Analysis of the Four Critical Stages in the Cold War
Immediately after Japan surrendered unconditionally to the forces of the Anti-Hitler Coalition in September 1945, marking the end of the most slaughterous war ever seen, former allies the US and the USSR entered a protracted geopolitical confrontation. The post-bellum period in international relations was characterized by mounting tensions that often degenerated into murderous proxy wars in the marginal countries. Ideological rivalry was not just an outgrowth of the Cold War but its basis. Both the US and the Soviet Union spread their ideological tentacles into every nook and cranny of the world with the aim to gain new satellites and allies. Whereas Iran was seen largely as a Cold War client of the US, China was too big and powerful to be referred slightingly to as a satellite or client. Thus, the two superpowers sought to establish a mutually profitable partnership with this country. It is hard to pinpoint four turning points that defined the Cold War, because such turning points were legion. The present paper essays to find out what events had the greatest influence on the tide of the Cold War and segues into a disquisition of how China and Iran impacted them. The bottom line is that the Cold War was a tumultuous period in the history of international relations characterized by, inter alia, the potentially combustible attempts on the part of the US and the USSR to seize control over crucial foreign territories.
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Before embarking on the full-dress discussion of the four main stages that defined the Cold War, it would be logical to mention that different scholars single out different episodes, depending on the criteria. A kaleidoscopic change of circumstances on the international scene was conducive to the development of the atmosphere of mutual distrust. Foremost among the events that occurred during the Cold War were the Berlin blockade, the Korean War, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the Vietnam War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Berlin Crisis of 1961, The Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Soviet War in Afghanistan and many other. The magnitude of these events was truly impressive, and they had a considerable impact on the course of the Cold War. However, if one has to determine four major stages of the Cold War, it is necessary to take into account longer episodes like the period of détente, which, to the boot of that all, overlapped with Sino-American rapprochement. Thus, with the caveat that all the aforementioned events had a serious impact on the course of the Cold War, the following stages can be singled out: the early Cold War, the Sino-Soviet split, the period of détente, and the end of the Cold War. Below is the succinct analysis of each stage.
The Early Cold War
The US and the USSR emerged from World War II as the most powerful economic, military, and political countries in the world (McMahon 3). Naturally, they soon transmogrified from allies into geopolitical rivals and vied for influence over smaller Third World countries. By the same token, they tried conclusions with each other to win the allegiance of other powerful states, such as China. The first crisis was over Germany, as the members of the Anti-Hitler Coalition could not work out a permanent settlement on the country’s future. Stalin considered the Marshall Plan as a straight threat to his interests in Germany and responded by ratcheting up the pressure on other East European governments (McMahon 30). The Berlin crisis spawned two contending alliances – NATO and the Warsaw Pact – led by the US and the Soviet Union respectfully. With the establishment of these organizations, Europe turned into a cockpit of Soviet-American confrontation, which was further intensified by the fact that the two camps possessed nuclear weapons.
The US forged ahead of the Soviet Union by creating another military alliance, namely the South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). The organization pursued the same goals as NATO did and sought to hem Soviet aggression to the south and east. Although neither China nor Iran partook in SEATO, they both remained important pieces on the geopolitical chessboard on the initial stage of the Cold War. The Iran-Azerbaijan Crisis of 1946 was one of the earliest litmus tests of power between the Soviets and the Americans in the postwar world. Prompted by desire to retain a sphere of influence in Iran and win oil concessions from the local government, the USSR refused to withdraw its troops from the country within the previously agreed time limit (Kinzer 65). A diplomatic confrontation ensued, but the US managed to expel the Soviets and establish political patronage over Iran. Thus, Iran remained an American client state throughout the early years of the Cold War. The communist China did not participate in the Warsaw Pact as well, but it enjoyed a cordial relationship with the USSR (Benson 24). Having subjugated the fledgling People’s Republic of China, the Soviets got embroiled in another confrontation with the US over the fate of the Korean Peninsula. However, the clash between the communist East and capitalist West did not come to a grinding halt after the end of the Korean War and the struggle continued in Southeast Asia, as the protracted Vietnam War erupted.
The Sino-Soviet Split
When the People’s Republic of China declared its independence on 1 October 1949, the USSR hastened to recognize it. The nascent communist state led by Mao Zedong made fraternal relations with the USSR the cornerstone of its foreign policy. In the early 1950s, Sino-Soviet relationship was built on trust, as the two countries subscribed to the same political ideas and ideological beliefs. Moreover, China took solid comfort of the financial and political backing of the USSR (Benson 24). The Western powers were afraid that the specter of communism stalking Asia could soon trespass on the countries of the democratic world and, thus, attempted to counter the chimerical “Sino-Soviet monolith”. In essence, the fears of the Western political pundits were largely unsubstantiated, while the reasons that hindered Sino-Soviet reconciliation were numerous. Foremost among the challenges to the closer integration of the two countries was the interference of the Communist Party of the USSR into the revolutionary process in the PRC. Of course, the PRC looked up to the Soviet Union and tried to emulate its example, but the excessive officiousness on the part of the Soviets jarred the Chinese leadership. What is more important, mistrust and competition between the two communist giants jarred the whole international community, because they “formed an increasingly destabilizing factor in international relations” (McMahon 81).
