Back Home Next


  Cold War 1945-63


What was the Cold War?   Why did the USA and USSR become rivals?   Yalta and Potsdam

Salami tactics and the Fulton speech   Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan   Berlin Blockade  

1949-1963   Korean War   Eisenhower and Khrushchev   Poland and Hungary     

U2 Crisis and the Berlin Wall   Cuba Crisis




Topic Minibook



The story of the Cold War is the story of how two allies who defeated Hitler became competing superpowers who took the world to the brink of extinction.




What was the Cold War?

For more than 40 years – 1945-1989 – the USSR was in conflict with the West.   But that conflict never came to open warfare (‘hot war’).   Why?   It was mainly because the existence of nuclear weapons made hot war MAD (‘mutually assured destruction’).   That was why the conflict stayed a ‘cold war’; both sides tried to undermine and destroy each other, but they dared not let it go to actual fighting – that would have destroyed them.


What was the Cold War

Why did the USA and USSR become rivals in the period 1945 to 1949?

When you are thinking about the causes of the Cold War, the most important thing is to separate in your mind the long term underlying factors from the series of clashes and misunderstandings which actually triggered the breakdown in relations.

              The USSR and the USA were separated by a huge ideological gulf.   So the only thing that held the allies together was the need to destroy Hitler’s Nazis.   Given their underlying differences – when Hitler was finally defeated in 1945 – a Cold War was perhaps inevitable.   The USA was a capitalist democracy; the USSR was a communist dictatorship.   Both sides believed that they held the key to the future happiness of the human race.   Neither was conflict new to the two sides.   Stalin could not forgive Britain and America for helping the Whites against the Bolsheviks in the Civil Wars (1918-1921), and he believed that they had delayed D-Day in the hope that the Nazis would destroy Russia.   In the meantime, Britain and America blamed the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 for starting the Second World War.   Also, the two sides’ aims for Germany were different – Stalin wanted Germany to be ruined by reparations, and he wanted a buffer of friendly states round Russia to prevent a repeat of the Nazi invasion of 1941.   Britain and America wanted a democratic and capitalist Germany as a world trading partner, strong enough to stop the spread of Communism westwards.  

              It is impossible to identify a time when the Cold War ‘broke out’.   After 1945, a series of clashes and misunderstandings meant that the ideological differences widened more and more into open hostility.


Why did the USA and USSR become rivals

Yalta and Potsdam

Even at the Yalta Conference of February 1945 there were signs of conflict. The war was still going on, but it was clear that Hitler was going to be defeated, so the allies met to decide how they would organise Europe after the war.   It was easy to agree to bring Nazi war-criminals to trial, admit Russia into the United Nations, and divide Germany into four ‘zones’, occupied by Britain, France, the USA and the USSR.   But there was tension about two things: firstly, the kind of governments that would be set up in eastern Europe, particularly Poland (in the end the allies published a Declaration of Liberated Europe agreeing to set up ‘democratic and self-governing countries’ and to ‘the holding of free elections as soon as possible’; the fact that ‘democracy’ and ‘free elections’ meant different things to the two sides was passed over).   The second source of conflict – reparations – was postponed by agreeing to set up a commission to look into the matter.

              When the three met at Potsdam (July 1945), Hitler had been defeated.   Also Roosevelt (who had liked Stalin) had died and been replaced as US President by Truman, who was aggressively anti-Communist, and who had the atomic bomb (when Russia did not).   Most of all, Stalin had recently ordered the non-communist leaders in Poland arrested.    So at Potsdam, the tensions below the surface at Yalta – about eastern Europe and reparations – came out into open disagreement.   The Protocols agreed at Potsdam merely repeated the agreements at Yalta, except that Russia was allowed to take reparations from the Soviet Zone, and also 10% of the industrial equipment of the western zones as reparations.  


Yalta and Potsdam

Salami tactics and the Fulton Speech

During the war, Stalin had trained eastern European Communists in Russia, and after Potsdam they returned to their own countries and began to take over.   They took part in elections, and became government ministers, but then packed the army and police with communists, got non-communists discredited and arrested, and so took total control bit by bit – as Rakosi said in Hungary, ‘like slicing salami’.

