Origins of the Cold War

Published 29 Dec 2016

This essay about the Cold War can be summed up as a lengthy period of high tension and rivalry between the two world dominating superpowers, the USA and USSR, although which never involved direct conflict between the forces of the two powers. Starting around 1950, the Cold War kept all mankind and society on the brink of mass destruction for the best part of half a century, ending finally in 1990 with the collapse of the USSR as an empire and global superpower. The origins of the Cold War itself stem mainly from the end of the Second World War, when the two superpowers emerged victorious from the ashes of Europe and both looked to seize the advantage in gaining control in Europe.

When the atomic bomb and the advent of long-range military technologies greatly increased the chance of hostilities between the two states, the fact that they occupied opposite sides of the globe became less of a barrier to potential conflict. The origins of the friction and disharmony between the two states, which served as a prelude to the Cold War disunity, can be traced back to the First World War. The War, the Russian revolution and the Russian civil war brought the armies of the two powers together for the first time, and paved the way for a continuing struggle for mutual survival, influence and dominance.

The fundamental cause of the tension between America and Russia was the conflict of ideologies and incompatibilities between the two massively different societies – communism and capitalism. Therefore, perhaps the best place to start looking for the origins of the Cold War is the dawn of communism in Russia in 1917. The atrocities and mass killings by the Red Army in the Russian civil war in the period 1917 – 1921 paved the way for the first clash between the communist society and the West.

It came in the form of armed intervention by the allied states of the West, including America, who landed at Vlapostok and attempted to fight back the advancing Reds. The battle was brief, yet it was one of the first events to demonstrate the growing disharmony between Russia and the West. Throughout the history of the Cold War and the pre Cold War rivalry, the general policy of ‘containment’ of communism by the West and specifically America remained largely unchanged. This again supports the idea that the communist revolution can be marked as the very first of Cold War origins.

The most lasting and important effect Western intervention had on Russia had been the impression of the West left in the minds of the Russian people and their leaders. The Russians had just been through a terrifyingly costly war with Germany, followed by a disruptive revolution and a civil war in which millions upon millions had died from famine, disease, or fighting for the causes of the Whites or Reds. The West had intervened to crush the Red Bolshevik regime but had succeeded only in giving the Russian people the lasting impression that the capitalist powers were bent on pursuing the extermination of the Russian people. This perception of Western ideology remained in the minds of the Russian people for a long time, and the first response to this by the Red Government was to build up its armed forces into a formidable war machine.

During the inter-war period, the military power of both sides increased substantially. Russia stabilized somewhat, but the communist government was reluctant to agree to any relations with America and the West. On America’s part, they refused to recognize Russia as legitimate, claiming it to be only a part of the “international communist sub verse movement” until the Roosevelt administration in early 1933, when a basic agreement of mutual recognition was struck up between them. Following this were several attempts by the world powers to minimize the risk of another world war. Russia joined the League of Nations, and talked most of her satellite states into doing the same.

As the threat from Germany and Japan became more apparent, an uneasy truce was struck up between the members of the League, which now excluded Germany, for mutual defense and security. In the period leading up to the war, when Hitler was making clear his plans for Europe, Britain attempted to forge an alliance with Russia to counter the Nazi threat. The treaty formed the basis for the unsure alliance that held throughout the war, uniting Russia, Britain and America against Germany, but that was as far as relations went. The Soviet-American Alliance had been a temporary one through the war, and while they had been on the same side, fighting for a common cause, they each fought their own war. The Soviets kept to the eastern front, the Americans worked with the British on the west, and little in the form of information, strategies and intelligence reports were exchanged.

An interlude to this alliance occurred in the form of a Nazi-Soviet pact that assured the conquering and mutual occupation of Poland, and gave the Russians two year breathing space to prepare for a Nazi invasion. The West called Russia a traitor and when Russia latter attacked Finland, the refusal to allow the allied army passage by Norway, Sweden and Turkey only narrowly averted a war between Russia and the West. America remained neutral up to this point, until they opted to send aid to Finland. Public opinion in America and Britain was almost totally against Russia, and two decades of distrust, and exaggerated reports of the ‘evil’ Russian army in Western media only deepened anti Russian feelings.

In summer 1941, Hitler turned his attention away from the blitz over Britain and committed all his forces to an invasion of Russia. This brought about a welcome respite from the war in Britain, and an end to the Nazi-Soviet pact. Britain claimed Russia to be an ally fighting for a common cause. America was still pided over the issue of getting involved in the war, with the isolationists pushing for America to stand back and let the two dictators grind each other down. In consideration for declaring war on Germany, and therefore aiding Russia, the American Senator Robert A. Taft declared “A victory for communism would be far more dangerous for the United States than a victory for fascism.” The American involvement in the war was an interest in European security in both the east and west sectors. Roosevelt wanted a large sphere of influence as a basis for a new international system, what was to become the United Nations.

