Cold War tensions: The USSR and the West

‘How and why did the wartime alliance between the USSR and the West degenerate so quickly into Cold War animosity?’

CHURCHILL STALIN TRUMAN
A photo from July 23, 1945 showing the handshake between Winston Churchill, left, Harry S. Truman and Josef Stalin, in Potsdam, Germany.

The emergence of the Cold War, as a consequence of the breakdown in relations between the West and the Soviet Union, is an issue that has been widely debated amongst historians. There are numerous explanations as to how and why the wartime alliance degenerated so quickly into animosity; Eric Morris regards the post-war settlement of the issues surrounding Germany as one of the most complex problems of modern international relations.[1] John Lewis Gaddis agrees with Morris’s opinion saying that US-Soviet relations became an object of rapt attention and anxiety for the whole world during the cold war period.[2] Historians fall into different schools of thought regarding the causes of the degeneration of the West and the USSR’s alliance. The traditional view, mainly present during the 1940s, sees the outbreak of the cold war primarily as the result of Stalin’s drive for Soviet expansion. This view dominated the understanding of the degeneration of Western and USSR relations until the 1960s until the revisionist view came to light. Revisionist historians believe that the failure of the wartime alliance lies primarily with the US and especially with Truman’s hard-line policies and the demands of US capitalism. They believe that the US wanted a Cold War to promote a new economic order and secure markets throughout Asia and Europe. Finally neo-revisionism, led by Gaddis in the 1970s, focuses the blame on Stalin and his authoritarian system; believing they were guilty for the outbreak of confrontation. However, they also acknowledge that there is a labyrinthine nature of the origins of the cold war due to the misunderstandings and misperceptions on all sides in the months after World War Two.

It is no simple matter for historians to explain the breakdown in the wartime alliance, since the history of the two countries presented ample basis for mutual distrust. Morris believes the US-Soviet alliance was one of the most unnatural ever seen and that they were only ever wartime allies for convenience.[3] Once the shared goal of defeating Germany was achieved it became apparent that the two superpowers did not have any shared ideas or policies beyond the end of the war. Suny believed that the big three were merely allies of convenience, bound together by their determination to defeat the Axis powers.[4] In addition he points out that they never signed a treaty of alliance, which made it more difficult to develop the degree of trust and mutual long-term interest that sustainable alliances require. Boyle shares the idea that the wartime alliance was purely a ‘wartime alliance of convenience which was bound to evaporate once the common enemy was gone’.[5] David Painter agrees, saying that the end of the war removed the main incentive for co-operation between the Soviet Union and the United States; making it less likely for them to compromise on any outstanding issues.[6]

During World War Two observers of the international scene had expected differences to eventually arise among the victors. However they had hoped that a sufficiently strong framework of common interests, such as a mutually acceptable agreement on spheres of influence, would develop; keeping the differences within reasonable limits.[7] Unfortunately this was not the case and ideological differences constituted a key source of antagonism. Stalin had deliberately downplayed the Soviet commitment to communism during the war, however the communist movement remained the instrument of Soviet policy and the Russians used it to facilitate their projection of influence into Eastern Europe.[8] Americans were traditionally hostile towards communism since it was viewed as an alien ideology which suppressed political, economic and religious freedoms.[9] Some historians, such as Fleming, see the cold war as a basic ideological battle of democracy versus communism, dating back as far as the Bolsheviks rise to power in 1917.[10] Painter points out that the Soviets had not forgotten Western hostility towards their revolution or their intervention in the civil war.[11] It would appear as if this played a part in the breakdown in relations between the two sides since Roosevelt allowed for the possibility that a ‘cold war’ might not happen, while Stalin regarded it as inevitable.[12]

According to Norman Graebner, most people who study the Cold War find that its origins lie in the events of World War Two and in particular the division of Germany out of which spheres of influence grew.[13] By early 1946 relations had deteriorated and a war of words had broken out between the USSR and the West, with the issue of Germany providing the focal point of the disagreements. A unified Germany was the preferred solution, especially in the US camp.[14] However, the Americans and the Soviets had some very different ideas about Germany’s future. The United States wanted to rebuild the Germany economy in order to bring about a functioning Europe whereas the Soviet Union championed the idea of keeping Germany weak.[15] As Levering notes, Stalin’s optimal goal was a reunified pro-Soviet Germany; “All of Germany must be our, that is, Soviet, Communist.”[16] If Germany was kept submissive and weak Stalin believed there was a greater chance it would become vulnerable to communist rule. The zones of occupation within Germany were seen as a necessary, but temporary imposition. However, ultimately the ‘division of Germany into two separate and hostile blocs underlined the state of acute rivalry between the two superpowers and demonstrated that the wartime partnership could not persist into peacetime.’[17]

