Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
Teaser Image

Origins of the Cold War to 1950

The deadlock between East and West was the single most momentous development in the post–World War II period and dominated the next half century. The term "Cold War" apparently originated in 1893 with German Marxist Edward Bernstein, who used it to describe the arms race in pre–World War I Europe in which there was "no shooting" but there was "bleeding." Its usage for the East-West confrontation, however, seems to have originated with the British writer George Orwell in an article of 19 October 1945. More famously, American financier Bernard Baruch used the phrase in the course of a speech in 1947. Put in its simplest terms, the Cold War was the rivalry that developed between the two superpowers—the Soviet Union and the United States—as each sought to fill the power vacuum left by the defeat of Germany and Japan. Leaders on each side believed that they were forced to expand their national hegemony by the "aggressive" actions of the other. Misunderstandings, bluff, pride, personal and geopolitical ambitions, and simple animosity between the two sides grew until the struggle became the Cold War.

At the end of World War II, Washington, D.C., and Moscow each had different views of the world. The United States sought a system based on the rule of law and placed high hopes on a new organization of states known as the United Nations (UN), which took its name from the victorious powers of World War II. The UN closely resembled the old League of Nations, the organization that President Woodrow Wilson had championed at the Paris Peace Conference following World War I and that the United States had then refused to join.

Typically for the United States in wartime, leaders in Washington had paid scant attention to trying to shape the postwar world. During World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt had not greatly concerned himself with postwar political problems, working on the assumption that the UN could resolve them later. Washington's preoccupation throughout the conflict was winning the war as quickly as possible and at the least cost in American lives. This frustrated British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who, as was the case with his Soviet counterpart Josef Stalin, sought to establish spheres of influence. U.S. leaders held—at least overtly—to the Wilsonian position that a balance of power and the spheres of influence were both outdated and immoral.

At the end of the war, a power vacuum existed throughout much of the world. In defeating Germany and Japan, the United States had in fact destroyed traditional bulwarks against communist expansion, although the fact was largely unappreciated at the time. In Europe there was not a single strong continental state able to bar Soviet expansion. In the Far East there was only China, which Roosevelt had expected to be one of the great powers and a guarantor of a peace settlement, but China had been badly weakened by the long war with Japan and was in any case about to plunge into a full-scale civil war of its own.

Americans assumed that wars ended when the shooting stopped, and thus domestic political considerations compelled the rapid demobilization of the armed forces before the situation abroad had stabilized. Although the Soviet Union was actually much weaker in 1945 than was assumed at the time, Churchill expressed the view that only the U.S. nuclear monopoly prevented the USSR from overrunning Western Europe.

In 1945, though, the Soviet Union had just emerged from a desperate struggle for survival. The German and Soviet armies had fought back and forth the western USSR and had laid waste to vast stretches of the region. Twenty-five million people were left homeless, and perhaps one-quarter of the total property value of the country had been lost. The human costs were staggering, with as many as 27 million dead. The effects of all this upon the people of the Soviet Union can scarcely be comprehended. Certainly for the indefinite future whatever government held power in Moscow would be obsessed with security. This, rather than expansion, was the Kremlin's paramount concern in the immediate postwar years.

Despite all the destruction, the Russians emerged from the war in the most powerful international position in their history. The shattering of Axis military might and the weakness of the West European powers seemed to open the way to Soviet political domination over much of Eurasia and the realization of long-sought aims.

Stalin, who had seen the Western powers after World War I erect a cordon sanitaire in the form of a string of buffer states against communism, now sought to do the same in reverse: to erect a cordon sanitaire to keep the West out. This was for security reasons, as Russia had been attacked across the plains of Poland three times since 1812, but it was also to prevent the spread of Western ideas and political notions. To Western leaders, the Kremlin seemed to have reverted to nineteenth-century diplomacy, establishing spheres of influence, bargaining for territory, and disregarding the UN. Western leaders did not appreciate the extent to which concerns over security and xenophobia drove this policy.

Finally, there was the ideological motivation. Although its leaders had soft-pedaled it during World War II, the Soviet Union had never abandoned its goal of furthering international communism. Irrespective of security concerns, the Kremlin was ideologically committed to combating capitalism. It is thus inconceivable that Stalin would not have attempted to take full advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves at the end of the war.

