For forty-three years, although no war between the superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union was ever officially declared, the leaders of the democratic West and the Communist East faced off against each other in what is known as the Cold War. The war was not considered “hot” because neither superpower directly attacked the other. Nevertheless, despite attempts to negotiate during periods of peaceful coexistence and détente, these two nations fought overt and covert battles to expand their influence across the globe.
Cold War scholars have devised two conflicting theories to explain what motivated the superpowers to act as they did during the Cold War. One group of scholars argues that the United States and the Soviet Union, along with China, were primarily interested in protecting and advancing their political systems—that is, democracy and communism, respectively. In other words, these scholars postulate that the Cold War was a battle over ideology. Another camp of scholars contends that the superpowers were mainly acting to protect their homelands from aggressors and to defend their interests abroad. These theorists maintain that the Cold War was fought over national self-interest. These opposing theorists have in large measure determined how people understand the Cold War, a conflict that had been a long time in the making.
A History of Conflict
The conflict between East and West had deep roots. Well before the Cold War, the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union had been hostile. Although in the early 1920s, shortly after the Communist revolution in Russia, the United States had provided famine relief to the Soviets and American businesses had established commercial ties in the Soviet Union, by the 1930s the relationship had soured. By the time the United States established an official relationship with the new Communist nation in 1933, the oppressive, totalitarian nature of Joseph Stalin’s regime presented an obstacle to friendly relations with the West. Americans saw themselves as champions of the free world, and tyrants such as Stalin represented everything the United States opposed. At the same time, the Soviets, who believed that capitalism exploited the masses, saw the United States as the oppressor.
Despite deep-seated mistrust and hostility between the Soviet Union and Western democracies such as the United States, an alliance was forged among them in the 1940s to fight a common enemy, Nazi Germany, which had invaded Russia in June 1941. Although the Allies—as that alliance is called—eventually defeated Germany, the Soviet Union had not been completely satisfied with how its Western Allies had conducted themselves. For example, the Soviets complained that the Allies had taken too long to establish an offensive front on Germany’s west flank, leaving the Soviets to handle alone the offensive front on Germany’s east flank. Tension between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies continued after the war.
During postwar settlements, the Allies agreed to give control of Eastern Europe—which had been occupied by Germany—to the Soviet Union for its part in helping to defeat Germany. At settlement conferences among the Allies in Tehran (1943), Yalta (February 1945), and Potsdam (July/August 1945), the Soviets agreed to allow the nations of Eastern Europe to choose their own governments in free elections. Stalin agreed to the condition only because he believed that these newly liberated nations would see the Soviet Union as their savior and create their own Communist governments. When they failed to do so, Stalin violated the agreement by wiping out all opposition to communism in these nations and setting up his own governments in Eastern Europe. The Cold War had begun.
During the first years of the Cold War, Soviet and American leaders divided the world into opposing camps, and both sides ac- cused the other of having designs to take over the world. Stalin described a world split into imperialist and capitalist regimes on the one hand and Communist governments on the other. The Soviet Union and the Communist People’s Republic of China saw the United States as an imperialist nation, using the resources of emerging nations to increase its own profits. The Soviet Union and China envisioned themselves as crusaders for the working class and the peasants, saving the world from oppression by wealthy capitalists.
U.S. president Harry Truman also spoke of two diametrically opposed systems: one free and the other bent on subjugating struggling nations. The United States and other democratic nations accused the Soviet Union and China of imposing their ideology on emerging nations to increase their power and sphere of influence. Western nations envisioned themselves as the champions of freedom and justice, saving the world for democracy. Whereas many scholars see Cold War conflicts in these same ideological terms, others view these kinds of ideological pronouncements as ultimately deceptive. They argue that despite the superpowers’ claims that they were working for the good of the world, what they were really doing was working for their own security and economic advancement.
Two Schools of Thought
Ideological theorists claim that the Soviets and the Americans so believed in the superiority of their respective values and beliefs that they were willing to fight a cold war to protect and advance them. Each nation perceived itself to be in a “do-or-die” struggle between alternative ways of life. According to foreign policy scholar Glenn Chafetz, a leading proponent of the ideology theory:
Ideology served as the lens through which both sides viewed the world, defined their identities and interests, and justified their actions. U.S. leaders perceived the Soviet Union as threatening not simply because the USSR was powerful but because the entire Soviet enterprise was predicated on implacable hostility to capitalism and dedicated to its ultimate destruction. From the earliest days of the Russian Revolution until the end of the cold war, Moscow viewed the United States as unalterably hostile. Even when both nations were fighting a common enemy, Nazi Germany, the Soviets were certain that the Americans were determined to destroy the Soviet Union.
