Research Papers

Research Paper: United States and Soviet Union in the Cold War

Shortly after the World War II the geopolitical picture of the world shaped distinctly. Former allies in Anti-Hitler Coalition became opponents in the post war world. The World War II became a milestone in the global history. The results of the World War II proved the existence of two superpowers in the world political arena, The United States of America and the Soviet Union.
In 1949 Germany was divided by the victors and the border dividing Germany became the symbol of the new stage in the European development, a historic period lasted 40 years and characterized by the global confrontation of two superpowers. A border dividing Germany got the extension throughout the globe, in Cuba and Afghanistan, Europe and Nicaragua; it is reminded nowadays in terrorist attacks and nuclear development of the North Korea and Pakistan.

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The checkpoints in Berlin became the checkpoints between two confronting worlds with different economies and laws. One feature that united them was the crazy senseless arms race. In 1961 the totalitarian regime of the USSR visualized the confrontation by building the wall with the checkpoint Charlie in Berlin known as a point of tragedy of dozens of people some of which succeeded to escape for the free world but the rest were shot during the attempts to run away from the “socialist paradise”.

The formation of two confronting military alliances, NATO and Warsaw Pact formalized the Cold War, a period of the international tension ended by Michael Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan in the 80’s.

The period of the Cold War was the period of the competition of the economies, ideologies and military doctrines serving these economies. There were several objective reasons defining the results of the cold war. The economy of the USSR being weakened by the World War II failed to bear the huge expenses connected with the arms race. The Communist ideology imposed on the allies was false in its essence and did not have any viable economic basis. The artificial isolation of the Warsaw Pact countries could not last forever in the dynamic highly integrated world. The complete absence of the economic competition in the consuming sector and transfer it into the military sector led to the collapse of the entire Eastern European economy. One of the reasons of the Warsaw Pact failure was that the Soviet economy was exhausted by the arms race.

There was some opposition to the Soviet rule in the member countries of the Warsaw Pact; the revolt in Czechoslovakia in 1968 was brutally suppressed by the Soviet tanks. Similar demonstrations occurred in Hungary and in the Soviet Union itself.

The presence of the Warsaw troops in Eastern Europe created the real danger for the global and European security. The United States being the key player in world geopolitical arena and having its allies in Europe had to provide the appropriate level of security by dislocation its military bases in the Western Europe.

The cooperation within the Warsaw Pact was in a certain measure dictated by the USSR as a superpower. Some countries of the Warsaw Pact namely Poland got into dual situation. Poland was the first country occupied by the Nazi during the World War II. Terror launched by the Hitler troops in Poland caused strong opposition to fascism in Poland.

On the other hand Poland was liberated by the Soviet Army and had to accept the dictate of the Soviet Union.

There were complicated relations of the USA and Poland. “At the early stage Roosevelt extolled the Polish underground and its heroic fight against the German occupiers, as part of his campaign to overcome isolationism and educate American public opinion to the Nazi danger. By the time of Yalta the Polish issue became for him an awkward problem complicating the relations with Moscow. Actually, the President had little genuine concern for Poland. His vision of the postwar world was based on the cooperation of the great powers – the Four Policemen idea – to which all others were to adjust”.

1. In fact Poland acquired two enemies, the Nazi and the USSR which aim was to subordinate Poland to its will. The situation was that Poland got sacrificed by the United States to the ally relations with the Soviet Union. The entire geopolitics was defined by the superpowers and nobody was concerned on the opinion of the minor states like Poland. The West needed good relations with the Soviet Union badly to overcome the “brown plague” of fascism.

The spread of the Soviet influence in the Eastern Europe was rapid and remained after the war supported by the Soviet troops. “After the outbreak of the German-Soviet war, the Soviet Union sent home a group of Polish communists, who established the Polish Workers’ Party. It was a small party, not recognizing the legal authorities of the Polish state and enjoying no social support in Poland. It was that party, however, which seized power in post-war Poland, helped by the pressure of the Soviet Union”.

2. The systemic crisis of the pro-Soviet system burst out in Europe in the 1980’s. There were several reasons for it. The first and the major one was the economical situation. As it was mentioned above the economical system of the post war socialist Eastern Europe was based on the artificial regulations which had nothing common with the market competition. Secondly, the enormous arms race, nuclear confrontation of the USSR with the USA exhausted the economic potential of the USSR and made it difficult to support economically the Soviet military, ideological and economic influence on the Warsaw Pact countries. One of the major reasons of the collapse of the Soviet system in Europe was aggressive, myopic policy with the military conflict in Afghanistan, support of Castro which nearly led to the global crisis, support of semi terrorists’ regimes in Libya, Iraq, Palestine and others.

