Historical background

The global balance of power after World War II

During World War II (1939-1945), the Soviet Union and the United States fought as allies against Germany. However, the two nations had a background of mistrust and suspicion against each other.

The Soviets did not trust the US because it fought against the communists in the Russian Civil War (1917-1923). The US kept its firm stance even after the civil war ended, refusing to acknowledge the communist government of the Soviet Union until 1933.

Furthermore, the Soviet leader at the time, Joseph Stalin, thought that US’ intervention in WWII was delayed on purpose so that the Soviet Union would remain vulnerable to German forces. In turn, the US viewed Stalin’s ambitions to extend the Soviet Union’s influence over other countries as a threat to democracy and freedom.

In 1945, the Allied leaders of Great Britain, the US, and the Soviet Union – had two meetings which would determine the future reorganisation of Germany. They generally agreed that the East would be under the control of the Soviet Union, while the West would be under the control of France, Britain, and the US. However, between the two meetings, several changes occurred that deepened the mistrust between the US and the Soviet Union.

Firstly, the US experienced a sudden change in administration after President Franklin D. Roosevelt died; he was replaced by his Vice-President, Harry S. Truman, who was openly anti-communist. Previously focused on demilitarising Germany, the US instead began to support Germany’s economic strengthening. The change was brought about by the United States’ confidence in its military ability once it successfully tested the first atomic bomb in July 1945. It was thought that an economically strong Germany would be an important trading partner, and would also help prevent Soviet expansion in Europe.

The relationship between the US and the Soviet Union also worsened because of Stalin. During the first meeting, which took place in Yalta, Stalin promised that he would support free elections in Eastern Europe, but he soon broke his promise by taking control of Poland and setting up a communist government there.

The atomic bomb and the United States’ new plans for reconstructing Germany altered the balance of power significantly, giving the US the upper hand. The Soviet Union saw the US as a very powerful foe, especially after the US dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. The Soviet Union, therefore, made the development of its own nuclear arsenal a priority.

The early years of the Cold War

The early years of the Cold War – roughly the period between 1945 and 1949 – were mostly defined by the US’ and the Soviet Union’s struggle for political power. Simultaneously, both superpowers tried to limit their adversary’s influence over European countries.

Fearing future attacks from the US, the Soviet Union began to invest heavily in developing its own nuclear w...

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