After the defeat of the Axis powers in World War II, the Axis powers being those that included Germany, Italy, and Japan, the United States, and Russia entered into a long and often secret conflict, in which each side used diplomatic, economic, and occasionally, military forces to try and assert itself as the dominant world power.
So, both of these countries were very large, they both wanted a say in how things were going to go from now on, and they both wanted to be recognized as the dominant world power.
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The first issue on which these nations butted heads was the rebuilding of Europe. After World War II, there were a lot of problems in Europe. There were a lot of places that had been damaged, there were a lot of fields that didn’t have crops, there were a lot of homes that have been destroyed. Just a lot of destruction, and a lot that had to be rebuilt, a lot that had to be re-planned so that people would have enough food grown, people would have enough jobs, people would have enough homes. And so, both of these large countries wanted a say in how this is going to happen.
And they were really more interested more in the political and governmental side of things. They wanted a say in how new governments were going to be set up, and how these new countries were going to turn around things after they had finished World War II. Many countries have been taken over by the Axis powers, and now, we’re given back control of their government. So, they had to decide what kind of government they wanted to have. And that’s where the United States and Russia both had a vested interest.
Germany was divided into Eastern and Western sections; the Western half was democratic – so, they were going to have a democratic government, and they looked to the United States for guidance – while Eastern Germany became a communist nation in the USSR’s sphere of influence. The USSR was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, also called the Soviet Union, and sometimes just referred to as Russia during this time, but really, the USSR, or the Soviet Union, was the group of Republics that were underneath this control. So, it was Russia and other smaller nations around it that were under Russia’s sphere of influence.
Russia, or the USSR, worked to bring all of its neighbors – including Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria – under its control. Russia wanted all these countries to be under its control, and to also be communists. The Western borders of these nations formed what Churchill, who was Britain’s prime minister, referred to as the iron curtain.
And this is because it was like the line that would’ve formed a curtain dividing the two parts of Europe, dividing communist Eastern Europe from democratic Western Europe. And so, the mini-borders, the Western borders of these countries, and Eastern Europe that were communists that were up against the borders of Western Europe that were democratic, became known as the iron curtain, because it was like the split where communism was on one side, and democracy was on the other.
In order to stop the spread of communism in Europe and elsewhere, President Truman – this was the US president – asserted his policy of containment in the so-called Truman Doctrine. And, containment meant that they were going to try to keep communism limited to the countries that it was already within. Keep it contained within the countries that’s already in. If any other countries that are independent start to be pushed into communism, if a neighboring country tries to take over an independent nation and force it to be communist, then the United States would be against that, and might offer some kind of assistance to keep that nation from becoming communist, because they wanted to contain communism only in the places that already existed.
This meant that the US would support the anti-communist governments throughout the world. So, like I was saying, if there was a government that was in place but that was in jeopardy of being taken over by a communist party in that nation, or by a neighboring nation’s influence, then the US government might step in to help that country maintain its non-communist government. The Marshall Plan advanced this policy by supplying aid to war-ravaged countries in Western Europe. So, the Marshall Plan said, “You know what, we also should help those countries that are still war-ravaged in Western Europe.” Now, they were only helping the countries in Western Europe who were democratic. They weren’t helping the countries in Eastern Europe. This even meant that where Germany was split up, people in Eastern Germany tried to keep Americans and British and other countries who were trying to help airlift in supplies to Western Germany, the Eastern Germans tried to stop that because they didn’t want any help to be given to Western Germany, and they even went to great lengths to be able to get past this Eastern
This even meant that where Germany was split up, people in Eastern Germany tried to keep Americans and British and other countries who were trying to help airlift in supplies to Western Germany, the Eastern Germans tried to stop that because they didn’t want any help to be given to Western Germany, and they even went to great lengths to be able to get past this Eastern blockade, and be able to help the Western countries and give them the aid that they needed. So, these countries, the United States and some of the other democratic countries over in Europe, work together to help give aid to war-ravaged countries in Western Europe, which was going to make them even friendlier toward their democratic neighbors and the United States across the ocean, because those people were helping them, and they were also a democracy. So, that was going to help keep those countries democratic.
