Cold War summaries



Cold War summaries


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Cold War summaries


Cold War Historiography: New Evidence Behind Traditional Typographies

For Americans and many in the world, the Cold War dominated international relations from 1945-1991. Only the nuclear balance of terror prevented this uneasy peace from becoming all out war, and few if any events could be understood outside of the context of this bipolar rivalry. As the Cold War came to an end, some thought we had witnessed "an end to history."(1) Instead, we have witnessed a fundamental change in the logic of world politics. The United States has had difficulty developing a clear and coherent foreign policy in this new era. The New World Order of President Bush and the strategy of engagement and enlargement of President Clinton seem vague and ambiguous when compared to the clarity and simplicity of the American policy of containment during the Cold War. While this policy of containment rapidly gained a consensus both among the American foreign policy elite as well as the mass public after World War Il, it did represent a fundamental shift of relations with the Soviet Union from one of wartime cooperation. Explaining the origins of the Cold War has been one of the most common and contested topics in the study of American diplomatic history, and the end of the Cold War has changed how historians examine and interpret this period. Increasingly, scholars have gained access to documents, especially on the Soviet side, that have allowed them to go beyond past conjecture and utilize archival evidence. The end of the Cold War has removed much of the passion that surrounded writing Cold War history while scholars and states were still living it. This increased detachment has allowed historians to move from placing blame to recognizing the ideological conflict that was at the center of the Cold War's origins.
Reexamining the Origins of the Cold War
Traditionally, those who have offered explanations of the Cold War have been classified according to a three-fold typology.(2) Traditionalists were the defenders of the U.S. policy of containment who tended to blame the Soviets for the breakdown of friendly relations and the onset of the Cold War. These scholars dominated the historiography of the Cold War until the mid 1960s. By then, many came to question American innocence and blamed the Cold War on American economic imperialism or untrustworthy behavior during World War II. By the 1970s some scholars, labeled Post-revisionists, attempted to go beyond placing blame on either side and contended that misperception and miscalculation accounted for the beginnings of the Cold War. This categorization does not explain the actual historical interpretations of the Cold War's origins because traditional and revisionist accounts incorporate at least two different explanations. This article offers a more precise categorization and analysis than that provided in the traditional typology. In addition, I also take into consideration the most recent wave of Cold War historiography. A consensus is emerging that the Cold War was not caused by one side or the other but by the conflicting and unyielding ideologies of the United States and the Soviet Union. By identifying seven different historical explanations embedded in the literature and assessing the merit of each based on the historical evidence, this article demonstrates how progress has been made in accurately and more completely analyzing the origins of the Cold War.
#1 Soviet Expansionism: The Neurotic Bear
The first explanation of the origins of the Cold War was not developed by historians but by a policy-maker. Seldom has a single individual done so much to shape American foreign policy as George Kennan in his characterization of the Soviet Union as a paranoid and insecure power that exaggerated the external threats to justify internal repression and cautious expansion. His article, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," profoundly affected how policy-makers, the American people, and scholars viewed the Soviet Union. Kennan almost single-handedly transformed a former wartime ally into a nervous enemy that needed to be contained. Government officials quickly adopted Kennan's analysis in formulating U.S. foreign policy, and his ideological argument struck a familiar chord with many Americans.
Kennan's intent was not to blame the Soviets for the Cold War but to awaken American policy-makers to the nature of the Soviet threat in the postwar world. The Soviets' proclivity to expand was the result of a paranoid insecurity arising from the Bolsheviks' difficulty in consolidating their revolution of 1917. Kennan emphasized the need to be firm in containing the Soviet tendency to expand. Although Kennan's conception of containment was vague, political support to states near the Soviet border seemed to be the minimum requirement for a successful policy.(4)
Many have criticized Kennan's analysis of Soviet motives and his policy recommendations. C. Ben Wright, for example, has suggested that Kennan's policy of containment necessarily included the creation of military alliances to prevent Soviet expansion.(5) When Wright and others criticize Kennan, they typically choose to focus on his prescription for American policy, namely containment, not the fundamental assumptions underlying his analysis.(6) After his initial formulation of the U.S. containment policy, other interpretations of Soviet aggressive and expansionary tendencies emerged and quickly displaced Kennan's explanation with policy-makers and the mass public.
#2 Communist Ideology, Soviet Expansion, and World Revolution
