We often think of history as destiny: It happened, so it must have been unavoidable. However, looking at the present makes us question this assumption. How many of the events in the news this week are the result of destiny, and how many are the result of choice? Natural disasters might be unavoidable, but political choices, the winning play in last night’s game, and the latest social trend are clearly the results of human choice.

It’s worth considering this element of choice when we study the Cold War. If this struggle that divided the world and upended lives for more than four decades was a matter of human choice, why didn’t the people in 1945, when it began, make a better choice? If they could have, why didn’t they prevent the Cold War from starting in the first place?

On the other hand, sometimes events spiral out of anyone’s ability to control. If that’s the case, what were the circumstances that made the Cold War happen? What wheels were in motion that were too powerful for humans to stop?

This is the question to consider here at the start of our study of the Cold War. As World War II was ending, there was chaos in many parts of the world. Could political leaders, military leaders and everyday people have made choices that prevented the Cold War standoff between East and West? Or was the Cold War unavoidable?


At its core, the Cold War was a conflict between two competing ideas about how the world should work. It was not a war about religion the way Hitler’s hatred of Jews had fueled the Holocaust, or a war about raw materials and power like the Spanish-American War. It was not really even a war about territory like the Indian Wars of the late 1800s.

The Cold War was definitely a struggle for territory, but not because of the raw materials or markets for manufactured products that those territories offered. Instead, the quest for territory was a quest to control the destinies of the people who lived in those territories.

The Cold War was a long, often violent, struggle to bring the people of the world into either a free market economic system, or communism. These competing ideas were not new. In fact, the struggle between the supporters of these two worldviews had been going on for generations.

A free market system is what we have in the United States today. Sometimes we call this system capitalism. In a capitalist system, all of your choices are free, but everything costs money, or capital. For example, you are free to choose what to buy, where, and how much to spend. Of course, you have to pay for what you buy. Likewise, the store owner has a choice about what to produce and sell, and how much to charge. The owners also had a choice about who to hire to work for them, and how much they were willing to pay their workers. No one forced the workers to take the job, and they could quit if they wanted. It is their choice. We call capitalism a free market economy because everyone is free to make whatever choices he or she wants. Notice that in a free market economy the government is not involved in any way.

Capitalism may be simple because it requires no one to plan it, but it is not perfect. Some people will come up with brilliant ideas, or be particularly cunning, or hard work will pay off and they may become wealthy. And, some people who are lazy, or just have back luck, will end up poor. In a free market world, there are classes: the upper class who owns businesses and controls most of the wealth, and the middle and lower classes who provide the labor.

Communism is entirely different. In the 1800s, two German intellectuals, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels saw the suffering of millions of people who toiled every day in factories owned by a few wealthy men who had so much money they couldn’t possibly spend it in a lifetime. Marx and Engels believed they knew a better, more just way to make the world work. In 1848, they wrote their ideas down into a short book and published it with the name “The Communist Manifesto.”

In Marx and Engels’s view, the wealth of the world should be shared by the workers who make that wealth possible. Farmers should share the profits of the food they grow. Factory workers should share in the profits of the goods they produce. There should be no owners, only workers. If their ideas were put into practice, they argued, there would be no poverty. Anyone who wanted a job and was willing to work, could have a job. The goods and food the people produced would be shared by all the people who worked. Marx, Engels, and their followers had a saying: “From everyone according to his ability, to everyone according to his need.” In other words, everyone would do their best at whatever they were best at for the good of the nation, and everyone would share the nation’s wealth.

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Propaganda such as this poster from the Soviet Union was common in the communist world. Advertising is a characteristic of a free market economy. So, instead, the government used propaganda to encourage the people to work hard for the good of the country.

Communism sounded good on paper, but in the real world people with money – the upper classes – used their wealth to influence government officials and had no desire to see communist ideas implemented. Imagine how John D. Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie must have felt about communism! Marx and Engels had followers in both Europe and the United States. Famously, the International Workers of the World, a union that wanted to organize a communist revolution in America, agitated for the working classes to rise up and overthrow the government, but naturally, they faced tremendous opposition. Dubbed the “Wobblies,” their most outspoken leader, Frank Little, was murdered in Butte, Montana when he went there to lead a strike of copper miners. In the United States fear of communism was so strong that in the years after the First World War, a Red Scare swept the nation and restrictions on immigration were passed – in part to keep out European immigrants who might harbor communist sentiments.

