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US Soviet Relations

US Soviet Relations

In October 1962, the Cold War reached its boiling point. The thirteen-day-long Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of total destruction. The Cuban Missile Crisis was not, however, totally surprising; it was the result of 35 years of declining relations between the USA and the Soviet Union.

This tumultuous relationship stemmed from various ideological, political, and economic differences. Fundamental polarities were exacerbated after the Second World War by the personalities of the respective leaders and the geopolitical climate. Let's trace the trajectory of US Soviet relations during the Cold War and examine its origins, causes, and critical events.

Cuban Missile Crisis

In 1962, the Soviet Union installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, enabling them to launch attacks on the USA. The thirteen-day stand-off that followed brought the real possibility of global nuclear annihilation.

US Soviet Relations Timeline

Here is a brief timeline outlining US Soviet relations throughout the 20th century:

Date Event
1917During the Russian Revolution, the USA supported the White Army in its goal to overthrow the Bolsheviks.
1922The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was established.
1924Lenin died, and Stalin consolidated power.
1933Eleven years after it was established, the USA formally recognised the USSR as legitimate.
1939The Second World War.
1941US President Franklin Roosevelt provided millions of dollars worth of weapons to the USSR in their fight against Nazi Germany.
1942Stalin demanded the Allies open a second front in the East; this would have separated Hitler's army and alleviated pressure on the USSR.
1945The end of The Second World War.
1946American economist George Kennan advised the US to follow a policy of containment concerning the USSR in a message known as the Long Telegram.
1947Despite promising free and fair elections in Eastern Europe, the communists used coercion and violence to take power in Polish legislative elections.
The Truman Plan set about containing Soviet geopolitical expansion.
1948The Marshall Plan was implemented; the USA provided financial aid to Western Europe following the devastation of World War II.
1957The USSR launched Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth.
1960The USSR shot down an American spy plane and imprisoned the pilot for two years.
1962Cuban Missile Crisis.
1969 - 1979The relaxation of strained relations and increased arms control. This was known as the 'détente' period.
1986US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev came close to agreeing to eliminate all nuclear weapons.
1991The fall of the USSR.

US Soviet Relations The Background to Hostilities

Let's look at the long-term origins and short-term events that caused hostile relations between the USA and USSR in the early Cold War period.

Ideological Issues

At the crux of US/USSR hostility was their polar-opposite ideological beliefs. The capitalist USA practised democratic freedoms, individual rights, free-market economics, and cultural liberties. On the other hand, the communist USSR observed a one-party state system, shared ownership, and placed the importance of the nation above that of the individual.

Such contrasting ideologies garnered deep distrust between the superpowers and meant inevitable inhospitable relations. Let's compare the two schools of thought.

Capitalist USA

Communist USSR

EconomyFree market economics is driven by free enterprise. Wealth is distributed unevenly.Communist autarky, economic self-sufficiency, and independent national economy. No free enterprise.
PoliticsPresident elected freely and democratically by the electorate of the USA.One Party State led by a totalitarian dictator.
MediaFree, unrestricted media and press.State censorship, propaganda, and closed press.
SocietyProperty and business owned by the individual.Property and business owned by the state.
ClassDifferent social classes.No different social classes.

Autarky

Autarky refers to an economically independent nation.

Free enterprise

Free enterprise or free market economics refers to an economic system where businesses operate freely and without state intervention.

US Russia Economic Relations

In 1941, the USA launched its Lend-Lease Policy during WWII. This policy leased military equipment and supplies to allied nations in the fight against the Axis powers. According to the US Embassy and Consulates in Russia, the USSR received the following supplies:

  • 400,000 jeeps & trucks
  • 14,000 aeroplanes
  • 8,000 tractors
  • 13,000 tanks
  • 1.5 million blankets
  • 15 million pairs of army boots
  • 107,000 tons of cotton
  • 2.7 million tons of petrol products
  • 4.5 million tons of food

After the war had ended, the US – under Harry Truman – abruptly terminated the program. This prompted uproar in the USSR and marked the disintegration of the Grand Alliance.

Grand Alliance

The wartime alliance between Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union during WWII.

Acts and Organisations

Respective legislation and acts exacerbated the hostile relations between the USA and USSR. Such policies saw the deterioration of US-Soviet relations and increased polarity in Europe.