As with the United States, Soviet foreign policy was closely tied to domestic needs. The Cold War would aid in enforcing authority and cooperation at home. The communist world had to appear to be threatened by encircling enemies. By the close of the war, millions of Soviet soldiers had been in the West and had seen the quality of life and amenities there. They found their own system sadly wanting by comparison, and clearly they expected a better quality of life with the end of the war. Only a new announced threat from abroad would cause them to close ranks behind the Soviet leadership. Playing the nationalist card would enable the Kremlin to mobilize public effort and suffocate dissent.

Although for different reasons, Roosevelt shared with Stalin a strong antipathy toward European colonialism, and Washington encouraged the disintegration of the European colonial empires. While idealistic and correct morally, this stance nonetheless reduced the strength of U.S. allies such as Britain, France, and the Netherlands and helped ensure that ultimately the United States would have to carry most of the burden of defense of the noncommunist world.

Roosevelt gambled his place in history in part on the mistaken assumption that he could arrange a détente with the Soviet Union. His optimism regarding "Uncle Joe" Stalin was ill-founded, however. By mid-March 1945 it was patently obvious, even to Roosevelt, that the Soviets were taking over Poland and Romania and violating at least the spirit of the Yalta agreements regarding multiparty systems and free elections.

Roosevelt died in April 1945. His successor Harry S. Truman insisted, despite Churchill's protests regarding the mounting evidence that the Soviets were not keeping their pledges, that U.S. forces withdraw from areas they had occupied deep beyond the lines assigned to the Soviets for the occupation of Germany. The American public clearly did not want confrontation or a global economic and political-military struggle with the Soviet Union. Americans were limited internationalists who merely wanted to enjoy their economic prosperity.

The Soviets, however, were already angry over Washington's abrupt termination of World War II Lend-Lease aid on 21 August 1945, regardless of the terms of the original law. Russian ill will was also generated by the usually smooth cooperation of the Anglo-Saxon powers and Moscow's belief that the two constantly combined against the Soviet Union. The U.S. monopoly on the atomic bomb also aroused fear in the Soviet Union as a small but vocal group of Americans demanded preventive war. Soviet concerns increased when the United States retained bomber bases within striking distance of Soviet industrial areas and undertook naval maneuvers in the Mediterranean Sea.

The USSR, however, rejected a plan put forth by the United States to bring nuclear weapons under international control; instead, it proceeded with its atomic research (aided by espionage) and exploded its own bomb in September 1949. The atomic arms race was under way.

Certainly American and British attitudes toward Soviet activity in Eastern Europe and the Balkans exasperated Moscow. Having accepted Soviet hegemony there, why did the West continue to criticize? Initially Moscow permitted political parties other than the Communist Party, and now it seemed to the suspicious leaders in the Kremlin as though the West was encouraging these parties against Soviet interests. At a minimum the USSR required security, while the United States wanted democratic parties in a Western-style democracy. In only one country, Finland, did the Soviet Union and the West achieve the sort of compromise implicit in the Yalta agreements. In countries such as Poland and Hungary, noncommunist parties were highly unlikely to ensure the security that the Soviet Union desired, and Western encouragement of these groups seemed to Moscow to be a threat.

On the American side, the Russian moves kindled exasperation and then alarm as the Soviet Union interfered in the democratic processes of one East European state after another. In addition, the UN seemed paralyzed as the Soviet Union, in order to protect its interests when the majority was consistently against it, made increasing use of its UN Security Council veto. Despite this, Western pressure in the UN did help secure a Soviet withdrawal from northern Iran in 1946 in what was the first major test for the international body.

This did not mean that the West was unified. In Britain, left-wing Labourites criticized American capitalism and wanted to work with the Russian communists. The French, especially interim President Charles De Gaulle, made vigorous efforts to build a third force in Europe as a counterbalance to the Anglo-Saxon powers and the Soviet Union. It is thus tempting to conclude that only Moscow could have driven the West to the unity achieved by 1949. As Belgian diplomat Paul-Henri Spaak put it, Stalin was the real founder of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

The British bore the brunt of the initial defense against communism. Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin took up Churchill's role as a voice of Western democracy against totalitarianism and fought many verbal duels with Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav M. Molotov in the Council of Foreign Ministers. But for a variety of reasons, chiefly financial, Britain eventually had to abandon its role as world policeman.

Churchill sounded the alarm regarding the Soviet Union in a March 1946 speech in Fulton, Missouri. With President Truman at his side, Churchill said that "from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent." The peril would not be surmounted by ignoring it or following a policy of appeasement. Churchill called for a "special relationship" between Britain and the United States to meet the challenge. Americans were not enthusiastic. Ten days later, U.S. Secretary of State James F. Byrnes declared that the United States was no more interested in an alliance with Britain against the USSR than in one with the Soviet Union against Britain. Churchill's words, however, proved prophetic.

