Lots of you are asking questions about the Cold War. “WHEN” is a favorite. But the answer to when is often very convoluted. In fact, I’ve argued many times that “the US and Russian competition didn’t begin in 1945” as is frequently asserted.
No one over-arching event started the Cold War like Pearl Harbor started World War II or the destruction of the World Trade Center started the war in Afghanistan. Even so, today — just this once — I’m going to simplify.
When World War II ended, the US demanded an ‘open’ world marketplace. As Secretary of State Dean Acheson said:
we cannot expect domestic prosperity under our system without a constantly expanding trade with other nations.
As another official noted:
The capitalist system is essentially an international system and if it cannot function internationally, it will break down completely.
In 1944, the Americans tried to assure a friendly postwar marketplace. But there were many contradictions in US policy. Washington demanded an open Europe, but refused to recognized Stalin’s right to control large parts of Eastern Europe. Stalin wanted a Russian “sphere” to serve as a strategic buffer against the West that he could exploit economically for the rapid rebuilding of the Soviet economy.
In 1944, the West received warning of trouble to come when the Red Army began to sweep across Eastern Europe. Stalin said:
Whoever occupies a territory also imposes on it his own social system as far as his army can reach.
A crisis developed over Poland that became the test case of Soviet intentions. As the Russians became ever more determined to control Poland, the Poles refused to open the door to American trade. What was then called an “iron fence” was falling around Europe.
At the Potsdam Conference, held outside Berlin in July 1945, it was agreed that the West would recognize a new Polish-German boundary. The basis for an eastern and western Germany was also established with the implication that an economic division of Germany would lead to political division.
On his way home from Potsdam, Truman received news that the atomic bomb had destroyed Hiroshima. The bombing occurred on August 6, and 80,000 Japanese had died. In response, the Russians began work on their own atomic weapons. The arms race was on.
In early 1946, Stalin and Churchill issued Declarations of Cold War.
In a speech on February 9, Stalin announced his continued confidence in Marxist-Leninist dogma, and went on to argue that war was inevitable as long as capitalism existed. He asked the Soviet people to prepare by developing basic industry instead of consumer goods, and he initiated an intense ideological effort to eliminate Western influences.
The New York Times reported that Stalin believed “the stage is set for war.” Many in Washington felt that Stalin’s speech meant “The Declaration of World War III.”
In return, in a speech at Fulton, Missouri, on March 5, Prime Minister Churchill claimed that “an iron curtain had descended across the continent” allowing a “police government” to rule Eastern Europe.
What the Soviets want, he said, is “the indefinite expansion of their power and doctrine.”
Although President Truman had not yet chimed in, the Cold War was on. The Cold War: When question was almost answered.
On March 12, 1947, Truman finally issued his own declaration of Cold War with his announcement of the Truman Doctrine. He asked Americans to join in a global commitment against communism. This doctrine became the guiding spirit of American Foreign Policy during the half century Cold War period.
On December 25, 1991, the seventy-four year old Soviet Union disappeared. America’s Cold War enemy no longer existed. Instead the US would face the new threat of a frustrated, unstable Russia. The country would also be forced to deal with the political, ethnic, religious, and economic fragmentation of the global system.
If you want more insight into the causes of the Cold War, go to our post titled The Cold War Begins in Manchuria. Also, for in-depth history and analysis be sure to listen to our podcasts: