It’s often been discussed in many a history class. But as a shortened answer – yes. why? can i give such a conclusive but brief answer … well it happened so at one point or another there must have been a point of no return where conflict between the USA and the USSR was inevitable. So the real question here is at what point could either side no longer back down if at all.
The question is still a valid one. Today we are still living through the effects of the war where “there is no shooting … only bleeding” and to some extent we are still bleeding – some would argue we are still shooting.
I was given this chirpy question as part of an A-level history assignment. Bearing in mind I will only have 40 minutes in the actual exam to write a similar essay I went on the write 3000 words on the topic. so instead of letting them go to waste I thought I would share them with you.
It’s only a small part of at least 50,000 words I have written for my history studies this year! as it occurred to me that this is my last year of school studies it would seem a shame if all my efforts were not share hopefully this will aid someone else’s studies of the period …. by please no cheating and read only. As a rule history should be”by the book” only – believe me i have enough of them!
on to the essay …
To what extent was the cold war inevitable?
The cold war is often argued as an ideological confrontation between the political systems of the capitalists versus the communists. This battle transforms itself into several forms through the second half of the 20th century and its impact has shaped the modern world. Why this confrontation developed cannot be decisively established. With no event/ specific area of conflict to determine the exact date of its creation, this new “war” is almost undoubtedly the result of the tension within the wartime alliance. Traditionalists, however, often date this tension back to the Russian revolution of 1917. The US support of the white army instead of the Bolshevik Reds, during the civil war, is often described as a cause for political distrust by the Soviets. Whereas revisionists argue that Truman’s economically aggressive foreign policy forced the USSR to take hostile action against them, this usually resulted in their support of USA’S political enemies (e.g. Fidel Castro) like the US had in 1917. The Conflict between Russia and America was inevitable the rise of both world powers resulting in rivalry ; however deciphering the causes before 1945 without an exact beginning date is an unusual challenge and shows that this battle is unique to its eras conditions. The growth of American and Soviet Russia’s power during the same period would inevitably lead to conflict; this may have been political, ideological, military, within the spheres of influence, economically or culturally. The nature of the conflict is therefore directly linked to the era and the conditions of the post war world.
With the collapse of the imperialist powers in Western Europe, after demising in colonial wealth, two great world powers came to inherit the resulting political void. Russia and the US could therefore have fallen into a “’traditional’ great power rivalry” as seen in Europe in the dawn of the 19th and late 18th century’s. The collapse of the French and British empires saw the end of a Eurocentric world. The creation of over 23 separate states (1944-46) shows the imperial turmoil the post war world had created; newly independent states such as Israel were highly controversial. The decentralisation of colonies, especially within Africa, presented a new opportunity as the land was essentially “up for sale”. The Americans were especially keen for these new states to become independent of their European rulers and grow into strong democratic and economically stable countries. Policies like the Marshall plan were set in place. In turn the Russians saw this as an aggressive spread of American influence and as an investment into the development of America’s economy – growing states into reputable trading partners for its own gain. This view is held by revisionist historian William A. Williams who sees Americans as “empire building people” – something America has always denied (refusing to be seen as colonial like the 19th century European powers). They do not invade, according to his theory, by military means but economically. Secretary of state Hull attempted to replace Imperial tariff with US aid reaching out to the newly formed non colonial states. The “open door” policy of USA’s international economic policy shows their desire to retain foreign markets for US-business; something that would later cause tension between Cuba and the US. The aim of this policy? Williams believes that US economic policy makers are solely concerned in maintaining capitalism domestically. The Truman plan provided international loans to countries (mostly in Europe) at risk of communist revolution. It was Truman’s belief that a strong, developed economy within a country could settle disrest and prevent revolution. Looking back to the 1917 revolution the starvation of the workers within cities, such as St. Petersburg, was a crucial factor in the public political opinion; the battle cry of the revolution “peace, bread, work” showed the populaces economic reasons for joining in revolt. Truman saw a need to prevent the spread of communism into the European countries that had become decimated by the war. He offered economic growth as a means to confront Communism.
