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The peace that was established in the period after 1945 led to an end to the confrontational conflict experienced in the Second World War. However, it opened a new chapter in the history of the world as international hostilities were not addressed.
A new perspective was opened on the war front in which the enemy was not a political demagogue; but rather, it was conceived in an ideological principle which was communism versus democracy. The period after the Second World War was characterized by competition between the Western countries and the Soviet Union.
Following the completion of the Second World War, it was important to define the new world order. The Western democracies led by the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in a discussion regarding the development of the war and the nature of the post-war settlement.
This was discussed in conferences that were held in Tehran in 1943, Yalta in February 1945, and Potsdam between July and August 19451. When the Second World War ended in 1945, conflicts between the Soviet Union and the Western democracies heightened.
In particular, the takeover of Eastern Europe by the Soviet Union did not go down well among the Western democracies; and the British Premier of the time, Winston Churchill, warned of the ‘iron curtain’ that threatened to split Europe in the middle.
The tension between the western countries and the Soviet Union were exacerbated by various activities that followed as the two blocs took hardline positions regarding their stances2.
This paper shall seek to explore the Cold War politics, culture and wars that characterized the world in the period after the Second World War. More emphasis will be placed on the writings and assertions of George Kennan regarding his perspective of the situation.
The Cold War
The term ‘Cold War’ is used to describe the conflict that emerged after the Second World War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Essentially, the conflict was between Communism and Capitalism.
The war was fought in various forms which included propaganda, diplomatic haggling, technological, economic warfare, and to some extent, there was sporadic military clashes. This war was fought on various fronts including in neutral states, African states that had just gained independence, in Asia and the outer space.
Joseph Stalin exacerbated the conflict following his assertions that the Second World War could not be avoided due to the inevitable impacts of ‘capitalist imperialism’, and that this kind of war was likely to reoccur3.
The Cold War defined the period that was characterized by stiff competition between the West and the East, increased tension and conflicts that did not explode in fully fledged warfare. It was also characterized by reciprocal insights of antagonistic intentions between the military and political alliances or blocs.
At times, there were real conflicts which were referred to as ‘proxy wars’ since they did not involve direct military confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union; but rather, they were fought by allies of both sides and funded by the two competing superpowers4.
Apart from the proxy wars, there was competition in spreading influence among the third world countries. Also, the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in an arms race that saw the development of lethal weapons as a show of military might between the two competing world powers5.
The causes of the Cold War were historical and diverse, and they came to the limelight after the Second World War due to intensified suspicion between the United States and the Soviet Union. Even before the Second World War, the United States and the Soviet Union had differences in various respects including economy, political and ideological aspects.
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The United States and the Soviet Union held exclusive ideologies in issues of governance. The United States believed in democratic tenets where freedom and rights of individuals are upheld.
On the other hand, the Soviet Union believed in Communism in which freedom and rights of individuals were curtailed. With the two political system diametrically opposed to each other, it can be asserted that there was no way that the two could compromise to accommodate the other6.
In respect to the economy, the United States was out to encourage the development of a capitalistic economy which encouraged free trade across the world. The Soviet Union on the other hand worked hard to protect its sphere of influence from international trade.
The fear by the Soviet Union was based on the assertions that engaging the west in trade activities will expose the Soviet Union to the influence of the West7. Another cause of the Cold War can be defined in terms of power rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union.
By the end of the Second World War, Europe was largely destroyed and power was shared between the Soviet Union and the United States. Each one of the two powerful states wanted to dominate the world and this meant that rivalry could not be avoided8.
The extension of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe raised eyebrows among the western powers. It was noted that prior to the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union had spread its influence in Europe. The Red Army had gained control of Eastern Europe after liberating it by the fall of 1944.
As the war neared its end in 1945, the Soviet Union moved fast to consolidate her control of the Eastern bloc in Europe. This was done through having an influence in the post-war elections in the region. The Red Army achieved this through voter intimidation and altering the voting lists as they wished.
