The Origins of the Cold War (1945–1960) for AP U.S. History

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Updated on Mar 3, 2011

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Summary: Even before the end of World War II, strains began to develop in the wartime alliance between Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. At the Yalta conference, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had promised free elections in eastern European countries the Soviet Union liberated from Nazism; in the months after the war it became obvious that these elections would not take place. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill warned that the Soviet Union was creating an "iron curtain" between Eastern and Western Europe; the United States began to follow a policy of containment to stop the spread of communism. Through the Marshall Plan, the United States spent millions to rebuild Western Europe after the war. Stalin tested Western will by enforcing a blockade of Berlin in 1948; Western anxieties increased in 1949 when the Soviets announced that they had an atomic bomb and when communist forces led by Mao Zedong took power over mainland China. The Cold War had a major impact at home; the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began to search for communists in the entertainment industry, State Department official Alger Hiss was accused of being a communist spy, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for giving atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. During the Korean War, United Nations and American forces were severely tested as they attempted to "contain communism" in Korea. Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed knowledge of communists in the State Department, the army, and in other branches of government. Both the United States and the Soviet Union built up their military arsenals in the 1950s; by the end of the decade, President Eisenhower warned of the spreading "military-industrial complex."


Satellite countries: Eastern European countries that came under the control of the Soviet Union after World War II; the Soviets argued that they had liberated these countries from the Nazis and thus they had a right to continue to influence developments there.

Iron Curtain: Term coined by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in a March 1946 speech in Fulton, Missouri; Churchill forcefully proclaimed that the Soviet Union was establishing an "iron curtain" between the free countries of Western Europe and the communist-controlled countries of Eastern Europe.

Containment Policy: policy devised by American diplomat George F. Kennan; Kennan believed that the United States needed to implement longterm military, economic, and diplomatic strategies in order to "contain" the spread of communism. Kennan's ideas became official U.S. government policy in the late 1940s.

Truman Doctrine: articulated in 1947, this policy stated that the United States would support any democratic nation that resisted communism. Marshall Plan: American plan that spent $12 billion for the rebuilding of Western Europe after World War II; the plan produced an economic revival and helped stave off the growth of communist influence.

Berlin Airlift: American effort that flew in supplies to West Berlin after the Soviet Union and the East German government blocked the roads to that city beginning in June 1948; American airplanes flew in supplies for 15 months, causing the Soviet to call off the blockade.

NATO: North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a military alliance between the United States and Western European countries that was formed in April 1949.

Warsaw Pact: a military pact formed in 1955 between the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellite countries.

HUAC: House Un-American Activities Committee; in 1947 this committee began to investigate the entertainment industry for communist influences.

Blacklist: list created by HUAC and various private agencies indicating individuals in the entertainment industry who might be communists or who might have been influenced by communists in the past; many individuals named in the blacklist could not find work in the industry until the 1960s.

McCarthyism: term used to describe the accusations by Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy and his supporters in the early 1950s that certain people in government, academia, and the arts were secret communists. McCarthy's charges were largely unsubstantiated.

Domino theory: theory that if one country in a region fell under communist rule, then other countries in the region would follow; this theory would be used to justify American involvement in Vietnam.

Sputnik: the first artificial satellite, launched in 1957 by the Soviet Union; the fact that the Soviets launched a satellite before the United States shocked many in the American scientific community.

Winning the Cold War was the central goal of the United States from 1945 all the way until the fall of communism in 1990 to 1991. Almost all domestic and foreign policy decisions made in this era related in some way to American efforts to defeat the Soviet Union and their allies. A large part of the success of many sectors of the American economy in the post–World War II era was related to defense and defense-related contracts. Some politicians lost their careers in this era if they were perceived to be "soft on communism."

Exactly whose fault was the Cold War? Hundreds of books and articles have been written about that very subject. American historians assigned blame to the Soviet Union for aggressive actions on their part in the period immediately following the end of World War II. "Revisionist" American historians have claimed that the Soviets were forced into these actions by the perceived aggressiveness of the United States and its allies. What actually happened in those years immediately following World War II is the subject of this chapter.

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