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The Cold War Key Individuals

From Stalin to Kennedy- get to know all the important figures in the Cold War.

Winston Churchill

Churchill was British prime minister during WW2 and achieved a good working relationship with Josef Stalin, even agreeing to the necessity of dividing Europe into Soviet and Western spheres in the Percentages Agreement of 1944. However, their relationship soured during the Yalta negotiations; the British PM was no longer willing to accept a Soviet controlled government in Poland and he also disagreed with the harshness of German reparations. Although he was no longer prime minister by 1946, Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech contributed significantly to the outbreak of the Cold War by encouraging his American audience to view their previous wartime allies as a ruthless and expansionist enemy.

Harry Truman

Truman’s US Presidency began suddenly and unexpectedly following the death of Roosevelt in April 1945. His approach to foreign policy was noticeably harsher, and he made little attempt to maintain positive relations with the Soviets following the defeat of Nazi Germany. At Potsdam, he refused Soviet assistance in the war against Japan and hinted at the power of America’s new atomic weapons in an intimidating manner. Truman remains the only world leader to authorise a nuclear attack, dropping two bombs on Japan to end WW2. He also openly resisted communism through the Truman Doctrine and pushed for the UN resolution that led to intervention in the Korean War. Despite this boldness, Truman’s administration fell foul of McCarthy’s accusations and he was increasingly seen as ‘soft on communism.’

Josef Stalin

Josef Stalin, leader of the USSR, has often been blamed for the outbreak of the Cold War and the legitimacy of his decisions that he made can certainly be questioned. Despite agreeing to free elections at Yalta, Stalin encouraged the Sovietisation of Eastern Europe through rigged elections and salami tactics. He also provoked an international crisis by cutting off all supplies to West Berlin in the Blockade of 1948. However, in part, Stalin’s actions were shaped by the colossal devastation the USSR experienced during WW2, motivating him to ensure security through economic and political control of neighbouring countries. He also refrained from sending troops to assist communist expansion in China or Korea, despite giving Kim Il Sung the green light to invade the south in 1950.

Nikita Khrushchev

When Nikita Khrushchev gave his Secret Speech in 1956, his denouncement of Stalin’s arbitrary use of terror seemed to signal a new era in Cold War relations. This was further demonstrated in his policy of ‘peaceful co-existence’, which accepted the possibility of co-operation with the West and led to the Geneva Summit, 1955 and the Camp David talks in 1959. However, Khrushchev was never willing to tolerate challenges to the communist sphere, using threat and force to crush revolutions in Poland and Hungary in 1956, ordering the Berlin Wall in 1961 and placing nuclear weapons on Cuba in 1962. While he has been blamed for causing the Cuban Missile Crisis that resulted, Khrushchev should also receive some credit for its peaceful resolution after he removed the weapons owing to American pressure.

Dwight Eisenhower

Eisenhower became US president in 1953 and within a few months, he had negotiated the end of the Korean War. His overall approach to foreign policy was cautious, despite rhetoric about the possible use of massive retaliation and a belief in the Domino Theory. Whilst Eisenhower invested more heavily in nuclear arms than conventional forces, this left him reluctant to use military intervention and he refused anything more than financial support to those resisting communism. Nevertheless, his tough talk was enough to protect Taiwan from Chinese aggression and by increasing economic aid to South Vietnam, Eisenhower drew the US further into the affairs of South East Asia.

Leonid Brezhnev

As leader of the USSR from 1964 to 1982, Brezhnev ruled during some of the most turbulent years of the Cold War. The Brezhnev Doctrine reaffirmed Soviet determination to maintain control over Eastern Europe and this was most harshly observed in 1968, when Brezhnev ordered Soviet tanks to put down the Prague Spring. However, he also represented the USSR at the SALT negotiations, agreeing to limit Soviet nuclear arsenals. Towards the end of his rule, Brezhnev’s alcoholism and deteriorating health left him unable to play a prominent part in decision making and it is likely that key actions, such as the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, were largely decided by other members of the Politburo.

John Kennedy

Despite only leading the USA for two years owing to his assassination in 1963, Kennedy had a crucial impact on the Cold War. His failed Bay of Pigs invasion encouraged Khrushchev to place nuclear weapons on Cuba and he escalated involvement in Vietnam through the use of covert forces, chemical weapons and thousands of military advisors. Kennedy was fiercely opposed to communism and his ‘flexible response’ policy was designed to employ any means to stop it spreading. However, he was cautious in his response to both the building of the Berlin Wall and the discovery of nuclear weapons on Cuba, resisting the advice of his Joint Chiefs of Staff to take military action on each occasion.

Willy Brandt

Willy Brandt was leader of West Germany from 1969 to 1974 and his positive approach to relations with communist countries had a significant impact on détente. German divisions had fuelled the Cold War, so his willingness to recognise the existence of the East German state in 1972 enabled a relaxation of tension between the USA and the Soviet Union. His 1970 acknowledgement of German war guilt before the Warsaw ghetto memorial was also a powerful symbolic gesture and helped to undo the divide left by the Iron Curtain. Although he was no longer in power by the time it occurred, Brandt’s ‘Ostpolitik’ made the reunification of Germany a future possibility.

Richard Nixon

Nixon’s approach to Cold War politics was flexible and varied, reflecting his belief in ‘Realpolitik’. His 1969 presidency was cut short after the Watergate scandal forced his resignation in 1974, but he certainly made his mark on superpower relations. Nixon simultaneously escalated bombing in Vietnam and spread attacks to surrounding countries whilst negotiating a peace settlement that allowed for US troops to be withdrawn in 1973. He also pressurised the Soviets into nuclear limitation talks through a rapprochement with China that saw the opening of diplomatic relations for the first time since 1949. Nixon’s presidency had parallels with Eisenhower’s; by using tough rhetoric and maintaining a reputation as a Cold War warrior, he was able to achieve pursue détente without appearing weak.

Mao Zedong

The proclamation of the communist People’s Republic of China in 1949 added a triangular dimension to the Cold War and the influence of Mao, Chinese leader until 1976, should not be overlooked. Despite his initial acknowledgement that the Chinese were junior partners to their Soviet allies, Mao always pursued policies that benefited China, and these increasingly brought him into conflict with the USSR. An independent nuclear programme bore fruit by 1964 and Mao saw Khrushchev’s secret speech and peaceful co-existence as revisionism (change). This encouraged the Chinese to seek their own communist dependents, such as North Korea and Albania. Yet, Mao was also willing to abandon ideological principles when it best served his national interests, as is reflected in the opening of diplomatic ties with the USA in 1972.