Lessons from the Cold War

Emerging from the terrible destruction of World War Two the world faced a new form of conflict and tension with the advent of the Cold War, primarily between the two superpowers the Soviet Union and the United States. The initial phase of this war began immediately following the end of WWII in 1946, extending through to the mid 1950s with the stalemate of the Korean War and a change of leadership in the Soviet. The middle phase of the war was marked by national unease, an arms race, US and Soviet military interventions, as well as some positive moments of cooperation. The final phase of the Cold War was characterized by the increasing international presence of the US, waning power of the Soviet, and its eventual downfall in 1991. Of prominence during these three phases was George Kennan, who in 1946, sent a telegram back to the US from Moscow setting out the current state of the Soviet and possible policies to be adopted to address growing Russian dominance. His ideas and suggestions are evident in US policy throughout the general three phases of the Cold War.

When Kennan sent his telegram in 1946 he highlighted the danger that the Soviet was interested in increasing its influence and moving into places such as Turkey. This was followed by the Truman Doctrine in 1947 where President Truman called on congress to provide economic assistance to Greece and Turkey in order to allow those nations to continue to develop democratically and without “coercion and intimidation” from external countries. Clearly he was referring to the Soviet who had recently annexed “Poland, Rumania, and Bulgaria.” This speech acknowledged the beginning of the struggle between the two superpowers and its emphasis on containment would form the policy of the US for the remainder of the Cold War. In 1949, the formation of Communist People’s Republic of China and the creation of the Soviet A-Bomb further heightened fears of Soviet expansion. In 1950, war broke out on the Korean peninsula between Communist backed North Korea and the US and Western Europe supported South Korea. The resulting stalemate reflected the two superpowers unwillingness to become completely involved in a head on war and it also set the tone for future Cold War foreign policy. In 1949 a formal alliance of Western nations had materialized with the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Soviet responded in 1955 with the Warsaw Pact. The “Iron Curtain” had been drawn and the first phase of this war ended without direct confrontation between the two powers, but the stage had been set for future relations between the Western democratic and Communist blocs.

After this phase, the Cold War was characterized by internal reform and development within the two superpower states in order to combat one another. The primary focus of each was to enlarge their military and space capabilities, with the Soviet achieving the first satellite launch into space in 1957. Perhaps in direct response to this and following the second recommendation of Kennan, the US enacted the National Defense Education Act of 1958 with the aim of improving the education and skills of American youth so that the US would be able to keep up with Soviet scientific and technological development. During this period, extreme distrust led to increased intelligence and espionage operations and in the US McCarthyism further added to the tension as US citizens accused one another of being Communist. Kennan had also suggested in his first point that the Soviet should be “studied” and in his fourth point made the case that people are less interested in “abstract freedom than in security”. While the two powers never fought directly during this phase, both parties certainly had the same thinking as Kennan, intervening in various situations around the world. Throughout this phase the Soviet became involved with Cuba, East Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. The US was involved militarily in Lebanon, the Dominican Republic, and most famously Vietnam and Cambodia. Although there were moments of cooperation such as the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty of 1963 and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972, this middle period involved the superpowers subverting or supporting regimes in order to increase their influence internationally and combat one another ideologically.

After the Vietnam War the US scaled down its military interventions and US food, fashion, and culture spread around the world, increasing American popularity internationally while the Soviet was dealing with internal and external conflict. This final phase beginning in the late 1970s saw the waning power of the Soviet, although the origins of their diminishing influence were also evident in the middle phase. The iron grip of Stalin was slowly loosened by Khrushchev who emptied out the labor camps and introduced perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) and some satellite Soviet countries challenged Soviet rule such as Czechoslovakia in 1968. However, the real mark of this phase and the turn of events for the Soviet was their invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 which resulted in the deaths of 15,000 Soviet soldiers, diminishing domestic popularity, and an overstretched military and economy. At the same time US President Reagan had initiated an arms build up and by the time the Soviet withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the Soviet economy was devastated, its people were weary and agitated, and the US was in a stronger position than ever before. The final part of this phase from 1989 to 1991 involved the breakup of the Soviet Union as Communist regimes were toppled throughout Eastern Europe, the Berlin Wall fell, borders opened, and finally the Soviet Union disintegrated and separated.

While we now refer to this period as a ‘cold’ war and it is true that there were no direct military confrontations between the Soviet Union and the United States there was certainly much tension and military intervention throughout the three phases of the war. Kennan’s observations in 1946 were clearly revealing of the structure of the Soviet and his suggestions are reflected at numerous times throughout the war. Ideologically, the US had done what Kennan suggested and maintained their “own methods and conceptions of human society” throughout the entire Cold War and now democratic principles have taken root around the world. However, the various interventions by both the Soviet and the US resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people across the globe and in some cases have resulted in further tension in certain nations affected by Cold War ideology. In a post Cold War world it is important that superpowers like the US learn from previous experiences such as Vietnam and understand the dangers involved when attempting to establish their own form of politics, economics, and societal norms in nations unfamiliar with Western Civilization.