Cold War

gigatos | October 27, 2021


Cold War (Russian Холодная война, Kholodnaya voïna) is the name given to the period of high geopolitical tensions during the second half of the twentieth century, between the United States and its constituent allies of the Western bloc on the one hand, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and its satellite states forming the Eastern bloc on the other. The Cold War gradually took hold from the end of the Second World War in the years 1945 to 1947 and lasted until the fall of the communist regimes in Europe in 1989, quickly followed by the breakup of the USSR in December 1991.

British writer George Orwell was the first to use the term “Cold War” in the post-war context in 1945. The term gained currency in 1947 when Bernard Baruch, an advisor to President Truman, used it in a speech, and then when his friend Walter Lippmann, a widely read journalist, used it in a series of articles published in the New York Herald Tribune.

The roots of the Cold War go back to the October Revolution of 1917, from which the Soviet Union was born in 1922. The difficult relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union stems from the very nature of their political regimes and the ideologies that underlie them. During the interwar period, however, their hopes of a revolutionary wave in Europe having been disappointed, the Soviets favoured the consolidation of their regime; but, at the end of the Second World War, the USSR was among the victors over Nazi Germany and occupied most of Eastern Europe, which it placed under its control by imposing a series of satellite regimes. In addition to Europe, now cut in two by the “Iron Curtain”, communism also spread to Asia with the victory of the communists in China. In the United States, Harry S. Truman, who succeeded Franklin Delano Roosevelt in April 1945, considered that the future and security of the United States could not be ensured by a return to isolationism, but must instead be based on a foreign policy of propagating its democratic and liberal model, defending its economic interests and containing communism.

The Cold War was multi-dimensional, driven more by ideological and political differences between the Western democracies and the Communist regimes than by territorial ambitions. It had strong repercussions in all areas: economic, cultural, scientific, sporting and media.

It is also characterized by the nuclear arms race between the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, which devoted colossal resources to it. It is described as “cold” because the American and Soviet leaders who led it were able to avoid direct confrontation between their countries, at least in part for fear of triggering a nuclear apocalypse, and because Europe did not experience a war despite several serious crises. But on other continents, especially in Asia, open conflicts have caused many civilian and military casualties: the Korean War, the Indochina War, the Vietnam War, the Afghan War and the Cambodian genocide have resulted in about ten million deaths.

The Arab-Israeli conflict divided the two blocs. The State of Israel, initially closer to the Soviet Union, was hostile to Franco”s Spain, Portugal, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, while the other European countries of the Western bloc supported Israel. Conversely, the Eastern bloc countries supported Israel at the time of its creation, but eventually moved towards the Arab countries and supported the creation of a Palestinian state.

In this context of bipolarization of international relations and decolonization, Third World countries such as India under Jawaharlal Nehru, Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser and Yugoslavia under Josip Broz Tito formed the non-aligned movement, proclaiming their neutrality and playing on the rivalry between the blocs to obtain concessions. Another major event of the second half of the 20th century, decolonization provided the Soviet Union and the People”s Republic of China with multiple opportunities to increase their influence at the expense of the former colonial powers.

The Cold War has had a profound effect on the history of the second half of the 20th century. This term has become established, although it is more applicable to American-Soviet relations and to Europe than to the rest of the world. Raymond Aron sees this period as a “limited war” or a “bellicose peace” in a bipolar world where the belligerents avoid direct confrontation, summarizing it with the expression: “Impossible peace, improbable war”. The specificity of the Cold War is to be a global conflict, multi-dimensional, driven more by ideological and political differences between Western democracies and communist regimes than by territorial ambitions. It has strong repercussions in all areas, especially economic and cultural. It takes all possible forms of confrontation, from espionage to secret actions through propaganda, from technological competition to the conquest of space through sports competitions.

Early uses of the term “Cold War

British writer George Orwell was the first to use the term “Cold War” in the post-war era, in his essay You and the Atomic Bomb, published in October 1945, in which he expressed his fear that the world was heading “towards an era as horribly stable as the slave empires of antiquity” and would be “in a permanent state of cold war. The expression spread in 1947 when Bernard Baruch, an influential advisor to several Democratic presidents, proclaimed in a speech: “Make no mistake, we are now in the midst of a cold war”, and then with the publication by the journalist Walter Lippmann of his book The Cold War.

Global chronology

The length of the Cold War, the number of events that took place during it, and the changes in the leaders who were the key players, have led historians to distinguish several phases that make it possible to describe in a synthetic way the rise of the Cold War, the periods of détente or, on the contrary, of tension, and then its end with the break-up of the Soviet bloc:

The works devoted to the Cold War as a whole and referenced in the bibliographic section of this article, do not all adopt the same chronological breakdown. According to the authors, the beginning of the Cold War is situated either at the end of the Second World War, or a little later, in 1947 or even 1948. The years 1945-1946 are most often considered as a transition period, with 1947 marking, according to C. Durandin, “the assumed entry into the Cold War of yesterday”s provisional Allies. Some authors, such as P. Grosser, Leffler and Westad, devote considerable attention to the origins of the Cold War, which they trace back to the beginning of the 20th century and more particularly to the October Revolution of 1917. Concerning the end of the Cold War, G.-H. Soutou places it between the summer of 1989 and the autumn of 1990. M. Vaïsse emphasizes 1989, “the year of all miracles in the East”. Others extend their account to the dissolution of the USSR at the end of 1991, or even 1992. The Cambridge History of the Cold War, a monumental work published in 2010, begins with an analysis of the ideological roots of the Cold War resulting from the October Revolution of 1917 and ends with the reunification of Germany and the disappearance of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The division into five phases used in this article is adopted by Vaïsse, Allan Todd and others, but the boundaries and titles of these phases are not strictly identical. Mr. Vaïsse emphasizes that the dates chosen are “simple markers, not milestones”: détente, for example, did not end abruptly in 1973, it reached its peak in 1975 at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in Helsinki, but since 1973 the world has no longer been living at the time of détente. Another example: for M. Vaïsse, the years 1956-1962 were those of “peaceful coexistence”, while G.-H. Soutou sees them above all as a period of successive crises. In La guerre froide 1943-1990, Soutou favors a finer division into twenty chronological chapters, the first of which details the goals of the war in 1941-1945, described as the roots of the Cold War, and the last devoted to the years 1989-1990.

Bipolarity around the two “Bigs”, the United States and the Soviet Union

Relations between the United States and the Soviet Union are the main thread in the development of the Cold War, whose successive phases of cooling or warming are strongly influenced by the personalities of their respective leaders. The summits between these leaders are the most spectacular manifestation of this. During the Second World War, three summit conferences were held between American, Soviet and British leaders. This practice ceased after the war and was replaced by ministerial-level conferences between 1945 and 1955. In 1955, a summit was held in Geneva on the initiative of Churchill, reviving this practice, which became fairly regular until the end of the Cold War. From 1959 to 1991, twenty-two summits were held, most of them between Americans and Soviets. They essentially reflected the desire to reduce the risks of nuclear war and to reduce the enormous costs of the arms race by limiting the nuclear arsenals on both sides.

