There were deep-rooted ideological, economic and political differences between the United States and the Soviet Union before the Second World War.
These differences were intensified as a result of their mutual suspicions immediately after the Second World War.
(1) Underlying causes
The United States and the Soviet Union represent two opposing systems of government. In the United States, the government is elected by free elections. The people can form political parties to voice their political opinions. They also possess the right of assembly, of speech and of the press. In the Soviet Union, the government is formed by the Communist Party.
The people do not have the right to form their own political parties. They do not enjoy the right of assembly, of speech and of the press. Since these two systems of government are diametrically opposed to one another, there can be little compromise between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The United States wanted to encourage free trade throughout the world. The Soviet Union wanted to shield off her own sphere from international commerce. Russia feared that trade with the West would involve the risk of Russia being opened to western influences which would have eroded the strength of the totalitarian regime. These differences led to much ill feeling between the United States and the Soviet Union.
(iii) Poiver rivalry:
After the Second World War, with the decline of Europe, power was largely shared between the Soviet Union and the United States. As one wanted ‘to dominate the other, conflicts were inevitable.
(2) Immediate Causes Leading to the Cold War
Incipient conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States began at the peace-time conferences. Their conflict was intensified after President Truman declared the Truman Doctrine and launched the Marshall Plan in 1947.
(i) Extension of Russian influence in Europe:
Even before the end of the war, the Soviet Union had gradually extended her influence in Europe. By the fall of 1944, the Red Army had liberated and controlled a large part of Eastern Europe. By 1945, at the Yalta Conference, the Soviet Union obtained the Curzon Line as her new boundary line with Poland and also the control of the eastern zone of Germany.
As the war was drawing to a close in May 1945, the Soviet Union quickly consolidated her control of Eastern Europe. The Red Army began by influencing the post-war elections. They intimidated the voters and changed the voting lists as they desired.
Although the non-communists could still gain some votes, most of the votes went to the communists. Thus the coalition governments formed immediately after the war were largely dominated by the communists. Two of the key ministries – Defence and Military (Police) – were always under communist control.
Stalin was not satisfied with communist control of Eastern Europe. In the meantime, he encouraged the communists to take an active part in the immediate post-war elections in Western Europe. In late; 1946, the French and Italian Communists were becoming the most powerful parties in France and Italy.
(ii) The reactions of the United States:
Despite the increasing Russian influence in eastern and central Europe, many politicians in the United States were optimistic about the chances of co-operation with the Soviet Union after the war and did not advocate strong resistance against Russian expansion.
But from May 1945 onwards, the situation was changed. The U.S. government favoured a policy of strong resistance against Russia, The first reason was that President Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. He was succeeded by Harry S. Truman.
President Roosevelt was an optimistic man. He seemed to have believed that although Eastern Europe had fallen under the influence of Russia, she would keep her promise (made at Yalta) by setting up freely-elected parliamentary governments in the area. So Roosevelt did not advocate strong resistance against Russian expansion.
The new President, Truman, was a complete contrast to Roosevelt. He did not believe the communists. He thought that the communists would not set up democratic governments in Eastern Europe.
He also believed that after the Soviet Union had established her control in Eastern Europe, she would continue to extend her influence into Western Europe. Thus President Truman favoured a policy of strong resistance against Russian expansion.
The second reason was that just before the Potsdam Conference was to take place, the United States had successfully exploded her atomic bomb. President Truman thought that since the United States alone possessed the atomic bomb, she could adopt a stiff attitude towards Russian expansion in Europe.
The third reason was that President Truman was disgusted at the non-co-operative attitude of the Russians at the Potsdam Conference. Russia was determined to exact heavy reparations from Germany.
Russia also accused the British of upholding a reactionary monarchy in Greece and supporting an Italian Fascist regime in Trieste. Stalin also blocked Truman’s proposal on the internationalisation of all principal waterways.
(iii) Poor relations between the United States and the Soviet Union: The deteriorating relations between the Soviet Union and the United States were reflected in two minor incidents in the year.
Land- Lease was abruptly terminated by the United States and the Russian request for American economic aid for the purposes of post-war reconstruction was ignored by the government of the United States.
(During the Second World War, the U.S. supplied much war material to the Allied nations through a Lend and Lease programme. As the Lend and Lease programme was suddenly stopped, the war-ravaged Soviet Union could not obtain American material support to help her post-war economic reconstruction.)
The poor relations between the East and West were also reflected in a speech by Churchill. In March 1946, Churchill made a speech at Fulton, Missouri in which he said, “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.
Behind that line lie all the capitals of the central and Eastern Europe – all are subject in one form or another not only to Soviet influence but also to a very high and increasing control from Moscow.” The Fulton speech increased the American suspicion of Soviet aggressive designs in Europe.