When did the Cold War become global?

Essay, 2015

5 Pages, Grade: 1


MT2015 I IR Core

When did the Cold War become global?

Jan-David Franke

„Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”.
Vishnu in the Bhagavad Gita

The 20th century was shaped by three wars, each global and utterly destructive in its own way. The first took the world by surprise and crushed the romantic ideal of heroism with industrialised brutality. The second stained the very core of mankind with unimaginable evil and cruelty, with death and suffering on an unprecedented scale. The third brought disruption to the world and the planet to the brink of nuclear catastrophe. This is the story of the role that the atomic bomb played in this third global conflict within a few decades, which we have come to call the Cold War. The impact of nuclear weapons on international relations in general and on the Cold War in particular is too little understood (Gavin, 2010). Especially for us millennials, who were socialised after the breakdown of the Soviet Union, the pervasiveness of nuclear danger is hard to conceptualise.

Yet, it defined an era of global volatility and a Zeitgeist of glooming apocalypse that manifested itself in the political, cultural and social spheres of its time. In this paper, I will reconstruct how nuclearisation was both cause and consequence of the Cold War, cemented its dichotomy and eventually made it global. My argument is this: while it may have been the Korean War, or the emergence of proxy wars in general, that manifested the clash of expansionist ideologies on an international level, the Cold War became – and had to remain - global as a result of nuclearisation. Following an English School definition of (international) system, I posit that it was the nuclear threat that qualified the Cold War as global (rather than international), as its nature and development became a necessary element in the calculations of all states. The outlook of nuclear annihilation and the incredibly high stakes which that entailed could not be overlooked in any state’s security deliberations. Moreover, the proxy wars fought around the world were facilitated and perpetuated by nuclear armament. I will begin by defining the benchmark against which I am formulating my thoughts, the global system, and then briefly sketch the roots of the cold war by mapping a sphere of inevitable tension. Looking at four historical cases that defined the nuclear character of the Cold War, namely Nagasaki, the Soviet Union’s acquisition of the atomic bomb in 1949, the development of long-range ballistic missiles in the mid-50s and, most importantly, the Baruch plan, I intend to reconstruct the way in which the bomb played a decisive role in shaping the Cold War and making it global.

In order to understand how and when a condition ‘becomes global’ or impacts a global system, we need to define what we mean by ‘global system’. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines global as “involving the entire world, involving all of something”; Bull sees the international system (1977) as the situation in which states interact to the degree that “the behaviour of each [constitutes] a necessary element in the calculations of the other” (pp.9-10). If we put these two together, a condition, such as the Cold War, can be considered global if it constitutes a necessary element in the calculations of all states in the world or, to add a constructivist element, if it is globally perceived as such. Climate change, for instance, is a global condition, as it is very likely that no country will end up not being affected by it in one way or another. That understanding is clearly differentiated from the term ‘international’, which does by no means assume to encompass the entire world and is often times a realm dominated by Western states or superpowers. It is important to keep in mind that different conceptualisations of ‘becoming global’ may merit different arguments than the ones presented here.

While it is commonly accepted that the Cold War superseded WW2 as the defining power struggle of its time and ended with the beginning breakdown of the Soviet Union in 1989, where to look for its roots is a contested subject in history and International Relations; so is the question whether it could have been avoided. This much is clear: tension had been in the air for decades before ’45, was “generic” rather than contextual (Kissinger, 1994, p.426) and so a certain form of rivalry was ineluctable. Mutual mistrust between the West and the Soviet Union had been established and fostered throughout the 1920s and 1930s beginning with the Russian civil war, in which the West supported the eventually defeated ‘white’ opposition to Lenin’s ‘red’ Bolsheviks. The brutality of Stalinism and older anti-Russian resentments caused Britain to be almost as suspicious of the SU as it was of Nazi Germany and made it unwilling to cooperate with the Russians on appeasement, which is one of the most important reasons for its ultimate failure according to Anievas (2011). The West found its caginess confirmed in 1939 with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the Russian invasion of Finland and Poland. On the other side, Russian suspicion of Western powers probably reaches back to 1812 when Napoleon entered Moscow and had been reaffirmed in WW1. The Soviet Union’s exclusion from the Munich Conference in 1938 and its irregular expulsion from the League of Nations for invading Finland in 1939 did certainly not take away from the Russian reluctance to regard the West as natural partners. Above all, there was the inherent discrepancy of two opposing expansionist ideologies, Communism and Capitalism, at times the primum mobile of hostility, then again its pretext. That discrepancy also manifested itself during the last months of WW2, as “the wide differences between American and Russian conceptions of the postwar world became increasingly apparent, and (…) the absence of normal diplomacy between the two emerging superpowers foretold harsh confrontation” (Craig & Radchenko, p.162; cp. Siracusa, 2009).

Both the SU and the US knew that they had to compete with another on their way to hegemony. Some historians argue therefore that the decision to drop the bomb on Nagasaki so quickly after Hiroshima without giving the Japanese regime the time to surrender was a clear signal of intimidation directed at the Soviet Union, the first step in ‘containing’ Soviet expansion. In a sense, “we can regard Hiroshima as the final American strike of the Second World War, and Nagasaki as its first strike in the Cold War”, Craig and Radchenko write (2008, p.89). As much as that might have indeed intimidated the Soviet Union, it only spurred their motivation to develop nuclear arms themselves. While the US had assumed they would retain their nuclear monopoly until the end of the 1950s, they had not accounted for Russian espionage. In fact, when Truman told Stalin about the bomb in the context of the Potsdam conference, shortly after having been appointed president and let in on the secret Manhattan Project himself, Stalin had to play dumb so as not to reveal that he had known long before (Zuberi, 1999). In 1949, eventually the SU tested their first atomic bomb in Kazakhstan, shocking the US and altering the balance of power for the second time in four years after the US had acquired a nuclear monopoly in 1945.