After an American delegate met with Stalin and reported back that Russia’s chances of winning the war were not as desperate as originally assumed, America decided to send a billion dollars (final amount totaled 11 billion) worth of supplies to Russia to turn back the Nazi war machine. While this aid was gracious and probably shortened the war by as much as two years – it was largely indecisive in the overall outcome of the war. More importantly, the Russian people suffered 26 million dead soldiers and civilians throughout their bitter four-year struggle. So although America and Russia were allied against Germany, the Russians held deep contempt for the West after they let the slaughter continue or four years before opening another front and splitting the Nazi forces in two.

The wartime strategies of the American and British allies are very important considerations when tracing Cold War origins. The post war geography of Europe greatly depended on the allied conduct of the invasion of Europe, the most important factor being the timing of D-Day. The allies at long last established a beachhead at Normandy in June 1944, and opened the second front, causing Hitler to pide his forces, and begin the long fighting retreat back to Germany. After a year of fighting across the continent, the Russians won the race to Berlin, although all parties did confine themselves to their agreed zones of occupation, and the potential clash between the two liberating armies never materialized.

If D-Day had transpired a year earlier, the allies could well have swept through Germany, Poland and Austria, and kept post war Europe free of Russian occupation. As it turned out, Russia ended the war occupying Eastern Europe, including its share of Germany and Berlin. Britain and America had predicted the danger this posed, yet they could not make the Russians back up and hand over the territory that so much Russian blood had been spilt to gain.

The Soviet Union wanted all Eastern Europe to be under Soviet control, with replica communist governments. America thought this spread of communism was more than Russia needed for her security and Soviet control in the east would threaten Western Europe. At the end of World War Two, America saw the Soviet threat to be the danger of the use of armed force in areas where the borders of American and Soviet influence met. The fact that America never came into direct conflict with the Soviet Union was largely to do with their geographical remoteness. They split the world in half, and each had room to move in their own sphere of influence, and where the borders met, they set up buffer zones, like the Berlin Wall and the Korean Demilitarized Zone, to avoid direct contact.

The year 1945, which saw an end to both the European and Pacific wars, also witnessed two more events that served as a prologue to the Cold War. The first was the death of President Roosevelt in April, which saw all the promising relations and co-operation between the American Government and Stalin go down the drain. The second event was the use of atomic bombs on Japan. The public display of the bomb’s destructive capability startled the world, and its potential use for future wars was recognized by all, especially the Russians. There was very little America could do to prevent Russia from eventually gaining nuclear technology, and within five years they had tested their first nuclear weapon. In period leading up to this event, Russia and America grew further apart, and the many attempts by America to pacify and control Russia’s atomic program failed. There were also several periods of high tension, like the Berlin blockade in the winter of 1948.

The end of this era and the start of the atomic age of the Cold War came on September 23, 1949 when the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb. The arms race had begun, with the substantially more destructive hydrogen bomb in the pipeline, and both sides attempting to gain nuclear superiority over the other before considering any arms limitations agreements. Such was the situation nine months later when the North Korean Army invaded South Korea. America’s direct and the USSR’s indirect involvement in this war for the first time put to the test this new global system, where all wars fought from this point on would involve either or both of the superpowers, with the threat of nuclear holocaust always just over the horizon.

The origins of the Cold War can be found by examining the history of the relations between Russia and the Western world between 1917 and 1949. There is a repeating pattern of misunderstanding of true intentions between the superpowers, and a failure on both sides to co-operate and coexist. A major cause of the tension was the failure of the American and Soviet governments to fully understand each other. They were aware of the conflict of ideologies, but did not understand the true long-term intentions of the other. This unsteady relationship experienced a temporary reconciliation when a forced alliance in the Second World War united Russia and the West against a common enemy.

But the outcome of the war left Russia and America victorious and powerful, with both dominating their own liberated territories in Europe. As the alliance dissolved, the arms race accelerated, and the rest of the world was quick to choose a side to align with for protection. This bi-polar system inevitably split the world in two, and with nuclear weapons backing up all policies, relations and co-operation were delicate and risky. This common misunderstanding led to a failure to co-operate on many issues, a deep mutual distrust and several near-disaster crises, most notably the Cuban Missile Crisis. The establishment of mutual distrust in the inter-war period, the post war bi-polar system, and the threat of mutual nuclear oblivion after 1949, left the world in a precarious state of ‘Cold War’.


  • D. Fleming, ‘The Cold War and its Origins, 1917 – 1960’ Volume 1, (GEORGE ALLEN AND UNWIN LTD, 1961)
  • D. Fleming, ‘The Cold War and its Origins, 1917 – 1960’ Volume 2, (GEORGE ALLEN AND UNWIN LTD, 1961)
  • J. Spanier, ‘Games Nations Play, “Analyzing International Politics”‘, (THOMAS NELSON AND SONS LTD, 1972)
  • G. Lewy, ‘America in Vietnam’ (NY OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 1978)
  • D. Rees, ‘Korea: The Limited War’, (MACMILLAN & CO LTD, 1964)
  • J. Gaddis, ‘The Long Peace, “Inquires into the History of the Cold War”‘, (NY OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 1987)
  • J. Gaddis, ‘The Long Peace, “Elements of Stability in the Post-war International System”‘, (NY OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 1987)
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