Even though non-communists could win some votes, they were rigged and most votes would go to the Communists. In this regard, most of the governments that were formed in Eastern Europe were essentially communists.
Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union at the time, was not convinced with the mere control of Eastern Europe. He pushed for communists to take a pragmatic role in the elections that were taking place in Western Europe. Nonetheless, as from May of 1945, things changed and the United States adopted a policy that resisted the advances made by the Soviet Union9.
The change in guard in respect to the United States’ presidency was reflected in the shift in policy targeting the Soviet Union. Initially, prior to his death, President Roosevelt did not advocate for a strong resistance to the expansion mission by the Soviet Union.
He was an optimistic man and believed that even though the Soviet Union had spread her influence in Eastern Europe, the United States would keep her promise and push for the election of democratic governments in the region.
However, when Truman ascended to the presidency, all the policies adopted by the Roosevelt administration were abandoned and a strong resistance policy was adopted against the Soviet Union mission to expand. The United States had succeeded in developing an atomic bomb and President Truman believed that this gave the United States an advantage in adopting a hardline position against the Soviet Union10.
Cold War Politics
The politics surrounding the Cold War era centered on the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States adopted what was called ‘the containment policy’ which was meant to thwart any efforts that were advanced by the Soviet Union in its expansion mission.
This policy was advanced and implemented by the United States in the period after the Second World War. The United States President, Harry Truman was apprehensive of the evil intentions of the Communist regime in the Soviet Union which was seen as a threat to democratic tenets hailed by the United States.
Each of the two superpowers of the time wanted the post-war world to be modeled based on their world view and this caused a conflict of interest11.
Though the Soviet Union alleged that their citizens enjoyed economic and social rights, the United States viewed communism as a form of slavery that imposed control on the lives and thoughts of individuals.
Communism was perceived to be a threat to democratic tenets that called for enhancement of individual rights and freedoms.
The United States felt obliged to ensure that Communism did not infiltrate her boundaries or spread to other parts of the world. Therefore, the containment policy held that the United States was determined to contain the expansion of Communism through the creation of strategic alliances and/or support in helping other nations resist the advances made by the Soviet Union12.
Essentially, the containment policy adopted by the United States was meant to prevent the Soviet Union from spreading its tentacles to non-communists countries’ political systems. Therefore, communism was only allowed to thrive in areas where it already existed.
The containment policy is credited to a key player by the name George F. Kennan who loathed the Soviet Union long before the advent of the Cold War. He was a United States diplomat and historian who took interest in the Russian affairs. He is known as the father of containment in some circles due to his influence on the United States during the Truman regime13.
In the Cold War era, George F. Kennan stands out as a key figure especially in the crafting of the containment policy. Essentially, Kennan started opposing any cordial relationship with the Russia as early as 1933. This was after President Roosevelt had adopted a diplomatic approach and recognized Stalinist Russia14.
Kennan had written an analysis regarding the attitude of the Russians in respect to treaty obligation which called for respect for the rights of foreign citizens within Russia.
In his analysis, he cited the German-Soviet Treaty of 1925 as an example of “language on which one ought not to rely, if one was concerned to assure then personal safety of one’s nationals in Russia”15.
The agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union was viewed to contain what Kennan called ‘weak verbiage’ that was not sure of offering protection to the interests of other nations that were conducting business with the Soviet Union16.
President Roosevelt thought that he could establish a cordial relationship with the Soviet Union17. In his memoirs, Kennan asserts that this kind of relationship demonstrates:
One of the most consistent and incurable traits of American statesmanship-namely its neurotic self-consciousness and introversion, the tendency to make statements and take actions with regard not to their effect on the international scene to which they are ostensibly addressed but rather to their effect on those echelons of American opinion, congressional opinion first and foremost, to which the respective statesmen are anxious to appeal18.
Kennan observes that there are several American statesmen who were privy to the democratic temptation he had described. Among them included Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John Foster Dulles to name but a few19.
Roosevelt was confident that could handle the Soviet Union and extended diplomatic recognition to the Soviet government.
