GED Social Studies Practice Test: The Cold War

During the war, the alliance of the Soviet Union (battling Germany on the Eastern Front) and the U.S. (fighting in the Pacific and on the Western Front in Europe) was a marriage of convenience. The communist nation led by dictator Josef Stalin and the democratic U.S. had little in common, except their enemies.

The genesis of the Cold War lay not only in the distinct tensions between the two nations, but in the policies (and noncompliance) set down at three meetings held during the war.

The first meeting of the “Big Three” leaders – U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt; British Prime Minister Winston Churchill; and Soviet leader Josef Stalin took place in Teheran (Iran) in 1943. It was agreed that Germany would be disarmed and that the Soviets would enter the war of Japan (as soon as Germany was defeated).

In February 1945, a desperately sick FDR (he had been elected to a fourth term in 1944, despite his failing health), again met with Churchill and Stalin the Soviet resort of Yalta. Four main points were agreed upon:

Germany would be divided into occupation zones, with one zone each the U.S., the Soviet Union, Britain, and France.

The Soviet Union (which, in advancing westward toward Germany had occupied most of Eastern Europe), would hold free elections in those nations (such as Poland, the Baltic nations, Hungary, and Romania).

The Soviet Union would enter the war against Japan as soon as Germany was defeated.

A new international organization for maintaining world peace — the United Nations — would be established.

In April 1945 — just before the surrender of Germany — President Roosevelt died of a stroke. He had been president for 12 years (three full 4-year terms) and 2 months — longer than any other president in history [a Constitutional amendment in 1952 would limit future presidents to two 4-year terms].  Americans were devastated; Roosevelt was like a father figure. Roosevelt’s vice president, Harry S. Truman, was sworn in as the nation’s 33rd president. When he was sworn in, Truman knew nothing of the atomic bomb project (see above) — like all but a handful of defense officials and FDR, he was kept in the dark about the nation’s biggest military secret — but it was his decision to use the weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945.

In July 1945 (Germany had surrendered in May) the new president, Harry Truman, met with Churchill and Stalin in Potsdam, a suburb of Berlin. The purpose of the meeting was to plan for the end stage of the war (against Japan) and plan war trials of Nazi and Japanese leaders (Towards the end of the conference, Japan was given an ultimatum to surrender (in the name of the United States, Great Britain and China) or meet “prompt and utter destruction”).

Two days after the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima — August 8, 1945, The Soviet Union declared war on Japan, but Japan surrendered on August 14. In addition, Stalin had taken no action toward allowing free and fair elections in the nations of Eastern Europe that were occupied by the Soviet Army.


Tensions Rise in the Wake of the War

The new United Nations held its first meeting in the autumn of 1945. Unlike the League of Nations (which it replaced), the U.N. charter allowed the organization to use force to resist aggression against a member state. The heart of the U.N. — the Security Council — had five permanent members (the victors in WWII): the U.S.; the Soviet Union; Britain; France; and China. Each had a veto power, which meant that most issues would remain deadlocked.

The first instance of the U.S. and the Soviet Union squaring off in the U.N. came in 1946, when the Soviets (who by now were working on their own atomic bomb), rejected a plan for international control of nuclear weapons. It also declined to join the new World Bank.

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The distrust deepened when the Soviets did not, as they had promised, hold elections in Eastern Europe, and communist governments were installed in Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Romania. They became known as satellite states. The Soviet Union claimed it needed a “buffer zone” against possible invasion from the west, but the U.S. and Western Europe saw this as a power grab by the militarily mighty Soviet Union, which (like the U.S.) had not demobilized most of its armed forces.

In Germany, the French, British, and U.S. occupation zones were meant to be temporary, but the Soviet Union to set up its occupation zone as a separate communist nation, East Germany. The capital city of Germany, Berlin, was also subdivided into four zones.

Within a year of the war’s end, the term cold war was being used to describe the deteriorating international situation. Another ominous term — coined by Winston Churchill — to describe the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe was The Iron Curtain.


Three New Policies by the United States

The United States realized that it would be locked in a long and bitter struggle for world influence. It and the Soviet Union would compete for dominance in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Each side was afraid of the other, but the U.S. believed (rightly or wrongly) that the Soviet Union sought to build a worldwide empire. It developed three new policies to combat the spread of communism.