It is hard to imagine that Stalin changing his mind about the Korean War in 1950 (CWIHP, 1995) was not in part based on the fact that the bomb made him more confident vis-à-vis the US and more aggressive in the pursuit of expansionist strategies in the same way that it had boasted Truman’s confidence in July 1945 (Sherwin, 1973, pp.966-967). When the US decided not to use nuclear force in the Korean War, they knew the risk of Soviet retaliation in Western Europe and the US and they were aware that “increased exertions by the United States would cause its adversary to respond with stronger measures of his own” (Calingaert, 1988, p.1). For proxy-conflict after proxy-conflict, be it Vietnam, Laos, Guatemala or Afghanistan, the United States therefore accepted a stalemate on the battlefield rather than risk nuclear retaliation and so did the Soviet Union. Not only did the failure to cooperate on nuclear force cement the Cold War and raised the stakes so high that mutual containment in the form of proxy-wars around the world became commonplace, nuclearisation also perpetuated and facilitated these conflicts. As Westad argues, both the SU and the US wanted the rest of the world to pick sides in a system that was “bipolar to the point of exclusivity” (2005, p. 89), ruling out neutrality as a viable option. Craig and Radchenko (2008, pp.167-168) believe that this kind of global order could have been avoided if it had not been for the nuclear threat for three reasons: First, the Soviet Union committed itself to develop nuclear weapons on its own with all force, feeling threatened by American nuclear armament. Stalin believed inRealpolitikand military power and an American nuclear monopoly was inacceptable with that premise. Second, the discovery of Russian espionage in 1946 reinforced US suspicion and lead the Americans to realise that international order would never happen on American terms as they could not negotiate from a level of preponderant strength. Third, and most important of all, the novel threat of nuclear armament and the enormously high costs of deflection that it entailed greatly complicated international cooperation.

The failure of the Baruch plan, which was the scientists-inspired effort to take the edge of the beginning conflict and establish an international atomic energy agency, bears testimony to that fact. It is also a tragic manifestation of the “heritage of great power suspicion and distrust” and the ideological discord (Baratta, p.619) that resulted in the US carrying the proposal forward half-heartedly and the Soviets eventually rejecting it. While Baruch rightfully identified the Security Council veto as the main element obstructing a meaningful strategy to contain the threat of nuclear weapons and therefore sought to abolish it, at least for nuclear questions, the Soviet Union considered a non-compromised veto vital protection from the Western majority in the council, which it was not willing to surrender. The US on the other hand was reluctant to compromise on its terms, wanting to retain atomic bombs as a diplomatic instrument during a time of demobilisation and perceived disadvantage in terms of conventional force (Bernstein, 1974, p.1041). At the same time, liberalist voices were drown out by realist arguments of containment in US foreign policy. After the public discovery of Russian espionage, pushing for atomic compromise with the Soviets would have meant political suicide for Truman (Craig & Radchenko, 2008, p.167). More than that, the Baruch plan hinged on a notion of world government, which actors on both sides considered a Marxist or Capitalist form of world domination respectively.

The collapse of Baruch’s proposal was “both a cause and a consequence of the Cold War”, Bernstein says (1974, p.1044); it was its consequence because, as argued before, it resulted from mutual mistrust and ideological discrepancy, it was its cause, because it cemented the dichotomy and raised the stakes too high to resolve it. With the development of long-range ballistic missiles in the mid-1950s at latest these stakes were upped again and they were impossible to ignore for any state on earth. Gaddis might consider the promise of Mutually Assured Destruction the prerequisite for a long peace (1989), but that assumption fails to consider the extraordinary global danger that was imminent for 40 years and nearly erupted in 1962 and 1983 as Gavin rightly argues (2010). It was not just the existence of nuclear weapons that threatened the world but also the purposes to which they were employed: higher-risk strategies and atomic diplomacy. The official US nuclear policy of ‘massive retaliation’ was exemplary of that. In the face of a nuclear arsenal that could have annihilated this planet many times over, an atomic world war was an outlook that was impossible to ignore in any country’s security deliberations. With hindsight we can say that it did not, but that was neither the spirit of the time nor was that outcome little more than pure chance. It was not the Korean War that gave the Cold War its utterly global quality, or any of the proxy wars or alignment struggles for that matter. Precisely because neutrality was hardly an option, the world, from South Africa to Germany and from Ghana to New Zealand, did not stop worrying and love the bomb. It took it for the global threat that it was.

To conclude, I have begun by defining the properties of ‘global’. With that in mind, I have reconstructed the crucial markers defining nuclearisation as a cause and a consequence of a volatile dichotomy that was exclusive and possessive in nature and brought the world to the brink of nuclear disaster. From the perspective of atomic diplomacy, Nagasaki constituted the beginning of the Cold War and the failure of the Baruch plan cemented the conflict and rendered cooperation unfeasible for decades. With the Soviet Union’s breakthrough in nuclear research in 1949 and the development of long-range ballistic missiles, Mutually Assured Destruction and aggressive nuclear policies, nuclear catastrophe was waiting just around the corner. The threat that a nuclear Cold War implied was total, all-encompassing and could not be eluded. That is what made the Cold War global.


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Zuberi, M. (1999). Stalin and the bomb. Strategic Analysis, 23(7), pp. 1133-1153.


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When did the Cold War become global?
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nuclear bomb, cold war, nuclearisation, korean war
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Jan-David Franke (Author), 2015, When did the Cold War become global?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/411975


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