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Origins of Cold War 1945-49

Legacy of World War Two

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World War Two was an all encompassing total war that recreated the post WWI world into what we recognise as our modern existence.  In what ways did the conflict change the world; and most importantly as historians in what ways can we assess those changes?  Use the text and map handouts along with the ebook on the left....

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What exactly was the Cold War?  


In diplomatic terms there are three types of war:


1) Hot War : this is actual warfare. All talks have failed and the armies are fighting.


2) Warm War : this is where talks are still going on and there would always be a chance of a peaceful outcome but armies, navies etc. are being fully mobilised and war plans are being put into operation ready for the command to fight.


3) Cold War : this term is used to describe the relationship between the nuclear superpowers of the USA and the Soviet Union 1949 to 1991. Neither side ever fought the other directly - the consequences would be too appalling - but they did ‘fight’ for their beliefs using client states who fought for their beliefs on their behalf in proxy wars.  For example:


- Second Indochina War (1955-75) - South Vietnam was anticommunist and was supplied initially by America who then became physically involved during the war, while North Vietnam was pro-Communist and fought the south (and the Americans) using supplies and weapons from communist USSR and communist China.


- Afghanistan War (1979-89) - Americans supplied the rebel Afghans after the Soviet Union invaded in 1979 while they never physically involved themselves thus avoiding a direct clash with the Soviet Union.


The Cold War developed primarily between the USA and the USSR after World War Two. It was to dominate international affairs for decades and many major crises occurred - the Hungarian Revolt, Cuban Missile Crisis, Second IndoChina War, the Berlin Wall, Prague Spring and the war in Afghanistan being just a few examples. For many, the growth in weapons of mass destruction was the most worrying issue.

It was a clash of very different beliefs and ideology - capitalism versus communism - each held with almost religious conviction, and which formed the basis of an international power struggle with both sides vying for dominance, exploiting every opportunity for expansion of influence anywhere in the world.


The USSR by 1945 had emerged from the old Russian Empire that collapsed in 1917 and included a large number of  countries that now exist individually (Ukraine, Georgia etc) but which during the Cold War were part of this huge country up until the USSR's collapse in 1991.  The USA had emerged form both World Wars as the leading capitalist economy having been relatively untouched by the total wars that had ravaged the Old World Great Powers of Europe, and their Empires.


On the surface, logic would dictate that as the USA and the USSR fought as allies during World War Two, their relationship after the war would continue in a reciprocal fashion. However, this never happened - any appearance that these two powers were in any way friendly during the war was illusory. Before the war, America had depicted the Soviet Union as almost the devil-incarnate. The Soviet Union had depicted America likewise so their ‘friendship’ during the war was simply the result of having a mutual enemy in the Axis fascists of Nazi Germany, Mussolini's Italy and militarist Japan. In fact, one of America’s leading generals, Patton, stated that he felt that the Allied army should unite with what was left of the Wehrmacht in 1945, utilise the military genius that existed within it (such as the V2 rocket technology) and fight the oncoming Soviet Red Army. Churchill himself was furious that Eisenhower, as supreme head of Allied command, had agreed that the Red Army should be allowed to get to Berlin first ahead of the Allied army. His anger was shared by Montgomery, Britain’s senior general as well as Patton.


So the extreme distrust that existed during the Cold War was certainly present both before and during the war……..and this was between Allies. The Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had been paranoid about Western invasion since rising to power in the late 20s, with the Great Terror of 1936-37 and its 1.5 million casualties the direct result of his attempts to root out Western agents he believed were forming a Fifth Column in the USSR.  Any alliance with the West was only ever going to be a temporary one created to protect Soviet interests.  For Stalin, this approach was entirely justified with the end of WW2 in the Pacific with the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki when at the Potsdam Conference, the new US President Truman told him of a new terrifying weapon that he was going to use against the Japanese. The first Stalin knew of what this weapon could do was when reports on Hiroshima got back to Moscow.


So this was the scene after the war ended in 1945. Both sides distrusted the other and had done so for a very long time. One had a vast army in the field (the Soviet Union with its Red Army supremely lead by Zhukov firmly entrenched all over E Europe) while the other, the Americans, had the most powerful weapon in the world, the A-bomb, and the Soviets had no way on knowing how many America had.  This lack of mutual understanding or any appreciation of the complexities of an alien culture combined with unprecedented military technology, would lead the world down a very dangerous path - it ultimately led to the development of weapons of awesome destructive capability and the creation of policies such as MAD - Mutually Assured Destruction - which risked the complete annihilation of the entire species. 


How did this spiral into confrontation unravel over the immediate post-war period?


Key US ideological positions

Key USSR ideological positions

Perspectives on the Cold War

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