       By 1946, observers in the west were becoming alarmed.   George Kennan, an American embassy official in Moscow, sent a ‘Long Telegram’ saying that the Soviets had to be stopped.   On 5 March 1946, Winston Churchill gave a speech in Fulton in America in which he said that eastern Europe was cut off from the free world by ‘an iron curtain’, and was ‘subject to Soviet influence . . . totalitarian control [and] police governments’.   The message was so clear that Stalin claimed that Churchill’s speech was a declaration of war.   


Salami tactics and the Fulton speech

The Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan

Stalin had promised not to try to take over Greece, and he kept his word, but that did no stop Greek Communists trying to take over the government by force.   A unit of British soldiers was stopping them, but in February 1947, the British informed Truman that they were pulling out.   Truman acted.   He sent American soldiers to Greece, and on 12 March 1947 he told Congress that it was America’s duty to preserve freedom and democracy in Europe.   The key basis to what became known as the ‘Truman Doctrine’ was ‘containment’ – the decision to stop any further expansion of communism.  

              In June 1947, the American General George Marshall went to Europe to see what was needed to stop the expansion of Communism.   He returned with the impression that people were was so poor that all Europe was about to turn Communist.   Rather than a military option to stop Russia, Marshall recommended an injection of $17 billion cash for aid, and to get the European economy going again.   Prosperous, free people, he argued, would not turn Communist.   At first, Congress hesitated to agree to send the money, but then – in February 1948 – Czechoslovakia turned Communist.   The Czech Prime Minister, Masaryk, mysteriously ‘fell’ out of a window and hard-line Stalinists took over.   In March 1948, Congress voted Marshall Aid to Europe.  

              In the west, the Cold War is often represented as America moving to defend freedom against Stalin’s aggression.   This is only partly true, and you will need to understand that Russian historians saw things very differently.   Stalin did want a ‘buffer’ of states around Russia, but this had been tacitly agreed at Yalta, and it was Truman, at Potsdam, who adopted a new aggressive stance against Stalin.   Russia did not send her army once into ANY eastern European state to turn it Communist – they all turned Communist of their own accord.   Indeed, Stalin had promised to leave Greece alone, and he did so – it was America who intervened militarily in Greece.   And Russia saw the Fulton speech as a declaration of war, and Marshall Aid as an act of war.   All Russia did during this time was to set up Comintern (1947), a meeting of Communist eastern European states.

              By 1948, the USA and the USSR were involved in the ‘Cold War’.


Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan

The Berlin Blockade

If the opening conflicts in the Cold War were about eastern Europe, the first direct confrontation of the Cold War arose out the other source of disagreement between the allies – the treatment of Germany.   During 1945-1948, Britain and the USA were trying to restore Germany.   In January 1947, they joined their two zones together (called Bi-zonia: ‘two zones’).   On 1 June 1948, they announced that they wanted to create the new country of West Germany.   And on 23 June 1948 they introduced a new currency into ‘Bizonia’ and west Berlin.  

              By contrast, during 1945-1948 Russia had been stripping the factories of east Germany of machinery to take as reparations.   Western efforts to restore Germany were seen by Stalin as a direct attack.   Berlin (like Germany) was divided into four sectors, but it was deep in the Russian sector of eastern Germany.   On 24 June the Russians stopped all road and rail traffic into Berlin.   Stalin said he was defending the east German economy against the new currency, which was ruining it.   The western powers said he was trying to starve west Berlin into surrender.

        Truman ignored General Clay, who wanted to invade east Germany (Truman did not want a ‘hot war’).   Instead, for 318 days, the Americans supplied West Berlin by air.   More than a quarter of million flights carried 1.5 million tons of supplies.   Stalin could have shot down the American planes, but he did not want to cause a hot war either.   On 12 May 1949, he admitted defeat and reopened the borders.  

        In April 1949, the western Allies set up NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) as a defensive alliance against Russia, and in May 1949, America, Britain and France united their zones into the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany).   In October 1949, Stalin set up the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).  



Berlin Blockade

How did the Cold War develop in the period 1949 to 1963?

After the Berlin Blockade, the pattern of foreign relations as a ‘Cold War’ was set: the USA and the USSR acted as rivals in a competition for world domination.  



