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The Cold War: Post-World War II to the Cuban Missile Crisis

Larry Slawson received his master's degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.

Nuclear explosion.

Nuclear explosion.

Origins of the Cold War

Between the years 1945 and 1962, American and Soviet relations experienced a rapid decline as tensions between the two powers escalated to the brink of a Third World War. In less than two decades, relations between the United States and the Soviet Union had systematically evolved from a period of mutual cooperation and collaboration (experienced during WWII in their mutual struggle against Nazi Germany) to a tense and antagonistic era of competition that reached a crescendo with the nuclear showdown over Cuba in 1962.

This period of mistrust and hostility represented the first stages of the ensuing “Cold War” that engulfed world politics in the decades that followed. In exploring this early period of Cold War history, several questions come to mind. For starters, what led to this dramatic rise in tensions between the two superpowers? When did the Cold War truly begin? Where did this conflict take place on the world stage? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what do historians have to say about this particular field of study? Through an analysis of modern scholarship, this article seeks to examine the historiographical interpretations and trends that surround early Cold War history. In doing so, this article will demonstrate that multiple shortcomings and gaps exist within the field that offer a promising future for potential research.

Debate Over Causation

Modern scholarship on the early aspects of the Cold War can be divided into several categories that include: research pertaining to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the crisis surrounding the “Berlin Airlift,” the impact of the Korean War, the spread of proxy warfare throughout Latin America and the Middle East, and the deliberations that ensued during the “Cuban Missile Crisis.” For historians of the Cold War, one of the fundamental questions surrounding these categorical divisions involves the debate over causation; more specifically, when did the Cold War first emerge, and what event can be credited with triggering the massive decline in American-Soviet relations?

In 2008, historians Campbell Craig and Sergey Radchenko observed that the origins of the Cold War can be traced to the end of WWII with the detonation of atomic bombs over both Hiroshima and Nagasaki; an event that helped channel the tensions of the era into an aggressive arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union in the postwar years that followed (Craig and Radchenko, ix-x). Yet, within modern historiography, this view has generated a great deal of criticism and concern as many scholars point out that hostilities did not emerge between the United States and the Soviets until later in the postwar period. As historian Daniel Harrington points out in his work, Berlin on the Brink: The Blockade, the Airlift, and the Early Cold War, open-confrontation was first witnessed during the advent of the “Berlin Airlift.” As Harrington argues, the Soviet blockade “strengthened anti-communist sentiment in Germany, and hastened the North Atlantic alliance” as the event led Western powers to view the Soviets “as an aggressive, expansionist, and ruthless totalitarian state” (Harrington, 5).

For historians such as Michael Gordin, however, the blockade and bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were minor events when compared to the Soviet Union’s acquisition of an atomic bomb in 1949, and do not provide adequate causation to the Cold War’s origins. Instead, Gordin’s work, Red Cloud at Dawn: Truman, Stalin, and the End of the Atomic Monopoly, finds that Stalin’s procurement of a nuclear bomb served as the pivotal moment in world politics that set the stage for both the Cold War as well as the rapid decline of American-Soviet foreign-relations; leading to a “terrifying stockpiling of nuclear weapons” in the years that followed (Gordin, 23). Yet, according to historian Hajimu Masuda’s account, Cold War Crucible: The Korean Conflict and the Postwar World, even Gordin’s account remains inadequate with its findings as the author argues that the Korean War – more than any other historical event—helped lead to a clear split between both communists and anti-communists by the mid-1950s. According to Masuda’s interpretation, the reality of a Cold War first “materialized during the Korean War period,” as the conflict helped illustrate for the global community the clear separation of interests and desires maintained by the two emerging superpowers (Masuda, 9).

Third World Countries and Proxy Warfare

In more recent years, historians such as Stephen Rabe, Tobias Rupprecht, and Salim Yaqub have helped to broaden the field of Cold War history through their analysis of regions outside of the traditional Soviet and American zones of interest (i.e., Latin America and the Middle East). As the debate over causation stalled, the interpretations provided by these authors helped to create a secondary dispute within modern historiography that centered upon the positive and negative influence of the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as the political, social, and economic impact the two superpowers had upon third-world countries as both sought to enlarge their potential base of allies.