The five victors of the Second World War agreed in 1945 to set up the United Nations Organization with the aim of peacefully settling conflicts between nations. But by granting themselves, at Stalin”s insistence, the position of permanent member of the Security Council and a right of veto over its resolutions, these countries also created the conditions for blocking the action of the United Nations as soon as their major interests were at stake.

As early as the 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville predicted that the United States and the Russian Empire were both destined to become empires on a global scale, and to confront each other as soon as they came into contact. He wrote that “each of them seems to be called by a secret design of Providence to hold one day in its hands the destinies of half the world.

The roots of the Cold War go back to the October Revolution of 1917, from which the Soviet Union was born in 1922. The intervention of the Americans and the British in the Russian civil war developed in Stalin a deep distrust of them until the end of his life. In the interwar period, the United States was already at odds with the Communist regime in the Soviet Union, even though the Soviets had disappointed their hopes for a revolutionary wave in Europe and were focusing on the domestic consolidation of their regime. The difficult relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were due to the very nature of their political regimes and the ideologies that underpinned them. However, the most marked opposition during this period was that between the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom; political leaders such as Winston Churchill displayed a virulent anti-communist discourse. The United States finally recognized the Soviet Union diplomatically in 1933 out of political realism, as Roosevelt saw it as a counterweight to the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo axis.

At the end of World War II, this opposition was crystallized by the fact that the United States and the Soviet Union had become the only major world powers, with the decline of the Europeans, and that their respective interests in national security, foreign policy and economic development were soon in direct conflict. The deterioration in relations also resulted from the climate of mistrust that was taking hold: the Soviet Union was a closed society – especially under Stalin – which fueled doubts and fears about its real intentions with regard to the Western powers, whose frequent changes in government and policy according to successive elections perplexed Soviet analysts.

Finally, the nuclear arms race in which the two great powers engaged was to profoundly structure international relations throughout the Cold War.

Four major issues of disagreement between Americans and Soviets at the end of the war

At the end of the Second World War, the European states, ruined by the war and struggling with decolonization, no longer dominated the world. The bipolarization of international relations around the Americans and the Soviets, which had been announced a long time ago, was a given by 1947, and was confirmed in September 1949 by the Soviet Union”s accession to nuclear weapons. The only real superpower until the end of the 1950s, the United States enjoyed a strong strategic military superiority thanks to its advance in the field of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, and above all it had overwhelming economic and financial power: at the end of the war, the United States possessed two-thirds of the world”s gold reserves, and accounted for more than half of world manufacturing production. In 1950, the GNP of the USSR was only about one-third that of the United States. The Soviet Union, for its part, has a decisive military force in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as considerable political prestige.

The Grand Alliance between the United States, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union was aimed at bringing down Nazi Germany. During the Second World War, the ideological and political incompatibility between the liberal democracies and the Soviet regime took a back seat. The first cracks appeared between the Allies in 1945 during the Yalta and Potsdam conferences. In the eighteen months that followed, the deterioration of relations between Americans and Soviets crystallized around four main subjects of disagreement that would lead to the state of the Cold War being irreversibly established: the national security imperatives of the two Great Ones, the future of Germany, the fate of Poland and Eastern Europe in general, and the economic reconstruction of the world.

The confrontation between the two great powers was primarily based on their national security imperatives. The Allies had agreed during the war to establish “a general international organization for the preservation of peace and security. On June 26, 1945, buoyed by public opinion shocked by the Nazi exactions and the cruelty of the fighting, delegates from 51 countries approved in San Francisco the Charter of the United Nations, the founding text of the United Nations Organization (UNO), whose most important objective was to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in the space of a human lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind. The most important powers were vested in the Security Council, which initially had eleven members, including five permanent members: the United States, the USSR, China, Great Britain and France. The voting system was such that a resolution could not be adopted if one of the permanent members voted against it, thus giving a veto right to the great powers, which frequently used it to block any resolution that was contrary to their interests.

The United States looked forward to a cooperative relationship with the Soviet Union in the post-war world, but it also wondered. If the power of the Red Army worries the West, the state of devastation of the country in relation to the United States – which has never been so economically dominant – reassures. Militarily, moreover, the Soviets were not in a position to attack American territory. Truman considered that the financial and economic domination of the United States, combined with its strategic air power, were sufficient assets to rule out any risk of the USSR acquiring a dominant position in the short term.

The big question in Washington is whether the Kremlin”s real ambitions go beyond those resulting from security imperatives, and therefore defensive, or whether they constitute a threat to the entire European continent, the loss of which would seriously harm the vital geopolitical and economic interests of the United States. The risk appears all the greater because the aspirations of the people after years of deprivation favor the parties of the left, including primarily the Communist parties, and thus offer the Soviets an opportunity to take control of the countries of Western Europe and the Middle East without necessarily starting an open war, and to undermine the American economy by depriving it of its trading area and access to natural resources, especially oil. In any case, Truman considered that the future and security of the United States could not be ensured by a return to isolationism, but had to be based on a foreign policy of spreading its democratic and liberal model, defending its economic interests and containing communism.

Stalin”s concerns are symmetrical to those of the Americans: to protect the USSR from the consequences of a possible future confrontation with the former allies of the war by constituting a sufficiently large buffer zone. In practice, Stalin wanted first of all to have complete control over the countries that had been occupied by his army, even at the cost of bending the agreements signed at Yalta and Potsdam.

These essentially defensive policies carried out by the United States and the USSR, as the archives available today demonstrate, could also have been interpreted at the time as a desire for world hegemony by both sides.

Since September 1945, in application of the Potsdam agreements, the diplomats of the four victors of the war in Europe have met on numerous occasions with the aim of finding answers to the questions of peace, economic development and security in Europe. The main topic was the settlement of the German problem which, due to a lack of agreement, led to the establishment of two German states, the FRG and the GDR, in 1949, anchored respectively in the Western camp and the Communist camp. However, these international conferences led in a decade (1945-1955) to peace agreements with all the belligerent countries of the Second World War (with the major exception of Germany) and to the establishment of alliances and intergovernmental institutions that governed each of the two blocs in Europe until the end of the Cold War.

In Germany, in their zone of occupation, the Soviets initially carried out the denazification decided at the Potsdam conference with vigor. More than 120,000 people were interned in “special camps” that existed until 1950. 42,000 prisoners died from deprivation and abuse. This brutal purge policy gradually gave way to a more flexible approach to meet the needs of the new state of East Germany (GDR), with the appointment of former Nazi party cadres to key positions in the administration, police and judiciary, the “recycling” of several thousand agents who had worked for the Third Reich into the new East German security services, and the retention of many civil servants in their former positions in the administration.

The Western allies, on the other hand, relied more on a “re-education” (Umerziehung) of the German people, combined with a policy of leniency towards the “followers” (Mitläufer) and supporters of the Nazi regime.

In 1945, Stalin took advantage of the victory of the Red Army to enlarge the USSR by pushing its borders further west by annexing the Baltic States and territories east of Poland. At the same time, the Potsdam Conference decided to annex to Poland the German territories located east of the Oder and Neisse rivers. The eastern border of Poland became the “Curzon Line”.

