant a more traditional approach following the war: controlling other nations through military occupation. They liberated Eastern European countries from the German army on their drive to Berlin, and left occupation forces that helped to set up communist puppet governments, which they claimed were representative of the people. The idea was to establish a buffer zone in Eastern Europe; the next war, they believed, would be fought on Eastern European soil by their allies. By building their sphere of influence the Soviets would protect themselves from Capitalism and the next invasion.
The United States was doing essentially the same thing, only more through economic and defense ties rather than by military occupation (except in the case of Japan). As in France, Italy, West Germany, and other areas, the United States provided aid through the Marshall Plan to rebuild countries devastated by the war. American aid helped to establish ties to the United States and to maintain a capitalist, democratic system. The United States also helped to create the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). NATO is a defensive alliance between the United States and Western European nations - an agreement to use military force to protect each other, particularly from an attack by the Soviet Union.
The Cold War Around the World
Leaders in both the United States and the Soviet Union believed that the best way to prevent their enemy from attacking them was to have a larger military and more destructive weapons. Both countries invested heavily in developing nuclear weapons, racing to stockpile more, bigger missiles than their enemy. Thousands were built by both sides, with enough power to destroy both countries (and much of the world). This theory was known as "Mutually Assured Destruction" (MAD). Fear of being destroyed by a nuclear attack was supposed to prevent both sides from starting a war. Both the United States and the Soviet Union placed missiles in countries around the world, loaded them into submarines, and developed long range bombers that could fly halfway around the world to drop a nuclear weapon. The world lived under the threat of nuclear war throughout the Cold War.
The Soviet Union and China supported a communist uprising in Korea while the United States aided the Democratic faction. On June 25, 1950, the communist forces in North Korea launched an attack and began the Korean War. With the help of the United States, South Korea was able to push the communist forces back. After three years and the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives, the Korean War ended in an armistice - North and South Korea agreed to stop fighting, but the war officially never ended. North and South Korea are still divided, and the United States still has military troops stationed in South Korea.
The United States attempted to "contain" communism in Vietnam as well. Beginning in 1955, the United States began sending military "advisors" to aid South Vietnam in their fight against communist North Vietnam led by Ho Chi Minh. Throughout the 1950s, through the 1960s, and into the 1970s the United States continued to send more and more soldiers to fight in Vietnam. More than 3 million Americans fought in Vietnam - over 60,000 lost their lives. Millions of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians were killed during the war.The United States withdrew from Vietnam in May of 1973. It was the longest military engagement in U.S. history.
The longer the war in Vietnam went on, the less support there was for it from the American public. In 1967, John Steinbeck went to Vietnam for Newsday. Steinbeck wrote in support of American involvement in Vietnam; he believed, as many other Americans did at the time, in the Domino Theory. The war in Vietnam was necessary to stop communism from spreading worldwide. Steinbeck, who had been suspected, and even accused, of being a communist himself, was a strong supporter of American containment policy in Vietnam.
The closest the United States and the Soviet Union came to war with one another was in October of 1962. The Soviet Union had supported a communist rebellion in Cuba led by Fidel Castro. Having a communist country so close the United States frightened American leaders. There were several attempts to overthrow Castro which were supported by the United States, including a failed invasion by Cuban exiles known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion. The invasion had been supported by the United States, but President Kennedy did not commit American forces to the invasion. Castro's forces defeated the attack handily.
In 1962, the Soviet Union secretly shipped nuclear missiles to Cuba. In October, American spy planes photographed the missiles being set up. Over the next two weeks, a period known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States and the Soviet Union issued a series of threats and mobilized their militaries in preparation for war. President John F. Kennedy demanded that the Soviet Union remove the missiles; Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev refused, citing Cuba's need to defend itself from American attacks like the Bay of Pigs. Khrushchev also pointed out the nuclear missiles the United States had stationed in Turkey, just across the border from the Soviet Union. During the Crisis, an American spy plane was shot down over Cuba and several Soviet submarines were forced to the surface by American warships. There were advisors in both the Soviet Union and the United States who strongly recommended going to war. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed.
On October 28 the Soviet Union and the United States reached an agreement. The Soviet Union would remove their missiles from Cuba and, within a few months, the United States would remove their missiles from Turkey. War was narrowly avoided.
The Cold War Draws to a Close
In the 1980s Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and American President Ronald Reagan began to work together to end the Cold War. Through the policies of perestroika and glasnost the Soviet Union opened up to Western influence and democratic reforms. In addition, the two countries signed a series of arms reduction treaties, slowing the arms race that had been accelerating for decades. In 1991, the Soviet Union was dissolved, the many nations that had joined or had been forced into the Soviet Union became independent nations. Many of those nations have seen major democratic reforms since the 1990s. However, the breakup of the Soviet Union has also led to complications that have had worldwide effects. Making sure that the the Soviet Union's weapons, especially their nuclear arsenal, does not end up under the control of terrorists has been an ongoing issue.