Reasons for the Cold War

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Key learning goal: to be able to explain the long and short term reasons for the Cold War and the views taken by each side about why it started.

Checklist of key concepts personalities and events that you should know and understand:

  • East and West
  • Democracy
  • Dictatorship
  • Capitalism versus Socialism
  • Marxism and Communism
  • Multi-party versus one party state
  • Pluralism vs Totalitarian
  • Free market vs Planned economy
  • Stalin, Churchill, Attlee, Roosevelt, Truman
  • 1941 14th August – the Atlantic Meeting
  • 1942 the US, Britain and Russia discuss the possibility of becoming,
    along with China, the four policeman of world peace’
  • 1943 Cairo Conference, 22-26 November 1943 – attended by Churchill,
    Roosevelt and Chiang Kai-Shek but not Stalin
  • 1943 28 November-1 December, Tehran Conference, – the first meeting of the big three’.
  • The key events of 1945
    • February 2nd-11th Yalta Conference, February 2nd-11th, 1945
    • May 7th German surrender – Victory in Europe Day
    • July 16th – The Manhattan Project carries out the Trinity Test
    • July 17th-August 2nd Potsdam Conference
    • August 6th and 9th: The use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively


  • N. Kelly, Edexcel International GCSE (9-1) History A World Divided: Superpower Relations, 1943-72, pp. 3-16
  • Ben Walsh, GCSE Modern World History, (Walsh), section 11, pp. 318-325,
  • The Brilliant John D. Clare on the causes of the Cold War.

1. Before World War II

Long-term resentment dates at least from the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917:

  • This turned Russia into a communist state, rejecting capitalism, withdrawing from WWI and refusing to re-pay loans to the west.
  • As a result, western allies invaded Russia and fought against the Reds (Bolsheviks) during the Russian Civil War of 1918-21.
  • After the survival of the Communist regime, there was a fear among democratic, capitalist governments in the west that communist ideas would influence western workers and see further revolution, particularly during times of economic hardship, immediately following WWI and during the Depression of the 1930s.
  • The Soviet Union could not forget that in 1918 Britain and the USA had tried to destroy the Russian Revolution, nor that Britain and France had failed to consult with her over Czechoslovakia in 1938.
  • Britain and the USA could not forget that Stalin had signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact with Germany in August 1939.
  • These resentments were part of the underlying ideological gulf between the two sides, but they also provided weapons in the propaganda war which both sides waged against each other.

However, to really understand the differences between East and West we have to look beyond the historical clashes, and look to the ideological roots of their differences over how they believed the world should be structured – in terms of government, economy, society, culture and human rights.

TASK: Watch the following videos and sum up what you think the main differences were between the Capitalist powers of the West and the Communist power of the East.

2. The War Time Conferences

  • N. Kelly, Edexcel International GCSE (9-1) History A World Divided: Superpower Relations, 1943-72, pp. 1-16

It was war that brought the capitalist and communist rivals into an alliance – the common enemy that was Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. There is a sense therefore, that the war time meetings – called to co-ordinate the war on Germany – were both the beginning of the alliance and the beginning of its end. Once Hitler was removed, what would they have left?

During the war, there had been growing tensions:

  • For a long time, Stalin refused to join the United Nations;
  • Stalin was angry that Britain and America kept delaying D-Day, believing it was a plot to allow Germany to weaken the Soviet Union;
  • At the Tehran Conference (1943) Stalin and Churchill clashed over how much control Stalin would have over the countries of eastern Europe.

By the last of these conferences, at Potsdam, the differences began to emerge.

The Atlantic Meeting – August 9, 1941
This is useful background for understanding what Churchill and Roosevelt wanted from the meetings with Stalin.  The meeting took place, months before the USA entered the war, aboard the U.S.S. Augusta in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, and they discussed their respective war aims and to outline a postwar international system.

They agreed eight ‘common principles’ which included:

  • avoiding territorial expansion;
  • The liberalization of international trade;
  • The freedom of the seas
  • International standards for labour and welfare;
  • Self-government for all countries that had been occupied during the war;
  • and Democracy in those countries – i.e. that people could choose their own form of government.

