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When and Why Did the Cold War Start? Essay Sample

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Introduction of TOPIC

The cold war in its original form was a presumably mortal antagonism, arising in the wake of the Second World War, between two ‘rigidly hostile blocs’. One led by the Communist Soviets and the other by Capitalist United States. It has been described as an ‘inevitable clash of ideologies’. However the question arises as to how the Cold War began, after all during the Second World War, The USSR and the US were war allies. How could former members of the ‘Grand Alliance’ establish such a distrust and suspicion of the one another? Many historians and political analysts have tried to prove theories of the start of the Cold War. For example Gaddis argued that the Cold war was:

‘Stalin’s project, resulting from his paranoid personality, his revolutionary zeal and his ideological fervor’ [John L, Gaddis ‘We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History 1997]

Differing theories make it hard to come to any sort of conclusions on the question of who or what was the primary cause of the war, there do seem to be however a number of initial causes, the removal of a common enemy being a major factor. As we see the differences laid bare between capitalist USA and communist Russia for all to see once their attentions were no longer diverted to Germany. A realization by Stalin himself:

‘ The alliance between ourselves and the democratic faction of the capitalists succeeds because the latter had an interest in preventing Hitler’s domination…at present we are with one faction against the other , but in the future we shall be against this faction of the capitalists as well’. [Leffler, M. ‘Origins of the Cold War 2nd ed’ 2005]

This was also evidence that Stalin believed the ideological conflict was inevitable, it puts into question the very alliance, perhaps it was mere military convenience for both parties at the time of having a common interest. Two contrasting ideologies could never really work together effectively, or perhaps they could.

Stalin’s reasons for abolishing the Comintern, evidence that this was a mere gesture as opposed to a ‘grand gesture’ are doubted due to the fact that the same rationalization was propounded internally as well as publicly:

‘Stalin emphasized the demands of the anti-fascist struggle – the strengthening of allied unity and the facilitation of the ‘work of patriots of all countries in uniting the progressive forces thus clearing the way for the future organization of a companionship of nations based upon their equality’ [Leffler, M. ‘Origins of the Cold War 2nd ed’ 2005]

It highlights Stalin’s willingness to cooperate with the West and make some concessions, which contradicts theories by Gaddis and Stalin’s totalitarian nature.

Even during the Cold War Stalin remained often optimistic on future cooperations with the West:

‘At no time during the Cold War did Stalin or his successors give up completely on the idea of collaboration with the West. Indeed on one reading Soviet foreign policy during the Cold War years was one long search for a return to some kind of ‘Grand Alliance”’. [Leffler, M. ‘Origins of the Cold War 2nd ed’ 2005]

Germany and Poland were issues that heightened tensions between the Grand Alliance. Stalin’s hate and distrust for the Germans made difficult the diplomatic solution over what to do with Germany, in his revolution anniversary speech of November 1944 he believed:

‘It would be simple minded to think that she will not attempt to restore her power and develop some new aggression’. [Leffler, M. ‘Origins of the Cold War 2nd ed’ 2005]

Even before the end of the war Stalin’s suspicions were evident over the intentions of Britain’s role concerning Germany. In a cable to Ambassador Maisky in London of October 1942 is evidence of his view on Churchill ‘dragging his feet’ on the Second Front which is evidence of the early signs of distrust already brewing between the Allies:

‘All of us in Moscow have formed the impression that Churchill is holding to a course of the defeat of the USSR in order then to make an agreement with Germany…at our country’s expense’. . [Leffler, M. ‘Origins of the Cold War 2nd ed’ 2005]

In Churchill’s defense it was noted in Lord Alanbrooke’s diaries that the Second Front should have been delayed for as long as possible to properly prepare militarily, it was not something to be rushed into.

The dismemberment of Germany so favoured by Stalin was met with resistance from Britain and America at Yalta. He felt as though there was too much leniency towards Germany. At a rather impassioned speech he reportedly told a Czech delegation in March 1945 that he ‘hated’ the Germans, also referring to the Allies’ appeasement:

‘We must bear in mind that our allies will try to save the Germans and conspire with them. We will be merciless toward the Germans, but our allies will seek to treat them more leniently’. . [Leffler, M. ‘Origins of the Cold War 2nd ed’ 2005]

The type of passionate language used here does perhaps reinforce Gaddis’s view that Stalin was rather zealous and perhaps slightly paranoid.

