In this lesson, we explore the causes and factors that led to increased tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union after WWII, and to the incidents that almost led to all out war.
S.-Soviet Tensions Post-WWII
Just about every aspect of society has its rivalries. In computers, both philosophical and operational differences have made Apple and Microsoft each other’s biggest competitors.
In sports, you’d be hard pressed to find a bigger rivalry with more animosity involved than the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox in Major League Baseball.Geopolitics is no different. Rivalries exist between nations based on political and philosophical differences as well, only the implications for these rivalries turning sour can be far worse. Perhaps no rivalry between different nations had greater implications for the entire world than that between the United States and the Soviet Union in the second half of the 20th century.
Separated by vastly different political, economic, and social philosophies, tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States, a period historians term the Cold War, had the potential to lead to the end of the world as we know it.
Europe and U.S. Policy after WWII
When World War II (WWII) ended, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union had already decided what post-war Europe would look like. At various conferences, the most important of which were at Yalta and Potsdam, the three powers split Germany and its capital Berlin in two, with the eastern portion controlled by the Soviet Union and the western portion controlled jointly by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. Additionally, the Soviet Union was given influence over the governments of several Eastern European states, where they promptly set up loyal, communist puppet regimes.
These client states, though technically independent, were effectively part of the Soviet Union, sharing its communist economy and single-party political structure.The United States and the West feared the creation of this Eastern Bloc, as Western journalists and government termed it, and the further spread of communism and/or totalitarian states in the rest of the world. U.
S. foreign policy became one of containment – essentially, stopping the spread of communism wherever it could. This was in direct opposition to the Soviet Union’s policy of fostering the spread of communism, especially in its Asian neighbors. For example, Soviet agents had spent significant time with Mao Zedong’s fledgling Communist Party in China in the 1930s and 1940s, where communism eventually prevailed and created the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
The tensions between the world’s two biggest superpowers ratcheted up with the advent of nuclear weaponry. The United States had already obliterated two Japanese cities and hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians with atomic bombs to end fighting in the Pacific theater in WWII, and in the late 1940s and 1950s both the United States and the Soviet Union pioneered even larger hydrogen bombs capable of producing explosions thousands of times more powerful than atomic bombs.Furthermore, scientists theorized that if a large number of these missiles were launched simultaneously, the resultant radiation and explosions could lead to a global nuclear winter.
Both nations eventually stockpiled thousands of these weapons over the following decades, and after the intercontinental ballistic missile (or ICBM) was invented, these nuclear warheads could be attached to missiles that could enter the stratosphere and detonate on the other side of the planet. These capabilities and the sheer number of weapons stockpiled by these two superpowers often placed the fate of the world on a knife’s edge.
Proxy Wars, Berlin, Cuban Missile Crisis
Though these two countries never fought an all-out war, they fought numerous proxy battles around the world. For example, the entire reason the United States got involved in Vietnam in the 1960s was to contain the spread of communism.
Though the Soviet Union never sent troops to Vietnam, they funneled arms and weapons to the communist North Vietnamese and American pilots often faced Russian-made MiG fighter jets.However, there were several times when the United States and the Soviet Union came dramatically close to open conflict. In Berlin in 1961, soon after the Soviet Union erected the Berlin Wall to separate the Western-controlled half of Berlin from the Soviet half, a dispute over U.S. officials entering and leaving East Berlin led to a standoff that nearly began World War Three.
After a U.S. diplomat was turned back at the border by East German officials, another diplomat was led through East Berlin by an armed escort.Despite the stunt, East German officials continued to claim control over who entered and left East Berlin.
As a result, the U.S. general in command of the area, General Lucius Clay, ordered several U.S. tanks to a border post known as Checkpoint Charlie. Viewing this measure as a threat, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev ordered Soviet tanks to the same checkpoint. The standoff between the two groups of tanks, separated only by about 100 yards of no-man’s land, continued for the next 16 hours.
After some secret negotiations between Moscow and Washington D.C., the tanks slowly pulled back, one by one, averting further conflict.But the following year, the two superpowers were involved in yet another tense standoff. In October 1962, a U.S.
spy plane spotted Soviet ballistic missiles being erected on the island of Cuba. Cuba had only recently become a communist nation in 1959 when Fidel Castro seized power from the corrupt but American-supported Fulgencio Batista. Castro had allied himself with the Soviet Union, and a failed U.S.-backed invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 had irrevocably severed relations between the U.S.
and the island nation only 90 miles from the U.S. coast. With Soviet missiles now on the island within close enough range to strike any target on America’s eastern seaboard, the American government sprang into action.President Kennedy admonished the Soviet Union for placing the missiles there and threatened an invasion of Cuba.
The confrontation and strong words from Kennedy led many in both nations to assume war – likely a nuclear war – was imminent. After nearly two weeks of tense standoff, including a naval encounter where U.S. ships blockading Cuba non-violently turned back a Soviet ship carrying more missiles, cooler heads fortunately prevailed. The Soviets agreed to remove their missiles from Cuba in exchange for the United States removing its missile installations from Turkey.
End of Cold War
Thankfully, all-out nuclear warfare was avoided between the superpowers in the 1950s and 1960s. Though the superpowers remained hostile to each other throughout the 1970s, that decade saw a cooling of tensions from the height of the early 1960s.
For example, in 1975 Soviet cosmonauts and American astronauts met on the Soviet space station and shook hands, an event seen as symbolic of the better relations between the two superpowers. The 1980s saw the Soviet Union slowly decline, wracked with internal economic and political problems. Reforms were unable to fix the deep problems, and the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.
Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union could have very easily led to World War Three and all-out nuclear war. The advent of increasingly powerful weapons with an increasingly wide range made the animosity between the two superpowers dangerous for the entire world.
Both nations wanted to spread their wildly divergent economic and political doctrines worldwide, naturally leading to several tense encounters between the two countries unaccustomed to backing down. Fortunately, in each of the crises discussed above, from Berlin to Cuba, peaceful settlements were found to avoid conflict and war.
When this lesson is over, you should be able to:
- Define the Cold War
- Describe the various tensions between the United States and Soviet Union that almost brought on world war
- Recognize what caused the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991