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United States Vs Soviet Union: Who Was Responsible for The Cold War

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Analysis of Arthur Schlesinger
  3. Analysis of Walter Lafeber
  4. Analysis of John Gaddis
  5. Conclusion


The Cold War origins, beginning in 1947, is often seen as the event that marked the beginning of mostly indirect and some direct hostility between the United State and the Soviet Union and encompassed all aspects of political, social, cultural and economic life but with no open warfare. But who was responsible for the cold war? Arthur Schlesinger, suggested the responsibility of the Cold War fell on the shoulders of the Soviet Union. This orthodox interpretation was based on the Soviet regime that was unquestionably expansionist and would take any measure necessary to increase Soviet influence. Furthermore, this interpretation simply suggests that America reacted to Soviet expansionism. It was the combination of Stalin’s character and Soviet ideology that ultimately led to the Cold War. However, this explanation has been critiqued by others as it does not account for political issues prior to the Cold War and Americas own motivations. To counteract this interpretation revisionists, argue the origins of the Cold War was an emphasis of mutual suspicion of both the US and the USSR. Revisionists such as Walter Lafeber, even argue that the US alone are culpable for the Cold War. It is important to bear in mind that these interpretations were all devised whilst the Cold War was still on going. John Gaddis presents a view where ultimately the two nations clashed over different perceptions of security and how to uphold it and that neither America or the Soviets were the sole reason for the outcome of events . In this paper I will explore the Orthodox, Revisionist and Post Revisionist views to reach a conclusion as to how and for what reason the Cold War began.

Analysis of Arthur Schlesinger

The Western Orthodox theory places responsibility for the development of the Cold War on the Soviet Union. Orthodox historians emphasize that the Soviet Union was expansionist and would take any measure that they thought necessary to ensure Soviet influence ‘Russia therefore meant the enlargement of the area of Russian influence.’ This theory is supported by George F. Kennan, in the long telegram he described the party leaders as ‘ignorant of the outside world’ and questioned ‘if anyone in this great land received accurate and unbiased information about the outside world’ ultimately he unequivocally believes that ‘In the long run there will be no long term peaceful co existence’ . At the beginning of the Cold War in America Kennans’ attitude towards Russia – the US had to react to soviet expansionism – was adopted across the country. The nature of Soviet expansion, discussed by Arthur Schlesinger was a result of both ‘imperial Russian strategic ambitions’ combined with a ‘ideologists traced to the communist manifesto’ revealing the quest for conquering the world ‘inexorable drive for domination’. Historically Russia has been a target for invasions, ‘their boarder to the west, crossed so often and so bloodily in the dark course of their history’ which led to a reasonable want by Stalin: an area between Russia and the West separating the two hostile nations a buffer zone. Because Russia has no natural borders, they concluded to protect themselves they must have an ‘enlargement of the area of Russian influence’. However, Schlesinger argued that the ‘Russians would use their security zone, not just for defensive purposes, but as a springboard from which to mount an attack on Western Europe’ and just as easily implement communism in Eastern Europe. Evidence such as Stalin’s delayed evacuation of troops from Iran and refusing to make Germany’s government a federal system imply that the USSR was not simply protecting their state but also expansionist.

It is clear through, the ‘naughty document’ with Churchill in 1944, that Stalin was a strong advocate of the ‘spheres of influence’ strategy to maintain world order. Britain, through Churchill, was open to this method whilst the US strongly opposed it. Schlesinger explains why the US would have to ‘rebuff the sphere-of-influence solution’. Firstly, America views this solution and ‘the balance-of-power idea seemed inherently unstable’. In the past agreements have been made and have broken down resulting in wars the US, essentially is trying to avoid World War three by avoiding splitting the world into parts and pitting Britain, Russia, and the US against one another. Secondly, the sphere of influence would lead to ‘closed trade areas’ which is an essential part of the American capitalist system. The last reason is that the sphere of influence would be almost impossible to justify to the American people. ‘The betrayal of principles for which the Second World War was being fought’. The Americans who fought for countries such as Italy and Poland to be free to then go into Soviet control went against the reasoning for fighting in the first place. The US instead wished to adopt a policy, whereby the balance of power should lie within an international organization such as NATO or the United Nations. ‘As Hull put it.’ But I felt security would best be obtained through a strong postwar peace organization.

It was not just talks after World War Two that put the US on the defensive. Although the war forced the two nations to become allies without a common enemy the two countries would naturally oppose one another. Lenin preached about class struggle and that only one ideology can win; both can not survive i.e capitalism and communism. As such by definition alone the two countries would be at odds with one another. No matter what the American government did, the USSR could not simply stop trying to bring communist ideology around the world. This alone would make it near impossible to have a meaningful dialogue between the two states. Compounded with other differences I have mentioned above from an orthodox perspective Russia is at fault for the beginnings of the Cold War.

