The Beginning of the Cold War

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13434

After WWII, the Allied Powers immediately turned on each other. The idea of communism fiercely separated Western Europe and the USA from the Soviet Union. This division was the start of the Cold War.


United States, World

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • What was so cold about the Cold War?
  • And what made it so different from any other war in history?

USA vs USSR boxing gloves

We tend to think of wars as all-out military combat between two opposing sides, but war can be much less direct than that. Keep this in mind as you continue reading.

During World War II, the Allied Powers of the United States, United Kingdom, France, and the Soviet Union lost tens of millions of people, and all of Europe had been bombed daily to the point of obliteration.

Waldenburg, Germany after a raid in April 1945

Image by the Department of Defense, via the National Archives (531283) has no restriction of use.

  • How did this landscape lead to a cold war?

The Marshall Plan

The need to rebuild affected both the winners and losers of World War II except for the United States, who was bombed very little because it was so far away. This put the US in a position to help all who had aided in the destruction of the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan).

The United States' Marshall Plan did just that, offering money to European nations who had to spend millions to rebuild their cities. This aid was offered to all the nations of Europe, even the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union declined the aid and told other Eastern European nations to do the same. This was done out of fear America would gain too much control in their sphere of influence.

A sphere of influence is the area beyond a country's border where it still has power to affect developments and decisions. The presence of this sphere gives a nation more power, resources, and manpower. And so, through its financial support, the US gained more ability to shape the post-war world.

The Soviet Union (Russia) functioned fundamentally differently from democratic nations. Their entire economy was guided by the central government. In order to ensure further survival, the Soviet Union needed to build its own sphere of influence to combat the growing American power.

From the US perspective, the idea of communism was a source of tremendous fear. Communism conflicted with America's fundamental beliefs of freedom and independence.

It was this fear of communism and, likewise, the Soviets' fear of democracy and capitalism that led to an immediate rise in tensions.

map of Europe

NATO and the Warsaw Pact

While Europe was divided by the Marshall Plan, this separation was formalized by the creation of two organizations.

NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and the Warsaw Pact (Warsaw Treaty Organization) are inter-government organizations that gave military protection to member nations if they were attacked. This made much of the world, whether allied with the US or the USSR (the Soviet Union), militarily tied to any conflict that could occur between the two superpowers.

By the late 1940s and during the 1950s, tensions rose so high between these two sides that World War III seemed just over the horizon to many.

Anti-Soviet Sentiment

One of the most famous American generals in World War II was George S. Patton. Shortly after WWII, he expressed this concern:

"We promised the Europeans freedom. It would be worse than dishonorable not to see they have it. This might mean war with the Russians, but what of it? They have no Air Force anymore, their gasoline and ammunition supplies are low. I've seen their miserable supply trains; mostly wagons drawn by beaten up old hoses or oxen. I'll say this; the Third Army alone, with very little help and with damned few casualties, could lick what is left of the Russians in six weeks. You mark my words. Don't ever forget them. Someday we will have to fight them and it will take six years and cost us six million lives."

~ from George S. Patton: On Guts, Glory, and Winning by Gary L. Bloomfield

  • What do you think about this view?

As you consider Patton's desire, let's see how the USSR came to be so militarily and financially crippled.

Watch a small portion of The Fallen of World War II, from Neil Halloran, to see a count of Soviet casualties compared to other countries (each figure represents 1,000 people who died):

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Russia had taken the brunt of German forces so that the other Allied nations could organize and push into Western Europe.

You can begin to see why the Alliance was breaking down and relations were very uncertain after the end of WWII.

Before moving on to the Got It? section, consider the following question:

  • How did tension between former allies result in a war, and in what way was it cold?


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