The cold war is a period in history characterized by great tension between the USSR and the western allies, led by the United States. Although it is not clear as to the exact date when the cold war started, historians agree that these tensions between the two countries came to the fore after World War Two. The interesting thing is that the major events that characterized this cold war happened outside the two countries mentioned. For instance, the famous iron curtain divided the whole continent of Europe into east and west. The eastern part was controlled by USSR (presently Russia) and was predominantly communist. This included such countries as Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Georgia, and Poland. The western part was controlled by the United States and its allies. These states were mostly capitalistic. Specifically, the city of Berlin, after its liberation from Nazi rule, was divided into four sections. The objective of this paper is to discuss some of the events that led to the cold war and hence establish its causes.
The division of the city of Berlin
The division of the city of Berlin after the Second World War two characterized the cold war between the Soviet Union and the United States. After defeating Hitler, the city of Berlin was set free from Nazism. It was decided that Berlin would be divided into four sections. The western part, an industrial region, was controlled by Britain, France, and the United States. The Eastern part, which was primarily an agricultural zone, fell under the Soviet Union (Phillips 23).
Later, the United States and Britain decided to merge their areas of control. They were soon joined by France, the third ally, and a unified zone was formed. They managed to revive the industries that were a crucial part of Germany’s economic success before the war. Roads and railways were repaired and new enterprises were set up. Within a few years, western Berlin was flourishing but the scenario was completely different just a few miles on the other side of the wall. Eastern Berlin was slowly fading away. Its residents were choking under the new communist rule which made them feel like prisoners in their land. Freedom of movement, as well as the association, was restricted. The Berlin wall was heavily manned by the Soviet authorities and it was impossible even for supplies to find their way into eastern Berlin. Those who tried to cross the border were severely punished. As a result, Eastern Berlin was locked into a state of economic depression. This situation did not improve relations between the western allies and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union feared that Western Berlin would fall under the capitalistic influences of the west and perhaps emerge as a power on its own (LaFeber 20).
The result of these political differences in Berlin was the great divide created both socially and economically. The eastern part of Berlin was characterized by mass poverty and appalling living conditions while western Berlin was thriving.
Another cause of the cold war was a difference in ideology. The Soviet Union was predominantly communist. They believed in a classless society in which the country’s wealth is controlled solely by the state. Political power was held by a single party or more often, an individual. The United States on the other hand was a capitalist state that gave individuals the freedom to own and develop property and beliefs. Moreover, they practiced democracy whereby the citizens were responsible for electing their leaders. The result of this difference in ideology was not a war per se but a standoff between the two superpowers (Gaddis 15).
The arms race
Another catalyst that sparked the cold war was the manufacture of the atomic bomb which later developed into an arms race. The United States had secretly developed an atomic bomb and used it against Japan at Hiroshima in 1945. The aftermath was devastating. This lack of cooperation and perhaps honesty spurred the Soviet Union into action. The following years were characterized by major inventions by both sides such as the hydrogen bomb and ballistic missiles. The stage had now been set for further confrontations. However, after witnessing the massive damage caused by these destructive weapons, both sides resolved to maintain the fragile peaceful state that existed at the time. This was achieved by engaging in frequent diplomatic talks and forming numerous agreements and treaties that would prevent the use of nuclear weapons (LaFerber 34).
In 1962, the world was again teetering on the edge of war, a nuclear war this time around. Cuba had begun growing suspicious of the United States and was convinced that the US was planning to attack them. They responded by asking the Soviet Union for military aid. The Soviet Union was quick to respond and they helped Cuba in building missile launchers and other nuclear weapons targeted at the United States. Realizing that the situation was volatile, President John Kennedy engaged Russia in frantic diplomatic talks to convince them to withdraw their armaments but when this did not bear any fruit, the United States decided to put a naval obstruction on its border with Cuba. Fortunately, Russia finally agreed to pull out of Cuba and this prevented what would have been a disastrous war (Phillips 27).
The space race
The arms race later developed into the space race. The Soviet Union beat the United States in this particular race by launching a missile-powered shuttle into space. This event occurred on October 4, 1957. The satellite was known as Sputnik I and was soon followed by a second satellite, Sputnik II in November of the same year. The United States was now under pressure to prove to the world that they were still a force to reckon with, at least technologically. They managed to do this by launching their satellite, Explorer 1 on January 31, 1958, and hence save face. The Soviet Union again came on top of the race by being the first to send a human being, Yuri Gagarin into space. He made a complete orbit around the earth. The US finally caught up in 1962 and sent John Glen into space. In 1969, they managed to land Neil Armstrong on the moon via the shuttle Apollo II (Gaddis 46)
Even though the two countries had fought together to eliminate Hitler, and by extension Nazism, their relationship in the post-war period was characterized by distrust, suspicion, and open hostility. The US and its allies viewed Russia as an autocracy and a tyrannical power that was determined to crush the will of its people and force them into submission. This view was further encouraged by the expansion of the Soviet Union. The USSR managed to unite the eastern part of Europe under communism to create a buffer against future attacks from the United States and its allies (Gaddis 49).
Distrust, suspicion, and security
Distrust was further fuelled by the fact that the Soviet Union had failed to keep its promise of holding free and fair elections and giving its citizens their democratic rights. American policymakers, therefore, concluded that such totalitarian governments were out to oppress the masses, both at home and abroad, and were incapable of good governance. The American government under President Truman was determined to prevent the spread of communism into the western part of Europe.
In 1949, the United States and its allies allied to build a united front against the spread of communism. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was signed by the member states who agreed to fight as a unit in case one of them was attacked. The Soviet Union came up with a treaty of their own, the Warsaw Pact in 1955 and it became a powerful political tool (LaFerber 60).
Both countries at this point in history were suffering from insecurity brought about by the previous two world wars which were then followed by economic depression and massive destruction. Hence it is not surprising that they could not agree, especially on matters of national security and technological advances that led to the development of nuclear weapons in the respective countries. Each country wanted to implement policies that would serve its interests and not necessarily the good of the world (Phillips 72).
In conclusion, it can be said that the cold war was fuelled by a clash of political economy, and social values and beliefs and that neither side is to blame as both powers were acting out of self-interest.
Gaddis, Lewis. The Cold War: A new history.Michigan: Penguin Press, 2005.
LaFeber, Walter. America, Russia and the Cold War. California: McGraw-Hill, 2002.
Phillips, Steve. The Cold War: conflict in Europe and Asia. NJ: Heinemann, 1998.