East-West tension defined the Cold War, but its legacy is the victory of hope over fear
Authoritarianism. It was not at all unreasonable in 1949 to have feared the eventual triumph of authoritarianism: Democracy and capitalism had hardly enhanced their reputation during the 1930s, and the United States and Great Britain had defeated Nazi Germany in World War II only by collaborating with Stalin's Soviet Union. There were plenty of people who, during those difficult years of Depression and war, saw at least a short-term denial of liberties as a necessary evil and found a certain allure in a vision of socialism they hoped would overcome the shortcomings of capitalism. But as postwar economic recovery proceeded, it began to reward lateral rather than hierarchical forms of organization: Only the decentralized, largely spontaneous market system could make the millions of decisions required each day if the supply and demand of goods and services was to be kept in balance. And with freedoms so obviously suppressed in the authoritarian East even as they flourished in the democratic West, it became increasingly hard to see how coercion could ever lead to equity. It was no coincidence, then, that as the Cold War neared its end, democracies were replacing, rather than succumbing to, dictatorships. Or that the first modern examples of what Marx understood a proletarian revolution to be--a spontaneous mass movement led by workers and intellectuals, aimed at achieving liberty and justice--occurred only in Eastern Europe in 1989 and in the Soviet Union in 1991.
Spheres of influence. We can now see, as a consequence, that the spheres of influence the United States and the Soviet Union maintained in Europe were always asymmetrical: The first existed by invitation, the second by imposition. Stalin may well have expected the Europeans to welcome him as a liberator at the end of World War II, but when that did not happen--largely because his regime's reputation preceded its armies--he could establish his authority only by imposing it. But that caused the Europeans beyond his reach to invite the Americans to remain as a counterweight. Europe was divided, as a result, but there was dissimilarity in the division: Washington's sphere of influence arose by consent; Moscow's by denying it. That distinction made all the difference in how the Cold War came out, because it allowed the NATO countries to legitimize the American presence through free elections that repeatedly ratified it. No such opportunities existed within the Warsaw Pact: hence the ease with which it fell apart in 1989-90 when the only glue that had kept it together--Moscow's determination to use force--itself dissolved.
International communism. The consolidation of Soviet authority in Eastern Europe, together with Mao's victory in China, caused many Americans in 1949 to worry that the Kremlin commanded not only the traditional resources of a great state but also the subversive capabilities of a purposefully expansionist ideology. If Marxism-Leninism continued to advance as it had since the end of World War II, then the Western democracies could find themselves surrounded by hostile communist states. What happened instead, though, was that as communists took over states, the states took over the communists. Quarrels over how to align a common ideology with dissimilar national interests led first the Yugoslavs, and then the Chinese, and then the Poles, Hungarians, and Czechs, to challenge Moscow's authority. By the 1970s the American diplomat W. Averell Harriman could point out, with total accuracy, that it was the Soviet Union that now found itself surrounded by hostile communist states. And by the end of the 1980s, so little was left of the international communist movement that it was difficult to remember why the West had ever feared it in the first place.