The Soviet leader also wanted to protect the USSR from a new attack by creating a territorial “glacis”, i.e. a protective space, which kept potential threats away from Soviet borders. To do this, he largely freed himself from the Yalta and Potsdam agreements and imposed pro-Soviet governments between 1945 and 1948 in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe occupied by the Red Army (with the exception of Austria), which became “people”s democracies. The “Prague coup” of February 1948 in Czechoslovakia – one of the few real pre-war democracies in Eastern Europe – was the last act.

In the West, the strengthening of the state and the adjustments made to the capitalist system through the development of education and the protection of citizens ensured sufficient cohesion in society to accept the negative consequences of the East-West confrontation. In the East, the leaders were convinced that the capitalist system would eventually collapse and that the communist system, based on the centralization and state control of the economy, was superior to it; moreover, during at least the first ten years of the Cold War, the need to rebuild the industry and urban centers of the USSR mobilized the population, which accepted with courage and discipline that the satisfaction of their personal needs would be deferred.

Over the duration of the Cold War, the economies of both the West and the East grew significantly, by a factor of about four in constant currency between 1950 and 1989, but the USSR did not catch up with the United States, and the economies of Eastern Europe were only one fifth of those of Western Europe.

In the aftermath of the war, the United States dominated the world economically and financially, while Europe and the USSR were exhausted and had to rebuild themselves. The United States therefore had every opportunity to organize the economic and financial reconstruction of the world on bases consistent with their system, which were incompatible with those of the communist system and would jeopardize it because of the impossibility for the USSR to be part of an open market economy. Stalin will thus reject the agreements and international structures set up by the Americans.

These agreements establish a system of fixed parities against the U.S. dollar, the only currency fully convertible into gold, of which the United States has three-quarters of the world”s reserves.

It was necessary to supplement the financial component set up at Bretton Woods with a component that encouraged the development of international trade by lowering customs barriers. Led directly by the United States, the discussions led in October 1947 to a General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (or GATT), which was supposed to be provisional and signed by 23 countries. The USSR did not participate in these negotiations and did not sign this agreement, which was signed only by Czechoslovakia among the members of the Eastern bloc. Throughout the Cold War, the GATT was the only international organization with competence in trade matters.

Centrality of the nuclear fact during the cold war

One of the characteristic elements of the Cold War is the centrality of the nuclear fact in relations between the great powers, in defence policies and in strategic thinking. The possession of nuclear weapons, used in 1945 by the United States in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and developed at a rapid pace by the USSR, which detonated a first device in 1949, established them as the only two great powers in the world, to the detriment of the United Kingdom and France, which were struggling with decolonization. Nuclear deterrence gradually became a major fact of international relations, leading the middle powers, China, France and the United Kingdom, to acquire a nuclear strike force in order to continue to make their voice heard in the international arena and not to be strategically dependent on the two great powers. In the European theater, considerable quantities of conventional and tactical nuclear weapons have been accumulated within the two major alliances, NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

Was the nuclear weapon a determining factor in the fact that the confrontation between the two great powers did not lead to a direct open war between them? Some authors think so, others believe that, as demonstrated by the First World War and then on an even greater scale by the Second World War, the destruction inflicted on all the belligerents in a large-scale war waged with the means specific to the twentieth century was sufficient to discourage the two sides from embarking on a military escalation that they could no longer control.

From the “Great Alliance” to the Cold War (1945-1947)

With victory over the Axis in sight, the “Grand Alliance” was still a reality in 1945: at Yalta and Potsdam, the Allies defined the modalities according to which the transition between the state of war and peace would be managed, and set up, with the United Nations, an instrument of world governance.

The end of 1945 and 1946 were a period of transition during which the United States was still seeking an agreement with the Soviet Union, which for its part was advancing its pawns cautiously, without wishing to break with the West, which alternated between concessions and firmness.

In Eastern Europe, in all the countries liberated by the Red Army, the Communist Party had a strong presence in the governments formed in the aftermath. The end of 1945 saw the establishment of Soviet-controlled regimes in Albania, Bulgaria and Romania, and the final establishment of Tito”s power in Yugoslavia. The West agreed to recognize the Bulgarian and Romanian governments in exchange for the promise of free elections, which never took place. In Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the elections led to the formation of coalition governments in which the Communists held key positions, such as the Ministry of the Interior. In 1945, in Poland, Stalin accepted the Anglo-American request to set up a coalition government after having initially set up a communist government; he waited until early 1947, with the help of rigged elections, to regain definitive control of the country. The meetings of the Council of Foreign Ministers (CFM) of the four allies, established by the Potsdam agreements, only resulted in an agreement to sign peace treaties with the former allies of Nazi Germany (Bulgaria, Finland, Hungary, Italy and Romania), but disagreements remained over Germany and Austria.

In the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, Stalin”s attempts to enlarge the Soviet zone of influence were the cause of the first “crises” between the Soviets and the West over Turkey, Iran and Greece; the latter did not give in, and Stalin gave up his ambitions. The situation in Iran was the occasion for the first convocation of the UN Security Council in January 1946. The Council could do nothing but ask the Iranians and the Russians to negotiate directly, which already highlighted its powerlessness to resolve crises involving one of its permanent members who held the veto. More generally, the repeated use of the veto by the Soviets already marks the failure of Roosevelt”s optimistic vision of establishing a form of global governance.

In Asia, Japan was under the control of the United States, which refused to allow the Soviets to play a role there, much to Stalin”s fury. The Americans occupied it militarily until the signing of the Treaty of San Francisco in 1951. But in China, the nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-shek was on the defensive against the communist movement of Mao Zedong. Stalin played both sides of the fence, cooperating with the regime while securing control of Manchuria in the northeast and providing aid to the Communist insurgency. General Marshall, sent to China throughout 1946, failed to reach an agreement between nationalists and communists, which put an end to hopes of keeping China in the Western zone of influence.

In 1947, the United States committed itself resolutely against the USSR, stating the Truman Doctrine of containment of communism and gave priority to the rescue of Western Europe by launching the Marshall Plan. The Soviets reacted by creating the Cominform and formulating the Zhdanov doctrine. At the same time, the Communist parties in Western and Northern Europe, which in many countries had participated in the coalition governments that had emerged from the war, were ousted from power and relegated to the opposition. The partition of Germany began with the creation of the Anglo-American bizone, and the three Western powers embarked on the road to a Western alliance.

Truman delivered a speech on March 12, 1947 that clearly marked the commitment of the United States in Greece and Turkey, far beyond its traditional sphere of vital interests in America and even beyond Western Europe, with its traditional English and French allies, quickly known as the Truman doctrine.

After two years of hesitation, the United States adopted the policy of containment that would be followed for decades at the initiative of George Kennan, one of the best experts on the Soviet world. In lectures given in 1946 and 1947, and especially through the publication in March 1947 of an article that had a tremendous echo, he established the basis of the American policy of containment of communism.

The United States resolutely turned its back on isolationism and considered that any communist advance should be countered wherever it occurred. Some, such as the columnist Walter Lippmann, who published a series of articles in a book in 1947 entitled Cold War, argued that the vital interests of the United States were not threatened everywhere and that its involvement should therefore be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

In January 1947, Truman appointed Marshall as Secretary of State. The fourth AMCEN held in Moscow in March-April 1947 did not allow for a rapprochement of views on the future of Germany. The failure of this conference was an essential step towards the East-West split. Marshall, convinced that the situation in Europe called for urgent and massive measures, devised a programme for the recovery of Europe, known as the Marshall Plan, which he announced on 5 June 1947. At the beginning of July 1947, the new occupation directive JCS 1779, applicable to the American zone of occupation in Germany, took the opposite view of the previous directive issued under the Morgenthau plan, by affirming that the prosperity of Europe depended on the economic recovery of Germany.

In response to the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan – which he denounced as aiming “at the economic and political enslavement of Europe” – Stalin convened the European communist parties in Szklarska Poręba for the founding conference of the Cominform, during which Andrei Zhdanov presented his report on the international situation on September 22, 1947, which presented a vision of the world in two irreducibly opposed camps: an “imperialist and anti-democratic” camp led by the United States and an “anti-imperialist and democratic” camp led by the USSR. It denounced “American imperialism” which vassalized European economies by placing them under the tutelage of Washington. The official aim of the Cominform is “the exchange of experiences and the coordination of the activity of the Communist parties”. In fact, it is a question of affirming the authority of the CPSU and orienting the political line of the CPF and the ICP in the direction desired by Moscow.

On May 5, 1947, the President of the Council, Paul Ramadier, decided to exclude the Communist ministers from the French government. In the same way, the Communists were excluded from the government in Rome and Brussels during the spring of 1947. These exclusions marked the end of the alliances formed during the Resistance and a clear political split between the communist parties and the other parties, opening the way for the formation of a Western Europe and an Atlantic alliance.

France did not obtain satisfaction at the 1946 sessions of the Council of Foreign Ministers (CFM) of the four former wartime allies and the Allied Control Council. The statements made by G. Bidault on July 10, 1946, during the second CMAE, outlining France”s position on the conditions of the occupation of Germany, and by Molotov on the German policy of the Soviet Union, illustrate the deep disagreements between the former allies that led to the failure of this conference.

On December 2, 1946, the United States and Great Britain merged their zones of occupation in Germany, forming the bizone. France did not join because of domestic political considerations: the PCF was in government, the USSR enjoyed the prestige of the victor of the war, and communist ideology enjoyed broad support. It was impossible to align oneself too quickly with a too clearly Atlanticist line.

At the beginning of 1947, the first government of the Fourth Republic, led by Paul Ramadier, prolonged the tripartism of the GPRF and consequently, in terms of foreign policy, pursued a policy of neutrality and balance between the great powers, the conclusion of bilateral alliances and the maintenance of the colonial empire. The Dunkirk treaty of mutual assistance between France and the United Kingdom was signed on March 4, 1947; Germany was still designated as the enemy.

In the context of the first strikes of 1947, the exclusion of the Communist ministers from the Ramadier government on May 5, 1947 put an end to the tripartite system and created the conditions for a change in foreign policy. At the end of the Paris conference in the summer of 1947, the Soviets confirmed their refusal of the Marshall Plan, which led France to definitively revise its policy on Germany, to accept the division of Europe and to fully join the Western camp. The fifth meeting of the CMAE in London ended on December 15, 1947, with a new report of failure. In the aftermath, France agreed to study the merger of the French zone of occupation with the Anglo-American bizone; the trizone thus formed would be a decisive step towards the formation of a West German state. However, France maintained its demand for an agreement on the Saar and especially the Ruhr. France also agreed to open secret discussions with the United States on the establishment of a collective security alliance in Western Europe; these negotiations gave rise to the North Atlantic Treaty.

The United Kingdom had been the dominant power in the region for decades and aspired to remain so. Hoping to take advantage of the weakness of the British in 1945, Stalin began to advance his pawns to extend his zone of influence in Europe and break what he felt was the encirclement of the USSR from the south. In 1946, the United States began to support the British, reflecting the gradual hardening of American policy and leading Stalin to back down.

In 1945 and 1946, Turkey was the object of strong pressure from the Soviets to obtain border rectifications in Anatolia and, above all, to revise the Montreux Convention of 1936, which governed navigation in the Black Sea and the crossing of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits, in exchange for an alliance. The crisis of the straits pushed the Turks to get closer to the Anglo-Americans. Truman decided to send a permanent naval force to the Mediterranean, at the origin of the Sixth Fleet. Stalin refused the proposals drawn up jointly by London and Washington to hold an international conference involving Ankara and all the parties, and gave up pushing the matter further.

When the Axis occupiers withdrew in October 1944, the Greek Communist Party (KKE) was in a strong position among the victorious resistance movements federated within EAM-ELAS. But the British in no way wanted the country to fall into the hands of the Communists; Churchill had concluded an agreement to this effect with Stalin at a conference in Moscow in October 1944 and sent troops to secure Athens and Salonika. The British and the Greek Communists clashed militarily between December 1944 and January 1945. Respecting his agreement with Churchill confirmed at the Yalta conference, Stalin asked the Greek communists to find a political solution. On 9 February 1945, an agreement was signed in Várkiza, providing for the laying down of arms and a regency exercised by Metropolitan Damaskinos of Athens until the return of King George II.

Stalin initially found it more advantageous to accommodate the nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-shek than to fully support the communist revolution led by Mao Zedong. On August 15, the Chinese government signed a treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union, providing for the return of Manchuria to China and recognizing Soviet sovereignty in Port Arthur: the Chinese Communists appeared politically isolated by this strategic victory of the Nationalists. The United States tried to mediate and in November 1945 appointed General Marshall as U.S. Ambassador to China. An American mission was set up in Yan”an with the aim of forming a Communist-Nationalist coalition government. Faced with the increasingly obvious failure of this policy, Marshall returned to Washington in January 1947 to take up the post of Secretary of State.

During the talks, military operations began in September 1945: Nationalist troops advanced on the Communist stronghold of Shanxi, in order to take control of it. The Communist troops fought back and confronted the Nationalists until October, finally putting 13 divisions of the Kuomintang army out of action. The successive military defeats of the Nationalists led to the proclamation of the People”s Republic of China by Mao Zedong on 1 October 1949. Replacing the 1945 treaty, a treaty of friendship, alliance and mutual assistance was concluded with the Soviet Union on 14 February 1950.

Maintaining the countries of Eastern Europe under his total control was a major concern of Stalin, which resulted in their complete sovietization in a few years, both politically and economically. Only Yugoslavia, led by Tito, succeeded in escaping the Soviet grip, but for the Cominform it represented the enemy to be destroyed.

Economically, the Eastern European satellite states were forced to apply the Soviet model: collectivization of agriculture, nationalization of almost all economic activities, and centralized five-year planning based on the USSR”s timetable and five-year plans.

