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The Cold War Key Debates

Read our discussion to get your head around the Cold War.

Why did the Cold War break out?

Ever since Russia became the world’s first communist nation in 1917, the West had viewed their political system and beliefs with suspicion because the control of production threatened free trade and the one party state undermined democracy. In return, the Soviets saw liberal capitalism as greedy and exploitative and therefore interpreted policies, such as the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Aid, as ‘economic imperialism’ designed to increase the power of America. These differences were put aside during WW2 because Nazism was seen as a greater threat but the conflict itself was also pivotal to the Cold War. The power vacuum left in Europe and the Far East led to divisions as both sides attempted to fill it with governments that were aligned to their own ideals. The scale of Soviet suffering caused them to seek retribution against Germany, whilst America wished to strengthen it and leaders on both sides acted rashly; communist expansion in Eastern Europe and the 1948 blockade of Berlin reflect Stalin’s aggression but he was not the only culprit. Truman’s boasting about the power of the A Bomb and Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech only served to fuel Soviet insecurity. Personalities and misunderstandings were therefore as significant as ideological divisions in causing the Cold War.

How genuine was the ‘thaw’ of the 1950s?

It is often claimed that the 1950s were an era of increased co-operation between the superpowers after the death of Stalin in 1953 and the ending of the Korean War a few months later. There is some evidence to support this interpretation; at the Geneva Summit, superpower leaders met face-to-face for the first time since the WW2 peace conferences and there was a notable respect of the spheres of influence that both sides had created in Europe and Asia. Thus, Soviet intervention in East Germany, Poland and Hungary prompted no response from America and Khrushchev urged the Chinese to halt attacks on Taiwan following US protest in both 1954 and 1958. However, the Soviet policy of peaceful co-existence is often misunderstood. Khrushchev’s willingness to co-operate with the West was based on a belief that their capitalist system was ultimately doomed and very little of substance was agreed at Geneva. Both sides also spent huge amounts improving the size and power of their nuclear arsenals throughout the decade, further undermining the thaw.

How dangerous was the nuclear arms race?

Despite both the Soviet Union and the US ploughing vast amounts of money and research into nuclear technology, no atomic weapons have actually been used since the two bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Therefore, the actual threat to world peace can be questioned. Perhaps, the existence of such powerful weapons instead prevented the Cold War turning ‘hot’ by forcing both sides to respond cautiously to potential crises, such as dispute over the Taiwanese Straits and the building of the Berlin Wall. The concept of Mutually Assured Destruction certainly seemed to influence both Kennedy and Khrushchev as they ignored the advice of their military personnel and found a peaceful resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and this appears to be the closest either side came to an atomic response. However, perhaps then, and throughout the Cold War, the avoidance of nuclear war was little more than ‘pure dumb luck’ (Dean Acheson) and by constantly producing increasingly powerful weapons the superpowers made nuclear annihilation a real and constant threat.

How genuine was the détente of the 1970s?

The 1970s are seen as a period of relaxation in Cold War tension, with hope that the conflict could be brought to an end. There is concrete evidence for détente; the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks saw results in the SALT I agreement (1972) when both sides agreed to limit ICBM’s and committed themselves to the principle of avoiding nuclear conflict. There were even broader deals struck in the Helsinki Accords of 1975, with the inviolability of European borders confirmed, trade deals agreed and a public commitment from all attendees to human rights. There were also numerous diplomatic visits throughout the decade, implying that personal relations could be used to move beyond ideological differences. However, the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan and subsequent US reaction confirmed the shallow nature of détente. SALT II was never ratified and the Soviets were certainly not concerned enough about American opinion to rein in their foreign policy. Even earlier agreements were flawed, with SALT I failing to address future nuclear technology and the Helsinki Accords doing little to prevent arbitrary arrest and restrictions on freedom of speech. Ultimately, it appears that both superpowers were only willing to pursue détente when it suited their own interests, rather than owing to a genuine desire to end the Cold War.

Why did the Cold War end?

The Cold War ended rapidly and, for many, unexpectedly. During 1989, communist regimes across Eastern Europe crumbled in quick succession, and the Berlin Wall fell in November. Its removal was followed by the unification of Germany a year later and in 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Many interpretations have been offered to explain these events, focusing on the role of Gorbachev, pressure from within Eastern Europe but also from the US and the illogic of the Cold War from an economic standpoint. The pressure on the Soviet Union certainly increased in the 1980s, with Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative requiring them to divert an unprecedented amount of resources to the arms race if they were to keep up. Furthermore, the Polish Solidarity movement helped to illustrate the deep unpopularity of Eastern European communist regimes. However, there was no change in policy direction until the election of Gorbachev in 1985. In 1988, he acknowledged the flaws of Marxist-Leninism in a UN speech and he was willing to meet regularly with Western leaders. Most crucially, Gorbachev abandoned the Brezhnev Doctrine and therefore gave a green light to revolution across the Soviet Sphere.