8.1A: Setting the Stage for the Cold War and Decolonization

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Learning Objective 8A

Explain the historical context of the Cold War of 1945.

Historical Development 1

Technological and economic gains experienced during World War II by the victorious nations shifted the global balance of power.

Historical Development 2

Hopes for greater self-government were largely unfulfilled following World War I; however, in the years following World War II, increasing anti-imperialist sentiment contributed to the dissolution of empires and the restructuring of states.


The end of World War II led to a new period in global history. The United States and the Soviet Union (headed by Russia) rose in power as old European empires broke apart and Europe’s global influence decreased. The following were the dominant forces shaping international events from the late 1940s to the early 1990s.

The Cold War

A nearly 50-year conflict that developed after World War II between the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union and its Allies. The United States and the Soviet Union avoided direct military conflict for fear that the war would go nuclear. As a result, the adversaries fought through a series of proxy conflicts. They supported opposing groups in these conflicts by providing money and military support but did not directly fight each other. 

COMPARISON: The American Soviet Disagreement  

The United States

Supported capitalist economic systems

The Soviet Union

Supported communist economic systems


A nearly 50-year period of conflict that developed after World War II in which anti-colonial movements successfully gained their freedom from European imperial control. Cold War proxy conflicts between the United States and the Soviet Union happened in many newly independent states.

The World at the End of World War II

The end of World War II led directly to the conditions that resulted in the Cold War.

WWII Result
Effect on start of Cold War
The war destroyed most industrial powers destroyed. Western Europe and Japan were the most devastated.
Only in the United States was the industrial infrastructure largely undestroyed. They exit the war in the strongest positions.
European colonies had now supplied soldiers and materials for two global European wars.
Anti-imperial movements from before World War I continued their struggle for independence. New independence leaders and movements also began. The United States and the Soviet Union sought to expand their influence, especially in newly independent nations.
Victorious nations developed new military technologies such as long-range bombers and nuclear weapons.
The global balance of powers shifted toward alliances led by major military powers.
The United States and England worried as Soviet-backed communist dictatorships rose to power in Eastern European territories Russia entered in World War II. They feared communism’s further expansion into western democracies.
Soviet support for new communist governments increased western suspicion of Soviet intentions and resulted in western nations advocating for anti-communist policies like the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan.
After being attacked by Germany twice in three decades, the Soviet Union worried Western European powers would again attack Russia. They sought weapons and Russian-friendly governments along their borders to prevent future attacks.
Russia added new East European communist states to the Soviet Union to create a buffer between Western Europe and the Russian border.