The Cold War dominated international politics for four and a half decades from 1945-1989, and was defined by a rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union that threatened—literally—to destroy the world. How did two nations that had been allies during World War II turn on each other so completely? And how did the United States, which had been only a marginal player in world politics before the war, come to view itself as a superpower?
In this episode, historian Jeremi Suri discusses the beginnings of the Cold War (1945-1989) its origins in the “unfinished business” of World War II, the role of the development of atomic weapons and espionage, and the ways that it changed the United States in just five short years between 1945 and 1950.
- Jeremi SuriProfessor, Department of History; Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs, LBJ School of Public Affairs, the University of Texas at Austin
- Joan NeubergerProfessor of History, University of Texas at Austin
We’re going to talk about the origins of the Cold War. Can we start with a definition and a time frame?
The Cold War is a period roughly from 1945 to 1989, and it is a period when three things happen, among others. First, you see a rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union that did not exist before. Second, you see a major expansion of American overseas activities beyond what the United States had been involved with before. Third, you see a transformation in domestic liberties and rights within the United States because of these overseas commitments and these rivalries.
It began at the end of World War II – one of the interesting things is that the Cold War bleeds into World War II directly.
What role did the “hot war” (i.e., World War II) play?
At the end of World War II, there was a lot of unfinished business. The American, British, and Russian army find themselves in the middle of Europe without an agreement as to when they’re going to leave and who’s going to be in control of which areas, and the same is true to an extent in Asia—the United States is in control of Japan, but there’s no agreement on what the post-war Japanese settlement will look like, nor what the Korean peninsula nor parts of China should look like.
One dispute that takes us from the alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union in World War II to a Cold War rivalry is over who will control these territories. For the Soviet Union, the future of Germany is very, very important for many reasons related to Soviet security as well as ideology, but it’s also very important to the United States. There’s no agreement on that issue, nor is there an agreement on Japan. So, what to do with the defeated powers, the people in those territories, the wealth in those areas, and the future chessboard of the world?
That’s really where the Cold War starts.
The explosion of the first atomic weapons played a role in shaping those decisions …
Absolutely! The atomic bomb is the last act of World War II and the first act of the Cold War in many respects. The development of the Atomic Bomb in the United States, and there were many programs, of course, in other countries as well, but the American program is really key to developing new technology before anyone else so that it can be used in the course of the war to defeat the enemy. President Roosevelt and then President Truman are both committed to ending the war as fast as they can in both Europe and Asia, with as few American casualties as possible. And, they’re trying to substitute technology for manpower wherever they can. That’s why we do so much aerial bombardment during the war, and that’s really why we wait so long for D-Day, in a sense, is to make sure we’re expending as few casualties as we can and get as many results with as few deaths as possible, and that is the job of the President of the United States.
The bomb is developed as a new technology in an effort to use that technology to end the war. When the bomb is first tested, on July 16, 1945, in New Mexico it is immediately assumed that it will be used against the Japanese. We are still at war with Japan, and the United States is planning for a landed invasion, which by all estimates will be a very bloody invasion of the Japanese mainland. Truman signs an order — he’s actually in Germany meeting with Stalin at the time — to “use the bombs when ready.” The first one is ready on August 6, 1945, the second one on August 9. These bombs are meant to end the war as quickly as possible, and they barely do that — it takes the Japanese a few days to surrender on August 15 (or 14, depending on which time zone you’re in).
That’s the end of World War II for the United States, and it’s the beginning of the Cold War. The Soviet leader, Josef Stalin, sees this technology and immediately fears that it’s going to be used to coerce and pressure the Soviet Union. He has reason to believe that because there are major disputes, as we’ve just talked about, in Germany and elsewhere. He also has suffered and witnessed two major wars where Russia has been invaded by enemies who have better technology. So he has, we might say, an inferiority complex. This raises–and we know this from work done in the Russian archives–Stalin’s suspicions beyond where they already were and he becomes committed to developing his own bomb as a priority and not doing anything that might limit his ability to develop this weapon. At the same time, the United States doesn’t want him to do that, so we see a dispute arising in the newly formed United Nations over the control of atomic weapons and atomic materiel, similar to our dispute with Iran today. The Soviets refuse to agree to an international regime to control these weapons because they don’t have one and the United States does.
While all this was going on, there was secret intelligence gathering going on, and that plays a role too, doesn’t it?