The consolidation of the Western bloc continued during these years with the establishment by the United States and its allies of an important network of defensive alliances in Europe and in the rest of the world: after the Brussels Treaty (1948) signed between Europeans, the North Atlantic Treaty sealed a strong alliance between the United States and its allies in Europe in April 1949. Because of the fears resulting from the outbreak of war in Korea, the signatories of this treaty decided at the end of 1950 to set up an integrated military structure, NATO, whose first Supreme Commander was General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

In Czechoslovakia, a group of intellectuals, including Václav Havel, published Charter 77 in January 1977, denouncing the government”s human rights violations.

The United States” arms exports were far outstripped by those of the Soviet Union from the mid-1970s. However, the arms trade of NATO countries remains larger than that of the Warsaw Pact countries, but to a lesser extent than in the period 1971-1975. The four main U.S. customers outside NATO were Iran until the fall of the Shah in January 1979, Israel, Saudi Arabia and South Korea.

Gorbachev”s calls for disarmament to free the world of nuclear and new weapons by the end of the century are increasing. Three arms reduction treaties were signed between 1987 and 1991, covering intermediate-range nuclear weapons (INF), conventional weapons (CFE) and strategic nuclear weapons (START).

The first official meeting between Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan took place at the Geneva summit in November 1985; although no specific agreement was reached, this summit marked the resumption of dialogue between the two powers and the beginning of a new détente. The two leaders agreed to increase contacts at all levels and to accelerate negotiations on nuclear and space weapons, while emphasizing that serious differences separated them. The second summit took place in Reykjavik where Reagan and Gorbachev met on October 11 and 12, 1986. An agreement was not reached on a drastic reduction of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons, prevented only by Reagan”s refusal to give up the continuation of the IDS program. The summit was also marred by Gorbachev”s new determination – as a counterpart to the major military concessions imposed on the hardliners of the CPSU – since coming to power (immediate responses to the British expulsions of Soviet diplomats in September 1985, and to the French and Italian expulsions in February 1986) to no longer leave unanswered the rebuffs and accusations of espionage. In early September 1986, the FBI arrested a Soviet scientist, Zakharov, in the United States, who was caught in the act of spying. The next day, the KGB trapped and arrested an American journalist, Danilov, for espionage, presenting him as an anti-Soviet émigré. Ronald Reagan had to negotiate his release. Cross expulsions of diplomats will follow the summit of Reykjavík and Gorbachev will make withdraw its personnel of service of the American embassies and consulates. Gorbachev evokes the “common European house”, denuclearized and neutralized.

End of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe and fall of the Berlin Wall

On December 7, 1988, at the UN, Gorbachev announced the reduction of Soviet armed forces in the GDR, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and stated that “force and the threat of force cannot and must not be instruments of foreign policy” and that “freedom of choice is a universal principle. It opens the way to the emancipation of the countries of Eastern Europe from Soviet tutelage under the pressure of popular demonstrations that lead in 1989 to the fall of communist regimes in all countries of Eastern Europe. In the Socialist Republic of Romania, the autocratic regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu was the last to fall, on December 26, 1989. The end of the “people”s democracies” is followed by the holding of free elections and the establishment of new institutions and economic reforms on the Western model.

On February 25, 1991, the foreign and defense ministers of the member states of the Warsaw Pact, the defense alliance of Eastern European countries created in 1955, declared the cessation of its military activities. Then, on July 1, 1991, the Warsaw Pact was officially dissolved.

On June 28, 1991, the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon), the economic alliance of Eastern European countries created in 1949, was officially dissolved.

Since 1975, Cuba has been the armed wing of the Soviet Union”s support for the MPLA, opposed to the movements supported by South Africa and the United States in the long civil war in Angola. On December 22, 1988, Angola, Cuba and South Africa signed an agreement in New York, under the aegis of the Soviets and the Americans, leading to the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola. In exchange, the South Africans withdrew from South West Africa, which became independent under the name of Namibia. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela was released on February 12, 1990 and apartheid was abolished in 1991.

Incorporated by force into the USSR in 1940 as a result of the German-Soviet pact, the three Baltic SSRs were the first to assert their sovereignty and then their independence from the central Soviet power. On November 16, 1988, the Supreme Soviet of the Estonian SSR published a declaration of sovereignty, followed by similar declarations by Lithuania on May 18, 1989, and Latvia on July 28, 1989. These declarations asserted the supremacy of the laws of these republics over Soviet laws and began the process leading to their independence. On March 11, 1990, the Lithuanian government took the initiative to promulgate the Act on the Reestablishment of an Independent Lithuanian State. Moscow declared it illegal. The other two Baltic states, Estonia and Latvia, declared their independence in March and May 1990 respectively, but were also refused by the central authorities. Moscow eventually sent in the Red Army to restore the situation. After violent clashes in January 1991, Gorbachev backed down and withdrew his troops.

On June 12, 1990, the newly elected Congress of People”s Deputies of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR), under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin, adopted a declaration on state sovereignty of the Russian Republic.

The Soviet central power finally lost control of the situation after Boris Yeltsin was elected president of the RSFSR by universal suffrage on 12 June 1991. He had the Russian Supreme Soviet adopt a text proclaiming the superiority of Russian laws over Soviet laws and resigned from the CPSU, which was banned in the army and in state organizations. The RSFSR, a pillar of the USSR, was considerably detached from the authority of the Kremlin.

Gorbachev”s power was further weakened by the Moscow putsch of August 19, 1991, instigated by conservatives, which failed due to the action of Yeltsin, whose prestige was considerably enhanced. With the failure of the putsch, the Congress of People”s Deputies of the Soviet Union granted broad powers to the republics, with the “center” retaining only control over foreign and military policy. But the republics are increasingly reluctant to accept a limitation of their sovereignty and leave the Soviet Union one after another, between August and December 1991. From then on, the break-up of the USSR was inevitable.

On December 8, 1991, the presidents of Belarus, Ukraine and the RSFSR, noting that “the USSR no longer exists,” signed the Minsk agreement creating the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), open to all USSR member states. On December 21, 1991, at a meeting in Alma-Ata with the same three presidents, the presidents of eight other former Soviet republics, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova and the five Central Asian republics, joined the new Community and signed a set of declarations and political and military agreements with them. The Baltic Republics and Georgia do not join the CIS. The Russian Federation, led by Boris Yeltsin, succeeded the USSR in law and inherited its seat as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. On December 25, 1991, Gorbachev, head of a state that no longer exists, resigns from the presidency of the USSR.

The end of the Cold War changed the geopolitical landscape of Europe, established the Western political and economic model as an undisputed reference in almost the entire world, and gave the West control over the security and defense architecture in Europe. NATO, expanded to include the former People”s Democracies, became the main international military alliance. At the same time, Russia succeeded the Soviet Union in terms of international law and possession of nuclear weapons and experienced a decade of relative fading.

In the 2000s, however, Russia returned to an ambitious and interventionist foreign policy, such as in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014, often characterized as the new Cold War, although the driving force was primarily geostrategic, the ideological dimension was not very present, and the intensity of tensions was not comparable to that of the great Cold War crises, such as Berlin or Cuba.