As Schlesinger mentions ideology is not enough to sustain revolutionary action over long periods of time, so the character of Stalin must be examined. The Soviet archives opening allowed historians to fill in the gaps that previously were left unanswered about Stalin’s character. Zubok and Pleshakov explained that Stalin was secluded, introverted, and reserved who rarely shared his feelings on paper or in person however, he was unquestionably the totalitarian dictator of the USSR. Zubok and Pleshakov argue that had Stalin wanted to avoid confrontation with the US he would have done so. Stalin alone had the ability to mark a difference. Nevertheless, the very nature of Stalin prevented him from taking action to prevent the Cold War. It is evident through the purges that Stalin was known for paranoia and suspicions ‘deep and morbid obsessions and compulsions’. The argument here is that nothing was ever going to clear Stalin’s paranoia and so how could it be expected that America’s plans would have such an effect?

Schlesinger’s analysis shows that the Cold War happened because of ‘cumulative momentum’. The policies that the superpowers adopted were perceived as threats by the other, they then both took defensive measures to protect themselves from those policies. He describes this period as ‘suspicions and counter-suspicions, action and counter-action’. According to Schlesinger, the Soviet Union was ultimately responsible for the development of the Cold War due to its aggressive nature, this traditional interpretation was generally accepted until the 1960s when more sophisticated research was conducted to determine the reasons for the Cold War.

Analysis of Walter Lafeber

The revisionist interpretation of understanding the Cold War places emphasis on the mutual suspicion and reaction of both the US and the Soviet Union. Revisionists do not place full responsibility on the USSR – ‘too one-sided in blaming international trouble on the Soviet Union, ignoring the interaction of great powers’ – for the Cold War’s development and, in extreme cases, historians such as Paul Seabury even argue that the United States alone should be held culpable.

Lafeber argues that the origins of the Cold War took root much earlier than the setting of World War Two and Professor Fleming completed a study that’s general thesis concluded that the Cold War began in 1918 during the Russian Civil War. Similarly, to Lafeber Fleming suggest that the ‘Cold War was generated by western actions which caused Russia to become suspicious and hostile’. For example: ‘Twice Roosevelt promised an invasion. Twice he and Churchill reneged’. By then the Russians had themselves driven back the Nazis, although at a tremendous cost.

Therefore, it seemed logical that Stalin and the Soviet Union did not want to place their future in the hands of the US. Thus, LaFeber argues that Stalin’s policies were not determined by ideology, expansion, or world revolution as orthodox historians suggest; they were determined by the awful conditions that the USSR was in. The Soviets were not looking to expand their sphere of influence, as orthodox historians would argue, but instead, they were looking for a ‘buffer zone’ for security in order to prevent ‘capitalist encirclement’. Stalin’s suspicions of the West were realistic, not paranoid, although some post-revisionists will argue that he was both. The West’s involvement in Russia’s Civil War and the delayed promise of opening up a second front in World War Two are highlighted as examples that caused realistic suspicion among the Soviets. ‘Thus the notion of a Russian colossus bent on subversion and world domination was unreal’. Therefore, Stalin’s priorities lay not in starting a world revolution but in securing Russia and his own power.

Revisionists suggest that the US wanted to become an expansionist power regardless of the Soviet Union. The US wanted to ‘project American power abroad’ using unprecedented foreign policy tactics their reasoning’s as follows. Firstly, Americans ‘drew lessons from their experience in the 1930s, when they supposedly indulged in their ’isolationism’, ‘the Ghost of Depression Past and Depression Future thus hovered over menacingly’ to prevent what had happened in the 1930s the US had to ensure other countries would have their own economic power. Secondly, ‘American activism is found in new strategic thinking’ as the world became modern it became easy to travel to places but also left America unprotected. American leaders sought for ‘defence in depth’ meaning they wanted to have bases and some of their arsenal in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Germany, and Turkey to deny a potential attack. The evidence above suggests that the US would have wanted to implement new policies regardless of the Soviet Union.

The exact nature of the Soviet threat to the United States during this period remained relatively unknown and mostly relied on estimates. The exaggerated threat led to two atomic bombs being deployed to showcase their military strength and ‘he (Truman) decided not to share the information’ compiled with president Truman’s advisors encouraging an ‘Eastern European showdown’. The attitude towards the USSR was considerably intense especially as Lafeber points out that the Soviets had not even been as aggressive during the months preceding the declaration of containment. Some revisionists point out that the Americans’ response to the Soviets was unjustified and historian Deutscher states that ‘American and western fears of the Russian invasion of Europe were from the beginning simply mistaken.’