However, in Russia in 1917 things turned out differently. The king, or Czar of Russia, Nicolas II was unpopular. Russia’s millions of impoverished peasants hated him and the rest of the royal family. Moreover, in 1917 Russia was losing to Germany in the First World War. With their husbands, sons and fathers dying on the battlefield, Russians were ready for a change. Vladimir Lenin seized the opportunity. His followers, called Bolsheviks, organized a rebellion, and established the world’s first communist nation, changing their country’s name in 1922 to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), or the Soviet Union for short.

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Vladimir Lenin led the successful revolution in Russia in 1917 and established the Soviet Union as the world’s first communist nation.

When Lenin died in 1924, one of his lieutenants took power. The new Soviet leader was Josef Stalin, a ruthless, murderous man who imprisoned and exterminated tens of thousands of his own citizens. In many ways, Stalin was just as terrible as Hitler, but during World War II the United States was at war with Germany and so was Stalin’s Soviet Union, which made the United States and the Soviets allies. Being on the same side, however, did not make the Soviets or the Americans any more understanding of one another’s ideologies.

Americans had seen what communism meant in the real world. Lenin, Stalin and the Soviet leaders had taken away the property of the wealthy. They had forced millions of people to give up their land, moved thousands of people to work on state-run farms and in government factories. They killed or jailed protesters. Communism had not proven to be the utopia Marx and Engels had described a century before and Americans had no desire to join in the communist experiment. Furthermore, they did not want anyone else in the world to have to endure Soviet style communism.


President Franklin D. Roosevelt was first elected in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression. His New Deal programs had made him so popular that Americans reelected him again and again – four time in total.

As World War II was drawing to a close, Roosevelt was in his fourth term and one of his most important tasks was to represent the United States at international conferences between the wartime allies. At first, the conferences were meant to help the allies coordinate their strategies for defeating the Axis Powers, but in 1945 it was clear that the Allies had the upper hand on the battlefield and the leaders met to plan for the future. After all the destruction of the war, what sort of world would they build out of the wreckage?

The Yalta Conference, held in February of 1945, in the Livadia Palace near the Soviet resort town of Yalta was one of these great meetings. In attendance were President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill of the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union’s Josef Stalin. Each leader had his own agenda for the meeting. Roosevelt wanted Soviet support in the Pacific to finish the fight against Japan, especially since at the time it seemed like an invasion of Japan was likely. Roosevelt also wanted Stalin to commit to joining a new United Nations. Churchill pressed for open elections and democratic governments in Eastern and Central Europe. In contrast, Stalin demanded a Soviet sphere of political influence in Eastern and Central Europe that the Soviets believed would provide a buffer against future invasions. The Yalta Conference ended with general agreement between the leaders, but since the war was not over, they would need to convene again.

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Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at the Yalta Conference.

The next meeting of the Allied leaders, however, featured a change of cast. On March 29, 1945, President Roosevelt passed away from a stroke. Roosevelt’s death was met with shock and grief across the United States and around the world. The public had not known of his declining health. On May 8, less than a month after his death, the war in Europe ended. America’s new President, Harry S. Truman, who turned 61 that day, dedicated Victory in Europe Day and its celebrations to Roosevelt’s memory. Truman said that his only wish was “that Franklin D. Roosevelt had lived to witness this day.” In the United Kingdom, voters ousted Prime Minister Winston Churchill and replaced him with Clement Attlee.

When Stalin met his new counterparts in Potsdam, German in July of 1945, the state of the war had changed significantly. Germany had surrendered. Hitler was dead. Although he did not announce it, Truman was about to use the nuclear bomb to end the war with Japan. The decisions the leaders made at the Potsdam Conference would have a lasting effect on the map of Europe, especially for defeated Germany.

The Soviet Union, it was agreed, would have control over Eastern Europe including Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Albania, and Bulgaria. Germany would be split into four zones, administered by the Soviet Union, United Kingdom, the United States and France. Germany’s capital city, Berlin, was inside of the Soviet zone, but would itself also be divided into four zones. In the coming years, the western allies unified their zones to create West Germany and the city of West Berlin. The Soviet Union, however, established communist governments in each of the nations they had overrun and created East Germany and the city of East Berlin.


