Cold War

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

The Cold War may be defined as the rivalry for world domination between East and West, that is, between the Soviet bloc on the one hand and the American-dominated “Free World” on the other, that was fought on many fronts — ideological, political, economic, military, and cultural — in the aftermath of the Second World War. No consensus exists among scholars about when the Cold War began (or ended) or which side was responsible for starting it. The orthodox (or liberal) view was that the Cold War was essentially caused by Soviet expansionism. “Revisionist” historians have argued that it was the product of mutual suspicion, that far from being expansionist or revolutionary-minded, Stalin was coldly rational and cautious, and that — at least in the “hard revisionist” version — the need for capitalism to expand by breaking down trade barriers everywhere was an essential part of the dynamic.

Although the Grand Alliance of the United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain showed signs of fracturing already before the end of the World War, it was not until 1947 that divisions between East and West could be said to have become irrevocable. In that year, George F. Kennan, the chief of mission at the American Embassy in Moscow, published (as “X”) his Long Telegram in Foreign Affairs that urged a “long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies;” President Harry Truman enunciated his “Doctrine” of supporting “free peoples” (specifically Greece and Turkey) against “subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressure;” and Secretary of State George Marshall announced his Plan for extending credits to European states to enable them to rebuild their economies in an integrated fashion. Also in 1947, a coalition of Communists and Socialists in Poland came to power as a result of elections marked by intense pressure on voters and ballot-box stuffing; and leading Communists from eastern and central Europe met along with Stalin’s principal representative, Andrei Zhdanov, to map out a common strategy for consolidating Communist Party rule and thwarting what Zhdanov referred to as “the aggressive and frankly expansionist course to which American imperialism has committed itself since the end of World War II.” They agreed to form a Communist Information Bureau (Cominform) with its headquarters initially in Belgrade. The appointment of a Communist-dominated government in Czechoslovakia (commonly referred to as the “Czech coup”) in early 1948 marked the final act in the post-war division of Europe between East and West.

The establishment of respective military alliances (NATO and the Warsaw Pact), the triumph of the Communists in China, the Korean War that involved UN-sponsored American troops in combat against contingents of the Chinese Red Army, and the nuclear arms race followed. In addition to the creation of a bi-polar world, the Cold War had immense consequences for the domestic policies and political climates of both the United States and the Soviet Union.

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