The Cold War's roots can be traced back to the years before World War II. Following the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia in November 1917, the Western Allies, including the United States, had supported the White forces that sought to overthrow the new regime. They and Japan even dispatched expeditionary forces to Russia. Although these troops were soon withdrawn, much ill will had been sown. On its side, Moscow did its best to undermine democratic governments and bring about Communist revolutions in Germany, Hungary, and elsewhere.
The Soviet Union remained largely an outlaw state, and in the 1930s, international events occurred largely as if it did not exist. The mistrust between the West and the Soviets prevented the formation of an effective coalition against Germany before the outbreak of World War II. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin had no love for either the Fascist or the Western nations, and he was prepared to deal with whichever side could offer him the most. Soviet security, rather than ideology, was his motivation.
The Western governments were dismayed when, on 23 August 1939, the Soviet and German governments signed a nonaggression pact in Moscow that allowed German leader Adolf Hitler to begin World War II without fear of Soviet intervention. Stalin, for his part, gained space (which France and Britain had been unwilling to grant) and time with which to rebuild his military, which he had devastated in the Great Purges of the late 1930s. The Western governments were even more dismayed when they learned of secret protocols in the pact that awarded eastern Poland and the Baltic states to the Soviet Union. Between September 1939 and June 1941, Germany gained much from the agreement with the Soviet Union. The secret provisions also included a trade agreement that was of the greatest advantage to Germany in fighting Britain and France.
Nonetheless, immediately following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Stalin called on Britain to open a "second front" in order to draw off some of the German ground and air forces overrunning the western part of his country. From June 1941, Germany consistently committed three-quarters or more of its ground strength on the Eastern Front. Stalin claimed to be deeply frustrated and suspicious that the Western Allies were so slow to invade Europe and instead fought only on the periphery—first in an invasion of French North Africa in November 1942, then Sicily in July 1943, and finally Italy in September 1943—with the invasion of France not occurring until June 1944. Stalin claimed his Western allies were content to watch from the sidelines as the USSR "fought to the last Russian." Throughout the war, he took massive amounts of Lend-Lease aid, but he never came to trust the United States and Britain as much as he had trusted Hitler; indeed, he regarded the leaders of these Western powers with the deepest suspicion.
Distrust deepened over the postwar fate of Poland. Twice in the twentieth century, Poland had served as an invasion route to Soviet territory, and Stalin was determined to secure Soviet hegemony over that country. He demanded the eastern half of prewar Poland, which had, in any case, been awarded to Russia by the Curzon Commission set up by the Paris Peace Conference following World War I (the so-called Curzon Line). He also recognized an exile regime of pro-Soviet Poles, known as the Lublin government, rather than the legitimate Polish government-in-exile in Britain, called the London Poles. Stalin was well aware of the weaknesses and vulnerability of his own society. As the West had used the new states of eastern Europe as a cordon sanitaire (buffer zone) after World War I to prevent the spread of Bolshevism, so Stalin was determined to use the Soviet occupation of these same states as a buffer against the Western powers and the spread of their ideas into his empire.
British Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill was comfortable with the world of power politics and was more willing to bargain with the Soviet Union, trading primacy in one country for that in another. But domestic politics and international diplomacy mixed uneasily in the United States, and the Roosevelt administration was influenced by the votes of millions of Polish Americans. Indeed, U.S. President Harry S Truman, who took office in April on Franklin D. Roosevelt's death, informed Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov that Poland had become a symbol of American foreign policy. Stalin refused to see the logic in this approach, protesting that he had not insisted on the postwar fate of North Africa or Belgium—why, then, should America insist on the postwar fate of Poland? Although Stalin did agree to broadly "representative governments" and "free and unfettered elections" in the case of Poland and other states in Eastern and Central Europe, such phrases were merely window dressing that could be interpreted as the Soviets wished.
The real stumbling block was the future of Germany. At the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, Stalin spelled out the heavy reparations he expected to extract from Germany. He was also determined that Germany would never again threaten the Soviet Union. His wartime partners in the West were concerned about destabilizing the most powerful economy in Europe and about having to pay the cost of the reparations themselves, albeit indirectly. They wanted a unified Germany with a true democratic government. Meanwhile, since the Allies could not agree on the amount of reparations, the Soviets began dismantling factories and portable items in their occupation zone and shipping them back to the Soviet Union.
