Back To CourseHistory 109: Western Europe Since 1945
14 chapters | 134 lessons
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Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.
If you recall your World War II history, the United States and the Soviet Union were allies during the war. Together, these nations and others brought about the downfall of Hitler's Third Reich. When the war ended in 1945, these two countries emerged as world super powers. They were it: the two most powerful states in the world. When the war ended, the two super powers had very different ideas of how Europe should be restructured. Herein lies the roots of the Cold War.
The Cold War, of course, was a prolonged period of tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, lasting between the end of World War II and the fall of communism. While the Cold War spawned regional 'hot wars,' like the Korean War and the Vietnam War, the Cold War was characterized by threats, tension, and competition -- not physical combat. Basically, between 1945 and 1991, the United States and the Soviet Union did not like each other very much.
World War II devastated Europe. When the war ended in 1945, Soviet troops occupied countries like Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, and others. The Soviets also occupied the eastern half of Germany, while the Americans, British, and French occupied the other half. The two super powers had very different ideas of how Europe should be rebuilt. The United States naturally wanted Europe to be rebuilt along Democratic-Capitalist lines, while the Soviet Union, being a communist country, wanted Europe to be rebuilt along Marxist lines. Because of this, the Soviets moved quickly to establish communist puppet governments in occupied countries.
The western democracies tried but failed to curb Soviet expansion. At the Yalta Conference in February 1945 and at the Potsdam Conference in July of 1945, the Allied powers met to discuss the composition of post-war Europe. Under pressure from western democracies, Soviet leader Josef Stalin pledged to refrain from Sovietization and insisted he would allow free elections in occupied countries. Stalin failed to keep his promise and through falsified elections and other subversive means, the Soviet Union helped install communist governments. Unwilling to risk outright war, there was little the western democracies could do except stand by and watch as eastern Europe fell to communism.
The countries that came under the influence of communism became known as the Eastern Bloc, or the 'Eastern Bloc States.' In a famous speech, British prime minister Winston Churchill said that these countries had been placed 'behind the Iron Curtain.' The term 'Iron Curtain,' of course, was a figurative reference to the oppressive rule of communism. Among the leading Eastern Bloc states were East Germany, Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Albania, and Bulgaria. These states were held together by an agreement called the Warsaw Pact or, more officially, the 'Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation, and Mutual Assistance.' The Warsaw Pact was a mutual defense pact aimed at consolidating communist strength encountering the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO.
So what was NATO? NATO was the opposing mutual defense pact. Its member states were more or less the western democracies. Countries like the United States, France, Great Britain, Canada, and many others made up NATO. The important thing to remember here is that the Warsaw Pact stemmed from Soviet influence, while NATO stemmed from American influence.
Recognizing the problems posed by the Sovietization of eastern Europe, the United States adopted a broad foreign policy strategy that has come to be known as containment. Put simply, containment policy was designed to contain the spread of communism but not necessarily combat it where it already existed. Containment policy was formulated by diplomat George F. Kennan and became the cornerstone of President Harry Truman's foreign policy. The Truman Doctrine marked the official implementation of containment policy. In a famous 1947 speech, Truman proclaimed that the United States would intervene to provide economic and military support to Greece and Turkey, whose people were attempting to thwart a communist takeover. The Truman Doctrine essentially stated that the United States would provide support to countries resisting communism.
Under the broad strategy of containment, the United States launched another initiative called the Marshall Plan. Basically, it was a program to provide aid to war-torn Europe. Named after Secretary of State George Marshall, it was designed to rebuild the devastated economies of European states destroyed during World War II. It was also intended to ward off communist expansion and ensure the foundation of democratic states. The program was officially called the 'European Recovery Program.' The plan was in effect between 1948 and 1951. Under the plan, numerous countries received substantial economic aid packages funded by the United States.
West Germany was one of the nations receiving aid from the United States. Just as Germany was divided between the Allies and the Soviets, so too was the capital city of Berlin. In the spring and summer of 1948, Soviet forces began to isolate Allied-controlled West Berlin. This was called the 'Berlin blockade.' In June, transportation was restricted, while food supplies and electricity were also cut off. Refusing to be bullied into handing over West Berlin to the Soviets, President Harry Truman and leaders of the western powers determined to supply 2 million West Berliners with aid by aircraft. The Berlin Airlift, or Operation Vittles, went into effect beginning June 26th, 1948. Though a daunting undertaking, American and Allied aircraft flew around the clock to transport food to the desperate people of West Berlin for nearly a year. Embarrassed by the success of the airlifts, the Soviets lifted the blockade in May 1949.
