Causes of the Cold War

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


  • Ben Walsh, GCSE Modern World History, (Walsh), section 11, pp. 318-325,
  • Edexcel IGCSE textbook, pp. 68-71
  • The Brilliant John D. Clare on the causes of the Cold War.

John D. Clare provides a handy mnemonic for remembering the key reasons for the Cold War BARE that should be supplemented with GESCHichte and DADA .

Beliefs (Ideological differences –GESCHichte – Government, Economic systems, Society, Culture, and Human Rights!)
Aims and attitudes (DADA – Differences during the Second World War and at Yalta and Potsdam; Attitude of Truman; Disagreements over Poland, Germany and reparations; Attitude of Stalin).
Resentment about history

  1. Beliefs (Ideological differences)

    The ideological differences can be summarised as differences over GESCHichte: Government, Economics, Society and Culture and ‘Human Rights!

    The mutual suspicion of West and East, was rooted in profound ideological differences – differences of belief about how government, the economy and society as a whole should be run. These in turn had profound implications for culture and human rights.

    See the handout for a simplistic summary of the differences between East and West..

    For a more sophisticated account see this extract from Peter Moss, History alive

    Finally, at a slightly higher level of thinking – here is an extract from a student essay that evaluates the extent to which the Cold War was rooted in ideological differences rather than in other factors such as propaganda, economic and political instability, prestige and global power.



    Task: Make a mind map of the differences between the systems of East and West using the mnemonic GESCHichte.


  2. Aims and Attitudes (DADA)

    Read: Edexcel, pp. 68-71 and John D. Clare on the Conferences

    (DADA – Differences during the Second World War and at Yalta and Potsdam; Attitude of Truman; Disagreements over Poland, Germany and reparations; Attitude of Stalin).

    WWII helped create the short term causes for the Cold War. The key thing to be aware of here is that aims and attitudes shifted during the course of WWII and were reflected in changes between the formation of the Grand Alliance (1941), the Conference at Tehran (1943), the meeting at Yalta (1945) and then at Potsdam, when Truman and Attlee replaced Roosevelt and Churchill.

    • Task 1: Use the handout to complete a ven diagram of the conference aims listed on p. 71 of th Edexcel textbook – which belonged to the USA and which to the USSR? Which aims were shared?
    • Task 2:Yalta Conference role play game
    • Task 3: Use graph paper to create a graph of co-operation and Tension over the course of the there conferences, as illustrated on p. 71 of the Edexcel textbook.
    • Task 4: Describe the ways in which the relationship between the big three changed during this period.
    • Task 5:Explain why it changed – make a list of all the reasons why it changed.Think about the changes in personnel and attitude and reasons behind their attitudes.
    • Homework: Complete C question (8 marks): Why was there tension at the Potsdam Conference (1945)? Explain your answer.(N.b. What are you required to do in a C question to get all 8 marks?)

  4. Resentment over History

    The long-term resentment dates at least from the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917, which 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 fought against the 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.

    Britain and the USA could not forget that Stalin had signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact with Germany in 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.

  5. Task: Create role play of an argument between representatives of western democracies (e.g. British, American) and Russian diplomats.

  6. Events
    Against this background of underlying differences in ideologies, and aims, and historical resentments, there were a series of events which bit-by-bit broke down the alliance and turned the allies of the war into enemies.

    Neither side trusted the other. Because they were so different, each side saw each event differently, and believed that the other side was about to start a war. So every action they took increased mistrust. Most of these events will be explored in the next section, but can be listed here as:

    Yalta (February 1945)
    Potsdam (July-August 1945)
    Hiroshima (August 1945)
    Stalin’s Salami Tactics (1945-9)
    Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech at Fulton, Missouri (1946)
    Britain’s retreat from Greece (1947)
    Truman Doctrine (March 1947)
    Marshall Plan (June 1947)
    Cominform (October 1947)
    Czechoslovakia (February 1948)
    Berlin (1949)

    For a graphical overview of these events, see John D. Clare.

    For now, and before we attempt the exercises below, the most important event we need to explore is the dropping of the bomb.

  7. Reaching Conclusions
    • Working in pairs: Prepare role a play/presentation to compare Soviet/communist views to USA/capitalist views on the Early Cold War leading to a class discussion about who was most responsible for the Cold War.
    • Class debate Use this document from John D. Clare to create a class debate between traditionalists, revisionists and post-traditionists
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