Another frequently cited explanation of the Cold War claims that Soviet expansion was not a response to domestic insecurity but evidence of a sincere commitment to a more literal interpretation of communist ideology. At the end of the war the Soviets were bent on world revolution. The Soviets' rhetorical goals correspond to their actual foreign policy behavior. This means that the Soviets were trying to eliminate capitalism and create a monolithic communist world under their tutelage. Empire-building was different for the Soviets than it had been for the traditional imperialistic powers of the nineteenth century. The Soviets did not merely desire greater power and influence in the world, they sought to employ their power and influence to foster their ideological aspirations.
William Hardy McNeill was one of the first to posit that Stalin was fundamentally responsible for the beginning of the Cold War because he supported the spread of communism throughout the world. According to McNeill, once Stalin broke his promise to ensure popularly-elected governments in Eastern Europe, the United States could not trust him to cooperate. McNeill contends that there was no realistic chance for postwar peaceful cooperation between the Soviets and the Americans. Only the presence of a common enemy could keep the allies united. Stalin may have acted as a traditional Russian nationalist during the war to take advantage of wartime patriotism, but as soon as the war ended, Stalin reverted to Bolshevik slogans and ideology. The Soviets were intent on expanding their influence even beyond Eastern Europe. For McNeill, the Cold War thus became inevitable because of the expansionary nature of Soviet communism.(7)
This interpretation offers a rather one-sided view of the Cold War. By minimizing American culpability for the conflict and placing the blame on Soviet ideology, McNeill and others ignore the fact that the Cold War originated because of a conflict between two states' competing images for peace and security in the postwar world. Soviet ideology could not have caused the Cold War if it did not come in conflict with American values and beliefs. The inability of the Soviets and Americans to come to some consensus on how to achieve cooperation in the postwar world was due not just to different goals and desires. In fact, the failure of the two sides to come to some compromise that each side could accept and that would recognize each side's vital national interests was caused by the irreconcilable nature of the ideological conflict that separated them.
#3 Soviet Expansion as That of a Traditional Great Power
Unlike the last two explanations that focused on ideology, another orthodox interpretation of the origin of the Cold War portrays Soviet expansionary tendencies as that of a traditional great power. Many saw the Soviet annexation of spheres of influence as the expected if not the just spoils of the victor in war. However, the Soviets, even if they had a legitimate claim to increased influence in Eastern Europe after the war, sought to expand their area of hegemonic control even farther. This threatened legitimate American interests and its sphere of influence in Western Europe and justified the American effort to provide for the containment of Soviet expansionary tendencies. This explanation of the Cold War interprets the rivalry in traditional balance of power terms.
This "Great Power" interpretation proved to be less popular with the American public because it lacked the moralistic tone and ideological justification that the previous two explanations offered.(8) Nevertheless, this interpretation seemed more credible to scholars and many elites who were accustomed to analyzing relations between states in terms of the balance of power and other realist formulations. American public officials, however, often resorted to harsh ideological rhetoric in order to garner popular support for American containment policies when, personally, they viewed the Cold War as nothing more than a competition for power and influence.
Martin F. Herz's Beginnings of the Cold War is a classic example of a work that blames the Cold War on the Soviets in the tradition of the "Great Powers" argument. The Soviets' desire to plunder and establish a sphere of influence undermined the possibility of cooperation among the two emerging superpowers. Herz depicts Poland as the critical state where the United States and the Soviet Union clashed in the early stages of the Cold War. The Soviets' determination to achieve a friendly regime on their border eliminated the possibility of an independently elected and governed Poland that the West demanded. If the Soviets would have permitted Poland and other Eastern European states to retain some semblance of independence or autonomy, then there would have been no basis for the Cold War.(9) While Herz incorrectly identifies Eastern Europe and especially Poland to be the crux of the conflict, he tends to ignore the influence the United States had in Western Europe. The Americans had expanded their influence in Europe just as the Soviets had. The difference was that the Soviets never questioned American influence in Western Europe while the Americans never learned to truly accept Soviet domination in Eastern Europe.
Those who have exclusively focused on the power and security considerations of the Soviets as the fundamental cause of the Cold War fail to recognize the importance of the clash of ideologies in explaining the scope of this conflict. The source of these power considerations was the divergent ideologies of the superpowers. The hostile image the Soviets had of the capitalist powers explains their desire for a defensive perimeter. Similarly, the United States became concerned with Soviet influence in Eastern Europe because it represented communist domination, a traditional anathema in the freedom-loving West. Thus, because the great power interpretation ignores the ideological basis of the Soviet-American rivalry, it provides an incomplete explanation of the origins of the Cold War.