This relationship functioned relatively well between 1930s to early 1940s20. Though it was true that any leader was bound to make compromises, Kennan was of the view that reflections of domestic convenience have “placed on American statesmanship the stamp of a certain histrionic futility … allowing it to degenerate into a mere striking of attitudes before the mirror of domestic political opinion.”21
Generally, Kennan did not approve of the United States’ foreign policy towards the Soviet Union. He concluded that the United States policy makers were not pragmatic in respect to the Soviet Communism.
He also asserted that treaties did not mean anything to Stalin, and that the Russian foreign ministry was insignificant to the secret policies advanced by the Soviet Union22.
In his memoirs, Kennan observes that “Never – neither then, nor at any later date – did I consider the Soviet Union a fit ally or associate, actual or potential, for this country”23.
Kennan served in the American embassy in Moscow from 1933 up to 1938 when he was moved to Prague, then to German in 1940. Nonetheless, while serving in the American embassy in Russia, Kennan was convinced that the Soviet Union could not be trusted as a partner24.
After serving in a diplomatic position in German, Kennan was moved to Lisbon, London and then back to Moscow. While serving in Moscow for the second time, the Soviet Union was an ally in the war; and by 1944, the tide of the war was in favor of the allies. On his part, Stalin was busy establishing his plans to define the political environment in the Eastern Europe.
During his second stint in Moscow, Kennan still held his assertions against the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. In his memoirs, Kennan points to a conversation he had with a Soviet acquaintance that provided a clear picture of the Soviet Union’s behavior.
According to this conversation, the Russians were portrayed as arrogant once things were working in their favor25. Kennan’s assertions against the Soviet Union were reinforced when it was revealed that the Soviet Union had overseen the execution of close to ten thousands Polish officers in the Katyn forest.
To Kennan, the United States could have done something to stop the infamy that was being committed by the Soviet Union26.
The approach adopted by the Roosevelt regime to the situation in Poland was not acceptable. Roosevelt chose to avoid a confrontation with the Soviet Union which allowed the Russians to have their way with the Poles. In his memoirs, Kennan observes that:
I was sorry to find myself, for the moment, a part of this. And I wished that instead of mumbling words of official optimism we had had the judgment and good taste to bow our heads in silence before the tragedy of a people who have been our allies, whom we have helped to save from our enemies, and whom we cannot save from our friends27.
Kennan did not see the United Nations as the appropriate means through which the situation could be resolved. He observed that the international political life could be regarded as organic and mechanical28.
Kennan predicted that the Soviet Union was going to undergo a quick recovery from the ravages of the war and that its leadership will embark on military industrialization.
He also observed that the Russians were ready to take whatever the west was going to offer them, but they would not give out anything considered to be of value to them. It is noted that Stalin did not condone the idea of abandoning Soviet Communism to embrace the American principles29.
Kennan was convinced that the Soviet Union was going to fail in her mission to establish a widespread empire. He continued to write about the Soviet Union, but what catapulted him into the political limelight was the ‘Long Telegraph.’
In his memoirs, Kennan acknowledges that “My name was now known in Washington. I became qualified [in people’s minds] as a candidate for a different order of position than the ones I had previously occupied”30. In his ‘Long Telegraph’ document, Kennan addressed various issues.
These included the postwar Soviet stance as portrayed in official propaganda; he offered the background to the stance; he analyzed the Soviet position in a concrete policy at the formal level; he looked at what was to be expected of the Soviet Union policy; and the impacts of the Soviet perspective to the American policy in the period after the war.
In the famous X-Article that was published in the foreign policy magazine, the Foreign Affairs; Kennan articulated various aspects related to the Soviet Union. He argued that the Soviets understood what he referred to as the ‘logic of power’ and could promptly pull back in the event that there was a strong resistance to counter her cause of action.
He also noted that the Soviet Union remained a weaker force by far. In addition, Kennan observed that the success of the Soviet Union had not been proven and was faced by a challenge of surviving the challenge of successful transfer of power. Lastly, Kennan asserted that the Soviet Union relied on propaganda that was essentially negative and full of destruction.
