The Cold War

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Causes of the Cold War

1 Beliefs

  • The Soviet Union was a Communist country, ruled by a dictator, who cared little about human rights.

  • The USA was a capitalist democracy which valued freedom.

  1. Aims

  • Stalin wanted huge reparations from Germany, and a ‘buffer’ of friendly states to protect the USSR from being invaded again.

  • Britain and the USA wanted to protect democracy, and help Germany to recover. They were worried that large areas of eastern Europe were falling under Soviet control.

  1. Resentment about History

  • The Soviet Union could not forget that in 1918 Britain and the USA had tried to destroy the Russian Revolution. Stalin also thought that they had not given him enough help in the Second World War.

  • Britain and the USA could not forget that Stalin had signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact with Germany in 1939.

  1. Events

  • Neither side trusted each other. Every action they took (see Source B) made them hate each other more.

Who Caused the Cold War?

Russian historians blamed Churchill (the British Prime Minister) and Truman (the American president, 1945–1953). They said Truman and Churchill wanted to destroy the USSR, which was just defending itself.

At first, western writers blamed the Soviet Union. They said Stalin was trying to build up a Soviet empire. Later, however, some western historians blamed the USA. They said Truman had not understood how much Russia had suffered in the Second World War.

Nowadays, historians think BOTH sides were to blame – that there were hatreds on both sides.

Source A

It is useless to try to discover who made the first move to break the alliance. It is impossible to trace the first ‘broken promise’.
Written by the historian Isaac Deutscher, Stalin (1969).

Source B:

Events which caused the Cold War

Yalta Conference (Feb 1945)

Potsdam Conference (Jul 1945)

Salami tactics (1945–48)

Fulton Speech (Mar 1946)

Greece (Feb 1947)

Truman Doctrine (Mar 1947)

Marshall Plan (Jun 1947)

Cominform (Oct 1947)

Czechoslovakia (Feb 1948)


  1. Write a paragraph to explain the meaning of the term ‘Cold War’.

  2. Copy, then learn the five causes and nine events which caused the Cold War, so that you know them ‘off by heart’.

  3. For each of the five causes, explain how it might have caused relations between the USA and the USSR to become tense.

  4. Working in twos, one pupil plays the part of a Russian historian, the other a western writer of the 1950s. Talk about causes 1–4, the ‘Russian historian’ arguing that the Cold War was America’s fault, and the ‘western writer’ saying that it was Russia’s.

The Big Three during the War

During the War, Britain and the USA were allies of the Soviet Union, but the only thing that united them was their hatred of Germany.

In 1945, the Big Three held two conferences – at Yalta (February) and Potsdam (July) – to try to sort out how they would organise the world after the war. It was at these conferences that the tensions between the two sides became obvious.

Yalta (Feb 1945)

On the surface, the Yalta conference seemed successful.

The Allies agreed:

  1. Russia would join the United Nations.

  2. divide Germany into four ‘zones’, which Britain, France, the USA and the USSR would occupy after the war.

  3. bring Nazi war-criminals to trial.

  4. set up a Polish Provisional Government of National Unity 'pledged to the holding of free and unfettered elections as soon as possible'.

  5. help the freed peoples of Europe set up democratic and self-governing countries by helping them to (a) maintain law and order; (b) carry out emergency relief measures; (c) set up governments; and (d) hold elections (this was called the 'Declaration of Liberated Europe').

  6. set up a commission to look into reparations.

But, behind the scenes, tension was growing. After the conference, Churchill wrote to Roosevelt that ‘The Soviet union has become a danger to the free world.’


  1. Source B shows the ‘Big Three’ smiling. Does this prove that Britain, Russia and America were friends?

  2. Write two reports of the Yalta Conference: one for the British newspapers, the other for the British government.

Did you know?

Churchill was so worried about Soviet domination of eastern Europe that he tried to get the British armies to advance faster. In 1944, he dropped British paratroopers behind enemy lines at Arnhem – but they were cut off and defeated by the Germans.

This story was told in the film, A Bridge Too Far.
Source A

The arrows show the Allied armies advancing into Germany in 1945 – the British and Americans from the west, the Russians from the east. Notice the large areas of eastern Europe which fell under the control of Russia.

Source B

A British cartoon of 1945. Churchill, Roosevelt (USA) and Stalin are shown as doctors, working together to heal the world. Look at the faces of the ‘Big Three’; what do you notice?


  1. Describe the events and decisions of the Yalta and Potsdam Conferences. Were they different?

  2. Using page 5, especially Sources D and E, explain why Potsdam was less successful than Yalta.

Source D

The Russians only understand one language - ‘how many armies have you got?’ I’m tired of babying the Soviets.
President Truman, writing in January 1946

Source E

What is surprising about the fact that the Soviet Union, worried about its future safety, wants governments friendly to it in Finland, Poland and Romania?
Stalin, writing in March 1946

A map of how Germany was divided into zones.

