As the world's leading communist power during the Cold War, the Soviet Union was the principal antagonist and opponent of the United States. Tensions between the two powers dated back to the revolution and civil war that led to the creation of the Soviet Union. It was not until 1933 that the U.S. government extended diplomatic recognition, and relations remained chilly until 1941, when the two powers found themselves on the same side of the war against Germany. As World War II drew to a close, however, lingering mistrust between the two reappeared and, combined with fundamental ideological differences, led to the Cold War.
The principal postwar goal of the Soviet Union under the leadership of Josef Stalin was national security. Stalin sought to acquire territorial buffer zones that would provide physical defense against first Germany and then any possible Western attack. Soviet leaders believed that this, along with reparations to restore the shattered economy and society of the Soviet Union, was the least they deserved for their role in defeating Germany. At the same time, they hoped to secure and expand the future of communist ideology by surrounding the Soviet Union with like-minded regimes. Although his policies appear to have been fundamentally motivated by practical concerns of national security, Stalin was also a convinced socialist who saw the future in Marxian terms as a struggle between capitalism and communism.
In domestic politics, immediately after the war Stalin attempted to restore the party line. Prisoners of war returning from the West who might have been infected with dangerous ideologies were sent to the gulags. The leniency shown in Soviet culture during the war, when nationalism and orthodoxy were allowed to flourish in order to rally the populace, quickly disappeared. In 1946, Soviet authorities launched the Zhdanovschina, a campaign named for Leningrad party boss Andrei Zhdanov intended to force artists, writers, and other cultural figures to follow strict Stalinist ideals in their works. Three years later, Stalin used the excuse of Zhdanov's death to launch a purge of the Leningrad party apparatus. Yet another major purge was being prepared in 1953, indicating that Stalin remained intent on bending the nation and the party to his will.
In the international arena though, it is clear now that the Soviets knew they were not dealing from strength at the outset of the Cold War. In addition to vast property destruction, the Soviet Union had lost 25–27 million people dead in World War II, and it faced a United States that possessed nuclear weapons. As a counter, the Red Army was in physical possession of much of Central and Eastern Europe, and the Allies had allowed the Soviet Union to annex eastern Poland. To secure Soviet participation in the war against Japan, the British and U.S. governments also agreed to allow the Soviet Union to annex the Kurile Islands (which had never been Russian territory) and southern Sakhalin Island and to receive concessions in the Liaodong Peninsula of China (which included Darien and Port Arthur).
Stalin's initial pragmatic approach led him to withdraw Soviet forces from northern Iran in 1946, to disassociate himself from the communist rebellion in Greece, and to try to rein in the Chinese communists. The Soviets' inability to reach an acceptable agreement regarding the future of Germany, however, gradually drove Stalin to take a harder ideological line. Recent archival revelations indicate that Stalin desired a unified Germany that would be friendly toward, if not completely within, the Soviet sphere of influence.
Already in control of Poland and the remainder of Eastern Europe, after 1945 the Soviets exerted their influence within their zone of occupation in Germany. Harsh actions by the occupying Red Army had alienated most Germans. Soviet occupation authorities also shipped off to the Soviet Union anything of value, including entire factories. German prisoners of war also remained in the Soviet Union as slave laborers, some of them until 1955, while thousands of other Germans were also sent to the Soviet Union to serve in the same capacity.
Stalin avoided any blatant displays of disagreement over Germany until the spring of 1947, when the announcement of the Marshall Plan apparently convinced him that the United States was trying to build an industrial base in Western Europe for future attacks against communism. The Soviet response was to blockade Berlin, which lay deep within the Soviet zone. The Soviets hoped to win support by providing food and energy to the population and to force the Allies from the city, which they could then use as a bargaining chip. British and American resolve, manifested in the Berlin Airlift and a counterblockade of the Soviet zone, forced Stalin to admit defeat in May 1949.
Even before that, however, the Soviets had subtly abandoned their policy of accommodation. In September 1947, Stalin orchestrated the creation of the Communist Informational Bureau (Cominform), a renewal of the Communist International that had been abandoned during World War II as a gesture of goodwill. During 1948–1949, the carefully balanced and "democratic" governments of states within the Soviet sphere were purged of any potential opposition to Soviet control, even by native communists. The new loyal regimes assented to the formation of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon), the Soviet substitute for the Marshall Plan, in January 1949.
