The Cold War – Ideology or Power?

The Cold War was an ideological conflict to a minor, but nonetheless relevant extent. While ideology, be it communism or capitalism & democracy, were exclaimed as the be-all and end-all by both parties throughout the duration of the Cold War, many times were used as convenient justifications for a state’s actions which, behind closed doors, was very much a traditional power-play between the superpowers of the world, and the acquisition of geo-strategic assets for these ‘superstates’. Both parties were more than happy to throw away their ideology in favour of power, in some shape or form – as seen in cases of both US and USSR aggression throughout the late half of the 20th century. However there were times during the Cold War when it was genuinely ideological, be it for better – such as the Space Race, or for worse – such as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

On the 19th August 1953, democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran Mohammad Mosaddegh was overthrown via a coup d’état. This coup was orchestrated by none other than the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency at the request of the United Kingdom and the British Secret Intelligence Service, when the British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) (now British Petroleum) had their assets nationalised by the Iranian government, and their representatives expelled from the country when the government sought to audit the company’s accounts. This coup resulted in the presiding monarch, the Shah, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, to rule more firmly over the state, and become more preoccupied with politics. Pahlavi relied heavily on the United States to hold power, and acted very much in the United State’s interests. The 1953 Iranian coup d’état is just one example of how willing both the United States and the United Kingdom were so abhorrently willing to betray freedom, democracy and liberty, when an extremely profitable western corporation starts seeing a dip in their profit margin due to the legal legislation of a democratic government, and install a pro-West, undemocratic, right-wing de facto dictator as a puppet in the West’s interests. This is not the only time a CIA-led coup d’état has overthrown an anti-US democratic government to install a pro-West dictator.

The 1954 Guatemalan coup d’état overthrew the democratically elected President Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán on the 18th – 27th June 1954. This coup was orchestrated in very similar circumstances, the United Fruit Company, a US corporation mainly dealing in banana farming in Guatemala, had their assets seized via a farmland acquisition program by the Árbenz government, which was then given to the peasants of Guatemala. This coup installed a right-wing military junta dictatorship under Carlos Castillo Armas, the first in a series of US-backed dictators to rule Guatemala.

The 1973 Chilean coup d’état did the same. However the President of Chile, Salvador Guillermo Allende Gossens, was an unapologetic socialist, and a legitimate argument could be made that during the Cold War, and the obsessive tribalism of communism versus capitalism climate, that ideology was the driving force behind the coup. But, as in the other coups led by the CIA, the US knew exactly what it was doing, and would overthrow any government, regardless of ideology. US aggression proves that the Cold War was very much a power-struggle, with the US willingly instilling pro-US right-wing dictators to gain power and influence.

The United States is not the only party to betray their ideology for power. The Union of Soviet Socialists Republics was very happy to quash uprisings in Eastern Bloc nations to stop them from leaving the Warsaw Pact. In both the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, where Soviet forces rolled into Hungary resulting in 2,500 Hungarians dead, and another 200,000 fleeing; and the 1968 Prague Spring, in which Alexander Dubček wanted to “build an advanced socialist society on sound economic foundations… a socialism that corresponds to the historical democratic traditions of Czechoslovakia”, which included liberalisation reforms, such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of movement, and cooperation with Western nations; resulted in 200,000 Soviet troops and 2,000 Soviet tanks invading the nation, with little resistance. For an ideology which preaches equality, equity and fairness, the USSR should have respected the choice of both Hungary and Czechoslovakia to go their separate ways. But due to the Soviets fearing a domino effect of Eastern Bloc nations removing themselves from the Warsaw Pact and the USSR’s authoritarian version of ‘communism’, saw any revolution crushed with force.

The building of the Berlin Wall created a barrier that divided Berlin from 1961 to 1989. Constructed by the Soviet-controlled, German Democratic Republic, it completely cut off East Germany from West Germany. The barrier was heavily fortified, guarded and defended. The wall served to prevent mass emigration and defection to West Germany. Prior to the erection of the wall, 3,500,000 East Germans circumvented Eastern Bloc emigration restrictions. Between the period of 1961 and 1989, 5,000 died attempting escape. Here the Soviets have admitted their own hypocrisy, they knew the tyrannical conditions they imposed that made even their own citizens want to leave, so they had to stop them from emigrating, by force, in complete contradiction to the egalitarianism and statelessness that communism preaches.

The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was a tense 13-day confrontation between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics & Cuba over Soviet nuclear ballistic missiles deployed in Cuba, that were in range of major American cities. The United States established a military blockade to prevent further missiles from entering Cuba, demanding the dismantling of offensive nuclear weapons in Cuba. After tense negotiations, an agreement was reached, that Soviet nuclear missiles will be removed from Cuba and that secretly, US-build nuclear weapons in Turkey and Italy, in range of the USSR and other Eastern Bloc nations, would also be removed. The hypocrisy of the United States to permit nuclear weapons in Italy and Turkey but what, in Nikita Khrushchev’s eyes, would have been levelling the playing field by having weapons in Cuba, was not permissible. The United States was so entrenched on having a military advantage on the Soviets that almost brought us to mutually assured destruction. However, had it not been for Ideology, the negotiations of who is going to back down first and make their ideology look weak in front of the world, would have been nowhere near as tense. The Cuban Missile Crisis is a case where the Cold War was very much driven by both ideology and power.

The monolithic Space Race was a competition between the Soviets and the Americans for supremacy in spaceflight capability. The technological superiority required for such supremacy was seen as necessary for national security and symbolic of ideological superiority. The Soviets were initially beating the US with the orbit of Sputnik 1, and the first human in space – cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, but were eventually beaten with the United States’ moon landing of Apollo 11. The Space Race was a period of intense ‘flag waving’ and nationalism for both sides of the Cold War to symbolise ideological superiority. The Space Race would have to be one of the most ideologically driven cases in the Cold War. However, there was a subtle hint of power also. With the United States’ technological superiority in spaceflight capability and massive armament of nuclear missiles, the ballistic missiles that harmlessly ventured the skies and space today could be nuclear missiles for the Soviets tomorrow.

Whilst the Cold War was majorly driven by power, the presence, relevance and importance of ideology should not be discounted. While, for the most part, ideology was used as a convenient excuse to justify actions driven by power, there were moments when the Cold War was genuinely fueled by ideology for some, the obsession of tribalism, that it was us versus them, that mine is better than yours – for better or for worse. The Cold War was one of the most significant events in shaping the modern-day world today as we know it, and in defining the contours of the 21st century.

Ethan James Hunt
VCE 20th Century History Unit 1
Nicholas Melaisis
Catherine McAuley College

20/20 marks
90 minutes allocated time

A4 summary sheet allowed

To what extent was the Cold War an ideological conflict?

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