U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War

Published: 2023/07/05 Number of words: 1152

The Cold War created a state of bipolarity that had no precedent in the modern system of states. The United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the two main actors of the international order thanks to the massive military, political and economic resources accumulated during World War Two (Walker, 1993, p. 63). The main argument put forward by this essay is that the political realities of the Cold War accentuated the trend for interventionism already present in US foreign policy since the end of the nineteenth century. The first part of the essay will focus on the main principles of interventionism applied by the United States during the Cold War and the motivations that underpinned its grand design for the post-war scenario. The second part of the essay explores the manner in which the principle of interventionism that underscored US foreign policy during the Cold War was applied in Western Europe.

The United States embarked on interventionist practices since the territorial expansionist drive that took place in the mid-nineteenth century, when the nascent nation succeeded in acquiring a substantial chunk of land from Mexico. The United States also exercised a great deal of interventionism in the Caribbean Basin and the Pacific, particularly in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War of 1898, when Washington remained in virtual political control of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines (Ignatieff, 2003, p. 62). At the forefront of American interventionism, there was the avowed interest in propagating values such as the democratic system of government and a free commercial environment. The Cold War accentuated these interventionist trends. The demise of Western Europe and Japan opened a window of opportunity for the dissemination of Communist ideals in the areas of the world that Washington considered to be its sphere of influence (Cohen, 1993, p. 38).

In the case of Western Europe, Washington adduced civilisational as well as economic reasons in order to promote the values of democratic rule and free market economics. The United States underlined its commitment to a more democratic international order, devoid of colonialism and protectionist practices (Gaddis, 2005, p. 81). Nevertheless, the main preoccupation of the United States during the Cold War was to secure a situation in which Washington would be able to keep away the influence of Communism from the “industrial perimeter” (Western Europe and Japan) and the Western Hemisphere (Crockatt, 1995, p. 58).

The devastation suffered by Western Europe and Japan during World War Two compelled the United States to intervene in the restoration of political and economic life in those areas of the world, which Washington deemed as its sphere of influence (Friedman, 2007, p. 71). The need to arrest the expansion of communism and to consolidate the position of the United States in the “industrial perimeter” of the world and the Western Hemisphere, prompted Washington to militarise its foreign policy and deploy a wide interventionist strategy during the Cold War (Friedman, 2007, p. 88). The political and economic reconfiguration of Western Europe after the end of World War Two. The main geopolitical aim of the United States during the Cold War was to secure the joining of the industrial resources of Western Europe to a free trade area financially backed by the United States (Crockatt, 1995, p. 141). The United States became one of the occupation powers in Germany, which allowed Washington the chance to create a Western European economic zone based on the close cooperation between West Germany (as it emerged after 1949) and France, Italy and the BENELUX countries (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg). These countries would strenghten their economic ties by establishing the European Common Market in the mid-1950s. By 1947, and bearing in mind the establishment of a Soviet bloc in eastern Germany/Europe, the United States sped up the economic recovery of Western Europe by extending financial aid in the form of the Marshall Plan (LaFeber, 2002, p. 116). The main motivation behind the entrenchment of a cooperative economic scheme in Western Europe was to avoid a situation in which this area of the world would reconstitute itself as an autarkic entity in direct competition with the United States (Leffler, 1999, p. 503). Since one of the main propellers of American foreign policy during the Cold War was to avoid the advent of another economic depression, the establishment of a free trade zone in Western Europe, capable of engaging in commerce with the United States, was of significant importance to Washington’s geopolitical aspiration in the aftermath of World War Two (Herrigan, 2011, p. 83). The United States also undertook to protect the security of Western Europe through the implementation of the Truman Doctrine (Cohen, 1993, p. 69). This entailed that any country menaced by Communist insurgency would be able to count on Washington’s help. The United States was influential in fending off the threat posed by Communist forces in Greece and Turkey during the 1940s and in averting the possibility of a takeover by the Communist Party in the French and Italian elections that took place after the end of World War Two (Hobsbawm, 1994, p. 85).

In conclusion, the political realities of the Cold War deepened the interventionist trend present in US foreign policy since the end of the nineteenth century, compelling the United States to embark on an imperialist drive geared towards protecting its sphere of influence in Western Europe, Japan and Latin America (Hoffman, 2010, p. 30). Washington’s approach to intervention in Western Europe was based on the forging of close economic, political and military links that would ultimately result in the reconfiguration of the region as an independent centre of power closely allied to the United States (Gaddis, 2005, p. 124). The Cold War did not necessarily alter the fundamental principles of American foreign policy. Instead, the political expediencies derived from the fight against Communism propagated the spectrum of interventionism that was already present in the Washington’s grand scheme of geopolitical thinking since the mid-nineteenth century.


Cohen, W. (1993) The Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations: America in the Age of Soviet Power, 1945-91, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Crockatt, R. (1995) The Fifty Years War: The United States and the Soviet Union in World Politics, 1941-1991, Routledge, London

Friedman, N.  (2007) The Fifty-Year War: Conflict and Strategy in the Cold War, Naval Institute Press, Washington, DC

Gaddis, J. L. (2005) The Cold War, Penguin Books, London

Herrigan, G. (2011) From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Hobsbawm, E. (1994) The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991, Michael Joseph, London

Hoffman, D. (2010) The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy, Anchor, New York

Ignatieff, M. (2003) Empire Lite, Vintage, London

LaFeber, W. (2002) America, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945–2002, McGraw-Hill, New York

Leffler, M., ‘The Cold War: What do we know now’?’, The American Historical Review, Vol. 104, No. 2 (Apr., 1999), pp. 501-524

Walker, M. (1993) The Cold War and the Making of the Modern World, Fourth Estate, London

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