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Setting the Stage

The Cold War was characterized by strained relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, but the two countries have not always been at odds with each other. Between 1741 and 1959, both countries had claims to Alaska and both played significant roles in the development of the territory.

Arriving soon after the first documented landfall by Europeans in Alaska in 1741, the Russians went to Alaska to hunt furbearing sea mammals, like sea otters and seals, so they could sell their pelts. The Russian emperor officially claimed Alaska as a Russian colonial territory in 1799. Two of Alaska’s major towns were created by the Russians -- Sitka and Kodiak. By 1867, the British had moved into Alaska from Canada, also in search of furs. This provided more competition than Russia wanted, so Russia sold Russian America to the United States for 7.2 million dollars.

Alaska remained an American territory from 1867 to 1959. The population boomed when gold was discovered in Alaska in 1869. The U.S. Army and Navy were dispatched to Alaska to develop a number of small garrisons, trails, roads, and communication systems associated with the mining districts. Alaska became a state in 1959.

After World War I, relations between the United States and Russia were touch-and-go. The Russian and Bolshevik revolutions in 1917 gave the United States some hope that Russia was headed towards democracy. The proletariat class supported the Bolsheviks, who pledged to restore the political and economic health of Russia, after centuries of czarist rule. The United States remained skeptical that Russia’s new government would lead to democracy but still entered into full diplomatic relations with the newly formed Soviet Union in 1933. Almost immediately, relations took a turn for the worse. In 1939, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany entered into the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact guaranteeing that the two countries would not attack each other and allowing for the Soviet invasion of the eastern provinces of Poland, Western Ukraine, and Western Byelorussia.

In 1941, the tables turned as Nazi Germany broke the Pact and invaded the Soviet Union. Intent on combatting the spread of Nazi fascist forces, the United States stepped in to support the Soviet Union. The U.S. sent the Soviet Union enormous quantities of materials under the Lend-Lease Act playing a critical role in helping the Soviet Union resist the Nazi onslaught. Relations between the United States and Soviet Union were solidified for the rest of World War II.

After World War II, relations between these two superpowers deteriorated and the nations spent the next 40-45 years "fighting" each other indirectly, as each country competed to spread their own forms of government throughout the developing world. The United States allied with governments that supported capitalism; the Soviet Union worked to spread communism. The beginning and ending dates of the Cold War are ambiguous. However, Winston Churchill’s 1946 Iron Curtain speech is often considered the opening event, and either the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989, or the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, are typically seen as a closing event.


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