The Cold War: Historical Overview

THE COLD WAR 1947-1989

            From the 1940’s to 1989 the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a struggle called the Cold War which changed the face of the world in political, economic, and social terms.  The Cold War was an ideological struggle that also involved covert CIA actions in Greece (1947), Turkey (1947) and Iran (1952), and low intensity conflicts (LIC’s) such as The Korean “Police Action” (1950-1952) and the Vietnam War (1963-1975).  The Cold War was a war of competing ideologies, but the threat of total war between the U.S. and USSR was muted because of the threat of nuclear weapons.  These weapons would change the complexion of modern war and the world by giving a country the power to completely destroy a city or an entire region.  The United States showed the devastating effectiveness of this new weapon in 1945 with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.  Many historians believe that this was to both shorten the war and showcase US military technology to intimidate the Soviet Union.  Nuclear weapons insured that regional conflicts did not escalate into a war of global proportions since both the U.S. and the USSR pursued a policy of “Mutual Assured Destruction Deterrence” (MADD) by the 1950’s.  The Cold War lasted for over 40 years and ended with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989. 

 

            By May of 1945 the war in Europe had ended as the Allies became the clear-cut victors and the United States campaign in the Pacific was coming to a conclusion.  The Allies began the long process of rebuilding and restructuring the post war world.  Soviet and American relation would began to deteriorate into open hostility in April of 1945 with the death of President Roosevelt who was a major proponent of appeasement and mutual collaboration with the Soviet Union.  His successor, President Truman, would see the Communist political structure and economic priorities of the Soviet Union as a direct assault on America’s ideological views.  In July and August of 1945 the Big Three (the United States, the Soviet Union, and Britain) met in Potsdam, Germany to discuss the German reparations for each nation and to make sure that there was not a third world war.  Joseph Stalin, who was the leader of the USSR met with two new leaders; President Harry Truman, and the newly elected Prime Minister of Britain Clement Attlee.  Two years earlier at the Tehran conference and at the Yalta conference Stalin negotiated with a conciliatory Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but now he was faced a hostile Truman and an indifferent Attlee. 

 

The Soviet Union, who during the war had taken the brunt of the Nazi attack and was socially and economically devastated demanded that Germany pay reparations of $20 billion and that half should go to the USSR for reconstruction.  Truman thought it would be in the best interest of the U.S., the USSR, Britain and France, and Germany if they did not economically cripple Germany and instead would divided the country into zones.  The USSR would get the eastern zone that they already occupied which also included Berlin, the U.S. would acquire the southern sector, and Britain taking control of the northern zone.   Soviet reparations would be taken directly from their section.  The USSR would also acquire a small amount from each of the other zones of Germany, and this would be one of the catalysts to start the hostilities.  This entire tactic was designed to keep Germany economically weak so that they could not rise to a position to start another war, but at the same time revive the economy so it would not be a burden on the victors.  The idea was that each country would rebuild their zone and that would produce more capital to pay reparations.  The British and American began to suspect that the Soviets were trying to keep their zone as poor as possible in an attempt to form a communist government, so General Luis Clay, American deputy military governor, halted the transfer of reparations from the American zone in May of 1946.  The Soviet Union saw this move as an illegal act due to the terms of the negotiation at the Potsdam conference.  The British came up with a constructive solution to the problem by agreeing that their zone and the American section join to form one entity and to negotiate the end reparations from their zones to the Soviets.  This effectively ended the debate of reparations as the USSR had already acquired $25 to $50 billion in capital from their own zone.  In a blunder of American policy though the United States accused the Soviet Union of looting all capital from their eastern zone and this along with tensions in Iran began to strain diplomatic ties between the United States and the Soviet Union.

 

With the establishment of a communist government in Poland (1945) it was obvious that the USSR was beginning to set up sphere of influence in Europe.  With Poland in such geographically close proximity to the Soviet Union the U.S. had no choice but to watch it as it happened.  The communist expansion though began to work its way to regions where the U.S. had a better chance of containing the movement.  Iran had been under joint Anglo-Soviet military occupation since 1941 and both nations had to withdraw troops by March 1946.  An Azerbaijani movement had formed at the time to overthrow the shah of Iran, seeing an opportunity gain an even larger sphere of influence kept their troops in the northern province of Azerbaijan to directly aid the movement.  The United States could not allow the USSR to gain influence and set up a puppet government in this region because of the vast oil fields that Iran controlled.  As one White House official noted “Our continued access to oil in the Middle East is especially threatened by Soviet penetration into Iran”(Smith, 1998, p. 14-15).  The Truman administration was alarmed at what they perceived as deliberate Soviet aggression and gave immediate diplomatic support to the shah for his decision to send troops to the northern border.  Secretary of State Byrnes raised this issue to the Security Council of the United Nations and publicly condemned Soviet imperialism.  Following these actions the Soviet Union quickly defused the problem by agreeing to abide by the wartime agreement and pulls out their troops in May 1946.  This incident would mark the start of the American policy of containing communism, which would be U.S. policy until 1989.