Germany was the principal tinderbox of the Cold War, and by September 1946 the collision of interests there led Byrnes to tell an audience of military government officials and Germans in Stuttgart that the Americans would not withdraw from Germany under pressure and that the Germans would soon be receiving additional self-government.

By early 1947, when peace treaties were finally signed in Paris with other defeated states, the time had arrived to begin work on peace arrangements for Austria and Germany, but talks soon deadlocked. By the spring of 1947, East and West were approaching a complete break over the German question. The Soviets were stripping their zone of anything movable and failing to supply food to the western zones as promised. Facing increasing costs and difficulties caused by a lack of Soviet cooperation, the British and the Americans merged their zones into Bizonia at the beginning of 1947. General of the Army George C. Marshall's first appearance as secretary of state at a major conference marked a hardening American reaction, as Washington reached the conclusion that the Soviet Union's actions were aggressive and not defensive.

In addition to its demands on Iran, Moscow pressured Turkey to return land lost by Russia at the end of World War I and also to permit the USSR a share in the defense of the straits connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. There was also trouble in Greece, where communist guerrillas were at war against the royal government. Civil war began there because of a rightist victory in the Greek elections, the return of the unpopular King George II, and intransigence on both sides. Fighting flared at the end of 1946, and the Greek communists secured material support from Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Albania—all communist bastions. The communists seized control of large portions of northern Greece. Athens appealed to the UN, but the Soviet Union vetoed a Security Council resolution based on an investigative commission's report of evidence of support from the neighboring communist states.

In February 1947 the British government publicly informed the United States that it could no longer afford to support the Greek government, news of which Washington had been forewarned. Still, this came as a shock and a surprise to Washington. On 12 March 1947, therefore, President Truman addressed a joint session of Congress and announced what came to be known as the Truman Doctrine. Stating that "we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way," he promised that the United States would "support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." The United States now took up the burden of being the world's policeman.

In a remarkably short time, the U.S. Congress appropriated $400 million for Greece and Turkey, somewhat over half of this in military aid. This U.S. attempt to draw a line against communist expansion was successful, helped along by Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito's break with Moscow, which cut off most of the aid to the communist rebels. By the end of 1949 the Greek insurrection had been contained. There was trepidation in the United States over the Truman Doctrine, but the alternative of giving in seemed far more perilous. The Truman Doctrine was a momentous step; it led directly to the Marshall Plan and NATO.

By the spring of 1947 the United States had distributed about $16 billion in emergency relief, most of it to European states, but no general economic recovery had taken place, and in fact Britain, France, and Italy were still in serious distress. The winter of 1946–1947 had been particularly severe, and strikes were widespread, especially in France and Italy. In France, the communists controlled the huge General Confederation of Labor (CGT) and threatened to bring the country to a standstill and perhaps even seize power. U.S. policymakers reasoned that if Italy and France, with large communist parties, could be taken, then perhaps all of Europe would fall under Soviet influence.

To prevent such an alarming scenario, a more sustained and better-organized reconstruction effort was needed. Thus, the Marshall Plan was born. In a speech at Harvard University on 5 June 1947, Secretary of State Marshall announced a plan for the reconstruction of Europe. He promised that the United States would undertake financial assistance to Europe but only if the nations of Europe got together, devised long-range assistance plans for economic recovery, and concentrated on self-help and mutual assistance.

Behind this initiative lay the fear that continued economic troubles would weaken the resistance of the surviving Western nations to communism. Of course, continued American prosperity was also tied to a European economic revival. Indeed, without an economically strong Western Europe—historically the largest trading partner with the United States—the future of American economic prowess and of capitalism in general might be seriously jeopardized.

A U.S. State Department planning group headed by George F. Kennan had sketched out the Marshall Plan. It was announced as open to all, but the plan was devised so that the Soviet Union would have to reject it and thus ensure congressional passage. Without Soviet participation, the probability of its success would also be greatly enhanced.

The plan called for a joint effort by the countries concerned and a strict accounting of aid to ensure that it would go not only to alleviating distress but also for constructive measures to restore economic stability. Molotov insisted on bilateral agreements in which the United States would give money to each country separately, with sums determined according to their proportionate shares in helping to defeat Germany. He claimed that American oversight of spending constituted interference in the internal affairs of the countries concerned. The Soviet Union feared that economic aid to the satellite countries might draw them to the West and for that reason did not permit them to participate.

