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Why didn't the Cold War erupt into World War 3?

From the ashes of World War Two arose a state of hostility between the dominant super powers of the USA and the USSR. The region of West Europe became allied to the USA whilst Eastern Europe was hauled into the Soviet sphere. Hostilities became entrenched on both sides. This period of enmity did not see either side directly attack each other. However it would see conflict on a smaller scale, played out in such epicentres as Korea and Vietnam. An explanation for this period of hostility and stagnation in diplomatic relations still remains a profusely contested matter.[1] Yet it must be possible to determine from the varying schools of thought why the Cold War did not turn hot and see this hostility manifest itself in the form of a world war. An examination of the actions of both super powers during this state of affairs and their reactionary or perhaps antagonistic foreign policies will help to determine a credible explanation for why the Cold War remained hostile yet broadly speaking peaceful standoff. In addition the role of nuclear weapons and the policy of deterrence will also be considered in preventing a direct conflict between the two super powers. Deliberation will also be given to diplomacy and negotiations seen in the Detente period of the Cold War. The consideration of these factors will help to determine why the Cold War did not erupt into 'World War Three'.

One can argue that neither the USA nor the USSR wanted a world war.[2] It should be remembered that Russia had lost over 27 million of its citizens and the World War Two had left the Soviet economy in ruins. Thus in the initial years of the Cold War the Soviet economy was recovering and although Leninist- Marxist ideology was one of world revolution Stalin's principle concern in 1945 was to rebuild the Soviet Union. In addition Stalin was concerned with the supplanting of self-determination of Eastern European countries to ensure that governments 'friendly' to the USSR resided in office.[3] Although in Khrushchev's view Stalin "...lived in terror of an enemy attack,"[4] this paranoia manifested itself in the appropriation of Eastern Europe. Arguably Stalin sought to protect his position of power as the absolute ruler of the USSR. Thus although the Soviet Union under Stalin was dictatorial and antagonistic its immediate post war policies were not in the pursuit for war. A World War did not occur as Stalin fear it most. Such a conflict would threaten his power. It also should be noted that communist doctrine testified that capitalist states would quarrel amongst themselves for dominance in the world market; therefore Stalin anticipated that America and Britain would fall out and clash with each another.[5] With this in view the Soviet mentality under Stalin did not see the need to wage war with its capitalist adversaries of the USA and Britain, as time would see a strong and uncontested Soviet Union emerge from a capitalist conflict.[6] Weltman suggests that war as a means of realising political aims may have become "too costly and too unpredictable to be relied upon."[7] This could be applied to the Cold War from the outset of this period. World War 3 did not erupt as Soviet policy under Stalin did not perceive another costly global war as being necessary for achieving its political goals.

Again under Khrushchev Soviet ideological aims to spread revolution did not necessitate a World War. Upon Khrushchev's arrival to office he immediately denounced the crimes under Stalin's rule and announced that the overriding Soviet foreign policy was one of 'coexistence'.[8] However this supposed policy of coexistence did not change the fundamental aims of the USSR. The Eastern Europe bloc's alliance to the Soviet remained a strategy of upmost importance. Khrushchev and the Soviet leadership feared the rearmament of West Germany and therefore were concerned with strengthening the German Democratic Republic (GDR).[9] Khrushchev much like Stalin pursued the policy of protectionism to maintain the Soviet power hold over the Eastern bloc. When Hungary attempted to break away from the Soviet bloc in 1956 Khrushchev ordered military intervention in the country as he saw Soviet control of Eastern Europe as being of momentous importance to Soviet security.[10] But even Khrushchev who was more dedicated to the communist principle of world revolution subtly ceased his hard-line demands with regard to the legal status of Berlin once he realised that the USA would not back down from their position, "...even at the risk of war."[11] Once again a Soviet leader was concerned with the preservation of the Soviet Bloc and Soviet power. Consequently a World War did not erupt as it was not the primary concern of the USSR to wage one.

That is not to say that Khrushchev's foreign policy omitted a risky antagonistic approach to the United States, which most certainly in the instance of the Cuban missile crisis almost resulted in a nuclear war. Yet Khrushchev's foreign policy strategy was to support potential revolutions or developing socialist states in the third world with resources[12] rather than promote communism in Western Europe. Both the USSR and the USA pursued the Cold War through conflict in third world countries as they deemed the possibility of the occurrence of conflict in Europe would be perilously risky.[13] Therefore their endeavours occurred mostly in the third world. Thus despite this Khrushchev's agonistic and at times dangerous strategy a World War did not erupt as it was an indirect method of promoting communist ideology and undermining its adversary the USA.

