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Background (U4)

Modern History (Year 12) - Overview of Cold War

Ben Whitten

The Pre-WWII World Order

  • In the early 20th century, the destruction of World War I made many people realise that structures of international organisation could break down as easily as they could be built up. Nations banded together after the conflict to attempt to create a new world order, where every country worked together for the greater good of the international community.

  • However, within twenty years, a second global conflict began; World War II put an end to everybody’s hopes for a peaceful world.

WWII and the Throes of Change

  • Following WWII, the mood for peace and security was maybe even greater than it had been after WWI. Horror in the face of Nazi atrocities committed during the Holocaust and the total destruction caused by the atomic bomb in Japan combined to create a real drive toward international cooperation.

  • Other changes had taken place too. Many imperial nations (like Great Britain and France) were completely worn down by the war and their power diminished. These powers turned inwards to establish their own welfare states, and old empires collapsed beneath waves of decolonisation.

  • This created a power vacuum filled by the two remaining global powers: the United States (USA) and the Soviet Union (USSR).

The Emergence of a New Period

  • The establishment of the United Nations (UN) in 1945 suggested that international cooperation was strong after WWII.

  • But beneath the surface, deep ideological differences were emerging between the USA and the USSR. Even though they had buddied up to defeat the common enemy of the Nazis, both countries wanted to lobby for the top spot in this new and uncertain post-war world.

  • The USA represented the values of democratic capitalism, deeply incompatible with the USSR’s communist ideology. In between these two powers was Europe: a war-exhausted continent vulnerable to superpower influence due to its economic and political instability.

  • This vulnerability provided fertile ground for the ideological heat of the Cold War to develop. Slowly but surely, the policies of both superpowers grew more and more competitive, making the world an increasingly divided place. With two camps established, countries caught in the middle had to choose between the Americans and the Soviets.

  • This division would define the new world order for the next fifty years, with few countries able to resist the pull of either superpower. The Cold War completely transformed the way that the international community was structured and when it too was shattered with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the hunt for a new one started all over again.

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