US Soviet Relations Harry Truman StudySmarterFig. 1 Harry Truman.

Let's look at some of these new policies that deteriorated US Soviet relations:

PolicyExplanation
Marshall PlanIn 1947, US Secretary of State George C. Marshall launched the Marshall Plan. The Marshall Plan was an economic programme that pledged approximately 13 billion dollars to European countries affected by the war. President Truman believed that a wealthy, secure Europe could stop the spread of communism.
Truman DoctrineIn 1947, the Truman Doctrine was announced. The Truman Doctrine was an American foreign policy to curb communist geopolitical expansion.
Brezhnev DoctrineIn 1968, USSR Premier Leonid Brezhnev launched the Brezhnev Doctrine. Brezhnev declared that any threat to a socialist country threatened the USSR, vowing communism would be preserved 'even if it meant a third World War'.1

Individuals

After being elected in 1945, US President Harry S. Truman took a hard-line approach to Stalin, and the personalities of the two men dominated the Potsdam Conference. They continued to dictate the relationship between the US and the Soviet Union throughout the early stages of the Cold War.

What Stalin thoughtWhat Truman thought
Russia/The Soviet Union was invaded in 1914 and 1941. Stalin wanted to create a buffer zone of allied communist countries to prevent future invasions. The West saw such expansion as aggressive, with Winston Churchill stating, 'from Stettin in the Baltic, to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent'.2According to President Truman, the USA and Britain spent six years fighting Nazi Germany. He did not want to see another dictator take control of Europe.
During the Second World War, the USSR lost approximately 28 million soldiers. Stalin believed that the USSR deserved compensation for the losses they had suffered.At the Potsdam Conference (1945), Truman took a harder line with Stalin than his predecessor. With little warning, Truman told Stalin about the USA's success in developing atomic weapons.
Stalin had a deep distrust of the USA. This stemmed from the Russian Civil War, in which the USA fought against the Bolsheviks.Truman launched the Truman Doctrine in 1947. The Truman Doctrine led to the creation of NATO in 1949 and the subsequent polarization of Europe.
In 1941, the USSR wanted the Allies to open up a second front with Hitler's Nazi Germany, thus alleviating pressure on the USSR. While the Allies eventually opened up a second front, Stalin believed it was not done soon enough.Truman was angry that the Soviet Union – under Stalin's orders – had rounded up and imprisoned the political opposition to the communists in Poland.

Alliances

On 22 June 1941, Adolf Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa – the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. As well as ceasing the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union prompted the establishment of the Grand Alliance between Great Britain, the USA, and the Soviet Union.

The Grand Alliance was a strange coalition; the Soviet Union was communist, whereas Great Britain and the USA were capitalist. Despite differing on economic, political, and ideological grounds, the members of the Grand Alliance were united in their common aim to defeat Nazism.

After defeating Nazi Germany in May 1945, the Grand Alliance turned its attention to the post-war reconstruction of Europe. With their common enemy now defeated, the major differences between the USA and the Soviet Union began to surface. As hostilities grew throughout the late 1940s, both sides began establishing alliance systems in Europe.

Here is a brief table outlining the development of the alliance systems:

The Grand AllianceNATOThe Warsaw Pact
When was it created?22 June 19414 April 194914 May 1955
Who was involved?Great Britain, US, Soviet UnionBelgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United StatesAlbania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and the Soviet Union
What were its aims?To beat the Axis Powers during The Second World War.Formed in response to the threat of Soviet expansionAs a counter-weight to NATO

US and Soviet Union relations during the Cold War

Now, let's look at the deterioration and betterment of relations between the USA and USSR during the Cold War.

Deterioration in Relations

In the early stages of the Cold War, several incidents saw a decline in US Soviet relations.

Berlin Airlift

In June 1948, the West introduced a new currency, the Deutschmark, into West Berlin. The USSR responded by cutting off all transport links between West Germany and West Berlin. This event, known as the Berlin Blockade, was Stalin's attempt to remove US influence from Soviet-occupied West Berlin. In response to the blockade, the USA and Great Britain airdropped supplies to the people of West Berlin every three minutes for 11 months.

US Soviet Relations Berlin Airlift StudySmarterFig. 2 Berlin Airlift.