In 1949, the Western European and North American nations entered into a mutual defense treaty. So, this would be your primarily democratic nations were entering into a defense treaty together known as “NATO,” or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. So, this is going to be North American nations that were democratic, and your Western European nations entering into this treaty together. And, as a response, the Eastern European nations joined with the Soviet Union. They said, “Okay, you want to have your treaty, we’ll have one too.” So, the Eastern European nations that were mainly communist joined with the Soviet Union in what was known as the Warsaw Pact. So, again, alliances had been formed, treaties had been signed, groups were split up over communism versus democracy.
And then, during the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union each tried to deter an attack by the other by building up fantastic arsenals of nuclear missiles. So, remember, World War II was ended after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. And now, they had this knowledge. They had this available weapon. And the Russians realized, “How do you make these weapons as well?” So, both countries started to build up a supply of nuclear missiles, so they had been in reserve to say, “Well, if you use some against us, we’ll use some against you.” Or, “If you do this, then we’ll shoot the nuclear missiles at you.” So, they both had, like, the ultimate threat to use this leverage against the other. There were a couple of serious threats to global peace, because even though every country didn’t have this, if a nuclear missile was sent to a certain area, it was going to do a lot of damage, and it was going to be widespread damage, and if they were shooting back and forth multiple times, that was even more widespread damage and loss of life. And so, even though it was just those two countries, it would’ve
And so, even though it was just those two countries, it would’ve end up threatening global peace instead of just the peace of those two countries. In 1961, the United States financed an unsuccessful invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. Now, since Cuba was communist, this led the Soviet Union to establish missile bases on communist Cuba. They said, “Okay, we’re going to help out our communist country, we’re going to put some missile bases there.” And Cuba is much closer to the United States than Russia, so this posed a more immediate threat. The United States and the USSR almost declared war on one another during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is what this situation became known as, and this was in 1962. So, during this time period, there wasn’t a big military fight, but there were a couple of situations that could’ve been really bad if they didn’t get resolved diplomatically, or by one nation stepping down and saying, “Okay, we’re not going to shoot after all.”
The two nations would also expend considerable effort trying to be the first in space. So, it all comes back to being the dominant world power, and they both thought, both the United States and Russia, that if they could get to space first, then that would help make them the dominant nation. And so, they both were in this race for space, to be the first to send a mission out into space successfully with a person inside. And finally, in the late 60s and early 70s, the two nations began talks aimed at mutual disarmament, which meant that not that they would disarm completely, but that they would stop making so many nuclear missiles, and that they would lessen that side of things. They would stop issuing threats about the nuclear missiles, they would either start getting rid of them, or at least stop making them so rapidly, they wouldn’t use that as is much of a threat, and they would both kind of back down from what was known as the Cold War. So, you can see the Cold War wasn’t really a war like World War I or World War II was, it wasn’t one where there was a lot of fighting or any great battles with
So, you can see the Cold War wasn’t really a war like World War I or World War II was, it wasn’t one where there was a lot of fighting or any great battles with loss of life, it was more of a battle for who could be the dominant power. Who could win over the most countries in Europe, who could get either communism or democracy to come out on top, who could be the first in space, who could prove they were the better, stronger nation? So, the Cold War was a different kind of war, and a lot of it went on secretly, it wasn’t out on the open, it was something that the higher government officials would know about, but the people that were just living their everyday lives has lived in a bit of fear, because they didn’t know when a missile might fall on them at any moment. They had seen what happened at the Cuban Missile Crisis, but even though a missile wasn’t shot, there was a serious threat of that. And so, people were very nervous around this time because there was a lot of secrecy involved with the conflict between the United States and the USSR, but it centered around becoming the dominant world power after World War II.
Next Lesson: Absolute Monarchs