However, it was not only the division of Germany that led to the breakdown in the war-time alliance. In the mid to late 1940s the Soviets, within their occupation zone in Germany, repeatedly deprived large numbers of people of some of their individual rights valued in the West; such as freedom of speech, the right to a fair trial and the right to hold free elections. In order to counter these blatant breaches of the agreements made at Potsdam, the three Western occupying powers decided to move towards the formation of an independent West German State in February 1948.[18] Stalin’s response was to try and force the Western powers out of Berlin by imposing a blockade on land access to Berlin.

The Soviet blockade directly affected relations between the US and USSR, and with the West emerging victorious it only served to further the USSR’s annoyance and desperation to not lose their foothold in Europe. According to Smith, the Soviets were fearful of the emergence of an anti-communist West Germany and attempted to prevent this from happening by using Berlin to make Germany a point of tension.[19] Although Berlin was a localised crisis it was one with much wider possibilities and dangers, bringing the United States and Soviet Union as close to war as they would come during the early post-war years.[20] The United States and the Soviet Union were presented with the best possible chance to re-establish the balance of power in Europe, however this chance was lost and instead an East-West polarity was established based on the partition of Germany.[21]

According to Martin McCauley, the doctrine of containment played a decisive role in American thinking about the developing communism versus democracy conflict; with George Kennan the biggest advocator of this policy.[22] Kennan believed that the Soviets were going to do all within their power to strengthen the socialist bloc while simultaneously weakening the capitalist countries; he thus believed the western nations needed to draw together and adopt a policy of firmness towards the USSR.[23] McCauley regards Kennan’s ‘Long Telegram’ from 1946 as one of the most important documents of the post-war era, since he believes it was the decisive factor in the Truman administration’s change of course to a policy of firmness towards the USSR.[24] Gaddis writes that neither the United States nor the Soviet Union was prepared to abandon their spheres of influence, which was fine initially. However, the difficulty was that unlike western powers the Soviet Union’s gains took place largely without the approval of the governments and people of the areas involved; whereas the West did not find it necessary to deprive people of the right to self-determination.[25] The ruthless establishment of a communist government in Poland aroused American charges that Stalin had gone back on his undertaking at Yalta to allow free elections to take place.[26] Truman spoke to Molotov and told him in no uncertain terms to carry out the agreements made at Yalta and hold free elections.

“The first tool of America’s containment policy was economic”; which is why the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan became prominent policies.[27] Melvyn Leffler states that, ‘the Marshall Plan was the catalyst that brought about the final divisions of Germany and Europe’.[28] Morris is of the same opinion; he believes that although the failure to reach an agreement at Potsdam resulted in the beginning of a disintegrating process it was the Truman Doctrine, implemented through the Marshall Plan, and the policies that proceeded from it which hardened and maintained a division of Europe.[29] These policies ushered in a period of hostility between the USSR and the west on every level short of all out war. Containment started to dictate American actions, such as with the Korean War where the United States were keen to contain the Soviet influence. Gaddis points out that when North Korean forces crossed the border the Russians were astonished when Truman quickly ordered US troops to defend South Korea.[30] However, Truman justified this action by making it clear he believed communism had passed beyond the use of subversion to conquer independent nations and was now prepared to use armed invasion or war. As Smith States, ‘the decision to intervene militarily in 1950 reflected Truman’s belief that communism must be contained globally’.[31]

It is extremely difficult to determine exactly why the wartime alliance between the USSR and the West degenerated so quickly into Cold War animosity. There are those historians, such as Louis B. Halle who view the Soviet-American confrontation in 1945 as a tragic and unavoidable condition created by World War Two itself.[32] As Gaddis states, ‘few things ever are inevitable in history. But a situation such as existed in Europe in 1945, seems almost predestined to produce hostility’.[33] However, as mentioned previously there is also the view that it was the fault of either the Americans or the Soviets. Paul Seabury for one puts forward a widely accepted view that the Cold War could have been avoided if the Americans had desisted from their tragic course of making the Russian’s suspicious through their actions within Germany amongst other things.[34] On the other hand, Leffler believed that at no point did Stalin strive for a stable post-war order.