U-2 Incident

On 1 May 1960, the USSR shot down the plane of F. Gary Powers, a USA U-2 reconnaissance pilot. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev demanded the US stop reconnaissance flights over USSR territory and sentenced F Gary Powers to 10 years in prison.

Reconnaissance

Reconnaissance is the process of obtaining information about an enemy through spying.

Vietnam War

The Vietnam War was a conflict between the communist, USSR-backed North Vietnam and the capitalist, USA-backed South Vietnam. The conflict occurred between November 1955 and April 1975, lasting nearly two decades and resulting in the deaths of approximately 3.8 million people.

US Soviet Relations The Viet Cong StudySmarterFig. 3 The Viet Cong.

Sputnik Launch

On 4 October 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I into space. The shuttle was the first satellite successfully launched into space. While Sputnik itself was harmless, it was a significant achievement for the USSR, outlining its advancements in science and technology.

In response, the US Congress passed the National Defence Education Act (NDEA), a four-year, multi-billion pound investment in the US education system. In 1969, the USA's Apollo Project landed humans on the moon for the first time.

Cuban Missile Crisis

On 14 October 1963, a US surveillance plane discovered the construction of a USSR nuclear missile silo in Cuba. These nuclear missiles were capable of reaching the US.

President John F. Kennedy readied the USA's nuclear arsenal, including ICBMs, nuclear submarines, and B-52 bombers. The following thirteen days saw the world on the brink of destruction.

ICBMs

Standing for Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, ICBMs refer to missiles that can travel up to 3,500 miles.

US Russia Relations Improving

From 1969 to 1979, strained relations were relaxed, and there was an increase in arms control. This was known as the 'détente' period.

Détente

Détente refers to a period of improved relations between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

US Soviet Relations Washington Summit StudySmarterFig. 4 Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev.

Lifting of the Trade Embargo

In 1969, US President Richard Nixon partially removed USA's trade embargo on the USSR; the embargo had been in place since 1949. Following this, in 1972, Leonid Brezhnev signed a trade agreement with the United States.

The following year, Brezhnev visited the USA and signed a treaty preventing nuclear war. There was a third meeting between Brezhnev and Nixon in Moscow in 1974; however, the Yom Kippur War and the Arab coalition overshadowed the summit.

Embargo

An embargo is a government ban on trade with a particular nation.

SALT

In 1972, the USSR and USA signed the SALT I (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) Treaty. Both sides agreed not to manufacture land-based missile launchers or strategic weapons for five years. The SALT II agreement was signed in 1979, limiting the number of missile launchers and bombers.

Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE)

The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) was a standing forum that sought to bridge the political tensions between the West and East of Europe. Known as the Helsinki Summit, the forum brought world superpowers around one negotiating table.

US Soviet Relations Historiography

Historiography regarding the hostile US Soviet relations during the Cold War is divided into three main camps:

Traditionalists Revisionists Post Revisionists
Stalin’s expansionist foreign policy was the root cause of poor relations.US foreign policy was unnecessarily aggressive.Cold War relations were a result of several complex circumstances.

Traditionalists

Prominent among Western scholars during the 1940/1950s, historians such as Thomas Bailey, Herbert Feis, and George Kennan believed that Stalin’s foreign policy was expansionist and a threat to Western democracy. This view, prevalent until the 1960s, believed USSR expansionism was the root cause of hostile relations.

The Soviet Union [was] trying not only to extend their boundaries and their control over neighbouring states but also beginning to revert to their revolutionary effort throughout the world.3

- Herbert Feis

Revisionists

Revisionist historiography was prevalent throughout the 1960s and was propagated by Western historians known as the New Left. Key revisionists, such as William Appleman Williams, asserted that the US was the aggressor, motivated by achieving economic dominance in Europe.

Freedom is nurtured by nations preparing for war.4

- William Appleman Williams

Post-Revisionists

Post-revisionist historiography was prominent from the early 1970s until 1989. Post-revisionists, such as John Lewis Gaddis, believed that Cold War relations resulted from several complex circumstances.