As much as World War II reshaped the map of Europe, the rest of the world also saw major changes. Since the 1800s, vast regions of Africa and Asia had been ruled as colonies by the great powers of Europe. In the two decades after 1945, most of these colonies asked for, fought for, or were granted independence in a global process known as decolonization.

India, the second most populous nation on earth won its independence from the United Kingdom in 1947 under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. In Africa, dozens of nations emerged, as did the nations of the Middle East that are familiar to us today. It was there that Jews from Europe who survived the Holocaust established the new nation of Israel along the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea in the ancient lands of the Bible.

Most of the former colonies were terribly poor. For generations the Europeans had extracted their wealth – oil, minerals, diamonds, rubber – and given very little back in return. Europeans hadn’t invested in the infrastructure, or in the people of their colonies. In the Congo, a colony of 13 million people, only 16 people had a college degree when it gained its independence from Belgium in 1965. Lacking an educated class, many of these newly independent nations faced an enormous challenge creating stable governments that could manage vast territories and rich natural resources.

Both the United States and Soviet Union were interested in the future of this newly independent Third World. For the Soviets, the former colonies were ripe territory to spread communism. Americans believed stopping the spread of communism was essential to the preservation of freedom. For both superpowers, access to the natural resources of the Third World would be a significant advantage in their race for technological superiority.

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Most of the former colonies were located in Africa and South and Southeast Asia. Together with the Middle East as well as Central and South America, these regions make up the Third World.


An examination of the decades between the two world wars showed a lack of commitment to the spirit of internationalism. Without the participation of the United States, the old League of Nations proved too weak to stop Germany and Japan’s expansionist dreams. Perhaps a stronger international body, as envisioned by Woodrow Wilson, was necessary to keep the great powers from tearing the world apart.

Despite the ideological animosity between the Soviet Union and the western allies, a new spirit of globalism was born out of World War II. It was based, in part, on the widespread recognition of the failures of isolationism. The incarnation of this global sprit came to life with the establishment of the United Nations (UN) in 1945 with its headquarters in New York City.

Delegates from around the world convened in San Francisco in 1945 to write a charter. Representing the United States, Franklin Roosevelt’s widow Eleanor addressed the delegates. Despite considerable enmity and conflicts of interest among the attending nations, the charter for the new international body was ultimately ratified by unanimous consent.

The UN charter called for the establishment of a Security Council, which serves as the executive branch of the United Nations. The Security Council must authorize any actions, such as economic sanctions, the use of force, or the deployment of peacekeeping troops.

Each of the Great Powers — the five victorious nations in World War II: the United States, Great Britain, France, China, and the Soviet Union (now Russia) holds a permanent seat on the Security Council. Ten more seats are held by other nations elected to two-year terms by the General Assembly. The five permanent members hold the power of veto. No action can go forth if any one of the five objects. As the Cold War crystallized, the countervailing veto powers of the United States and the Soviet Union often served to inhibit the Security Council from taking any forceful or meaningful action in times of crisis.

The main body of the United Nations is the General Assembly. Every member nation holds a seat in the General Assembly, which is often described as a town meeting for the world. The General Assembly has standing committees to address ongoing issues such as financial, social, cultural, legal and humanitarian concerns. The General Assembly passes resolutions and has the power to make recommendations to the Security Council, but has no power to require action.

Overseeing the operations of the United Nations is a Secretary General who is appointed by the Security Council. The United Nations charter did not describe the role of the Secretary General in detail, but the people who have held the position have used it to promote peace by helping to mediate conflicts and to promote human rights. By tradition, the Secretary General is never from one of the five permanent members. The Secretary Generals over the past six decades have hailed from such nations as Norway, Peru, South Korea, Thailand, Egypt, Ghana and Spain.

In addition to the Security Council and General Assembly, the United Nations operates an International Court of Justice and works to help refugees, women and children, and to end disease and hunger through programs such as UNICEF and the World Health Organization.

One of Eleanor Roosevelt’s personal missions was to convince the United Nations to adopt an international Declaration of Human Rights. While it has certainly been violated time and time again, the declaration she helped write serves as a noble goal for which nations can aspire, and also as a benchmark to measure governments that fall short.