The end of Eurocentrism therefore gave political ‘space’ for conflict between the growing world powers. The 19th century Capitalist European powers had adopted a policy of isolation towards the Soviets. The Bolshevik exclusion from diplomacy constituted into agreements such as the treaty of Brest-Litovsk which resulted in the loss of territory to Russia. Russia in turn was suspicious of the west; unfair treaties were used as examples of “imperialist plotting for their downfall”. The interwar years of the 1920’s saw a “pattern of oscillation between accommodation, isolation and ideological confrontation” between the Bolsheviks and the rest of Europe. The distrust of the Russians stemmed from the 1917 revolution, as one American policy maker put it “a reading of communist ideology reinforced this tendency to the see the USSR as Naturally expansionist and committed to spreading revolution”. The Americans did not formally recognise the Soviet regime until the wartime alliance; secretary of state Colby summed up the US’s reason in his August statement 1920. Formally Colby A fear of communism was spread by exiles from the civil war as well as several prominent anti-Bolsheviks. Propaganda spread the view of USSR as “a threat to domestic and international stability”. As a result the public opinion in the USA came to a turning point. The “red scare” of 1919-20 saw US law enforcement joining pro-business activists to destroy what they saw as a communist/radical threat after the ‘revolutionary party’ led strikes and sent bombs to officials in the name of radical communism. The spread of communism to china under Mao Zedong in 1948 showed Americans the global aspirations of this “revolutionary communism” – seeing this as a direct threat to domestic America. The ‘red scare’ as well as the exposition of supposed “enemies of the state” by McCarthy in the 1940/50’s, this helped to spread the sense of insecurity within the US. At the same time that the USSR supposedly adopted a policy of ideological spread via revolution whereas the American “policies were committed to spreading USA’s dominance in world affairs” – both world powers were seeking expansion in their spheres of influence. US policy makers were “committed to spreading USA’s dominance in world affairs”. Inevitably these spheres would cross as the boundaries of influence were drawn closer. The modern world had become smaller; improved transport and communication due to rapid advances during both world wars. The military technological advance also saw the increased size of military weapons and the distance that they were able to travel. The striking range of armaments meant that international conflict could be fought within their own borders.
The new form of war was established with the end of the last. The dropping of the A-bomb on Japan brought warfare into a new era of nuclear weaponry. Revisionist historian Gar Alperovitz argues that the use of nuclear bombs on japan was not used to win the war quickly but to intimidate the Soviets. In his opinion the cold war is a result of the use of the atomic bomb. From its dropping in 1945 the war was therefore inevitable; it would ultimately lead to the space race and nuclear tension. The “last actions of one conflict were the first major shots in another”. The end of the war saw not only technological change but political. USA had long adopted self-isolation in international politics but at the end of the war saw new diplomatic policies being put forward with the notion of ‘never again’ as their driving point. The ‘mistakes’ of 1919-1930 were seen as a result of America’s isolation. Pearl harbour was used as an example to show that the USA must take “a leading role in world affairs to encourage prosperity and stable democracies”. This was laid out in war time agreements such as the Atlantic charter and the Munich analogy; “if rejected or refused international laws they must be resisted”. The determination to take part in international agreements is the state’s willingness to act as a great power – a clause agreed by many political scientists such as George Modelski. This change in attitude was upheld using international bodies such as the UNO, Bretton Wood financial systems, IMF and the world bank. The FDR had wanted to establish diplomatic relations with the USSR in 1930/40’s hoping that diplomatic recognition would “mellow” soviet policy reducing its revolutionary aims. However the isolationist policy had meant that public opinion was already opposed to foreign commitments over Japan and Germany. Trade remained low and the soviet spying relentless; the unresponsive Stalin during the announcement the Manhattan project’s success, proved how deep they had infiltrated into the American system.
This tension during the war inevitably lead to the breakdown of this wartime alliance one the common enemy was defeated. The alliance had been one “of convenience, not trust” as geopolitical considerations had gone ahead of ideology. The USA was forced to reluctantly recognise the Soviets in 1933, despite Stalin’s repressive policies such as the Purges and Siberian labour camps. FDR debated over the proper policy towards the USSR; “…deeply influenced both US-Soviet relations and the domestic policies of the communist issue”. From the start, the alliance was based on mutual distrust. The soviets lagged in technological advance and saw the need for an alliance in order to uphold its borders. However throughout the war ideological mistrust as well as memories of Munich tainted their alliance. These seemed to be rightly held by the soviets as the allies push Hitler further east towards Stalin, the Russians lost more men and suffered far more than any other. During the war the aim of Russia seemed to be different than the west, as a British diplomat commented “he spoke of minimum conditions he meant that his government insisted on recovering the territory violated by Hitler”. The hope for continued co-operation came primarily from Litvinov who advocated the policy in order to maintain peace and influence within an “anti-fascist solidarity” he saw capitalism and communism working alongside each other in an alliance, not of convenience, but ideology – against fascist rule. Litvinov’s downgrading in 1946 is noted by Harriman as a sign of political movement away from co-operation. With this conflict seemed inevitable.