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Mao thought that the policy of de-Stalinization could send a negative signal to the Chinese people and jeopardize his own cult of personality. The ambitions of the Chinese Chairman came into collision with those of Nikita Khrushchev, thereby abrading the bilateral relations between the two countries. In some of his speeches, Khrushchev inveighed against Mao. Thereby broadening the already yawning chasm between the USSR and the PRC. The Chinese authorities dismissed Khrushchev’s policies as revisionist and oppressed his followers, including Liu Shaoqi. To express its discontent with the course of Mao, the Soviet Union suddenly recalled its specialists from China in 1960. The Sino-Soviet split culminated with the March 1969 border clashes in the proximity of Zhenbao Island on the Ussuri River, which plunged the relations between the two countries in a protracted crisis. According to McMahon, “the increasingly virulent Sino-Soviet split had just emboldened Beijing’s leaders, making them more, rather than less, aggressive, adventuristic, and unpredictable” (101). The US took advantage of the souring Sino-Soviet relations and began to make clumsy, albeit persistent, overtures of friendship to the PRC (McMahon 127). In 1972, Richard Nixon became the first American President to have visited the PRC. Mao, who previously deemed the US to be China’s main geopolitical foe, agreed to give an audience to President Nixon, and the meeting made the thaw in relations possible. Returning back to the years of the Sino-Soviet split, it is significant to note that the role of Iran in international relations during this time was largely limited. The Chinese leadership deemed Iran a strategic bastion to expanded Soviet influence and, thus, provided it with the necessary materiel.
The Period of Détente
Nixon’s trip to China is important because it signaled a new era in the history of Sino-American relations and reinforced the effects of a policy of détente. As the ideological altercation between the Soviet Union and China escalated into a major political conflict, the need to drive a wedge between the two communist leviathans disappeared and the US started making conciliatory noises towards the USSR. The USSR, on the other hand, liked the idea of defusing the tensions with the US because of its souring relations with China. The period of détente commenced in 1969 with the thawing of the geopolitical tensions between the two superpowers. Interestingly, détente began despite the raging Vietnam War. The early détente period was characterized by several initiatives, including reinvigorated discussions on arms control. As the ongoing nuclear arms was eviscerating the budget of both superpowers, they decided to phase it out.
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According to McMahon, “détente offered no respite to America’s travails in Indo-China”, foiling Nixon’s attempts to use rapprochement with both Beijing and Moscow as a mechanism that would allow him to escape from Vietnam with unscathed honor (135). Nevertheless, the decision of the Nixon Administration to pursue a détente with the USSR appeared to be a face-saving formula, which allowed it to both avoid ignominy and limit future conflicts. By the end of the 1970s, cracks had begun to appear in the precarious Soviet-American relationship. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 threw the bilateral relations between the two superpowers into a state of complete disarray, or, in metaphorical terms, sounded the death knell for détente (McMahon 141). Approximately at the same time, the Iranian Revolution administered the coup de grace to American dominance in the region. In fact, the tumult in Iran had been brewing for years before it reached the climax in 1979, as Iranian revolutionaries denounced both the rule of the Shah and the protectorate of the US (Khater 287), notwithstanding the fact that the country was receiving astonishing oil revenues (Milani 161). The Iran hostage crisis of 1979 that took place with the tacit acquiescence of Ayatollah Khomeini culminated in the severance of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Just when the US established official relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1979, a policy of détente ended in a fiasco.
The End of the Cold War
The Cold War began to deescalate in the middle 1980s, well before the Soviet Union fell apart. Since coming to power in 1985, the reform-minded leader Mikhail Gorbachev had been pursuing a friendly policy towards the country’s former adversary, thereby producing a lull in hostilities (Gorbachev 232). Additionally, in the aftermath of the 10-year long war in Afghanistan, the USSR could not pose a significant threat to the US national interests anymore. The only tangible benefit that the disintegrating Soviet Union derived from the end of the Cold War was a reestablishment of good bilateral relations with China in 1989. A revolutionary wave that rippled through Eastern Europe in 1989 put an end to Soviet hegemony in the region, and the hitherto-powerful empire started to crumble (McMahon 165). Meanwhile, the Washington Government began to promote its image of a single superpower on the globe. Although the US reestablished relations with Iran in 1984 and supported this country economically and militarily during the Iran-Iraq War, it did not want to see Iran transform into a regional power. To this end, it had been imposing sapping sanctions on Iran’s economy throughout the late 1980s and 1990s. The post-Cold War thrust of the American foreign policy stirred up hostility towards the US among Muslim people in the Middle East in general and Iran in particular.
The present paper has shown that the history of the Cold War was replete with examples of the US locking horns with the USSR to establish control over new spheres of influence. For the purposes of this paper, four stages have been singled out: the early Cold War, the Sino-Soviet split, the period of détente, and the end of the Cold War. Time and again, the world teetered on the brink of nuclear annihilation, but wisdom prevailed over brute power in the long run. Concerning the role of Iran in the Cold War, it should be noted that the latter had acted largely as a client state of the US up to 1979, when the Islamic Revolution erupted. Apropos of China, its role in the Cold War was of more importance, as the US and the USSR vied for partnership-like relations with it. All in all, the Cold War changed the configuration of international relations for good.