Many historians believe the Cold War was inevitable, and there were several major events in 1949 that set it in motion. The 1949 Cold War events discussed here were hastened by a mutual distrust between two allies fighting against the Axis powers in WWII.
The Soviet Union abhorred America’s refusal to acknowledge the USSR as a legitimate international community years prior and equally scorned the United States for their late entry into the Second World War. Tens of millions of Russian citizens died, which with early US intervention, could have been prevented. This is what the USSR believed.
In an interview with H.G. Wells in 1934, later documented in 1937 while discussing Marxism vs. Liberalism, Stalin told Wells that, “You are wrong if you think that the Communists are enamored with violence.” America had long feared the bloody rule of Joseph Stalin’s communist approach toward his own country. Soviet expansion post-war in Eastern Europe over the course of the Cold War would set fire to America’s fear of the USSR conquering the world under a new tyrannical reign.
At the time, the USA and the USSR were the only superpowers equipped to subjugate the world. It was only a matter of time before the futility of the Cold War reigned down upon nations already struck by the debris of WWII. Though no large scale fighting took place directly between the warring parties, the Cold War was a battle of geopolitical tension and proxy wars.
In this post, we examine the ideological differences and what event caused the Cold War to spiral in 1949.
- Signing of the NATO Treaty (4th April 1949)
- Establishment of the Federal Republic of Germany (23rd May 1949)
- The first Soviet atomic bomb detonation (29th August 1949)
- Establishment of the People’s Republic of China (1st October 1949)
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization allied the North American and European countries as an intergovernmental military alliance. A system of collective defense, each members agreed to mutually defend another member in response to an attack from an external party. NATO set the stage for mass containment of the Soviet Union and their expansion of communism across Europe.
France and Britain had signed the Treaty of Dunkirk in 1947 which expanded to the Treaty of Brussels in 1948. These steps solidified the groundwork for NATO as multiple countries were tied into defense pacts against the spread of communism.
George F. Keenan and John Foster Dulles, American policymakers who heavily shaped foreign policy, acknowledged that the Cold War in its essence, was a war of ideas. This would be more apparent with the Soviet’s next move in May that same year.
After NATO, the Soviet reacted using its zone of occupation in Germany with the birth of the German Democratic Republic. Part of the Eastern Bloc, the country described itself as a socialist state of workers and peasants. The territory itself was occupied by Soviet forces and acted as a satellite state of the Soviet Union. Occupied authorities gave administrative authority to now German communist leaders and the state was in function through the Socialist Unity Party.
Under a communist economy, the country was heavily state-owned and controlled, including the teaching of Marxism-Leninism in schools becoming compulsory, as well as teaching Russian language as a vocation. Media in the Eastern Block was administered by the state and the communist party dictated its censorship as the media was subservient to communist rule.
Through Soviet propaganda, the USSR used Marxist philosophy to attack capitalism, spread through radio and television, ensuring citizens kept in line with communist ideals.
In opposition, Radio Free Europe imposed by the British Broadcasting Corporation (the BBC) and the Voice of America, the U.S government funded multimedia agency, created broadcasts aimed at Central and Eastern Europe to battle against communist propaganda. This was one of the 1949 Cold War events that proved vital in the demise of the communist system in the Eastern Bloc.
What event in 1949 caused concern among Americans? There are several, but historians argue the most terrifying event for the US was the Soviet atomic bomb detonation.
Five days after NATO took effect, the USSR performed its first nuclear test at Semipalatinsk, Kazakh SSR. A part of the Soviet Atomic Bomb project, the Soviets descended into classified research to develop nuclear weapons during World War II.
Soviets had long suspected the Allied powers were developing a nuclear power of their own after the suspicious silence of German, British and American scientists on the subject of nuclear fission discovered by Russian physicist, Georgy Flyorov. In a letter expressing his concern, Flyorov urged Stalin to begin the Soviet atomic bomb programme.
Advertising their power, the Soviets detonated the RDS-1, the nuclear bomb used in their first nuclear weapon test. The response from the West was horror. The US and Britain had suspected nuclear projects on the Soviet’s part but underestimated the scale of which the project had escalated until the test in Semipalatinsk.
President Harry S. Truman made this threat known to the public, a move which surprised and deflated the Soviets who hoped to keep their ongoing atomic programs secret. Truman announced, “We have evidence that within recent weeks an atomic explosion occurred in the U.S.S.R.”
A turning point in the Cold War, pressure was felt by the United States to pursue and accelerate their own development of the first hydrogen bomb.
What event caused the cold war to escalate in 1949? Most will point to the civil war in China which consequently led to an alliance between China and the USSR. Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army fought against Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang, the Nationalist Government of China that was then backed by the United States.
In the wake of the defeat, the Soviet Union and Mao Zedong became allies. During the Second Sino-Japanese war, Chiang Kai-shek’s party was weakened, thus giving Mao Zedong’s army the upper hand in the civil war against Kai-shek. Part of the communists’ triumph was becoming the voice of Chinese nationalism for peasants and varying groups in China.
The communist revolution fortified the People’s Republic of China coming into power on October 1st, 1949. China and the USSR, two powers of impressive size and military backing, were now united under communist mutuality.
The American atomic monopoly on the Soviets was at an end. Truman had to act fast on his containment policy. In order to prevent more counter revolutionary nationalist movements, the US expanded their containment to Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Summary of 1949 Cold War Events
The ideological warfare of 1949 would shape the coming proxy wars and their tragedies. Major powers would work through espionage to get ahead of one another, with international security under threat from all angles.
Looking back on a 1949 newspaper at the time and more headlines reporting on the year, public opinion on the escalation of the war was divided. If you wish to locate a specific Cold War headline from 1949, please contact our team at: [email protected].
With countries pitted for and others against another physical war, the geopolitical chess match was only just beginning.