Absolutely. There’s a lot of spying going on, and there’s a number of reasons why this is happening. Stalin recognizes that, even though he’s part of an alliance with the United States and Great Britain, the Americans and the British are collaborating on some things that he’s not involved in. He’s not told about the atomic project, but he figures it out–we also know this from the Russian archive–because all the top atomic scientists in the U.S. and Britain stop publishing in 1942. Soviet scientists figure out that something must be going on because all of these people have stopped publishing–Where are they? What are they doing? So Stalin immediately begins a process of trying to infiltrate the Manhattan project in New Mexico and elsewhere. Some of the spies are American and British citizens who believe that this technology should be shared and are opposed to keeping the Russians out. Some are hired goons by the Russians–you have a combination of idealists and goons who are doing the spying.
And that is the foundation of the modern Central Intelligence Agency?
It’s not the foundation of the modern American Central Intelligence Agency, but it is a key moment in the transformation of what becomes the KGB because they take on a much bigger international espionage effort. They already were doing that to some extent, but it increases. This is a big sacrifice for the Soviets because they need all the manpower they can get on the battlefield. The CIA is created in the United States in 1947, through the National Security Act which, incidentally, creates the unified Department of Defense.
Previously we had a Department of the Army and a Department of the Navy. The founders never wanted a unified military. The belief until 1947 was that you didn’t want a unified military–it’s too powerful if it’s unified. It was unified in 1947 and the CIA is created. It existed in World War II as the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, which did some spying. Allan Dulles and William Donovan were involved in overseeing this in Europe, but it was very small scale. Before World War II, the United States had a very small intelligence establishment. One of the big changes in the Cold War is that we developed a big intelligence establishment that we didn’t have before.
So, we have Europe occupied, we have Japan decimated by atomic weapons, and the United States has to come up with a policy. Were there individuals who had a particular influence on it?
Sure. It’s a fascinating moment, because a number of individuals who might not have had influence did because of these new circumstances, but also because we had a new President who, while a president with strong opinions, recognized that he was not well informed–
… and that’s Truman?
–and that’s President Harry Truman. While he had been Roosevelt’s vice-president since 1944, and he had had lunch with Roosevelt shortly before Roosevelt died in April 1945 a total of two times. He did not know about the atomic project until Roosevelt died. In fact, he was briefed on the atomic project by Secretary of War Henry Stimson, who had started his career fighting Indians on horseback. So the man who fights Indians on horseback briefs the new president on this project! Truman had to rely on a lot of advisers, and one man he came to rely on a lot was George Marshall, who was the man responsible for overseeing American military activities–in a sense, Dwight Eisenhower’s and Douglas MacArthur’s boss–and Marshall comes to play a major role as a trusted adviser to Truman.
Marshall brings George Kennan to the State Department in 1947. George Kennan had been the highest ranking Russian speaker in the American embassy in Moscow, which is to say he was the number two person in the embassy; Averell Harriman, the ambassador, did not speak Russian. Kennan was at all of the major meetings in late ’44 and ’45 with Stalin. He watched Stalin in action. He was in Moscow during these early Cold War years, and in February 1947, he famously sent what is now called “The Long Telegram” back to the United States, which was his effort to articulate what American policy should be toward the Soviet Union. He emphasized the expansionist aims of the Soviet Union, and he emphasized that the United States had to take a hard line to convince the Soviets that they could not expand and that this would lead to the regime turning in on itself. It would make the regime more palatable, more peaceful, and perhaps even make it collapse.
He was brought in and became the person who oversaw much of American early planning for the Cold War, and he comes up with this doctrine that we come to call “Containment.” This is the idea of containing the Soviet Union, particularly in Europe, not allowing them to expand.
Were the two sides only fighting over territory? What were the issues involved?
Ideology plays a major role, and ideology gets fused with territory. One of the Soviet policies is to try to build friendly regimes by encouraging parties to form that have politics similar to the ideologies of the Bolshevik Communist Party, which is to say: parties that believe in collectivized agriculture, state ownership of private property, and parties that will trade with the Soviet Union and share their resources with them.
The United States is doing this as well. We are seeking, in Germany and elsewhere, to empower what we view as democratic regimes, but democratic regimes that are friendly to ourselves. So, ideology and territory get fused.