Containment (1947)Using ideology, monetary aid, technical assistance and, if needed, military force, the United States committed itself to a “containment” of Soviet influence all over the world. As George Kennan, one of the formulators of the policies, called for “a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant (watchful) containment of Russian expansive tendencies” would keep the world safe.

The Truman Doctrine (1947): In 1947, Turkey and Greece were fighting civil wars in which the communist factions seemed to be getting the upper hand. Alarmed at the possibility that more nations would come into the Soviet orbit, President Truman asked Congress to vote $400 million in aid for those two countries.

Truman expanded the doctrine to state that the U.S. would assist any nation, anywhere, at anytime, that was facing internal or external threats from communism. The first test came in 1948, when the Soviet Union sealed off rail and road access to the Western sector of Berlin. The U.S. and its allies organized the Berlin Airlift to provide its portion of the German capital with needed goods. For almost a year, 100 planes a day brought food, fuel, and items needed for everyday life to West Berlin. Seeing the United States’ resolve, the Soviet Union eventually backed down and reopened the access corridors, although Berlin remained divided.

The Marshall Plan (1948)Even though the war ended in 1945, three years later Western Europe was still shattered and impoverished. People were living in wrecked housing and agricultural and industrial output was virtually nonexistent. President Truman and his secretary of state, George Marshall, realized that the Soviet Union might exploit this weakness and tempt the Western democracies to accept aid. They reasoned that a strong, well-fed, and productive Western Europe would be a strong defense against Soviet expansionism. Over a four-year period, $12 billion was given to Western European nations to rebuild factories, reestablish agriculture, rebuild schools and roads, and improve conditions for everyone in their societies. The program was a huge success. By the mid-1950s, the “helping hand” that the U.S. extended created strong and thriving economies in the nations that once lay in ruins.


NATO (1949): In 1949, the United States formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, its first-ever permanent military alliance. The U.S., Canada, and 10 nations of Western Europe pledged collective security — and attack on any one by any other nation (everyone was thinking about the Soviet Union) would be considered an attack on all. The U.S. permanently stationed troops and nuclear weapons in many European nations. NATO survives to this day (the Warsaw Pact was dissolved after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s).

In response to NATO, the Soviet Union formed its own military alliance with its satellite nations, known as the Warsaw Pact, in 1955. Europe was now an armed camp in peacetime — a nuclear-armed camp, since the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb in 1949 and began to build a stockpile.

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Containment in Asia

China was a member of the Allied Powers during World War II, but immediately after the war ended, the civil war that had convulsed the nation resumed. The Nationalist Party, which ruled China, was corrupt and enjoyed little popular support. The Communist Party had a well-disciplined army that enjoyed the support of the peasants (who made up the vast majority of the Chinese population).  In 1949, the Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong, captured Beijing and the Nationalists fled to the island of Formosa (Taiwan). The most populous nation on earth was now in communist hands. The U.S. was horrified. Worse, the new communist government in China pledged to work closely with the Soviet Union.

In the early 1950s, the U.S. formed a NATO-like alliance with 8 free Asian nations — the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization. The U.S. also provided military aid and money to Asian nations.

Between 1945 and 1954, the U.S. provided over $35 billion in aid to Western Europe and $10 billion to Asian nations.


The War in Korea: Containment is Tested

Korea was a small, poor nation that had been colonized by Japan from 1910 to the end of WWII in 1945. The country was liberated by Soviet troops in the north (above the 38th parallel) and American troops south of that line. Since neither side could agree on a plan for a new government, the Korean peninsula was split into two nations at the 38th parallel: a communist-controlled North Korea a democratic South Korea. North Korea was backed (and armed) by both the Soviet Union and the new communist government in China. By 1949, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union had removed their troops.

In late June, 1950, the North Korean army staged a surprise attack and crossed the 38th parallel. President Harry S. Truman (who inherited the presidency after Roosevelt’s death in 1945 and won a term in his own right in 1948), was determined to show the world that “communist aggression” would not be tolerated.

Truman went to the United Nations, which authorized a “police action” to drive North Korea out of South Korea. A number of nations contributed troops to the effort, which was led by the United States.

