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Cold War - Early Years

The cold war began with the struggle for control of the politics of these nations. By 1948, pro-Soviet regimes were in power in Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Czechoslovakia. The Western democracies, led by the United States, were determined to stop the spread of communism and Soviet power. While not being able to stop the Soviets in Eastern Europe, the U.S. and Britain were determined to prevent communist regimes from achieving power in Western Europe. During the Second World War, communists parties throughout Western Europe, had gained popularity in their resistance to Nazi occupation. There was a real possibility the communist parties would be elected in both France and Italy.

The nation's new chief executive, Harry S Truman, succeeded Franklin D. Roosevelt as president before the end of the war. An unpretentious man who had previously served as Democratic senator from Missouri, then as vice president, Truman initially felt ill-prepared to govern. Roosevelt had not discussed complex postwar issues with him, and he had little experience in international affairs. "I'm not big enough for this job," he told a former colleague. Still, Truman responded quickly to new challenges. Sometimes impulsive on small matters, he proved willing to make hard and carefully considered decisions on large ones. A small sign on his White House desk declared, "The Buck Stops Here."

The Cold War developed as differences about the shape of the postwar world created suspicion and distrust between the United States and the Soviet Union. The first - and most difficult - test case was Poland, the eastern half of which had been invaded and occupied by the USSR in 1939. Moscow demanded a government subject to Soviet influence; Washington wanted a more independent, representative government following the Western model. The Yalta Conference of February 1945 had produced an agreement on Eastern Europe open to different interpretations. It included a promise of "free and unfettered" elections.

Meeting with Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov less than two weeks after becoming president, Truman stood firm on Polish self-determination, lecturing the Soviet diplomat about the need to implement the Yalta accords. When Molotov protested, "I have never been talked to like that in my life," Truman retorted, "Carry out your agreements and you won't get talked to like that." Relations deteriorated from that point onward.

Public statements defined the beginning of the Cold War. In 1946 Stalin declared that international peace was impossible "under the present capitalist development of the world economy." Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered a dramatic speech in Fulton, Missouri, with Truman sitting on the platform. "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic," Churchill said, "an iron curtain has descended across the Continent." Britain and the United States, he declared, had to work together to counter the Soviet threat.

Harry Truman was the first American president to fight the Cold War. His judgments about how to respond to the Soviet Union ultimately determined the shape of the early Cold War. Probably the most important, certainly the most forgotten, and surely the most controversial, was the decision to concentrate on the European theater, rather than the Pacific. Avoiding a two front war has long been a fundamental strategic choice. Germany during the 20th Century was bedeviled by two front wars, and the Allies gave preference to the European theater [where the Soviet Union was engaged with Germany] over the Pacific theater [where the Soviets remained at peace with Japan]. Truman was in a sense re-affirming the geographical preferences of the struggle against the Axis in his priorities in the struggle against Communism.

George Catlett Marshall was chief of staff of the United States Army from 1939 through 1945 and the principal American military architect of Allied victory. Marshall was special representative of the president to China, from 1945 until 1947. He concluded that no describable amount of American aid could save Chiang Kai Chek from the communists, and returned to Washington to propose a strategy that concentrated on Europe. Marshall retired from active service February 1947, and served as Secretary of State from 21 January 1947 until 21 January 1949.

In March 1947, President Truman asked Congress for $400 million in aid for Greece and Turkey. "It must be the policy of the United States," he argued in what became known as the Truman Doctrine, "to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." The Truman Doctrine was a plan to give money and military aid to countries threatened by communism. The Truman Doctrine effectively stopped communists from taking control of Greece and Turkey.

And in April 1948 the Marshall Plan was announced, to provide financial and economic assistance to the nations of Western Europe. This strengthened the economies and governments of countries in western Europe, and as the economies of Western Europe improved, the popularity of communist parties declined.

During the closing months of World War II, Soviet military forces occupied all of Central and Eastern Europe. Moscow used its military power to support the efforts of the Communist parties in Eastern Europe and crush the democratic parties. Communists took over one nation after another. The process concluded with a shocking coup d'etat in Czechoslovakia in 1948.

The conflict came to center on the future of Germany, and the Soviet Union blockaded all surface transport into West Berlin in June 1948. In June 1948 the Soviets blocked all ways into the western part of Berlin, Germany. President Truman quickly ordered military planes to fly coal, food, and medicine to the city. The planes kept coming, sometimes landing every few minutes, for more than a year. The United States received help from Britain and France. Together, they provided almost 2.5 million tons of supplies on about 280,000 flights. Gradually there was a massive build up of an airlift of supplies into that city through until September 1949, although the blockade was officially lifted in May 1949.

The United States also led the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949. NATO was a joint military group. Its purpose was to defend against Soviet forces in Europe [or, as the saying went, "to keep Russia out, America in and Germany down"]. The first members of NATO were Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, and the United States. The Soviet Union and its east European allies formed their own joint military group -- the Warsaw Pact -- six years later.




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