8.2 The Cold War

6 min readjanuary 16, 2023

Jillian Holbrook

Jillian Holbrook

AP World History: Modern 🌍

577 resources
See Units

The global balance of economic and political power shifted during and after World War II and rapidly evolved into the Cold War. Although these nations fought as allies, their relationship rapidly deteriorated as they disagreed on how Europe should be rebuilt and how to implement post-war order.
The democracy of the United States and the authoritarian communist Soviet Union emerged as superpowers, which led to ideological conflict and a power struggle between capitalism and communism across the globe.
The Cold War was a state of geopolitical tension and military competition between the United States and the Soviet Union after the end of World War II. Beginning in the aftermath of World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the two dominant world powers. Although these nations fought as allies, their relationship rapidly deteriorated as they disagreed on how Europe should be rebuilt and how to implement post-war order. ❄️
The United States, through the Marshall Plan, sought to reestablish Europe by promoting democracy and capitalism. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union, through establishing communist satellite states in Eastern Europe, wanted to spread socialism and expand its sphere of influence.
Although the United States and USSR never engaged in combat directly, the Cold War was primarily fought through proxy wars, espionage, and economic and diplomatic means. Despite the lack of direct military confrontation between the two superpowers, competition led to a nuclear arms race and the development of new technologies, such as the hydrogen bomb and intercontinental ballistic missiles, which increased the risk of nuclear war and sparked global tensions.
The Cold War lasted for several decades until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The end of the Cold War marked a significant shift in world politics, as the United States emerged as the sole superpower, and the threat of a nuclear war greatly decreased.

End of WWII/Start of Cold War Tensions

Near the end of WWII, the United States, the USSR, and Britain gathered at the Conference of Yalta.
The Yalta Conference consisted of a meeting of the leaders of the Allied powers. The conference was held in Yalta, Crimea, Soviet Union (now in Ukraine) from February 4 to 11, 1945. The leaders present at the conference included Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The main purpose of the conference was to discuss the reorganization of post-war Europe and the defeat of Germany. Important agreements were made regarding the division of Germany, the future of Poland, and the use of Soviet assistance in the war against Japan.
The Potsdam Conference later that same year only increased tensions between the three powers. Beyond Stalin, President Harry S. Truman represented the United States after the death of FDR, and British Prime Minister Clement Attlee replaced Winston Churchill in a recent election. The leaders discussed the future of Germany and the issue of reparations. Important decisions were made regarding the occupation and control of Germany, the expulsion of ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe, and the use of the atomic bomb against Japan.
Yalta and Potsdam failed to result in resolutions that left its parties happy. Great Britain and America remained deeply suspicious of the USSR and its influence in Eastern Europe.

Rising Tensions: The United States vs USSR

The United States and the Soviet Union became enemies after World War II for a variety of reasons, including ideological differences, conflicting visions for the post-war order, and competition for global influence.
  1. Fundamental ideological differences: The United States was a capitalist democracy, while the Soviet Union was a communist dictatorship. These differences inspired deep mistrust and hostility between the two countries. The US saw the Soviet Union as a threat to its security and way of life, while the Soviet Union saw the US as a capitalist aggressor trying to encircle and weaken it.
  2. Conflicting visions for the post-war order: The United States and the Soviet Union had different plans for the post-war world. The United States wanted to rebuild Europe and promote democracy and capitalism through the Marshall Plan. Conversely, the Soviet Union wanted to spread socialism and establish communist satellite states in Eastern Europe.
  3. Competition for global influence: Both the United States and the Soviet Union were determined to extend their influence around the world. As the Soviet Union committed to spreading communism and gaining control of more territory, the United States pushed communism containment and the prospering of democracy to maintain its dominant global position.


The Truman Doctrine

In 1947, the Truman Doctrine revolutionized U.S. policy and established the principle of containment. Aimed at limiting the spread of Soviet power and ideologies, the doctrine stated that the United States would provide military and economic aid to any country threatened by communism.
The Truman Doctrine primarily targeted Greece and Turkey, which were facing internal political turmoil and the possibility of being overtaken by communist forces. However, the policy of containment was a broader strategy, employing diplomatic, economic, and military means, such as the formation of military alliances, economic aid to friendly countries, and the use of covert actions and propaganda. The Truman Doctrine was one of the key components of the containment policy, which was later continued by the Eisenhower and the JFK Administration
Basically, this U.S. foreign policy emphasized that the country must “contain” communism, and the only way to do that was to aid surrounding countries in developing capitalism and democratizing. The United States worried about a domino effect: if one country fell to communism, the rest would, too. 

The Marshall Plan 💰

The 1948 Marshall Plan expresses containment influences. This American economic plan provided enormous financial aid to rebuild Western Europe under democracy and capitalism.
The Marshall Plan provided aid to countries, including France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and other Western European nations. The aid was primarily in the form of grants, which were used to purchase goods and services from the United States, including food, fuel, and industrial equipment. The Marshall Plan also provided funds for the reconstruction of infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, and ports, and for the modernization of industry and agriculture.

Neutrality in the Cold War

Many countries were pressured into siding with either the United States or the USSR during the Cold War. However, a smattering of countries vowed to stay neutral. The Non-Aligned Movement, which was created at the Bandung Conference (1955), was an alliance of countries led by Sukarno of Indonesia and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana.
Many countries that promised neutrality under the Non-Aligned Movement were newly independent. Remaining neutral emerged as a strategy to protect their developing nations.

Review Exercise: Matching

Match each event/term with its description
  • Yalta Conference
  • Potsdam Conference
  • Truman Doctrine
  • Containment
  • Marshall Plan
  • Non-Aligned Movement
  • U.S. foreign policy theory that to stop communism, it must aid in democratizing countries surrounding the USSR.
  • The first meeting after WWII between Great Britain, the U.S., and the Soviet Union about what to do with Nazi Germany— ended in tension.
  • United States economic blueprint that gave aid to Western Europe but not Eastern.
  • The second meeting after WWII between the “Great Three” — only increased the tensions of the previous gathering between Great Britain/America and the USSR.
  • The alliance between (mostly) new nations pledging to stay neutral in the Cold War; began with the Bandung Conference.
  • A change in U.S. foreign policy shifted the U.S. from a withdrawn nation to one willing to interfere and contain communism.
  1. Containment
  2. Yalta Conference
  3. Marshall Plan
  4. Potsdam Conference
  5. Non-Aligned Movement
  6. Truman Doctrine
Browse Study Guides By Unit
🐎Unit 1 – The Global Tapestry, 1200-1450
🐫Unit 2 – Networks of Exchange, 1200-1450
🕌Unit 3 – Land-Based Empires, 1450-1750
🍕Unit 4 – Transoceanic Interactions, 1450-1750
✊🏽Unit 5 – Revolutions, 1750-1900
🚂Unit 6 – Consequences of Industrialization, 1750-1900
💣Unit 7 – Global Conflict, 1900-Present
🥶Unit 8 – Cold War & Decolonization, 1900-Present
✈️Unit 9 – Globalization, 1900-Present
✏️Frequently Asked Questions
🚀Thematic Guides
🗺Regional Guides
🤓Historical Thinking Skills
🧐 Multiple Choice Questions (MCQ)
📋Short Answer Questions (SAQ)
📝Long Essay Questions (LEQ)
📑Document Based Questions (DBQ)

Stay Connected

© 2023 Fiveable Inc. All rights reserved.

© 2023 Fiveable Inc. All rights reserved.