#4 American Economic Concerns Cause the Cold War
Beginning with William Appleman Williams, a group of Leftist scholars have offered a radically different explanation for the Cold War. These revisionists have attempted to blame the United States for the collapse of wartime cooperation. Thus, they completely reject those who traditionally supported American foreign policy and tended to castigate the Soviets as the aggressors in the postwar world. These revisionists believe that the American desire to create a friendly capitalist system everywhere on the globe interfered with legitimate Soviet national security concerns and with the sovereignty of non-aligned states. American insistence on available foreign markets and access to raw materials polarized the world against the United States' effort to guarantee its economic dominance. While some differences exist among these scholars, the theme of American economic imperialism pervades the work.
The earliest and most significant of these revisionists, William Appleman Williams, offers a sophisticated critique of American foreign policy. According to Williams, American leaders have historically interpreted the future prosperity of the United States in terms of the "Open Door," the ideological goal of an open and global capitalist system. By failing to formulate a settlement based on anything other than its grandiose design for the Open Door, the United States became the culprit in the Cold War because it transformed a negotiable conflict into an insoluble one. While Williams believes that the Americans were basically inflexible in their vision of the postwar world, he contends that the Soviets were rather conciliatory. The pressure the United States placed on the Soviets only served to make them more determined to protect themselves from American control or intimidation. Because the Americans considered the Soviets evil, weak, and unwilling to launch war, the United States thought it would be able to exert its will on the Soviet Union. This would be necessary because without further economic expansion depression was likely. However, the Americans' false and exaggerated vision of their own omnipotence led them to overplay their hand. Thus, Williams considers American postwar foreign policy as fundamentally flawed because it lacked the means by which it could attain its objective.(10)
In general, revisionist accounts exaggerate the economic concerns of American policy-makers in the postwar period. American elites and the mass public genuinely supported national self-determination. In addition, political, military, and strategic factors tended to be more important for the United States than the operation of the international economy. America has traditionally relied less on exports for its wealth and economic growth than most other states, and thus the United States has not been in desperate need of foreign markets. Moreover, the United States enjoys an unusual abundance of indigenous natural resources and is much less in need of imports of raw materials than almost any other industrialized state. Finally, a sincere belief in the benefits that accrue to all nations involved in a liberal trading system has motivated the United States to promote the open door, not a self-serving desire to exploit the less developed countries. Hence, Williams and other revisionists misrepresent the motives of Americans and their foreign policy.(11)
#5 The United States as an Untrustworthy Ally
Several scholars have contended that the beginning of the Cold War actually predates the conclusion of World War II. During the war the Americans never truly trusted the Soviets and found it easier to deal with the British with whom they shared a common political and cultural heritage. The Americans' previous antipathy toward the Soviets predisposed American officials and the public at large to place little trust in the Soviets. As a result, the United States was not the best of allies. This American behavior only helped to reinforce the traditionally hostile attitude the Soviets had held of the United States as a capitalist power. The Soviets had at least temporarily abandoned their traditional emphasis on the inevitable conflict of communism and capitalism during the period of wartime cooperation with Britain and the United States. Thus, the failure of the United States to deal responsibly with the Soviets during the war led to the later enmity between the two emerging superpowers.
While some cite the failure of Britain and the United States to open a second front against the Nazis before the summer of 1944 as a cause of Soviet mistrust of American intentions,(12) many more interpret the American use of the atomic bomb as an even more blatant attempt to bully the Soviet Union. The newly discovered weapon not only offered hope for a quick defeat of Japan, but many believed it held great potential as a tool of intimidation. Gar Alperovitz places the onus of blame for the Cold War on the Americans and their use of the atomic bomb. Alperovitz contends that Stalin was cautiously moderate in this period, but Truman decided to drop the bomb not to save lives or end the war. Instead, Truman saw the bomb as a means to influence future Soviet behavior. Alperovitz also argues that the bomb provided the Americans with increased confidence in their ability to influence the Soviets where they had previously been unsuccessful.(13) Even though the Americans trusted that the bomb would prove an effective diplomatic weapon, the reality of Soviet domination remained. The bomb had little actual effect on Soviet behavior.
