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Origins of the Cold War: Yalta and Potsdam

Origins of the Cold War: Yalta and Potsdam

Author: Sophia Tutorial

Categorize the agreements made at Yalta and Potsdam

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what's covered
The alliance that had made the United States and the Soviet Union partners in defeating the Axis Powers fell apart as World War II ended. Divisions between the two nations stemmed primarily from their differing views of the future of Europe, and the world. The war left industrialized European nations, including Great Britain, France, and Germany, devastated. This contributed to the growth of independence movements in their African and Asian colonies. The only remaining great powers were the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. They spent the next several decades locked in a struggle for military, economic, technological, and ideological supremacy known as the Cold War.

This tutorial examines the origins of the Cold War in three parts:

  1. Death, Destruction, Dislocation, and Decolonization
  2. Dividing the Postwar World
  3. The Origins of Containment

1. Death, Destruction, Dislocation, and Decolonization

  • Death

World War II took a tremendous toll on the world’s population. Estimates of the total number of military and civilian deaths range between 60 and 80 million people, making it the deadliest conflict in human history.

did you know
Approximately four percent of the global population (roughly two billion people at the time) died during World War II.

A photograph of dead American soldiers following an assault on Tarawa Atoll in the central Pacific (November, 1943). Over 900 American marines died during the battle, while the Japanese lost over 4,000 men.

Because fighting took place exclusively in Europe and the Pacific region, the U.S. suffered very few civilian casualties, as shown in the graph below. American servicemen who died during the war served their nation proudly and bravely. However, when U.S. casualties are placed in a global context, it is clear that few Americans were touched by the death and devastation that affected millions of individuals elsewhere.

  • Destruction

In addition to experiencing relatively light casualties, the United States left World War II with its infrastructure and economy intact. The same could not be said for its allies and the former Axis Powers.

The movement of armies across Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific region laid waste to significant portions of the world. Urban combat (in Stalingrad, Leningrad, and other locations), and the Allied bombing of Germany and Japan, leveled cities, destroyed railroads and bridges, and obliterated factories.


During the spring and summer of 1945, the U.S. used “firebombing”, or the dropping of incendiary bombs containing gelatinized gasoline, against Japan. This air campaign destroyed significant portions of Tokyo and other Japanese cities, and killed approximately 900,000 people. More than 8 million people were left homeless.

U.S. B-29 bombers drop incendiary bombs on Japan in 1945. Entire city blocks in Tokyo were wiped out by American bombing campaigns during World War II.

  • Dislocation and Decolonization

Americans waited eagerly for U.S. soldiers to come home. However, many people in Europe did not have homes or, in some cases, even a country to return to.

A major refugee crisis existed at the end of the war in Europe. The Allies also had to establish new governments and, when necessary, re-draw national boundaries in areas formerly occupied by Nazi Germany. The Holocaust — Hitler’s plan to exterminate European Jews in concentration camps — resulted in the deaths of 11 million people and displaced millions more.

In Africa and Asia, groups opposed to colonial rule used the end of the war as an opportunity to seek independence.


In September of 1945, Vietnam, which had been a French colony since the 19th century, declared independence. In 1946, the U.S. granted independence to the Philippines.

In some cases, the rise of nationalist movements indicated the weakness of France, Great Britain, and other colonial powers following World War II. Given their postwar condition, these nations sometimes gave in to independence movements following prolonged negotiations.


In 1947, Great Britain granted independence to India and established the nation of Pakistan.

In other instances, these nations tried to retain control of their colonies. France refused to recognize Vietnamese independence. Instead, it attempted to reassert control of the region. France was opposed by a nationalist movement led by Ho Chi Minh.

A map of Africa and Asia during decolonization.

The re-establishment of governments in Europe, combined with decolonization in Africa and Asia, fueled the rivalry between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Both countries viewed postwar turmoil as an opportunity to expand their strategic interests and ideologies.

2. Dividing the Postwar World

The tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union that led to the Cold War began during World War II.

term to know
Cold War
The prolonged period of tension between the United States and the Soviet Union following World War II

During the war, Joseph Stalin, the premier of the Soviet Union, expressed frustration with the apparent unwillingness of the United States to establish a “second front” against Nazi Germany in Europe.

term to know
“Second Front”
Also known as the "western front", the Allied offensive launched in western Europe to divide Germany's armed forces between fighting the Allies in France and in the Soviet Union

Because the U.S. and its allies did not open the “second front” until the D-Day invasion, Stalin believed that the Soviet Union bore the brunt of the conflict against Germany.

term to know
June 6, 1944; the date of the invasion of Normandy, France, by Allied forces, which established a second front in Europe