The revisionist interpretation of the Cold War provides the main reasons as to why it broke out, they are mutual suspicions and the reaction of the USSR and the Unites states. The evidence above suggests that the Americans used their strength to their advantage for example aid to European countries after the war and the military prowess they had from the atomic bomb. The Soviet Union alternatively was simply trying to prevent another war that they could not afford. In some cases, there is a complete reversal of orthodox theory and revisionists blame the United States and imply that the United States was solely responsible for the outbreak of the Cold War.

Analysis of John Gaddis

The post-revisionist interpretation of the Cold War is a middle ground between orthodox and revisionist views on the cold war. John Gaddis analysis both the USSR and America’s actions leading up to the Cold War and suggests that both share the responsibility for the reasons for the Cold War beginning. Gaddis suggests that finding security for both the US and the USSR was the main reason for the outbreak of the Cold War.

Security is the main reason Gaddis suggests that the Cold War began. Both Russia and the Us after World War Two for different reasons wanted to secure their future. Russia previously had been invaded and wanted to secure their border. America sought to avoid another attack from the western hemisphere and decided to create the policy of ‘defence in depth’ . Although both countries wanted to achieve the same goal, their viewpoints and methods differed so greatly that Gaddis suggest for this reason war was unavoidable. Stalin’s views on security ‘security came only by intimidating or eliminating potential challengers’. Stalin’s security lay in his being in power and a ‘buffer zone’ preventing that power being taken away. whereas Roosevelt’s ‘security was to be collective good, not a benefit denied to some in order to provide for others.’ For Roosevelt security meant other countries thriving and the interests of the US would not come above others. Revisionists would argue that the use of the atomic bomb was to show Russia of their military prowess. Alternatively, Gaddis refutes this argument stating that Truman was in wartime mind and the use of the bomb was not too ‘intimate’ to the Soviets, but to defeat the Japanese. The idea of security alone and such differing interpretations of how security could be achieved meant the two countries were bound to clash at some point after World War Two.

Ideology as a reason for the Cold War is a weak one in Gaddis’s opinion, he even suggests that it may be irrelevant however, other Post revisionist historians Noggee and Donaldson state that ‘Moscow needs and enemy to justify domestic repression’. Gaddis explains that as in any historical conflict, bumping and bruising take place when a power vacuum arises after a conflict, whether both contenders were democratic or authoritarian. He compares states to billiard balls to explain that are only ensuring their survival through power. States can be bigger or smaller but will still collide in the struggle for power. After World War Two France, Spain, Italy and Britain were no longer a big imposing power. Therefore, this left Russia, China, and the United States to bump and bruise with one another. It is worth noting that without the fear of Stalin’s intentions with Europe, the United States fully intended to leave western Europe to its own devices indicating that the US’s ideology was not a main factor in deciding to stop Stalin. Gaddis is therefore suggesting similarly to Fleming and Alexis de Tocqueville Russia and the US would have had a conflict with or without polar opposite ideologies.

The Post Revisionist view by Gaddis places an emphasis on security as the main reason for the Cold War. However, unlike Orthodox and Revisionists he suggests that because the idea and actions to achieve security were so completely different for both of the countries, they both should share equal blame or responsibility for causing the Cold War. Gaddis does acknowledge that ideology albeit not a significant part of the Cold War did influence policies made and was a tool used by both nations to garner support and justified decisions made.


In conclusion, many factors contributed to the deterioration of relations, and therefore the eventual start of the Cold War. Both the US and USSR had problems with their, ideology, security, and economies ultimately, all of these caused the Cold War. However, any one of these in isolation would likely not have caused the war, but combined and exacerbated by the divisions after Word War two it was inevitable. While attributing the Cold War to the USSR alone can explain it to an extent, it is fundamentally undermined by the fact that both sides believe they were only reacting to one another. Similarly, placing the blame on America alone negates the role of Stalin and the USSR’s aggressive tendencies. It is clear that the most significant cause of the Cold War supported by Gaddis was the idea of security and therefore the US and USSR both initiated the start of the Cold War. Gaddis suggests that both countries treated one another as enemies and consequently affected all policies created before, during, and after the Cold War. As French historian Alexis de Tocqueville concluded in 1835, There are at the present time two great nations in the world the Russians and the Americans Their starting point is different and their courses are not the same, yet each of them seems marked out by will of heaven to sway the destines of half the globe.

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