The United States in its turn started supported forces worldwide which were in opposition to the Soviet allies. The confrontation between the USSR and the USA extended beyond Europe and became global tragic consequence of which are observed nowadays. The 9/11 attack committed by Usama Bin Laden and the war in Chechnya show the danger of supporting the terrorist regimes for the sake of geopolitical aims. Both the USA and the USSR supported various terrorist organizations (in Afghanistan, Iraq etc) for the sake of transferring the confrontation into the military aspect.

The hostility between the USSR and the USA in Europe grew gradually with the arms race. In 1979 USSR put SS-20 missiles in the western USSR, capable of reaching Western Europe. The USA responded by placing in 1983 Cruise / Pershing missiles in Britain / W. Germany, capable of reaching USSR.

The confrontation reached the dangerous level when the accidental mistake or technical fault could have led to the full scale nuclear global conflict. These processes could not bypass the allies of the superpowers. The disposition of the weapon in Europe by the USSR caused the strong silent opposition to the Soviet regime in many countries and first of all in the western outpost of the Warsaw Pact Poland.

A chain of events led to the understanding that the Soviet foreign policy is destructive and may lead to a global catastrophe.

The confrontation of the USA to the USSR was supported by the Domino Theory first espoused by name by President Eisenhower in an April 7, 1954 news conference

3. According to this theory the changes towards the acceptance of communism in one country will immediately cause similar changes in the neighboring countries of the region. The war in Vietnam was supported by the Domino theory. Such theory is rather controversial. Thus in South Eastern Asia apart from Vietnam, Laos and bloody Cambodia the communist regime did spread neither to Thailand nor to Indonesia or any other country.

The qualitatively new level of confrontation between the superpowers started during the Reagan Administration. The incident with the Korean airliner which was shot by the Soviet missile enhanced the confrontation.

“President Reagan’s strategy to accelerate the demise of the Soviet Union consisted of five pillars: economic, political, military, ideological, and moral”

4. The President Reagan administration played one of the key roles in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Certain prerequisites for the collapse of Soviet system had been created by the 1980’s.
They occurred inside the USSR, within the Warsaw Pact countries and in the international level. The economy of the USSR worsened gradually; the standards of living were gradually getting lower. The ideological basis did not correspond to the real matter of state. The corruption was growing. The party leaders headed by old Leonid Brezhnev could not propose any viable policy aimed to predict the crisis of power in the USSR.

Completely closed society fenced by the iron curtain could not restrain people from analyzing the political situation in the country. The dissident Helsinki group and cruel reprisals against it broke the illusion of stability in the society. The unmotivated crazy Afghan war brought thousands of coffins of the young guys to their parents which increased the discontent in the country. At the same time the KGB machine worked properly and there were very few public protests except of mentioned above Helsinki group.

The most important was that the idea of the “capitalist enemy” in spite of the strong ideological brain washing did not seem convincing any more. The entire industry was objected to manufacturing the arms and consuming products were in permanent deficit.

The policy of the Reagan’s administration was aimed to get rid of the permanent threat from the USSR. It was Reagan administration that accelerated the end of the Cold War.

It would not be quiet right to state that the USA got undisputable victory over the Soviet Union without any impact on the USA itself. Some historians state that ‘we all lost the Cold War’.

5. Both countries almost undermined their economies by the arm race. The United States as well as the Soviet Union had to support the movements confronting to their opponents during the Cold War. Such terrorist groups can not exist without distinctly marked enemies and the alliances with them may bring the effect of boomerang which could be noticed in the modern confrontation of America and Russia in Afghanistan and Chechnya with Islamic terrorist movements close to those which were supported by both superpowers in their history of mutual confrontation.

By the mid 1970’s the weapon arsenals of the superpowers reached the levels when any victory in the military conflict was impossible. The doctrines of “preventive strikes” or “preventive wars” were senseless because the arm race reached the level when the global nuclear war could eliminate the entire mankind. Though military thread still existed the concept of the national security mainly presupposed early notification and the direct nuclear strikes were hardly possible.

These doctrines were realized not only by the superpowers but by their allies, first of all by the members of the Warsaw Pact. The confrontation from the direct arms race transferred into economical level. The United States lifted the grain embargo in respond to the Soviet aggression in Afghanistan.

The position of Poland in the confrontation between the superpowers was remarkable. Both sides considered Poland to be the weakest chain in the Warsaw Pact. ‘A telegram from Col. Ryszard Kuklinski, the CIA’s longtime source inside the Polish

general staff, reported in early December 1980 that [General] Jaruzelski [the Polish leader] had ordered his Defense Ministry to approve Kremlin-sponsored plans to allow 18 divisions of Soviet, Czechoslovak and East German troops to enter the country, …’

6. The elevation of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla to the papacy in October, 1978, and his homecoming as Pope John Paul II in June, 1979, was the breakthrough event. Poland unlike The Soviet Union despite being the socialist country preserved very strong Catholic traditions. The elevation of Pole to the papacy added great self esteem to the nation. Polish society returned its dignity and its unity. The worsening of the economic situation caused a series of strikes throughout a country.

