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The Origins of the Cold War

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History

The Cold War did not emerge out of a single reason but the combination of many disagreements and misunderstandings between the United States and the Soviet Union. Some key elements to think about are:

  • The ideological conflict between capitalism and communism

  • Differing national interests

  • Economic factors

  • Mutual mistrust

  • Leaders and individuals

  • The arms race

  • Traditional superpower rivalry

Origins of the Cold War timeline

Here is a brief timeline of the events that brought about the Cold War.

1917

Bolshevik Revolution

1918–21

Russian Civil War

1919

2 March: Comintern formed

1933

US recognition of USSR

1938

30 September: Munich Agreement

1939

23 August: Nazi-Soviet Pact

1 September: Outbreak of the Second World War

1940

April-May: Katyn Forest Massacre

1941

22 June–5 December: Operation Barbarossa

7 December: Pearl Harbour and US entry into the Second World War

1943

28 November – 1 December: Tehran Conference

1944

6 June: D-Day Landings

1 August – 2 October: Warsaw Rising

9 October: Percentages Agreement

1945

4–11 February: Yalta Conference

12 April: Roosevelt replaced by Harry Truman

17 July–2 August: Potsdam Conference

26 July: Attlee replaces Churchill

August: US bombs dropped on Hiroshima (6 August) and Nagasaki (9 August)

2 September: End of Second World War

1946

22 February: Kennan’s Long Telegram

5 March: Churchill’s Iron Curtain Speech

April: Stalin withdraws troops from Iran due to UN intervention

1947

January: Polish ‘free’ elections

To find out how the Cold War actually began, check out The beginning of the Cold War.

The origins of the Cold War summary

The origins of the Cold War can be broken down and summarised into long-term and medium-term causes prior to the final breakdown of relations between the powers.

Long-term causes

The origins of the Cold War can be tracked all the way back to 1917 when the communist-led Bolshevik Revolution in Russia overthrew the government of Tsar Nicholas II. Due to the threat posed by the Bolshevik Revolution, the Allied governments of Britain, the US, France, and Japan intervened in the Russian Civil War that followed supporting the conservative anti-communist ‘Whites’. Allied support gradually declined, and the Bolsheviks triumphed in 1921.

Other tensions included:

  • The Soviet regime refused to repay the debts of the previous Russian governments.

  • The US did not officially recognise the Soviet Union until 1933.

  • The British and French policy of appeasement concerning Nazi Germany created suspicion in the Soviet Union. The USSR was concerned that the West was not hard enough on fascism. This was most clearly demonstrated by the Munich Agreement of 1938 between Germany, the UK, France, and Italy, which allowed Germany to annex part of Czechoslovakia.

  • The German-Soviet Pact made in 1939 increased Western suspicion of the USSR. The Soviet Union made a non-aggression pact with Germany in hopes of delaying invasion, but this was seen by the West as an untrustworthy act.

What were the immediate causes of the Cold War?

These causes refer to the period of 1939–45. During the Second World War, the US, the USSR, and Britain formed an unlikely alliance. It was called the Grand Alliance, and its objective was to coordinate their efforts against the Axis Powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan.

Although these countries worked together against a common enemy, issues of mistrust and fundamental differences in ideologies and national interests led to a break in their relations upon the end of the War.

The Second Front

The leaders of the Grand Alliance –Joseph Stalin of the USSR, Franklin Roosevelt of the US, and Winston Churchill of Great Britain– met for the first time at the Tehran Conference in November 1943. During this meeting, Stalin demanded the US and Britain to open a second front in Western Europe in order to relieve pressure on the USSR, who at that point was facing the Nazis mostly on their own. Germany had invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 in what was called Operation Barbarossa, and ever since then, Stalin had requested a second front.

The Origins of the Cold War Stalin, Roosevelt, Churchill StudySmarterStalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill at the Tehran Conference, Wikimedia Commons.

The opening of the front in Northern France was however delayed multiple times until the D-Day landings of June 1944, leaving the Soviet Union to suffer huge casualties. This created suspicion and mistrust, which were furthered when the Allies chose to invade Italy and North Africa before providing military assistance to the USSR.

The future of Germany

There were fundamental disagreements between the powers about the future of Germany after the War. Whilst Stalin wanted to weaken Germany by taking reparations, Churchill and Roosevelt favoured rebuilding the country. The only agreement made at Tehran regarding Germany was that the Allies must achieve unconditional surrender.