Although the United States' behavior during the war may have increased the level of mistrust on both sides, those who stress the American failure to treat the Soviet Union as a trustworthy ally during the war fail to appreciate the underlying antagonism between these two nations. The poor performance of the Americans as a wartime ally is not a sufficient reason to explain the great hostility between these two nations. The lack of faith and trust shown among the allies indicates some fundamental differences in their values and goals in world politics. These diverging interests are therefore the fundamental cause of the conflict that eventually led both to mistrust each other during the war and thereafter.
#6 Misperception, Suspicion, and Rivalry
Another interpretation for the origin of the Cold War that emerged in the 1970s was less intent on placing blame on either the Soviets or the Americans but instead emphasized misperception. This post-revolutionist interpretation stressed that discrete events, individual perceptions and misperceptions and bureaucratic decision-making move history, not grand designs of policy-makers or theories of history. These multi-causal explanations lack an accusatory tone and are typically seen as more credible. Nevertheless, this interpretation proves inadequate to the extent that it ignores or minimizes the ideological basis of the conflict.
Perhaps the earliest and best example of Post-Revisionism was John Lewis Gaddis's book, The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941-1947. Gaddis contended that American and Soviet postwar policies intended to preserve peace and security but led to increased hostility. Gaddis believed that the American goal during World War II was not only to defeat the Fascist powers but also to guarantee the peace afterward. For this to happen the Americans believed they needed to defeat and disarm the enemy, promote self-determination among all nations, prevent depression on a worldwide scale, guarantee the unity of the Grand Alliance even after victory, and create a new collective security organization to ensure the peace. Obviously, not all of these goals could be achieved by American initiative alone. Soviet cooperation would be necessary for many of these goals to be fulfilled. In the end, the Soviets could not agree with the American vision for peace in the postwar world. According to Gaddis, the contradictory American and Soviet schemes for peace led to the Cold War.(14)
While Gaddis indentified this conflict as the major cause of the Cold War, he primarily relied on evidence based on misperception in his account of the origins of the superpower rivalry. One of the major problems he cited is the American inability to accurately assess Stalin's motives, desires, and goals. The American inability to separate the pragmatic Soviet need to survive the German onslaught and their future goals after the Nazi defeat led the United States to falsely assume that cooperation would continue after the war.(15) Similarly, the Soviets mistakenly perceived a change in American policy when the more abrasive rhetoric of Truman succeeded the more conciliatory approach of Roosevelt.(16) Gaddis also elucidated the onset of the Cold War when he identifies the internal contradictions in U.S. foreign policy. American policy was confused in terms of the future of Eastern Europe. The United States wanted to maximize self-determination in Eastern Europe and at the same time desired to maintain good relations with the Soviets. The Americans could never devise a policy that could simultaneously satisfy both of these apparently contradictory objectives.(17)
Gaddis and other post-revisionists admit that the Cold War was an unavoidable tragedy of fate, not just the result of human error. Nevertheless, by focusing on the role of personality, misperception, and bureaucratic decision-making, Gaddis failed to emphasize the fundamentally diverging interests of the Soviets and Americans after the war. By concentrating on the frailties of the policy-making process, one may come to believe that better diplomacy might have prevented the Cold War. It makes more sense to identify the different postwar visions of the U.S. and U.S.S.R. and then employ Gaddis's explanation to determine how such conflicting agendas caused misperception and tension in the Cold War.
#7 The Cold War as a Conflict of Diverging Ideologies
Based on new information from archival evidence made available in the past decade, historians are increasingly coming to a consensus that a conflict over ideologies was the fundamental cause for the Cold War. This conflict resulted from the irreconcilable visions and desires of the two emerging superpowers. American interests in national self-determination, postwar order, and stability clashed with the security needs and ideological beliefs of the Soviet Union. The crux of the conflagration centered on the status and future of Eastern Europe. The United States could not stand by and conduct normal relations with a state that prevented free and open elections in these countries as well as access to the world market. Meanwhile, the Soviets refused to acquiesce and allow hostile capitalist states to encircle it and threaten its security. The dispute that spawned the Cold War, therefore, was not based on calculations of raw power or the spoils of war. For the Americans especially, the struggle was to determine the ideological fate of a group of nations.
While the conflict of ideologies is a rather new argument, some historians have historically emphasized this interpretation. Norman Graebner, writing in 1962, considered the Cold War tragic because the hostile rhetoric used by American leaders after the war convinced too many in the mass public that the Soviet menace could be removed. The attitude of retrenchment on the part of the Americans conceded nothing, but it assured there would be no settlement to the Cold War. Thus, the United States gave itself little chance of pursuing a successful foreign policy. Continued dissatisfaction with Soviet behavior accumulated to become fervent and permanent disdain. There was little hope of good relations in this atmosphere of hostility.(18)