There were divisive Asian issues as well. At Yalta, Stalin had agreed to join the war against Japan two to three months after the end of the war in Europe. In return, the Soviet Union was to receive south Sakhalin Island and the Kuriles (which had never been Soviet territory). At Potsdam, Stalin reiterated his pledge of Soviet intervention in the war against Japan, but he sought a zone of occupation in Japan proper, which Truman refused. The Red Army subsequently overran Manchuria and occupied the northern half of the Korean Peninsula (agreed to by the Allies for the purposes of taking the Japanese surrender, which U.S. forces took in southern Korea). But the government established in North Korea, led by veteran Communist Kim Il-sung, refused to allow free elections and rebuffed efforts to reunify the two Koreas.
In Manchuria, Soviet forces stripped the province of its industry, sending the factories back to the USSR. Some Western observers were also convinced the Soviet Union was supporting the Communist guerrillas of Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) in the resumption of the Chinese Civil War, although that was, in fact, not the case. Soviet troops did turn over much captured Japanese equipment to Mao's forces.
In February 1946 from Moscow, U.S. Chargé d'Affaires George Kennan sent to his superiors in Washington what became known as the "Long Telegram" (of 8,000 words), explaining the factors behind the conduct for Soviet foreign policy. Kennan urged that the United States should seek to "contain" the Soviet Union from further expansion. Soon thereafter, on 5 March 1946, Churchill, by then the former British prime minister, spoke at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, and declared that "from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent." Churchill called for Anglo-American cooperation to withstand Soviet expansionism, but his appeal failed to draw a U.S. policy response.
In early 1947, the British government informed a surprised Truman administration that it was no longer able to bear the burden of shoring up the Greek and Turkish governments. Truman stepped into the breach, and on 12 March, he asked the U.S. Congress for $400 million to help the Greek government resist communist guerrillas and the Turkish government to withstand Soviet pressure to secure unfettered access through the Dardanelles. Truman's call for U.S. aid to free peoples seeking to resist outside or internal pressures came to be known as the Truman Doctrine.
At the same time, the economic situation in Europe continued to deteriorate. Europe had not recovered from the devastation of the war, and the harsh 1946–1947 winter was particularly damaging. Relief costs, borne chiefly by the United States, were high, and there appeared to be no end in sight. On 3 June 1947, in a speech at Harvard University, Secretary of State George C. Marshall described the difficult situation and made clear that the United States had much to lose if the European economy collapsed. He called on Congress to fund a vast economic aid package, based on recovery plans submitted by the European governments. This program became known as the Marshall Plan. Immensely successful, it helped Europe recover, improved the ability of Western European countries to resist communism, and, not incidentally, helped the American economy prosper. The plan was deliberately designed to force European cooperation, and the Soviet Union rejected this program; it refused to participate and denied permission for its Eastern European satellites as well. The Soviet Union would form its own feeble counterpart, the Molotov Plan. Clearly, two mutually antagonistic blocs were forming.
Meanwhile, with the Allies unable to cooperate, the situation in Germany worsened. To cut financial costs, the British and American governments combined their occupation zones economically in what became known as Bizonia (the French later merged their zone, making it Trizonia). Also, because a common currency for all four zones was merely underwriting the Soviets, the three Western governments moved to establish a separate occupation currency. They also promised free elections. The Soviets viewed these moves as threatening and walked out of the Allied Control Council meeting in early 1948. In April, claiming technical reasons, they temporarily closed surface access routes to the western occupation zones in Berlin to military traffic. When this did not result in a change of Anglo-American policy toward Germany, the Soviets instituted a complete blockade of surface access routes into the city. The Truman administration responded with the Berlin Airlift and flew in not only food and medical supplies, for example, but also fuel to heat homes and factories. In May 1949, the Soviets ended the blockade, but the division of Germany into eastern and western halves seemed complete.
As the Berlin blockade drew to a close, the final chapter was taking place in the long Chinese Civil War. The uneasy wartime truce between the Nationalist Party—the Guomindang, or GMD (Kuomintang, or KMT)—and the Communists was broken in 1947 when Nationalist leader Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) attempted to secure Manchuria. Despite massive amounts of U.S. aid, the Nationalists were defeated and fled to Taiwan (Formosa) in 1949 as Communist leader Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) announced the establishment of the People's Republic of China on 1 October 1949. The situation also seemed to worsen when the Soviet Union detonated an atomic device in August 1949, ending the U.S. nuclear monopoly.
Then, on June 25, 1950, the Cold War turned hot as North Korean forces, supported by the Soviet Union and China, invaded South Korea. The Truman administration responded. In what Truman said was the most difficult decision he had to make as president, he authorized U.S. forces to intervene. At that point, the Cold War became enshrined in American foreign policy, and in November 1950, the Truman administration approved a national security policy statement (NSC 68/4) calling for a real policy of containment. Opposing what it perceived to be Soviet expansionism and aggression became a defining characteristic of U.S. foreign policy until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Charles M. Dobbs and Spencer C. Tucker
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