 

After the political struggle in Iran between the U.S. and the USSR the Truman administration feared that the Soviet Union was quickly becoming a major enemy of the United States and that they would have to stop Soviet influence in strategically crucial areas, such as Greece and Turkey.  George Kennan solidified these perceptions in February of 1946 with a report to the State Department known as the ‘Long Telegram’.  Kennan was an experienced career diplomat serving at the American embassy in Moscow.  The ‘Long Telegram’ “warned of the danger of ‘acting chummy’ with the Soviets and explained that their leaders could not be trusted because they were Marxist-Leninists and ‘ committed fanatically to the belief that with the U.S. there can be no permanent modus vivendi’ (Schwartz, 1997, p152).  This report would merely confirm and reinforce the already strong anti-Soviet prejudice of Truman and many White House officials.  In July of 1947 the National Security Act (NSA) was passed directly indicating that the U.S. wanted increased involvement in world affairs.  The principal propose of the NSA was to improve the flow of information and advice to the president by creating the National Security Council (NSC) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).  The NSC’s goal was to advise on foreign policy and affairs, while the CIA was to interpret foreign intelligence and undertaking overseas covert operation or ‘black ops’.  These two new organizations would get their chance to operate in a major role by 31 March 1947, this is when Britain altered the United States they would longer have a sphere of influence in Greece and Turkey.  White House officials believed that these regions would be the next places that Soviet aggression would try to influence the governments.  The Truman administration already suspected that the USSR had influenced the civil war in Greece in an attempt to set up a communist government. Stalin was also pushing heavily on the Turkish government to secure rights for naval access for Soviet warships to the Mediterranean.  Up to this time the USSR had no warm water ports to launch their ships from and all Soviet ports were frozen solid for half the year.  Truman was in no way going to allow Soviet warship access to the Mediterranean and thus the battle lines between the East and the West were drawn in his address to Congress on 12 March 1947:

 

“At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between         alternative ways of life.  The choice is too often not a free one.  One way of life is based upon the will of the majority, and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion and freedom from political oppression.  The second way of life is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed on the majority.  It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio, framed elections and the suppression of personal freedoms.  I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures (Smith, 1998, p15-16).

 

 

 

            This speech would later be called the “Truman Doctrine”, and it would effectively drum up support for the United States to intervene in Greece and Turkey.  Historians believe that this single act not only had far-reaching overtone but believe this is the act that began the Cold War.  The “Truman Doctrine” shifted the perception of the conflict from one of power and words to a direct difference in ideological viewpoints from both nations.  It was the view of the United States that we must fight communist expansion “in an effort to preserve democracy throughout the world”.  We now know that this was not the case as the CIA instigated the overthrow of the newly elected governments in Greece and Turkey and set up a military dictatorship in each country who were favorable to the United States.

 

