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The division of conquered Germany, shortly after World War II, into a democratic Western state and a communist Eastern state signaled the start of the Cold War—a fifty-year series of political conflicts between capitalist and communist blocs. The collapse of the Soviet Union near the end of the twentieth century signaled the end of the Cold War.
Following the end of World War II in 1945, a new kind of war, a so-called Cold War, broke out. This new war centered on ideological and political conflicts, particularly the conflict between capitalism and communism. This Cold War, which turned hot several times, particularly in Korea and Vietnam, endured for nearly fifty years and affected most of the globe as countries increasingly had to choose sides with one of the superpowers (the United States and the Soviet Union) in an increasingly bipolar world. During conferences at Yalta (1943) and Potsdam (1945) it became clear that the individual nations that made up the allied powers had very different views regarding the shape of the postwar world.
On 5 March 1946, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill made a speech in Fulton, Missouri, (now known as his Iron Curtain Speech) in which he defined the terms of this new conflict. According to Churchill, “From Stettin in the Baltic and Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” In this speech, Churchill harshly criticized the actions of the Soviet Union. From this moment on, the same Stalin who had been called Uncle Joe during the war effort was now once again transformed into a dangerous and dictatorial enemy.
Cold War in Europe and the United States
In the United States, Cold War policies were set out in several early government documents. The first of these, which came to be known as the Truman Doctrine, was promoted in a speech on 12 March of 1947. In this speech, President Harry Truman declared, “I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures. I believe that we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way.” In June of 1947, Secretary of State George Marshall set out the European Recovery Program (later known as the Marshall Plan), which provided for economic aid to back up the ideology of the Truman Doctrine. In his article in Foreign Affairs the diplomat and historian George Kennan set out the final plank in the Cold War platform of the United States. The “containment policy” that Kennan espoused became the rationale for most United States foreign policy behavior in the next forty years. Kennan’s policy of “containing” Communist nations later gave rise to the Domino Theory, that is, the idea that if one country fell to communism, others would follow (particularly in Asia).
The earliest strain in the Cold War came in Germany as the United States and Western nations merged their zones to create a West German federal government and worked to rebuild West Germany while denouncing the Soviet Union’s policies in East Germany. The introduction of a new currency in West Germany led to a Soviet blockade of West Berlin, which lay within East Germany and thus within the Soviet zone of occupation. In response to the blockade, the Allies managed to supply West Berlin through a massive airlift that lasted for over a year. Ultimately, Germany was divided between east and west and in 1961 the Berlin Wall went up, physically dividing the city of Berlin into two zones of power.
The Cold War also led to the creation of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), an organization that provided for the mutual defense and assistance of Western European nations against any hostile action by the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union responded by creating an alliance with Eastern European countries, known as the Warsaw Pact.
The agreements made at Yalta had provided a structure for postwar cooperation in Asia but these initial agreements soon fell apart. The Soviet Union had agreed to enter the war in the Pacific three months after the defeat of Germany and Stalin abided by this agreement. Roosevelt had agreed to allow the Soviet Union to establish a base at Port Arthur, China, in exchange for Stalin’s agreement to sign a treaty of alliance with Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China. A Communist movement, viewed as a direct attempt by the Soviet Union to achieve the worldwide revolution that had been advocated by Lenin, had emerged in China in the 1930s. The Communist and non-Communist (Nationalist) parties in China had attempted to cooperate after the Japanese invasion but had been largely unsuccessful and both groups were anticipating a renewed struggle after the defeat of Japan. In 1949, the Nationalist government fled to Taiwan and Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China. The United States refused to recognize Mao’s government, instead maintaining ties to the Nationalist government in Taiwan. The United States lamented the “loss of China” and vowed to take whatever steps were necessary to prevent the spread of Communism throughout Asia.
The situation in Korea also deteriorated rapidly. The removal of Korea from Japanese control had been one of the stated objectives of the allies in World War II. Prior to the surrender of Japan in 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union had occupied the country, temporarily dividing it at the thirty-eighth parallel. The allies planned to hold elections after the restoration of peace and allow the newly elected government to rule an independent Korea. However, tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union had led to the establishment of separate governments in North and South Korea. The Communist government in North Korea, with the approval of Stalin and the Soviet Union, invaded South Korea on 25 June 1950. As a result of a boycott of the U.N. Security Council by the Soviet Union, the United States was able to pass a resolution that labeled North Korea as an aggressive nation and called for U.N. forces to be sent to Korea. The U.N. forces, led by the U.S. general Douglas MacArthur, defeated North Korean troops and expelled them from South Korea. Subsequently, MacArthur and the U.N. forces crossed the thirty-eighth parallel and adopted a new mission, which aimed to unite all of Korea under a non-Communist government. China had issued several warnings that they might intervene if U.N. forces crossed the thirty-eighth parallel but these warnings were ignored. When the Chinese made good on their threat to supply both men and materiel, U.N. forces had to retreat back into South Korea. A defensive line was established near the thirty-eighth parallel. Peace negotiations dragged on without result and the Korean War eventually ended in a stalemate. At the end of the war, Korea remained divided.