Over Poland Stalin was extremely rigid which became issue of great concern for the Allies, incurring more suspicion between the two sides. On the one hand the British and American governments were sure that the Soviet Union was bent on ‘dominating’ Poland, on the other hand Stalin believed that the West wanted to expose Russia to an assault from the West. This ensured political ‘loggerhead’ and a resolution over Poland near impossible.

‘The Provisional Government which is now functioning in Poland should ….be reorganized on a broader democratic basis with the inclusion of democratic leaders from Poland itself and from Poles abroad’

This was to be accomplished by: ‘Free and unfettered

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elections as soon as possible on the basis of universal suffrage and secret ballot’. [ Feis, H. ‘Between War and Peace – The Potsdam Conference’ 1960]

Britain felt particular obligations to the Poles because they had been the immediate cause of her declaration of war against Germany.

Any chance that the Polish would be allowed to achieve this was based on fulfillment by the allies of this pledge. However Stalin’s behaviour in eastern Europe upset the Allies, broken promises on elections and the treatment of the Polish, his territorial activities were ‘not good’ to say the least. according to Churchill who flew to Moscow for the ‘Percentages Agreement’ in October of 1944. Installing token non communist supporters into Polish government while quietly destroying any factions who opposed him Stalin’s acts of colonial barbarity was a sign that he could not be worked with as he moved further away from Western ideology.

If the methods Stalin employed to assert his control in the east of the Continent had made the Cold War inevitable, then his unfulfilled expectations in the Western part made it ‘irreversible’ according to Vojtech Mastny, author of ‘The Cold War and Soviet Insecurity’. Who believed that a reversal of Western Europe’s weakness would be threatening to Russia, only made worse in its formality of the Marshall Plan.

The Marshall Plan was drawn up to introduce the recovery of economy in the west including Germany. It was seen by the Soviets as start of some form of clash between the West and themselves as Adam Ulam stated:

‘With the Marshall Plan the Cold War assumes the character of position warfare’. [Parrish, Scott & Narinsky, Mikhail. ‘New Evidence on the Soviet Rejection of the Marshall Plan 1947: Two Reports’ 1994]

Whereas American Ambassador Walter Smith regarded the Soviet rejection of The Marshall Plan as:

‘Nothing less than a declaration of war by the USSR on the immediate issue of the control of Europe’ [Parrish, Scott & Narinsky, Mikhail. ‘New Evidence on the Soviet Rejection of the Marshall Plan 1947: Two Reports’ 1994]

The Marshall plan was rejected by Stalin as it went against the Potsdam conference in July 1945 which was implemented so that Germany would remain militarily and economically weak a requirement on which Stalin was not prepared to negotiate:

‘(b) to assure the production and maintenance of goods and services required to meet the needs of the occupying forces and displaced persons in Germany and essential to maintain in Germany average living standards not exceeding the average of the standards of living of European countries’

In his reply to Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech in March 1946, Stalin described Churchill as a ‘warmonger’ and accused him of advocating a racial theory of the superiority of ‘English-speaking’ nations, going so far as comparing him to Hitler’s view of the supremetiy of the Aryan race.

‘From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent’

proclaiming that the people were:

‘Subject not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and in many cases, increasing measure of Soviet control….Communist parties were seeking everywhere to obtain totalitarian control and except in Czechoslovakia, there is no true democracy’ [Reynolds, D. ‘From World War to Cold War’ 2006]

A harsh suspicion was beginning to settle on America and Britain, they believed the Soviets were not only managing to isolate themselves from the West but were ‘totalitarian’ in their efforts to control Eastern Europe. Churchill did not want to address the problem with a policy of appeasement, warning of a Third World War stating ‘we must not let this happen again’. This could well have been in Stalin’s eyes a declaration of war, at least a war of ideologies.

Roosevelt however was ‘Wilsonian’ in attitude, with his ideology of regulating conflict, for example the League of Nations, which he wanted to recreate under the name of the United Nations. Roosevelt felt he could persuade Stalin to join the UN which would lead to an ethical minimum standard in international relations. Because of this Roosevelt was willing to make concessions and compromises to get Stalin on board and agree with the ‘New World Order’ centered around the UN.