In this regard, he proposed for an intelligent and constructive program that would combat the Soviet Union31. Kennan concluded that for the West to be in a position to deal with the Soviet adversary, it was necessary to understand the communist movement.
He observed that “Every courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society… is a diplomatic victory over Moscow worth a thousand… joint communiqués”32.
The X-Article by Kennan has become synonymous with the Containment policy adopted by the United States against the Soviet Union though Kennan, in his memoirs, argues that his intentions were misinterpreted. He asserts that the X-Article was deficient in clearly explaining what he meant by containment.
He explains that all he wanted was the political approach in containing what was perceived as a political threat as opposed to the military approaches that were adopted by the United States33. As much as Kennan’s X-Article was synonymous with the containment policy, he vehemently denied his association with the policy.
Cold War cultures and wars
During the Cold War era, the United States and the world in general was shaped by the unfolding events of the time. In his book, ‘Cold War Constructions’, Christian Appy provides an analysis of several essays which “address the connections between domestic political culture and United States Cold War foreign policy”34.
This book also examines various ways in which the United States’ political culture determined particular foreign sites of the Cold War conflicts.
Foreign relation of the United States during the Cold War era was a critical aspect. The United States’ foreign policy towards Vietnam can best be understood in the context of cultural conceptions that came up in the period before the onset of the Second World War.
During this time, there was “an Orientalist portrait of the Vietnameses that depicted them as passive, lazy, immature, untrustworthy, and vulnerable to outside control”35.
The cultural construction of the Asian region in the Cold War era has also been analyzed in which case, it has been observed that “Postwar middlebrow culture formulated a utopian vision of cross-racial and cross-national community that served as a reward for Americans’ ideological, financial, and political support for the Cold War in Asia”36.
In 1951, the US offered wheat loans to India and this has been used to analyze the cultural values and assumptions which played a critical role in determining the US-Indian relations37.
The United States used propaganda so as to influence the defeat of Communist candidates especially in Italy. During the 1948 elections in Italy, the US embarked on a letter-writing campaign which was meant to persuade the Italians to vote against the communist candidates in favor of those who embraced the American way38.
In this case, propaganda was used by the Americans to demonize communism and enhance consensus about the American national identity. It was also observed that the U.S. State Department made efforts to utilize African American jazz artists so as to obtain allegiance of the Africans in the Cold War.
It has been noted that though these artists were sent to Africa “as symbols of racial and democratic progress in the United States, they may have done more to inspire pan-African solidarity and Cold War nonalignment than uncritical loyalty to the West”39.
During the Cold War era, there were coups which were pioneered by the CIA to overthrow what was perceived to be communist regimes. The media played a critical role in facilitating these coups. The overthrow of Musaddiq in Iran for instance was influenced by the mass media.
It is argued that, the Time Magazine “influenced U.S. foreign policy; both drew on and contributed to Orientalist discourses; Musaddiq and other actors tried to combat these influences; and the coup was a product of this struggle for discursive hegemony”40.
Musaddiq was portrayed by the media to be a communist whereas the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was seen as a pro-western figure41. After succeeding in Iran, the CIA looked determined to inspire the overthrow of Jacbo Arbenz of Guatemala.
As for the case of Vietnam, those who supported the United States’ intervention were “liberal internationalists, socialists, and assorted figures on the non-Communist Left”42.
These campaigns “helped to give political legitimacy not only to a variety of left perspectives, but to Catholic anti-communists eager to embrace a complex world that the McCarthyites had reviled”43.
Although the Vietnam issue was disastrous in the foreign countries, it is said to have enriched the political culture back at home44.
In the case of Cuban revolution, it is argued to have gained some support in the US, though this was only for a moment. The reason for this short-lived support has been attributed to ostensibly anomalous pro-Castroism by the popular culture in the US45.
The Cold War politics, culture and wars has been exemplified as one of the major aspects of the second half of the 20th century. This is a period that was characterized by tension between the two super powers of the time, the United States and the Soviet Union. The two wanted to spread their influence across the world and become the dominant force.
