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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 10: The Cold War •

The Cold War

A posed photograph during the Potsdam conference, with, from left to right, Winston Churchill, Harry S. Truman, and Joseph Stalin, July 1945.

Posed photograph during the Potsdam conference, with, from left to right, Winston Churchill, Harry S. Truman, and Joseph Stalin, July 1945.

Image courtesy of the Truman Presidential Museum and Library (photo reference: 58–1)

articles > The world the superpowers...

The world the superpowers made

Jeremi Suri, University of Wisconsin, Madison

The devastation of Europe and Asia in 1945 left two states with inordinate influence on the future course of international affairs – the United States and the Soviet Union. These were the only two countries to emerge from the Second World War stronger than before they entered it. They had mobilised their vast resources for maximum effect: building more weapons and placing more citizens under arms than ever before in either nation's history. They had also expanded their territorial control and influence far beyond previous limits. When US President Harry Truman and Soviet General Secretary Josef Stalin met in Potsdam, Germany in July 1945 most observers recognised that the decisions of these two men would determine the future course of world history.

Truman and Stalin sought to avoid another war, but they also recognised one another as rivals for domination over Europe and Asia. Both sides feared that the other would convert the resources of the new areas under his control into war-fighting capabilities. Both sides feared a loss of access to traditional markets. Most significant, both sides feared that the other would win the 'war of ideas', convincing the devastated populations of Europe and Asia that liberal capitalism or communism was the only legitimate system of governance. What many Americans called 'psychological weaknesses' could leave societies susceptible to subversion from within by propaganda. Ideological conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, long pre-dating 1945, made the nascent Cold War a contest between worldviews that extended beyond weapons, territory and economics alone. Washington and Moscow could reach agreement on various measures for geopolitical stability, but their ideological clash made a permanent settlement almost inconceivable. (1)

The development of thermonuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles in the 1950s added another chilling dimension to the US-Soviet rivalry. The two states now had the capability to annihilate one another, and most of the rest of the planet, in short order. Their leaders would determine whether humankind survived or vanished in a radioactive firestorm. This was truly 'super' power. No country or community could escape an uncomfortable dependence on the decisions of the two men in control of nuclear arsenals that continued to grow in their terrifying lethality. (2)

Dependence, however, ran two ways. Despite gross inequalities in power, small states – particularly in the decolonising 'third world' – gained leverage over superpower policy. Much of the recent scholarship on the Cold War has focused on this issue. In south-east Asia, for example, both the United States and the Soviet Union believed they needed to prove that their respective systems of governance could set a bright course for newly independent nations. As a consequence, Washington and Moscow poured massive amounts of aid into the region. In order to export their ideas and institutions, the superpowers relied on local allies – often figures like Ngo Dinh Diem and Ho Chi Minh in Indochina – who had personal connections to one of the two superpowers.

These clients used their privileged positions to manipulate Washington and Moscow. Diem, Ho and others were relatively weak international players, but they knew that the superpowers needed them. They diverted foreign aid to unintended purposes, they built domestic regimes that challenged superpower interests and they embarked on regional wars that embroiled Washington and Moscow in conflicts they wished to avoid. In Korea, Vietnam, Angola, Afghanistan and many other areas, 'peripheral' actors drove superpower policies in self-defeating directions. In this sense, the United States and the Soviet Union did not have full control over their own expansive policies during the Cold War. (3)

This observation about the complexity of power and policy is crucial, but it should not divert attention from the dominant and driving influence of the superpowers between 1945 and 1991. The United States and the Soviet Union were hegemons – states that structured the choices of all actors in the international system. Although Diem and Ho could contradict immediate superpower orders, they could not escape the constraints enforced by Washington and Moscow. This explains, for example, why neutralism never succeeded as an alternative form of international organisation in the Cold War.

Even India, one of the leaders of the 'non-aligned movement', had to rely on American military and food aid in the early 1960s, and Soviet military support in the 1970s. With superpower assistance came, of course, superpower influence. One of the reasons India failed to wrest full control of Kashmir from Pakistan is that both the United States and the Soviet Union restrained New Delhi. Hindu nationalists recognised this fact, and they rode to power in India at the end of the Cold War by exploiting popular frustration with external constraints. India, despite its proud independence, did not make its own policy in Kashmir. It made policy in conjunction with superpower pressures. (4)

Discontent with superpower domination was not confined to Hindu nationalists. Throughout the Cold War, citizens across the globe objected to the inequalities in international power and the intrusion of Washington and Moscow's influences. Many of these same people also praised superpower interventions when they served their interests. Nonetheless, Cold War discontents reached a visible crescendo in the late 1960s as young people in nearly every society condemned what they perceived as the moral injustices of the international system. American and Soviet military attacks on North Vietnam and Czechoslovakia during this period symbolised the apparent bankruptcy of the superpowers' respective claims to build a better world. (5)

The Cold War did not, as many hoped, end after 1968. Through détente the superpowers managed to repress their critics, create stability in the most dangerous areas of potential conflict, and heighten their military and ideological competition in the 'third world'. Small states and mobilised citizens could attract attention and create short-term crises, but they could not redesign the structure of international power that grew out of the Second World War. The continuation of the Cold War through the late 1980s, despite so much opposition, proves the extraordinary resilience of superpower hegemony. (6)

In many ways, the Cold War ended as it began. Two men, this time US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, met in Moscow in 1988 to set the stage for a new mode of relations between their societies. They did not have to do this. The domestic and international pressures acting upon them were strong, but fundamentally these two men chose out of personal conviction to leave the Cold War behind. Their decision to end the Cold War rivalry, like Truman's and Stalin's choice to accept this rivalry, created an opening for fundamental changes. The revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe, the Tiananmen Square protests in China the same year, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as a formidable international force all grew out of the superpower actions that ended the Cold War. Reagan and Gorbachev neither anticipated nor desired most of these developments, but they made them possible. Although the power of the superpowers had definite limits, they made and un-made the Cold War world. (7)

  1. See Melvyn P. Leffler, A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War (Stanford, 1992), pp. 25–99; Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov, Inside the Kremlin's Cold War: From Stalin to Khrushchev (Cambridge, Mass., 1996), pp. 36–77. Back to (1)
  2. See John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (Oxford, 1997), pp. 85–112, 221–59. Back to (2)
  3. See Gaddis, We Now Know, pp. 152–88; Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (Cambridge, 2005); Ilya Gaiduk, The Soviet Union and the Vietnam War (Chicago, 1996); Seth Jacobs, America's Miracle Man in Vietnam: Ngo Dinh Diem, Race, and U.S. Intervention in Southeast Asia (Durham, NC, 2004). Back to (3)
  4. See Robert J. McMahon, Cold War on the Periphery: The United States, India, and Pakistan (New York, 1994); Sumit Ganguly, Conflict Unending: India-Pakistan Tensions since 1947 (New York, 2001). Back to (4)
  5. See Jeremi Suri, Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Détente (Cambridge, Mass., 2003), pp. 164–212. Back to (5)
  6. See Suri, Power and Protest, pp. 213–59. Back to (6)
  7. See John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History (2005); Don Oberdorfer, From the Cold War to a New Era: The United States and the Soviet Union, 1983–1991, updated edition (Baltimore, 1998); Jeremi Suri, 'Explaining the end of the Cold War: a new historical consensus?', Journal of Cold War Studies, 4 (2002), 60–92. Back to (7)

Jeremi Suri is author of the prize-winning book, Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Détente (Cambridge, Mass., 2003). He is presently completing a book entitled, Henry Kissinger and the American Century.

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