How and When Did the Cold War Begin?

It is commonly accepted that the Cold War began soon after World War II ended, as the capitalist United States (US) and the communist Soviet Union vied with one another for global dominance. This is a simplistic model; the reality is much more complex. It is difficult to set a specific date (or even year) for when the Cold War began, as tensions had existed between the two nations for decades before World War II. This complexity is exacerbated because these tensions existed between the US and Russia, before the Russian Revolution brought the Soviets into power. One must consider how much influence those prior tensions had on the relationship between the two powers after the change in power. Walter LaFeber offers several important considerations, based upon the historic situation. While LaFeber’s book does set the beginning of the Cold War in 1945, he clearly shows that it did not spontaneously erupt, but was the result of a gradual antagonistic relationship between the two nations. In fact, not only did the conflict not begin in 1945, but the relationship was strained long before the 1917 revolution in Russia (LaFeber, p. 1). Both nations had expanding empires in the 19th Century, and they inevitably collided. When this happened, their different political structures, economic expectations, and opinions on human rights led to a strained relationship (LaFeber, p. 2-3). Two World Wars disrupted the potential conflict, as both nations fought on the same side in these wars, though the negative attitudes were not alleviated (LaFeber, p. 3). So the Cold War actually began in the late 19th Century as two antagonistic empires collided at the fringes of their borders of influence, but was not officially recognized or focused upon until after World War II, when they became the two dominant international powers, each trying to consolidate power and stability, while minimizing the influence of the other.

If it is possible to determine, according to LaFeber, that the Cold War formerly began in 1945 as the culmination of decades of strained relations, it is much more complex to determine exactly how it reached that point. It is not difficult to see how two strong military powers might come into conflict over a disputed region, and that happened in China in the late 19th century. While Russia had ceded territories in the Americas easily, they were not so compliant with American desires on other continents (LaFeber, p. 1). Both nations believed they operated under a mandate from God, with the Americans following their “manifest destiny” and the Russian Tsar being viewed as “an instrument of God’s will” (LaFeber, p. 2). With that understanding, it is easy to see how each would resist the other.

The differing political structures of each nation also led to strained tensions, especially regarding economic matters, and that antagonism continued throughout the conflict, and into the 21st century. The rigid bureaucratic nature of the Russian Empire did not lend itself well to innovation or invention, while the federal system of the US did. Eventually, this led to adoption of Western technology in Russia. American businesses wanted to develop technology and business opportunities, but Russia was likely to close off trade in its territories with foreign markets, as they could not compete (LaFeber, p.2). So while the US was pushing for open markets, the Russians were closing them. In order to contain the Russians, the US tended to support Japan in opposition to the Russians.

Besides the economic concerns, there were brutal reprisals against political dissenters in Russia in the late 19th century, as well as increased pogroms against Jews. In an America where freedom of speech and religion were important components of the legal system, the Russian approach did not set well. There were threats from the US of cessation of trade and even desires for Russian regime change (LaFeber, p. 2). This different outlook on human rights was an important consideration in any political discussions between the two nations. It was even a concern during World War I, when the Wilson administration saw, correctly, that there was no good outcome of that conflict, at least for the US. If Germany won, militarism would rule, but if the allies (including both the US and Russia) won, then Russia would dominate Europe (LaFeber, p. 3).

coldwarThis tension continued into the early decades of the 20th century, after the Soviets came to power and the Tsarist regime was abolished. In fact, the fears were heightened, because whereas the Tsar’s empire had been political, the Soviets brought the ideological idea of Marxism to serve as the unifying force for the nation. They took over the highly centralized bureaucracy of the Tsar, and continued to follow that model, though controlled by a small group of elites. The Americans feared the Soviets enough to participate in a failed coup to remove Lenin from power after World War I, which was later used by Soviet leaders to bolster their belief that the US wanted to contain and strangle their own nation (LaFeber, p. 2-3). The Americans refused to recognize the Soviet government, though still interacting in various ways with the Russian people.