With numerous archival materials becoming available for the first time in Latin America and the Middle East, historians were afforded an opportunity in the 2000s to reinterpret the traditional focus of American involvement in third-world countries; challenging the Western emphasis on a “good” versus “evil” dichotomy that existed between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and demonstrating that the conflict was far less simple than once argued by prior historians. Stephen Rabe and Tobias Rupprecht, for instance, both offer a striking portrayal of American and Soviet involvement in Latin America (during the 1950s) that highlights the lies and deceptive qualities of American foreign policy in the region, while stressing the positive influence (and impact) made by the Soviets. According to Rabe’s account, not only did American intervention in Latin America help “perpetuate and spread violence, poverty, and despair,” but it also resulted in the complete destabilization of “governments in Argentina, Brazil, British Guiana (Guyana), Bolivia, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua” (Rabe, xxix). Tobias Rupprecht also provides a direct indictment against American involvement in the region and argues that the covert operations of the United States helped confirm the “superiority of the Soviet system” (both morally and economically) for many Latin Americans” (Rupprecht, 286).

For historians such as Salim Yaqub, American foreign policy in the Middle East also maintained similarities to the events that unfolded in Latin America as well. According to Yaqub, countries in the Middle East were often used as pawns by the United States as they exploited and turned Arab leaders against one another in order to maintain a strict level of control and dominance over the region (Yaqub, 18). Yet, not all histories of the Middle East are reflective of this “exploitation” narrative that dominates modern scholarship. Historians such as Ray Takeyh and Steven Simon, for instance, counter the efforts of revisionist scholars by arguing that American foreign policy in the Middle East represented America’s finest hour during the Cold War; allowing for the United States to suppress the threat of communism and to prevent further Soviet encroachment within the region (Takeyh and Simon, xviii). More importantly to the authors, the United States managed to accomplish all of this “without significant cost in blood or treasure” (Takeyh and Simon, xviii).


Debate Over the Cuban Missile Crisis

In more recent years, historians have also attempted to make headway in a third debate emanating from the field of early-Cold War history: the controversy surrounding President John F. Kennedy and the decision-making process involved with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Similar to the interpretations surrounding Latin America and the Middle East, modern scholars who focus on the political and diplomatic aspects of the Cuban Missile Crisis have faced countless depictions of the event that stress America’s unwavering commitment to patriotism and democracy throughout the duration of the crisis. These interpretations posit that America’s strict adherence to democratic and liberal ideals helped Kennedy and his advisors defeat Khrushchev and end the nearly two-week-long debacle with the Soviet Union. In the 2000s, historians such as David Gibson and Sheldon Stern, however, challenged this depiction once new documents (particularly audio recordings and transcripts of the ExComm meetings that took place) became available to the academic community for the first time.

Gibson’s account, Talk at the Brink: Deliberation and Decision During the Cuban Missile Crisis, points out that the decision-making process for Kennedy and his advisors was anything but decisive, as he argues that “Kennedy’s decisions were the outcome of talk . . . pursuant to the rules, procedures, and vicissitudes” of sociology; thus, rendering the decision-making process as both complicated and complex (Gibson, xi). Likewise, historian Sheldon Stern argues that American values played no role in the deliberations that took place (Stern, 213). If anything, he argues that American ideals and values, ultimately, helped create the crisis as years of covert military operations and CIA-led missions into Cuba provoked widespread chaos and confusion that forced Khrushchev and the Soviets to intervene with the placement of nuclear missiles on the island nation (Stern, 23).

Avenues for Future Research

Taken together, each of these accounts offers a unique perspective of the early Cold War that illustrates the evolving nature of the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union as both superpowers sought to expand their control and influence on the world stage. From WWII to the Cuban Missile Crisis, these accounts illustrate the erratic behavior of global politics as the Americans and Soviets rapidly transformed the globe into a bi-polar arena of conflict. An analysis of these accounts helps to elucidate many of the clear trends that permeate this historiographical field of study. As seen, revisionist histories make up a substantial portion of the historiography surrounding early-Cold War analyses and offer interpretations that often call into question the positive renditions that have been presented in the past; particularly, the westernized accounts that focus on American “greatness” in their struggle against the Soviets. As seen, however, modern scholarship in this field often derides these mythologized versions of the American past, as revisionists continue in their attempts to create a more realistic and balanced approach to America’s impact on global affairs.

