In the early period immediately after the Second World War, the Cold war emerged as the most dominant matter, of both political and diplomatic importance, on the international stage. The main adversaries during the Cold War were, the United States and the Soviet Union. The two enemies did not confront each other directly on the battle ground as they were afraid of the consequences of doing so (Mueller 2002). Therefore, the Cold War derived its name from the non-confrontational nature of the adversaries involved. The two nations were instead involved in conflicts in different countries across the globe. Political propaganda was employed by the two sides as their main weapon. Threats and denunciations marked this era.
It is not one factor or event that signified the onset of this War. Instead, there are varied causes of the war. One of such causes was ideological. The Soviet Union and the United States had two contrasting and conflicting systems of government. Democracy defined the system of government in the United States whereby the government is put in place through free elections that involve political parties, which represent the voice of the people. On the other hand, the Communist Party solely formed the government of the Soviet Union. Freedom of forming political parties did not exist and people did not enjoy as much freedom in the Soviet Union as they do in the United States (Black 2003). Therefore, the two governments were essentially opposed to each other and there could hardly be any compromise between the two superpowers, with each determined to dominate the other.
Economic factors also contributed to the escalation of the war. On one hand, the United States was trying to promote free trade in all corners of the world. On the other hand, the Soviet Union was opposed to free trade because it wanted to cushion itself from any possible western influences, some of which would have come with such trade. If Western influences were to penetrate into the Soviet Union, there were fears of erosion of the totalitarian government. These differences fuelled further the distasteful feelings between the two sides and sustained the Cold War drama.
Rivalry over power between the United States and the Soviet Union directly resulted in the Cold war conflict. At the end of the Second World War, Europe had greatly declined. Therefore, military power was mostly divided between the United States and her adversary the Soviet Union (Halliday 1983, 11). Each nation was determined at dominating each other, and by doing so, control the world. With such a determination being manifested by the two sides, conflicts on the international stage were inevitable.
However, there are some factors that can be termed as the immediate causes of the war. Early conflicts between the two superpowers started in the peace-time conferences. Their conflict escalated when President Harry Truman announced the Truman Doctrine and- in 1947- put into practice the Marshall Plan.
The projection of Russian influence into Europe was a major factor. Even prior to the cessation of the Second World War, already the Soviet Union had slowly extended her sway in Europe. By the end of 1944, Soviet’s Red Army had freed and controlled a big portion of Eastern Europe. By the end of 1945, the Soviet Union controlled part of Poland and the eastern part of Germany. The Soviet Union influenced the installation of communist governments in the areas it controlled in Europe. The spreading influence of communism in Europe, therefore, became a major immediate cause of Cold War as the United States sort to curtail this influence (Lebow 1994, 249-277).
The harsh response by the United States to the expanding Russian influence in Europe played a major role at sparking off the war. The government of President Roosevelt was optimistic about cooperating with the Soviet Union. However, when Harry Truman rose to power, United States’ policies towards Soviet Union’s expanding influence in Eastern Europe changed drastically. Truman advocated for a policy of powerful resistance against the apparent Russian expansion. Truman had also believed that America’s sole possession of atomic bomb would bolster the United States in taking a stiff stance towards Russian influence in Europe. All this factors combined to set the stage ready for the Cold War.
Let us now see what the Cold War was all about. Firstly, the Cold War was about which power would gain preponderance over the other. At the end of Second World War, the Soviet Union and the United States emerged as the major superpowers because Europe had greatly declined. Therefore, the war centred on a competition for military and economic power between the United States and the Soviet Union. Each of the two powers sought to command as much political influence as possible, and spread it to as many countries as they could. The competition for military power and political influence is best portrayed in the formation of military organisations such as the Northern Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the Warsaw Pact (Gaddis 1993, 5-58). NATO comprised of United States allies, whereas Warsaw Pact was founded by Russia’s allies. NATO treaty was basically a defensive military organisation against the apparent communist aggression. It was formed as a strategy of conquering Soviet Union’s influence in the world (McCauley 2004, 56). Members of NATO agreed that an attack on any of their ally by the Soviet Union would be considered as an act of aggression against all the organisation’s allies. If such an attack would occur, any retaliatory action that was deemed appropriate, including the use of military force would be taken against the Soviet Union. Similarly, the Warsaw Pact was formed with the objective of bolstering Soviet Union’s political and military influence. It was a counter-alliance against the newly founded military organisation of NATO (Halle 1967, 21). The Soviet Union viewed NATO with a mixture of suspicion and fear. Therefore, the Soviet Union formed the Warsaw pact with her allies. It comprised all communist states in Europe with the only exception of Yugoslavia. The pact was, seemingly, for peaceful objectives as well as for defence. All members were assured of any necessary support, including use of military force, in the occurrence of military aggression.