Another world war did not transpire as American foreign policy in the Cold War arguably circumvented a directly confrontational foreign policy that could have otherwise resulted in a world war. The American strategy of 'containment' was a peaceful yet tactful means of undermining and containing any possible spread of Soviet Communism. This strategy was born in the Long Telegram as the author George Kennan emphasised the need to stop Soviet expansionist ambitions.[14] This concept would manifest itself not only in militarily but more importantly economically. The Truman doctrine saw American reverse its pre-World War Two policy of isolationism and more importantly use the notion of containment and offer financial aid in the form of the Marshall plan to Europe to support economic recovery.[15] In reality its architect the American Secretary of State General Marshall intended it to be "...a non military, unaggressive form of checking communism."[16] It should be noted that economic decline in Western Europe was seen by the Truman administration as a hazardous factor that could lead to the radicalisation of the moderate left, and this process might lead to Western Europe having closer ties to the Soviet bloc and in time it could enter the Soviet Sphere of influence.[17] The Marshall plan was designed to eliminate this threat. The Soviet reaction was to create Comecon and to protect the Soviet bloc from what it saw was a manifestation of American imperialism.[18] Yet although the USSR saw this policy as a profoundly antagonistic policy it was not one that was likely to result in the eruption of a new global conflict. As George Kennan had predicted in his telegram the Soviet Union eventually collapsed from economic internal pressures.[19] But the American strategy of containment must be credited with burdening the Soviet economy and assisting in its demise.[20] Thus it can be seen that containment was not only a means of preventing the possible expansion of Soviet Communism but also a means of undermining the USSR without direct conflict. Therefore a Cold War did not erupt into another world war as that was not the nature of this American strategy.

Credit can be given to role of nuclear weapons in averting a world war in the Cold War. The Cold War saw the American policy of deterrence, which arguably played a momentous role in preventing the Cold War from turning hot. As Bernard Brodie stated as a consequence of nuclear armaments "...the chief purpose of a military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them."[21] The ability to wreak havoc and cause devastation upon an enemy territory came into being with nuclear weapons. This threat came to be relied upon by the United States of America as it implemented its nuclear armaments to deter the perceived threat of Soviet aggression.[22] One could argue that the Cold War was prevented from turning hot through the use of deterrence. The Cuban missile crisis illustrates how the deterrence of nuclear weapons played a role in averting a world war. Both Khrushchev and Kennedy backed down from confrontation and came to an agreement, albeit a compromise as both leaders feared the catastrophic consequences of a nuclear war.[23] However it should be recognised that although deterrence averted a world war in the incidence of the Cuban missile crisis it was also a principle cause of the crisis.[24] Yet undoubtedly "fear of war, independent of the disparity in the strategic capabilities of the two sides, helped to keep both American and Soviet leaders from going over the brink."[25]

The refining of nuclear deterrence assisted in the prevention of a possible world war. It should be noted that in the 1960s the American Defence Secretary Robert S. McNamara implemented mutually assured destruction (MAD) as "official military strategic doctrine."[26] This had been in response largely to the USSR's improved nuclear arsenal as by 1955 it had built its first thermonuclear device.[27] In addition McNamara had welcomed the Soviet Union's endeavour to match the US nuclear strike capability.[28] This was because he argued that firmly established retaliatory capabilities for both the USA and USSR would generate stability.[29] However that is not to say all shared his strategic perspective as the presidency of Carter and Reagan rejected MAD and pursued a 'war-fighting' strategy which entailed greater military expenditure for the enlargement of the US nuclear arsenal and additional military capabilities.[30] Nonetheless the role of MAD should considered a refined strategy of deterrence that discouraged the two superpowers embarking on a world war as MAD enforced the notion that the advent of a conflict with the presence of comparable nuclear arsenals on both sides would have dire consequences. In short MAD helped ensure that the Cold War did not turn hot as both super powers were deterred by the notion of a nuclear holocaust. Thus World War Three did not transpire.