The main political issue to be dealt with was the reunification of Germany, which Chancellor Kohl wanted to carry out very quickly, but which aroused reluctance in the United Kingdom and France, and which presupposed the agreement of the Soviets, in particular on the question of Germany”s participation in NATO and the fate of the 380,000 Soviet soldiers stationed on the territory of the GDR.

As soon as the Wall opened, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl proposed a plan for the country”s reunification on November 28, 1989, and decided to carry it out as quickly as possible. At the meeting between Gorbachev and Kohl in July 1990, the Soviet president agreed to allow the reunified Germany to join NATO in exchange for financial aid. The reunification of Germany was official on October 3, 1990. In addition, Germany recognized the definitive nature of the Oder-Neisse border by signing the German-Polish border treaty with Poland on November 14, 1990. Germany regained its full sovereignty when the last Russian troops left Berlin on June 11, 1994.

The death of Tito in 1980 led to a weakening of central power in Yugoslavia and the rise of nationalism throughout the following decade. The party in power, the League of Communists of Yugoslavia, structured in regional branches, was swept away in 1990 by the wave of protest that affected all of Central and Eastern Europe. The free elections organized in the spring of 1990 in the six republics brought to power nationalist and independence parties in Croatia and Slovenia, which declared their independence on June 25, 1991.

The wars that broke out between Serbia and these two states created an unprecedented situation during the Cold War: for the first time since 1945, a conflict broke out in Europe between states asserting their sovereignty, which posed complex questions for the EEC, Russia and the United States about the formation of new states, the right to self-determination and minority rights.

The deepening of Europe is closely linked to the end of the Cold War in that it is seen by France, in agreement with Germany, as the key means to reinforce the new détente resulting from Gorbachev”s policy and to make Western Europe the core of reference for a reunified Europe. The European Council of December 8 and 9, 1989, in Strasbourg, ended with a decisive double agreement for the future of Europe, concerning both the realization of the Economic and Monetary Union and the settlement of the German question.

At the European Council of 28 April 1990 in Dublin, the Twelve agreed to move forward in parallel towards economic and monetary union and political union, with a view to the enlargement of Europe towards the East. The Maastricht Treaty, which established the European Union, was signed in February 1992.

New security and defense architecture in Europe

During the Cold War, Europe”s security architecture was dominated by NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Its end establishes a new European security architecture around three main dimensions, the transatlantic dimension via NATO, the Western European dimension with the European Community on its way to becoming the European Union, and the pan-European dimension with the CSCE.

The United States and the Europeans wanted NATO to remain the pillar of security in Europe within an Atlantic vision. George H. W. Bush met twice with François Mitterrand to outline the details. The NATO summit in London in July 1990 decided on the broad lines of NATO”s transformation and invited the Warsaw Pact member states to establish regular diplomatic links with NATO. The North Atlantic Cooperation Council was established on 20 December 1991 by NATO: a body for consultation between NATO and the East, it initially welcomed the former member states of the Pact and the three Baltic states, and then in April 1992, the former Soviet republics that were members of the CIS.

One of the three constituent pillars of the European Union created by the Maastricht Treaty is a common foreign and security policy (CFSP) which “shall include all questions relating to the security of the European Union, including the eventual framing of a common defence policy, which might in time lead to a common defence.

Since 1973, the CSCE has been a major centre of diplomatic activity on security and defence issues in Europe. The second CSCE summit, after the Helsinki Summit in 1975, was held in Paris from 19 to 21 November 1990. The CSCE was the only institution that brought together states from the West and the East at its founding, and was naturally the legitimate forum for attempting to establish a new, stable security architecture in a Europe that was in the process of restructuring. To this end, the Summit adopted the Charter of Paris for a New Europe and established the first permanent CSCE institutions.

Russia, the successor state of the Soviet Union

The Alma-Ata agreements signed by the eleven former Soviet republics created the CIS and established Russia as the successor state of the Soviet Union in terms of international law and possession of nuclear weapons. As such, it inherited the USSR”s permanent seat on the UN Security Council. However, it is only partially associated by the West with the definition of the new stable and peaceful world order, which George H. W. Bush is calling for.

The START Treaty of July 1991 was signed by the USSR. At the time of its dissolution at the end of 1991, three of the new states that emerged from the USSR had strategic nuclear weapons on their soil: Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. After the establishment of a common framework laying the legal foundations for the denuclearization of the former Soviet Union within the CIS (the Alma Ata agreement of 21 December 1991 and the Minsk agreement of 30 December 1991), an agreement, known as the Lisbon Protocol, was concluded on 23 May 1992 between these three new republics and the depositaries of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, the United States, the United Kingdom and Russia. This agreement stipulates that Russia is the only state authorized to hold strategic nuclear weapons on the territory of the former USSR and that the other three states will dismantle theirs, thus avoiding any proliferation.

New world order and reality of the “partnership” with Russia?

For George H. W. Bush, the end of the Cold War opens the door to a new stable and peaceful world order. Most American political leaders believe that the United States won the Cold War, considering that the fall of the communist regime is primarily the consequence of the economic and technological superiority of the United States and the firm policy pursued by the Republican administration of Ronald Reagan, starting in 1981, which dragged the USSR into a competition that it could not sustain. On the Russian side, this analysis will be challenged later by Vladimir Putin, for whom the collapse of the Soviet ideology and system does not mean that Russia has been defeated, and for whom the fact that a new world order has not been established in a cooperative manner among all the powers maintains instability and competition among global and regional powers.

In the 1990s, the United States” undivided domination of Russia was reflected in a policy of cooperation to promote the success of Yeltsin”s liberal reforms, but not in a policy of equal partnership that would have given Russia a place in world geopolitics commensurate with its role in history. At the end of the Cold War, Yeltsin”s Russia was so weak that it could not oppose the foreign policy of the United States, which imposed the maintenance of the Western political and security system – based above all on NATO – and which decided to extend it to the East a few years later. However, there were many exchanges with Boris Yeltsin, who met Bush and then Clinton on numerous occasions.

But Russia is neither a member of NATO nor of the European Union, and does not have a strong pan-European organization where it would have as important a role as France or Germany. This strategic choice of the United States, supported by the Europeans at the time, will favour the emergence of the Russian nationalist policy and the regaining of international influence led by Vladimir Putin at the beginning of the 21st century.

Europe is the main playing field in the struggle for cultural influence between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Americans directed their cultural offensive, not so much towards the USSR, which was difficult to penetrate, as towards Western Europe, where the Communist parties were powerful and Marxist ideas were widespread. Symmetrically, the Soviets devoted significant resources to culture and mass education in the USSR and Eastern Europe, in order to consolidate a fragile popular support. At the same time, they promote in the West the superiority of their culture and their talented artists. The fall of the communist system was due to its economic and technological bankruptcy, but also to its failure to convince the citizens of Eastern and Western Europe of its societal, cultural and moral superiority.

The ideological divide, both political and cultural, also existed within Western and Communist society. In Western Europe, the debate of ideas between supporters and opponents of Marxism was in full swing during most of the Cold War. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, the Soviets were patriotic and anti-American in terms of international relations, but in terms of everyday life and popular culture, the younger generations were less steeped in communist stereotypes and looked positively on the American way of life.