When Stalin took over leadership of the Soviets in the 1924, he began instituting “5 year plans” that called for a self-sufficient society, leading to damaged trade relations with the US. This happened just as the US entered the worst of the depression years. Hoping to alleviate the situation, and under pressure from the business community, President Franklin Roosevelt finally recognized the Soviet Union, formally. The recognition had little effect. World War II intervened, just as Western relations with the Soviets were falling apart (LaFeber, p. 4-6).

This historical setting provides the foundation for the formalized conflict that occurred post-World War II. Most of those same issues continued to dominate the rhetoric of the conflict. The Soviets continued to accuse the US of attempting to encircle the Soviet Union, to contain, and ultimately control it, politically, socially, and economically. As the war ended in 1945, the Soviets had a strong military presence in eastern, and much of central, Europe. The two nations that had historically impeded Russian advancements, Germany and Japan, were in shambles. The Soviets feared a return to pre-World War II policies that had lead to disintegrating relations with the US and the rest of the Western powers. They began to consolidate their power in the areas they controlled. They desired security, with a tightly controlled society (LaFeber, p. 10, 22).

As the Soviets enlarged their influence in eastern and central Europe, the US made several fateful decisions. The Americans still believed their interests could only be maintained if the global economy remained open and free to all people – something not acceptable to the Soviets. Continual increase in trade with other nations was vital for the Americans. The Americans claimed that “If [the capitalistic system] cannot function internationally, it will break down completely” (qtd. in LaFeber, 10). Nations such as France and Great Britain eventually acquiesced to American pressure to lower subsidies and tariffs designed to make them more competitive with American products. This allowed the Americans to focus on the Soviets, yet they did so in a contradictory manner. While calling for free markets, the US, hoping to maintain the wartime coalition, used rhetoric that gave the Soviets the impression that they would be allowed to continue control over Eastern Europe. Then the Americans redefined the terms, which led to even more strained relations (LaFeber, p. 13-15).

Fearing that Germany would arise, this time controlled by the Americans, Stalin determined to keep his control over Eastern Europe as a buffer zone; America tried to penetrate these areas, unsuccessfully. Stalin also caused even tighter controls over Soviet society, and these changes did not find much acceptance in the US, where individual freedom was prized. While Americans claimed he was paranoid, Stalin was simply being realistic. After the Americans put troops into Russia in 1917-1920, failed to cooperate with the Soviets until World War II, and tried to influence areas that Stalin viewed as vital for national security, he had little recourse but to view the Americans as a threat (LaFeber, p. 20-22).

The final straw was America’s development of the atomic bomb, which it refused to share with the Soviets. The Americans hoped to use knowledge of the bomb as a trading commodity, to gain more access into Eastern Europe. They never successfully did this. Once the two bombs fell on Japan, the Soviets increased their attempts to build their own atomic weapons. The wartime alliance continued to fall apart, as the war came to an end. The Soviet Union controlled most nations in Eastern Europe and many in central Europe, as well. The Americans were influential in Western Europe, and portions of central Europe. The two old imperialistic nations, competing for decades, seemed ready for a major conflict, yet neither wanted a war, knowing that there would be no winners. So each began a policy of indirect influence, diplomatic intrigue, and military buildup. The Cold War had officially begun, after many decades of preparation.

The Key Turning Point of the Cold War in the Years Between 1950 and 1979

When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik on October 4, 1957, it signaled to the world that the Soviets possessed a rocket capable of reaching targets over 4000 miles away. The America no longer had a monopoly on ICBMs. While the Russians had actually fired an ICBM a few months earlier, the launch of an artificial satellite into space showed Soviet accomplishments to the world (LaFeber, p. 203). This event also led to an acceleration of the arms race. The projections at the end of World War II had shown that the Soviets would not be able to chance a major war for at least 15 years; that time had effectively elapsed (LaFeber, p. 30-31). The events after the launch of Sputnik, from the American perspective, showed that the Soviets were quickly catching up, and possibly surpassing the capabilities of the US, regarding rocket and weapon technology.

