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Spread of Communism

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Spread of Communism

After the Second World War, the Cold War embroiled many of the world's nations. Why did the spread of communism after WWII happen? What were the consequences of the spread of communism during the Cold War and what was the American policy to stop the spread of communism?

Here, you'll learn about the spread of communism in Europe, the spread of communism in Asia, and the spread of communism elsewhere and how the spread of communism during the Cold War influenced international relations.

Spread of Communism After WWII - Setting the Stage

The first communist state emerged in Russia at the end of World War I. However, the larger spread of communism came after WWII.

Spread of Communism in Russia

The first country to adopt a communist government was Russia. The communist party led by Vladimir Lenin took power in the Russian Revolution of 1917, and established the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR, commonly referred to as the Soviet Union.

Spread of Communism during the Cold War Map StudySmarterIn the map above, dark red represents countries that became communist and allies of the Soviet Union, while orange and yellow represents countries that at some point adopted socialist policies but never implemented full communism or joined the Soviet Bloc. Source: NuclearVacuum, CC-BY-SA-4.0, Wikimedia Commons

The Spread of Communism in Europe

The spread of communism in Europe occurred in the years immediately following World War II, and was the first major wave of the spread of communism.

The spread of communism in Europe would be limited to the countries of Eastern Europe that the Soviet Union liberated from Nazi rule and occupied at the end of the war. Each country had its own transition to communism, but all occurred to some degree under the influence of the Soviet Union and usually due to non-democratic means.

See in the table below the spread of communism in Europe, including the ways communist parties took power:

Spread of Communism in Europe
CountryYearMethods Used
Albania1945Communists had led the resistance to Nazi occupation in World War II and took control of the country afterwards.
Yugoslavia1945Communists led resistance to Nazi occupation and took control after the war. Yugoslavia later broke with the USSR and engaged in friendly relations with the West but maintained a communist government.
Bulgaria1946Communists won a majority in elections held in 1946 and moved to ban other parties to consolidate their rule.
East Germany1945The USSR installed a nondemocratic, communist led government in its zone of occupation of Germany. After the declaration of the Federal Republic of Germany, or West Germany in the US, French, and British occupied areas of Germany, the Soviet zone followed suit with the declaration of the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, in October 1949.
Romania1945A coalition government led by communists was created after the war. The communists gradually banned other parties and established firm control.
Poland1947Stalin, leader of the USSR, had non-communist politicians murdered in 1945. In 1947, communists won elections characterized by intimidation of their opponents.
Czechoslovakia1948Communists had a large representation in a post war coalition government but not a majority. In February 1948, the communist led military seized power in a coup and set up a communist government.
Hungary1949Non-communists had won a majority in elections in 1945. The communists, supported by the USSR worked to achieve power, becoming the largest party in elections in 1947 but without a majority. They pushed out non-communists and in elections held in 1949, only communist candidates were on the ballot.

Spread of Communism in Europe Map StudySmarterMap showing the two blocs that emerged in Europe due to the spread of communism after WWII. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

American Policy to Stop the Spread of Communism

The spread of communism after WWII in Europe, greatly concerned the United States and other capitalist countries. They feared it would prompt the further spread of communism in Europe and around the world.

The United States policy to stop the spread of communism was known as containment and sought to stop the spread of communism to new countries.

The origin of this policy is the Truman Doctrine, expressed by President Harry Truman in 1947 and calling for the US to take an active role supporting governments against communist rebellions with economic and military aid. Later, the Domino Theory was expressed by President Dwight Eisenhower, and contended that one country falling to communism would lead to its neighbors falling like a row of dominoes.

This mentality prompted intervention in foreign countries, leading to a number of proxy wars.

Proxy War

When two (or more) countries engage in indirect conflict through a third country by, for example, supporting different sides in a civil war or war between two countries.

The Spread of Communism During the Cold War

The spread of communism during the Cold War was both influenced by and further contributed to the ideological conflict and strategic competition between the US and USSR.