In December 1947, the U.S. Congress passed an Interim Act for $522 million in aid; the following April it approved the Foreign Assistance Act and appropriated $6.8 billion for the first fifteen months of a program slated to run for four years. This came just in time to influence crucial elections in Italy, where the communists were making a bid for power; with American aid a reality, on 18 April 1948 the Christian Democrats won an absolute majority there.

Two days before this, on 16 April 1948, sixteen noncommunist European states signed a convention establishing the Organization for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC) in preparation for Marshall Plan assistance. During the next four years, Congress appropriated $13.15 billion in aid plus an additional sum for Asia, bringing the total to $14.2 billion. Marshall Plan aid was almost completely nonmilitary. Through 1949 the United States spent $20.5 billion on economic aid and only $1.2 billion in military aid. The Korean War, however, proved to be a watershed. From 1950 through 1954 the United States expended $14.1 billion on nonmilitary aid and $10.9 billion on military assistance.

Whatever the motives behind these developments in U.S. policy, the Marshall Plan made the recovery of Western Europe possible and began the process of spectacular growth that characterized the West European economies over the next two decades. It was also a strong impetus to economic unification, creating the momentum for European economic cooperation and leading to the European Common Market.

Both the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan were early manifestations of the containment policy against communist expansion. Writing in an unsigned ("Mr. X") article in the July 1947 issue of the influential Journal of Foreign Affairs, Kennan stated that U.S. policy "must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies." However, even Kennan did not visualize as total an implementation as occurred.

Communist reaction to the Marshall Plan went beyond rejecting it for Eastern Europe. A wave of communist-inspired strikes hit West European countries in protest against the plan and because communist ministers had been dropped from both the French and Italian cabinets in May 1947. The Soviet Union also began to rearm.

In October 1947 the Soviets established the nine-nation Communist Information Bureau, also known as the Cominform. It took the place of the old Communist International (Comintern), which had been abolished in 1943 in order to show solidarity with the Soviet Union's allies. The new agency had as its goal the propagation of communism throughout the world.

In January 1949 Moscow established the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, also known as Comecon. It was intended as an organization parallel to the OEEC for integrating the national economies of the satellite nations with that of the Soviet Union. The Kremlin also announced its own program of economic assistance, known as the Molotov Plan, but under it the Soviet Union received more than it gave, as raw materials were exchanged for shoddy and unwanted Soviet products.

In late November and early December 1947, the Council of Foreign Ministers (composed of the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, and France) made a final attempt at resolving the deadlock over Germany. It ended in total impasse. The lines had hardened, and the Soviets tightened their control in the satellite states. One by one, surviving opposition leaders were purged. In February 1948 Czechoslovakia fell to a communist coup d'etat. This sent a shock wave through Western Europe but also marked the zenith of communist expansion in Europe.

In early 1948 the three Western powers began discussing the establishment of a German government for their combined zones. The Western zones of Berlin seemed vulnerable, as they were an island deep within the Soviet zone of Germany. The Kremlin reasoned that if it could seize West Berlin, this might dishearten and intimidate the West. It might also discourage American adventures on the European side of the Atlantic. Beginning on 1 April 1948, little by little the Soviets cut off surface access to the city. A week later the Western governments introduced new currency for their zones. This was the signal for the blockade to begin in earnest. By early August it was complete.

Direction of this first major "battle" of the Cold War fell to the U.S. military governor in Germany, Lieutenant General Lucius Clay. He informed Washington that, were the United States to withdraw, "our position in Europe is threatened, and Communism will run rampant." Clay said that there were three alternatives: to withdraw from Berlin, to attempt to push an armored column up the autobahn, or to organize an airlift to try to supply the city by air. Truman's reaction was, "We shall stay, period." He opted for the third choice as least likely to lead to a shooting war with the Soviet Union.

While it would not be hard to supply Allied personnel by air, providing for more than 2 million Germans in the Western zones of Berlin seemed impossible. The airlift went on for 324 days. In it, the United States, Britain, and France flew 278,118 flights and transported more than 2.326 million tons of cargo.