Cairo, 22nd-26 November
Although you cannot be asked about this directly in the exam, it is worth knowing that immediately before the first meeting between the ‘Big Three’ at Tehran, there was another meeting at Cairo that Stalin did NOT attend, but which Churchill and Roosevelt did, along with Kiang Chai-Shek, the leader of the Republic of China. Stalin could not attend the meeting because the USSR was NOT at war with Japan in 1943 and a had signed a peace pact in 1941 that was to last five years. Had Stalin met with Kiang Chai-Shek it might have signaled war to Japan.

Tehran, 28 November-1st December, 1943
The key things to note about the context of Tehran was that a) The US and Great Britain were yet to open a second front against Germany and b) Russia was not at war with Japan.

Second front – the western allies committed to opening a second front.
USSR would enter the war against Japan once Germany was defeated;
Relationships – Stalin related well to Roosevelt but not to Churchill;
Poland – would be extended by taking territory from Germany;
Roosevelt sided with Stalin against Churchill’s plans to

Yalta, February 2nd-11th, 1945

All three powers were still at war with Germany when this meeting took place, but they were expecting victory. The meeting took place in Soviet territory in Crimea. In many ways, the Yalta meeting was the high water mark of US-USSR co-operation, but it also marked the limits of the relationship.

Together the ‘big three’ issued The Declaration of Liberated Europe which promised to allow the people of Europe “to create democratic institutions of their own choice”. The declaration pledged, “the earliest possible establishment through free elections governments responsive to the will of the people.” This reflected the statements of the Atlantic Charter agreed between American and Great Britain in August 1941, which promised “the right of all people to choose the form of government under which they will live.”

Roosevelt took this at face value and gave a lot of ground at Yalta, where the big three agreed the following in respect of Germany:

  • the first priority was its unconditional surrender;
  • it would undergo de-militarization and de-nazification; and Nazi war criminals would be put on trial
  • it would be split into four occupied zones; including one for France that would be formed out of the American and British zones;
  • reparations could be taken, were partly in the form of forced labour and that a reparation council would be created and located in the Soviet Union;

In addition, the status of Poland was discussed. It was agreed that:

  • the communist Provisional Government of the Republic of Poland installed by the Soviet Union would be reorganised “on a broader democratic basis”;
  • Stalin pledged to permit free elections in Poland;
  • The Polish eastern border would follow the Curzon Line (originally established after WWI, but ignored by the Treaty of Riga (1921), and Poland would receive territorial compensation in the west from Germany;

In return Stalin undertook to::

  • participate in the UN;
  • accept only two Republics apart from Russia would be granted membership of the UN – Belorussia and Ukraine;
  • enter the fight against the Empire of Japan “in two or three months after Germany has surrendered and the war in Europe is terminated”.

Stalin did well out of Yalta. Roosevelt brushed off warnings that Stalin would build his own dictatorship in parts of Europe held by the Red Army. He explained that “I just have a hunch that Stalin is not that kind of a man”, and reasoned, “I think that if I give him everything I possibly can and ask for nothing from him in return, ‘noblesse oblige’, he won’t try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of democracy and peace.”

Potsdam, July 17th to August 2nd, 1945

In the 5 months between Yalta and Potsdam a lot of change had occurred.

Firstly, the most important difference was that Nazi Germany surrendered on 7th May 1945 Without that common enemy it was not clear what else the Soviet Union and the United States still had in common.

Secondly, the Soviet Union now occupied Central and Eastern Europe. By July, the Red Army effectively controlled the Baltic states, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania. In violation of his promises at Yalta, Stalin had set up a communist government in Poland. He insisted that his control of Eastern Europe was a defensive measure against possible future attacks and claimed that it was a legitimate sphere of Soviet influence. Stalin broke the pledge taken in the Declaration of Liberated Europe by encouraging Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and many more countries to construct a Communist government, instead of letting the people construct their own. The countries later became known as Stalin’s Satellite Nations

Thirdly, Franklyn Delaney Roosevelt had succumbed to a cerebral hemhorrage on April 12 and was replaced by his Vice-President, Harold S. Truman. Truman had won the nomination to the Vice Presidency in the expectation that Roosevelt would not live out his fourth term in office. He was the preferred candidate to Roosevelt’s previous Veep – Henry Wallace – who had been considered too left wing and too sympathetic to labour interests. As a result, America now had a more right wing, more realist and more anti-communist, Commander-in-Chief at the closing stages of World War II. Truman and Churchill believed that Roosevelt had been duped by Stalin at Yalta.