The Soviet zone of occupation in Germany quickly evolved into a separate state, the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany), which the Soviet Union recognized in October 1949. Meanwhile, bloody purges occurred in the governments of Eastern Europe as Stalin tightened Soviet control of the region.
Even as the Iron Curtain rang down in Europe, the Soviet Union faced a new challenge in Asia. In 1949 the Chinese communists led by Mao Zedong emerged triumphant in the long struggle for power in China, establishing the People's Republic of China (PRC) in October 1949. Although the Soviet Union publicly welcomed the arrival of a second communist power and championed Mao's regime in the United Nations (UN), Stalin was less than delighted. Not only had he failed in his attempt to subjugate the Chinese communist movement, but Mao's ideology challenged the hegemony of Soviet communism in the international arena. When Mao visited Moscow in the winter of 1949–1950, Stalin initially refused to treat with him. The fear that China might emerge as the leader of Asian communism not only led Stalin to relent in January 1950 but also influenced his decision to support the national ambitions of Kim Il Sung, the communist leader of North Korea. Meanwhile, in August 1949 the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb.
With substantial Soviet military assistance and the support of the PRC, in June 1950 North Korean forces invaded the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea). The Soviets' absence from the UN General Assembly (in protest over the refusal to allow Mao's regime to assume the Chinese seat) allowed the United States to marshal international support in what was the UN's first war. In October, the PRC entered the war. The Soviet Union provided air defense for China proper, but Mao was angry that this did not include air support for Chinese forces within Korea, which he believed he had been promised.
While Stalin's maneuvers preserved at least the appearance of Soviet ideological leadership and communist solidarity, the costs were significant. Fearing monolithic communist power bent on world domination, the Western Allies rallied together. They opened negotiations to rearm the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany) and bring it into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to defend against any communist aggression in Europe. The United States also signed a separate peace treaty with Japan, pairing it with a defense treaty that not only denied the Soviet Union de jure recognition of its territorial acquisitions in Asia but also provided military bases to support the American strategy of containment. Although Stalin attempted to regain the initiative by proposing a united, neutral Germany in March 1952, there was little hope of this being accepted. When the Soviet dictator died in March 1953 the Cold War was at its peak, with a proxy war going on in Korea and both sides racing to build up their armaments in case a hot war should break out.
In the uncertainty that followed, Stalin's successors moved quickly to lessen tensions both domestically and internationally. Although both Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin's notoriously hard-line foreign minister, and Lavrenty Beria, the infamous head of the Soviet secret police, were in the initial group that succeeded the dictator, it was Georgy Malenkov and Nikita Khrushchev who really directed policy. Both men favored pragmatic politics and better relations with the West. They lowered food prices and shifted somewhat the focus of the Soviet economy from industrial goods to consumer products. The purge already in progress, the so-called Doctors' Plot, was curtailed, and the accused were released. Thousands of other inmates from Stalin's camps also received their freedom. Beria himself, however, was arrested, tried in secret, and executed.
The thaw in the ideological battle also extended to foreign affairs. In July 1953 an armistice was concluded in Korea, and a year later, Soviet concessions led to the conclusion of the Austrian State Treaty, breaking a decade-long deadlock over the future of that state. Khrushchev, who had emerged as the dominant figure in the new Soviet leadership, reconciled with Josip Broz Tito and visited Belgrade. In 1955 the nations of Eastern Europe signed the Warsaw Pact, pledging mutual defense. That July, Khrushchev met with Western leaders in Geneva in an attempt to mitigate tensions. Then, in February 1956 Khrushchev denounced Stalin's policies and methods in his famed "secret speech" to the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Similar criticisms of Stalinist policy immediately after the dictator's death had led to an uprising in East Germany on 16–17 June 1953. The new accusations caused rebellions first in Poland and then in Hungary. Popular protests against the Soviet occupation forced the Red Army to withdraw from Budapest. When protracted negotiations failed to produce a solution and Imre Nagy announced that Hungary would withdraw from the Warsaw Pact, however, in November 1956 Khrushchev ordered in the Soviet Army, which suppressed the rebellion in bloody street fighting. This Soviet action and the inaction of the Western powers, who were distracted by the concurrent Suez Crisis, made it clear that the spheres of influence delineated after the war would not be challenged.