While historians had been able to utilize British archives, for example, to explain the role of Churchill and British policy in the origins of the Cold War,(19) most of the formal diplomatic history had been written based almost exclusively on the evidence drawn from American sources until the 1990s. With the end of the Cold War and with greater access to Soviet archives, a much clearer understanding of Soviet foreign policy is emerging and as a result much more balanced histories of the Cold War are being written. While there has not been a unanimous interpretation of the recently-opened archival evidence, most scholars have argued the evidence indicates that the Soviets did harbor ideological ambitions for expansion after World War II.(20) However, these ambitions were tempered and shaped by considerations of power and the changing perspectives of Stalin and his advisors.(21) Not all scholars, however, view the Soviet archival evidence as favoring an ideological interpretation of Soviet foreign policy. Martin Leffler contends that the archives indicate that power considerations were more important in shaping Soviet foreign policy than ideology. Because of this interpretation of the evidence, Leffler has come to the conclusion that the Cold War resulted from a contest of great powers, not a conflict of ideologies, where both the United States and the Soviet Union should bear the responsibility for the origins of the Cold War.(22)
In addition to Leffler, Trachtenberg's recent book has offered anther interpretation for the Soviet-American rivalry in the early Cold War. Trachtenberg claims that the Cold War was not the bipolar struggle as depicted by Leffler but was really about settling the German question in the aftermath of World War II. Until a solution to the German question could be reached that satisfied the Europeans, Americans, and Soviets, conflict and tension were inevitable. Ultimately, the Cold War begins to decelerate in 1963 because each side accepts the status of Germany as a divided state with West Germany part of NATO but with no offensive military capability of its own and with East Germany safely in the Soviet sphere of influence.(23)
Despite the claims of Leffler and Trachtenberg, the consensus of Cold War histories written in recent years is that ideological conflict triggered the Cold War.(24) Even John Lewis Gaddis, who in earlier accounts emphasized misperception and miscommunication between the two sides, now recognizes the ideological struggle that was at the heart of the Cold War.(25) Studies of early Cold War history and culture are increasingly focusing on the role ideological conflict played in the United States and in the Soviet Union. For example, one study has emphasized the ideological origins of the U.S. propaganda effort in the early Cold War period.(26)
While appropriately emphasizing ideological factors, analysis of the origins of the Cold War needs to recognize that these factors did interact with the distribution of power at the end of World War II.(27) Ideological conflict may explain the origin of the Cold War, but both the Soviets and Americans were cognizant of how their power might enable them to achieve their ideological goals. The limitations of their power also made both sides aware that total victory was impossible. Each side struggled within this context of superpower competition to maximize power and influence as a means of achieving an ideologically-driven agenda.
Lessons from Cold War Historiography
The historiography of the Cold War that has been surveyed in this article represents a wide variety of perspectives and approaches to the study of foreign policy and diplomacy. From traditional orthodox accounts of the expansive tendencies of the Soviet Union, to revisionist attacks on the motives and actions of the United States, to post-revisionist efforts to move beyond placing blame in explaining the origins of the Cold War, the historiography of the Cold War has provided many differing accounts for this important era of international relations and human history. Despite the divergence of opinion concerning the origin and nature of the Cold War, there is an increasing consensus that shapes Cold War historiography. While scholars may have been blinded by loyalty and guilt in examining the evidence regarding the origins of the Cold War in the past, increasingly, scholars with greater access to archival evidence on all sides have come to the conclusion that the conflicting and unyielding ideological ambitions were the source of the complicated and historic tale that was the Cold War. This era of history shaped by so much tension and conflict that ended so suddenly, unexpectedly, and peacefully, will undoubtedly remain one of the most studied and curious in modern history. Greater access to Soviet archives promises more study and will provide an even clearer picture of Soviet motivations and intentions in the early years of the Cold War.
In the future both Russians and Americans will look back at the Cold War with mixed emotions. For Russians, an honest examination of their past will be an important part of their attempt to move beyond the confines of a closed and authoritarian political system, but reminiscing about the Cold War will also allow Russians to recollect about Soviet power in this era of superpower rivalry. For Americans, the Cold War will be a source of pride and regret as they honor the achievements of Containment but learn of the mistakes made due to an excessive ideological zeal that could never be fully satisfied. As with all of history, the history of the Cold War will continue to be revised and retold to fit the need and interests of future generations.