Other scholars argue that the United States and the Soviet Union chose actions that would promote national self-interest, not ideology. That is, the nations were not primarily motivated by a desire to defend capitalism or communism but by the wish to strengthen their position in the world. These scholars reason that the highest priority of every nation is not to promote its ideology but to protect and promote its own self-interest. Thus, these theorists claim, the superpowers advanced their sphere of influence throughout the world in order to gain advantages, such as a valuable trading partner or a strategic military ally. Moreover, these scholars argue, the superpowers aligned themselves with allies who could protect their interests against those who threatened them. Historian Mary Hampton, a champion of the national interest theory, explains:
Had ideology been the sustaining force of the cold war, the stability and predictability of the relationship between the two states would not have emerged. Their mutual respect for spheres of influence, the prudent management of their nuclear relationships, and their consistent policy of checking global expansions without resort to direct confrontation are best explained by an analysis based on interest-motivated behavior. . . . From 1946 to 1990, the relationship between the United States and Soviet Union included both diverging and shared interests, and it was a combination of these interests that governed their conduct during the cold war.
Although the differences between these two interpretations of Cold War motivations are fairly clear, applying the theories to explain actual events during the period is more complicated. For example, even though a nation might claim that it deposed a leader in a Latin American nation because the ruler was despotic, the real reason might be that the Latin American country had some resource such as oil that the invading nation coveted. Conversely, invading nations are always vulnerable to charges that they are acting in self-interest when in reality nations often do become involved in other countries’ affairs out of a genuine concern about human rights or other humanitarian issues. Both theories have been used to explain many U.S. and Soviet actions during the Cold War, leading to radically different interpretations of events.
The Battle over Europe
Both theories have been used to explain Soviet and U.S. behavior in Europe. Those who believe the Cold War was primarily an ideological battle claim that aggressive Soviet action to quell democratic movements in the nations of Eastern Europe was motivated by the Soviet belief that capitalism harms the masses whereas communism protects them. Capitalism, the Soviets believed, exploits workers, who take home only a small percentage of companies’ profits in the form of wages whereas the owners reap huge financial benefits at the workers’ expense. Under socialism, in contrast, workers own the methods of production and therefore take their fair share of the profits. Thus, ideologically, the Soviet Union believed it was protecting the oppressed workers in the nations of Eastern Europe by opposing democratic movements. Indeed, the Soviet Union’s belief in socialism as the superior economic system informed all of its foreign policy decisions. According to Chafetz, the Soviets believed that “international relations are a reflection of the class struggle in which socialist countries represent the working class and capitalist countries represent the exploiting class. Socialist internationalism referred to the common class interest of all socialist states; these concerns trumped other interests, at least in the minds of Soviet leaders.”
According to those who believe ideology-motivated actions taken during the Cold War, the United States reacted negatively to Soviet actions in Eastern Europe because it disapproved of the Soviet Union’s undemocratic treatment of Eastern Europeans, who had the right to choose their own systems of governance. “Moscow’s repression of democratic movements in Eastern Europe,” Chafetz claims, “conflicted with the promises to permit elections that Stalin made at Yalta and Potsdam.” In response to Soviet aggression in Eastern Europe, U.S. leaders publicly denounced Soviet actions and increased U.S. military forces in West- ern Europe. In June 1961, for example, President John F. Kennedy took a stand against Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s attempt to occupy the city of Berlin. Although Berlin was located within the borders of East Germany, a Soviet satellite, after World War II the Allies had agreed that both East and West would occupy the city (dividing it into East and West Berlin) because Berlin had strong ties with the West. Capitalism and democracy, however, appealed to many East Germans, who fled to West Berlin by the thousands. This embarrassed the Soviets and threatened their hold on Eastern Europe. In June 1961 Khrushchev threatened to forcibly take West Berlin under Communist rule. Kennedy responded to this challenge by increasing America’s combat forces in West Berlin and using billions of dollars approved by Congress to increase U.S. nuclear and conventional weapons throughout Western Europe. Khrushchev’s counterresponse was to divide the city of Berlin with a cement wall, barbed wire, and a column of army tanks that remained until November 1989.
Theorists who subscribe to the position that the superpowers were motivated more by national self-interest disagree with the ideological argument used to interpret such events. Hampton maintains:
Arguments that seek to explain the cold-war competition in terms of ideology . . . should anticipate that the United States would have supported democratic reform movements and uprisings throughout Eastern Europe in this period, such as those that occurred in East Germany in 1953 and in Poland and Hungary in 1956. In fact, the Soviet Union resolved these crises [repressed the movements] without intervention from the United States or its Western allies.
