Cold War

“During World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union fought together as allies against the Axis powers. However, the relationship between the two nations was a tense one. Americans had long been wary of Soviet communism and concerned about Russian leader Joseph Stalin’s tyrannical, blood-thirsty rule of his own country. For their part, the Soviets resented the Americans’ decades-long refusal to treat the USSR as a legitimate part of the international community as well as their delayed entry into World War II, which resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of Russians.

Victims of the Great Terror of Stalin. Photos from the Book “Repressions of 1937- 38: ‘Stalin’s Lists’ on Georgia. The historians estimate that Stalin might have been responsible for as many as 60 million deaths, including through genocide, organized famine, gulags and war.

After the war ended, these grievances ripened into an overwhelming sense of mutual distrust and enmity. Postwar Soviet expansionism in Eastern Europe fueled many Americans’ fears of a Russian plan to control the world. Meanwhile, the USSR came to resent what they perceived as American officials’ bellicose rhetoric, arms buildup and interventionist approach to international relations. In such a hostile atmosphere, no single party was entirely to blame for the Cold War; in fact, some historians believe it was inevitable.

The Big Three’: Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin at Yalta Conference in 1945.

By the time World War II ended, most American officials agreed that the best defense against the Soviet threat was a strategy called “containment.” In 1946, in his famous “Long Telegram,” the diplomat George Kennan (1904-2005) explained this policy: The Soviet Union, he wrote, was “a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with the U.S. there can be no permanent modus vivendi [agreement between parties that disagree]”; as a result, America’s only choice was the “long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” President Harry Truman (1884-1972) agreed. “It must be the policy of the United States,” he declared before Congress in 1947, “to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation…by outside pressures.” This way of thinking would shape American foreign policy for the next four decades.”[1]

The term “cold war” first appeared in a 1945 essay by the English writer George Orwell called “You and the Atomic Bomb.”

On July 17, 1945, from left, Winston Churchill, Harry S. Truman and Josef Stalin convened for two weeks at Potsdam, a suburb of Berlin. | AP Photo

Atomic Age

“The containment strategy also provided the rationale for an unprecedented arms buildup in the United States. In 1950, a National Security Council Report known as NSC–68 had echoed Truman’s recommendation that the country use military force to “contain” communist expansionism anywhere it seemed to be occurring. To that end, the report called for a four-fold increase in defense spending.

In particular, American officials encouraged the development of atomic weapons like the ones that had ended World War II. Thus began a deadly “arms race.” In 1949, the Soviets tested an atom bomb of their own. In response, President Truman announced that the United States would build an even more destructive atomic weapon: the hydrogen bomb, or “superbomb.” Stalin followed suit.

Atomic bomb.

As a result, the stakes of the Cold War were perilously high. The first H-bomb test, in the Eniwetok atoll in the Marshall Islands, showed just how fearsome the nuclear age could be. It created a 25-square-mile fireball that vaporized an island, blew a huge hole in the ocean floor and had the power to destroy half of Manhattan. Subsequent American and Soviet tests spewed poisonous radioactive waste into the atmosphere.

The ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation had a great impact on American domestic life as well. People built bomb shelters in their backyards. They practiced attack drills in schools and other public places. The 1950s and 1960s saw an epidemic of popular films that horrified moviegoers with depictions of nuclear devastation and mutant creatures. In these and other ways, the Cold War was a constant presence in Americans’ everyday lives.”[2]

Atomic bomb school drill: Duck and Cover.


“Espionage was one of General Groves’ main concerns during the Manhattan Project. For all of the attention paid to secrecy and counter-intelligence, spies were still able to penetrate the project and steal information about the atomic bomb. The Manhattan Project was infiltrated not by its enemies Germany and Japan, but by the Soviet Union. Soviet spies occupied positions of trust and importance in the Manhattan Project, and passed on valuable information about the bomb and its design.

The Manhattan Project.

Soviet espionage during the Manhattan Project was discovered through the United States Army Signal Intelligence Service’s (SIS) Venona Project, which took place between 1943 and 1980. Code-breakers at SIS headquarters at Arlington Hall were responsible for decoding Soviet trade messages that were encrypted using an unbreakable “one-time pad” system. For three years, cryptanalysts struggled to decipher Soviet trade traffic. The breakthrough came in 1946, when it was discovered that some of one-time pad keys had been reused by the Soviets, which allowed decryption (sometimes only partial) of a small part of the traffic.

On December 20, 1946, cryptologist Meredith Gardner first broke into the Soviet code. As portions of the transcripts were decoded over the coming years, American officials were shocked by what they discovered. The Soviets had penetrated almost every branch of the United States government and had spies in important positions within the State Department, the Department of the Treasury, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and even the White House — and had also spied on the Manhattan Project.

The Manhattan Project.

Over the next decade, the United States Army and the Federal Bureau of Investigation worked closely to try and determine the identities of Soviet spies referred to in decrypted cables by cryptonyms, or secret codenames. By 1950, officials had identified Harry Dexter White, a high-ranking Treasury Department official; former White House economic adviser Lauchlin Currie; and OSS division head Maurice Halperin. The decrypts also revealed a number of Soviet spies at Los Alamos.”[3]

Red Scare

“Meanwhile, beginning in 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) brought the Cold War home in another way. The committee began a series of hearings designed to show that communist subversion in the United States was alive and well.

Red Scare in America.

In Hollywood, HUAC forced hundreds of people who worked in the movie industry to renounce left-wing political beliefs and testify against one another. More than 500 people lost their jobs. Many of these “blacklisted” writers, directors, actors and others were unable to work again for more than a decade. HUAC also accused State Department workers of engaging in subversive activities. Soon, other anticommunist politicians, most notably Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957), expanded this probe to include anyone who worked in the federal government. Thousands of federal employees were investigated, fired and even prosecuted. As this anticommunist hysteria spread throughout the 1950s, liberal college professors lost their jobs, people were asked to testify against colleagues and “loyalty oaths” became commonplace.”[4]

Red Scare in America.