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Cold War summaries

The beginning of the Cold War


The term ‘Cold War’ refers to the period of struggle and conflict between the USA and USSR between 1945-1991. Each of the Superpowers saw the other as a threat to its continued survival and adopted strategies to preserve their positions. The two Superpowers never went to war directly with each other in this period, but became involved in conflicts such as the Korean War where each side stood behind the other nations involved. Therefore this conflict is termed as the Cold War rather than a conventional hot war. There were a number of occasions when it appeared that a hot war would break out between the Superpowers, but thankfully this was avoided.

Reasons for the breakdown of the wartime alliance by 1945

The USSR and the USA both joined the Second World War in 1941, the former on June 22nd following Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa and the latter on December 9th following Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbour. In the long run both attacks proved fatal to the aggressor nations; sleeping giants were awoken, the Axis powers were defeated in 1945 and a new world order was created. The USSR and the USA emerged as by far the most powerful nations from the Second World War. The former Great Powers – Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan – were no longer capable of dominating the rest of the world, only the USA and the USSR, the Superpowers, remained unbroken.

The USA and the USSR were strange bedfellows during the Second World War. Their alliance was purely strategic. The underlying differences between the supreme capitalist nation (the USA) and the original communist state (the USSR) were bound to re-emerge once Germany and Japan had been defeated. It was clear that two states could no longer ignore each other in a new world of global finance and communication. Both were extremely nervous of the other nation’s aims; worry led to fear, fear caused the breakdown of the wartime alliance and turned eventually to hostility and mutual antipathy.


The emergence of rivalry between the Superpowers


The USSR was a one party state dominated by Stalin. Individuals did not have the choice to choose alternative politicians in free elections; industry and agriculture was owned by the state. In the 1930s, Stalin had transformed the USSR into a modern industrial state through the Five Year Plans, Collectivisation and the Purges. The transformation had come at a huge cost in human life, but a superpower had been born, capable of defeating Nazi Germany and emerging as a world power. The people of the USSR had experienced foreign invasion in the First World War, during the Civil War 1918-1921 and the Second World War. Stalin believed that the USA’s long-term ambition was to destroy communism, therefore he adopted policies, which he believed would prevent this from happening.

The USA was a democratic state, with free elections, freedom of speech and a capitalist economic system. In the 1930s the American people had experienced the Depression and a withdrawal from world politics (isolationism). The Second World War helped to regenerate the USA’s industries to such an extent that people’s standards of living actually went up during the Second World War. The USA emerged immeasurably more powerful from the war with Germany and Japan. It was clear that the USA could no longer sit on the sidelines in world politics. However, the USA was extremely concerned by the spread of communism in Eastern Europe and the Far East. The USA believed that Stalin wanted to convert the rest of the world to communism. The USA had fought the fascist ideologies of Germany, Italy and Japan, now it was prepared to fight the communist ideology of the USSR.


The beliefs and attitudes of Stalin and Truman


Stalin’s fear of the USA led him to believe that the USSR needed a barrier of territory between Soviet territory and the USA’s allies in Western Europe. Stalin feared another anti-communist invasion of Russia from Europe as had occurred in 1918 and 1941. Stalin wanted to create a barrier against the West, a barrier made up of communist run countries in Eastern Europe. The new president of the USA, Harry Truman, saw Soviet domination of Eastern Europe not as an act of defence on Stalin’s part, but as an act of aggression. Would this communist take-over spread to Western Europe too?