Although the Cold War broadly speaking was a status of entrenched hostility amongst the two super powers diplomacy and negotiations did occur and lessened the likely of a world war. The strategic arms limitation talks (SALT) commenced in 1969 and by 1972 had successfully resulted in a 5 year interim agreement which limited missiles launchers[31] and most importantly it restricted either side to the deployment of Anti-Ballistic Missiles to only one site. This was to meet the criteria of the Treaty that banned either side from defending their territory from nuclear strikes.[32] This was crucial for ensuring the strategy of mutually assured destruction as it meant mutual destruction remained assured. In addition Diplomacy had readdressed the imbalance of power as for much the Cold War the USA had been significantly stronger than the USSR. Power balance had ensured for much of the first half the Cold War that it remained relatively stable and that it had not turned hot.[33] The USA had been more powerful economically and militarily than the USSR and had used this superiority to contain communism. But by the 1960s certainty of American dominance in the world had been broken as by 1969 the USSR was not so far from achieving equivalence to the American nuclear capability.[34] In addition the USA was facing an economic downturn and an expensive and unpopular war in Vietnam. However the USSR was also perceived as being less of threat to the West as the Soviets had economic problems of their own and the Sino-Soviet split undermined the USSR's role as the principally dominant communist state amongst its counterparts.[35] Thus the power balance that had existed for the first half of the Cold War which had ensured that the Cold War remained a secure stalemate was unstable. World War Three had not erupted because of this power balance as the USA had used the policy of containment and deterrence, but this had been dependent on its economic and military dominance over the USSR. The absence of certainty in the balance of power was therefore a cause for concern as containment and deterrence had helped to avert a world war. Thankfully the SALT agreements meant that the balance of power was stabilised once more and ushered in a period of Detente, albeit a brief one. In this sense SALT 1 was a cheaper method of maintaining containment and the Cold War power balance.[36] Thus Diplomacy and negotiations helped keep the Cold War stable at insecure moment of the Cold, which could be attributed to ensuring that the Cold War remained cold. Consequently World War Three did not erupt through this act of stabilisation.

In conclusion one can argue that neither the Soviet Union nor the USA wanted another world war. From the Soviet perspective such a war would be costly but more importantly it was unnecessary for the USSR to wage war with the West. Capitalism as Marxist ideology proclaimed would create conflict amongst the capitalist powers of the West. Thus the Cold War did not erupt into World War Three as the USSR did not pursue direct conflict with the West. The principle concern of the USSR was that of the allegiance of Eastern Europe for the maintenance of Soviet Security. However the Soviets most certainly pursued an antagonistic policy foreign policy, particularly under Khrushchev. But this foreign policy focused in the Third World. Undoubtedly his foreign policy had its risks in provoking dispute as illustrated in Cuba but this promotion of Soviet Communism was far safer than any possible Soviet attempt to promote it Western Europe. Such an endeavour might well have led to World War Three. Fortunately Soviet foreign policy remained focused in the Third World. Consequently the Cold War did not turn hot. Credit must also be given to American foreign policy. The strategy of containment was a peaceful yet tactful means of undermining the USSR. The Marshall Plan supported European economic recovery; in doing it ensured the vibrant health of capitalism in the West. A strong Western Europe created a buffer against the threat of Soviet expansion. With such a strategy the Cold War remained cold. In addition the USA pursued containment through military means. Nuclear Weapons acted as a deterrent to a world war. Once the USSR had a comparable nuclear arsenal the two super powers' fear of a nuclear conflict became profoundly entrenched. The refining of nuclear deterrence with mutually assured destruction strengthened this deterrent. Diplomacy in the SALT 1 negotiations meant that when the power balance of the Cold War was unstable it was re-stabilised. Arms limitations meant mutually assured destruction was assured. Thus as a consequence the Cold War did not erupt into World War Three.

Reference List

Ball, D. 1980, Politics and Force Levels: The Strategic Missile Program of the Kennedy Administration, 1st ed, Berkeley: University of California Press

Brodie, B. 1946, The Absolute Weapon, Atomic Power and World Order, Yale University of Institute of International Studies: Harcourt

Cox, M. 1990, From the Truman Doctrine to the Second Super Power Detente: The rise and fall of the Cold War, Journal of Peace Research, 27, 25-41

Etzold, T. Gaddis, J. 1978, Containment: Documents on American Policy and Strategy, 1945-1950, 1st ed, New York: Columbia University Press

Gray, C. 2007, War, Peace and International Relations, An introduction to Strategic History, 1st ed, Oxon: Routledge

Khrushchev, N. 1970, Khrushchev remembers: The Glasnost Tapes, (J. Schecter and V. Luchkov, eds), Boston: little Brown

Lebow, R. Stein, J. 1995, Deterrence and the Cold War, Political Science Quarterly, 110, 157-181

Roberts, J. 1976, The new penguin history of the world, 5th edition, London: Penguin Books Ltd

Weltman, J. 1955, World Politics and the Evolution of War, 1st ed, Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press

