The Causes Of The Cold War


In late 1941, the Japanese executed a surprise military attack against Pearl Harbor, a United States naval base. Causing over two thousand casualties including civilians, this bombing prompted the US to enter World War II to fight alongside the Allies, which included the Soviet Union. Although the US and the Soviets assisted each other during the Allies’ quest of overthrowing Nazi Germany, it was clear that there was a tense bitterness and suspicion present in the political relations between the two superpowers. This steadily increasing mistrust and rivalry became known as the Cold War, which would go on to last for decades. Although the origins of the Cold War are widely disputed by historians, the main causes of the conflict can be attributed to several factors in the period between 1941-1949, including discord over strategies deployed during WWII, the Soviet Union’s desire to spread communism in Eastern Europe, and the policies executed and alliances formed by the United States targeting Soviet aggression. 

During 1941, the United States was providing military aid to Allied nations under the Lend-Lease act. Although the US had not officially entered WWII yet, they were still supporting their Western allies while overseas. However, although America was supporting the Allies, its view of the USSR was still widely negative. In the months before the US joined the war, the then-Senator Harry Truman commented to a reporter, summarizing the feelings of American hostility to the USSR. Truman claimed that if Russia was winning the war, the US “ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible,” demonstrating the way much of America felt about the Soviet Union: the Soviet Union posed a large threat to the United States. 

The prevailing tension and deteriorating relationship between the US and the USSR heightened to new extremes during WWII after the US entered the war in late 1941. Although the Soviet Union and the US fought together during World War II, their differences became pronounced over their contrasting opinions on whether to open a second front in Europe. At this point, the USSR was under invasion from the Germans and had already suffered tremendous casualties. Joseph Stalin– the leader of the Soviet Union– constantly pressured his British and American allies to open a second front in France in order to alleviate the German pressure on the Soviet army at the Eastern Front. However, the US and the British delayed this request, elevating Stalin’s mistrust of the United States. According to a US ambassador to the USSR, people would be “more inclined to support a claim that the Soviet Union should have the greatest voice in determining the peace” without a second front. In other words, the ambassador asserted that if the war was won without America or Britain getting involved, the USSR would have the upper hand in dictating the terms of peace. In order to prevent this from occurring, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt– the leaders of the UK and the US respectively– addressed Stalin’s concerns during the Tehran conference and agreed to commence a second front within six months, which raised military concerns and enmity due to the insincere and selfish opening of the second front by the United States. 

In the years following the utter devastation and human loss caused by the brutal fighting in WWII, the Soviet Union was willing to do almost anything to ensure its safety against possible future invasions. Within the past twenty-five years, the USSR had been invaded twice by Germany through Poland, causing millions of Soviet deaths. In fact, in WWII, the Soviet Union lost upwards of 20 million soldiers and civilians. Consequently, the Soviets encouraged the formation of satellite nations by introducing communist governments in countries that were already occupied by Soviet troops such as Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Poland. The Soviet Union felt justified in spreading communism; they believed that by controlling the regions around the USSR, they could prevent future attacks from the West. However, this sentiment was disputed among other nations. 

The issue of Poland and other satellite nations was brought up in the 1945 Yalta conference, in which the three great Allied powers came together to discuss the postwar reorganization of Germany and the rest of Europe. During the conference, Stalin promised President Truman that he would allow free elections in areas that the Soviets occupied at that time, including Poland. However, Stalin went back on his promise; the Soviets prevented free elections and banned democratic parties in satellite nations, amplifying the inevitable clash and distrust between the two superpowers. 

Furthermore, as noted by Stalin, Churchill viewed the Soviet domination of occupied countries as a “question of honor,” meaning that he believed that the USSR was trying to make itself into the ruling power of the world. Stalin objected to this perception, claiming that for the Soviet Union, Poland was simply a “question of security.” Regardless of the reasoning behind Soviet occupation, the US and Britain firmly opposed the expansion of communism. A cartoon drawn for the Daily Standard demonstrated the disagreement by depicting an image of Stalin and Soviet foreign minister V. M. Molotov spinning a globe and choosing a country to be “liberated from freedom.” This was an ironic phrase, as the word “liberation” is synonymous with the word “freedom.” The drawing showcased the malice and spite felt by Americans and the British by highlighting the American perspective of the situation, that the Soviets would take over any country they wanted and justify it with a flimsy excuse of liberation. 

In response to the perceived communist threats from the Soviet Union, George Kennan, a State Department official, argued that the US couldn’t trust the Soviets, and to try to “influence [the Soviets] by reasoning with them” would be impossible. Therefore, America would have to implement containment policies in order to limit the spread of communism. At this point, the influences of the strained political relations between the two nations began to impact the opinions of American and Soviet people alike, and the mistrust displayed by Kennan began to be pronounced in US civilians. A poll conducted in the United States showed that more than half of the population of the US didn’t believe that “Russia would cooperate with [the US] in world affairs.” America’s perspective of the USSR declined during and preceding the Cold War years, as the mindset of the American people reflected on the actions taken by the United States against the Soviet Union. For instance, Truman– who became the president after the death of Roosevelt– issued the Truman Doctrine in 1947, a policy in which America would support countries who resisted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside forces. Shortly after, the Marshall Plan was put into place, which proposed that the US provide aid to all European countries who needed it to economically recover after the war. These policies shaped the hostility directed towards the Soviet Union while influencing how Americans would come to think of the USSR: the Soviets were tyrannical, and communism was evil and should be contained. 

In response to the containment policies executed by America, the USSR issued one of their own: The Brezhnev Doctrine, which was created in an attempt to justify its invasion of Czechoslovakia. The doctrine was an announcement made by the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, who stated that any attempt to overthrow the existing communist governments would face Soviet military intervention. Another sharp criticism of America came in 1947 when Molotov stated in a broadcast that the US had “departed from [the] democratic principles” set in the Yalta and Potsdam conferences. Molotov argued that the Truman Doctrine violated the agreements set during the conferences, and emphasized the irony in how the US was attempting to prevent the spread of communism by promoting democratic ideals and spreading capitalism instead. These conflicting ideologies without a doubt contributed to the suspicion and tension present throughout the Cold War. 

In response to the threats of the Cold War, and in fear of a possible invasion of Western Europe by the USSR, a group of ten nations, including America, established the North American Treaty Organization in 1949. NATO, a military defense alliance, was created to resist and combat the increasingly hostile Soviet behaviour. In an attempt to intimidate and scare off the Soviets, the US was attempting to contain the USSR from taking over any other nations in Europe, further escalating the already prominent hostility between the USSR and the US. As a result of this deliberate act, the rivalry and bitterness surged and spiraled upwards. 

This accumulation of events ultimately led to bitter agitation, distrust, and immense suspicion between the two governments. The disagreements about opening a second front in WWII, Soviet aggression in installing communist governments in European countries, and America’s response to that aggression all led to the downfall of the political relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States. Although the inevitable conflict did not result in physical battles between the two nations, the Cold War was a constant presence from 1941 to the ending years of the century, and touched upon the lives of countless American and Soviet citizens alike.

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