The Russians expected to push the West out of Berlin without war and, despite numerous threats, never did challenge the aerial supply system. Both sides in effect drew back from a shooting war. By early 1949, however, the Russians were forced to conclude that the blockade was a failure. A counter-blockade of East Germany by the West deprived the Soviet Zone of essential goods, and this put pressure on the Russians. The Soviet representative on the UN Security Council, Jacob Malik, finally dropped a hint to his American counterpart, Philip Jessup, that the Russians were prepared to end the blockade. On 12 May 1949, land traffic to Berlin resumed. During the blockade, however, a new Basic Law (an ersatz constitution) for the West German Republic was approved.

By its pressure the USSR had forced the West Europeans to face up to the necessity of greater unity. This led to a whole series of treaties and organizations, such as the Council of Europe and the European Common Market. Militarily the emergency quickly brought about the Brussels Pact and the formation of NATO.

France and Great Britain had already signed a military alliance at Dunkirk in March 1947. A year later these two countries, along with Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, joined forces in the Treaty of Brussels. Fundamentally an agreement for social, economic, and cultural collaboration, it was also a military alliance of the five nations that inevitably took on the character of a defensive alliance against the Russians. Because the Treaty of Brussels (Brussels Pact) countries would obviously not be able to defend themselves without U.S. assistance, discussions were soon under way for a broader alliance.

In June 1948 there was a significant break with tradition in American foreign policy. Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg, Republican and chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, drafted a resolution that was approved by the Senate. It reaffirmed the U.S. policy of working with the UN. It was the sense of the Senate that the veto should be removed from all questions involving international disputes and the admission of new members. It also associated the United States "with such regional and other collective arrangements as are based on continuous and effective self-help and mutual aid, as affect the national security." This ran counter to George Washington's admonition against "entangling alliances," which had been heeded since 1796.

Talks began between the West European allies and the United States and, on 4 April 1949 the North Atlantic Pact was signed in Washington by the United States, Canada, Britain, France, the three Benelux states, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Portugal, and Italy. By this treaty, the twelve nations declared that "an armed attack against one or more ... shall be considered an attack against them all," and each would assist the attacked in whatever fashion it deemed best, including by armed force. The resultant NATO would be headed by a council and a defense committee; Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) was ultimately set up outside of Paris. The treaty went into effect, after ratification, on 24 August 1949 for a twenty-year period. As one pundit put it, "NATO was created to keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down." It could be argued, however, that the new American policies, so far removed from the public mood in 1945, were more the result of perceived Soviet pressure than any initiative from Washington.

Thus the opening round of the Cold War ended in stalemate, with each side entrenched in its half of the continent. For the time being, however, Europe had a breathing spell. But the status quo was about to change. In late August 1949 the USSR exploded its first atomic bomb, an event that shocked Washington and shattered the U.S. atomic monopoly. In October 1949 the communists were victorious in China, and on 25 June 1950 war broke out in Korea. The Cold War was entering a new and far more dangerous phase.

Spencer C. Tucker


Further Reading
Acheson, Dean. Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department. New York: W. W. Norton, 1959.; Bullock, Alan. Ernest Bevin: Foreign Secretary, 1945–1951. New York: Norton, 1983.; Byrnes, James F. Speaking Frankly. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1947.; Chace, James. Acheson: The Secretary of State Who Created the American World. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998.; Feis, Herbert. Between War and Peace: The Potsdam Conference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957.; Fontaine, Andre. History of the Cold War, 1917–1966. 2 vols. New York: Pantheon, 1968.; Gaddis, John L. We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.; Hogan, Michael J. A Cross of Iron: Harry S. Truman and the Origins of the National Security State, 1945–1954. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.; Kennan, George F. Memoirs, 1925–1950. Boston: Little, Brown, 1967.; Kuniholm, Bruce R. The Origins of the Cold War: Great Power Conflict and Diplomacy in Iran, Turkey and Greece. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.; Seton-Watson, Hugh. Neither War nor Peace: The Struggle for Power in the Postwar World. New York: Praeger, 1960.; Thomas, Hugh. Armed Truce: The Beginnings of the Cold War, 1945–1946. New York: Atheneum, 1987.; Yergin, Daniel H. Shattered Peace: The Origins of the Cold War. New York: Penguin, 1990.
 

©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

  About the Author/Editor
  Introduction
  Essays
  A
  B
  C
  D
  E
  F
  G
  H
  I
  J
  K
  L
  M
  N
  O
  P
  Q
  R
  S
  T
  U
  V
  W
  Y
  Z
  Z
  Documents
  Images
ABC-cLIO Footer