The two sides share a common cultural base, despite the gap between the two political systems. Both claim to operate in the world in the name of freedom and peace, guaranteeing in their constitutions or laws freedom of expression, ethnic and gender equality. Both invest in education and cultural facilities and champion progress. In the East as in the West, the “great” classical culture is supported by public administrations with the aim that national artists shine in international competitions such as the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, or during the tours of dance companies or symphony orchestras whose successes are widely reported in the media. East-West competition is most often implicit and masked by the polite discourse that accompanies cultural events. The reality of the competition sometimes surfaced when, for example, the Soviet dancer Rudolf Nureyev defected or the jazzman Louis Armstrong refused to be used by the American authorities.

The irruption of politics in the world of culture has perverse effects. To varying degrees, freedom of expression and artistic freedom were hindered on both sides. In the United States, the Red Scare and anti-communism deprived artists, especially in the cinema, of the possibility to work as they wished. In the Soviet Union, the state was omnipresent in order to give the widest possible access to culture, but also to control its content. The communist parties in Western Europe relayed the cultural messages of the Soviet “big brother”.

The Soviet state favored classical-realist aesthetics in literature and art, and claimed to be the true continuator of “great” culture. This positioning goes hand in hand with a strong hostility towards the modernist avant-garde, described as “decadent” and what Lenin mockingly called “isms”: futurism, surrealism, impressionism, constructivism. The control of the authorities does not only concern the form: the culture must be human, overflowing of fraternity and optimism. Works of pure propaganda abound, extolling the virtues and progress of Soviet society. Censorship of both form and content, and the tight control of the most brilliant Soviet artists, such as the composers Stravinsky and Shostakovich, the writers Mayakovsky, Meyerhold and Zoshchenko, the painters Malevich, Rodchenko and Tatlin, and the filmmaker Eisenstein, finally prevented the Soviet Union from becoming in the second half of the twentieth century the world-renowned homeland of culture that it aspired to be.

During the early years of the Cold War, Americans approached cultural issues cautiously. They were reluctant to promote classical culture, especially German culture, despite the admiration it enjoyed in the United States, for fear of echoing the Nazi propaganda that had exploited it extensively and of encouraging German nationalism. The propaganda strategy adopted by the Americans in the early 1950s was essentially defensive, designed to counter the arguments of Communist propaganda and to show that there was indeed a valuable American culture and to highlight its strong links with European culture.

During the Cold War, the United States did not succeed in counterbalancing the Soviet strategy of being the heralds of “great culture,” especially since in Western Europe a certain anti-Americanism and the pre-eminent place occupied by “left-wing intellectuals” tended to give credence to the idea of their cultural poverty. On the other hand, the United States is the place par excellence of creative freedom, of unlimited avant-gardism, whose innovations and provocations are observed throughout the world and taken up, even if they do not always meet with the approval of the general public. The cultural influence of the United States is expressed above all through popular culture (or mass culture), which invades Western Europe and manages to cross the Iron Curtain.

Institutions and state propaganda

Significant resources were mobilized and state institutions were created by the two great powers to implement their strategy in the field of culture. The official channels for the promotion and dissemination of culture were complemented by channels where political intervention was more discreet, if not totally hidden. This infrastructure is partly at the service of the dissemination of classical culture and independent cultural creation, provided that it reflects an image of society that conforms to the wishes of political leaders, with the aim of projecting a strong cultural image. But it is also for a large part dedicated to cultural propaganda, in its own camp and in the other camp. In the 1940s and 1950s, the fight for culture was often a matter of propaganda, and then with the easing of relations on the European continent, culture was seen by both sides as an essential vehicle for a more elaborate struggle. On both sides, the media played an essential role in the dissemination of propaganda. Funded by the National Committee for a Free Europe, an offshoot of the CIA, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty broadcast programs in Russian and in the languages of Eastern European countries. Voice of America, which was attached to the USIA, broadcast programs in the languages spoken in the USSR.

On the Soviet side, the VOKS (Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries) is the vector of its cultural diplomacy. Soviet propagandists identified very early on that cinema was an essential weapon in the war of ideas. The film production, entirely controlled by the State, presents the Soviet people as animated by strong moral values, modern and forward-looking. But this production in the vein of social realism and most often pure propaganda does not fit into the strategy of “high culture” and therefore meets little echo in the West. It is primarily intended for the population of the East. Initiated by the Cominform, the World Peace Council (WPC) was fully supported by intellectuals and artists as prestigious as Pablo Picasso, Frédéric and Irène Joliot-Curie, or Louis Aragon.

The CLC funds magazines, including Encounter, trips, fellowships, articles, editions, concerts and exhibitions. Few Western artists and intellectuals have refused to benefit.

Many cultural exchanges are organized between the West and the East. The tours abroad of great classical orchestras and international music competitions are issues of cultural competition. In the 1950s, the communist states developed cultural exchanges with the West. The USSR joined UNESCO in 1954 and the GDR became a member in 1972. In the 1960s, after the building of the Berlin Wall, the GDR established a permanent program of cultural exchanges with the United States, and it increased the number of invitations to Western intellectuals and artists, with the aim of building the image of a state steeped in culture and obtaining a form of international recognition. In 1967, the member states of the Warsaw Pact began to propose a Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) to improve intra-European cultural and political dialogue and mutual trust in military matters. The CSCE was finally established in 1973. During this era of détente, the Soviet and American cinemas co-produced an adaptation of a Russian fairy tale, The Blue Bird, in 1976.

Europe, the main field of the cultural battle

The Cold War privileged culture and cultural relations in Europe to an unprecedented degree. The “great European culture” inherited from the Age of Enlightenment benefited from significant public and private resources that allowed for the organization of cultural events and exchanges in all the arts; in this area, the East took center stage, particularly in the fields of dance and music. On the other hand, in the field of “popular culture” accessible to the greatest number of people thanks to the accelerated development of the mass media after the war, America exerted considerable influence in the West as in the East, without however erasing its image of a materialistic and individualistic society and without succeeding in avoiding the resistance of Europeans to preserve their cultural identities.

With a divided Germany at the center of the East-West confrontation, the two Great Ones spent more time and money on the cultural Cold War in that country than on any other region or continent. Capitalizing on their victory over Nazism, the Soviets posed as the saviors and inheritors of the great Western culture. They quickly set up an important cultural infrastructure that opened up access to theater, music and dance in particular. Opposing Western imperialism and militarism to Communist pacifism, the Soviets praised the superiority of their classical culture and criticized avant-garde currents such as surrealism. The strategy of the Soviet and East German media to emphasize classical German culture and the great German literary and musical figures resonated with the West German population.

The massive influx of American popular culture into Europe, condemned by communists and conservative intellectuals, but welcomed in general and especially by youth, was a factor in both the success and failure of American propaganda in Europe. In the West as in the East, people assimilated elements of this popular culture and often made it their own. But American popular culture did not improve the image of the United States in Europe: instead, left-wing intellectuals took up the language of protest that emerged in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s to express their long-standing prejudice against American civilization. Anti-Americanism, fueled by Soviet propaganda and its national relays, mobilized some cultural actors in the name of defending peace.