Historical investigation of the origins of the cold war attaches crucial significance to the events of the mid 1940s; so fundamental was the change in the European balance of power that those particular years are regarded as marking a historical watershed.[35] It is also apparent that although personalities were important, this was also a struggle between rival economic, political and social systems.[36] Despite the numerous opinions and theories regarding the origins of Cold War animosity, it is impossible to pinpoint an exact reason as to why the wartime alliance degenerated so rapidly. This is because “the cold war remains the most enigmatic and elusive international conflict of modern times”.[37]

 

[1] E. Morris, Blockade: Berlin and the Cold War (Newton Abbot: Stein and Day, 1974) p. 46

[2] J.L. Gaddis, Russia, the Soviet Union and the United States: An Interpretive History (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978) p. 175

[3] E. Morris, Blockade: Berlin and the Cold War (Newton Abbot: Stein and Day, 1974) p. 48

[4] Ronald Grigor Suny, The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the USSR, and the Successor States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) p. 341

[5] Peter G Boyle, American Soviet Relations: From the Russian Revolution to the Fall of Communism (London: Routledge, 1993) p. 40

[6] David S. Painter, The Cold War, An International Perspective (London: Routledge, 1999) p. 14

[7] John Lewis Gaddis, Russia, the Soviet Union and the United States: An Interpretive History (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978) p. 175

[8] John Lewis Gaddis, Russia, the Soviet Union and the United States: An Interpretive History (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978) p. 177

[9] Joseph Smith, The Cold War: 1945-1965 (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1989) p. 2

[10] Joseph Smith, The Cold War 1945-1991(Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1989) p. 20

[11] David S. Painter, The Cold War, An International Perspective (London: Routledge, 1999) p. 12

[12] J.L. Gaddis, ‘Grand Strategies in the Cold War’, in The Cambridge History of the Cold War Volume 2, eds. Melvyn Leffler and Odd Arne Westad (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) pp. 1-21 (p. 3).

[13] Norman A. Graebner, ‘Cold War origins and the continuing debate: a review of recent literature’, in The Journal of Conflict Resolution, 13 (1969) p. 124

[14] Marc Trachtenberg, A Constructed Peace, the Making of the European Settlement 1945-1963 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990) p. 21

[15] Joseph Smith, The Cold War 1945-1965 (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1989) p. 10

[16] R. Levering, V. Pechatnov, V. Botzenhart-Viehe and C. Edmundson, Debating the Origins of the Cold War, American and Russian Perspectives, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) p. 119

[17] Joseph Smith, The Cold War 1945-1965 (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1989) p. 11

[18] John Lewis Gaddis, Russia, the Soviet Union and the United States: An Interpretive History (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978) p. 191

[19] Joseph Smith, The Cold War 1945-1965 (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1989) p. 23

[20] Caroline Kennedy-Pipe, The Origins of the Cold War (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) p. 137

[21] Robert Cecil, ‘Potsdam and Its Legends’, International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-) 40 (1970) p. 455

[22] Martin McCauley, The Origins of the Cold War 1941-1949, (London: Routledge, 1995) p. 71

[23] Ibid. p. 72

[24] Ibid. p. 73

[25] John Lewis Gaddis, Russia, the Soviet Union and the United States: An Interpretive History (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978) p. 177

[26] Joseph Smith, The Cold War: 1945-1965 (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1989) p. 11

[27] Wilfried Loth, ‘The Cold War and the Social and Economic History of the Twentieth Century’ in The Cambridge History of the Cold War Volume 2, eds. Melvyn Leffler and Odd Arne Westad (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) pp. 503-524 (p. 510).

[28] Melvyn P. Leffler, ‘The American Drive for Security’ in The Origins of the Cold War, eds. Thomas Paterson and Robert McMahon  (Lexington, Mass., 1991) p. 230

[29] Eric Morris, Blockade, Berlin and the Cold War (Newton Abbot: Stein and Day, 1974) p. 50

[30] John Lewis Gaddis, Russia, the Soviet Union and the United States: An Interpretive History (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978) p. 201

[31] Joseph Smith, The Cold War: 1945-1965 (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1989) p. 53

[32] Louis B. Halle, The Cold War as History (New York: Harper and Row, 1967) p. 125

[33] John Lewis Gaddis, Russia, the Soviet Union and the United States: An Interpretive History (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978) p. 180

[34] Paul Seabury, ‘Cold War Origins, I’ Journal of Contemporary History 3 (1968) p. 178

[35] Joseph Smith, The Cold War 1945-1965 (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1989) p. 17

[36] Michael F. Hopkins, ‘Continuing Debate and New Approaches in Cold War History’ The Historical Journal 50 (2007) p. 913

[37] Norman A. Graebner, ‘Cold War origins and the continuing debate: a review of recent literature’, The Journal of Conflict Resolution 13 (1969)  p. 123

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