This competition led to various issues including proxy wars, arms race, and unnecessary tensions in the world. Most notably, the containment policy adopted by the United States to thwart the expansion efforts of the Soviet Union marked a turning point in this period.
George Kennan, who is considered as the father of this policy was critical during this time. He helped define the politics of the Cold War in a tremendous way.
His opposition to Communism was outright, and he sought to influence the United States foreign policy towards the Soviet Union. Though his efforts were overlooked by the previous administrations, it was during President Harry Truman administration that his dream became a reality.
Appy, Christian, G. Cold war constructions: the political culture of United States imperialism, 1945 – 1966, Amherst University of Massachusetts Press, 2000.
Craig, Campbell and Logevall, Fredrik. America’s Cold War: the politics of insecurity. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009.
Kennan, George. Memoirs, 1925-1950. New York: Pantheon Books, 1967.
Walker, Martin. The Cold War: A History. New York: Henry Holt, 1995.
1 Martin, Walker. The Cold War: A History. New York: Henry Holt, 1995, p 15.
2 Ibid, p 11
3 Martin, Walker. The Cold War: A History. New York: Henry Holt, 1995, p 8
4 Ibid, p 32
5 Martin, Walker. The Cold War: A History. New York: Henry Holt, 1995, p 34
6 Ibid, p 36
7 Campbell Craig and Fredrik Logevall. America’s Cold War: the politics of insecurity. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009, p 37
8 Martin, Walker. The Cold War: A History. New York: Henry Holt, 1995, p 39.
9 Ibid, p 42
10 Campbell Craig and Fredrik Logevall. America’s Cold War: the politics of insecurity. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009, p 44
11 Martin, Walker. The Cold War: A History. New York: Henry Holt, 1995, p 3.
12 Martin, Walker. The Cold War: A History. New York: Henry Holt, 1995, p 17
13 Campbell Craig and Fredrik Logevall. America’s Cold War: the politics of insecurity. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009, p 2
14 Ibid, p 20
15 George, Kennan. Memoirs, 1925-1950. New York: Pantheon Books, 1967, p 52.
16 Ibid, p 53
17 Campbell Craig and Fredrik Logevall. America’s Cold War: the politics of insecurity. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009, p 36.
18 George, Kennan. Memoirs, 1925-1950. New York: Pantheon Books, 1967, p 53.
19 Ibid, p 54
20 Campbell Craig and Fredrik Logevall. America’s Cold War: the politics of insecurity. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009, p 36.
21 George, Kennan. Memoirs, 1925-1950. New York: Pantheon Books, 1967, p 54.
22 Ibid, p 55
23 Ibid, p 57
24 Ibid, p 95
25 George, Kennan. Memoirs, 1925-1950. New York: Pantheon Books, 1967, p 197.
26 Ibid, p 211
27 Ibid, p 210
28 Ibid, p 218
29 Campbell Craig and Fredrik Logevall. America’s Cold War: the politics of insecurity. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009, p 37.
30 George, Kennan. Memoirs, 1925-1950. New York: Pantheon Books, 1967, p 298.
31 George, Kennan. Memoirs, 1925-1950. New York: Pantheon Books, 1967, p 257-8.
32 Ibid, p 258
33 Ibid, p 358
34 Christian G. Appy. Cold war constructions: the political culture of United States imperialism, 1945 – 1966. Amherst Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 2000, p 3
35 Christian G. Appy. Cold war constructions: the political culture of United States imperialism, 1945 – 1966. Amherst Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 2000, p 22
36 Ibid, p 37
37 Ibid, p 83
38 Ibid, p 89
39 Christian G. Appy. Cold war constructions: the political culture of United States imperialism, 1945 – 1966. Amherst Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 2000, p 130-1
40 Ibid, p, 163
41 Ibid, p, 7
42 Ibid, p, 217
43 Ibid, p, 7
44 Ibid, p 236
45 Christian G. Appy. Cold war constructions: the political culture of United States imperialism, 1945 – 1966. Amherst Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 2000, p 240