In the summer of 1980, Poland was swept by a wave of strikes. Lech Walensa assumed leadership of the strike committee at the Gdansk Shipyard. The most outstanding Polish intellectuals became the workers’ advisers. The authorities had to institute negotiations on the a list of 21 demands, which, together with pay raises and many other things, called for an end to censorship and the establishment of free trade unions. Devoid of any program, the ruling group agreed to make concessions. Within two months, the enormous, ten-million-strong Solidarity trade union [Solidarnosc] came into being. It was a union and, at the same time, a reform and independence-oriented social movement, resorting to peaceful methods only.

7. Stanislaw Kania and Wojciech Jaruzelski, the official leaders of Poland were under double pressure. On one hand the Soviet rulers imposed the pressure on them to take the radical measures to return Poland back to the Soviet rule. Brezhnev and his politicians could not understand that the process which took place in Poland was irreversible and was distinct evidence of the communism doctrine decline. On the other hand the influence of Solidarity was growing in the country and it could not be treated as a local unimportant rebellion.

Martial Law was imposed at midnight on December 12, 1981. Solidarity leaders were interned; strikes, which erupted in protest, were crushed with force (seven miners were killed at the Wujek colliery); and military units were sent to control factories and offices.

8. The introduction of the Martial Law was one of the most stupid actions committed by the communist regime. It caused the outbursts of protest throughout a country. Polish people even those who did not supported Solidarity directly considered the Martial Law to be the violations of their basic rights.

The world and Europe faced the dangerous situation for the entire security. The introduction of the Martial Law was a surprise for the Reagan’s Administration. At the same time there was no any evidence of the direct Soviet intervention. The USA and its allies were not prepared politically to such turn of events.

On one hand the danger of the Soviet expansion to the entire Europe via Poland was evident and on the other hand there was a necessity to observe the fragile balance of forces and avoid the direct military confrontation which in the 1980’s could lead to unpredictable consequences.

The reports of intelligence proved the Soviet responsibility for the Martial Law in Poland. These reports were just formal evidences. Polish leaders could not have taken such steps without the approval of the Soviet leaders.

On the other hand any military escalation within the Warsaw Pact countries could not occur without consent of the USSR, what is more the system of the military cooperation of the member countries was build in such a way that any military action was either initiated or sanctioned by the Soviet Union. In case with Poland the initiator of the Martial Law was Jaruzelski but still it was sanctioned by the Soviet regime. What is more, he wanted direct Soviet intervention, but the Kremlin refused

9. Jaruzelski realized that the situation in Poland was dangerous for his ruling and only repressive actions could according to him prevent from the collapse of the pro-Soviet regime.

Shortly after announcement of the Martial Law in Poland President Reagan responded by a number of economic sanctions against the USSR.

The history of the rebellion against the Soviet dominance in Poland goes back to 1956 when after the Stalinization of Poland stopped workers of Poznan protested against the economic conditions. Poland all the times was “a friend to be bewared of” for the Soviet regime. In 1956, 1968 and 1970 there were attempts of the protests against the pro-Soviet regime but all of them were suppressed.

“In December 1970, workers struck throughout Poland — most famously in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk — as a result of a government-decreed 36 percent increase in the prices of staple-foods. Government forces again violently repressed these demonstrations, this time shooting at the defenseless crowds of workers. A 27-year-old Lech Walesa witnessed these events as a shipyard worker and a leader of the striking workers.”

10. The reaction to the Martial Law in Poland was extreme negative. It consolidated people who even did not share completely the ideas of Solidarity. It caused natural counteractions to the attempts of repression throughout the country.

The public responded with massive civil resistance to martial law. Before a month had passed, tens of underground newspapers and publications appeared. The people turned to the Catholic Church for protection, with the latter providing the venues for meetings and patriotic demonstrations. Solidarity also received international support, including Lech Walesa receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983. However, martial law continued until July 1983 and subsequent government repression continued, including the 1984 murder of the popular priest Jerzy Popieluszko by government agents.

11. The pressure on pro-Soviet government inside the country doubled by the pressure of the international community and first of all by the United States and its allies. The politicians realized that Poland is the first sign of the forthcoming collapse of the Soviet system. The economy of the USSR based mainly on the oil, machinery and grain export was undermined by the arms race. Actually the arms race was a competition of economies rather than the arms themselves. The destructive qualities of the modern weapon stored by the superpowers were enough to eliminate the entire mankind several times. Only one SS-20 missile known as “Satan” in NATO could carry several nuclear warheads each of which was several times more destructive than the bomb which attacked Hiroshima.