Although each of these accounts provides a compelling argument for their version of causation, foreign relations, and diplomacy during the early Cold War, these debates and discussions are also plagued with numerous shortcomings and weaknesses as well. In their quest for answers, scholars have often relied on a large array of primary sources that emanate from either the United States or Western Europe. While historians such as Hajimu Masuda have attempted to remedy this narrow viewpoint through the incorporation of Asian-based sources into the study of Cold War dynamics, much of the scholarship in this field is devoid of resources from the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and non-western localities. Why is this the case? Many of these sources are locked away in Russian archives; thus, preventing researchers and scholars, alike, from accessing their contents until the Russian government declassifies these files in the future.

For many historians, however, the lack of attention to these resources is also a result of the tremendous challenges faced in translation. In order to be well-versed in the intricate nature of the Cold War, modern historians are faced with the daunting task of learning numerous languages due to the worldwide implications of the conflict. Historians, such as Daniel Harrington, have acknowledged this growing problem and concern, as he asserts that scholars are often forced to “compensate” for their “lack of fluency . . . by drawing on studies of Soviet policy that have appeared in English” (Harrington, 2). For this reason, a tremendous number of gaps regarding the early Cold War have remained a hindrance for early (and current) research due to the language barriers that exist; thus, limiting the field to a narrow construction of events that often excludes both Soviet and non-western perspectives. Because of these reasons, large gaps also continue to exist concerning the conflict between American and Soviet forces in Africa as well. Due to a lack of archival evidence from these countries (as well as the tremendous diversity of languages that exist on the African continent), additional research on this region will likely maintain a westernized perspective in the coming years ahead.

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Based on this material, it is evident that scholars will continue to have problems with acquiring a broad level of primary sources in the foreseeable future (in particular, Russian sources). To remedy this, scholars will need to continue focusing on regions outside the United States and Russian Federation (such as Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East) in order to generate greater knowledge from foreign archives and to gain greater insight into a non-western perspective of the Cold War era. Even in the modern setting, it is easy for historians to follow a western perspective in their analysis of the Cold War (as seen in Ray Takeyh and Steven Simon’s account). But in doing so, historians greatly limit their understanding of the event. Considering the global ramifications that the Cold War unleashed, a broader and more comprehensive approach to the field is a necessity that should not be ignored.

In conclusion, future research will depend largely upon the ability of historians to learn a diverse set of languages if they wish to provide a comprehensive and complete picture of the early Cold War. The lessons learned from this field are important to consider for any historian (both professional and amateur) as they demonstrate the importance of incorporating a balance of both western and non-western sources; particularly when dealing with issues surrounding Russia and the former Soviet Union. Only through the incorporation of a diverse set of sources can a complete history of the Cold War be told. Only time will tell if this can be accomplished.

Works Cited


Craig, Campbell and Sergey Radchenko. The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

Gibson, David. Talk at the Brink: Deliberation and Decision During the Cuban Missile Crisis. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012.

Gordin, Michael. Red Cloud at Dawn: Truman, Stalin, and the End of the Atomic Monopoly. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.

Harrington, Daniel. Berlin on the Brink: The Blockade, the Airlift, and the Early Cold War. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2012.

Masuda, Hajimu. Cold War Crucible: The Korean Conflict and the Postwar World. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Rabe, Stephen. The Killing Zone: The United States Wages Cold War in Latin America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Rupprecht, Tobias. Soviet Internationalism After Stalin: Interaction and Exchange Between the USSR and Latin America During the Cold War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Stern, Sheldon. The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005.

Takeyh, Ray and Steven Simon. The Pragmatic Superpower: Winning the Cold War in the Middle East. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016.

Yaqub, Salim. Containing Arab Nationalism: The Eisenhower Doctrine and the Middle East. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Images: Accessed July 29, 2017. Staff. "Cold War History." 2009. Accessed July 29, 2017.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Larry Slawson


Ryan from Louisiana, USA on July 29, 2017:

Very interesting article. I learned a lot from reading this. I am very familiar with WW2, but the Cold War era not to familiar with. Thank you for sharing this information for us to read. Great work.

FlourishAnyway from USA on July 29, 2017:

Such a timely article and to provide a arussian perspective is interesting as that is often not available to us.

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