The other major “hot” war in the post–World War II period was also fought through the lens of Cold War tensions. The initial war in French Indo-China began as a result of the French decision to try to reestablish control of their colony after the war. War broke out between the French and Ho Chi Minh’s Indo-Chinese Communist Party in 1946. After the French fortress at Dien Bien Phu fell to Communist forces the French agreed to negotiations and the Geneva Conference in 1954 brought an end to the first Indochina war. The United States had sent considerable aid to the French in order to prevent the spread of Communism, while pressuring the French to agree to Vietnamese independence at a future date. The Geneva agreements had called for elections in Vietnam but as it became clear that free elections would most likely result in a Communist victory, the United States sought other solutions. The United States was increasingly unwilling to risk another Asian domino to the Communists. Thus, the United States supported Ngo Dinh Diem, who refused to agree to the elections called for by the Geneva Accords. Despite U.S. assistance South Vietnam was on the verge of collapse by 1963. The United States responded by sending military advisers and increased material supplies. In 1965, the United States under President Lyndon Johnson began to send U.S. troops to Vietnam. President Nixon, under increasing pressure to end the war, bombed not just Vietnam but also Laos and Cambodia. The Treaty of Paris in January of 1973 ended the conflict. Two years after the war ended, South Vietnam fell to the Communists.
The spread of the Cold War to Asia led Southeast Asian nations to form an alliance in 1954, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). This alliance was an effort to cooperate economically and also to resist further Communist encroachment in Southeast Asia. It included representatives of Australia, France, Great Britain, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, and the United States.
Africa was more indirectly affected by Cold War tensions. Both the United States and the Soviet Union directed economic assistance plans and policies aimed at securing Cold War alliances. But in the postwar world, African nations were occupied by the struggle for independence and faced significant challenges upon obtaining independence. Independence was achieved earlier in north and central Africa, where there were fewer white settlers, than in South Africa, where the white-dominated government struggled to maintain its position of power and the policies of apartheid.
The Middle East
The Middle East achieved its independence after World War II. Regional differences, territorial disputes, and the British mandate that divided territory between Palestine and the newly created nation of Israel contributed to instability in the area. The Arab-Israeli conflict also contributed to violence in the region. Arab nations cooperated in an attempt to defeat the Israelis and reclaim the territory occupied by the citizens of that nation. The emergence of various militant religious groups radically altered the nature of many Middle Eastern governments, particularly in Iran. During the Cold War, regional problems were further complicated by the political interests of the United States and the Soviet Union, both of whom valued the region, partly because of the vast oil resources in the Middle East. Its strategic location and vast production of petroleum made the Middle East of value to all industrialized nations. The United States contributed money and material aid to the Israeli government and intervened in the area in an attempt to maintain its interests, both economic and military, in the area while the Soviet Union fought and lost a war in Afghanistan.
The United States had inaugurated a policy of nonintervention in Latin America in the 1930s but reversed this policy after World War II. Communist movements and fear of the spread of Communism in addition to economic interests in the area were primarily responsible for the change in policy. In Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman came to power and began to reduce the influence and interests of U.S. businesses. The United Fruit Company, controlled by U.S. interests, noted that the Communists were involved in the changes and asked for assistance. A U.S.-led military operation successfully deposed Arbenz Guzman and the new government repealed his land reform measures and jailed and murdered Communists. A small guerrilla movement of Communists and other nationalists emerged and violence continued for three decades.
In 1959, Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba, enacting a social and political revolution in Cuba based on Marxist ideas. He also initiated land reform, seizing all land from owners who had more than 165 acres. Economic sanctions by the United States and other countries who refused to trade with Cuba caused a rapid decline in the Cuban economy.
Cuba became a key nation in the Cold War struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States attempted to overthrow Castro by landing Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. After this failed invasion, Castro sought protection from the Soviet Union and vowed to spread Communism to other areas in Latin America. Although Castro failed to bring other Communist governments to power in Latin America, his alliance with the Soviet Union brought the world to the edge of a nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis. The Soviet Union had agreed to install missiles in Cuba and to support Castro against further actions by the United States. In response, President John Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of Cuba, to prevent missiles from being sent to Cuba. Ultimately, Nikita Khrushchev backed down and agreed to dismantle existing sites and pledged not to install missiles at a future date. This direct confrontation and the realization of how close the world had come to nuclear war led to the installation of a direct phone line between the United States and the Soviet Union and subsequently to a thaw in relations and talks regarding the reduction of nuclear arms.
The End of the Cold War
Although there were earlier improvements in the relations between the United States and the Soviet Union and agreements to limit nuclear weapons (SALT I and SALT II), real change occurred only with the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. When Mikhail Gorbachev became premier of the Soviet Union in 1985 he began attempting to reform the Communist system. The two best-known aspects of his reform program are perestroika, the attempted decentralization and restructuring of the economy, and glasnost, a move toward free speech and a free press. Instead of the reform and revival that Gorbachev hoped would transpire, revolutions occurred in Eastern Europe and when the Soviet Union did not send troops to restore order, the Communist governments in Eastern Europe simply fell. The most prominent symbol of the collapse of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe was the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent reunification of Germany in the 1990s. After an attempted Communist coup in the Soviet Union in 1991, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics also collapsed. Individual republics such as the Ukraine withdrew from the union and Gorbachev resigned as president of the union after an attempted coup by military and old-style Communists, which led to the rise of Boris Yeltsin as a political figure.
With the collapse of Communism, the Cold War that had dominated European politics for nearly fifty years was essentially over. Although Communism itself still existed in China, Cuba, and a few other areas, the dismantling of the Soviet Union seemed to signify its decline and the victory of democracy. The decline of the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union eased tensions and pressure on nations in Asia and Latin America. Nonetheless, the United States and the former Soviet Union continued to have very different views regarding world affairs. The end of Cold War tensions did not lead to the destruction of NATO, but it did temporarily reduce tensions and end the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. It also paved the way for a reunited Germany and for Eastern European nations to join the European Union.
- Goff, R., Moss, W., Upshur, J-H., & Terry, J. (2002). The twentieth century: A brief global history (6th ed.). New York: McGraw- Hill.
- Judge, E. H., & Langdon, J. W. (1999). The Cold War: A history through documents. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Stromberg, R. N. (1992). Europe in the twentieth century. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
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