The Cold War was an inevitable confrontation, not merely between two powerful governments, but between two contrasting ways of life. The Russian Revolution, beginning in 1917 during the Great War, produced the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), or Soviet Union. Founded upon theories from Karl Marx regarding history and economics, the Soviet movement adopted the label “Communist” to describe its aspirations of a world without government, politics, or religion, a world where people shared their labor and their wealth, “from each according to his ability and to each according to his need.” Contrasted to that view was an ideology that developed out of the Enlightenment principles of human rights, equality, and freedom. Epitomized by the United States of America (USA), this ideology advocated economic freedom, democracy, limited government, and human progress as guided by science and education. In contrast to the Marxist view of Communism, the older ideology described itself as “the free world,” but was derided by the oppositions as “Capitalism.”
When Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt met at Yalta in February 1945, they knew that the totalitarian governments in Germany, Italy, and Japan would be overthrown by their alliance. These three leaders agreed that new governments would be set up in conquered and liberated lands by whichever power first arrived in those lands in the course of the war. Because of that agreement, Soviet-style governments were put in place in East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Albania, and North Korea. Enlightenment-style governments were established or maintained in West Germany, France, Italy, South Korea, and Japan, as well as Scandinavia, north Africa, west Asia, and the south Pacific. Churchill aptly spoke of an Iron Curtain that divided Europe during the Cold War. The United States helped form a military alliance called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for mutual support among its allies; the Soviet Union responded with the Warsaw Pact for its allies. The United States also provided an economic program, the Marshall Plan, to offer short-term aid to the populations of war-stricken areas combined with long-term help to rebuild their economies, industries, and cities. Warsaw Pact nations refused help from the Marshall Plan, but West Germany and Japan became economic powers through the investment and support of the USA.
Ironically, Berlin became a symbol of the Cold War and of the opposing views of economics, politics, and governmental systems. The city was surrounded by Soviet-sponsored East Germany, but it was divided among the conquering allies (USA, USSR, United Kingdom, and France). The Communists blockaded West Berlin in 1948, hoping to take control of the entire city. Instead, the USA and the United Kingdom risked military confrontation with an airlift of supplies to West Berlin. Eventually, the Communists backed down and again allowed travel by land from West Germany to West Berlin. As Germans continued to escape from the Communist bloc to the free world by means of West Berlin, the Communists decided in 1961 to erect a wall, dividing free Berlin from Communist Berlin. This wall became a symbol, addressed by Presidents of the USA from Kennedy to Reagan. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was the beginning of the end of the Cold War. It signaled the failure of Communism to win the hearts and minds of people under its control.
Berlin was not the only place where people “voted with their feet” between the two economic/political systems. When Vietnam was divided into a Communist North and non-Communist South in 1954, about 90,000 Vietnamese people chose to move to the North, but more than ten times as many people—at least one million—chose to move to the South. People fled Communist Cuba, both when Fidel Castro came to power in 1959 and again twenty years later when he gave permission for the discontent to leave Cuba and about 135,000 Cubans left for the United States. By 1991, when the Soviet Union disbanded, clear historical evidence was available to anyone who could see that the totalitarian and socialist policies of the USSR and its allies were both ineffective and unpopular, while the capitalist free world retained the support of its citizens and was also the dream and hope of people locked outside its borders.
The strongest image of the difference was visible in east Asia. Free economies boomed in Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong. By comparison, Communist economies lagged and struggled in North Korea, Vietnam, and the Peoples’ Republic of China. In the 1980s, even before the Cold War ended, China turned its back upon socialism and reintroduced a capital economy more like that of the free world (although it has maintained a totalitarian government until the present time). Other countries that experimented with socialism in the late twentieth century, whether Marxist socialism or that of other models, also found that the cost of a socialist economy vastly outweighed its expected benefits within a few years of implementation.
Life was not carefree and rosy in the free world during the Cold War. The USA and its allies often supported dictators in other nations merely because they were not Communists. They helped dictators against political opponents with the assumption that the enemy of our friends must be an enemy—and therefore Communist. Trying to contain Communism involved the United States in wars in Korea and Vietnam. Cold War perspectives blinded leaders in the USA to complex historical and political realities in other places—especially western Asia, given the growth of Muslim political self-awareness and opposition to the state of Israel. Even inside the United States freedoms were curtailed because of fear that some citizens might be Communist sympathizers. A more detailed look at the nuances of that time shows mistakes that were made. In spite of those mistakes, the free world prevailed against the Communist world in the Cold War, not because it was richer or stronger, but because its ideas were better. J.