Study Guide

Causes of the Cold War

Causes of the Cold War Introduction

The Cold War, a hostile rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, lasted from the late 1940s until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The war was "cold" only in that the U.S. and the USSR never fought each other in a direct military confrontation. They never used their stockpiles of nukes. 

But both superpowers absolutely threatened annihilation with their stockpiles of nukes. 

Instead of your usual battles, these two bozo-countries participated in "proxy wars" by supporting allied nations in numerous "hot" wars—like Korea, Vietnam, and Angola—and playing lots of head games. 

They boycotted each other's Olympic Games, challenged each other to an arms race and a Space Race, and held international thumb-war tournaments. 

Well, maybe not that last one. But they may as well have thrown that in there, too.

The Cold War defined both countries' foreign policies through the second half of the 20th century. Both Americans and Soviets competed for allies to maintain and widen their respective spheres of influence around the world and each side viewed the Cold War as a battle between civilizations. 

In the worldwide clash between American capitalism and Soviet communism, only one could prevail.

Or so they seemed to think.

For more than 40 years, the Soviet-American conflict hung heavy over global affairs, shaping the world with massive military buildups, a never-ending nuclear arms race, intensive espionage, and fierce technological competition as each side tried to gain the upper hand in preparation for the thermonuclear "hot war" all humans feared would someday come.

What is Causes of the Cold War About and Why Should I Care?

The joyous victory celebrations that marked the end of World War II had barely ended before that war's greatest victors—the United States and Soviet Union—found themselves locked in a terrifying new conflict.

  • How did one-time allies turn so quickly into mortal enemies?
  • What would happen if the Soviet-American "Cold War" turned hot?
  • Could human civilization survive a clash of superpowers in an age of nuclear weapons?

These were the questions that haunted American life in the second half of the twentieth century, as the Cold War shaped every aspect of American society—its politics, its military and diplomacy, its education system, its culture, even its highway system.

We now know, of course, that despite occasional flare-ups, the Cold War never escalated into an apocalyptic World War III. The decades-long standoff between American capitalists and Soviet communists ended peacefully, with the sudden dismantling, from within, of the Soviet empire after 1989.

America prevailed.

But just because the long conflict ended happily doesn't mean it should soon be forgotten. The lessons learned while staving off nuclear holocaust during the Cold War may yet prove vital to the survival of humanity on this planet.

Causes of the Cold War Resources

Books

John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History (2005)
Gaddis uses previously classified and newly available documents to reassess the Cold War.

Uta Poiger, Jazz, Rock, and Rebels: Cold War Politics and American Culture in a Divided Germany (2000)
A history of government responses to citizens' listening to jazz and rock music in West and East Germany.

David Reynolds, One World Divisible, A Global History since 1945 (2000)
A detailed textbook history of the Cold War.

Timothy W. Ryback, Rock Around the Bloc: A History of Rock Music in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, 1954-1988 (1990)
Ryback charts the history of furtive rock-listening clubs in the Soviet Union and the development of Soviet rock bands.

Reinhold Wagnleitner, Coca-Colonization and the Cold War: The Cultural Mission of the United States in Austria After the Second World War (1994)
A history of American cultural diplomacy programs in Austria, written by an Austrian scholar who grew up experiencing them.

Music

George Gershwin, Porgy & Bess (1935)
First performed in 1935, this Gershwin opera about African-American life was one of several cultural exports sponsored by the U.S. government during the early years of the Cold War. European youth, however, preferred American rock and roll to its philharmonic concerts.

Elvis Presley, Elvis Presley (1956)
According to one noted Russian historian, Soviets worshiped Elvis and savored his music, along with the rock sounds of artists such as Little Richard, Fats Domino, and The Beatles. This album, Elvis's self-titled debut, is perhaps his best, chock-full of his most memorable hits such as "Blue Suede Shoes," "Heartbreak Hotel," and "My Baby Left Me."

Little Richard, Here's Little Richard (1957)
Little Richard's electric debut rock and roll album, Here's Little Richard was an American cultural export scooped up by European youths—even by teens in East Germany and the Soviet Union, who at the height of the Cold War risked angering their countries' oppressive rulers by listening to the enemy's music of youthful rebellion.

Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963)
Many of the songs on this record were inspired by the general fear of nuclear war that had defined Dylan's generation. But songs such as "Masters of War," "Talkin' World War III Blues," and "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall," written in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis, became much more than reflections on the Cold War world; as the anti-Vietnam War movement grew in the late 1960s, this music became intimately associated with the struggle for peace.

Creedence Clearwater Revival, Willy and the Poor Boys (1969)
The fourth album from an iconic American band, Willy and the Poor Boys is chock full of CCR classics including "Down on the Corner," the anti-war anthem "Fortunate Son," and "It Came Out of the Sky," a song that seemed to warn of a war far more destructive than the one raging in Southeast Asia.

Images

A-Bomb Aftermath
Hiroshima after the atomic bombing of August 1945.

Trinity
The first atomic bomb test, code name Trinity, occurred in New Mexico in 1945.

Potsdam
Churchill, Truman, and Stalin at the Potsdam Conference.

Berlin Airlift
An American lieutenant receives thanks from Berlin children during the airlift.

MacArthur in Korea
General Douglas MacArthur with his staff in the Korean War:

Movies & TV

Porgy and Bess (1959)
This film adaptation of George Gershwin's 1935 opera features Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, and Sammy Davis, Jr. The original stage production was one of several cultural exports sponsored by the U.S. government during the early years of the Cold War. The opera toured West Germany in 1955, yet European youths preferred to listen to American rock and roll rather than attend philharmonic concerts.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
A science fiction classic, 2001 offers an eerie vision of the 21st century, one that features human hibernation, artifacts of alien life forms, and evil technology. It was produced during the height of the Cold War and amid the fierce competition between the Soviet Union and the United States in the field of space exploration. Check out futuristic 21st-century technology as it was imagined in 1968, and watch out for rogue computers.

The The Manhattan Project (1986)
Although the title of this adventure film is named for the World War II-era nuclear development program, the story here is far from historical. Yet the tale, which revolves around the schemes of a brilliant young high school student, does reflect the mood of the late Cold War era, when government secrecy and the threat of nuclear war still loomed large.

Fat Man and Little Boy (1989)
This historical drama charts the life of Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the secret World War II program known as the Manhattan Project. Actor Dwight Schultz plays Dr. Oppenheimer, who grapples with the heavy scientific and moral implications of developing nuclear weapons.

The Big Fish (2003)
Tim Burton's films are always a bit strange and fantastic, and this one is no different. Big Fish is the story of a young man who visits his dying father in order to learn more about his life. Ewan McGregor stars in the old man's flashback sequences, which include exaggerated tales of his service in Korea. (Or were they exaggerated?)

Websites

Cold War on TV
The website for CNN's documentary miniseries The Cold War contains transcripts of the program and a wealth of additional materials. One of America's leading Cold War historians, Yale professor John Lewis Gaddis, consulted on the program.

Cold War Museum
The Cold War Museum is a touring exhibit about the Cold War, dedicated to honoring Cold War veterans. One of the museum's founders is Francis Gary Powers, Jr., son of the pilot Francis Gary Powers who was shot down in his U2 spy plane over Russia in 1960.

Kennedy Library
The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library contains collections of presidential papers with documents, photographs, and speeches online.

Johnson Library
The Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library contains collections of presidential papers with documents, photographs, and speeches online.

National Security Archive
The National Security Archive uses the federal Freedom of Information Act to obtain secret government documents from the Cold War era. Great collection of articles and documents related to national security.

Building the Bomb
PBS's American Experience has produced a nice companion website for its episode on "The Race to the Superbomb"—features lots of charts and maps as well as a virtual tour of a government bomb shelter. Also has video clips of atomic blasts.

Video & Audio

Peace But Not Victory
Dwight Eisenhower's announcement of the Korean Armistice.

Iron Curtain
Winston Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech of 1946.

Father of the Bomb
J. Robert Oppenheimer speaking about the bomb.

Historical Documents

Cold War Primary Sources
Yale Avalon Project—Cold War Documents: A collection of documents organized in categories of events and then in chronological order so you can piece together what unfolds.

More Primary Sources
Documents Related to the Cold War: A well-organized list, hosted by Mt. Holyoke College, of links and documents relating to the Cold War, organized chronologically.

Still More Primary Sources
Cold War International History Project at the Wilson Center: A large archive of documents with an international focus.