The rest of the world, however, was under contention. Khrushchev's adopted philosophy of peaceful coexistence held that war between the superpowers was neither inevitable nor desirable but that competition was allowed. He and other members of the Soviet leadership accordingly traveled extensively, offering friendship and Soviet aid. In 1955, Khrushchev and President Nikolai Bulganin had visited India, Burma, and Afghanistan. When Fidel Castro's revolutionary movement gained power in Cuba in 1959, Khrushchev was quick to recognize the regime as an ally and proffer assistance. A new Sino-Soviet Friendship Pact extended large-scale technical and financial aid to China in 1959 as well. Khrushchev's largest and best-known venture in this regard, however, was to subsidize construction of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt, extending Soviet influence into the Middle East.
Khrushchev sincerely believed that the Soviet economy could overtake the United States, prove the superiority of communist doctrine, and provide an attractive model for third world nations to emulate. He initiated a series of reforms with this aim in mind, beginning in 1957 with the reorganization of the central economic ministries of the Soviet Union. The following year saw an adjustment in state investment priorities, and in 1959 the Soviet Union adopted a new, aggressive Seven-Year Plan designed to increase agricultural output and production of consumer goods. The Soviet leader was so confident of success that he allowed an exhibit of the American way of life in Moscow in 1959, where he engaged U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon in the famed Kitchen Debate on the merits of the two economic systems. In September of that year, Khrushchev became the first Soviet leader to visit the United States.
Although Khrushchev had his successes, most notably in space (which he had aggressively promoted) with the launch of Sputnik I in 1957 and Yuri Gagarin's orbiting of Earth in 1960, the Soviet Union made little progress economically. Khrushchev's highly touted Virgin Lands program to vastly expand the cultivated areas of Soviet Central Asia was a failure. His rapprochement with the United States angered the Chinese, who accused the Soviets of revisionism. Mao argued in 1960 that even nuclear war would be preferable to peaceful dealings with the United States.
U.S.-Soviet relations remained tense throughout the period, though, thanks largely to Khrushchev's habit of fomenting crisis as a matter of policy. The Soviets produced their own hydrogen bomb in August 1953, and four years later they successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of delivering such weapons to the U.S. mainland. Khrushchev used the missile threat liberally, convincing many Western analysts that the Soviet Union had in fact surpassed the United States in that area. He also revisited the issue of Berlin in November 1958, threatening to sign a separate peace treaty with East Germany if the Allies did not sign a treaty recognizing the existence of two Germanies and "the free city of West Berlin." The Soviet leader intended to use the city as a lever to open talks with the United States that he believed would lead to a European settlement and perhaps even the end of the Cold War. Although no progress was made even on smaller issues, a 1959 meeting with President Dwight D. Eisenhower was cordial enough and seemed to bode well for the future.
It did not help Khrushchev's cause, however, when the Soviets shot down a U.S. U-2 spy plane on 1 May 1960. The event scuttled a second summit with Eisenhower, and when Khrushchev did meet with President John F. Kennedy in June 1961, progress was limited by the Soviet leader's condescending attitude. The construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961, in combination with renewed Soviet nuclear testing, also helped curtail any realistic chance for an understanding with the United States.
The final blow to Khrushchev's aspirations, however, came with the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. Hoping to steal a march on the Americans and force them to recognize the Soviet Union as an equal in the game of global power politics, Khrushchev had arranged for the placement of Soviet missiles on Cuba, only 120 miles from the coast of Florida. American intelligence discovered the installations before the missiles could be deployed, and in early October 1962 Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of Cuba to prevent the arrival of additional weaponry. After a period where the world held its breath while Soviet cargo ships approached the Caribbean and nuclear war seemed imminent, Khrushchev backed down. The Soviet ships bearing the weapons and their support systems returned to the Soviet Union. This humiliation, combined with the failure of several domestic economic reforms in the early 1960s, finally convinced the other members of the Soviet Presidium that Khrushchev had to go, and he was duly removed in October 1964.
As in 1953–1954, the change in leadership brought uncertainty and change to Soviet foreign policy. The Soviet grip on Eastern Europe, in particular, loosened once again as pressure for reform mounted in Moscow. In Hungary, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia, new economic systems emphasizing market mechanisms instead of centralized control came into effect by 1968. Alexander Dubček, who became leader of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (CPCz) in January 1968, boldly permitted political reforms as well.