Differences in the wartime objectives of both countries became clear in 1945, when Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill met at the Yalta Conference to discuss the future of Europe and the postwar order.

term to know
Yalta Conference
Meeting of Allied leaders in February of 1945, during which the U.S. and Great Britain acceded to Soviet dominance of eastern Europe

At the time of the Yalta Conference, the Red Army was pushing German forces back towards Berlin. The Soviets occupied vast portions of eastern Europe that were abandoned by the retreating Germans. British and American forces had liberated France and were moving into Germany from the west. Roosevelt, who was elected to an unprecedented fourth term as President the previous November, was visibly ill during the meeting.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill, President Franklin Roosevelt, and Premier Joseph Stalin met at Yalta in February of 1945 to discuss plans for defeating Nazi Germany.

The discussions at Yalta took the Soviet Union’s strong position in eastern Europe and its sacrifices during the war into account. Stalin was determined to expand Soviet influence into Poland and other eastern and southern European nations by establishing pro-Soviet communist governments in them. He believed that these countries would help to protect the U.S.S.R. from future invasion by Germany.

Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to allow the communist government that the Soviets had installed in Poland to remain until the war in Europe was over. Free elections were to be held at that time. Stalin reaffirmed his commitment that the Soviet Union would join the U.S. in the war against Japan after Germany surrendered. He also agreed that the U.S.S.R. would join the United Nations, an international peacekeeping body organized in 1944, that replaced the League of Nations.

The Yalta conference left several questions unanswered, including what to do with Germany following its surrender. Allied leaders decided to postpone discussion on that issue until they could address it at a future conference. President Roosevelt did not live long enough to participate in that discussion: he died on April 12, 1945. Harry S. Truman succeeded him as President of the United States.

When Germany surrendered in May of 1945, Allied leaders met to decide its future at the Potsdam Conference.

term to know
Potsdam Conference
Meeting of Allied leaders in July of 1945, during which they agreed to divide Germany into four zones of occupation, and insisted on the unconditional surrender of Japan

At the postwar conference in Potsdam, Germany, Harry Truman stands between Joseph Stalin (right) and Clement Atlee (left). Atlee had replaced Winston Churchill as Prime Minister of Great Britain.

Stalin, Truman, and Churchill (the outgoing British Prime Minister), along with Clement Atlee (the new British Prime Minister) attended the conference. Truman arrived in Potsdam troubled by Soviet actions in Europe. He disagreed with the concessions that had been made to Stalin at Yalta, which enabled the Soviet Union to control eastern Europe.

During the conference, the Allied leaders finalized plans to divide Germany into four occupation zones to be controlled by Britain, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union. The three occupation zones controlled by Britain, France, and the United States collectively became West Germany, while the occupation zone controlled by the Soviet Union became East Germany. The city of Berlin was also split into four occupation, and the United States. Berlin was also split into four sectors, with Britain, France, and the United States controlling West Berlin, and the Soviet Union controlling East Berlin.

During the Potsdam conference, leaders of the Allied powers divided Germany and the city of Berlin into zones of occupation.

The Allies agreed to dismantle Germany’s heavy industries and prosecute Nazi officials who had engineered the Holocaust. They also acquiesced to Stalin’s request that Germany pay reparations to the Soviet Union. In addition, the Allies declared that they would only accept the unconditional surrender of Japan.

When Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945, following the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Allies divided the Japanese colony of Korea along the thirty-eighth parallel. The U.S.S.R. gained control of the northern half of the Korean Peninsula, while the U.S. oversaw the southern portion.

3. The Origins of Containment

Geopolitical strategies and economic differences were at the root of growing tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviets wanted to expand their influence in eastern Europe. After having been invaded by Germany during both world wars, Stalin hoped that eastern European nations allied with the Soviet Union (referred to as the Eastern Bloc in the West) would provide protection if Germany reemerged as a military power. He also believed that the Eastern Bloc would serve as a laboratory for the development of communism as a political and economic alternative to capitalism.

term to know
Eastern Bloc
Eastern European nations ruled by communist governments installed at the end of World War II, which were allied with the Soviet Union during the Cold War

Map of the Soviet Union and the eastern European nations — known as the Eastern Bloc — that fell under its influence during the Cold War.

The United States emerged from World War II as an undisputed global power. Thanks to wartime mobilization, the American capitalist economy rose from the depths of the Great Depression. As other European nations lay devastated after the war, the U.S. became a global financial and economic center. The U.S. was also a potent military power — the only country that had produced functional atomic weapons.

