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Essay: Who won the Cold War?

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  • Published: 15 September 2019*
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The Cold War
Who wON The Cold War?
“The Cold War began with the fall of Europe. It can only end when Europe is whole.” (Bush, 2009). The year was 1947. World War II had brought upon the fall of Europe through its economic loss and massive casualties. However, another war had just begun. The Cold War was a state of geopolitical tension between the Soviet Union and the United States. Although there were never any armed conflicts between the two superpowers, their hostility towards each other manifested itself in other countries. In the end, history never made it clear who the true winner of this 44 year standoff was. Nonetheless, it can be argued that the United States was the true victor of the conflict because of the USSR’s financial decline, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the dwindling influence of communism in Eastern Europe.
World War II, a global war that was fought from 1939 to 1945 impacted the United States greatly. The United States was still recovering from the effects of the Great Depression, which started in 1929. The unemployment rate during 1941 hovered around 25% (Iowa Pathways, 2016). However, America’s involvement in the war completely diminished that rate. American factories were repurposed in order to produce goods to support war efforts. This strategy was known as total war. Men were sent away to fight so more jobs opened up, allowing women to rise into the workforce. The war allowed women more independence and allowed them to break traditional gender stereotypes by doing work that was traditionally considered a “man’s job”. Almost overnight, the unemployment rate had dropped down to 10% (Iowa Pathways, 2016). American employment was on the rise during World War II.
In regards to international relations however, there were tensions between many countries. The US had created an unreliable wartime alliance with Great Britain, which always seemed on the verge of breaking. Also during this time, the Soviet Union and the spread of communism were steadily rising. By 1948, the USSR had taken over and claimed several countries of Eastern Europe to continue the spread of communism (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018). The United States and Britain felt extremely uncomfortable with the amount of Soviet domination that was occurring in the Eastern European states due to the fact that Soviet influenced communist parties, if left to become strong enough, could potentially influence western democratic ideas. Thus, the Marshall plan had come into existence. A US sponsored program to help Western and Southern European economies rehabilitate so they wouldn’t be exposed to the threat of communism was one of the true beginnings of the long stand-off between the US and the USSR.
Throughout the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union always managed to avoid direct military confrontation in Europe. Instead, they relied on combat operations to stop the spread of the other’s influence. For example, the Soviet Union sent out troops to preserve communist influence in several Eastern European states, including East Germany and Hungary. The US, instead of focusing on protecting democracies, attempted to help less protected communist states become democratic. In 1954, the US helped overthrow a left-wing government in Guatemala, and also undertook a long effort to protect South Vietnam against North Vietnam’s communist rule, only to eventually fail (Deudney, 1992). Both sides did their best to truly protect their beliefs, but in 1990, the USSR’s influential communist power had come to an end at the close of the Cold War.
The United States had bled the Soviet economy dry through proxy wars and the nuclear arms race. In the Korean War, Korea was divided along a line known as the 38th parallel, which divided the North and South of Korea. The communist north, which had fallen under the influence of the USSR, fought against the democratic south, backed by the US. Using what was known as trench warfare, they pushed back and forth along this line for about two years with little to no progress. Eventually, in 1953, an armistice was signed claiming Korea would remain a divided country (McDonough, 2018). Because the Soviets had provided material and medical services to North Korea, as well as Soviet pilots and aircrafts, this was one of the first of many events that left a dent in Soviet economy. One of the major events of the nuclear arms race was known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. This was a 13 day standoff between the Soviets and the US where the US administered a blockade around Cuba after discovering that Russia had stationed missiles in the territory right below the United States (Palmer, 2014). This brought them to the brink of nuclear war. At the end of 1956, the United States had 2,123 strategic warheads and the Soviet Union had 84. Those numbers increased rapidly over the subsequent 30 years. The U.S. arsenal peaked in 1987 at 13,002 warheads, the Soviet Union two years later at 11,320 (Freeman, 2018). The high number of nuclear arms shows how much the Soviet resources had been depleted. The reason the US was not affected as much as Russia with their economy was due to capitalism. With communism, it was hard for incentives to work to be introduced because everyone would be treated equal regardless of how hard they worked. This led to little innovation, creativity, and motivation in an era of stagnation. Internally, stagnation of the Soviet economy had thrived under Brezhnev, the Russian leader from 1964-1982. With high military spending due to the nuclear arms race, proxy wars, and stagnation, the economy of the Soviet Union suffered.