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Secondly, the Cold war was about the pursuit of ideological preponderance. Both the United States and the Soviet Union espoused different ideological principles. On the one hand, the Soviet Union sought to spread her communist ideology and influence to all parts of the world, starting in Eastern Europe. The origin of the communism can be traced back to the rise in Russia of the revolutionary Bolshevik regime, dedicated to the propagation of this worldview in the industrialised world. The leaders of the revolution considered the gains of communism as imperative (Chung 2006). On the other hand, the United States sought to counter the spreading communist influence by advocating for a worldview of her own- capitalism. Therefore, the Cold War was about which of the two worldviews would dominate the world. The United States and the Soviet Union sought to spread the underlying ideals with an aggressive zest.
The Cold War was also about the two main adversaries competing for technological superiority and flaunting it for the world to see. For example, the Soviet Union- in 1957- sent Sputnik 1 into orbit and circled the earth. Here, the arms race changed into space race with the United States hurrying to initiate its own satellites. Therefore, the Cold War era effectively became a stage for the show of technological and military might by the two warring enemies.
The Cold War was waged through military and political propaganda as well as through actual military confrontation on battle grounds, neither within the United States nor in the Soviet Union. The two powers sponsored militia and guerrilla warfare on foreign lands according to what ideological side a group supported. Therefore, governments were toppled and governments rose to power as both the Soviet Union and the United States took sides in the existing conflicts of other countries.
In the early years of the Cold War, specifically 1945 to 1948, the conflict involved more political confrontation than military confrontation. Both the Soviet Union and the United States bickered with each other at United Nation’s assemblies. They pursued stronger relations with states that had neutral inclinations. They both attempted at articulating their varying visions of a post-World War II era.
By the year 1950, some factors caused an escalation of the Cold War into a more militarised struggle. The installation of a communist government in China, the declaration of the Truman Doctrine, the Russian nuclear armament, strains over the military occupied Germany, the advent of Korean War, and the creation of the Warsaw Pact together with NATO intensified the military angle of the Cold War (Kort 2001, 85). The United States adopted a policy of containment aimed at checking the expansion of the Soviet Union. The United States waged the war against the Soviet Union through the guidance of the containment policy. It sought to curtail the increasing influence of the communist ideology. Containment remained the core strategic principle of the United States foreign policy- beginning in 1952- until the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
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However, the closest the two enemies came to real war was during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The Soviet Union and Cuba had clandestinely established nuclear missile basis in Cuba targeting the United States. The United States threatened to attack Cuba because the Soviet Union had refused to disassemble the offensive weapons. Eventually, the Soviet Union agreed to dismantle them and the tensions eased.
Successive presidents in the United States as well as successive premiers in the Soviet Union waged and managed the war in varying ways. The history of their relations discloses the fragile balance-of-power that had to be upheld between the two superpowers. The United States’ president Dwight Eisenhower took a hard-line stance against the Soviet Union and talked about causing a backward rolling of the Soviet empire, but when an opportunity rose to free Hungary from Soviet Union’s influence, he stepped back. The demise of Josef Stalin saw a temporary ease in West-East relations. However, Nikita Khrushchev favoured the taking of a hard-line stance against the United States than going for cooperation.
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The end of the cold war was not marked by a climax in military confrontation. Rather, it ended relatively peacefully. Its demise is linked to the fall of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe at the end of 1989. Its end is also strongly associated with the crumbling of communism in 1991. The war did not end with a major military confrontation because it was essentially an ideological war between the capitalist West and the communist Soviet Union.
The process that prepared the way for the end of the cold war began with the rise to power of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union (Mearsheimer 1990, 5-56). With his rise to power in 1985, the Soviet Union came to repudiate its dedication to the propelling ideas regarding class struggle. As part of the emerging trend, Gorbachev undertook to withdraw from Afghanistan where his country had been taken down by an expensive war. Gorbachev kept his promise and completely withdrew from Afghanistan. This strongly marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War.
Soon, the Berlin wall was pulled down opening up the borders. In almost all the former satellite states of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe, elections were held and toppled the communist regimes. Later in 1991, the Soviet Union disappeared into its component republics. Rapidly, the iron Curtain stood raised and the Cold War ended.
Therefore, the weakening of the Soviet Union’s economy, as a result of the rising financial burden occasioned by the arms race, meant that it could no longer sustain the demands of its empire and therefore the conditions were ripe for the end of the Cold War.