The war went very badly for the U.N. troops at first. North Korea’s disciplined army pushed deep into South Korea, almost to the tip of the peninsula. But then, the commander of the U.N. troops, General Douglas MacArthur (who had commanded the U.S. troops in the Pacific in WWII), staged an amphibious assault deep behind enemy lines and began to drive the North Koreans back, almost to its border with China at the Yalu River.

Then, in November, China — a new member of the communist world — sent troops to assist North Korea. The U.N. and the Americans were shocked. Wave upon wave of Chinese troops drove the U.N. forces out of North Korea and back across the 38th parallel.

At this point, there was a rough stalemate. MacArthur’s plan was to expand the war by crossing the Yalu River and invading China. President Truman feared this would bring the Soviet Union into the conflict and set off World War III. MacArthur — admired for his military skills but a stubborn and vain man — questioned Truman’s judgment, and publicly spoke out. So despite MacArthur’s popularity, the president had no choice but to fire MacArthur for insubordination (failure to follow a superior’s orders).

Peace talks began in 1951 but the back-and-forth fighting continued (the television series M*A*S*H is set in Korea). A cease-fire was reached in July 1953, but no formal peace was ever concluded. To this day, North and South Korea are still technically at war.

Still, communist aggression had been met with force and swiftness, and South Korea did not perish. Containment worked! While the war (and Truman, too) was often deeply unpopular (coming only five years after the end of WWII), people recognized the importance of the struggle. By the time it was over, 54,000 American soldiers were killed.

The 1950s began on a sour note. In 1950, the U.S. effort in Korea seemed stalemated, much of the Asian landmass was dominated by communist governments in the Soviet Union and China, and the discovery of espionage rings related to American atomic secrets led to an anticommunist hysteria that destroyed lives and careers.



In 1950, Wisconsin Senator Eugene McCarthy alleged that the federal government was riddled with communist employees. While his evidence was flimsy, McCarthy, a master of publicity, began to cry out that communist infiltration had brought the U.S. to the brink of collapse. In Congress, the House Un-American Activities Committee ordered witnesses to “name names” of real (or suspected) members of the Communist Party. People who refused to testify about their present or past political affiliations often lost their jobs and — in the case of Hollywood entertainers who were called to testify — were “blacklisted” and could not find work in the film industry.

McCarthy would hit first and ask questions later. During the period from 1950 to 1954, he alleged that there were communists in the Army, the Air Force, the State Department, and virtually every aspect of American life. His tactics involved bullying, rumor, innuendo, and guilt by associated. For a time, he seemed to be the most powerful man in America, but in 1954, when alleging that the U.S. Army was harboring communists, he went too far. On live television, a lawyer for the army charged him with “reckless cruelty” and lack of respect for the law. McCarthy crumpled, and the hysteria he brought on soon evaporated.

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During this heated time, there were actual cases of communist spying. The government discovered that a number of people associated with the atomic bomb program (see above) had passed on information to the Soviet Union. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, a New York couple, were found guilty of espionage and executed in 1953.


The H-Bomb and Military Buildup

In 1950, shortly after the United States discovered the Soviet Union had developed an atomic bomb, President Truman authorized American scientists to begin a crash program to develop a weapon utilizing nuclear fusion (the power that fuels the sun) — the hydrogen bomb (H-Bomb). This new weapon was hundreds — even thousands — of times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Japan. It was first tested in 1952 (and a year later, the Soviets tested their own).

The U.S. had demobilized quickly after WWII and was ill-prepared when the Korean War broke out. The Cold War policies of containment and confrontation required the U.S. to begin re-arming itself. Billions were spent to expand the armed forces — especially the Air Force. The stockpile of nuclear weapons grew from 100 or so bombs in 1950 to tens of thousands by the end of the decade.

The 1950s also saw the advent of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and nuclear-powered submarines. By 1959, the U.S. could hurl atomic weapons via land, sea, and air.

As the U.S. built up its atomic arsenal, so did the Soviet Union. Eventually, a policy of deterrence emerged. Each side knew that if it launched an attack, it too would be attacked and destroyed. Eventually, there were so many weapons on the planet, and the early warning systems were so sensitive, that the U.S. and the Soviet Union spoke of “mutually assured destruction” — note the acronym: M.A.D.!

The U.S. never made a public promise, however, to refrain from being the first side to use nuclear weapons, and openly promised that aggression — even by conventional forces — could and would be met with “massive retaliation” — a thinly veiled term for atomic devastation.


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