The Cold War, 1946-1989

From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.

(Quoted in Gilbert, 2009, p. 18)

The Cold War was a period of geopolitical tension between the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective allies in Europe and around the globe that followed the Second World War. The Cold War was called so because it did not result in a ‘hot’ war in the conventional sense, though did comprise of numerous ‘proxy wars’ outside Europe. Proxy wars are conflicts between two states which act on the instigation or on behalf of other parties – though such other parties are not overtly involved in the hostilities.

Between 1941 and 1945, there was a Grand Alliance between the ‘big three’, however it was fraught with tension and soon dissipated after the war. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Churchill remained concerned that Stalin might sue for a separate peace with Hitler, having signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact over the invasion of Poland in 1939. Similarly, Stalin believed that the Western Allies’ would abandon the Eastern Front, severely weakening the U.S.S.R and Communism. Stalin wanted to restore its borders to pre-1941 values, to recoup lost territory and to create a ‘buffer zone’ and sphere of influence in central and eastern Europe. However, Britain desired to restore a balance of power in Europe without concessions to the U.S.S.R.

The Cold War began and ended in Europe (Kramer et al, 2014), and it remained at the ‘epicentre’ of the ‘geopolitical standoff’ between the USA and U.S.S.R (Lewkowicz, 2018). The origins of the Cold War are multi-faceted; however, the Second World War played a large role in dividing Europe, posing the ‘German Question’, intensifying ideological differences, and changing military and economic policies. However, ideology that pre-dated the war, and leadership, also played a role in creating and maintaining the Cold War.

The Cold War is most commonly associated with nuclear weaponry, of the increasing nuclear crisis and ‘mutually assured destruction’ (M.A.D), while tensions between states intensified. The period saw the increase of nuclear arsenals to combat the enemy from afar, and acted as both the provocateur and deterrent of war.

There is a lot of literature on the Cold War and differing opinions on the short and long term causes. The extension of government and greater involvement in citizens lives created records which are still being released to this day. This has resulted in differing opinions, and there is no concensus on the subject.


Due to the changing nature of history and access to greater records, there are 3 main schools of thoughts:

  • Orthodox or classical school: This emerged in the west in the early years of the conflict before almost any documents had been released. IT held the U.S.S.R responsible for the Cold War, highlighting Stalin’s expansionist aims, rejection of Western values and attempts to undermine non-Communist governments.
  • Revisionist school: This included scholars of both eastern Europe and Americans who became disillusioned with politics. They also had greater access to archival material. They argued that the Cold War was caused by the hostility of capitalism, where the U.S.S.R adopted a defensive strategy in response to the USA’s penetration in Europe and adoption of open markets.
  • Post-revisionist school: Since the 1970s this new school come to prominence. It is a term often used to describe research that does not fit into the schools mentioned above. Post-revisionism emerged in the détente period, providing a compromise between the work of orthodox and revisionist scholars. Historians argued the above views were too simplistic, and highlighted the pattern of challenge and response, of action and reaction by all involved parties. The release of archives, which continues to this day, has led to new research and conclusions.

Was the Cold War inevitable? How committed was each side to protecting and promoting their contrasting political systems? Was the political pursuit merely a veil for traditional politics? When researching the Cold War, be sure to find balance and obtain sources from different periods and political views.

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