By allowing independent pressure groups and relative freedom of the press, Dubček hoped to create "socialism with a human face," an aim not far off Khrushchev's desire for communism led by economic success. Like Khrushchev, Dubček miscalculated the effect of his policy. The new Soviet leadership headed by Leonid Brezhnev was not prepared to tolerate such developments. Soviet tanks rolled into Prague on the night of 20–21 August 1968, bringing an end to the so-called Prague Spring and to most hopes of reform in Central and Eastern Europe. Although the Soviet Union allowed Poland to raise loans in the West to facilitate economic expansion in 1970, the Brezhnev Doctrine of 1968 emphatically restated the principle of 1956 that Soviet influence remained supreme in that sphere.
Although that statement of policy went unchallenged by the West, it stirred dissent among other communist states. Albania, Romania, and Yugoslavia all condemned the Soviet action. Only sixty-one of seventy-five nations attending a June 1969 meeting in Moscow agreed to sign the main protocol. China denounced the Soviet Union in strident terms, and skirmishes along the Siberian border between the two powers raised the possibility of open warfare between the two communist giants.
On all other fronts, however, Brezhnev and his cronies were more successful in pursuing Khrushchev's foreign policy than Khrushchev himself had been. Soviet friendship with Cuba remained warm, and the Soviet Union pursued close ties with India and, to a lesser extent, Pakistan. Relations with West Germany also improved, and a treaty recognizing both German states was signed in 1970. While Soviet-supported Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, North Vietnam) forces wore down U.S. and Republic of Vietnam (RVN, South Vietnam) forces in South Vietnam, Brezhnev repeatedly trumpeted the Soviet Union's support for national liberation movements everywhere. The Soviet Union joined Cuba in sending aid to liberation movements in Angola and Mozambique.
Despite these Soviet adventures, relations with the United States were cordial enough to merit an upgrade from peaceful coexistence to détente. The United States and the Soviet Union signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and began the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT) in 1969. The resulting Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty was signed in 1972. Visits between American and Soviet leaders became a fairly regular occurrence, with President Nixon visiting Moscow in 1972 and 1974, while Brezhnev came to New York in 1973. In 1975, both states signed the Helsinki Final Act, culminating several years of negotiations on questions of European boundaries and human rights.
Tensions did not, of course, disappear completely. In 1977 the Soviet Union stationed new SS-20 missiles in Eastern Europe. The United States retaliated by introducing cruise missiles to bases in West Germany and the United Kingdom and sent new Pershing missiles to West Germany as well. A second round of SALT prevented crisis and also reaffirmed the policy of détente by reaching a tentative agreement on missile placement in Europe in 1979.
Whatever goodwill existed between the two states in the 1970s, however, dissipated in the wake of the Soviet decision to send troops into Afghanistan in December 1979. U.S. President Jimmy Carter ordered an immediate increase in defense spending, and détente collapsed. The ideological divide between the two superpowers deepened when Ronald Reagan won the presidency in November 1980 and again when the Soviet Union approved the imposition of martial law in Poland in December 1981. Even Brezhnev's death in November 1982 and another transition period failed to halt the Cold War.
As it had in 1953 and in 1964, Soviet policy moved toward reform and compromise during the period of transitional leadership. Brezhnev's successor, Yuri Andropov, strove to revitalize the Soviet system by introducing new discipline. He implemented anticorruption and antidrinking programs, introduced new measures to ensure punctuality in the workplace, and commissioned studies for sweeping economic restructuring. To gain the requisite fiscal breathing space, he also attempted to resuscitate détente. He called for a summit with Reagan, proposed further reductions in nuclear arms, suggested a nuclear test ban, and, most startlingly, in January 1983 offered the possibility of a treaty forswearing attack.
Reagan responded by announcing the funding of research on a Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), the so-called Star Wars system for space defenses against any missile attack, in March 1983. Andropov refused to believe that any such system would be purely defensive, and suspicions mounted on both sides. It appeared that relations might reach crisis proportions when the Soviets shot down a South Korean airliner, flight KAL Flight 007, that strayed into Soviet airspace on 1 September 1983. Diplomats on both sides acted quickly to defuse the situation but were unable to renew the thaw of the 1970s. Any chances of further progress were forestalled by Andropov's declining health and death in February 1984 and then by the illness and incompetence of his successor, Konstantin Chernenko, an octogenarian who suffered from emphysema and lived only until March 1985.