Indeed, the United States did not intervene with overt military action in Eastern Europe, taking a more cautious approach to maintain the balance of power between the two superpowers. National interest theorists claim that this stance suggests that the United States was more interested in maintaining its interests than promoting its ideology. Whereas ideological motivation causes nations to break rules and take risks in the name of some higher principles, these theorists say, nations protecting their self-interest do not want to “rock the boat”; thus, countries motivated by selfinterest play by the rules and take fewer risks. In consequence, while the Soviet Union marched into the nations of Eastern Europe to crush democratic movements, the United States, fearing international disapproval and hoping to avoid war with the Soviets, declined to intervene.
The Third World
According to theorists who believe ideology drove Cold War strategy, the United States and the Soviet Union both became involved in the third world to expand their spheres of influence, but for different reasons. The Soviets, unable to control Europe, sought to spread their ideology and expand their sphere of influence elsewhere. According to Chafetz:
Stalin and his successors were convinced that the legitimacy of their rule depended on validating Marxist-Leninist predictions of world revolution. The beginning of the nuclear standoff in Europe [between the United States and the Soviet Union] made it apparent that fomenting revolution in the industrialized, democratic states of the West was either impossible or too dangerous. As a result the Soviets turned their efforts to exporting revolution to less developed countries. They tended to view all anti-Western movement throughout Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East through the single lens of [Communist leader Vladimir] Lenin’s theory of imperialism. Thus, despite the diverse motives behind revolutions, coups, and civil wars in China, Laos, Cuba, Vietnam, Congo, Ethiopia, Somalia, Afghanistan, Libya, and elsewhere, [Soviet leaders] Stalin, Nikita S. Khrushchev, and Leonid I. Brezhnev characterized them all in anti-imperialist terms.
U.S. involvement in the third world was more complex. Chafetz writes, “Soviet exploitation of decolonization created a painful dilemma for the United States.” Although the United States, which regarded itself as a freed colony, was empathetic toward third world nations seeking self-determination and independence from colonial powers, it also viewed many of the regimes as anti- American. Indeed, the leaders of these third world coups and rev- olutions were often rebelling against increasing U.S. dominance in world affairs. Moreover, revolutionary leaders, inspired by Communist philosophy and weary of years of oppression at the hands of capitalist, democratic powers, were often attracted to the Soviet economic model. In consequence, the United States found itself in the uncomfortable position of opposing nationalist revolutions in order to contain the spread of communism.
National self-interest theorists disagree with this analysis. The fact that the United States did not support these revolutions, they say, proves that the nation was motivated more by self-interest than ideology. If the ideology theory were true, they contend, the United States would have supported revolutions against colonial oppression. The United States had once been a colony and after independence had become a champion of the principle that nations have the right to choose their own systems of governance. Despite its past, the United States did not support these revolutions. Instead, the United States opposed them in order to gain or maintain political and economic allies. Thus, in the eyes of many, U.S. behavior toward the third world was immoral and hypocritical. These theorists believe that the use of less-than-honorable strategies, such as assassinations and secret agreements with repressive regimes, to prevent the success of these national revolutions stained America’s reputation across the globe. Of particular embarrassment were some of the actions taken by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
The Central Intelligence Agency
National self-interest theorists find support for their views when examining CIA actions during the Cold War. Since its creation in 1947, the CIA was used as an instrument to carry out U.S. Cold War strategy, particularly during the 1950s and 1960s. The CIA was initially mandated to gather, evaluate, and disseminate intelligence. However, the vaguely mandated “other functions and duties” beyond its core mission led to the expansion of the CIA’s function to include counterespionage and covert action. Some of these activities were invaluable to America’s security. Foreign policy scholar Loch K. Johnson explains: “Intelligence-collection activities provided warnings about Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962. Counterespionage uncovered Soviet agents inside U.S. secret agencies.” Johnson adds, however, that the CIA sometimes used tactics that conflicted with traditional American values. The CIA resorted to assassination plots against foreign leaders and spied on its own citizens. The agency engaged in paramilitary operations in Southeast Asia and abandoned the native people who had helped them to imprisonment, torture, and death when the United States pulled out of the region. Even covert acts that were deemed CIA successes, in historian Benjamin Frankel’s view, were moral failures: “Its role in toppling the ostensibly democratic, though Marxist, government of Guatemala in 1954 seemed to fly in the face of America’s commitment to democracy.” The fact that the administrations of several Cold War presidents approved these tactics suggests that national self-interest, not ideology, motivated CIA action during the Cold War.
The Development of Alliances
National self-interest theorists also find support for their point of view in the formation of alliances among the Communist nations of the East and the democratic nations of the West over the course of the Cold War. These alliances were designed to protect common interests. “Each state began mobilizing other states,” Hampton explains, “trying to form alliances and balance against the other.” To maintain a balance of power, these theorists claim, Western nations created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. The alliance was created largely to discourage an attack by the Soviet Union on the non-Communist nations of Western Europe. In 1955 the Soviet Union and the Communist nations of Eastern Europe formed their own military alliance to oppose NATO, the Warsaw Pact. Whether these alliances were responsible for keeping the peace, the balance of power was in fact maintained. National interest theorists maintain that an unlikely alliance between the United States and China further supports their position. A rift between the Soviet Union and China, the world’s most powerful Communist powers, would make this alliance possible.
