The Cold War Duration

The Cold War lasted for many years, while it is contended if it is over or has continued in a new way in the modern era through the use of technology. There are numerous periods of the Cold War conflict which saw tensions rise and fall, partially due to leadership, economic crises and development. The Cold War was not just centred in Europe, but worldwide also, and numerous nations were caught in the Cold War.

Before the end of the Second World War, tensions arose between the Allies, the ‘Great Alliance’, due to disagreements over Germany, Europe and ideology, as well as the creation of nuclear weaponry. Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin had reached some agreements, though these were not settled, such as in the Percentages Agreement, Potsdam Conference and Yalta Conference. However, leadership changed after the war, such as in Eden and Truman, and with this as did attitudes. Now, the Western allies were less compromising towards Stalin. The Atom Bomb was seen to be leverage for the Americans, and Truman said to Stalin they had a new weapon of ‘unprecedented power’. Moreover, communist-led governments were installed in Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary. This likely caused tensions and suspicions.

German Question & Berlin

Immediately after the Second World War, a question remained over what to do with Germany, much like the First World War. The Allies did want Germany to feel defeated, and instead of dismembering Germany, had decided to treat Germany as one economic unit with common policies for trade and industry. Germany was split into occupied zones between East and West, with the capital originally split between four nations. The occupation of Germany had five main aims; de-Nazification, decartelisation, demilitarisation, decentralisation and democratisation, though such aims were implemented differently and with varying success.

The U.S.S.R had many aims after the war, to create a buffer zone in Europe to protect their own interests, to keep Germany weakened and to recoup their losses. There is also an element of promoting ideology and expanding this throughout Europe and the globe. In addition to the reparations the Soviets extracted from their own zone in Germany, Britain and the USA agreed to give the U.S.S.R 15% of usable capital equipment. Nevertheless, with the Allies wanting to re-build Germany to make it an economic power, the German Question created conflict throughout the course of the Cold War. The ‘German Question’ plagued the U.S.S.R as highlighted in the 1952 ‘Soviet Draft for a German Peace Treaty’, which desired a ‘final decision’ of issues which arose from the war.

Berlin came to ‘symbolise’ the Cold War, becoming the ‘centre of tensions’ as the city remained divided by the Allies within U.S.S.R occupied territory (Harrington, 2012.). The West German link to the Marshall Plan intensified the East-West conflict, and the Soviets regarded the plan as a ‘plot’ to create an ‘anti-Soviet bloc’ (Harrington, 2012.). The European Recovery Programme, or Marshall Plan, was a U.S initiative passed in 1948 to provide foreign aid to European countries that passed certain ‘pro-capitalist’ conditions, a form of economic and security architecture to suit a capitalist Europe (Steil, 2018).  In response, the U.S.S.R initiated the Berlin Blockade of 1948, aimed at stifling access and the flow of goods in occupied zones (Harrington, 2012). The blockade showed the ‘deepening disagreements’ between East-West over the future of Germany (McMahon, 2003). A further crisis occurred in 1961 in Berlin with the construction of the Berlin Wall by the U.S.S.R, which lasted for 28 years, and represented a physical barrier between East and West (Hochscherf et al, 2010). The hostility of the U.S.S.R in the blockade and constructing the wall fits the orthodox historian viewpoint that the U.S.S.R was responsible for the Cold War in Europe.  

Nuclear Weaponry

The emergence of nuclear weaponry and arms race was regarded as ‘essential’ in defending Western Europe (Strong, 2019). Nuclear weaponry was created during the Second World War, and it has been heavily contended by orthodox and revisionist historians whether the Truman administration used nuclear as ‘diplomatic weapon’ (Hasegawa, 2009). France, in response to the U.S.S.R’s nuclear strategic advances from 1956, and reduced security from the US, began to build a nuclear deterrent to address the needs of Europe, developing its arsenal in the 1960s (Soutou, 2001). Britain also responded by developing their first atomic bomb in the 1950s, despite the McMahon Act of 1946 preventing co-operation with the United States. Thus, the arms race within the continent begun and the aptly named ‘Doomsday Clock’ served to highlight the increasing and decreasing likelihood of nuclear annihilation (Byrne, 2018).

Some historians argue that the arms race both started and ended the Cold War, as the U.S.S.R realised they could not outcompete their enemy (Lebow, 2017). However, although nuclear weaponry was heavily employed in Europe during the Cold War to act as a deterrent, it was not always widely supported and public opinion shifted towards peace and nuclear disarmament (Hagemann et al, 2020). The Cold War ultimately remained cold and despite near escalations, leaders were ‘prudent’ enough to avoid risk and cause a Hot War (Chandra, 2010). The Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D) theory managed to ‘avert a crisis’, though did not foster genuine peace (Morgan et al, 2020). Therefore, although nuclear weaponry was created during the Second World War and played a significant role in the Cold War conflict, it was not necessarily intended to directly start the Cold War, nor could the arms race that followed thereafter be anticipated.


Ideology existed before the Second World War, though was intensified by it., as it was not simply a war of territory, but of ideology and race, and the tensions did not cease at the end of the war (Lowe, 2012). After the Second World War there were ‘conflicting recipes’ for international order that differed ideologically (McMahon, 2003). The Second World War served to ‘intensify the irreconcilable tensions’ that existed between the allies and played a role in causing the Cold War (Hochscherf et al, 2010). Tensions were therefore ‘unavoidable’ given the ‘divergent’ aspirations and ideologies of the U.S.A and U.S.S.R, which would affect ultimately Europe (McMahon, 2003).

An address by Stalin in 1946 condemned capitalism as the ‘engines of world war’, suggesting that ideology was the root of war and conflict (Steil, 2018). Communism in Europe such as in France and Italy, remained a prominent political force that penetrated the elites and workers; therefore, the East-West divide of the Cold War deeply impacted some European countries more ideologically than others after the war (Hochscherf et al, 2010). The diverging ideology which emboldened the Cold War was a culmination of ideological differences that dominated the 20th century.

Role of Individuals

Individuals and leadership played a significant role in the creation and maintenance of the Cold War in Europe, where strong personalities and aspirations affected the direction of leadership, including economic and military policies, like the Marshall Plan and nuclear weaponry, which impacted the duration and intensity of the Cold War. The ideological aspirations of ‘men’ on either side of the Iron Curtain presented an issue to settlement, where ‘interests can be compromised but not ideals’ (Thompson, 1991).

After Stalin’s death in 1953, the foreign policy of the U.S.S.R shifted from spreading communism to consolidating territories won after the Second World War, while showing a willingness to negotiate (Kramer et al, 2014). The policy of containment pursued by the U.S.A due to fear of communism shaped its hard-line policy, while in France, leaders aimed to mediate between the two factions given the popular support for communism (Hochscherf et al, 2010). Britain used the Soviet military threat to justify defence spending, deemed a ‘necessary evil’, however this threat did not exist as the Soviet Union was in no place militarily to go to war (Geiger, 2017). Likewise, in the USA, policy extended ‘well beyond’ coping with the perceived Soviet military threat (Fordham, 1998).

Post-Revisionist historians typically agree the Cold War was an ‘unnecessary confrontation’ arising more from fear and misunderstanding, as opposed to hostility (Ross, 2012).

What do you believe caused tensions to rise and fall during the Cold War? Do you believe it was inevitable or could have been prevented, or ended sooner?

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