Spread of Communism in Asia

The spread of communism in Asia created the largest communist state and led to two wars. In the table below, see how communism spread in Asia:

Spread of Communism in Asia
CountryYearMethods Used
North Korea1945Korea had been previously controlled by Japan, and northern Korea was occupied by the USSR at the end of WW2. An independent communist government was declared in North Korea in 1948. A few years later, North Korea invaded South Korea, starting the Korean War.
China1949China had also been occupied by Japan. In the years following the end of the war, communists under Mao Zedong won a civil war and took control of the government in 1949.
North Vietnam1954Vietnamese revolutionaries under the communist Ho Chi Minh had fought the Japanese occupation during WW2. After the war, they fought against French colonial forces for independence. In the 1954 Geneva Accords, Vietnam was divided into a communist led North and capitalist led South. The South's refusal to participate in elections planned in 1956 led to the Vietnam War, with the US intervening in favor of the south.
South Vietnam1975The US withdrew from the Vietnam War in 1973. Renewed fighting between North and South Vietnam resumed shortly thereafter. South Vietnam fell in 1975 and Vietnam was unified as one communist country.
Laos1975The communist group Pathet Lao overthrew the monarchy and established a communist government.
Cambodia1975Communist group called the Khmer Rogue took over the country and established a communist government.

Impact of Communist China

The spread of communism in China had an immense impact on the Cold War. It established a large new communist state that had not been created by the Soviet Union. In the US, President Truman faced criticism for "losing China," and fears that the spread of communism in Asia would continue were important motivations for US intervention in the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

Chinese Revolution

Mao and the communists forces had been fighting with the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek since 1927. The Japanese occupation of China after 1931 contributed to Kai-shek's downfall, and the communists won power in 1949, declaring the People's Republic of China.

The communist Chinese government attempted to quickly rebuild and industrialize the country with its policies known as the Great Leap Forward. These policies were often repressive. Later, the Cultural Revolution caused widespread upheaval in China. The Chinese also split with the Soviet Union in the 1960s in the Sino-Soviet Split paving the way for the United States to establish trade relations with China after 1972.

Spread of Communism in Asia Mao and China StudySmarterMao declaring the People's Republic of China in 1949. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Korean and Vietnam Wars

The American policy to stop the spread of communism was carried to its extremes to stop the spread of communism in Asia, most notably with participation in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. In Korea, US backed UN forces prevented a takeover of South Korea by communist North Korea. However, in Vietnam, the US withdrew after a bloody war leading to the fall of South Vietnam to communism in 1975.

Vietnam is a good example of how the spread of communism was intertwined with decolonization. The US saw itself fighting to stop the spread of communism, while the Vietnamese communists saw their fight more as one for independence, and many Vietnamese civilians saw the US troops as nothing but a foreign occupier. Ironically, the destabilization of Vietnam's neighbors, Laos and Cambodia, caused by the war helped lead to their fall to communism.

Despite that, the domino theory largely was disproven and the spread of communism in Asia was limited to China, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

Spread of Communism in Asia Vietnam War StudySmarterUS combat troops in Vietnam. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Spread of Communism in Latin America and Africa

The spread of communism also occurred in Latin America and Africa. See below some of the countries in this region that were involved in the spread of communism during the Cold War:

Spread of Communism in Latin America and Africa
CountryYearMethods Used
Cuba1959Fidel Castro came to power in a rebellion against dictator Fulgencio Batista. He adopted a policy of economic nationalism, nationalizing US property, and eventually aligned himself with the USSR and declared Cuba a communist state in 1961.
Congo1960Leftist Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba of the newly independent nation asked for Soviet help in defeating a separatists movement. He was assassinated and an anti-communist military government took power shortly afterward, leading to civil war.
Chile1970Marxist Salvador Allende was elected president in 1970. He was ousted and killed during a US backed coup that brought right wing dictator Augusto Pinochet to power in 1973.
Ethiopia1974A military coup overthrew the emperor Haile Selassie and installed a communist military government known as the Derg.
Angola1975After independence, the Cuban and Soviet supported communist government defeated right wing rebel groups supported by the US and South Africa.
Nicaragua1979The Sandinista National Liberation Front, a socialist party, took power in 1979. The US backed a group called the Contras who fought them in a civil war. Sandinistas won the elections of 1984 but lost in 1990.
Grenada1979A communist group took control of the small island nation in 1979. The United States invaded and removed it from power in 1983.

The America policy to stop the spread of communism often led it to support repressive noncommunist governments or military coups against left leaning governments or guerrilla rebel movements in Latin America and Africa.

Cuba: Communism at the US's Doorstep

The most important country in the Americas during the Cold War was undoubtedly the island of Cuba. The US tried to remove Fidel Castro from power with the 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion. It was after this failed attempt to remove him that Castro declared the communist nature of the Cuban Revolution and joined the Soviet Bloc. In 1962, the Soviets placed nuclear missiles on the island, sparking the Cuban Missile Crisis, one of the most important events of the Cold War.

Fear of a second Cuba informed US support for nondemocratic but anticommunist governments and the overthrow of left leaning leaders in Nicaragua, Chile, and Grenada.

Spread of Communism Castro StudySmarterFidel Castro with fellow Cuban revolutionary Camilo Cienfuegos. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Spread of Communism - Key takeaways

  • The spread of communism after WW2 took place in Eastern Europe under the influence of the Soviet Union and helped spark the Cold War.
  • The spread of communism during the Cold War took place around the world, but especially the spread of communism in Asia in China, Korea, and Vietnam had important impacts.
  • The American policy to stop the spread of communism known as containment informed intervention in the Korean and Vietnam Wars as well as other proxy wars and support for noncommunist governments around the world.
  • In Latin America, Cuba turned communist after 1959, leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
  • Proxy wars and decolonization helped bring communist governments to power in some African countries.

Frequently Asked Questions about Spread of Communism

The effects of the spread of communism were increased Cold War conflict, including in some cases proxy wars.

America tried to stop the spread of communism with a policy of containment, intervening to stop the spread of communism to new countries by supporting noncommunist governments and in some cases such as Korea and Vietnam intervening militarily.

Post-war events that led to the spread of communism included Soviet occupation of areas, and economic troubles. In Asia, Africa, and Latin America, national liberation movements also in some cases became associated with communism.

America wanted to stop the spread of communism because they saw it as a threat to their economic and strategic interests and many also saw it as a threat to their way of life.

The spread of communism in Asia was influenced by anti-imperialism, which had been associated with capitalism.

Final Spread of Communism Quiz

Question

What was the first country to adopt communism?

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Answer

Russia or the Soviet Union

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Question

How did the spread of communism in Europe occurr?

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Answer

The Soviet Union along with local communist parties installed communist governments through a variety of nondemocratic means.

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Question

Which of the following European countries did not become communist?

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Answer

Austria

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Question

What was the first country to adopt communism in Asia?

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Answer

China in 1949

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Question

What was the US policy to stop the spread of communism?

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Answer

Containment

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Question

What was the domino theory?

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Answer

An idea that if one country went communist, its neighbors would also become communist.

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Question

What prompted the Korean War?

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Answer

Communist North Korea invaded South Korea, the US and UN intervened to stop the invasion.

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Question

What prompted the Vietnam War?

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Answer

Vietnamese communist forces first fought against the French and later against the US supported South Vietnamese government.

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Question

Which of the following made Cuba significant during the Cold War?

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Answer

The USSR placed nuclear missiles there causing the Cuban Missile Crisis

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Question

Which of the following countries in Africa had at one point a communist or communist influenced government?

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Answer

Ethiopia

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