Cold War (1947-1991)

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Who was responsible for the onset of the Cold War, the United States or the Soviet Union? Or were both powers responsible in part? 

While there were disparities between communism and capitalism, two opposing ideologies, before World War II, relations between the US and the USSR quickly deteriorated after the war. The United States was so opposed to communism that it established a containment policy to keep it from spreading. Furthermore, open animosity, a lack of understanding, and deliberate provocation exacerbated the divide between the two nations. While several factors contributed to the Cold War, the United States’ activities played a major role in deteriorating relations, which ultimately led to non-cooperation and violence. Security was a top priority for Stalin since the Soviet Union had been invaded three times in the twentieth century. After World War II, the USSR was in a similar situation to France after World War I: protection was needed to prevent such misery from occurring again. Unlike France, which wanted to cripple Germany, the USSR wanted to create buffer states to ensure stability. The United States couldn’t understand this obsession with security; during the war, America had never been directly threatened by invasion. Furthermore, communism was seen as a challenge to the liberties that capitalism served. To discourage future global expansion, the United States favored a containment strategy that aggressively sought to halt communism. One choice was to be tough on the Soviet Union. Truman himself was aggressive and took a tough stance. Truman’s tough stance against the USSR was understandable, given that he was thrust into a position for which he was unprepared, he was under pressure from anti-communist forces, and the US did not want to replicate Britain’s mistake of appeasing Hitler. In practice, both the US and the Soviet Union’s activities are certain to have contributed to the heightened tensions that led to the onset of the Cold War. The Soviet Union was just as eager to create an Eastern European buffer as the US was to retain a Western European buffer, and both saw each other’s behaviors as offensive rather than defensive.

Or was such a conflict inevitable in the aftermath of World War II? 

 In the case of the Cold War, it is undeniable that post-World War II circumstances, coupled with the two countries diametrically opposed ideological positions, made confrontation very possible. The Soviet Union, led by Josef Stalin, had a strong desire to expand its reach into Eastern Europe, and the US had several reasons to regard Stalin’s actions as hostile and expansionist. Without going into speculative counterfactuals, there is clearly no way of knowing what could have happened in the aftermath of World War II if the US and Soviet Union had behaved differently. What is clear is that, by the late 1940s, both sides were eager to avoid confrontation while not handing over significant diplomatic wins to the other, especially in Europe. When the Soviet Union tried to challenge the US resolve by blockading Berlin, for example, the US and Great Britain replied with major airlifts, a way to keep the city supplied without provoking open confrontation by attempting to break the blockade on the ground. And as the Cold War became more intense and expanded, both sides preferred a low-key approach, even funding proxy armies in postcolonial conflicts around the world. When the Soviet Union tried to challenge the US resolve by blockading Berlin, for example, the US and Great Britain replied with major airlifts, a way to keep the city supplied without provoking open confrontation by attempting to break the blockade on the ground. Indeed, historians have recently argued that the Cold War is better viewed as a structure of international relations that maintained a measure of stability in the post-World War II world, implying that the outbreak of the Cold War was far from the worst-case scenario.

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