The adherence to the American model, the American way of life, is most visible in the consumer revolution that accompanies the economic growth of Western Europe. For many, the United States appears as an abundant and moving society, always one step ahead of an old-fashioned and conservative Europe. The considerable place that American popular culture occupies in this model gives it, through its music, films and fashion, a predominant position. It is through this channel of popular consumption that American culture and the American model of society spread everywhere, much more than through the propaganda actions organized by the American government. According to Westad, “Although the music of Elvis Presley or the films of Marlon Brando or James Dean were not designed to propagandize the American way of life, they were appreciated by European youth, in part because of their rebellious spirit. In the mid-1950s, American and European teenagers were more united by Brando than by NATO.”

After the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, legal and physical restrictions severely hampered the flow of Western popular music, film and literature behind the Iron Curtain. From that point on, Eastern Europeans could no longer openly use the ideas and values of popular culture to criticize their governments; instead, listening to pop music or dressing in Western fashions became a way to protest the government as well as state-run cultural productions and artifacts.

The historiography of the Cold War encompasses several disciplines: initially approached essentially from the angle of the history of international relations and political science, it has recently become increasingly interested in the domestic and sociological history of the countries concerned, in the analysis of communist and Western ideologies, and in the place of culture.

The vast bibliography on the Cold War has developed since its inception, thus rapidly opening the way to controversies on the interpretation of its origins and course among historians, political scientists and journalists. The Cold War has the particularity of having been thought of from the beginning and concomitantly to its development as a historical period. The view of the Cold War has thus evolved according to its successive periods of tension or détente, and has been influenced by the progressive opening of archives since the 1990s.

Historians argue about who was responsible for the breakdown of the “Grand Alliance” between the Soviet Union and the United States after World War II and whether or not the conflict between the two superpowers was inevitable. Historians also debate the exact nature of the Cold War, the importance of nuclear weapons in its development, the respective crimes and benefits of the communist and Western systems, and the analysis of the crises that marked it.

General currents of thought

The reading of the Cold War from the perspective of international relations is based on three general currents of thought, “classical” or “orthodox”, “revisionist” and “post-revisionist”.

During the 1950s, few historians challenged the official American interpretation of the early Cold War. This “orthodox” school of thought blamed the Soviet Union and its expansion into Eastern Europe for the Cold War. For example, Herbert Feis, a noted historian and advisor to the U.S. State Department, argues in his 1957 book Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin: The War They Waged and the Peace They Sought that Soviet aggression in Eastern Europe in the postwar period was the cause of the outbreak of the Cold War; he also asserts that Roosevelt paved the way for Soviet aggression by agreeing at Yalta to all of Stalin”s demands. Historians focus in the early years on Stalin himself and his policies, before communist ideology is put forward as the primary cause of the Cold War.

The “revisionist” current developed in the 1960s in the context of the Vietnam War. The precursor of this movement was William Appleman Williams: in his book The Tragedy of American Diplomacy published in 1959, he re-examined American foreign policy since 1890. His central thesis is that the expansionist policy pursued by the United States under the guise of defending the “free world” and its economic imperialism were the primary causes of the Cold War. Revisionists challenge the traditional view that the Soviet leadership was determined to spread communism throughout the world after the war. They argue that the Soviet Union”s occupation of Eastern Europe was based on a defensive rationale and that the Soviet leadership sought to avoid encirclement by the United States and its allies. Politically situated on the left, the “anti-imperialist revisionists” considered that the United States, through the growing anti-communism of its foreign policy, bore at least as much responsibility as the USSR for the perpetuation of the Cold War. From the mid-1970s onward, “revisionist realists” saw the U.S.-Soviet rivalry primarily as a conflict of great power security needs and judged that the Soviet and U.S. governments did not behave very differently from each other or from other great powers in history.

These theses, radically contrary to the first, provoked reactions in the 1970s and 1980s, which were then fueled from the beginning of the 1990s by the progressive opening of previously inaccessible archives and their in-depth exploitation. The historian John Lewis Gaddis is largely at the origin of this post-revisionist school with his book The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941-1947, published in 1972, which synthesizes various interpretations. Gaddis argues that “neither side can be held solely responsible for the onset of the Cold War. Rather, historian Melvyn P. Leffler insists that it was not so much the Kremlin”s actions as fears about European socio-economic dislocation, revolutionary nationalism, British weakness and power issues in the Middle East that triggered U.S. initiatives to build an international system that was consistent with its conception of its national security. In 1997, in his new book We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History, written on the basis of partial Soviet archives, Gaddis asserted Moscow”s overwhelming responsibility for the Cold War, and thus moved closer to the classical theses.

New approaches

Since the early 2000s, the study of the Cold War has favored new geographic and thematic approaches.

Many publications are devoted not only to a global vision of the Cold War, centered on the United States and the USSR, but also to its other actors. The first axis is the analysis of the role of the Eastern and Western European states in relation to each other and their relations with the two great powers. American policy in the late 1940s is best understood through its links with London, just as the study of relations between Mao Zedong”s China and the USSR sheds light on Stalin”s policy. The links between domestic and foreign policy, in the United States, or in Europe through, for example, the study of the role of the French and Italian communist parties, are another axis that sheds light on the factors that influenced the course of the Cold War.

The Third World in the Cold War has also become an important subject of historical study. Wars, particularly those in the states that emerged from French Indochina, were initially a major focus, leading to an emphasis on how the East and West abruptly intervened in the decolonization process because of their global antagonism. Inevitably, this prism gives limited space to knowledge of the actors of local and national conflicts, their power games or their culture and politics. Nevertheless, the recent growth of historical research on Third World issues has led to a critical mass of studies on politics, identity, religion or economics in the South.

Recent publications go beyond the usual diplomatic, security, and ideological focus to include thematic, economic, cultural and social, intellectual, and media visions. The Cambridge History of the Cold War, edited by Melvyn P. Leffler and Odd Arne Westad, published in 2010, is in line with this broad, inclusive, and pluralistic interpretation of Cold War history. Its authors find it not only enduring, but also inevitable: “we must place the Cold War in the larger context of time and space, within a web that connects the endless threads of history” and “we must indicate how Cold War conflicts are related to the broader trends in social, economic, and intellectual history, as well as the longer-term political and military developments of which they are a part.” Economics and technology, culture and ideology, science and strategy, diplomacy and intellectual history combine to provide a multifaceted reading of the Cold War in the global context of the second half of the twentieth century. Lawrence Freedman, Professor Emeritus of War Studies at King”s College London, emphasizes, however, the need to separate the Cold War from other strands of twentieth-century history, to determine what makes it distinctive and specific, and then to assess its interaction with all other strands, at the risk of defining it as an epoch, so that it would become possible to discuss almost everything that happened between 1945 and 1991 in its name.


The works are listed alphabetically by author”s name. Document used as a source for the writing of this article.

External links


  1. Guerre froide
  2. Cold War
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