How the United States Won the Cold War
How the United States Won the Cold War
The Cold War is the name given to the struggle between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR or the Soviet Union) which lasted from the end of World War II until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. This essay will examine why the United States is considered to have won the Cold War and how it was able to do so. First, this essay will explain how the collapse of both the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union’s ideology can be considered a victory for the United States. Next this essay will look at how the United States accomplished this through a conscious effort by containing the Soviet Union. Finally, this essay will examine the final blow to the Soviet Union causing them to collapse them from within.
The struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union was not simply a battle between two countries. It was not even a battle between multiple countries. The conflict was, in many ways, a struggle between two competing systems. The liberal, capitalist system espoused by the West and the United States; and the authoritarian, communist system established by the Soviet Union. In many ways, both systems were fundamentally in conflict with each other. Communist ideology, as espoused in The Communist Manifesto calls for the abolition of private property and for the fruits of labor to be spread across society after the proletariat (the workers) unite and lead a revolution (Marx, Engels, Moore, McLellan 28). Capitalism, as described by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations states that private property is one of an essential facets of a functioning economy. It also believes that people are entitled to the “sweat of their brow,” i.e., the product of their labor (Smith).
When the Soviet Union collapsed this demonstrated to many around the world that the communist system was, perhaps good in theory, but at best impractical. The Soviet Union was also a major force in “exporting” communism to the rest of the world. With their collapse, many other communist countries also collapsed or were forced to adopt significant changes to their system. The Soviet Union also had challenged the United States’ dominance of the global hierarchy and in collapsing while the United States remained. This leaves some questions, however. How was the United States able to defeat the Soviet Union without nuclear war? Can we say that the United States was even responsible for the Soviet Union’s collapse? As we shall see, the answer is quite interesting.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union initially sought to export its system across the world, hoping to bring about a global revolution of the working class. They failed. The United States adopted an interesting strategy with regards to the Soviet Union called “containment”. The origins of this strategy can be traced to a few well-placed individuals within the United States. One in particular named George F. Kennan was a State Department employee assigned to Moscow. His assessment of the situation in a telegram outlined what would become US strategy. This telegram was subsequently transformed into an article (originally under the pseudonym “Mr. X”) outlining this strategy to the American public. Kennan essentially argued that the Soviet Union was rife with internal issues and, compared to the West, was fairly weak (Kennan 3). If it could be contained these internal problems would fester until the system itself collapsed (Kennan 3).
However, it was not enough for the United States and other Western societies to simply “hold the line and hope for the best” (Kennan 4). The West must also work to improve itself from within (Kennan 4). Kennan argued that the Soviet Union spreads by creating enormously negative propaganda that is best countered by a positive image of the reality of life in the West (Kennan 4). In Kennan’s words, “To avoid destruction the United States need only measure up to its best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation” (Kennan 4). Overall, this is what the United States and its Western allies sought to do. The Marshall Plan, the United States’ effort to rebuild Western Europe, prevented an economic catastrophe that the Soviet Union had predicted following the end of World War II. The Marshall Plan was a direct consequence of Kennan’s policy recommendations and many other initiatives continued throughout the Cold War. The Marshall Plan demonstrated to many the value and worth of the United States in global affairs. This containment strategy was quite successful overall. The Soviet Union found itself unable to export much of its system across the world with a few notable exceptions. This containment set the stage for the Soviet collapse. As Kennan predicted in 1947, the problems within the Soviet system began to multiply until one final push caused them to crumble.
When Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States in 1980, he believed the best way to end the Cold War was to win it. One of the first moves Reagan made was to attack the Soviet Union’s source of money. The Soviet Union received much of its money from oil exports. This windfall was made possible by high oil prices. Reagan worked to convince Saudi Arabia to lower oil prices (Deffeyes). Once oil fell below a certain price, it became extremely difficult for the Soviet Union to rely on it as a source of income (Deffeyes). The low oil prices effectively starved them off hard currency needed to prop their system up for much longer (Deffeyes). Reagan also ended the relative period of positive relations with the Soviet Union known as detente and began a new technological arms race with the Soviet Union.
With its lack of hard currency and being forced to engage in an arms build-up, the Soviet Union became increasingly unable to support itself. A change was needed within the Soviet Union, and it came in the form of Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev instituted the final changes that would end the Soviet Union. A relaxation of their economic policy and a more open and free society called perestroika and glasnost, respectively. These changes initially meant to reform the Soviet Union and make it more competitive on the world stage instead did the opposite. The final blows came quickly after this. In 1988 and 1989, Moscow refused to send in soldiers to quell uprisings in satellite states as it had done in the past. Shortly afterwards the Berlin Wall collapsed, and various Soviet Republics voted to leave the Soviet Union. Finally, in 1991, Gorbachev was replaced by Boris Yeltsin and the Soviet flag was lowered over the Kremlin.
As we have seen, the United States won the Cold War by containing the Soviet Union and allowing internal issues to mount until a final push was all that was required. This was effectively accomplished without nuclear war. While the end came from within the Soviet Union, it was made possible by events and actions from without. By containing the Soviet Union, the United States was able to prevent both itself and communism from spreading further. Reagan was not so much the victory, so much as the final blow to an already bankrupt country and ideology. Despite the arms race and proxy wars during the Cold War, the great triumph of the United States during the Cold War was a triumph of diplomatic, rather than military, maneuvering.
Deffeyes, Kenneth. Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert’s Peak. Hill and Wang. 2006. Print.
Hogan, Michael. The Marshall Plan: America, Britain, and the Reconstruction of Western Europe, 1947-1952. Cambridge U, 1987. Print.
Kennan, George F. “The Sources of Soviet Conduct”. Foreign Affairs. July 1947. Web. 16 Dec. 2015
Marx, Karl, Friedrich Engels, Samuel Moore, and David McLellan. The Communist Manifesto. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. Print
Smith, Adam. The Nature and Causes Of The Wealth Of Nations. History Of Economic Theory and Thought. N.p., 2009. Web. 16 Dec. 2015.