Both the United States and the Soviet Union were born in revolution. Both embraced ideology with global aspirations.5

- John Lewis Gaddis

US Soviet Relations Significance

The Cold War was an unprecedented conflict. It dictated international politics for 45 years, divided Europe into two camps, and brought the world to the edge of destruction during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

At the crux of this conflict was the hostile relationship between the USA and the Soviet Union. The mistrust and suspicion between the two superpowers initiated and exacerbated the Cold War into a global affair. While the fall of the USSR ostensibly marked the end of the Cold War, the political, societal, and ideological factors which defined US-Soviet relations for nearly a century are still very much apparent today.

US Soviet Relations—Key takeaways

  • After the establishment of communism in Russia in 1917, hostilities between the USA and the Soviet Union were inevitable.
  • The capitalist USA and communist USSR differed economically, politically, societally, and ideologically.
  • During the Second World War, the USA and the Soviet Union set aside their ideological differences to beat the Axis Powers. Once the Axis Powers were defeated, the Grand Alliance no longer had a common enemy to unite them.
  • After the culmination of the Second World War, the USA and the Soviet Union disagreed over the post-war reconstruction of Europe. As tensions grew, both sides started to establish alliance systems in Europe, elevating the struggle into a Europe conflict.
  • At the height of US-Soviet hostilities was the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962). This event saw the world taken to the brink of destruction.
  • In response to the Cuban Missile Crisis, there was a period of improved relations between 1969 and 1979 known as détente.
  • While the downfall of the USSR brought about the end of the Cold War, the superpower rivalry between the USA and Russia is still apparent today.


References

  1. Leonid Brezhnev quoted in Vladimir K Kusin, From Dubcek to Charter 77: A Study of 'Normalisation' in Czechoslovakia 1968-1978 (1978) p. 329.
  2. Winston Churchill, 'Sinews of Peace', Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri (5 March 1946).
  3. Herbert Feis, Churchill-Roosevelt-Stalin: The war they waged and the peace they sought (1957), p. 655
  4. William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959), p. 91.
  5. John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History (2005)

Frequently Asked Questions about US Soviet Relations

The relationship between the USA and Soviet Union during the Cold War was one of mistrust and hostility. This is best exemplified in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 which brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation. 


The hostile relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union was caused by their polar ideological beliefs. The United States was capitalist whereas the Soviet Union was communist. This meant that they disagreed on political, economic, and societal issues. 

No, the Soviet Union was part of the Warsaw Pact and the USA was part of NATO.

The US and Soviet Union were on opposite sides of the Cold War because the US was capitalist and the Soviet Union was communist. Consequently, the US formed NATO with fellow capitalist states and the Soviet Union formed the Warsaw Pact with fellow communist states. 

Throughout the Cold War, there were 23 summits between the USA and USSR. The most significant of these was the Helsinki Summit which marked an improvement in relations during the détente period. 

Final US Soviet Relations Quiz

Question

Which Countries Made Up The Grand Alliance?

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Answer

The USA, UK, and USSR

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Question

What Year Was The Cuban Missile Crisis

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Answer

1962

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Question

Describe The Lend-Lease Policy

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Answer

The Lend-Lease policy leased military equipment and supplies to allied nations in the fight against the Axis powers

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Question

Describe The Marshall Plan (1947)

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Answer

The Marshall Plan was an economic programme which pledged approximately 13 billion dollars to European countries that were affected by the war. President Truman believed that a wealthy, secure Europe could stop the spread of communism.

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Question

What Year Was The Truman Doctrine Introduced?

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Answer

1947

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Question

What Does NATO Stand For?

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Answer

North Atlantic Treaty Organisation

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Question

Name Three Founding Members Of Nato

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Answer

Any of the following: 


Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States


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Question

What Was The U2 Incident?

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Answer

On 1 May 1960, the USSR shot down the plane of F. Gary Powers, a USA U-2 reconnaissance pilot. 

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Question

What Was The Détente Period?

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Answer

It was the relaxation of strained relations and increased arms control that took place between 1969 and 1979.

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Question

What Does SALT Stand For?

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Answer

Strategic Arms Limitation Talks

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Question

What do Revisionists say about Cold War Hostilities? 

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Answer

USA foreign policy was to blame

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Question

What year was the Warsaw Pact established?

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Answer

1955

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Question

Which wartime conference did Truman and Stalin disagree at?

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Answer

Potsdam 

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