After World War II, the Soviet Union and its Western allies soon parted ways as mutual suspicions of the other's intentions and actions flourished. Eager to consolidate influence over a number of countries near the Soviet Union, Stalin pursued aggressive policies after World War II that provoked strong Western reaction. The United States worked to contain Soviet expansion in this period of international relations that has come to be known as the Cold War.
Mindful of the numerous invasions of Russia and the Soviet Union from the West throughout history, Stalin sought to create a buffer zone of subservient East European countries, most of which the Red Army (known as the Soviet army after 1946) had occupied in the course of the war. Taking advantage of its military occupation of these countries, the Soviet Union actively assisted local communist parties in coming to power. By 1948 seven East European countries had communist governments. The Soviet Union initially maintained control behind the "iron curtain" (to use Churchill's phrase) through troops, security police, and its diplomatic service. Unequal trade agreements with the East European countries permitted the Soviet Union access to valued resources.
Soviet actions in Eastern Europe helped produce Western hostility toward their former ally, but the Western powers could do nothing to halt consolidation of Soviet authority in that region short of going to war. However, the United States and its allies had greater success in halting Soviet expansion in areas where Soviet influence was more tenuous. British and American diplomatic support for Iran forced the Soviet Union to withdraw its troops from the northeastern part of that country in 1946. Soviet efforts to acquire territory from Turkey and establish a communist government in Greece were stymied when the United States extended military and economic support to those countries under the Truman Doctrine in 1947.
Later that year, the United States introduced the Marshall Plan for the economic recovery of other countries of Europe. The Soviet Union forbade the countries it dominated from taking part in the program, and the Marshall Plan contributed to reducing Soviet influence in the participating West European nations.
Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union became especially strained over the issue of Germany. At the Potsdam Conference of July-August 1945, the Allied Powers confirmed their decision to divide Germany and the city of Berlin into zones of occupation (with the eastern sectors placed under Soviet administration) until such time as the Allies would permit Germany to establish a central government. Disagreements between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies soon arose over their respective occupation policies and the matter of reparations.
In June 1948, the Soviet Union cut off the West's land access to the American, British, and French sectors of Berlin in retaliation for steps taken by the United States and Britain to unite Germany. Britain and the United States thereupon sponsored an airlift to keep the beleaguered sectors provisioned until the Soviet Union lifted the blockade in May 1949. Following the Berlin blockade, the West and the Soviet Union divided Germany into two countries, one oriented to the West, the other to the East. The crisis also provided the catalyst for the Western countries in 1949 to form the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a collective security system designed to use conventional armies and nuclear weapons to offset Soviet forces.
While the Soviet Union gained a new satellite nation in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), it lost its influence in Yugoslavia. The local communists in Yugoslavia had come into power without Soviet assistance, and their leader, Josip Broz Tito, refused to subordinate the country to Stalin's control. Tito's defiance led the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform--founded in 1947 to partially replace the Comintern, which had been abolished in 1943) to expel the Yugoslav party from the international communist movement in 1948. To guard against the rise of other independent leaders, Stalin purged many of the chief communists in other East European states.
In Asia, the Chinese Communists, headed by Mao Zedong and assisted by the Soviet Union, achieved victory over the Nationalists in 1949. Several months afterward, in 1950, China and the Soviet Union concluded a mutual defense treaty against Japan and the United States. Hard negotiations over concessions and aid between the two communist countries served as an indication that China, with its independent party and enormous population, would not become a Soviet satellite, although for a time their relations appeared particularly close.
Elsewhere in Asia, the Soviet Union pursued a vigorous policy of support for national liberation movements, especially in Malaya and Indochina, which were still colonies of Britain and France, respectively. Thinking that the West would not defend the Republic of Korea (South Korea), Stalin allowed or encouraged the Soviet-equipped forces of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) to invade South Korea in 1950. But forces from the United States and other members of the United Nations came to the aid of South Korea, leading China to intervene militarily on behalf of North Korea, probably on Soviet instigation.
