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The Cold War: Definition, Causes & Early Events

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  • 0:06 Cold War Definition
  • 0:38 Genesis of the Cold War
  • 1:20 Truman and the Cold War
  • 3:11 Containment
  • 3:42 Other Early Cold War Events
  • 4:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

The period of distrust between the Soviet Union and United States was known as the Cold War. Learn about the origins of the era, essential events and the shaping of the national security state.

Definition of the Cold War

The Cold War was a period of economic, political and military tension between the United States and Soviet Union from 1945 to 1991. Following the end of the Second World War, complications arose centering on the shifting of international power. The Soviet Union wanted to acquire additional territory while the United States attempted to limit the gains desired by the Soviets. This battle of ideologies resulted in increased national security, diplomatic tension and proxy wars between the two powerful nations.

Genesis of the Cold War

The beginning of the Cold War is linked to the Potsdam Conference in the summer of 1945. The intention of the meeting was to discuss the realignment of post-war Europe. However, discussions broke down into threats. The United States and Soviet Union agreed upon the division of Berlin, but the Soviets, under the leadership of Joseph Stalin, wanted to acquire Poland as a buffer against future attacks.

President Harry Truman rejected Stalin's demands, citing the right of self-determination in the case of Poland. Truman then revealed his master card: the atomic bomb. Upon learning of the destructive weapon, Stalin ordered a crash program to commence in order to speed arms development and counter the atomic bomb.

Truman and the Cold War

President Truman may have had the most profound effect on heightening the tension between the Soviet Union and the United States. In September 1945, as a means of limiting Soviet economic reconstruction, Truman suspended the Lend-Lease Act, which was an infusion of monetary and military aid from the United States to beleaguered nations during the Second World War. This aid helped nations such as Britain, France and the Soviet Union economically survive the war years. Unfortunately, the plan backfired as the Soviets decided to acquire satellite states, (known as members of the Warsaw Pact) in order to make up for the lost funding.

With Soviet expansion came a heightened fear from both the United States federal government and the general American public. This trepidation was increased upon the release of United States Diplomat to Moscow George Kennan's 'Long Telegram', or the 'X-Article.' Kennan was a trusted adviser to Truman, and his 'Long Telegram' became the basis for the policy of containment. As you will see, the development of a national security state was the byproduct of Kennan's recommendations, as well as the growing fear of expansion of communism.

In 1947, the Truman Doctrine was issued in an attempt to combat the Soviet menace. The policy called for money to be transferred to third world nations, such as Greece and Turkey, in an attempt to prevent communist expansion and gain allies in the battle against communism. The Truman Doctrine was synonymous with the Marshall Plan, launched in the same year. The Marshall Plan encouraged funding to reconstruct European nations devastated by the Second World War. The hope was to prevent Soviet subversion into the weakened governments.

Truman also passed the National Security Act of 1947. The legislation led to the creation of the Air Force, National Security Council, Central Intelligence Agency and Department of Defense. All of this was done in an effort to combat the Soviet Union and communism.

Containment

Containment was the foremost tool of the United States in combating the Soviet Union. This policy, drafted by Kennan and approved by Truman in 1947, called for action to be taken against international communist expansion. As a visual, imagine a fictional fence being erected around the Soviet Union by the United States. This was the general idea of containment and keeping communism from spreading into different countries. Containment was eventually enlarged as the United States suspected communism in places such as Laos, Germany, Vietnam, Korea and Cuba.

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