At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, it was agreed that Germany would be split into four zones between the USSR, the US, Britain, and France. At Potsdam in July 1945, the leaders agreed that each of these zones would be run in their own way. The dichotomy which emerged between the Soviet Eastern zone and the Western zones would prove to be an important factor in the Cold War and the first direct confrontation.

Dichotomy

A difference between two opposite groups or things.

The issue of Poland

Another strain on the Alliance was the issue of Poland. Poland was particularly important for the USSR due to its geographical position. The country had been the route of three invasions of Russia during the twentieth century, so having a Soviet-friendly government in Poland was seen as vital for security. At the Tehran Conference, Stalin demanded territory from Poland and a pro-Soviet government.

However, Poland was also a key issue for Britain as Poland’s independence was one of the reasons they went to war with Germany. Additionally, Soviet interference in Poland was a point of contention due to the Katyn Forest Massacre of 1940. This involved the execution of over 20,000 Polish military and intelligence officers by the Soviet Union.

The Polish Question, as it was known, focused on two groups of Poles with opposing political views: the London Poles and the Lublin Poles. The London Poles were opposed to Soviet policies and demanded a free government, whilst the Lublin Poles were pro-Soviet. After the discovery of the Katyn Forest Massacre, Stalin broke diplomatic relations with the London Poles. The Lublin Poles became thus the provisional government of Poland in December 1944 after forming the Committee of National Liberation.

The Warsaw Rising of August 1944 saw Poles in Poland linked to the London Poles rise up against the German forces, but they were crushed as the Soviet forces refused to help. The Soviet Union subsequently captured Warsaw in January 1945 at which point the anti-Soviet Poles could not resist.

At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Poland’s new borders were decided, and Stalin agreed to conduct free elections, though this was not to be the case. A similar agreement was made and broken regarding Eastern Europe.

What were the attitudes of the Allies in 1945?

It’s important to understand the post-war attitudes and national interests of the Allies in order to understand how the Cold War originated.

Attitudes of the Soviet Union

Since the Bolshevik Revolution, the two key aims of Soviet foreign policy had been to protect the Soviet Union from hostile neighbours and to spread communism. In 1945, the focus was very much on the former: Stalin was obsessed with security which led to the desire for a buffer zone in Eastern Europe. Rather than a defensive measure, this was seen by the West as spreading communism.

Over 20 million Soviet citizens were killed in the Second World War, so preventing another invasion from the West was a pressing issue. Therefore, the USSR attempted to take advantage of the military situation in Europe to strengthen Soviet influence.

Attitudes of the United States

US entry to the War had been based on securing freedom from want, freedom of speech, freedom of religious belief, and freedom from fear. Roosevelt had sought a working relationship with the USSR, which had arguably been successful, but his replacement by Harry Truman after his death in April 1945 led to increased hostility.

Truman was inexperienced in foreign affairs and tried to assert his authority through a hard-line approach against communism. In 1941, he is recorded to have said:

If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible, although I don't want to see Hitler victorious under any circumstances.

His hostility to communism was also partly a reaction to the failure of appeasement, which demonstrated to him that aggressive powers needed to be dealt with harshly. Crucially, he failed to understand the Soviet obsession with security, which led to further mistrust.

Attitudes of Britain

Upon the end of the war, Britain was economically bankrupt and feared that the US would return to a policy of isolationism.

Isolationism

A policy of playing no role in the internal affairs of other countries.

In order to protect British interests, Churchill had signed the Percentages Agreement with Stalin in October 1944, which divided Eastern and Southern Europe between them. This agreement was later ignored by Stalin and criticised by Truman.

Clement Attlee took over from Churchill in 1945 and undertook a similar foreign policy that was hostile to communism.

What caused the final breakdown of the Grand Alliance?

By the end of the war, the tensions between the three powers had grown due to the lack of a mutual enemy and the many disagreements. The Alliance collapsed by 1946. A series of factors contributed to this:

On 16 July 1945, the US successfully tested the first atomic bomb without telling the Soviet Union. The US planned to use their new weapons against Japan and did not encourage the Soviet Union to join this war. This created fear in the Soviet Union and eroded trust further.

Stalin did not conduct the free elections in Poland and Eastern Europe that he had promised. In the Polish elections conducted in January 1947, a communist victory was secured by disqualifying, arresting, and murdering opponents.