In fact, the Soviets were bluffing. While they did launch Sputnik, and had tested ICBMs, they actually declined to build “elementary first-generation” ICBMs, but waited for second and third-generation models to be developed, which took several years. The Soviets even used American views to parrot back to the US, to reinforce the deception (LaFeber, p. 204). This believed, but non-existent, “missile gap” allowed John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to attack Eisenhower’s policies, putting themselves into prominent positions before the country, which helped to eventually get them elected in 1960. Their political attacks coincided with Eisenhower administration reports that warned of the growing Soviet threat and encouraged a 50% spending increase in military funding. Eisenhower himself dismissed the studies and blamed the public scares on politicians focusing upon the upcoming elections.

While focusing on the threat from the Soviets, the US had become less competitive on world markets, with nations like Japan and Germany, both supported and rebuilt with American dollars, producing cheaper and higher quality goods. Despite the weakness of the economy, Eisenhower refused to allow the military spending to drastically increase, believing it would skew the economy, and not really help. As the president bade farewell to the nation upon Kennedy’s inauguration, he warned of the growing power of the military-industrial complex, and the negative impact it would have on the economy and society. However, once Eisenhower was out of office, the Soviet threat, and how it was perceived by the new administration led to several serious and potentially disastrous events (LaFeber, p. 205-207).

As Mao Ze-dong pointed out, “the international situation has reached a new turning point,” indicating his belief that the Soviet ICBM had redistributed power amongst the nations, and relegated the US to a position of lesser strength (LaFeber, p. 207). Included in this new distribution of power was a call for wars of liberation in smaller, third world countries. The Soviet Union tried to avoid this controversy, knowing that their strength was greatly exaggerated, but the period was filled with revolutions and anti-colonial rebellion, such as in Cuba and Indo-China (Vietnam). As these developing nations began to wage war, the Americans feared that each nation that fell to communism would be part of a chain that eventually led to communist control of the world (the “Domino Theory”). While President Kennedy did have reservations about the validity of the Domino Theory, military budgets in both nations were increased significantly (LaFeber, p. 221,227).

In fact, not only did Kennedy ignore Eisenhower’s warnings about the military-industrial complex, he actually “established in 1961 a special post in the Defense Department to sell American arms through private corporations to foreign nations” (LaFeber, p. 221). No longer were the two nations stockpiling arms to use as bargaining chips, intimidation, or defense. Both nations began to ship arms to foreign nations to influence the outcome of governmental policy in those regions.

Cuba came into focus, after Castro came to power in 1959. Supported by the Soviets, Cuba was viewed as a serious danger, being only 90 miles from the US border. In addition, America did not want to see a series of Cuba-like revolutions across Latin America. Attempting to remove Castro by force, in the Bay of Pigs invasion, proved fruitless. A year later, the two powers came extremely close to engaging in nuclear warfare over Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis “rechanneled the policies of the United States and the Soviet Union. It affected many facets of world affairs” (LaFeber, p. 223, 233).

By the spring of 1962, American officials were publicly dismissing the Soviet claims to military equality with the US, especially regarding missile technology, yet by the fall of that year, Soviets were installing weapons sites in Cuba, with missiles capable of reaching over 2000 miles. The Soviets had ships, carrying missile parts, sailing for the island nation, so the US determined to set up a blockade to keep them from reaching their destination. It appeared that war was imminent. At the last moment, the Soviets turned back, refusing to challenge the blockade and inciting war. Negotiations between the two nations led to an agreement that the US would not invade Cuba again, amongst other things. The major problem was that Castro was not consulted on these decisions and he was loathe to give up the arms he had received. However, he eventually did, and with Kennedy’s assurance that the US would not invade Cuba – as long as it commit aggressive acts against neighboring countries, and that all offensive weapons were removed – things began to calm (LaFeber, p. 235-237).