Given the American economic situation, the devastation in Europe, and the rise of the Soviet Union, American policymakers knew that the U.S. could not withdraw from the world stage. It had to remain actively engaged in global affairs. Considering its recent accomplishments — successful mobilization for World War II, effective support of its Allies, and the defeat of the Axis Powers — Americans were confident that the nation could address the challenges posed by the Soviet Union.

In February of 1946, George Kennan, a State Department official stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, sent an 8,000-word message to Washington that reinforced American suspicion of the Soviet Union and supported increased American participation in global affairs. In what became known as the “Long Telegram”, Kennan claimed that the U.S.S.R. wanted to continue its control of eastern Europe. He described the Soviet Union as an aggressive, expansionist, and totalitarian bureaucracy that would not coexist peacefully with the U.S.

Kennan proposed a strategy known as containment, in which the United States would limit Soviet influence to places where it already existed, and prevent its expansion to new areas. He believed that communism was an unworkable political and economic system, and that active containment would lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union. This strategy served as the basis of U.S. foreign and military policy throughout the Cold War.

term to know
The U.S. strategy that sought to limit the expansion of Soviet communism during the Cold War

U.S. containment policy was based on an assumption that the post-war world was divided between two spheres of influence: one capitalist, the other communist. This assumption was reflected in maps like the one above, which was printed in a number of periodicals and magazines during 1950.

think about it
  1. How does the map above reinforce the assumptions of containment?
  2. How does this map attempt to convince Americans to support containment?

In addition to showing the close proximity of the U.S.S.R. to the U.S., the map indicates that communism was ready to expand into Asia and other regions that were currently being decolonized. The United States and the Soviet Union — each convinced that its own economic system and political ideology was superior to the other’s — competed for opportunities to influence the outcomes of decolonization. The Soviet Union encouraged communist revolutions in China and elsewhere. The United States opposed communist influence by forming alliances with European, Asian, African, and Latin American nations, and by helping them establish or expand prosperous, free-market economies.

Throughout their decades-long struggle for economic and ideological supremacy, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. did not confront each other militarily. The Cold War was fought in other ways — including espionage and surveillance; political assassinations and government overthrow; and propaganda. The Cold War also involved an arms race, as both countries stockpiled powerful weapons. It was a time of American and Soviet intervention in developing countries around the world, sometimes with disastrous and destabilizing effects.

World War II left death, destruction, and dislocation in its wake. Weakened by years of fighting, European nations were often unable to prevent independence movements in Africa and Asia from achieving decolonization in those regions. Within this context of destruction and opportunity, the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as major players on the world stage. Wartime disputes between the two nations over strategy and postwar affairs continued in the Cold War, in which the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. competed for economic and ideological supremacy. Following its victories in World War II, the United States developed a strategy of containment to limit the influence of communism.

This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D

Source: Image of the aftermath of Tarawa, 1943, PD,, Image of B-29 bombers dropping incendiary bombs over Japan, 1945, PD,, Image of Tokyo in the aftermath of American bombing campaigns, 1945, PD,, Map of the Eastern Bloc, PD,, “Two Worlds, 1950,” Cornell University – PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Cartography., Derived from Openstax tutorial 28.2, 27.3, and 27.4 Some sections edited or removed for brevity.

Terms to Know
Cold War

the prolonged period of tension between the United States and the Soviet Union following World War II.


June 6, 1944; the date of the invasion of Normandy, France, by Allied forces, which formally opened a second front in Europe.

Eastern Bloc

a collection of eastern European nations that featured communist governments and were allied to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Potsdam Conference

meeting of Allied leaders in July 1945, during which they agreed to divide Germany into four zones of occupation and insisted upon the unconditional surrender of Japan.

Yalta Conference

meeting of Allied leaders in February 1945, during which the United States and Great Britain acceded to Soviet dominance over eastern Europe.


the U.S. strategy that sought to limit the expansion of Communism abroad during the Cold War.

“second front”

also known as the "western front," the Allied offensive launched in western Europe for the purpose of dividing Hitler’s armies between fighting the Allies in France and in the Soviet Union.

People to Know
George Kennan

U.S. State Department official and Soviet expert whose eight-thousand-word “Long Telegram” reinforced American suspicions toward the Soviet Union and laid the foundations for the Cold War American foreign policy of containment.

Harry S. Truman

democratic U.S president who took office after Franklin Roosevelt’s death in 1945 and remained in office until 1953; navigated the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan and the first years of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Joseph Stalin

leader of the Soviet Union from 1929-1953; member of the Allied Powers’ “Big Three” leaders

Winston Churchill

Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1940-1945 who led his country through World War II; member of the Allied Powers’ “Big Three” leaders.