Westad, O. 2000, Reviewing the Cold War: Approaches, Interpretations, Theory, London: Frank Cass

Westad, O. 2000, Reviewing the Cold War: Approaches, Interpretations, Theory, London: Frank Cass

Gray, C. 2007, War, Peace and International Relations, An introduction to Strategic History, 1st ed, Oxon: Routledge

Gray, C. 2007, War, Peace and International Relations, An introduction to Strategic History, 1st ed, Oxon: Routledge

Khrushchev, N. 1970, Khrushchev remembers: The Glasnost Tapes, p393, (J. Schecter and V. Luchkov, eds.) Boston: Little Brown

Gray, C. 2007, War, Peace and International Relations, An introduction to Strategic History, 1st ed, Oxon: Routledge

Gray, C. 2007, War, Peace and International Relations, An introduction to Strategic History, 1st ed, Oxon: Routledge

Weltman, J. 1955, World Politics and the Evolution of War, p199, 1st ed, Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press

Roberts, J. 1976, The new penguin history of the world, 5th edition, London: Penguin Books Ltd

Roberts, J. 1976, The new penguin history of the world, 5th edition, London: Penguin Books Ltd

Roberts, J. 1976, The new penguin history of the world, 5th edition, London: Penguin Books Ltd

Roberts, J. 1976, The new penguin history of the world, 5th edition, London: Penguin Books Ltd

Gray, C. 2007, War, Peace and International Relations, An introduction to Strategic History, 1st ed, Oxon: Routledge

Gray, C. 2007, War, Peace and International Relations, An introduction to Strategic History, 1st ed, Oxon: Routledge

Etzold, T. Gaddis, J. 1978, Containment: Documents on American Policy and Strategy, 1945-1950, 1st ed, New York: Columbia University Press

Roberts, J. 1976, The new penguin history of the world, 5th edition, London: Penguin Books Ltd

Roberts, J. 1976, The new penguin history of the world, 5th edition, London: Penguin Books Ltd

Cox, M. 1990, From the Truman Doctrine to the Second Super Power Detente: The rise and fall of the Cold War, Journal of Peace Research, 27, 25-41

Roberts, J. 1976, The new penguin history of the world, 5th edition, London: Penguin Books Ltd

Gray, C. 2007, War, Peace and International Relations, An introduction to Strategic History, 1st ed, Oxon: Routledge

Gray, C. 2007, War, Peace and International Relations, An introduction to Strategic History, 1st ed, Oxon: Routledge

Brodie, B. 1946, The Absolute Weapon, Atomic Power and World Order, p76, Yale University of Institute of International Studies: Harcourt

Weltman, J. 1955, World Politics and the Evolution of War, 1st ed, Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press

Lebow, R. Stein, J. 1995, Deterrence and the Cold War, Political Science Quarterly, 110, 157-181

Lebow, R. Stein, J. 1995, Deterrence and the Cold War, Political Science Quarterly, 110, 157-181

Lebow, R. Stein, J. 1995, Deterrence and the Cold War, Political Science Quarterly, 110, p166

Lebow, R. Stein, J. 1995, Deterrence and the Cold War, Political Science Quarterly, 110, 157-181

Weltman, J. 1955, World Politics and the Evolution of War, 1st ed, Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press

Lebow, R. Stein, J. 1995, Deterrence and the Cold War, Political Science Quarterly, 110, 157-181

Ball, D. 1980, Politics and Force Levels: The Strategic Missile Program of the Kennedy Administration, 1st ed, Berkeley: University of California Press

Lebow, R. Stein, J. 1995, Deterrence and the Cold War, Political Science Quarterly, 110, 157-181

Gray, C. 2007, War, Peace and International Relations, An introduction to Strategic History, 1st ed, Oxon: Routledge

Gray, C. 2007, War, Peace and International Relations, An introduction to Strategic History, 1st ed, Oxon: Routledge

Cox, M. 1990, From the Truman Doctrine to the Second Super Power Detente: The rise and fall of the Cold War, Journal of Peace Research, 27, 25-41

Cox, M. 1990, From the Truman Doctrine to the Second Super Power Detente: The rise and fall of the Cold War, Journal of Peace Research, 27, 25-41

Cox, M. 1990, From the Truman Doctrine to the Second Super Power Detente: The rise and fall of the Cold War, Journal of Peace Research, 27, 25-41

Cox, M. 1990, From the Truman Doctrine to the Second Super Power Detente: The rise and fall of the Cold War, Journal of Peace Research, 27, 25-41


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