Unlike its failed predecessor the League of Nations, the United Nations can point to many solid accomplishments including sending peacekeepers to war-stricken areas, raising literacy and health rates in the Third World, and authorizing the use of force against aggressor nations.

In 1945 as well as today, the United Nations gives us cause to believe that nations can get along together. Although it is far from perfect, in a world with conflicting histories, agendas, and political posturing, the United Nations continues to offer a way for nations to peacefully coexist and better all of humankind.

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Eleanor Roosevelt holding a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, her crowning achievement as a humanitarian.


“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an Iron Curtain has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia; all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject, in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow.” – Winston Churchill, March 5, 1946

The Iron Curtain as described by Churchill at Westminster College was both a physical and mental boundary between the East and the West – between freedom and communism. The physical manifestation of the boundary, the border fences and armed guards, and especially the Berlin Wall, were potent symbols of the deep divide between the two great powers and their allies during the Cold War.

The exact location of the Iron Curtain was a product of World War II. As Nazi Germany fell, and Hitler’s armies retreated from territory they had conquered, the Allies advanced, eventually converging in Germany itself. The British and Americans moved across France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy, they took over the job of governing those nations. It was not feasible, however, to have troops who were needed on the front to continue the work of policing, so the Allies made an effort to return control to the people. This worked well in places that had been conquered by Germany and welcomed the Allies as liberators.

Germany was different. There was no question that the Allies were going to stay in Germany and rebuild it themselves. As Truman, Stalin and Attlee had planned at Potsdam, the division of Germany was a way to share the work of this tremendous undertaking.

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In most of Europe, the border between East and West was marked by fences and border guards.

For Stalin, the division of Germany was an opportunity. The Soviet Army in the portion of Germany under his control – East Germany – actively supported Germany’s small communist party. Since the days of Marx and Engels, there had been communists in Germany, but during Hitler’s rein they were persecuted by the Nazis. Now with the communist Soviet Union in charge, the German communists were elevated and took control of government.

And so it went across all of Europe. In the lands that the Soviets had retaken from Germany during the closing year of the war in the East – Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Albania, Hungary, Bulgaria and East Germany – communists were supported and took power. In the East, the new Soviet-supported governments and the occupying Soviet Army remade the economies in the Soviet model: state-run industries, farms, and no private ownership.

Meanwhile the West returned to the free market economy it had before the war. And, with the exception of Spain, Portugal and Greece which were dictatorships until the 1970s, the people of the West elected their leaders.

The Iron Curtain took physical shape in the form of border defenses between the countries of Western and Eastern Europe. These were some of the most heavily militarized areas in the world, particularly the so-called “inner German border” between East and West Germany. The inner German border was marked in rural areas by double fences made of steel mesh with sharp edges, while near urban areas high concrete barriers were built. While in the first decade after the end of the Second World War people travelled freely between the East and West, by the end of the 1950s it was nearly impossible, and after the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961, citizens of the communist nations of the East were shot and killed by their own border guards for trying to escape.

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The Berlin Wall under construction in 1961. Eventually there would be two walls with a wide gap in between to make escape more difficult.

The division between the communist nations and those supported by the United States during the Cold War extended into Asia as well, but the term “Iron Curtain” was only used for the fortified borders in Europe. The border between North Korea and South Korea remains to this day comparable to the former inner German border, particularly in its degree of militarization.

While the Iron Curtain was an actual border of concrete and steel, patrolled by armies, it was even more so a boundary in the minds of people. Like a curtain that divides two halves of a room or separates the inside from the out, the Iron Curtain separated neighbors into two distinct worlds, at odds and distrustful.


Clearly, there were powerful forces at work in 1945. The Soviets and Western Allies had very different ideas about what the post-war world should look like. Although the establishment of the United Nations is evidence that the world wanted an alternative to conflict, the young United Nations did not prevent the Cold War.

Perhaps, the start of the Cold War was a matter of leadership. If Stalin hadn’t been in power in the Soviet Union, would the communist world have turned so resolutely away from cooperation with the West? If Truman hadn’t used the atomic bomb to end World War II, would the Soviets have felt less threatened?

Or maybe it was a broader sense of distrust, brought about by years of war. Perhaps people just weren’t ready to put their “us vs. them” mindset to rest.

