By Daphne Noussi, Junior Analyst KEDISA
By the end of the Second World War, new states emerged as new world powers. The balance of power had changed radically and the former Allied Forces USA and USSR, following the destruction of their common enemy, Germany, had between them more lines of division than points of unity. Not only did those states emerge victorious in World War II, but they also managed to get out of the war having greatly increased their power. In this way, they became two major world superpowers.
Among USA and USSR, there were great differences, mainly ideological and rapidly there developed an intense competence in every field (economical, geopolitical, military, technological etc.) .The states now had a common goal: to become dominant in the international environment and influence other states with their political system. Due to the deterministic incompatibility of the objective, in combination with the lack of a common enemy, at the end of WW II the history was marked with the outbreak of a new state of war which is termed Cold War. The period 1945-1991 is characterized by an intensive competition leading to very big crises, but without a break out of a ‘hot’ confrontation. During this time, a number of proxy wars occurred, in which the two countries backed opposing forces (such as the Korean War and the Vietnam War), but these never materialized into an all-out direct conflict. On the social level, it was identified as a period of great insecurity and uncertainty about the future, as people lived under the threat of a nuclear war.
This essay aims to unravel who is responsible for the beginning of the cold war, blaming not only the two superpowers but also the structure and the nature of the international system. To that end, I will employ logical arguments, academic objectivity and references to historical documents and sources. The structure of the argument below and the further interpretation of the historical sources are based on the realistic school of theory of international relations, when it comes to relations between states, security and conflict issues and war.
Why to blame the USA for the start of the Cold War: A realistic approach
By the end of WW II, the US had completely exterminated their enemy and was one of the strongest states in the international system. Simultaneously, another country, the USSR, was found to have the substantial advantages and hegemonic ambitions, with substantial differences from the US at all levels, primarily ideological. Since the balance of power had changed and the USA had a strong position in the international system, it allowed them to adopt a decisive and dynamic foreign policy for the future. The dynamic presence of another state in the international system was caused and the foreign policy of the United States, that in the denominator of it, would be the prevalence of a dominant force, against the USSR. So this meant that every movement the USSR should have had ‘an answer’ which prompted greatly important affiliations and alliances, an effort to contain the spread of communism. So, from 1946 onwards decisions were made in the US foreign policy that triggered the Cold War.
The aggressive foreign policy was rooted in a telegram, ‘’The long telegram’’, of an American diplomat, George Kennan, which he sent to Washington from Moscow describing the policy of the Soviets. In the letter he spells out the foreign direction of the Soviets and underlines their strong desire to pull external factors into their sphere of influence so as to weaken the Western world. This hermeneutics is a hostile move, which should have a corresponding response. So in order to reverse the upward trend of the Soviets, the USA proceeded with counterattack movements thus starting the Cold War.
After the death of President Roosevelt, Harry Truman, extremely anticommunist, was able to implement an aggressive policy towards the Soviets. Particularly, through adopting the Truman Doctrine in 1947, the US sent economic aid to Greece and Turkey in order to keep these countries in the Western sphere of influence. Especially in the case of Greece, beset by a civil war between pro-Western and communist forces, this move could well be interpreted as offensive by the Soviets. More specifically, Greece, according to the Percentages Agreement between Churchill and Stalin (October 1944), was 90% in the British sphere of influence. Truman’s economic aid that was sent, confirmed the position of Greece in the western sphere of influence, but it is important to note that Stalin respected the agreement and did not send help to the Greek communists.
At that time, they hadn’t officially declared war but there was a distinct difference between the West and the communist world, the ‘us and them’, a dichotomy where one’s position as a “good” or ”evil” factor depends solely upon one’s perspective and intentions.
At this point it is worth mentioning that of great historical importance was the Marshall Plan, commissioned in 1947, which constituted the essential financial help of the United States to European countries. With the slogan of the project ‘whatever the weather we must move together ‘, European countries rallied under the umbrella of American aid, having a common sailing course for the first time in the field of foreign policy and strengthening their security facing the fear of communist threat and Soviet invasion.
This plan, in conjunction with the space-time framework of assistance can clearly be interpreted as a result of a strategy to eradicate communism and the entry into a new anti-communist reality. It could also serve as a starting point for the Cold War, since such moves caused backlash from the other side.
Finally, the culmination of aggressive policies the US ushered in, crystallized in the founding of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in 1949, which is the military organization of the Western countries of a defensive nature, with an aim to protect and defend its geopolitical interests. With this move a very important question becomes apparent: is it in the interest of all Member States to contain communism and develop an ability to defend themselves from any threat coming there from? For Article 5 of the Treaty specifies that ‘The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all’.
All these decisions and acts shaped the climate for the Cold War that followed. Aggressive policy among the States had become certain and led to aggressive reactions and therefore, to major conflicts in the Cold War years. A shared ambition for worldwide domination was manifested numerous times by the Soviet Union by engaging in provocations against the United States.
Why to blame the USSR for the start of the Cold War: A realistic approach
On the other hand, we must recognize that blame cannot rest only on one side; instead actions are initiated from both sides. A historical analysis of the Soviet policy leads to a realization that they can also be considered responsible for the start of the Cold War.