                          The year 1949 would be a major setback for U.S. policy towards communism throughout the world.  In April of 1949 the United States believed that they had won a major victory against the expansion of communism with the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).  NATO’s sole propose was to set up a wall of countries that were strong democratically and thus would halt the expansion of communism through western Europe.  The United States up to this year had one big bargaining point against the Soviet Union, the atomic weapon.  The playing field would be even though by September 1949 when the Soviet Union shocked America by successfully detonating their own atomic weapon, ten years before analyst projected they would acquire it.  This would mark the beginning of the arms race between each nation as each produced massive amounts of weapons until the fall of the USSR in 1989.  The U.S. policy of containment would take large blow on 1 October 1949 when Mao Zendong declares the Peoples Republic of China and by April 1950 all of main land China is under communist rule.  Korea would become the next hot spot in the world for the U.S. and it’s policies.  Japan had direct control over the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945, as Japan surrender to the U.S. Soviet troops moved into northern Korea in 1945.  The United States not wishing for the USSR to fully absorb all of Korea moved troops into the southern half of the peninsula with the line being arbitrarily drawn at the 38th parallel.  Both nations agreed to pull their troops out and this was finally completed in 1949, but during their occupation each nation set up a government of their own so when they did pull out the Korean peninsula was divided into two countries.  To the north was the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea led by Kim Il Sung who had spent World War II in the Soviet Union and to the south was the democracy of South Korea led by Syngman Rhee who had lived in America for 30 years prior.  Kim Il Sung and Syngman Rhee vilified each other by claiming that the other was responsible for the division and declared that they would reunify Korea by whatever force necessary including the use of force.  On 25 June 1950 with support from Stalin, Kim ordered his military force to invade South Korea with his proclaimed intentions being to end the undeclared civil war, which had been raging in Korea since the split, and to reunify the two Koreas.  In response Truman requested an immediate meeting of the United Nations Security Council.  The Security Council adopted a resolution calling for the immediate withdrawal of North Korean troops from South Korea, and two days later a second resolution was passed asking members to mobilize troops to drive back the invader.  On 27 June 1950 Truman announced that the U.S. would comply with the UN resolution and deploy American troops to the region.  North Korean troops had routed the South Korean army and had a firm control over most of the peninsula.  With the landing of American forces to the north at Inchon the Northern Korean army was cut in half and began a headlong retreat back to the north.  UN forces were confident that they would have control of the entire peninsula by December of 1950.  This plan was not seen to fruition as the Chinese joined the war backing North Korea.  The battle lines between the competing armies were drawn at the same 38th parallel as the original borders.  The conflict was fought here for nearly a year and a half as the war became one of attrition.  In 1952 Dwight Eisenhower won the American presidency under the platform that he would ‘go to Korea’ implying that wished to pull out American troops.  In his first act as president Eisenhower declared his willingness to use the atomic bomb on China.  This coupled with the facts that neither side wished to continue the conflict, and the death of Joseph Stalin and the accession of the new leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, resulted with the cease-fire signed by both sides at Panmunjom in 1959.  The Korean Conflict was important historically to the United States because this was the first instance of a direct military conflict between the U.S. and a communist state.  It would also open the eyes of White House officials as this was the first time that the United States had failed to achieve the goals it had set out at the beginning of the conflict.  Following the Korean Conflict the U.S. would once again get militarily entangled in Asia to stop communist expansion, this would be in Vietnam.

 

            Vietnam would be a political, social, and military nightmare for the United States.  This was because that this was not the traditional view of war that the U.S. had been use to fighting, this was a war of guerrilla warfare but even more than that it was a peoples war.  Vietnam had been a region controlled by the French until 1940 when due to World War II the French sphere of influence in the area was ignored as all of Frances efforts were tied up in Europe.  During this time until 1963 two competing faction formed in the region, the capitalist south run by Ho Chi Minh and the communist faction that had formed to the rural north.  Ho Chi Minh was afraid that the communist faction would overrun the south and asked for assistance from the United States.  In 1961 John F. Kennedy was the president at the moment and did not want to fully commit Americans to the growing conflict but did send advisors to South Vietnam in order to train the South Vietnamese army.  By 1963 the war had escalated and the northern Vietnamese had gained the upper hand.  Lyndon Johnson who was succeeding JFK after his assassination warned that he would not be the first American president to lose a war and fully committed troops to the region.  From 1963 to 1975 the U.S. was fully enwrapped in a war that they could not win, and with their withdrawal from Saigon in 1975 the United States lost their first war.

 

            The Soviet Union was not without their own setbacks.  On 25 December 1979 the Soviet Union invades Afghanistan in order to prop up the regime that they set up there and by 8 January 1980 the Soviet army controlled most of the country.  On 14 January 1980 the United Nation voted overwhelmingly for the USSR to begin the immediate withdrawal of all troops, the Soviets would not budge from their positions.  What would begin was the Vietnam for the USSR until their ultimate retreat from the region in 1983.  This would be a much more costly war for the Soviet Union than Vietnam was for the U.S. and mark the beginning of the end for the USSR as they never recovered from the loss.  On 10 November 1989 the Cold War was effectively over with the fall of the Berlin wall, which separated East and West Berlin.  Although democratic elections would not be held until 1991 the Soviet Union was no longer a superpower.  With the fall of the Soviet Union the world took on an even more hostile point view, as there was no more threat of the USSR.  Conflict such as Dessert Storm, the war in Yugoslavia, and Chechnya could be attributed to this fact.