Neither regime wants to directly control a lot of territory, both regimes want to have governments in power that will be friendly to them. What does that mean? Governments that share their ideology. There’s a moral component, of course, as well: many Americans came to view–and this is particularly true in the late 1940s when other figures like Kennan, men like Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski later on, and a major female intellectual, Hannah Arendt, one of the most influential figures at the time, when they begin to write about totalitarianism–Americans come to see that perhaps Communist and fascist regimes are the same. Perhaps they share expansionist impulses, perhaps they are similarly militaristic, and we need to have a moral position against even allowing them to exist.
And that was the basis of the theory of totalitarianism–
–that fascism and Communism were the same.
Right. And, I think what a lot of historians now believe is that the arguments made by intellectuals like Hannah Arendt and others are actually rationalizations of what many people are thinking in ’46, ’47, ’48 when they look at the Soviet Union and they see echoes of Nazi Germany in it. So, there’s a moral position–an anti-Communist moral position–that’s as much about preventing these regimes from surviving as it is about strategic issues and resource issues and land.
So, here we are at the beginning of the Cold War, these ideas are developing, and policies are being instituted. How are things different in 1950 than in 1945?
Well, they are hugely different. One of the points that I try to make to students all the time is that the world changes very quickly sometimes, and sometimes it doesn’t change at all for a while. But there’s a major change that happens here, four big things that I would point to, some of which we’ve already touched on:
1. The United States is now truly a global power in 1950, in the way that it wasn’t before. We had global aspirations, we maybe even had some global capabilities, but it’s in 1950 that the United States starts to take on obligations that involve the use of economic, cultural, and military resources in all corners of the globe. In 1950, for example, we begin to pay some of the French bills in Indochina, which will be the long beginning of the American entrance into the Vietnam war. So, we’re a global power in a way we weren’t before.
2. We have new institutions at home that were unthinkable before. The constitution very clearly says that the army and the navy should be separate. The founding fathers believed that a unified military would be a threat to democracy. We create in 1947 not just the Central Intelligence Agency but we also create what we now call The Pentagon, the Department of Defense, which is a unified military that we didn’t have before, with a Secretary of Defense much more powerful than a Secretary of Army or Navy would ever be.
3. The United States undertakes major foreign aid activities that it didn’t before. Foreign aid here means assistance for food and economic development but also military assistance programs, providing weapons to certain regimes. We do a lot of this in Western Europe. The Marshall plan is part of that; our aid to Japan is part of that.
4. Most significant of all, the American people start to conceive of themselves as living in a world where the protection of democracy at home involves the need for the spread of democracy abroad. Many Americans believed that before, but there were still very strong isolationist impulses in the United States. Those are almost gone at this point. It’s a new society in that sense, and Americans recognize that. You can see that in what they’re saying at the time, you can see it in what political parties say. The Republican party before 1950 was actually somewhat isolationist. Robert Taft, the great senator from Ohio, was critical of American expansion overseas. The Republican Party wanted to spend less money. It shifts significantly and becomes what we would now recognize as more of the modern Republican party as we would recognize the modern Democratic party.
So, both parties by 1950 see it as important that the United States take on an international role?
Absolutely. By 1950, many historians say that it became impossible to run for president without saying that the United States should do more overseas. It’s very hard to say we should do less.
Documents and Further Reading
The Long Telegram
Text of the “long telegram” sent by George Kennan to the State Department on February 22, 1946. The Soviet equivalent of this was a telegram from Soviet ambassador Novikov to Moscow, in which he describes the Truman administration as bent on imposing US political, military and economic domination around the world.
“The Sources of Soviet Conduct”
Also known as the “X” article, this article was published anonymously (“by X”) in Foreign Policy in 1947 and reiterates many of the points raised in the Long Telegram. For Kennan, the Cold War gave the United States its historic opportunity to assume leadership of what would eventually be described as the “free world.”
National Council Report 68 (NSC-68)
A 58-page top secret policy paper issued by the United States National Security Council on April 14, 1950, during the presidency of Harry S. Truman. It was one of the most significant statements of American policy in the Cold War. NSC-68 largely shaped U.S. foreign policy in the Cold War for the next 20 years, and involved a decision to make Containment against Communist expansion a high priority. The document was declassified in 1975.Full text of NSC-68
“NSC-68 and the Patriot Act“–a high school lesson plan from the Truman Library (MO).