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Paving the Way for the Cold War

Diving into the causes leading up to the (not so) Cold War

Graffiti of the "Socialist Fraternal Kiss" on the Berlin Wall between Leonid Brezhnev (left) and Erich Honecker (right).


February 9th, 1946. Joseph Stalin materializes the division between the East and the West in Moscow, by stating that a conflict against the “capitalist countries” was inevitable. A month later, on March 5th, Winston Churchill claims that an “iron curtain” had descended across Europe. These political leaders were anticipating a war that would last nearly 50 years, until the downfall of one of the post-World War II superpowers…


The Cold War can be seen as a period of geopolitical, economical, militarist and, above all else, ideological clash between the two post-World War ll authorities – in the West, the democratic and liberal United States of America and, in the East, the autocratic and communist Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, commonly known as Soviet Union. The conflict was long and extremely complex, and, as such, it is inconceivable to try to dissect it in one article. Thus, we will focus on identifying and understanding the causes and events leading up to it.

In The West

The second World War can be seen as a truly global war, with fronts on six different continents and involving or affecting nearly every nation on Earth. With an estimated total of 75 million casualties, it is the deadliest military conflict in history. Economies were ravaged, which also presented some nations with the opportunity to grab world supremacy. Thus, all these factors would reveal different strategies and attitudes across countries which would deeply impact international relations in the following decades.

Particularly, in the United States, the isolationist feeling grown out of the colonial period, aggravated by World War l and substantiated by the self-exclusion from the League of Nations, completely disappeared in the wake of the second World War. With the havoc wreaked throughout Europe, the USA, with one of the least devastated economies of the Allies and being one of the least attacked countries (and, thus, with approximately the same population and infrastructures as before the war), emerged as a global influence on economic, political, cultural, military, and technological affairs.

More specifically, during WW2, the New-Yorker President Franklin Roosevelt, following the opinion of John Maynard Keynes, opted for an economic strategy which would control demand and expenditure during the war period, allowing for a stable and sustained economy in the after-war period (by, for instance, enacting laws to compel people to retain savings in bank accounts during the war, which could then be retrieved once it ended). Thus, once the global conflict came to an end and a vast portion of the active population started working again, the USA experienced a consumer-driven economic growth of unprecedented proportions (the GDP was $228 billion in 1945. In 1975, it was $1.7 trillion).

Moreover, across the Atlantic, the situation also enabled American growth. During the war, the US manufactured airplanes, ships, engines, guns, and other supplies for the Allies (see Lend-Lease Program, seen as one of the first interventionist and non-isolationist act from the US), generating revenue which would eventually put an end to the consequences of the Great Depression and expand the American economy.

Later, in the wake of the war, the weariness of the Allies also permitted an American power grab – Charles de Gaulle’s France was shattered economically, politically and in terms of infrastructures, after being occupied by Nazi Germany from May of 1940 to December of 1944 and Clement Attlee’s United Kingdom, which underwent a period of large reforms (for instance, losing Asian colonies and seeing the nationalization of multiple services, like the Bank of England and the creation of the National Health Service), was devastated from Nazi aerial bombardments and also suffered from a broken economy, since World War 2 was extremely costly for the British. Additionally, war reparations paid by the Axis powers (mainly through industrial assets and forced labor, rather than money) also increased American wealth and economic prosperity.

This dark era felt throughout western Europe and the unparalleled American growth paved the way for an American superpower to emerge. But it was not unrivaled.

In The East

The inability of the Russian Empire to modernize its archaic social, politic and economic structures, the poor working and living conditions of the laborers, cruelly treated by the bourgeoisie, the spread of activist ideologies through western Europe, the inability of the last Russian czar, Nicholas ll, to acknowledge the needs of the people and the growing social unrest and his poor leadership during World War l, both in the war and home fronts, can all be seen as causes to the Russian Revolution of 1917, when the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, overthrew the monarchy and established a one-party state, the Russian Soviet Republic, with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union holding the power. The implementation of the Republic originated a civil war between the Bolshevik Red Army and several anti-Bolsheviks forces across the Republic like the White Guard. This conflict would end in 1922, with the Bolsheviks emerging victorious and forming the famous Soviet Union with the unification of the Russian, Transcaucasian, Ukrainian and Byelorussian Republics.

The Soviet Union would experience a rapid growth after Joseph Stalin rose to power in 1924, following Lenin’s death, due to the enactment of a command economy, characterized by public ownership of production, distribution and prices, rapid industrialization and forced collectivization, which would eventually be known as a Soviet-type economic planning. This rapid growth was accompanied by the Soviet famine of 1932 and 1933, the Holodomor, as well as the expansion of Gulag labor camps and persecution of opponents to the system.

Later on, the second World War took between 25 and 30 million Soviet lives, making it the most massacred state in the world by this conflict. This, however, did not prevent it from becoming one of the post-WW2 superpowers. During the war, the URSS, in order to repel the German offensive that began in 1941, built the largest terrestrial army in the world at the time and occupied several eastern regions to accomplish this, but also spreading the communist ideology and sphere of influence. Furthermore, war reparations paid by several nations, like Germany, Italy, Finland, Hungary, and Romania, also played a role in promoting Soviet post-war growth.

Thus, with the increasing prosperity and influence of the Soviet Union and, above all else, its divergence from the United States of America, the conditions were gathered for the chess game we call Cold War.


The dispute was real. The goal of each superpower was definite. The stage was set for a conflict that would last for the majority of the second half of the 20th century, always overshadowed by the fear of nuclear war, and which would originate organizations, treaties and proxy wars causing deep political, economic, and social impacts throughout the world, which have lasted until our days. The stage was set for a conflict that would be, at times, far from Cold.

by YKW // 14 February 2022

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