Cold War Crises: Graded student examples

On this page, you will find sample essays for this section - comparing crises from different regions.

Causes of Crises

Essay One

Compare and contrast the causes of two crises each taken from a different region

The following essay was written by a final year IB student and it got into the top markband for Paper Two

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The late 1950s and early 1960s saw tensions between the USA and the USSR in the Cold War reach new heights. It was in these years that the Berlin Crisis of 1958 – 1961 and the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 brought the world to the edge of a nuclear war. Both crises were strongly influenced by the long-term tensions and competition that had been mounting since the end of the Second World War and both were affected by Khrushchev’s decisions. However, the crises differed in the extent of US responsibility in causing each situation and in the nature of the short-term causes.

The Berlin Crisis and the Cuban Missile crisis occurred within a few years of each other and hence at the same point in Cold War relations; tension had been growing since around 1946 and it was not yet clear how far each side could push the other. The rules of the cold war, which would become clearer after the Cuban missile crisis, were not yet in place and these factors help to explain the causes of both crises.  The 1950s had seen an intense arms and space race and by the late 1950s the Americans feared ‘a missile gap’. Eisenhower was using U2 spy planes which proved this ‘gap’ to be false but, nevertheless, the rivalry was intense and the shooting down of a U2 plane in 1960 and revelation of US spying caused a considerable increase in tension between the two countries. In addition, Eisenhower’s policy of ‘massive retaliation’ and increased reliance on nuclear weapons for dealing with crises indicated that there was no clear strategy on how to use nuclear weapons. Kennedy’s ‘counterforce’ strategy arguably was even more dangerous with its emphasis on the success of a first strike. Meanwhile both sides were developing new weapons and attempting to spread their influence globally. This atmosphere of high tension and the competition regarding the arms race and spheres of influence help to explain the long-term causes of these crises.

Khrushchev’s actions were key in causing both crises. In Berlin, having been pressurised by Ulbricht, he set a six month ultimatum in 1958 threatening to turn over control of access routes to the Western sectors of Berlin to the GDR. He backed down at this stage but when Kennedy became President he attempted to exploit Kennedy’s youth and apparent incompetence in foreign policy following the Bay of Pigs incident, bullying and threatening him at the Vienna Summit over Berlin in 1961. This forced a reaction from Kennedy who went on television to make a broadcast making it clear that the West would not leave Berlin. Similarly, it was Khrushchev who made the first move in Cuba, putting inter-mediate nuclear missile bases on the island. In so doing, Robert Beggs writes that ‘he stole a march on the Americans’ whose missiles already threatened the USSR from their bases in Turkey. Though, as Gaddis writes, his other aim was probably to prevent another US invasion of Cuba and thus preserve the Cuban revolution. Khrushchev underestimated the reaction of the Americans to having missiles in what was considered to be their ‘backyard’; thus again, he forced Kennedy to take a stand, once again causing a crisis.

In fact, Kennedy’s reaction was partly linked the situation in Berlin. At a loss to understand why Khrushchev would take the risk of putting missiles into Cuba, the Americans interpreted the action as part of a Soviet plan to put pressure on the West to get out of Berlin. As Tony Judt writes, ‘the officials in Washington thought that their Soviet opponents were playing a complicated game of diplomatic chess’. The possibility of a link between the crises resulted in further tension. Kennedy went on television to alert the US public about the Cuban threat and set up ExCom to deal with the threat and options to deal with Cuba included a nuclear strike on the island.

The USA’s reaction to Cuba indicate that the USA played more of a role in creating the crisis of 1962 than the Berlin crisis. Revisionist historians argue that Kennedy unnecessarily raised the Cuban episode to the level of crisis and confrontation, especially with his decision to make a public announcement about the missiles instead of carrying out behind the scenes diplomacy. As argued by David Horovitz, ‘missiles were to do with a question of political balance not strategic balance and therefore he subjected his people to unnecessary fear’. Such a perspective links Kennedy’s actions to gaining personal and national prestige and in winning the forthcoming mid-term elections. With the Berlin crisis, it could be argued that Kennedy’s actions in making it clear to Khrushchev that the West would not be forced out of Berlin made Khrushchev back down from his war threats and opt to build a wall instead which ended the crisis. However, Kennedy’s action in Cuba unnecessarily raised tension and fear world-wide and contributed to the cause of this crisis.

A further difference in the causes between these crises is that while the Cuban crisis was purely caused by Khrushchev pursing strategic and political aims, it was economic factors that primarily precipitated the Berlin crisis. While West Germany experienced a period of economic miracle, the GDR faced a disastrous economy caused by the spread of Ulbricht’s collectivisation and socialisation programmes. Many skilled workers moved from East Germany to West Germany via Berlin. Between 1945 and 1961 about one sixth of the East population emigrated; on 12th August 1961 alone, 40 000 refugees fled which had a devastating impact on the economy of East Germany. This is the main factor that led Ulbricht to pressurise Khrushchev to put pressure on the West and, ultimately, to build the wall. With Cuba, however, Khrushchev seems to have been acting on his own volition – not under pressure from Castro, and for strategic and political reasons i.e. to even up the strategic nuclear balance and to preserve the Cuban revolution.

In conclusion, both these crises were the impact of the tensions that had been building up since the end of the Second World War – the arms race and the battle for strategic superiority. Khrushchev’s actions were a key cause of both crises. In both, he was driven by the need to gain an edge over the Americans; however it can be argued that Kennedy’s actions also helped bring events in 1962 to a crisis point. A further contrast is that, while the cause of the Berlin crisis was arguably driven by pressure from Ulbricht and an economic crisis, the Cuban crisis was caused by Khrushchev acting along and for mainly political and strategic factors.

Compare and contrast the causes of two crises each taken from a different region

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