Offner blamed Truman and the atom bomb in 1945 believing Truman’s approach was tougher due to the bomb which gave them greater military standing. Truman was said to have been ‘tired of babying the Soviets’ and did not cooperate with Stalin as did his predecessor Roosevelt.

The nuclear attack on Japan and the secrecy that surrounded the development of the bomb increased the tensions between the two sides. Neither Roosevelt nor Truman was willing to share information on the bomb with the Soviets. American scientists’ appeals to inform Stalin of the new research were ignored. Rather, President Truman sought to use his country’s atomic monopoly as leverage in the worsening conflict.

Culminating in a ‘spat’ over reparations in early 1946, Stalin suspended agricultural deliveries to Western Germany. Immediately the problem shifted from Germany who was now cooperating with the Allies, (although having little choice) to Russia. Russia and Stalin were now seen as a problem for the Allies to deal with.

A turning point was Secretary of State Burn’s treaty of demilitarization of Germany which was rejected by Russia, leading to a genuine suspicion growing between both sides. On the forming of Bizonia in 1947 somewhat of a ‘phoenix’ German state, led to economic recovery as opposed to military recovery, France also joined. Leading to ever increased tensions between Stalin and the now new Western allied Germany, as the West followed their own course so to speak.

Indicating that not all of the ‘paranoia’ and suspicion was coming from the Kremlin, strategic thinkers and military analysts in the US in autumn of 1945 insisted that any power or powers attempting to dominate Eurasia must be regarded as potentially hostile to the United States. America was determined to prevent the Eurasian land mass from falling under Soviet and Communist influence.

Secretary Patterson of the US War Department believed:

‘Soviet control of the Ruhr Rhineland industrial complex would constitute an extreme threat’. [Leffler, M. ‘Origins of the Cold War 2nd ed’ 2005]

In mid 1946 the former General and Ambassador to Moscow, Walter Bedell Smith stated:

‘Soviet power is by nature so jealous that it has already operated to segregate from world economy almost all of the areas in which it has been established’ [Leffler, M. ‘Origins of the Cold War 2nd ed’ 2005]

The view by the USA that the Soviet Union was a threatened and ‘jealous’ power willing to do anything to prevent other powers from gaining at its expense was another cause of the beginning of the Cold War. Reinforcing again the issue of distrust and threat instead of collaboration and cooperation

By using aircraft Truman was able to overcome the blockade and effectively put the first move in Russia’s hands, realizing that if the planes were shot down it would mean all out war. Some suggest this was Stalin’s biggest mistake as he isolated himself from the West and revealed himself as an enemy state. Matters not helped by Truman who insisted on arming states close to and on borders with the Soviet Union. The Truman Doctrine of March 1947 resulted in the deliver of military assistance to Greece and Turkey. At Moscow’s address He proclaimed the:

‘American determination to uphold by whatever means necessary the integrity of states endangered by communist subversion’ [Mastny, V ‘The Cold War and Soviet Insecurity’ 1996]

After the Summer of 1947 the Cold War was seen as:

‘The totality of foreign policies of each side that became the object of attack by the other’. [Parrish, Scott & Narinsky, Mikhail. ‘New Evidence on the Soviet Rejection of the Marshall Plan 1947: Two Reports’ 1994]


Feis, H. ‘Between War and Peace – The Potsdam Conference’ 1960

Feis, H. ‘Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin’ 1957

Gaddis, J ‘The United States and the Origins of the Cold War’ 1972

Gaddis, J ‘We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History 1997

Leffler, M. ‘Origins of the Cold War 2nd ed’ 2005

Mastny, V ‘The Cold War and Soviet Insecurity’ 1996

Parrish, S &

Narinsky, M. ‘New Evidence on the Soviet Rejection of the Marshall Plan 1947: Two Reports’ 1994

Reynolds, D ‘From World War to Cold War’ 2006

Yale Law School ‘The Avalon Project, Potsdam Conference’ 1997

Yergin ,D ‘Shattered Peace’ 1978

Online Sources:


The Marshall Plan

October 2006


Potsdam Conference

March 23 1999


Yalta Conference

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