The Soviet Union collapsed because of the loss of their economy, national sentiment against foreign policy, and the failed reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev. As mentioned earlier, in a country with deep rooted communism, a negative effect of having everybody equal is an idea known as stagnation. Having little incentive to work led to a stagnation in economic growth. However, as military spending went up and the economic output remained the same, it lead to an overall growth decline of 3.7% in the years of 1971-1975 (Palmer, 2014). By the 1970s, low morale of the Soviet Union’s workforce was hurting its economy. Workers were given goals that seemed abstract or remote from tangible benefits. Common people were criticizing people in power for not responding to their needs. Common people were still living in cramped housing and were seeing little material progress for themselves. Among Soviet workers alcoholism was prevalent, and people were taking little pride in their work. Skilled workers were also demoralized. The massive effort in the Soviet Union in education to create a skilled workforce could not compensate for an economy that functioned poorly. Instead, education was producing talent that was being poorly employed. Mikhail Gorbachev tried to alleviate this suffering with his reforms of Perestroika and Glasnost (Payne, 2009). Perestroika was introduced to restructure the centrally planned economy, and introduce capitalism but production could never meet demand. Foreign businesses could establish themselves in the USSR with Perestroika. Small businesses that were established could regulate their own prices and collect their own profits. But, the reforms did not go that far, as price control remained in many businesses and control over production was still maintained (Directorate of Intelligence, 1989). Perestroika would overhaul the top members of the Communist party and would replace the centralized government and the accompanying policy of Glasnost would reduce the strict controls the government had placed on all aspects of life as well as allowing greater and wider discussion for the mistakes of the past, for example, the crimes of Stalin. The Communist party was full of self-serving and corrupt politicians, so Glasnost, a policy of openness, was introduced (Palmer, 2014). This encouraged open discussion and democratization by addressing the many wrongdoings of the Soviet Union. This resulted in a wave of criticism toward the party and streamlining of the party occurred along with a crackdown on corruption. Glasnost also gave people the right to protest through free speech and allowed them to criticize the rule of the Soviet Union. Criticisms allowed people to rally against the government and further implemented the collapse of the USSR. These western ideals were introduced to the USSR through the influence of democracy in the United States. Because the USSR collapsed due to its economic loss and America did not, it is clear to see that the US was the true victor of this war.
By the close of the Cold War, the Soviet Union no longer wielded the same power it once did over Eastern Europe. Not only was the country itself collapsing, but the influence of communism that the USSR held diminished along with it. In the revolutions of 1989, many countries under the influence of communism revolted and gained their independence from the superpower. In Poland, a movement known as Solidarity was created. Solidarity was a national symbol of protest and called for free elections and a position in government. The socialist regime in Poland was thus threatened and the outcome resulted in free market lines and a reconstructing of the economy. In Hungary, a new leader was wanted in order to kick the socialist leader out of power. In 1988, the new leadership that had taken form allowed multi-party elections and dissolved the communist party. In many other countries, similar revolutions occurred and resulted in freedom due to Gorbachev’s leniency (Directorate of Intelligence, 1989). Gorbachev did not offer military backing or support to Communist leaders that were trying to assert their rule. Without the backing of the Soviet government, communist leaders of countries were not powerful enough to suppress the revolutions in their countries. As a result, they fell to revolutionary demands and their governments were overthrown. At the 19th All-Union Conference in 1988, Gorbachev introduced the principle of multi-candidate elections and Article 6 was later removed, ending the Communist party’s monopoly of power (Palmer, 2014). Communist candidates lost elections. Independence movements grew with Lithuania being the first to declare independence from the Soviet Union. Free elections were held and Communism collapsed and no military intervention was done to stop it. The U.S. had entered the Cold War with the intent to stop the spread of communism through their Marshall plan. Because the Soviet Union lost all of their power in Eastern Europe and their control of communism, it was clear to see that the United States completed their original purpose of entering the war. Therefore, the fall of communism supports the claim that the United States won the Cold War.
Opposing Arguments
It can be argued that the US did not win the Cold War because some historians believe the Soviet Union did not collapse due to external pressures. One claim that has been made is that communist rule ended because Mikhaïl Gorbachev alone took communism out of power as he believed it would be in the Soviets best interest. The Soviet Union collapsed because of Gorbachev’s policies internally, not because the US willed them to collapse (Kingsbury, 2010). While the claim that Mikhaïl Gorbachev ended the Communist monopoly of power is true, the reason communism collapsed was due to the introduction of western ideals that were influenced by democracy. One of the main reasons communism collapsed was because of economic stagnation, which prevented growth of the economy. In that sense, the US drove that economic decline as it forced the USSR to use up its resources. As a result, Mikhaïl Gorbachev was forced to introduce Perestroika as mentioned earlier in this essay, an economic ideal that resembled capitalism. Therefore, the USSR did not only collapse due to internal pressures of Mikhaïl Gorbachev, but also external pressures driven by the US’s nuclear force and economic strength.
It has been made clear that the United States was the true victor of the Cold War against the Soviet Union because they forced an economic decline upon the Soviets, the USSR collapsed as a nation, and because they helped diminish the influence of communism through the Marshall Plan. The USSR faced a huge economic decline due to the nuclear arms race and the proxy wars they fought with the US. The US’s Marshall Plan helped impose democracy and the influence of free speech allowed the collapse of communism in many Eastern European countries. Lastly, the Soviet Union itself collapsed because of the introduction of western ideals that overwhelmed the communist government, rendering it unable to function. Therefore, the US was able to help the spread of democracy and weakened the power communism held over Eurasia. It is vital to involve the Cold War in a topic of study in United States history because it was a war that involved a clash of ideals over the fight for democracy or communism. In communism, the ideals involved the government consuming every aspect of a person’s life. In democracy, a person’s free speech and their control over government reigned. Because of this clash of ideals, the threat of nuclear war seemed to loom over the world’s shoulders. Without discussion and the understanding of this part of history, the hazard of nuclear war could once again be foreshadowed in the future.

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