The fear of nuclear war hung over the populace of both the US and the Soviet Union. Because of how close war had come over the Cuban Missile Crisis, Khrushchev encouraged Kennedy to sign a non-aggression pact and signaled a willingness to break up the US and Soviet blocs. Eventually, this led to test bans on nuclear weapons, as well as the decline of Khrushchev’s power. The Soviet-controlled communist bloc was breaking up, slowly. Kennedy, on the other hand, came out of the crisis with a renewed popularity. These events also led an improvement in relations with the Soviet Union, but signaled trouble between the US and older allies, such as fellow NATO members (LaFeber, p. 238-239).

Between 1950 and1979, there were many major, important events. However, in my opinion, the launch of Sputnik, and the Soviet ICBM program serve as the turning point of the Cold War. Until then, the US had enjoyed a publicly known advantage in nuclear arms and delivery systems. When the Russians showed that they would compete (or at least convinced the Americans that they could), the arms race entered a new phase, where people began to live under the threat of nuclear war. These new long-range weapons redistributed the power between the nations, and allowed many smaller nations to experience revolutions, without immediate and direct influence by one of the major powers. The threat of missile attack by the other kept them at bay. This arms race came to a head over Cuba, and the result was that policy changed for both countries. Treaties were signed, intending to curb nuclear missile development, testing, and distribution. What transpired for the duration of the Cold War was the direct result of the events in these 5 years, from 1957 to 1962, and those events happened because the Soviets proved that they could produce a rocket, capable of sending a nuclear warhead half way around the world.

Who, if anyone, won the Cold War?

The question of winners and losers, in reference to the Cold War is probably unanswerable. There were so many participants, both major and minor, that it would take too much time to list them all and determine the final disposition of each. However, if limited to the two major powers, the US and the Soviet Union, the answer is more likely to be reached. Still, it appears that there are two different, yet equally valid responses. On the one hand, the Soviet Union crumbled under the weight of its bureaucracy and military spending, and was replaced by the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States, which is generally on friendly terms with the US, so it would be safe to conclude that the US “won” the Cold War in that regard. However, the ramifications of Cold War policy from both sides of the conflict have resulted in ongoing global conflagrations and increased terrorist activity, which is especially focused toward the US. So, in a sense, no one won the Cold War. In fact, not only was the situation for the US and the Soviet Union harmed by the Cold War, the whole world suffered as a result.

As the 1980’s progressed, Ronald Reagan’s administration took a hard line, especially in rhetoric, with the Soviets. Military spending increased in the US as Reagan focused upon “defeating the Soviet Union in the Cold War” (LaFeber, p. 317-18). The intervening years, from Kennedy to Carter had seen an easing of open hostility between the two nations, with détente and multiple treaties. Reagan, however, desired to put an end to Soviet Imperialism, as he saw it. When Brezhnev sent an inquiry about arms talks, Regan refused to participate, tapping into American anti-Soviet feelings that had existed for decades. He purposed to thrown the Soviet Union onto history’s “ash heap” and dedicated his foreign policy to that end. When criticized that there was no way to win a nuclear war, Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to counter opposition. While the possibility of SDI ever working was slim, it did help, along with other increases in military spending, to force the Soviets to increase their spending, as well. Since the Soviets were already struggling economically, even receiving aid from the US, the increases in military spending were devastating to the Soviet economy.

At the same time, the Soviets experienced a rash of changes in leadership. Brezhnev died, and was quickly followed, both in leadership and death, by Andropov and Chernenko. Their crackdown on dissent further damaged the economy, and gave rise to Gorbachev, who was more moderate than his predecessors. He relaxed restraints on religious groups and had a more open view of the West. In 1986, he called for “radical reform,” including more independence and business associations with the West (LaFeber, p. 333-35). Though opposed by hardliners, Gorbachev instituted glasnost and perestroika, hoping to improve individual initiative and to restructure the economy. The economy did not improve, however, it got worse. By the late 1980s, workers were going on strike, the economy was in shambles, and ethnic minorities agitated for freedom. LaFeber, p. 336).

