The Cold War was the opposite of a Hot War. It was a conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, which lasted from the 1940s through the 1990s, but it was always fought by proxy (Cuba, North and South Vietnam, East and West Germany, Afghanistan, etc.). The United States and the Soviet Union never directly fought each other, in large part because of the fear of nuclear weapons, which both countries possessed in large numbers. In part, the Cold War was based on Realpolitik, the control of land and resources in Western and Eastern Europe, but it was also a battle of ideologies. It was a war between democracy and communism, between capitalism and state-planned economies.
Disagreement exists concerning who initiated the Cold War. Likewise, disagreement exists as to which side prolonged the Cold War and which side brought about its resolution. Undoubtedly, some responsibility can be attributed to both countries. Yet, different people on different sides of the political spectrum differ on the amount.
As for the origin, the conferences of Yalta and Potsdam (both in 1945) allowed the Soviets and Americans to divide both Europe and Germany. However, this division was not able to prevent further conflict. For example, the Germans in the Soviet sector of Berlin (East Berlin) could go to the American, French, and British sectors (West Berlin), and they could see that the West enjoyed a higher standard of living. When the U.S. initiated the Marshall Plan in 1947, ostensibly to improve Europe’s market strength, it offered to extend it to Eastern Europe as well as Western Europe. The Soviets viewed this as a propaganda ploy and would not allow any East European countries to join. A major breakdown in relations occurred in 1948 when the U.S. introduced a new currency into West Germany and West Berlin, a move which the Soviets resisted. In an attempt to cause consumer chaos in the West, the Soviets decide to blockade any land routes to West Berlin to prevent any goods from arriving there. (This was possible because Berlin was in the middle of the Soviet sector and the Soviet controlled all roads leading to the capital.) All sides were surprised when the U.S. was able to sustain the delivery of goods by flight for over one year. The Soviets ended their blockade in May 1949. Many Berliners to this day remember the Luftbrücke,
air bridge, provided by the Western powers.
By 1949, at the latest, it was clear that West Germany and East Germany would no longer be able to coexist as American and Soviet protectorates. In 1949, they both became sovereign states and the United States initiated the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which included the United States, Canada, and most of Western Europe in a military alliance. Initially, Germany was supposed to join a West European alliance (the European Defense Force), but France's parliament rejected this arrangement. As a result, West Germany joined NATO in 1954. Similarly, East Germany officially joined the Warsaw Pact, a Soviet led military alliance, in 1955. (For German/German relations 1969-1989, click here).
In 1958, Premier Khrushchev unsuccessfully issued an ultimatum that the Western allies surrender West Berlin. Finally, in 1961, the Soviet and East German leaders decided to build a wall around East Berlin and ultimately a fortified border between the two German states. According to East German officials, this was done to protect East Germany from the West, but the fortification also made it impossible for East Germans to go to the West (for arguments on the necessity of the wall used by the East Germans click here). When the U.S. did nothing to prevent this, it was criticized by West Germans. The border lowered the number of people leaving East Germany, often resettling in West Germany, and it stifled discontented voices. At the same time, this denial of freedom to travel was an important factor in the downfall of the East German state from 1989-1990.
In the 1970s, there was a detente, a cooling down of tensions, between East and West Germany as well as between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union, under Leonid Brezhnev, could no longer afford to pay for military growth and economic growth simultaneously; it was also in need of Western trade to stimulate its own economy. The United States, under Richard Nixon, could not afford the costs of Vietnam on top of its domestic programs. Significant agreements on arms control were achieved. Moreover, the United States had an opportunity to negotiate with both China and the Soviet Union simultaneously, attempting to get benefits at each country’s expense (triangular diplomacy). As a result, both the United States and the Soviet Union encouraged East and West Germany to reach agreements, making both travel and economic trade between the two countries easier.
While detente fizzled in the 1980s, by 1989, reforms were beginning to sweep through Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, under the new leadership of Gorbachev. When East German officials mistakenly announced that East Germans could travel freely to West Berlin, it did not take longer than one year for East Germans to decided they wanted to unite with West Germans both economically and politically. The cold war officially ended for the two Germanys when East Germany joined the former West Germany in October 1990. Chancellor Helmut Kohl became the leader of one Germany. The Cold War officially ended for the U.S. with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991 into 15 different nations.
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