The Korean War

The Korean War was another conflict which was part of the Cold War, and which – although very different in nature from the Berlin Blockade – was still ‘war without war’.   In the Korean War, Russia and America fought through other people – ‘at arms length’ – and thus avoided direct armed conflict.

        Communism was growing in the far east, as well as in Europe, and after the Second World War both Korea and Vietnam were divided between Communists and non-Communists.   The peacemakers solved both problems by simply drawing a line across both countries, giving the northern area to the Communists, and the southern part to the non-Communists.   Korean was thus split at the 38th parallel.

        In 1949, Kim Il Sung – the leader of north Korea, approached Stalin and Mao Zedong (the leader of China, which had turned Communist in 1949), and persuaded them to allow him to attack South Korea.   When Syngman Rhee (the leader of South Korea) boasted that he would attack North Korea, the North Koreans attacked (25 June 1950).   They easily defeated the South Korean army and by September 1950 had conquered all South Korea apart from a small area around Pusan in the south.

        Truman was not prepared to see South Korea fall to Communism.   Americans at this time held to the ‘domino theory’ – the idea that if one country fell to communism the rest would follow.   In addition, in April 1950, American foreign policy had changed and become more aggressive – the American National Security Council had issued a report (NSC 68) recommending that America abandon ‘containment’ and start ‘rolling back’ Communism.   But Truman did not attack directly; on 27 June he went to the United Nations and persuaded them to oppose the North Korean invasion.   The UN forces, led by the American General MacArthur, landed in Pusan and Inchon in September 1950 and by October 1950 had pushed back the North Koreans almost to the Chinese border.   

        At this point, the Chinese got involved, and drove back the Americans.   A front line was eventually established around the 38th parallel (where it had all began), although the war went on for another three years.   Truman refused MacArthur’s advice to use the atomic bomb.   Russian troops went to help the communists, but they went as ‘advisers’ and dressed like North Koreans.   In this way, Russia and America avoided direct war.


Korean War

Eisenhower and Khrushchev

In 1953 Ike Eisenhower became President of America.   He was well-known for saying that ‘jaw-jaw [ie talking] is better than war, war’.  He brought the Korean War to an end by threatening to use the atomic bomb if China did not stop fighting.   The Chinese agree to a truce, which was signed on 27 July 1953.

        In 1953 also, Stalin died.   After a power struggle in Russia, he was replaced by Nikita Khrushchev.   Khrushchev declared that the Cold War had to end, and be replaced by ‘peaceful co-existence’, and in 1956 he shocked the world by declaring that he wanted to destalinise the communist bloc, because Stalin had been a murderer and a tyrant.

        Surely these two men, people hoped, could bring in a period of peace?   In fact, the Cold War got worse.   Khrushchev was still an ardent communist, and by ‘peaceful co-existence’ it soon became clear that he meant ‘peaceful competition’.   Khrushchev visited countries like Afghanistan and Burma and gave them economic aid if they supported Russia, and in 1955 he set up the Warsaw Pact (a military alliance of Communist countries) to rival NATO.    Russia began an ‘arms race’ (in 1953, Russia developed the hydrogen bomb) and a ‘space race’ with America (in 1957 Russia launched Sputnik, the first satellite, and in 1961 Yuri Gagarin became the first astronaut to orbit the earth).  

              America too were becoming more aggressive.   America joined the ‘arms race’ with Russia – in 1955, NATO set up a West German Army of ½ million men (this led to the formation of the Warsaw Pact).   The Americans used U2 planes to spy on Russia.   Inside America, Senator McCarthy led a ‘witch-hunt’ for ‘Communists’ (e.g. Charlie Chaplin was accused of being a Communist).


Eisenhower and Khrushchev

Poland and Hungary, 1956

Khrushchev worsened the Cold War in another way, too.   By criticising Stalin, he destabilised the Soviet-bloc governments Stalin had set up in eastern Europe.   There were riots in Poland in 1956, and Khrushchev had to send in Russian troops to help the Polish government put them down.  

