This is part one of a three-part series in commemoration of the anniversary in which Churchill coined the term ‘Iron Curtain’ to describe the political divide between the capitalist Western Bloc and the communist Soviet Bloc. This series focuses on historical relations between the United States and Russia. Part One deals with American and Soviet tensions during the Cold War, their rivalry in various forms, and how their policies and espionage undermined each other.
During the Second World War, there was already a rift in relations between the allied Soviet Union and the United States. Near the end of the war, the Soviets accused America and Britain of purposely not opening a new front in Eastern Europe, ensuring that the Soviet Union would be weakened at the end of the war. Historians have also argued the American use of atomic weapons against Japan was also a warning to the Soviet Union of their might if they were to engage in future armed conflict.
Following allied victory, the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the two world superpowers, and the globe was soon divided into two sides. The United States rebuilt Western Europe and Japan into capitalist and democratic states, and the Soviet Union took control of most Eastern European countries and established them as satellite communist states. Their ideological differences marked the beginning of the Cold War.
Policy and Espionage
During this time, American and Soviet foreign policies were designed to undermine one another. The Marshall Plan in 1948 was introduced not just to rebuild Western Europe after the war, but to counter communism too, as the ideology became increasingly appealing in war-stricken countries. American intelligence agencies promoted the cultural works that exemplified American freedom. In 1954, Congress even passed a motion to add the words ‘Under God’ to the Pledge of Allegiance in defiance of communism, since the Soviet Union was atheist. Under President Truman, the United States adopted a policy of Containment, where communism would be allowed to exist, but the capitalist world must prevent the ideology from spreading.
The Communist Party set numerous cultural programs in preserving communism, the most ambitious set in 1961 that sought to turn the Soviet Union into a full communist state within 20 years. Literature that opposed communism were censored, such as Doctor Zhivago, a novel that questioned the October Revolution. The Party also supported European decolonization and sought to turn former colonies into communist states, arguing that capitalism was a product of colonialism. The Soviet government also prevented people living within its sphere of influence. The most famous example was the Berlin Wall, built in 1961 to prevent those living in East Berlin to flee to western side, controlled by the capitalist west.
Americans and Soviets took part in extensive espionage missions. The Soviet Union was able to quickly develop nuclear weapons due to espionage, as scientist Klaus Fuchs, who was involved in the Manhattan Project, leaked information to Ruth Kuczynski, a German-Soviet spy in 1943. In the same decade, Julius Rosenberg also leaked prototypes of American atomic bombs and propulsion engines. His later arrest gave rise to McCarthyism, a political movement that accused many Americans of being communists without evidence.
The United States flew various aerial reconnaissance missions in Soviet airspace to spy on military infrastructure, using U-2 planes that flew at high altitudes. One of the most notable incidents from these missions occurred in 1960, when pilot Gary Powers’ plane was shot down. He was captured and imprisoned but later returned to the United States in a spy exchange, another common story during the Cold War Era. Overseas, the CIA led spy networks around the world for various purposes. American espionage led to the overthrow of numerous leftist governments in the world, and often replaced democratically-elected leaders with dictators.
Amid all the spy missions and backchanneling, the world publicly witnessed American-Soviet enmity in different forms. Although the two powers never engaged in ‘hot’ wars, they participated in various proxy wars, notably in Afghanistan, Korea, and Vietnam, supporting factions that aligned with their politics. Both countries also scrambled to build up its nuclear stockpile in order to deter each other from declaring war in a strategy known as mutually assured destruction. Even then, tensions rose to a point where all-out nuclear war was imminent. Once in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and another instance in 1983, the Soviets reported a false American first strike.
While both American and Soviet spies were interested in each others’ military progress, the two countries’ pursuit of scientific achievement culminated in the Space Race of the 1960s. Using missile technology from Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union developed intercontinental ballistic missiles, and later fashioned them into rockets that were able to travel to space. With these innovations, the Soviets beat out Americans in sending the first satellite, dog, and human into space by 1961. The United States would respond by sending the first person to the moon in 1969. Throughout the decade, Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova—the first man and woman to reach space respectively—and Neil Armstrong—the first man to walk on the moon—became cultural icons.
The rivalry did not end there, Americans and Soviets competed for prestige at the Olympic Games as well, usually finishing neck and neck on the medal table. Sport was an important aspect of both countries; the Communist Party had long promoted good physical health and athletic prowess, and government propaganda encouraging fitness were a common sight. In the United States, the development of recreational and professional sports made it a hallmark of American culture.
The two countries battled spectacularly at the Olympics, especially in team sports. An example can be found during the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, where the Soviet men's basketball team controversially defeated the favourited US team in the finals, marking the first time the Americans did not win a gold medal in basketball. Another iconic meeting between the two countries was at the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, where the American men's hockey team, composed mostly of amateurs, defeated the Soviet team that was considered the best in the world. The American team went on to win the gold medal and the event was later known as "Miracle on Ice."
In the last decade of the Cold War, Russo-American relations continued to be openly hostile after a period of détente (relaxation of tensions) in the 1970s. The easing of relations was short lived, and such factors that led to the breakdown included the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Soviet downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007, and the hardline foreign policy of US President Ronald Reagan. The United States also boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, which the Soviet Union responded by boycotting the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.
During the 1980s, both the Soviet and American economies suffered. The Soviet Union was overspending on defence, while the United States encountered stagflation that spiked unemployment. Reagan’s intervention in lowering the American money supply saw mixed results but managed to grow the American economy once more. On the other hand, the Soviets were brought due to their knees due to a crippling economy and growing political dissent. In order to bring themselves out of their current predicament, the Communist Party appointed Mikhail Gorbachev as General Secretary, who would begin the series of reforms that ends the Cold War.
Legacy of the Cold War
The tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States did not die down until the Soviets’ dissolution in 1991. The western bloc started to normalize relations with Russia as the country slowly adopted democracy at the end of the 20th Century. But with the rise of an increasingly authoritarian regime led by President Vladimir Putin in the previous decade, relations are slowly turning the other way again.
The relations between America and Russia during the Cold War dominated 20th century history. Remnants of popular culture from that period are still relevant today, and the technological race between the two powers ignited the space industry. Policies introduced by both countries had a tremendous impact on the world population. The proxy wars initiated by the two countries, as well as the regimes toppled, claimed the lives of millions, with many of the affected countries still destabilized today. This era also introduced the growing threat of nuclear weapons, which the world still struggles to deal with today.
Part two will focus on US-Russia relations after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The series will discuss key events related to the two countries in the last two decades, and how they played a role in shaping their relations today.