A Rift in the East
Most of the Western world viewed China and the Soviet Union as two versions of the same Communist evil, but in reality, Sino- Soviet relations, not unlike those between the Soviet Union and the United States, had been historically uneasy. The two nations shared the longest land border in the world, the source of border disputes since the seventeenth century. Moreover, during the Communist revolution in China, the Soviet Union had initially supported Chiang Kai-shek rather than Mao Tse-tung, who ultimately defeated Chiang Kai-shek and became the leader of Communist China. However, to offer the newly Communist China some security against the United States, in 1950 the Soviet Union signed the Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance with Mao.
Despite this alliance, the Soviet Union and China had different ideas about the purpose of communism and the direction it should take. The Soviet Union began to rethink its Cold War strategy, choosing less overtly aggressive means of expanding its sphere of influence to avoid directly antagonizing the United States. China, on the other hand, vigorously opposed this stance, favoring continued aggression toward “imperialist” nations. China even accused the Soviet Union of going soft on capitalism. China’s vigorous opposition to Western imperialism drove a wedge between the Soviet Union and China.
The conflicts between China and the Soviet Union escalated as both vied for control of satellite states. During the late 1960s the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the buildup of forces in the Soviet Far East led China to suspect that the Soviet Union would one day try to invade it. Border clashes along the Ussuri River that separates Manchuria from the Soviet Union peaked in 1969, and for several months China and the Soviet Union teetered on the brink of a nuclear conflict. Fortunately, negotiations between Soviet premier Aleksey Kosygin and Chinese premier Zhou En-lai defused the crisis. Nevertheless, Zhou and Mao began to rethink China’s geopolitical strategy. The goal had always been to drive imperialist nations from Asia, but such a strategy had led to a hostile relationship with America, the Soviet Union’s enemy.
In fact, this strategy had brought China into conflict with the United States in two of the bloodiest clashes of the Cold War, the Korean and Vietnam Wars. However, when President Richard Nixon showed signs of reducing if not eliminating the American presence in Vietnam, China began to see normalization of relations with the United States as a way of safeguarding its security against the Soviet Union. Since this relationship was forged to enhance China’s national security and was created despite ideological differences between the two nations, the alliance between China and the United States supports the claims of self-interest theorists.
The Fall of the Soviet Union
Whereas national self-interest theorists find support for their theory in the development of alliances during the Cold War, ideological theorists find support for their position in the circumstances surrounding the fall of the Soviet Union. When Communist ideology eventually gave way to more democratic ideals in the Soviet Union, the union dissolved and the Cold War came to an end. This change, many argue, can be traced to the efforts of one man, Mikhail Gorbachev. When Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union in 1985, he began a political, economic, and social program that radically altered the Soviet government, creating a limited democracy. The nation’s political restructuring began with a newly created Congress of People’s Deputies, which elected Gorbachev executive president. The new government was not without opposition, and remaining hard-line Communists tried to unseat the new government. The coup failed, however, and shortly thereafter Gorbachev dissolved the Communist Party.
Gorbachev tried to create a new Union—the Commonwealth of Independent States—but, explains Chafetz, “this experiment with limited democracy . . . developed a momentum of its own and became too strong for Gorbachev, or his more hardline opponents within the Communist party, to control.” When the commonwealth itself collapsed, the new union dissolved into independent nations. Ideological theorists point to this chain of events as proof that Cold War events were largely driven by ideology. Once the Soviet political system changed, there was no longer an ideological rift between the two nations, and the Cold War ended.
For over four decades the United States and the Soviet Union had tried to expand their influence worldwide and in the process came into countless conflicts with one another. Whereas the Soviet Union pressured the nations of Eastern Europe to become Communist satellites and supported Communist revolutions in Southeast Asia, the United States forged alliances with democratic nations around the world and defended many emerging nations against communism. While trying to interpret these events, Cold War scholars have become divided into two camps: those who think the Cold War powers were acting to further their own belief systems and those who believe the major powers were simply aiming to protect their interests at home and abroad. Which of these theories best explains each superpower’s behavior during the Cold War remains controversial. In Opposing Viewpoints in World History: The Cold War, scholars debate other controversies surrounding the Cold War in the following chapters: From Allies to Enemies: The Origins of the Cold War, Coexistence and Conflict, From Détente to the Cold War’s End, and Reflections: The Impact of the Cold War. The authors express diverse views about the nature of the Cold War and the efficacy and justness of U.S. and Soviet policies. As ideology and national-interest theorists make clear, evaluating the Cold War is an exceedingly complex enterprise.
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