The man who succeeded Chernenko, however, moved with speed great enough to make up for both his predecessors. A protégé of Andropov, Mikhail Gorbachev was known as a reformer, a practical intellectual, and an ambitious man of action. He had traveled in Western Europe, and both he and his wife Raisa appeared at ease in Western society, a marked difference from all Soviet leaders since Lenin. Gorbachev was, however, a committed socialist. He believed that vigorous reforms would prove the viability of the system and that Soviet communism and capitalism could coexist peacefully even as they competed economically.
Gorbachev's initial moves thus came in domestic policy with attempts to revitalize Soviet agriculture and manufacturing through a program of acceleration (uskorenie) and openness (glasnost). These soon gave way to a general restructuring (perestroika) that included foreign affairs and especially Eastern Europe. As Andropov had, Gorbachev sought on the one hand a respite from the arms race and from international distractions. On the other hand, he also believed that a reformed and reenergized Soviet socialist economy could deal with the challenges of the United States and world capitalism. If the United States would not negotiate, he would act unilaterally.
Gorbachev stated his intention to reverse the long-standing Soviet policy of controlling internal developments in the states of Central and Eastern Europe at a meeting of Warsaw Pact leaders in March 1985 and initiated plans to extricate the Soviet Union from Afghanistan in October. He had cordial meetings with President Reagan in Geneva in November 1985 and in Reykjavík, Iceland, in October 1986. At the second meeting, he briefly won Reagan's agreement that all nuclear weapons on both sides should be destroyed within a decade before U.S. advisors effectively vetoed the accord. Negotiations continued, however, and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty stipulating the destruction of all ground-based nuclear weapons of a particular range was signed in December 1987. In April 1988, the Soviet Union pledged to withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year, and Gorbachev later announced a 10 percent reduction in the size of the Soviet Army that would coincide with the recall of six Soviet divisions from Eastern Europe.
These measures led to the end of the Cold War, but not in the way that Gorbachev imagined. The leaders of the Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe felt betrayed by Gorbachev's initiatives, while nationalists and dissidents within the Soviet Union used their new freedom to explore various means of escaping Russian domination. The Baltic states, citing the secret clauses of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939 that Gorbachev had made public, clamored for independence. Large public demonstrations for independence also occurred in Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine.
By the middle of 1989, the movement for independence and democracy had spread to Eastern Europe. Poland held free, if limited, elections in June 1989 that the opposition won handily. In September, the Hungarian government dismantled its fortified frontier with Austria and permitted free movement across the border. Thousands of East Germans exploited this loophole to escape to the West, while thousands of others demonstrated in the streets of Leipzig and other East German cities. Erich Honecker resigned as chairman of the East German Council of State in October 1989. The Berlin Wall, long a symbol of the divided world of the Cold War, came down the next month. The communist leaders of Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia stepped down, and Romania's Nicolae Ceauşescu was overthrown and executed.
The Soviet Union did nothing. Within eighteen months, it too would cease to exist, unable to either reform or sustain the communist system that had existed since 1918. And with that, the Cold War, the ideological divide that had held the world in thrall for nearly fifty years, came to a close.
Timothy C. Dowling
Donaldson, Robert, ed. The Soviet Union and the Third World: Successes and Failures. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1980.; Gaddis, John Lewis. We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997; Gorodetsky, Gabriel, ed. Soviet Foreign Policy, 1917–1991: A Retrospective. London: Frank Cass, 1994.; Gromyko, Andrei A., and Boris Ponomarev, eds. Soviet Foreign Policy, 1917–1980. 2 vols. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1981.; Kennan, George. The Nuclear Delusion: Soviet-American Relations in the Atomic Age. New York: Pantheon, 1982.; Lowe, Norman. Mastering Twentieth-Century Russian History. Houndsmill, UK: Palgrave, 2002.; MacKenzie, David. From Messianism to Collapse: Soviet Foreign Policy, 1917–1991. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace, 1994.; Malia, Martin. The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917–1991. New York: Free Press, 1994.; Mastny, Vojtech. The Cold War and Soviet Insecurity: The Stalin Years. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.; Menon, Rajnan. Soviet Power in the Third World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986.; Suny, Ronald Grigor. The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the USSR, and the Successor States. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.; Zubok, Vladislav, and Constantine Pieshakov. Inside the Kremlin's Cold War: From Stalin to Khrushchev. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.