The Origins of the Cold War, 1945–1949

Berliners watching a C-54 land at Berlin Tempelhof Airport, 1948
Photo caption

Berliners watching a C-54 land at Berlin Tempelhof Airport, 1948.

United States Air Force Historical Research Agency 

Since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Soviet leaders had been claiming that communism and capitalism could never peacefully coexist. Agreements regarding the postwar world were reached at Yalta and Potsdam, but the Soviets wasted no time in violating them. Harry Truman believed that the proper means of responding to an international bully was a credible threat of force. Thus Truman decided on a strategy known as "containment," in which the Soviets would be prevented—militarily if necessary—from using force to export their ideology abroad. Containment would, in fact, remain the cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy for the next fifty years. In this curriculum unit students will learn how the Cold War began, from the agreements reached at Yalta and Potsdam in 1945 through the formation of NATO in 1949.

Guiding Questions

Why did wartime cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union collapse in 1945–46?

What was "containment" and how was it applied in 1947–48?

Why did the United States formally commit itself to the defense of Europe by joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization?

To what extent was containment a successful policy?

Learning Objectives

Analyze the motives for and outcomes of the Yalta and Potsdam Agreements.

Analyze the origins of the strategy of containment and evaluate its implementation.

Evaluate the arguments forwarded by supporters and critics of the containment policy.

Explain the origins of the Truman Doctrine and how it fit into the strategy of containment.

Explain the origins of the Marshall Plan and how it fit into the strategy of containment.

Analyze the reasons for implementing the Berlin Airlift and evaluate the outcomes.

Evaluate the role of international alliances at the outset of the Cold War.