Communist governments were also secured throughout Eastern Europe. By 1946, Moscow-trained communist leaders returned to Eastern Europe in order to ensure these governments were dominated by Moscow.

30,000 Soviet troops remained in Iran at the end of the war against the agreement made at Tehran. Stalin refused to remove them until March 1946 when the situation was referred to the United Nations.

Due to economic hardship after the War, communist parties grew in popularity. Parties in Italy and France were thought to be encouraged by Moscow, according to the US and Britain.

After the Second World War, Greece and Turkey were highly unstable and involved in nationalist and pro-communist rebellions. This angered Churchill as Greece and Turkey were supposedly in the Western ‘sphere of influence’ according to the Percentages Agreement. Fear of communism here also influenced US foreign policy.

In February 1946, George Kennan, an American diplomat and historian, sent a telegram to the US state department saying that the USSR was ‘fanatically and implacably’ hostile to the West and only listened to the ‘logic of force’.

On 5 March 1946, Churchill gave a speech about the ‘iron curtain’ in Europe to warn of the Soviet take-over in Eastern Europe. In response, Stalin compared Churchill to Hitler, withdrew from the International Monetary Fund, and stepped up anti-Western propaganda.

Origins of the Cold War in historiography

Historiography concerning the origins of the Cold War is split into three main views: liberal/orthodox, revisionist, and post-revisionist.

Liberal/orthodox

This view was dominant in the 1940s and 1950s and was put forward by Western historians who perceived Stalin’s foreign policy after 1945 as expansionist and a threat to liberal democracy. These historians justified Truman’s hard-line approach and ignored the defence needs of the USSR, misunderstanding their obsession with security.

Revisionist

In the 1960s and 1970s, the revisionist view became popular. It was promoted by Western historians of the New Left who were more critical of US foreign policy, seeing it as unnecessarily provocative and motivated by US economic interests. This group emphasised the USSR’s defensive needs but ignored provocative Soviet actions.

A notable revisionist is William A Williams, whose 1959 book The Tragedy of American Diplomacy argued that US foreign policy was focused on spreading American political values in order to create a global free-market economy to support US prosperity. It was this, he argued, that ‘crystallized’ the Cold War.

Post-revisionist

A new school of thought began to emerge in the 1970s, started by John Lewis GaddisThe United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941-1947 (1972). Generally, post-revisionism sees the Cold War as a result of a complex set of particular circumstances, exacerbated by the presence of a power vacuum due to WW2.

Gaddis articulates that the Cold War arose due to external and internal conflicts in both the US and the USSR. Hostility between them after the Second World War was caused by a combination of the Soviet obsession with security and Stalin’s leadership with the US ‘illusion of omnipotence’ and nuclear weaponry.

Another post-revisionist, Ernest May, considered the conflict inevitable due to ‘traditions, belief systems, propinquity, and convenience.’

Melvyn Leffler offered a differing post-revisionist view on the Cold War in A Preponderance of Power (1992). Leffler argues that the US was largely responsible for the emergence of the Cold War by antagonising the USSR but that this was done for long-term national security needs as restricting the spread of communism was beneficial to the US.

The Origins of the Cold War - Key takeaways

  • The origins of the Cold War go a lot further back than the end of the Second World War, with ideological conflict emerging after communism was established in Russia with the Bolshevik Revolution.
  • Stalin was obsessed with security due to repeated invasion of the Soviet Union, hence his determination to establish a buffer zone. However, this was seen as provocative action by the West.
  • The leadership of Harry Truman contributed to increased hostility due to a hard-line approach to communism and misunderstanding of Soviet motivation for a buffer zone in Eastern Europe.
  • Historians have disagreed on the causes of the Cold War; orthodox historians saw Stalin as expansionist, revisionist historians saw the US as needlessly provocative, whilst post-revisionist historians look at a more complex picture of events.

1. Turner Catledge, ‘Our Policy Stated’, New York Times, June 24, 1941, p 1, 7.

The Origins of the Cold War

 The origins of the Cold War are rooted in the incompatibility of capitalism and communism, and the differing national interests of the US and the USSR. Both countries saw the other political system as a threat and misunderstood the other’s motivations, which led to mistrust and hostility. The Cold War grew out of this atmosphere of mistrust and fear.

The Cold War is generally accepted to have started in 1947, but 1945–49 is considered the Origins of the Cold War period.

The Cold War began due to hostile relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was not solely started by either side. 