A map of how Berlin was divided into zones.

Source C

The thief labelled ‘Russia’ is caught stealing a bag labelled ‘territorial grabs’.

‘It’s alright – he’s with me’, Stalin assures Roosevelt, who meekly answers: ‘Oh, OK’.

Potsdam (July 1945)

At Potsdam, the Allies decided the post-war peace – Potsdam was the Versailles of World War II
America had a new president, Truman, who was determined to ‘get tough’ with the Russians.   Also, when he went to the Conference, Truman had just learned that America had tested the first atomic bomb.   It gave the Americans a huge military advantage over everyone else.    Moreover, in March 1945, Stalin had invited the non-Communist Polish leaders to meet him, and arrested them.

    So, at Potsdam, the arguments came out into the open.


The Conference agreed the following Protocols:

  1. to set up the four ‘zones of occupation’ in Germany.   The government and laws and education ‘shall be controlled to eliminate Nazi and militarist doctrines and to make possible the development of democratic ideas.  

  2. to bring Nazi war-criminals to trial.

  3. to recognize the Polish Provisional Government of National Unity and hold 'free and unfettered elections as soon as possible'.

  4. Russia was allowed to take reparations from the Soviet Zone, and also 10% of the industrial equipment of the western zones as reparations.   America and Britain could take reparations from their zones if they wished.

But in fact the Allies had disagreed openly about:  

1. the details of how to divide Germany.

2. the size of reparations Germany ought to pay.

3. Russian policy in eastern Europe.

Source D

In this ‘marriage of convenience’, the thought that a divorce was inevitable had been in the mind of each partner from the beginning.

Written by the historian Isaac Deutscher, Stalin (1969).


  1. Looking at the information on this spread, when do YOU think the Cold War started? Read Source F; when did Deutscher think it started?

Salami tactics: the Soviet take-over of eastern Europe

New Words

sinister: frightening, in an evil way.
totalitarian: where the government has total power over the people.
imperialistic: wanting to build an empire. Communists used it as an abuse-word to describe the western powers.
During 1946–47, Stalin made sure that Communist governments came to power in all the countries of eastern Europe (the countries which the Soviet Union had conquered in 1945).

The Communist description of this process was ‘slicing salami’ – gradually getting rid of all opposition, bit-by-bit (see Source A). In this way, Russia gained control of:

  1. Albania (1945) – the Communists took power after the war without opposition

  2. Bulgaria (1945) – a left-wing coalition gained power in 1945; the Communists then executed the leaders of all the other parties.

  3. Poland (1947) – a coalition government took power in 1945, but the Communists forced the non-Communist leaders into exile.

  4. Hungary (1947) – see Source A.

  5. Romania (1945–1947) – a left-wing coalition was elected in 1945; the Communists gradually took over control.

  6. Czechoslovakia (1945–48) – a left-wing coalition was elected in 1945. In 1948, the Communists banned all other parties and killed their leaders.

  7. East Germany (1949) – the Russian turned their zone of Germany into the German Democratic republic in 1949.


  1. Read Source A, and make a spidergram showing all the factors that helped Communists take power in the countries of eastern Europe.

  2. Explain how the case of Hungary on Source A illustrates ‘salami tactics’.

Source A

Hungary was invaded by the Russians, and in 1945 the allies agreed that Russian troops should stay there. Stalin allowed elections, and the non-communists won a big majority. However, some communists were elected, led by a pro-Russian called Rakosi.

Rakosi now started demanding that groups which opposed him should be banned. If not, he hinted, the Russians would take over the country. Then he got control of the police, and started to arrest his opponents. He set up a sinister and brutal secret police unit, the AVH. Soon Rakosi had complete control over Hungary.

Rakosi’s work was typical of what was happening all over eastern Europe.

The historian Jon Nichol, writing in 1990

Source B

Russia saw it as protecting herself from future attack. The West saw it as empire-building.

Churchill’s Fulton Speech
On 5 March 1946, Winston Churchill gave a speech at Fulton in America. He said ‘a shadow’ had fallen on eastern Europe, which was now cut off from the free world by ‘an iron curtain’. Behind that line, he said, the people of eastern Europe were ‘subject to Soviet influence . . . totalitarian control [and] police governments’.

Source C

Mr Churchill has called for a war on the USSR.

Stalin, writing in the Russian newspaper Pravda on 13 March 1946.

Source D

. . . the Cold War set in. Churchill had given his famous speech in Fulton urging the imperialistic forces of the world to fight the Soviet Union. Our relations with England, France and the USA were ruined.

Nikita Khrushchev, writing in 1971. In 1946 he was a member of the Soviet government.

Source E

A British cartoon of 1946. In fact, the ‘iron curtain’ was a 2,000-kilometre line of barbed wire, look-out posts and road blocks.


  1. Read Sources C and D. Explain why Churchill’s speech was a turning point in the history of the Cold War.

  2. Did Churchill cause the Cold War?

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