Two Super Powers: The United States and the Soviet Union

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Nate Sullivan

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.

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Jeffrey Perry

Jeffrey Perry earned his Ph.D. in History from Purdue University and has taught History courses at private and state institutions of higher education since 2012.

The United States and the Soviet Union were super powers during the Cold War because of their capabilities to destroy one another. Discover more about the two super powers, including their emergence, their political differences, containment of communism, the Arms Race, and the Space Race. Updated: 09/22/2021

The Emergence of the Two Super Powers and the Roots of the Cold War

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.

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The Eastern Bloc vs. The Western Democracies

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.

Containment and Cold War Geopolitics

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.

The Arms Race and the Space Race

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.

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Additional Activities

Activities—Two Super Powers: The United States and the Soviet Union:

Writing Prompt:

Imagine you are an American politician at the end of World War II. It is 1947 and you are a fierce defender of democracy and capitalism. You watch with worry as the Soviet Union sets up puppet governments throughout Eastern Europe. Write a 3–4 paragraph letter to President Harry Truman outlining your concerns. You will want to bring in examples to back up your points, such as recent actions taken by the Soviet Union, your fears of a future war, as well as ideas on how to ''contain'' the communist menace.

Matrix Activity:

On a blank piece of paper create a chart with 2 rows and 4 columns. Label the rows in the first column as ''Containment and Cold War Geopolitics'' and ''The Arms Race and Space Race,'' respectively. In the remaining 3 boxes of each row, describe the 3 major events for each category. For instance, for ''Containment and Cold War Geopolitics,'' you could discuss the Truman Doctrine. A satisfactory answer would touch on that policy's origins, goals, and effects. This activity will help develop your writing and synthesis skills. Once complete, you will have a handy study guide for the lesson.

Additional Questions to Consider:

  1. True or False: During World War II, the United States and Soviet Union were fierce enemies. (Hint: the Soviet Union was no friend of Hitler.)
  2. The ideological battle between the United States and the Soviet Union stemmed primarily from what differences? (Hint: think about politics and economy.)
  3. What was NATO and why was it important? (Hint: think about the recent world wars and emerging crisis between the U.S. and Soviet Union.)
  4. What was the Soviet Union's purpose in constructing the Berlin Wall in 1961? (Hint: think of the divisions between East and West Germany.)

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