That was a perfect time for the economic sanctions against the USSR and its allies. A number of sanctions were imposed both on the USSR and Poland. The fishing by the Polish vessels were restricted in the US jurisdiction areas. Reagan applied to the US allies to limit the high technology access for Poland and the USSR. Similar sanctions were imposed on the USSR as well. The negotiations on the new grain agreement and the equipment for Urengoi oil pipeline were suspended.

Still there were some disagreements between the United States and its allies on the sanctions against the USSR. After the pipeline sanctions were imposed the French broke them signing the contract on the pipeline with the USSR, others followed the French shortly. The advocates of the pipeline contract argued that the Martial Law in Poland was “proximate” and it was not the cause for the sanctions against the pipeline contract.

The Reagan’s Administration had certain difficulties with the US allies in taking the sanctions against the USSR. The Reagan’s Administration wanted to go beyond the technologies of direct military use in the technology and know-how control which contradicted to the vision of the US allies. “The Europeans had insisted on keeping the criterion of ‘direct military value’, and while fungibility made that criterion flexible and subject to interpretation only two categories were moved from foreign policy to national security criteria.”

12. The total US embargo against the USSR could hardly bring any distinct effect on the economy of the USSR because the volume of the transactions between the countries was tiny relatively to the GDP of the USA.

“The USA imposed sanctions on Poland and the USSR in December 1981, and extended them extraterritorially against its allies in the summer of 1982. It also, however, granted exceptions for a major contract for pipe-layers for the Caterpillar Company in July 1981 and eventually lifted the extraterritorial sanctions in November 1982”

13. All these events led to the collapse of the Soviet system beginning at 1985. The death of Leonid Brezhnev in 1982 marked the end of the era of totalitarianism.

The Gorbachev’s course to reconstruction and the democratization of the society started the process of the USSR way to the civilized world. The tremendous changes occurred both inside the country and on the international level. First of all the ruling authorities realized that the command economy was not able to exist any more. The volume of production decreased. The economic sanctions undermined the economy of the USSR. The Afghan war caused strong discontent both inside the USSR and abroad. Polish Solidarity headed by Lech Valensa strengthened its positions.
Gorbachev started the dialogue with the United States which led to the complete world reshape. “Gorbachev abandoned the “Brezhnev Doctrine”—the Soviet Union’s policy of intervening with military force, if necessary, to preserve Communist rule in the region. Instead, he encouraged the local Communist leaders to seek new ways of gaining popular support for their rule. In Hungary, the Communist government initiated reforms in 1989 that led to the sanctioning of a multiparty system and competitive elections. In Poland, the Communists entered into round-table talks with a reinvigorated Solidarity.”

14. The fall of the Berlin Wall marked the end of the totalitarian era of communism in Europe. The collapse of the Berlin Wall was the message to the ex-Warsaw Pact countries. The revolutions in Czechoslovakia and Romania were the direct consequences of the Berlin Wall collapse.

Germans got its unified nation, a nation which had been artificially divided by the Wall, a symbol of totalitarianism since the World War II. It is worth visiting the museum at the Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin to realize the depth of the tragedy of the separated nation and aspiration to freedom of the East Berliners during the Cold War.

The awkward attempt to restore the Soviet regime in Moscow in August, 1991 and its failure showed that the political changes are irreversible.

The modern political map of the world indicates that the North Korea and Cuba are maybe the last bastions of the communism but they are most likely to collapse without proper support.

Piotr Wandycz, Yale University, The United States and Poland part II Historical Reflections, available at, retrieved 4.12.2005
A BRIEF HISTORY OF POLAND, available at, retrieved 4.12.2005
Robert Strayer. Why Did the Soviet Union Collapse?: Understanding Historical Change. New York and London: M.E. Sharpe, 1998
Domino theory, available at, retrieved 4.12.2005
Norman A. Bailey, The Strategic Plan that Won the Cold War: National Decision Directive 75 (Potomac Foundation, MacLean, Virginia, 1999), Forward.
Michael R. Beschloss and Strobe Talbot At the Highest Levels: The Inside Story of the End of the Cold War (Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1993);
Cold War International History Project (CWIHP) Bulletin, 11, Winter 1998, Malcolm Byrne, ‘New Evidence on the Polish Crisis 1980-81’, p. 3.
Public Papers of the President: Ronald Reagan 1981 (US Government Printing Office, Washington, 1981) p.1202
CWIHP Bulletin 11, Mark Kramer, ‘Jaruzelski, the Soviet Union and the Imposition of Martial Law in Poland: New Light on the Mystery of December 1981’, and Jaruzelski’s reply, pp. 32-40.
Mastanduno, Economic Containment,
The Reagan Administration, Economic Warfare and the Closing Down of the Cold War, available at, retrieved 4.12.2005
Fall of Communism, US Department of State, available at, retrieved 4.12.200

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