Another important manifestation of the tension between the two super powers can be seen in the Berlin Wall. The Berlin Wall was built by communist East Germany in order to prevent its citizens from fleeing to democratic West Germany. Construction began on the Berlin Wall in August of 1961. The East German government claimed that the Wall was built to keep its citizens safe from fascism. In fact, it was officially called the 'Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart,' although it was obvious its real purpose was to keep East German citizens from defecting to West Germany. Over the years, many Germans attempted to scale the Wall, usually at the risk of their own lives. Some were successful; some were not.
Throughout the Cold War, tension between the United States and the Soviet Union often revolved around each country attempting to outdo each other. This competition is perhaps most evident in the Arms Race and Space Race that peaked throughout the 1950s and the 1960s.
Let's discuss the Nuclear Arms Race. This term simply refers to the Cold War competition between the super powers over which state could gain nuclear arms superiority. When the United States successfully exploded atomic bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, humanity entered a new era. Determined not to fall behind in terms of military technology, the Soviet Union began work on its own nuclear program. In August 1949, the Soviet Union successfully exploded its own atomic bomb, becoming only the second country to do so.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s and even afterwards, both countries went to great lengths to stockpile nuclear weapons. By the 1950s, the super powers had the capabilities to annihilate one another. Government experts referred to this dynamic as Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD. MAD was actually viewed by some as a deterrent to war. According to this theory, if both countries knew that war could possibly result in their own destruction, there would be great incentive not to go to war. The nuclear arms race went through various stages. It peaked and continued until it ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. On particularly intense moment associated with the Arms Race was the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.
The Nuclear Arms Race was not the only area in which the two super powers competed. In the fields of science, technology, education, and even culture, both super powers tried to convince the world that their system was superior. The Space Race lasted between the mid-1950s and the early-1970s. This race was exactly what it sounds like: a competition over space technology. The Soviets took an early lead in the Space Race when then they launched the world's first satellite, called Sputnik 1, on October 4th, 1957. Sputnik caused tremendous anxiety among Americans. Americans were not sure not exactly sure what the purpose of Sputnik was. Was it spying on them? Could it drop a bomb or launch a missile? What was this evil device orbiting the globe?
Four months after the launch of Sputnik, the United States launched its own satellite, Explorer 1. Satellites led to manned orbits, which, as we all know, led to a moon landing. When Apollo 11 landed on the surface of the moon in 1969, it was not only an important scientific achievement; it was a pivotal moment in the Cold War as a whole.
What is important to understand is the development of NASA, the moon landing, the seemingly generous Berlin Airlifts, and countless other post war-era events were the direct result of American-Soviet tensions. We absolutely cannot overestimate the importance of American-Soviet competition as the underlying cause of so much of what transpired between the 1950s to 1980s. To summarize the dynamics between the United States and the Soviet Union in a nutshell, think of it this way: the United States was the leader of a coalition democratic states and heavily influenced their agenda, while the Soviet Union was the leader of a coalition of communist states and heavily influenced their agenda.
Let's review the key terms of this lesson. The Cold War was a prolonged period of tension between the United States and the Soviet Union lasting between the end of World War II and the fall of communism. The Eastern Bloc was a coalition of states that came under the influence of the Soviet Union. Among these states were East Germany, Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, and others. Throughout the Cold War, especially early on, the United States developed the policy called containment. The idea was to contain the spread of communism but not to actively combat it where it already existed. A key event in the struggle between the super powers was the Berlin Airlift, in which the United States and other democratic allies worked around the clock to fly in food and supplies to the isolated citizens of West Berlin. Throughout the Cold War, officials formulated the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction, meaning that neither country would want to risk war because both countries had the capacity to annihilate the other. Tension between the United States and the Soviet Union led to the Nuclear Arms Race and the Space Race, in which each country tried to gain superiority in the areas of nuclear weapons and space technology.
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Back To CourseHistory 109: Western Europe Since 1945
14 chapters | 134 lessons