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The Cold War Era – A Precarious Peace

Until 1939, the USA had a modest army and avoided involvement abroad. After the war, this was no longer an option. Most of the fighting had taken place on European soil and, though the Allies had won the war, they had suffered extensive damage. In contrast, the USA became a leading world power.

President John F. Kennedy Signing Blockade Order
President John F. Kennedy Signing Blockade Order

Post-War Reconstruction

In 1945, the US had an industry and an oil production that was virtually untouched by the war, making it the world’s richest nation. In addition, it had established a position as a superior military force. No post-war depression occurred, on the contrary; the rebuilding of Europe and the fight against communism kept American industry growing rapidly.

The United Nations - An Attempt to Enhance World Peace

New international developments in the post-war period strengthened America’s leading position. After two world wars within a period of thirty years, the international community sought a way to avoid wars in the future and to secure world peace through negotiations. This was a continuation of the League of Nations from the years after World War I and the basis for the formation of the United Nations in 1945, for which the US was one of the driving forces.

The Fear of Communism

At the same time, political and ideological tension between the US and the Soviet Union intensified. In an attempt to prevent the spread of communism, President Harry S. Truman introduced the Truman Doctrine in 1947, announcing "the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." This was also the object of the Marshall Plan of 1948. On the surface, the goal was to help post-war Europe back on its feet. In reality, it would kill two birds with one stone by securing international markets for US industry at the same time as it would maintain economic and political bonds between the US and the participating countries. The American fear of Soviet communist influence in Eastern Europe was also the reason why the NATO alliance was created in 1949. By the end of the 1940s, the USA had taken upon itself to play the role of “world police”.

The Cold War

Women Strike for Peace
Women Strike for Peace

During the years immediately following WWII, mutual distrust between the USA and the Soviet Union increased. Both countries wanted to become the leading nuclear power - the nation to control the world. During the latter half of the 1940s and into the 1950s, the whole world watched this rivalry, later known as the Cold War or the” balance of terror”, with fear and apprehension.

The aim of the USA was to contain communism – to keep it within a limited area and to prevent it from spreading. The Americans feared that their own position would be threatened by Soviet expansion; and they considered themselves the main protectors of world freedom and democracy.

The USA and the USSR never engaged in outright war with each other – both nations feared the consequences of a nuclear war. The two super powers did, however, fight a number of “proxy wars”: taking part in conflicts in other parts of the world by giving economic or military support to groups or countries that opposed the other superpower.

The Cold War reached a climax in 1962, when the Soviet Union began to build bases for nuclear missiles in Cuba, a close neighbor of the USA. The situation became extremely tense, and for thirteen days the world held its breath while President Kennedy did his best to handle the situation peacefully. The situation was finally resolved when the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, agreed to remove the Soviet bases. In return, the Kennedy administration promised to remove US nuclear missiles from Turkey. In 2002, when previously classified documents were released, it became clear that during those 13 days in 1962, the world had actually teetered on the brink of nuclear disaster.

Although the Cold War did not end until the internal collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it never reached quite such a threatening climax again. By the end of the 1960s, both sides had accumulated massive amounts of nuclear weapons and missiles. Each side had enough weapons to be able to destroy the other side.

The Cold War decades were years of international unrest and insecurity. On the home front, these same decades consisted of an immense economic growth, social and political change and the most wide-spread cultural revolution the world has ever seen.

Tasks and Activities

Revising the Text

  1. The text above contains many significant words and concepts. In order to recapitulate the main contents in the three first paragraphs, you should focus on the listed clues. Use each word/concept and make ONE sentence which puts the word/-s in the right context.

    isolationism
    leading world power
    the Allies
    the World's richest country
    military power
    fight against communism
    rebuilding Europe
    American industry
    world peace
    The United Nations
    political and ideological tension
    The Truman Doctrine
    The USA vs. the Soviet Union
    The Marshall Plan
    The NATO
    world police

  2. In order to revise main clues about the Cold War, you should watch this presentation from GSCE Bitesize listing causes of the Cold War. You will have to answer multiple choice questions as you watch.
  3. Americans told the world that they were doing them a service through the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. History paints a more complex picture.
    • What was the US getting out of the aid and support they were giving?
    • How might some people conclude that the USA started the Cold War through these two programs?
  4. Watch Billy Joel sing “Leningrad” on YouTube. Listen to the lyrics or find them on the Internet. What story does this song tell? What do you think is the message of this song? What does “Leningrad” imply is one reason for conflict between nations? How do you think the music and the lyrics complement each other?

Vocabulary

Cold War Jargon.

Further Reading

The Cold War
Causes of the Cold War
Causes of the Cold War Terms
Thirteen Days in October - The Cuban Missile Crisis

School History – Truman & Marshall

Film Recommendation

Thirteen Days (2000) is a docudrama portraying President John F. Kennedy and his advisor, his younger brother Robert, and how they handled the Cuban Missile Crisis during the critical 13 days. You may watch and work with the film trailer here Thirteen Days in October - The Cuban Missile Crisis

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