Cold War Beginnings

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Cold War Beginnings

George F. Kennan

Winston Churchill

Nikolai V. Novikov

T he Cold War (1945–91), a war of differing systems of government, of mutual fear and distrust, did not begin like conventional wars, with guns blazing. The Cold War began on the heels of World War II (1939–45), and the principal opponents were the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States, with its democratic government and capitalist economy, operated very differently from the communist Soviet Union.

A democratic form of government consists of leaders elected directly by the general population. The candidates for election are supported by various political parties. Capitalism is an economic system based on competition in the marketplace. Prices, production, and distribution of goods are determined by the marketplace. Property and businesses are privately owned. Citizens enjoy many personal liberties, such as the freedom to worship as they choose.

Communism is a system of government in which a single party, the Communist Party, controls all aspects of society. Leaders are selected by the party. The party leaders centrally plan and control the economy. The communist system eliminates all private ownership of property. In theory, goods produced and wealth accumulated are shared equally by all. Religious practices are not tolerated under communism.

Communism came to Russia in 1917. Communism was based on the theories of Karl Marx (1818–1883), considered the founder of the revolutionary communist thought known as Marxism. A rising communist political party known as the Bolsheviks overthrew the Russian royalty, or the tsar, in the Bolshevik Revolution known as the October Revolution of 1917. Vladimir I. Lenin (1870–1924), who had founded the Communist Party, was the first communist dictator of Russia and served until his death in 1924.

Russia had no geographic buffer such as an ocean to protect it from the invading armies that generally came from countries to the west. Throughout history these invasions caused Russia to seek security from future threats. Joseph Stalin (1879–1953), a Bolshevik who became head of the Soviet communist state in 1929, was eager to expand the communist philosophy and extend its way of life to neighboring countries. But countries to the west were largely capitalist nations. Stalin was rebuffed by various foreign leaders and excluded from international diplomacy. The United States did not establish formal diplomatic relations with the Soviets until 1933. Even then, by the end of the 1930s, many Americans viewed the ruthless suppression of political, economic, and religious freedoms by Stalin with great contempt.

The capitalist United States was geographically separated by two great oceans. Desiring to avoid involvement in another European war after a bitter experience in World War I (1914–18), the United States had isolated itself. Neither the Soviet Union nor the United States was a world power before World War II.

The end of World War II marked the collapse of the traditional European powers of Great Britain, France, and Germany. The United States and the Soviet Union, with their vastly different forms of government and economics, emerged as the two superpowers of the world. Their ideologies, or differing political and social philosophies, immediately began to clash and the Cold War commenced. The United States was suspicious of Soviet intentions and sought to expand free-market capitalism and democracy throughout

Europe. The Soviets desired a substantial geographic divider from democratic Western Europe and against expanding American influence in European affairs. The two set their differences on a global stage. The United States and the democratic Western European countries became collectively referred to as the "West" or "Western influence." The Soviet Union and the Eastern European nations under communist control became known collectively as the "East."

The Cold War dominated the two powers' foreign policies, domestic priorities, and military planning for roughly the next forty-six years, having an impact on practically every nation on Earth. Various dates and events between 1945 and 1947 are identified as significant to the Cold War's beginning. Excerpts from three of the earliest communiqués, or reports, and speeches follow. They helped set the tone for the Cold War.

The first excerpt is from a 1946 telegram from George Kennan (1904–) titled "The Chargé in the Soviet Union ([Kennan) to the Secretary of State," commonly known as the "Long Telegram." The telegram made clear to American officials the thinking of Soviets and predicted future policies based on this Soviet philosophy. This famous telegram affected American foreign policy for decades through the Cold War. It was the basis of the U.S. policy of containment, a key U.S. Cold War policy to restrict the territorial growth of communist rule.

The second excerpt is from Winston Churchill's (1874–1965) "The Sinews of Peace," commonly known as the "Iron Curtain Speech." It was delivered on March 5, 1946, before the faculty and students of Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. Churchill warned Americans of a descending Soviet "Iron Curtain" over Central and Eastern Europe. Behind the Iron Curtain, Soviet-dominated communist governments ruled over closed societies. (Closed societies are those in which the ruling communist party in each country, such as Poland and Bulgaria, dictates the production levels of industry and determine what may and may not be printed; the population is shielded from outside social and political influence.) Churchill contended only strong, assertive positions by the United States and Western European nations could stop the spread of communism.

The third excerpt, the "Novikov Telegram," was written by the Soviet ambassador, Nikolai Novikov, in Washington, D.C. Sent to Moscow on September 27, 1946, the telegram attempts to explain U.S. foreign policy to Stalin and other Soviet officials, much as Kennan had done for U.S. officials with his "Long Telegram." Soviet communiqués such as this became publicly available only after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Such fascinating Soviet archival materials (stored public or historical documents) are available through the Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. (available at

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Cold War Beginnings

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