There are many factors that contributed to the start of the Cold War. Four of the most important are: ideological conflict, tensions at the end of the Second World War, nuclear weapons, and differing national interests.

Final The Origins of the Cold War Quiz

Question

Name three key reasons for the Cold War.

Show answer

Answer

Any three from:

  • The ideological conflict between capitalism and communism
  • Differing national interests
  • Economic factors
  • Mutual mistrust 
  • Leaders and individuals
  • The arms race
  • Traditional superpower rivalry

Show question

Question

Give three long-term causes of the Cold War.


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Answer

Any three from:

  • The Bolshevik Revolution
  • Western Intervention in the Russian Civil War
  • Soviet refusal to pay off Russian debts
  • US did not officially recognise the USSR until 1933
  • Policy of appeasement
  • Nazi-Soviet Pact

Show question

Question

Explain the issue of the Second Front.


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Answer

The US and Britain delayed the opening of a second front until June 1944 whilst the Soviets experienced huge casualties at the hands of the Nazis.

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Question

What countries were key issues during the wartime conferences?


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Answer

Poland, Germany, and Eastern Europe

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Question

Compare Roosevelt and Truman.


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Answer

Roosevelt sought a working relationship with the USSR, whilst Truman was more hard-line against communism.

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Question

What six factors caused the final breakdown of the Grand Alliance?


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Answer

The atomic bomb, Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe, Soviet refusal to withdraw from Iran, communism elsewhere in Europe, Kennan’s Long Telegram, and Churchill’s Iron Curtain Speech

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Question

Which group of historians blame the US for the origins of the Cold War?


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Answer

The revisionists

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Question

Name a Cold War post-revisionist historian.

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Answer

Any of: John Lewis Gaddis, Ernest May, or Melvyn Leffler

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Question

Name the ‘Big Three’ leaders.

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Answer

 Winston Churchill of Great Britain,  Franklin Roosevelt of the United States and Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union.

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Question

Why did the USSR join the UK-US alliance?

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Answer

Hitler invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 in an operation codenamed Barbarossa. This led Stalin to team up with Churchill and Roosevelt.

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Question

Explain why the Grand Alliance was dubbed the ‘Strange Alliance.’ 


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Answer

It allied unlikely partners: the communist Soviet Union and the capitalist US. These two countries were ideologically divided, and political enemies, which made their alliance seem bizarre.

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Question

When was the Atlantic Charter signed? Between which countries? 


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Answer

The Atlantic Charter was signed in August 1941 between the United States and the United Kingdom.

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Question

What was the goal of the Atlantic Charter? 


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Answer

The Atlantic Charter aimed to declare the allied vision of the post-war world, whilst promoting democracy and free trade.

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Question

 What was the United Nations Declaration?


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Answer

The United Nations Declaration was a short document signed by the ‘Big Three’ and China on New Year’s Day 1942. Many more countries later signed this Declaration, pledging to accept the Atlantic Charter and its principles.

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Question

How many countries formed the Allies?  

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Answer

The Declaration by United Nations that formalised the Allies was signed by 47 governments between 1942 and 1945.

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Question

What did the United Nations Declaration become the basis of? 


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Answer

The United Nations

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Question

Which countries signed the Moscow Declarations?


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Answer

The US, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and China.

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Question

What were the four Moscow Declarations? 


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Answer

  • The Declaration of the Four Nations on General Security
  • The Declaration on Italy
  • The Declaration on Austria
  • The Declarations on Atrocities

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Question

When was the Tehran Conference? 


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Answer

28 November - 1 December 1943

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Question

What was so special about the Tehran Conference? 


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Answer

 The Tehran Conference was the first time the leaders of the Big Three (Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill) met in person.

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Question

What was the codename of the Tehran Conference? 


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Answer

Eureka

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Question

 What does ‘the Four Policemen’ refer to?

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Answer

The ‘Four Policemen’ was a term coined by Franklin D. Roosevelt which referred to the four major Allied powers of the Second World War: the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and China. Roosevelt believed that each of the four policemen would maintain order in their respective spheres of influence.

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Question

What did Churchill warn about in his 1946 speech in Missouri? 


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Answer

Churchill warned that an iron curtain was descending in Europe, from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic.

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Question

What did the break down of the Grand Alliance mean for the rest of the world? 


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Answer

The failure of the Grand Alliance ushered in the beginning of the Cold War.

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Question

List four of the debates at Tehran.