In May 1989, the Soviets held an election for a new “People’s Congress”, where the communists suffered massive defeat. Less than a year later, the Communist Party gave up their monopoly of power in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev attempted to more toward a more Western-style governmental model. The only way his reforms would succeed would be to rein in spending, especially in overseas commitments. Therefore, the Soviets pulled out of many overseas entanglements. In the end, it was too little, too late (LaFeber, p. 336-41).

By the end of 1991, the Soviet Union was no more. In a sense, the Cold War had come to an end, due to the death of one of the participants. As LaFeber points out, “the Cold War was over, but the roots of the century-long competition between Americans and Russians remained…” (p. 346, 387-88). It is important to remember that the tension and conflict had existed between the two before the creation of the Soviet Union. As the Soviet system crumbled, America rose to a new status as an unrivaled power. It was not clear how the two nations would respond to the new global dynamics.

Ultimately, the power of America and the frustration of Russia were joined by another issue – fragmentation of the global system. Ethnically, politically, economically, and religiously, the end of the Cold War fueled the fragmentation at an unbelievable rate. Specifically, religious and ethnic concerns caused turmoil. “One authority noted that although the United Nations recognized that some 185 countries existed, they contained about 250 ethnic-religious groups who could argue for statehood” (LaFeber, p. 347). Even inside the US, groups arose, demanding major changes in American society. Without the Soviet Union to serve as a common enemy, American political groups began to experience internal disagreements. The world became more unpredictable, since the landscape had changed (LaFeber, p. 368-71).

The resulting chaos had serious consequences. During the Clinton administration, it was proposed to replace the containment policy, since it was no longer necessary, and replace it with an “enlargement” policy, whereby markets were to be developed into free and democratic communities. This led to several foreign interventions, where American troops were used for both humanitarian missions and military campaigns. Clinton eventually settled into a plan of encouraging market transformation through more lucrative trade (LaFeber, p. 372-81). The American people found themselves disjointed and unfocused. They realized that there were several inherent problems, including how to adjust to a new world situation without major unrest (LaFeber, p. 404-06). While they may have won the Cold War, was the result something to be desired?

This chaos led to the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., which were instigated by Osama Bin Laden, a Saudi who resented the American presence in the Middle East. This attack was preceded by several other violent acts, resulting in mayhem and death. What separated the these attacks from those that had been done before the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center was the fact that though some of the same people were involved, the later attacks were not nation-based, as the others were. In addition, these later attacks were not immediate reprisals for some perceived attack, but indiscriminate terrorism. Finally, rather than nationalistic underpinnings, modern terrorism is motivated by religious beliefs, as understood by the terrorists (LaFeber, p. 412-13).

More importantly, these types of attacks are the product of the Cold War. There is a clear connection from the Soviet-American struggle to Osama Bin Laden, and other terrorist leaders. Bin Laden had left his wealthy family in Saudi Arabia to help and support fellow Muslims who were being attacked by the Soviets in Afghanistan. He received American support, money, and influence to combat the Soviets, as the Cold War’s end drew near. Once the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, he soon turned against his former supporters in the US, which he viewed with disdain, calling it “haughty and arrogant” (LaFeber, p. 416).

The American attack on Iraq in the Gulf War of 1991 only inflamed Bin Laden and others like him. Other groups and individuals arose to denounce American aggression, most of them formerly supported by the US in opposition to the Soviets. In fact, the target of the first Gulf War, and the original target of the current Iraqi War, was Saddam Hussein, who had been supported by the US during the Cold War. Afghanistan, once defended indirectly by the Americans, is now under attack by America. Stability is gone and chaos reigns.

So to answer the question of who won the Cold War, the simple answer is that the US won, as the Soviet Union ceased to exist. The more complete answer would be that there were no winners, besides those who were enriched by the growing military-industrial complex. Certainly, the majority of inhabitants in either country could say that terrorism from unknown sources, increased security measures in most countries that impede civil liberties, and ongoing military conflicts are the result of the Cold War and its resolution. With dead soldiers being returned to their families every day from war torn areas, that are battlegrounds because of the political decisions made during the Cold War, it is fitting to determine that there were no winners at all.