Sunday, 29 December 2013

The USA and the world: The Cold War 1947-1991 (an overview)

For this topic, the Cold War from 1947 to 1991, references are made to pages in the following textbook: History & Geography, Classes européenne Terminale, Marianne LE BRIS & Co. (Hatier, 2007)

Comments on the introductory pages of the textbook (pages 20-21)

Not everyone agreed that the American way of life was the best, especially the Soviet Union, and the conflicting visions of society between the USA and the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) were to determine world relations after the War and the US’s role as leader of the “Free World” against the Soviet Union.

The USA and the USSR had been allies during World War Two against the Axis Powers, but their ideological differences meant that they soon became enemies. At the Potsdam Conference of July 1945 (the war in Europe had ended on 8th May 1945), the USSR was already in disagreement with the USA and UK about what the extent of its influence in Eastern Europe should be. So that Russia would not get involved in the war in the Pacific, Truman dropped the A-bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. In 1946, Stalin said that the US was a bigger threat to world peace than Nazi Germany had been, and American Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas called Stalin's speech "the declaration of world war III". The countries of Eastern Europe that had been dominated by fascist Germany and liberated by the Red Army set up communist regimes and turned to the Soviet Union for help. Poland’s non-communist politicians were arrested by Stalin and Poland too became a communist country.

1947 to 1991 came to be known as the Cold War period, one of ideological opposition and indirect conflict between two blocs: Communist versus Capitalist. It was “cold” because there was no direct military confrontation between the two superpowers, only a number of crises and proxy wars. The USA was for a liberal free market (capitalist) economy and liberal democracy (i.e. with several political parties), whereas the USSR was for a state-run (centralized) economy and a one-party state (run by the Communist Party as a Soviet democracy). Both the USA and USSR wanted to defend their vision of the world and to promote it abroad (to expand their spheres of influence). The world became bipolar, i.e. with two antagonistic poles or centers of power (Washington D.C. vs Moscow) that were rivals on all levels: ideological, political, economic, cultural, scientific and technological…

Why did the Cold War not degenerate into another World War? Probably because military forces were more or less equal and they both had nuclear weapons used as a deterrent force (no one could “win” a nuclear war according to the doctrine of mutually assured destruction). It was an ideological conflict that could not become a military one. Also, the superpowers maintained communications throughout the Cold War, despite the tensions, even during the most dangerous moments; dialogue avoided war.

Comments on the photo, page 20:

This is a black and white documentary photo, dated 1958. The photographer and source are unnamed. The title is “Red Army soldiers going back to Berlin’s Soviet Zone, February 23rd 1958.” The Soviet soldiers are shown marching past a snowman dressed up in the uniform of a German border policeman (“Zoll” means customs post). The patrol is heading back to the Soviet Sector of Berlin (the Brandenburg Gate seen in the background is in the Soviet Sector). Troops from the four occupied sectors could cross freely from one sector to the other, but not citizens. The snowman, built by a Berlin citizen, evokes in an ironic way the fact that Germans have lost all authority in what had been their capital. The Brandenburg Gate, built in the 18th century, was a victory arch, symbol of Prussian power. During the Cold War it was on the dividing line between East and West Berlin (but in the Soviet Sector).

Comments on the map, page 21:

The Soviet Union set up a “shield” of countries - a buffer zone - in Eastern Europe against what it saw as American imperialism. The USSR, for example, saw the use of the Atomic Bomb as unnecessary to end the war in the Pacific and more as a threat by the USA on them (and, indeed, the US victory over Japan gave America increased influence in the Pacific and Far East). The Soviet Union set up COMECON, an economic organization, in 1949, to counter the Marshall Plan. The military alliance of the USSR and communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe was called the Warsaw Pact (set up in 1955). The militarized and ideological border between East and West was described as the “Iron Curtain”.

The USA, through numerous military bases and fleets and military alliances throughout the world (cf. the map), stemmed the spread of communism, applying the Truman Doctrine of containment (President Harry Truman’s policy of “containing” communism by setting up economic partnerships and military alliances).

  • 1947 RIO PACT
  • 1949 NATO: North Atlantic Treaty Organization
  • 1951 ANZUS: Australia, New Zealand and United-States Security Treaty
  • 1955-77 SEATO: South-East Asia Treaty Organization
  • 1955-79 CENTO: Central Treaty Organization (Baghdad Pact)

There were periods of relative calm in relations (the “thaw” from 1953 to 1959, and the “détente” from 1963 to 1979) but also moments of extreme tension. The map shows the places where there were crises during the 50s and 60s:
  • 1948: Czech coup
  • 1948-49: Berlin blockade
  • 1950-53: Korean War
  • 1956: Hungarian Uprising
  • 1958-61: renewed tension in Berlin and building of the Berlin wall
  • 1962: Cuban Missile Crisis
  • 1968: Prague Spring

The map also indicates where proxy wars (peripheral conflicts) took place: the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

Note that the USA overseas military bases were more numerous than the Soviet ones.

The Non-Aligned countries are indicated (those that refused a bipolar world, i.e. to side with either the USSR or the USA; they are in Africa and South and South-East Asia).

China, though communist, was not an ally of the USSR.

Comments on the timeline, page 21:

The Treaty of Moscow was signed in 1963 and was a partial test ban treaty, i.e. it banned nuclear weapon tests in the atmosphere, in outer space and under water (signed by USSR, USA and UK).

The Non Proliferation Treaty opened for signature in 1968, is intended to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and to promote disarmament.

The Helsinki Accords, aka the Helsinki Declaration, was an attempt to reach multilateral agreement on improving relations between the Soviet Bloc and the West.

The timeline here stops in 1975, but the Cold War went on until 1991...

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