Cold War Origins

Anders Stephanson

Since the astonishing disintegration of its empire in eastern Europe in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union itself, "Cold War" has widely come to designate the entire postwar period in international relations from 1945 onward, during which the tense relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union formed the pivot of world politics. The end of one side, then, evidently ended the relationship as such and thus the period as well. This is not, however, precisely the way in which the term emerged or was always understood and used. The "end" of the Cold War was declared on a number of earlier occasions, perhaps no more emphatically so than during the height of so-called détente in the early 1970s, when the respective leaders Richard M. Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev, on partly different grounds, announced that the relationship had entered a new kind of state. While the usage today assumes, more or less explicitly, that the designation and period are essentially to be derived from the nature of the two parties themselves and their supposedly inherent antagonism, Nixon and Brezhnev considered the term to signify, simply put, a particular phase of a continuing relationship.

For the sake of transparency, let it be known that the present writer is inclined to agree with Nixon and Brezhnev. If the Cold War is coeval with the entire relationship and simply rooted in systemic difference, then, for one thing, it would seem natural to locate the beginning in the Bolshevik Revolution. This is a coherent position but immediately puts into question how one is to characterize the alliance during the Second World War. Similarly, it becomes hard to account for the peculiar shift in the U.S. posture toward the far more radical People's Republic of China during the 1960s and 1970s, a shift from utter, relentless hostility to something close to a great-power alliance.

By contrast, here the Cold War will be grasped as a state of abnormally intense conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union that resulted from the inability of the two powers to resolve the monumental political issues at the end of World War II. Beginning in 1947, the Cold War was "abnormal" in the sense that while the level of enmity resembled that of outright war, the conflict took place, according to the classical terms of international law, in conditions of peace. The Cold War was cold because it did not issue in outright war at its core. Whatever ending date (1963, 1972, or 1989–1991) one chooses, the fact remains that the United States and the Soviet Union, along with their military alliances NATO and the Warsaw Pact, never entered into military conflict. Actual war was displaced to the periphery and carried out by proxies or by independent actors whose interests, projects, and associations became entangled within the larger conflict. As a condition or state of affairs, the conflict can be characterized as a warlike antagonism, executed by means short of war, where the adversary's legitimacy as a regime was essentially denied, and diplomacy, understood as a process of resolving issues of mutual concerns in times of peace, withered away and was replaced by diplomacy as ideology and propaganda. The structure of international politics became, as a consequence of the projection of the conflict onto the rest of the world, increasingly bipolar in nature. The division was accompanied by an immense and escalating arms race. Finally, there was suppression of internal dissidence on both sides, vastly more brutally and extensively in the Soviet case.

Seen as a phase of the U.S.–Soviet relationship, the Cold War thus comes to an end when these characteristics expire or change into their opposites. The legitimacy of the other is recognized de facto and the irreconcilable ideological animosity is replaced by a general emphasis on the need for peaceful coexistence. The existing divisions and balance of power are implicitly acknowledged in the form of spheres of influence or control. It is agreed, by fact rather than formal treaty, that nuclear weapons must never be used unless in conditions of ultimate resort. From this perspective, the end can thus be located in 1963 after a series of recent events: the apparently final division of Berlin and Germany, the emergence of the Sino-Soviet conflict, the horrendous, mutual experience of the Cuban missile crisis, and the ensuing expression of cooperation in the nuclear limited test ban treaty. However the Cold War is understood, it is clear in any case that some qualitative change occurs around this moment.

A defining set of features or a typology can serve as a description of a condition and means of periodization but it says nothing much about the origins of the Cold War and its deeper meaning. The following account, indeed, takes as its starting point that the "Cold War" is more than a descriptive term or a simple metaphor: it assumes that it is a genuine concept of explanatory potential. For analytical reasons, we will thus keep distinct "origins" and causes from the problem of the Cold War as a dynamic project and projection. "Cold War," it should also be borne in mind, is not everything that happens in international politics or even in U.S.–Soviet relations during the Cold War. The significance of these differentiations will be evident once the term is situated against the background of the opposition and semantic field that originally produced it, namely, that of war and peace.


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See also Cold War Evolution and Interpretations ; Cold Warriors ; Cold War Termination ; The Munich Analogy ; Post–Cold War Policy ; Presidential Advisers ; Presidential Power .

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