Then again, the Cold War was a product of human action, so couldn’t we have made the choice that would have prevented it? What do you think? Was the Cold War unavoidable?



BIG IDEA: The Cold War was a conflict about what was the best economic system and split the world between the Soviet Union and the United States and the allies of these two superpowers. Many of the alliances, geographic divisions, and international systems of the Cold War are the results of the way World War II ended.

The Cold War was a 50-year struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. The two superpowers and their allies were trying to spread their ideas about the best way to run nations. The Soviet Union was the first communist nation and wanted to spread communism. The United States believed communism was wrong and wanted to promote a free market system.

Communism, which is now almost entirely gone in the world, is a system in which everyone works, and everyone shares in the wealth of the nation. The problem is that choice is taken out of the system, and therefore, incentive is also lost. People do not work hard, and the government becomes a dictatorship.

Before World War II ended, the leaders of the United States, United Kingdom and Soviet Union met multiple times to plan what the world would look like after the fighting ended.

After World War II, most of the nations in Africa and Asia that had been European colonies became independent. Many of these nations were poor, and both the United States and Soviet Union tried to win them as allies during the Cold War. Sometimes, this led to violence.

After World War I, Woodrow Wilson had tried to create a League of Nations to help prevent future war. After World War II, the United Nations was created. This time, the United States did join, and the UN has played an important role in the world as a peacekeeper and a forum for debate.

When Germany fell and the war ended in Europe, the Americans, French, British and Soviets divided up Europe into East and West. In the lands in the East that the Soviet armies had occupied, communist governments were supported. In the West, democratic governments were encouraged. This led to a division of the continent that would last throughout the Cold War. Germany itself was divided into East and West, as was Berlin, its capital city.



Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: German intellectuals who promoted the ideas of socialism and communism and wrote the Communist Manifesto.

Nicolas II: The last czar, or king of Russia. He and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks.

Vladimir Lenin: Leader of the Bolsheviks and first communist leader of the Soviet Union.

Bolsheviks: The communist revolutionaries in Russia.

Josef Stalin: One of Lenin’s supporters and the second leader of the Soviet Union from 1922-1953.

Franklin D. Roosevelt: President of the United States during the Great Depression and most of WWII.

United Nations (UN): An organization in which the nations of the world meet to cooperate and solve disputes. The headquarters is in New York City.

Security Council: The small group of nations that has the authority to set policy for the United Nations. It includes five permanent members: the US, UK, France, Russia and China.

General Assembly: The body of the representatives of every nation that is a member of the United Nations. This group can pass resolutions to express opinion but does not have the authority to set policy.

Secretary General: The administrator of the United Nations. The Secretary General traditionally plays a peace-keeping role in the world.


Capitalism: An economic system in which people are free to make choices about how to spend money, where to work, etc.

Capital: Money

Free Market Economy: Another term for capitalism.

Communism: An economic systems in which the government controls all production and distribution. In theory, everyone works and everyone shares.

From everyone according to his ability, to everyone according to his need: A slogan that explains how a communist economy works. Everyone contributes and everyone shares in the profits.

Veto: The right to reject a law. In the case of the United Nations, each of the five permanent members of the Security Council can veto a measure.


The Communist Manifesto: The book by Marx and Engels that explained communism.


Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR): The official name of the Soviet Union.

Israel: Nation created in the Middle East after WWII largely by Jews who escaped the Holocaust. Israel and the United States are strong allies, but Israel has a history of violent confrontation with its Arab neighbors.

Third World: The traditionally poorer regions of the world including Central and South America, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and Southeast Asia.

Iron Curtain: The division between Eastern and Western Europe marking the separation between the communist and free worlds.

Berlin Wall: A wall built by the East German government in 1961 to prevent people from escaping to West Berlin. It became a symbol of the division between the free and communist worlds.


Yalta Conference: February 1945 meeting between President Roosevelt, Josef Stalin, and Great Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill to make agreements about the post-WWII world.

Potsdam Conference: A conferences in July and August 1945 between President Truman, Josef Stalin and Great Britain’s Clement Attlee in which the leaders agreed to divide Germany into four zones of occupation.

Decolonization: The process by which former colonies in the Third World gained independence from European powers in the first few decades after WWII.

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