Emerging from the Second World War were two superpowers with contrasting economic systems.
The USA and USSR soon became embroiled in a power struggle across the globe, which was to last until the 1980’s. Arguably it was the inherent nature of the contrasting economic systems which prevented a relaxation of superpower tension in the period 1945-85.Tensions began, following the inter-war alliance in Europe, with US recognition that it needed to stabilize its economy as source 1 suggests. Truman believed that Western Europe, as its largest exporter of goods, had to be in a viable position economically, if the US economy was to flourish. As the United States News put it at the time ‘if buying power is exhausted, world markets for US goods would disappear’. Marshall Aid was provided to prevent a collapse abroad, ensuring the future of the US economy for the long term.
To secure markets in Europe it was also necessary to ensure nations remained capitalist with open markets. Communism under its command economy would shackle the ability of the US to trade, so it was imperative that the US did all it could to keep the Western European markets open. As Greene highlights ‘Marshall Aid intended to keep the economies of the Western European countries within the capitalist world’. This clearly meant that Marshall Aid could not be accepted by the Soviet Union, and went some way to explaining why tensions grew in Europe between the two superpowers.
Whilst the USA was focused on securing markets in Europe, the Soviet Union was trying to secure a buffer zone on its Eastern European border, which source 4 describes as the ‘Soviet sphere of influence’. Following Potsdam, Europe was left divided with the USSR retaining influence in the nations that Stalin had effectively agreed during the percentages agreement with Churchill. The Red army had a stronghold in those countries at the time, so it seemed sensible for the USSR to maintain order in these Eastern countries. The West became annoyed as the Soviets refused to hold free elections in Poland as had been promised at Potsdam, giving growth to the theory that the USSR was imposing its ideology upon other nations.
However, as Lynch suggests, Stalin was merely interested in ‘guaranteeing Soviet security’.The USSR did not have the comfort of being surrounded by an ocean like the USA or Britain, and could only feel safe with the distance of land. Therefore Stalin sought to maintain a buffer zone of the Eastern nations of Europe, and to do this he had to ensure that the states remained friendly with the USSR by conforming to Communism under his control. Even Soviet aggression towards Turkey and Greece can be explained by USSR’s need to have safe access to Mediterranean ports. This suggests that the main aim of the USSR in foreign policy was to maintain its own security and therefore it would appear that the contrasting economic systems was not the primary reason for superpower tensions at the time.Much of the fear of the Soviet Union was centered upon the belief that they were promoting a world Communist revolution as had been advocated by Marx and was re-iterated in Keenan’s Long telegram. Certain actions by the Soviets led the USA to believe that as source 2 suggest, the Soviet Union were intent ‘on destroying’ capitalism in their struggle for communist dominance across the world.
The support of Communist regimes in Asia, the Middle East and Cuba was suggestive of the USSR’s intention to promote what source 3 describes as ‘the path from capitalism to socialism’. However, following Stalin’s death the USSR moved towards ‘peaceful coexistence’ believing in the inevitable collapse of capitalism. This suggests that from the Soviet point of view, contrasting economic systems did not prevent the relaxation of super power tensions in the period 1945-85.The Berlin ‘problem’ is further evidence of the problems competing economic systems caused between the superpowers. Stalin’s initial attempt to remove the West via the blockade of 1948, was based upon his fear of a new capitalist West German state being set up. Khrushchev’s later decision to provide the West with an ultimatum in 1961, highlights how keen the USSR was to remove the West from Berlin.
As source 5 shows, Khrushchev had to do something to ‘control the movement between East and West Berlin’. The attraction of capitalism, inside the Communist state of East Germany, was threatening the existence of Communism, with people crossing the border in their hundreds.The USSR was trying to safeguard its sphere of influence. Germany, potentially was the biggest economic power in Europe, had fought against the USSR twice in the last 50 years so was therefore a threat to the Soviet Unions continued existence. Stalin’s actions were based upon his fear that a new capitalist West German state was being set up, Khrushchev was reacting to West German entry into NATO, and proposed a reunification of a neutral Germany. A neutral Germany would have permanently removed the threat of German attack on the Soviet Union. This was in direct opposition to the USA’s desire for a strong capitalist Germany, which is why Berlin became such a focal point for superpower tension.
Therefore, Berlin is a prime example of how the contrasting economic systems prevented the relaxation of tensions between the superpowers.Throughout the cold war, the Soviet Unions actions were mostly limited to nations with close proximity to its borders. This changed with Soviet intervention in Cuba, an island just off the coast of the USA. Once Castro’s communist regime was in place they looked to the Soviet Union for security. Khrushchev took the decision to deploy nuclear weapons to the island in an attempt to address the imbalance of global weaponry following the USA’s decision to place US missiles in Turkey, Britain and Italy between 1956 and 1960. What annoyed Kennedy the most was that Khrushchev had lied to him about these weapons. This led to a period of brinkmanship before finally the USSR had to back down to avert nuclear war. Such activity suggests that, it was not necessarily the economic systems which were to blame, more the lack of communication and trust between the two nations.
Cuba was also significant because it marked a move towards dï¿½tente and a relaxing of tensions to a certain degree. Cuba and the recognition that neither nation wanted nuclear war also demonstrates that there was in fact a relaxing of tensions between the superpowers at the time.In 1964 China developed its own atomic weapon and with its heightened position in Asia following its intervention in the Korean War, and its close ties with Ho’s North Vietnamese army, was now a superpower in its own right. Although both communist states, Sino-Soviet relations had soured so much that fighting persisted along their shared borders. This split in itself is recognition that superpower tension was not only built upon contrasting economic systems. However, the tripartite order that then existed allowed for an improvement in relations between the USA and both China and the USSR during dï¿½tente.
The split allowed the USA to play off one communist superpower against the other as none could afford to alienate the USA so much that they formed an alliance with the other.In conclusion, the two contrasting economic systems alone do not cause such conflict between two nations. It was more the global nature of their politics which necessitated the advancement of their economic models across the globe which undoubtedly led to tension. The USA’s need to secure world markets, was in direct opposition to Soviet insistence upon a sphere of influence in order to secure itself against further land invasion.
The failure to communicate or to understand each others position is the main reason which prevented the relaxation of superpower tension in the period 1945-85. However, it is certainly true to say that to some extent the existence of contrasting economic systems prevented such a relaxation in tension. The emergence of China as a 3rd world player, and a move towards dï¿½tente actually demonstrated that superpower tensions were relaxed at times, although not to a degree whereby you could suggest that the tensions no longer existed.