Rethinking the Causes of Cold War: Aggression or Misunderstandings

July 17, 2023
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Table of contents

  1. The Cold War: understanding the origins of the conflict
  2. Conclusion
  3. References

The Cold War, an epic proxy struggle of the 20th century, remains an enigma wrapped in perplexity and burstiness. It emerged from the complex and hostile relations between the newly established superpowers, the US and USSR, which led to the infamous divide between the East and West. As Winston Churchill aptly analogized, "an iron curtain has descended across the continent." The Cold War's causes continue to be an unresolved theme, delved into deeply in this essay.

The Cold War: understanding the origins of the conflict

Historians have long debated the reasons behind the United States' initial hostility towards the Soviet leaders. Some argue that it was purely ideological, driven by opposition to the state ideology of communism. On the other hand, a group of "post-revisionist" historians posits that neither the US nor the USSR was solely at fault. According to their research, the development of the Cold War was an inevitable consequence of the post-World War II power structure. This "zero-sum game theory" of their relations forced both superpowers into competition, resulting in mistrust and hostility. The establishment of empires after 1945, one through consent and the other through coercion, fueled by economic reliance and protection, played a crucial role, as argued by Gaddis. He contends that this asymmetry was the primary factor behind the origins, escalation, and eventual outcome of the Cold War.

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Another perspective, put forth by Mastny, focuses on the Soviet Union's quest for security at its borders after World War II. Mastny rejects the simplistic view of reactions between the superpowers and instead looks into the genuine concerns of the Soviet Union's security. He sees the Marshall Plan as a catalyst for the tightening of control over Eastern Europe, countered by the creation of COMECON. However, Mastny doesn't fully consider the aggressive actions of the Soviet Union in countries like Iran and their impact on the overall relations between the two superpowers.

On the contrary, Revisionists offer insights into how the Soviets perceived the preceding actions and the encroachment of American influence, such as the creation of NATO, as a means to guarantee American dominance. Appleman argues that the rapid post-WWII actions of the US triggered the Soviet response. He sees the Marshall Plan not only as a front for continuing American trade but also as a way for the capitalist market to compete with European markets, driving the American government to ensure countries remained within the NATO sphere of influence. Appleman blames the Potsdam Conference and the Marshall Plan for the Soviet actions, but many believe that the advent of the hydrogen bomb played a more significant role. Williams and Alperovitz hold the US solely responsible, arguing that the atomic bomb was intended to show dominance and intimidate the Soviet Union into submission. A telegram from the US ambassador to Canada even noted that the US's action "was not just meant to buckle Japan into surrender, it was also a political statement towards the Soviet Union." This perception likely led many within the Soviet leadership to view the US's actions as a direct response and preparation for an eventual negative outcome.

The Western orthodox perspective contrasts with the Revisionist view, attributing the Cold War's origins to the Soviet Union's expansionism after becoming the dominant force in the West, replacing the decaying European empires. However, by 1946, the inherent hostilities between the emerging superpowers were not yet apparent. President Truman's staff, however, distrusted Stalin and questioned his willingness to cooperate with the US after the war. According to Schlesinger, Soviet expansionism resulted from both imperial Russian tendencies, particularly the desire for better sea access, and Leninist ideological aspirations for world revolution. The terrible losses during WWII led the Soviets to create an artificial buffer zone within Europe, but the US resisted any agreements that established spheres of influence.

The issue of Stalin's "salami tactics," dividing Eastern Europe and establishing communist governments, and the Soviet involvement in Iran, culminating in the Iran crisis of 1946, is seen by many orthodox historians as the starting point of Soviet aggression. The US almost certainly viewed this crisis as a major factor in the evolving contentious relationship with the USSR. Many orthodox historians argue that the United States began to solely blame the USSR for its increasingly volatile and aggressive actions towards nations within its spheres of influence. Former US Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz summed up this sentiment in a speech, stating, "The Cold War was caused by the evil regime in the Soviet Union, not by a failure of diplomacy." Additionally, many believe that Stalin's character and diplomatic actions were vital factors in the onset of the Cold War. Zubok and Plekhanov argue that Stalin's weaknesses as a diplomat and his unstable personality ultimately led to conflict. The Soviets' assumption of the role of "protector of mankind" and "savior of Europe" after bearing the brunt of WWII, combined with an expectation of special treatment, clashed with the balance of power and contributed to the divide between East and West.


Prior to the end of the Cold War, the belief that Western and Soviet historians would find common ground on the origins of the conflict was a complicated issue to analyze. Understanding the role played by political and ideological differences and the emergence of new players on the international stage divided between East and West, we can reflect on the reactionary nature of the conflict. The mutual distrust and resulting actions overlooked the underlying conditions and deeper concerns that shaped both the United States' and Soviet Union's policies and objectives. Both superpowers undoubtedly contributed to the divided relationship and the inevitable conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union.


  1. Alperovitz, Gar. (1994). Atomic diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam: the use of the atomic bomb and the American confrontation with Soviet power.; Boulder, Colo.: Pluto Press, pp 187-189
  2. GADDIS, J. L. (1997). We now know rethinking Cold War history. Oxford, Clarendon Press. Pp 264-281
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