As a result of the 1917 Russian revolution and the overthrow of the Tsarist regime, Russia drifted towards communism, officially morphing into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1922. This change was central to the Cold War as the communist concept is completely different from the capitalist differences and cause conflicts. Possibly, if the country had been continuously governed by a Tsar, the Cold War rivalry would never have sprung up to existence.
By signing the Yalta Agreement in February 1945, the leaders of the Allied Forces broke up the world into numerous spheres of influence. Particularly as the Soviets considered that the states in Eastern Europe were of a great importance, they wanted to create a buffer zone between the USSR and Germany so as not to be under the specter of a German future invasion. The Soviet Union had sustained the most significant losses in the war, which is why it was interested in maintaining high levels of security.
Stalin, of course, with the policy he established towards Berlin after the Marshall Plan announcement triggered the West’s reaction. More specifically, Stalin in June 1948 imposed the so called ‘Berlin Blockade’. Not only Germany was divided into occupation zones, but also Berlin itself. Stalin, having resented the Marshall Plan and having great ambitions for his country, has responded with aggressive policy and blocked western Berlin until May 1949 and called upon conscription Western powers for appropriate assistance to the population of the western part, with the transport of goods by air supplies. This was the first substantial aggressive move after the Yalta Agreement and could, if the Americans had not approached indirectly the USSR, have escalated the situation. However, it seems clear that war was coming up, the aggressive policies were established and every time the greater the intensity was getting among the two superpowers.
Still, it is important that you observe the Establishment of the Warsaw Pact in 1955. Member States were those states that were the communist countries of Europe. It was considered as a reaction to NATO, which was signed by the US and allied countries in 1949. This tactic from on the part of the USSR, can be deemed as defensive and the creation of it shows that American foreign policy was potentially threatening and the USSR should be protected. Furthermore, it is showed that the US was a measurable rival, and they wanted to be able to defeat it. Of particular interest is the date that the Pact is established, as a few years ago, it was the outbreak of the first important war in the phase of the Cold War, the Korean War (1950-1953). The Cold War had already begun.
From what was discussed above, it becomes obvious that there are reasons to put blame on both the United States and the USSR for the start of the Cold War. Certainly, taking a closer look at history, it could be argued that in the period 1945-1991 the world endured a continuous period of war, with merely transient peaceful periods. Interest in maintaining the condition of war can be placed squarely within interstate relations and becomes more intense when they serve states interests.
The USSR and the USA in this case, cared about their survival and their security above all, which is why they tended to be aggressive and competitive. Among the two superpowers there were indeed large and significant differences, which is why they would inevitably come into conflict. One area of disagreement was economic philosophy –whilst principles of free market were espoused by the United States, USSR favored a centralized approach. One shared characteristic, on the other hand, was the attempts by both camps to achieve hegemony over the other, the Yalta Agreement, NATO and the Warsaw Pact being prime examples of this trend.
Also, it is observed that on both sides there was a tendency to ‘demonize’ the other. As in any war, there is this ‘good – vain’ distinction which serves as an excuse for the outbreak of war several times, as it can make one believe that he defends ideals rather than interests, which is ipso facto superior. So both sides seemingly defended their ideology, when looked at more closely, it seems clear that ambitions of achieving state security and preserving sovereignty ranked high on the list of priorities of both the Western and the Communist bloc.
The Cold War and the crises that have periodically exhibited the problem of anarchy in the international system and we shall recognize that there is hardly any historical period without warfare. When there is not a highest authority recognized by the states in order to verify and ensure peace, the phenomena of war and conflict will represent natural evolution of the foreign policy of states. Also, when there are competing ambitions to dominate worldwide, as happened, security dilemmas occur between states and there is a general uncertainty about the strategy to be followed in foreign policy. The common fear among the states for one another led to the policies that were established and eventually, caused the Cold War. So, this report concludes that for the start of the Cold War the faults run in the international system structure and nature of states rather than any individual decisions that were made.
Bull, H. (1977). The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics. Columbia University Press.
Friedman, N. (2007). The Fifty-Year War: Conflict and Strategy in the Cold War. Naval Institute Press.
Gaddis, J. L. (1990). Russia, the Soviet Union and the United States. An Interpretative History. McGraw-Hill.
Gaddis, J. L. (1990). Russia, the Soviet Union and the United States. An Interpretative History. McGraw-Hill.
Halliday, F. (1983). The Making of the Second Cold War . Verso.
Judge, E. H. (2012). The Cold War: A Global History With Documents .
LaFeber, W. (2002). America, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945–1992. McGraw-Hill. McGraw-Hill.
McMahon, R. (2003). The Cold War: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press.
Miller, R. G. (2000). To Save a City: The Berlin Airlift, 1948–1949. Texas A&M University Press.
Morgenthau, H. (1948). Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.
Stone, N. (2010). The Atlantic and Its Enemies: A History of the Cold War. Basic Books Press.
Walker, M. (1995). The Cold War: A History. British perspective.