The Cold War Origins, Tensions, and Thawing Relations

The Origins and Evolution of the Cold War: From WWII cooperation to post-war hostility. Explore the historical context and key events that shaped this pivotal era in a compelling analysis. Gain insights into the causes and lessons for peace and cooperation.

The Cold War Origins, Tensions, and Thawing Relations
The Big Three: Churchill, Truman, and Stalin, at the Potsdam Conference (August 1945). Credit: IWM BU 9195

World War II witnessed a remarkable military alliance between the United Kingdom, the United States, and the USSR, which successfully thwarted Hitler's conquest of Europe. Hopeful that this alliance against the brutal Nazi regime could herald an era of peace and cooperation, the peoples and governments of these countries, along with resistance movements in occupied nations, looked to a brighter future.

However, within a short span of two years after the war's end, this cooperation dissolved into mutual distrust and a breakdown of diplomatic talks. This article explores the origins of the Cold War, analyzing the underlying causes and key incidents from 1945 to 1947.

Early Hostility

The roots of antagonism between democratic capitalist regimes and the Soviet communist regime can be traced back to the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution in November 1917. The Bolsheviks, under Vladimir Lenin's leadership, declared their intention to ignite a world communist revolution, aiming to dismantle capitalism, imperialism, and class-based societies. This announcement, coupled with the Bolsheviks' seizure of capitalist property, refusal to pay accumulated debts, and withdrawal from the Allied coalition during World War I, triggered alarm and betrayal among the Western powers.

Perceiving the Bolsheviks' plans as a direct threat to their economic and social systems, the Western powers felt betrayed in their collective struggle against German imperialism. Consequently, following Germany's surrender in November 1918, the Entente powers provided economic aid and dispatched small military contingents to support counterrevolutionary armies fighting against the Bolshevik regime. Simultaneously, the Bolsheviks urged their followers in Western countries to withdraw from the Second International of socialist parties and join the newly established Third International of communist parties, pledging allegiance to Moscow's leadership.

Cooperation in Wartime

Against the backdrop of simmering tensions, World War II forged an unlikely alliance between the United Kingdom, the United States, and the USSR. From the German invasion of the USSR in June 1941 to the final defeat of Nazi Germany in May 1945, these nations cooperated loyally and effectively, preventing Hitler from conquering Europe. Governments in exile and resistance movements in Axis-occupied countries such as France, Poland, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway shared the aspiration that this wartime alliance would lay the foundation for a peaceful and cooperative future between Western democracies and the USSR.

Despite the optimism that the military victory had generated, there was a rapid decline in cooperation and the emergence of pervasive mutual mistrust during the post-war years. Two significant factors contributed to the transformation of the wartime alliance into a Cold War: the exhaustion of the belligerent powers after years of conflict and the introduction of the atomic bomb. The devastating impact of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 not only underscored the destructive potential of a war between the USSR and the West but also served as a powerful deterrent against open warfare.

Allied generals Montgomery, Eisenhower, Zhukov, and Delattre de Tassigny in Berlin (May 1945).
Allied generals Montgomery, Eisenhower, Zhukov, and Delattre de Tassigny in Berlin (May 1945). Credit: Yevgeny Chaldea via Albumwar2

Nuclear Deterrence

In 1949, the Soviets successfully tested their first atomic bomb, intensifying the realization that a war between the USSR and the West could potentially annihilate life on Earth. This grim prospect acted as a compelling restraint on open hostilities between the two powers. Instead, they engaged in economic and ideological warfare, maintained opposing military alliances (NATO and the Warsaw Pact), and invested substantial resources in espionage. The world found itself in a prolonged Cold War, marked by ideological confrontations and military standoffs but always stopping short of direct armed conflict.

The late 1980s witnessed a remarkable transformation as the internal softening of the Soviet dictatorship, Mikhail Gorbachev's disarmament proposal, and Ronald Reagan's willingness to engage in such proposals created an atmosphere of cooperation. These factors led to the gradual thawing of the Cold War, replacing the icy hostility that had defined the relationship between the West and the USSR for four decades.

Post-War Years

To understand the swift shift from wartime cooperation to peacetime hostility, it is crucial to examine both the long-term root causes and specific incidents during the period from 1945 to 1947. While the initial paragraph highlighted the hopes raised by the military coalition of 1941–1945, it is essential to acknowledge that the democratic capitalist regimes and the Soviet communist regime had been engaged in a state of mutual hostility since the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. The threat posed by German rearmament and Nazi aggression momentarily overshadowed the Cold War between 1917 and 1936.

The Cold War emerged as a complex interplay of historical grievances, ideological conflicts, and geopolitical dynamics. The early seeds of hostility sown during the Bolshevik Revolution and subsequent counterrevolutionary responses set the stage for a prolonged period of tension between the Western powers and the Soviet Union. Despite the initial promise of post-war cooperation, the exhaustion of the belligerent powers and the advent of atomic weapons further entrenched this division. However, with the internal changes within the Soviet Union and the willingness of leaders like Gorbachev and Reagan to pursue disarmament, the Cold War eventually gave way to a new era of cooperation and improved relations.