The Cold War has dominated the international scene since 1945, and the causes of the Cold War are still relevant in today’s 21st century. Understanding this half century conflict and recognizing its legacy may help us avoid some conflict in the future. So let’s take a look at history and see what we can discover.
You can listen to Cold War Studies podcast on The Causes of the Cold War here. But you may want to take a look at the Timeline first.
Root Causes of the Cold War (late 1800s – 1945)
19th Century: The United States and Russia clash in north China and Manchuria. The Americans are interested in trade and the Russians are concerned with empire. By the 1890s, the two powers are no longer friendly, but confrontational.
1890-1917: The US tries to contain Russian expansionism.
1917: Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik movement overthrows the Russian government.
1918-1920: US President Woodrow Wilson sends more than 10,000 American soldiers to help the Allies in their effort to overthrow Lenin by force. At the same time, the US is trying to keep the Japanese army from colonizing and closing off Siberia.
1919: At the Versailles Peace Conference, the Western powers attempt to isolate the Soviets by creating buffer states like Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, all in Eastern Europe. Woodrow Wilson also refuses to open diplomatic relations with the Soviets.
1921: England begins trading with the Russians.
1922: Russia and Germany sign a treaty of cooperation.
1924: Lenin dies and Joseph Stalin takes over.
1928: Stalin enhances his power by announcing 5-year plans for rapid economic development.
1929: The US Stock Market crashes fueling the Great Depression. American politics shifts leftward. President Roosevelt’s New Deal is an attempt to manage capitalism for the public good.
1931: The Japanese Army begins rampaging through Manchuria.
November 1933: President Roosevelt formally recognizes Russia.
1934: The United States rejects Soviet requests for joint Russian-US policies against Japan and Nazi Germany.
1937: The Americans again reject Soviet requests for joint policies against Japan and Nazi Germany.
1938: Stalin’s relationship with the West is disintegrating. At the Munich Conference later in the year,the French and British appease Hitler by giving Germany a part of Czechoslovakia.
1939: At the Communist Party’s Eighteenth Congress, Stalin argues that the West is hoping to turn Hitler toward war with the Soviets.
August 1939: Stalin signs a non aggression pact with Hitler, the Nazi-Soviet pact. The two dictators decide to divide Poland and the Balkans. A week later, World War II begins when Hitler invades Poland.
November 30, 1939: The Soviets invade Finland.
Early 1941: Hitler decides to take Eastern Europe into his own hands.
June 22, 1941: The Nazis invade the Soviet Union. The US decides to support the Soviet Union against the Hitler threat.
December 6, 1941: The Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. The US declares war on Japan. Days later, Hitler declares war on the US making the US and Russia allies.
1942: The Nazis press deeper into Russia and Stalin presses for a Second Front in Western Europe. The opening does not occur until mid-1944 after the Russians have already driven back the Nazis.
1942: The Russians, Americans, and British agree to jointly occupy Iran.
1943: Roosevelt travels to Tehran (Iran) to meet with Stalin.
1944: The US tries to assure a friendly postwar marketplace. An international conference at Bretton Woods (New Hampshire) creates a World Bank and an International Monetary Fund (IMF). The World Bank will guarantee private loans given to rebuild war torn Europe and to build up less industrialized nations. The IMF will stabilize currencies. The US hopes these two agencies will reconstruct, then stabilize and expand world trade.
1944: The Red Army begins its sweep across Eastern Europe.
October 1944: Great Britain’s Prime Minister Churchill travels to Moscow to make a deal. He promises to recognize Soviet domination in Romania and Bulgaria. In return, Stalin agrees that England will control Greece.
February 1945: The Big Three — Great Britain, the US, and Russia — meet at the Russian Black Sea resort of Yalta to shape the future of the postwar world. A contentious debate erupts over the future of Poland.
April 12, 1945: Roosevelt dies and Harry S. Truman becomes the 33rd president of the United States. American troops taking over German towns discover German war crimes against the Jews as they uncover mass graves.
April 27, 1945: By Allied agreement, the capture of Berlin is left to the Russians.
Spring 1945: The United Nations (UN) is founded at a conference in San Francisco. Article 51 of the UN Charter provides the political means for the US to keep the Americas solidly in the US sphere of influence.
May 8, 1945: Germany surrenders to the UN. Europe is cut in two from the Baltic to the Adriatic. The war in the Pacific drags on.
July 1945: A third Allied summit is held at Potsdam outside of Berlin. It lays the basis for an East and West Germany. On his way home from Potsdam, Truman learns that the US has dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, obliterating the city. The bombing occurred on August 6, and 80,000 Japanese are killed. Three days later another bomb is dropped on Nagasaki.
August 10, 1945: The Japanese Emperor overrules his military, and Japan begins peace negotiations. Soviet troops are never able to move personnel onto the main Japanese home islands. Japan is subject only to American wishes.
September 2, 1945: As World War 2 comes to an end, Stalin determines that the Soviet Union will never again be invaded. The war’s toll on Russia has been devastating: 1700 Russian towns have been destroyed along with 70,000 villages; 25 million Russian citizens are homeless; 20 million Russians have died, 600,000 of this number starving to death at the siege of Leningrad.
November 10, 1945: A US intelligence report concludes that Russia will be unlikely to chance a major war for at least 15 years.
After 1945: Fear of communism becomes institutionalized in the US, and a new Red Scare coincides with the onset of the Cold War.
If you haven’t already done so, be sure to listen to Cold War Studies podcast on “The Causes of the Cold War.” You’ll find a lot more information there about the events leading up to the Cold War.
Photograph by Francesco Mariani (Flickr)