"Mistrust between the superpowers was the most important cause of Cold War crises." Discuss, with reference to two crises, each chosen from a different region.

 From the May 2023 IBDP History Paper 2 exam 


 I'm most grateful to a former student for giving me her essay after paying the IBO for it to be returned with the examiner's comments. She received 13/15 for this essay:





The Cold War era, spanning from the end of the Second World War in 1945 to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, was characterised by ideological discord, military tension, and economic competition between the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. Two regional crises that vividly illustrate this period are the Cuban Missile Crisis in the Western Hemisphere (1962) and the Berlin Crisis in Europe (1961). Historians have posited numerous theories about the causes of these crises, often centring on themes like ideological differences, nuclear parity, economic factors, geopolitical circumstances, and, prominently, mutual mistrust between the superpowers. This essay will critically analyse the extent to which the latter factor – mistrust – was the principal cause of these two Cold War crises. 

In the wake of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, the Cuban leader Fidel Castro sought Soviet assistance to safeguard his revolutionary government from further American aggression. Consequently, in 1962, the Soviet Union covertly began deploying nuclear missiles to Cuba. The discovery of these missiles by American U-2 spy planes precipitated what is now known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. It's essential to note that the genesis of this crisis was multi-faceted. To begin with, ideological differences played a role. Communist Cuba, backed by the Soviet Union, was an ideological anomaly in the Western Hemisphere, dominated by the US, which pursued a policy of containment against the spread of Communism. This was a clear cause of tension. However, it was mistrust that amplified this tension to the point of crisis. Thomas G. Paterson, for instance, posits that the United States' vehement reaction to the missiles in Cuba was shaped significantly by its deep-seated mistrust of the Soviet Union. He argues that if not for this mistrust, America might have pursued more diplomatic solutions instead of the military blockade it implemented. Moreover, the nuclear arms race, a characteristic feature of the Cold War, was another crucial factor. The Soviet deployment of missiles in Cuba can be seen as a strategic response to the United States' placement of nuclear weapons in Turkey, a state on the Soviet periphery. This competitive behaviour was rooted in a mutual desire for military balance, but also deep mistrust. Both superpowers doubted each other's peaceful intentions, hence resorting to stockpiling weapons to deter potential aggression. It is clear that mistrust between the superpowers was a significant factor that catalysed the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, it was not the only cause. The crisis was the culmination of a complex mix of ideological differences, geopolitical strategies, and the ongoing nuclear arms race. Nevertheless, without the underpinning factor of mistrust, these other factors may not have escalated to the point of crisis.

The Berlin Crisis of 1961, culminating in the construction of the Berlin Wall, offers another case study to evaluate the role of mistrust between superpowers in precipitating Cold War crises. After the Second World War, Germany was divided into occupation zones controlled by the Allied powers, with the city of Berlin, deep inside Soviet-controlled East Germany, also divided. The issue of Germany, and Berlin in particular, remained a sticking point between the United States and the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War, with the divided city often being described as a "microcosm" of the Cold War itself. Here too, various factors contributed to the crisis. Firstly, ideological differences were starkly apparent. The division of Germany was a physical representation of the broader ideological split between communism and capitalism, and any crisis involving Berlin was thus, by default, an ideological clash. However, historian William Taubman highlights that mutual mistrust was a vital factor in the escalation of the Berlin Crisis. As he notes, the American refusal to acknowledge East Germany and its control over East Berlin was rooted in its mistrust of the Soviet Union's intentions. The U.S. perceived the establishment of East Germany and the subsequent Soviet control over half of Berlin as a veiled attempt to extend the sphere of communism, rather than a pragmatic response to post-war realities. Another aspect of mistrust manifested in the fear of the other's military capabilities. As historian Hope Harrison suggests, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was deeply concerned about the U.S. military presence in West Berlin, which he saw as a potential launching pad for aggression against East Germany and the wider Soviet bloc. The Soviet Union was still reeling from the memory of the devastating invasions it had suffered in both world wars, and therefore its fears were not entirely unfounded. The U.S., on the other hand, mistrusted the Soviet Union's control over East Berlin, seeing it as a dangerous sign of Soviet expansionism. Ultimately, it was these undercurrents of mistrust that turned an already tense situation into a crisis. Without mutual mistrust, the differing ideologies and contrasting visions for Germany's future may have led to negotiations or compromises, rather than the concrete and barbed wire division that came to symbolise the Cold War. Therefore, whilst mistrust was not the sole cause, it was a crucial catalyst in the Berlin Crisis of 1961.

Whilst it's clear from the previous discussions that mistrust played a significant role in both the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Berlin Crisis, it is worth scrutinising whether mistrust can be considered the most important cause. In addressing this, it is important to understand that mistrust was not an independent factor. Rather, it was inextricably linked with other causes like ideological differences, geopolitical ambitions, and the nuclear arms race. In other words, these factors often exacerbated mistrust, and mistrust, in turn, intensified these factors. Historian Odd Arne Westad argues that mistrust between superpowers was as much a product of the Cold War as it was a cause. Mistrust emerged and grew in the context of differing ideologies and competing national interests. As such, while mistrust was crucial in escalating tensions to the level of crisis, it would be overly simplistic to deem it the primary cause of these crises. On the other hand, historian John Lewis Gaddis posits that mistrust, while connected to other causes, had a unique role in shaping the course of the Cold War. He asserts that the superpowers' actions, such as the U.S. blockade during the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Soviet construction of the Berlin Wall, can be traced back to a fundamental lack of trust in the other's intentions. This perspective suggests that mistrust may indeed have been the most important cause of these crises. Hence, while it is clear that mistrust played a substantial role in the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Berlin Crisis, whether it can be considered the most important cause depends largely on one's historical interpretation.

The Cold War era was fraught with crises, two of the most prominent being the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Berlin Crisis. This essay has critically examined the role of mistrust between the superpowers as a cause of these crises. It is evident that mistrust was a significant factor in both crises. However, determining whether mistrust was the most important cause is more complex. Mistrust was deeply intertwined with other causes, including ideological differences, geopolitical considerations, and the nuclear arms race. These elements often worked synergistically, escalating Cold War tensions to the level of crisis. As historians like Odd Arne Westad have argued, mistrust was as much a product of these factors as it was a cause. However, other historians like John Lewis Gaddis have contended that mistrust had a distinct and critical role in shaping the course of the Cold War. From this perspective, mistrust can be seen as the most important cause of these crises, as it fundamentally shaped the superpowers' perceptions of each other and their subsequent actions. In conclusion, while it is clear that mistrust was a major factor in both the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Berlin Crisis, whether it can be considered the most important cause is a matter of historical interpretation. Regardless, the role of mistrust in these crises underscores the importance of trust in international relations. As these two crises demonstrate, when trust is lacking, even relatively minor incidents can quickly escalate into major crises, with potentially disastrous consequences.