Although there was a joint anti-Nazi sentiment across Europe and the world, and global politics seemed to be united in the relief of the defeat of Germany at the end of World War II, there were also many conflicts during this time. Why then does the Cold War differ from any of these confrontations?
I believe these tensions to be different from previous occurrences. The world changed because of the relationship between the two great powers – the United States of America (USA) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) – and the actions that they took because of this increasingly situation. This polarization was a move from traditional warfare and exhausted only as a possibility of war and an introduction of the nuclear threat.
The mistrust between the USA and the USSR became more noticeable at the end of World War II when both sides had raced to get to Berlin to defeat Germany. Although there were smiles and handshakes for the media, the reality was an increased suspicion between the two sides.
The USSR felt they had been the most severely affected by the war and wanted to be compensated. The US was the most economically stable; It had a trade surplus and large gold reserves. Militarily they were the most powerful of the warring countries and were in possession of the revolutionary atomic bomb. This position proved to be a threat to the USSR, especially as the US had chosen not to embrace its isolationist policy and thus remained involved in global politics, and especially in Europe. It seemed natural for the countries of the world to align them with one of these states, and have them dictate global politics.
After the Second World War the Allied forces met at Yalta and Potsdam to consider actions to settle Europe, but it was at these meetings that misunderstandings and tensions between the two powers started to surface. At Yalta, the USSR demanded a seat on the newly formed United Nations General Assembly for each of its republicates, but this was rejected by the USA. It was officially agreed that the USSR and the USA could have 3 seats. One of the most important aspects that came out of Yalta was the division of Germany and Berlin. Each of the Allied countries gained a piece. The Soviets later decided to erect a blockade cutting West Berlin off. The Allied forces came together to airlift supplies, but this of course created more tensions with the Soviets. Many clauses of these agreements were also ambiguous and led to further misunderstanding.
It was held that the USA's Marshall Plan of 1947 would help Germany and 15 other nations recover economically and inject money and business into Europe. When the Soviets went against some of the conditions laid out in the Yalta and Potsdam meetings, the USA stopped reparation payments to the Soviets. Hostility increased.
Many historians will agree that the most obvious aspect of the Cold War was an intense clash of ideologies – political, economic and social differences. Truman had even declared that he would fight communism and support any global democracy and Churchill coined the phrase 'the Iron Curtain'. And on the Soviet side, Stalin's speech in February 1946 laid out his 5 year plan and emphasized his desire to defeat the 'evil of capitalism' to counteract the West's offensive policies. These public declarations helped with the division of the two powers. It seemed logical to expect that as they had been allies in the War, and had a common enemy in Nazi Germany, that they would remain on friendly terms, but as they both depicted the other side as 'evil' their 'friendship' wasnt To survive.
The wedge was driven in deeper when the Allied forces came together under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. This was created as an alliance against a security threat from the USSR. The rivalry was heightened when the Soviets set up the Warsaw Pact in response, drawing in members of the Communist Bloc and controlling with decisions coming out of Moscow.
Technological developments influenced the relations further. To end the war in Japan, the US dropped two atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With the US technological monopoly at this time and as the USSR had not been informed about the Manhattan Project, the Soviets felt provoked. In 1949 the detonation of the first Soviet atom bomb set off the arms race and was a clear starting point for the start of the Cold War – this now became a threat to humanity.
The main factors that so set off this Cold War was distrust and mistrust from both sides. This was fueled by a mutual fear for one another and had many of its roots in misunderstanding. Truman did not understand that the Soviets wanted to create a buffer zone in Eastern Europe as they feared a new German state and there was always the Western fear of communism to keep this speculation alive. Of course the Soviets were not prepared to accept a position of inferiority once they had regained their strength after the War.
Although this polarized tension had its roots in history – the Bolshevik Revolution and suspensions during the Second World War – it came to a head after the War and ushered in an atomic and nuclear age and was fueled by disagreements, treaty violations, suspicion of motives and Paranoia. The Cold War appeared to fill a power vacuum which reflected in global leadership being thrust into the hands of the USA and the USSR.
This war was different – power politics became more intense and once the Soviets engaged in their atomic bomb experimentation in 1949, uncertainty greater. The worry for the politicians on both sides was to prevent this polarization of the Cold War from evolving from, as historian John Lewis Gaddis called the "long peace", to traditional warfare and contain the technological threat of nuclear destruction.