The change in American policy made it hard for soviet policy makers to determine their reaction. With no historic reference to the US’s actions without an isolationist foreign policy (the Russians had expected this to continue after the war) made their judgement hard to decipher. For example the American rejection of Russia’s proposal at Potsdam to be given former Axis colonies in Africa came as a surprise to the Soviets. As the Americans were pressured to “expand their definition of security needs” the USSR also sought to expand on the Anglo-American tensions that had built up in the “special relationship” and use them to their own diplomatic failure. There inability to do so showed how “out of touch” they had become in international diplomacy. There years of enforced isolation during the 1920’s had reduced their knowledge of post war diplomacy and how the great powers conducted their domestic negotiations. However the tentative agreement (Nov 1944) shows that deals were possible with the soviets after/at the end of the war. Roosevelt in turn also misunderstood the relationship between the US and USSR. He believed he could build on the ‘mutual trust’ built up during the war – he even returned an OSS code book without copying/ recording it. At the end of the war the A-bomb also made Soviet-American relations tricky. Its development bred resentment and distrust; the high levels of espionage throughout the war, on both sides, show this.
USSR planned for peace on the assumption of a secure western border with a weakened Germany. Poland was one of the most volatile areas at the end of the war, with competing exile governments its fate was debated between western allies, “never again policies” and soviet ambitions. The most significant act of war time distrust came to light as Russia was accused of the massacres of polish officers during the war, they denied this until the 1990’s. Fears and suspicions still circulated however about Russian behaviour in Eastern Europe. Stalin’s suspicious nature led to these cover ups and allegations. The collective security adopted by the west became a key point of anxiety; Stalin wanted control of the USSR’s own destiny and boarders knowing the west would not head decisions that would directly benefit due to their ideological differentiation. USSR had ambitious internal affairs “As Stalin has said, we must proceed step by step and before taking any new step we should consolidate positions already acquired” and showed little intention for global expansion at the end of the war. Russia’s historic sense of vulnerability, fuelled by unsecure borders in 1812, 1914, 1919 and 1941, was dealt with by capturing surrounding land as a buffer zone during tsarist rule. It is argued that Russia was still looking eurocentricity in the 1940’s. The division of Germany at Potsdam was a way of dealing with the indecision and conflicting aims of the allies. All agreed that Germany was to be de-Nazified, demilitarised, deindustrialised and for democratic power to be re-established, however it was the interpretation and execution of these aims that lead to debate. Each power looked after their own needs – France for instance was reluctant to accept German control of the Saar which delayed co-operation until the autumn of 1945 meaning that the German people suffered the harsh winter of 1943. Britain on the other hand wanted to reduce its economic burden placed on them – their economy heavily reliant on several American loans. The soviets aim of revenge and reparation conflicted with the American notion of “never again”. Seeing how harsh treaties had led to the start of the second war the west was keen not to repeat the cycle. Stalin meanwhile had set up his own reparations commission headed by Maisky and Litvinov. There demands for German reparation in order to pay for war-time destruction, dismantlement of all factories regardless of whether they were war making or not and forcing experts to work for the USSR was deemed as the “complete violation of all efforts to maintain ‘non war’ potential industries in Germany” as it eradicated the east German economy.
Most historians persist that the cold war was not inevitable but brought on by the opposing leaders. John Lewis Gaddis demarked six main reasons for the outbreak of the cold war. Firstly, the confusion over US and USSR’s foreign, on both sides, blamed mostly on Molotov for exacerbating the mistrust. Gaddis then goes on to blame the change in policy by the Americans – becoming involved in world affairs rather than isolationist as Stalin had expected them to remain. The misread soviet intention at this time is also made liable, the propaganda spread by anti-Bolsheviks helped to develop this interpretation. Gaddis also remarks that the US was politically, economically and militarily stronger than any other state at that time. This gave it freedom to act; its natural counterpart was the USSR the world power that had developed alongside America, they became rival blocks as each’s influence spread. He also stresses that the US only acted as it chose to see the soviets as aggressive expansionists. This post revisionist view also dictates that the incompatible ideology did not lead to conflict between both countries.
Following Gaddis opinions as a model the cold war was not as inevitable as some suggest. Without ideology as the catalyst but using the conditions of the post war world the antagonism between the USA and USSR is clearly frictional towards the end of the war and evident in post war discussions. The high levels of espionage undertaken by both countries in the last year of the war showed an increase in distrust. The dropping of the bomb is just as pointed as its secret conception and shows the political distrust of not only Russia but the rest of the Allies at the end of the war. The different aim of the allies during post war discussions suggests that the cold war was ultimately inevitable. The difference in political systems and interpretation of terms was bound to cause further mistrust and tension.
If you actually read this I am impressed and very pleased ! Thank you for taking time. If you are reading this as part of your studies here is a list of source material that i used to write this essay and may aid you.
- The Cold War – Mike sewell
- AQA Aspects of International Relations textbook – John Aldred
- The Cold War – David G Williamson
Thank you again for reading please like and comment on what you would like to find next time !