        Worse was to follow in Hungary.   There, in October 1956, students rioted and smashed statues of Stalin, and Imre Nagy became Prime Minister.   From 29 October to 3 November 1956, the new government brought in democracy, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion.   The Hungarians were encouraged by words of support from America.   Finally, Nagy announced that Hungary was going to leave the Warsaw Pact.   Khrushchev may have believed in peaceful co-existence, but he was not prepared to allow freedom to the Soviet bloc countries.   At dawn on 4 November 1956, 1000 Russian tanks rolled into Budapest and re-established Soviet rule.   At the time, it was thought that the Russian had killed 30,000 Hungarians, though it seems that a figure of 4000 is nearer the truth.   Nevertheless, western Europe was horrified, and western leaders became even more determined to stop Communism.

              As a result, 1955-1963 was the time of GREATEST tension in the Cold War.


Poland and Hungary

The U2 Crisis and the Berlin Wall

Tension remained high throughout the late 1950s.   The America and British presence in West Berlin was a huge problem for the Russians – particularly because hundreds of thousands of eastern Berliners were fleeing every month into West Berlin (this was an embarrassment for the Communists, never mind the large numbers of skilled workers they were losing).   A Summit Meeting was arranged in Paris for 14 May 1960 to discuss Berlin and the arms race.

              Nine days before the meeting, however, the Soviets shot down an American U2 spy plane.   Although they claimed at first it was an off-course weather plane, the Americans had to admit it was a spy plane when the Russians produced the pilot, Gary Powers.   As a result, the first thing Khrushchev did at the summit was to demand an apology from President Eisenhower.   When Eisenhower refused, Khrushchev went home, and the summit collapsed.   It was a very frightening time.   If the two sides resorted to all-out nuclear war, their stockpiles of nuclear weapons guaranteed that all life on earth would be wiped out.

        By 1961, nearly 2,000 East Germans were fleeing into West Berlin every day.   At the Vienna summit of June 1961, Khrushchev again demanded that the Americans leave West Berlin.   Kennedy refused – and on 25 July he increased America’s spending on weapons.   On 13 August, Khrushchev closed the border between East and West Berlin – and built a wall.   The Berlin Wall became a symbol of the Cold War.



U2 Crisis and the Berlin Wall

How close to war did the world come over Cuba in 1962?

Meanwhile, the Americans were becoming more aggressive.   In 1959, the Communist leader Fidel Castro took power in Cuba.   Since Cuba was only 100 miles away from Florida, this was as much a problem for them as West Berlin was for the Russians.   In 1961, the Americans elected a new President, John F Kennedy, who promised to get tough on Communism.

        Initially, Kennedy’s attempts to get tough went wrong.   His actions at the Vienna summit had merely caused the Berlin Wall.   When Castro made a trade agreement with Russia, the Americans stopped trading with Cuba; in retaliation, Cuba nationalised all American-owned companies.   Then in April 1961 the CIA supported an attempted invasion of Cuba by anti-Castro Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs; it failed miserably, greatly embarrassing Kennedy.   Even worse, as a result, in September 1961, Castro asked Russia for – and was publicly promised – weapons to defend Cuba against America.   On 14 October 1962 an American U2 spy-plane took pictures of a nuclear missile base being built on Cuba.  

        Kennedy’s advisers told him he had 10 days before Cuba could fire the missiles at targets in America.   For the next fortnight, the world stood on the brink of global nuclear war.   Fearing a military strike would lead to hot war, Kennedy decided to blockade Cuba.   The Russian ships thought to be carrying missiles only turned back at the last minute.   Most people in the West thought the end of the world was nigh.  

        Then (in the words of one US adviser) ‘the other guy blinked’: Khrushchev sent two telegrams – the first (26 October) offering to dismantle the sites if Kennedy would agree not to invade Cuba, and a second (27 October) demanding that American missile sites in Turkey be dismantled.   Just at this moment, a U2 plane was shot down in Cuba, but Kennedy decided to ignore the incident.  

        Kennedy publicly agreed not to invade Cuba (and secretly agreed to dismantle the sites in Turkey).   Later, because of this, Khrushchev claimed that he won the crisis.   At the time, however, Kennedy appeared to be the victor, because the Russians had dismantled the Cuba sites.   Soon after, Khrushchev fell from power.

        Both leaders had had a fright.   Kennedy and Khrushchev set up a telephone ‘hotline’ to talk directly in a crisis.   In 1963, they agreed a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.   Although it took another 27 years, the Cuba crisis marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War.  

Cuba Crisis