Fourthly, Truman rose to office just at the point when the Manhattan Project was about to test its first Atomic bomb. Truman was determined to change the direction of American policy before Potsdam and he saw Soviet actions in Eastern Europe as aggressive expansionism which was incompatible with the agreements Stalin had committed to at Yalta the previous February. Truman’s confidence was no doubt boosted when, on the 16th July, one day before the Potsdam meeting began (17th July-2nd August, 1945), the first nuclear test, codenamed ‘Trinity’ had succeeded, bolstering his confidence at the meeting, which he was said to have ‘bossed’.

As a result of the change of personalities, loss of the common enemy, atomic developments and Stalin’s betrayal over Poland (CLASP), disagreements came out into the open. in particular, the big three disagreed about:

  1. The details of how to divide Germany.
  2. The size of reparations Germany ought to pay.
  3. Russian influence over the countries of eastern Europe.

The first agreements made at Potsdam were to do with what was to happen to Germany after the war. It was agreed that:

  • it would be demilitarized, denazified, democratized;
  • both Germany and Austria would be divided respectively into four occupation zones (earlier agreed in principle at Yalta), and similarly each capital, Berlin and Vienna, was to be divided into four zones;
  • Nazi war criminals would be put to trial.
  • all German annexations in Europe were to be reversed, including the Sudetenland, Alsace-Lorraine, Austria, and the westernmost parts of Poland;
  • Germany’s eastern border would be shifted westwards to the Oder–Neisse line, effectively reducing Germany in size by approximately 25% compared to its 1937 borders;
  • the expulsions of German populations remaining beyond the new eastern borders, from Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, were to be “Orderly and humane”;
  • reparations to the Soviet Union would come from their zone of occupation in Germany; and that 10% of the industrial capacity of the western zones unnecessary for the German peace economy would be transferred to the Soviet Union within 2 years;
  • German standards of living would not exceed the European average; The types and amounts of industry to dismantle to achieve this was to be determined later;
  • German industrial war-potential would be destroyed, through the destruction or control of all industry with military potential. Henceforth the German industry would focus solely on domestic goods

A second area of discussion was over Poland:

  • A Provisional Government of National Unity recognized by all three powers should be created (known as the Lublin Poles). When the Big Three recognized the Soviet controlled government, it meant, in effect, the end of recognition for the existing Polish government-in-exile (known as the London Poles).
  • Poles who were serving in the British Army should be free to return to Poland, with no security upon their return to the communist country guaranteed.
  • The provisional western border should be the Oder–Neisse line, defined by the Oder and Neisse rivers
  • Stalin proposed and it was accepted that Poland was to be excluded from division of German compensation;
  • The Soviet Union declared it would settle the reparation claims of Poland from its own share of the overall reparation payments.

Yalta, February 1945 – PODCAST – agreements on: Prosecution of Nazis; Occupied Germany to be Divided after the war into 4 Zones; Call democratic elections in liberated territories; All countries to join the UN; Soviet Union to join the war against Japan after Germany’s defeat; Transfer of Polish citizens westward along with Polish borders and democratic elections to take place in Poland.

Potsdam, July 1945 – CLASP – sources of tension: Clash of personalities (Truman replaced Roosevelt); Loss of common enemy (Hitler had been defeated); Stalin had broken his word over Poland.
GRENADE – agreements on: Germany to be rebuilt and restored; Reparations to be taken from occupied zone by occupying power, if required; Ethnic Germans to be removed from Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary; Nuremberg trials would proceed; Allied Control Commission to de-Nazify and reorganise German life; Democracy to be restored; Europe to be rebuilt by a Council of Foreign Ministers.

For a quick summary of the differences between Yalta and Potsdam, see this excellent mindmap revision tool created by John D. Clare – the best teacher you never had!

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