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Answer

Any four of the following:

  • The Second Front in Europe

  • The Second Front in Asia

  • The future of Germany

  • Poland

  • Eastern Europe

  • Iran

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Question

What was the Percentages Agreement?


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Answer

 An agreement between Churchill and Stalin about spheres of influence in Eastern and Southern Europe.

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Question

When was the Percentages Agreement made?


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Answer

9 October 1944

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Question

What were the two groups of Poles involved in the Polish question called?


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Answer

 The London Poles and the Lublin Poles.

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Question

Explain the difference between the two groups involved in the Polish question.


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Answer

The London Poles were anti-Soviet; the Lublin Poles were pro-Soviet.

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Question

At which conference did Stalin agree to free elections in Poland and Eastern Europe?


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Answer

 Yalta

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Question

Who attended the Potsdam conference?


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Answer

Truman, Attlee, and Stalin.

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Question

When did the US first successfully test an atomic bomb?


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Answer

17 July 1945

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Question

Name three events that contributed to the final collapse of the Alliance.


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Answer

Any three from: Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe, Soviet troops in Iran, rebellions in Greece and Turkey, communism in Western Europe, the long telegram, the Iron Curtain speech.

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Question

Which countries in Western Europe began to support communism due to economic difficulty?


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Answer

Italy

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Question

What was the Long Telegram?


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Answer

A telegram written by George Kennan to the US state department about Soviet foreign policy.

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Question

What were some of Stalin’s reactions to the Iron Curtain speech?


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Answer

He likened Churchill to Hitler.

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Question

Which one of the ‘Big Three’ leaders, in your opinion, was most to blame for the collapse of the Alliance?


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Answer

Any could be argued along the following lines:

  • Stalin: he broke agreements made in conferences and was working on his own agenda.

  • Roosevelt: along with Churchill, he delayed opening a second front to relieve pressure on the Soviet Union.

  • Churchill: he made the Percentages Agreement behind Roosevelt’s back in order to protect British interests and gave the inflammatory Iron Curtain speech.

  • Truman: he was more hard-line against communism and Soviet interests and was not open about the US atomic bomb with Stalin.



Show question

Question

When did the Potsdam Conference take place?

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Answer

17 July-2 August 1945

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Question

Which leaders attended the Potsdam Conference?

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Answer

Joseph Stalin, Harry Truman, and Winston Churchill, who was replaced midway by Clement Atlee. 

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Question

What was the purpose of the Potsdam Conference?

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Answer

To finalise a post-war agreement and to pressure Japan, which was still in the war.

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Question

What notable agreements were made at Yalta?

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Answer

  • Germany would be divided into four zones of occupation, between the US, Britain, France and the USSR, and would pay reparations.
  • Poland's borders would be redrawn- the Soviet Union would gain some of their land, and Poland would receive some territory from Germany.
  • Stalin would conduct free elections in Poland and Eastern Europe.
  • The Soviet Union would enter the war with Japan three months after the defeat of Germany.

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Question

What six issues were debated at Potsdam?

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Answer

  • The administration of Germany.
  • Deciding on German reparations.
  • The occupation of Austria.
  • Defining Poland's boundaries.
  • The role of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe.
  • Ending the war against Japan.

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Question

What did Stalin want concerning Germany?

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Answer

Stalin was determined to obtain huge reparations from Germany to rebuild the Soviet Union.

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Question

Why did Stalin want a buffer zone in Eastern Europe?

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Answer

He was obsessed with security and preventing another devastating invasion of the USSR from the West.

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Question

What did Truman want concerning Germany?

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Answer

He argued that the occupying powers of Germany should only take reparations from their own zone. This would avoid repeating the consequences of the harsh reparations imposed on Germany in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which had contributed to the rise of Hitler.

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Question

What five words beginning with ‘D’ described the approach taken towards Germany?

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Answer

Demilitarise, denazify, democratise, decentralise, and deindustrialise.

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Question

What was the Council of Foreign Ministers formed to do?

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Answer

Draft peace treaties with Germany's former allies.

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Question

What was decided regarding Austria?

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Answer

Austria and Vienna were divided into occupation zones; no reparations would be taken.

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Question

What did the Potsdam Agreement call for concerning Eastern European countries expelling German populations?

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Answer

It called for them to do so in ‘an orderly and humane manner.’

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Question

What agreement was made to ensure Stalin would conduct free elections in Eastern Europe?

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Answer

There was no firm agreement made.

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