The Yalta and Potsdam Conferences

While the war with Germany continued, the wartime allies (USA, USSR and Britain) met to discuss the post-war future of Europe. The most significant meetings between the allied leaders were at Yalta in February 1945 and Potsdam in July 1945.

The Yalta Conference


Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill agreed that Germany be divided into four zones to be occupied by USA, USSR, Britain and France. It was also recognised that Stalin was to have influence over Eastern Europe, but that free elections be held in them to decide who governed them. The biggest problem was Poland. Stalin had liberated Poland and a communist government had been established. Stalin insisted that a ‘friendly’ government be established there to protect the USSR from Germany. Stalin refused to allow democratic elections in Poland.


The ‘Big Three’ at Yalta

Winston Churchill
President Roosevelt
Joseph Stalin


The Potsdam Conference

By the time the allies met again, the situation had changed considerably. Germany had been defeated, Roosevelt had died and had been replaced by Truman and Clement Attlee had defeated Churchill. The allies agreed to divide Germany into zones and to claim reparations for war losses.

However, the USA began to realise that it did not want a weakened Germany in Central Europe, a perfect breeding ground for communism. Truman wanted to rebuild Germany, while Stalin wanted to weaken it further by taking equipment and materials as reparations. The pattern for future conflict between the USA and the USSR had begun.


The deepening of the Cold War 1945-53


Soviet expansion into Eastern Europe, the Iron Curtain and Western reactions

Advancing allied and Soviet forces from the West and East defeated Nazi Germany. While American and British forces liberated France, Italy and the Low Countries, Soviet forces replaced Nazi forces in a string of countries in Eastern Europe. The Americans and the British could do nothing about this while Nazi Germany remained undefeated; the USSR after all was an ally at this time. It was clear, however, that Stalin was very reluctant to relinquish control of Eastern Europe, a Soviet sphere of influence. President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill did not like the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, but they needed the USSR as an ally and they could do very little to prevent Stalin’s military annexation of this region.

In 1946 Churchill referred to the division of Europe, East and West, communist and capitalist, as the descending of an iron curtain.


There was no real physical barrier, but there was a clear division between the democratic states of the West and the communist states of the East. Many in the West were concerned that Stalin would not stop in Eastern Europe, would he now turn to the West?




The Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan


The Truman Doctrine

Harry Truman replaced President Roosevelt when he died in April 1945. Truman was very concerned by the growth of Soviet power. Truman realised that the USA could no longer continue with its policy of isolationism. If the spread of communism was to be halted, Truman believed that the USA would have to be much more active in world affairs. To defend the USA from communism, Truman believed that he would have to support other countries militarily and financially in order to prevent them from potentially becoming communist states. This policy became known as the Truman Doctrine.

The Marshall Plan


In 1947 it appeared that Greece and Turkey might become communist states. In March 1947 Truman promised that the USA would help any country threatened by communism. The USA would ‘contain’ Soviet expansion. Truman believed that Stalin had forced the countries of Eastern Europe into accepting communist governments; he also believed that it was America’s duty to defend democracy. Communism was prevented in Greece and Turkey. Truman gave $400 million dollars to the two countries and in return established missile bases in Turkey.

Truman was concerned to help European countries recover from the war. He believed that economically strong countries would be unlikely to turn to communism and would become major trading partners with the USA. To help Europe rebuild after the war, the USA gave millions of dollars under the Marshall Plan. A fund of $15 billion was set aside for European countries to draw on. The idea was to allow countries from both East and West to receive Marshall Aid, but Stalin realised that this would make countries like Poland more dependent upon the USA than the USSR. Stalin denounced the Marshall Plan, claiming that it was economic imperialism. Stalin forced the Eastern European countries to withdraw their applications for assistance. Instead, these countries had to apply for help from the Comecon (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance). This was never very effective as the USSR had too little resources to offer.

In all, sixteen countries received Marshall Aid, Britain and France being the major recipients. West Germany also received just under $1.4 billion. Stalin was very angry with this, he did not want a strong Germany; in the East he deliberately weakened the Soviet zone of Germany. In the West, Truman wanted to create a powerful buffer against communism; he did not want Germany to be weak. By 1952 most Western European countries had recovered to their pre-war levels of production. The communist parties in France and Italy lost their support as standards of living rose. The Marshall Plan had been very effective in preventing the spread of communism in Western Europe and had created economically strong democratic allies for the USA.


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