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Cold War: Overview


The wartime allies become enemies

Soon after the end of the war the USA and the USSR became hostile towards each other. A period of hostility known as the old War lasted until the late 1980s.


Yalta and Potsdam

The leaders of the USA, USSR and Britain met twice in 1945 to talk about the world after the war. They had met once before in Tehran, 1943.


Yalta, February 1945

Leaders present: Roosevelt (USA), Stalin (USSR), Churchill (Britain)

Discussed: Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe

Agreed: non-communists to be part of emergency governments free elections as soon as possible

Outcome: Soviet Union did not allow democracy in Poland and great bitterness caused in the USA


Potsdam, July 1945

Leaders present: Truman (USA), Stalin (USSR), Churchill, replaced by Attlee (Britain)

Discussed: the future running of Germany

Agreed: borders between Germany and Poland wiping out Nazi influence arrangements for reparations

Outcome: USA prevented Soviet Union involvement in the rich Ruhr area of Germany and occupied Japan. The Soviet Union blocked American involvement in Eastern Europe.


The Soviet take-over

In 1946 Churchill described how an iron curtain was being put across Europe; the iron curtain divided Soviet-style states in Eastern Europe from democratic capitalist states in Western Europe. Between 1945 and 1948 the Soviet Union imposed communist governments on several East European countries:







The communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948 particularly angered people in the West.


For the Soviet leader, Stalin, the take-over was a defensive move: an attempt to build up a friendly buffer between the USSR and the Western capitalist states.


For the American leader, Truman, the take-over was an offensive move: the first step in a Soviet attempt to impose communism on all the countries of the world.


The American response

Between 1945 and 1949 the Americans developed a policy called . 'containment'. This involved using the power and wealth of the USA to try to stop or 'contain' the spread of communism, first of all in Europe and later throughout the world.


Containment in Europe

1947: The Truman Doctrine

The American President Truman said that the world was being divided into free, democratic countries and undemocratic communist states. Truman promised help for any people who wanted to resist communism and immediate help to anti-communist governments in Greece and Turkey.


1947: The Marshall Plan

The economy of Europe was in ruins at the end of the war. The Marshall Plan, named after General George Marshall, the US Secretary of State, aimed to re-build the European economy so that it could resist communism. In theory, East European countries could join but the Americans made it clear that communist states were not welcome.


1949: the founding of NATO

The USA took the lead in organizing a military alliance of non-communist countries in Europe and North America. It was called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. All members agreed to defend each other in case of Soviet attack.


1949: the setting up of West Germany

At the end of the war Germany was divided into the British, French, American and Soviet zones. The city of Berlin was also divided into four zones. At first both the USA and the USSR wanted a unified Germany. When the Soviet Union took control of much of Eastern Europe, America moved towards the setting up of a pro-Western state in the British, French and American zones. West Germany, officially known as the Federal Republic of Germany, was established in May 1949.


The Soviet reaction to containment

Stalin, in turn, saw American actions after 1945 as aggressive and a threat to the Soviet Union. The Soviet response was as follows:


1948-1949: the Berlin Blockade

West Berlin was an island of democracy and capitalism in the Soviet zone. Stalin was worried by the possibility of a strong West German state. In June 1948 Stalin blocked all road and rail transport with West Berlin. This was a failure. Britain and the USA organized an unprecedented airlift to stop West Berliners from being starved out. The blockade was ended in May 1949. The blockade accelerated moves towards a separate West Germany and the NATO alliance.



In January 1949 the Soviet Union tried to answer the Marshall Plan by setting up a trading bloc of communist countries. It was called the Council for Mutual Economic Aid or COMECON.


1949: the setting up of East Germany

After the official establishment of West Germany the Soviet zone of Germany was turned into a separate communist state, officially known as the German Democratic Republic.


1949: the Soviet atom bomb

The USA had a monopoly of atomic weapons after 1945. Stalin ordered Soviet scientists to produce an atomic bomb and in 1949 they succeeded.


1955: the Warsaw Pact

In 1955 NATO was expanded to include West Germany. The Soviet Union created a military alliance of communist countries known as the Warsaw Pact.