Although the Soviet Union avoided direct participation in the conflict (which would end in 1953), the Korean War inspired the United States to strengthen its military capability and to conclude a peace treaty and security pact with Japan. Chinese participation in the war also strengthened China's independent position in relation to the Soviet Union.
Almost immediately after Stalin died, the collective leadership began altering the conduct of Soviet foreign policy to permit better relations with the West and new approaches to the nonaligned countries. Malenkov introduced a change in tone by speaking out against nuclear war as a threat to civilization. Khrushchev initially contradicted this position, saying capitalism alone would be destroyed in a nuclear war, but he adopted Malenkov's view after securing his preeminent position.
In 1955, to ease tensions between East and West, Khrushchev recognized permanent neutrality for Austria. Meeting President Dwight D. Eisenhower in Geneva, Switzerland, later that year, Khrushchev confirmed Soviet commitment to "peaceful coexistence" with capitalism. Regarding the developing nations, Khrushchev tried to win the goodwill of their national leaders, instead of following the established Soviet policy of shunning the governments while supporting local communist parties. Soviet influence in the international alignments of India and Egypt, as well as of other Third World countries, began in the middle of the 1950s. Cuba's entry into the socialist camp in 1961 was a coup for the Soviet Union.
With the gains of the new diplomacy came reversals as well. By conceding the independence of Yugoslavia in 1955 as well as by his de-Stalinization campaign, Khrushchev provoked unrest in Eastern Europe, where the policies of the Stalin era weighed heavily. In Poland, riots brought about a change in communist party leadership, which the Soviet Union reluctantly recognized in October 1956. A popular uprising against Soviet control then broke out in Hungary, where the local communist leaders, headed by Imre Nagy, called for a multiparty political system and withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, the defensive alliance founded by the Soviet Union and its East European satellites in 1955. The Soviet army crushed the revolt early in November 1956, causing numerous casualities. Although the Hungarian Revolution hurt Soviet standing in world opinion, it demonstrated that the Soviet Union would use force if necessary to maintain control over its satellite states in Eastern Europe.
Outside the Soviet sphere of control, China grew increasingly restive under Chinese Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong. Chinese discontent with the new Soviet leadership stemmed from low levels of Soviet aid, feeble Soviet support for China in its disputes with Taiwan and India, and the new Soviet doctrine of peaceful coexistence with the West (which Mao viewed as a betrayal of Marxism-Leninism). Against Khrushchev's wishes, China embarked on a nuclear arms program, declaring in 1960 that nuclear war could defeat imperialism.
The dispute between militant China and the more moderate Soviet Union escalated into a schism in the world communist movement after 1960. Albania left the Soviet camp and became an ally of China, Romania distanced itself from the Soviet Union in international affairs, and communist parties around the world split over orientation to Moscow or Beijing. The monolithic bloc of world communism had shattered.
Soviet relations with the West, especially the United States, seesawed between moments of relative relaxation and periods of tension and crisis. For his part, Khrushchev wanted peaceful coexistence with the West, not only to avoid nuclear war but also to permit the Soviet Union to develop its economy. Khrushchev's meetings with President Eisenhower in 1955 and President John F. Kennedy in 1961 and his tour of the United States in 1959 demonstrated the Soviet leader's desire for fundamentally smooth relations between the West and the Soviet Union and its allies.
Yet Khrushchev also needed to demonstrate to Soviet conservatives and militant Chinese that the Soviet Union was a firm defender of the socialist camp. Thus in 1958 Khrushchev challenged the status of Berlin; when the West would not yield to his demands that the western sectors be incorporated into East Germany, he approved the erection of the Berlin Wall around those sectors in 1961. To maintain national prestige, Khrushchev canceled a summit meeting with Eisenhower in 1960 after Soviet air defense troops shot down a United States U-2 reconnaissance aircraft over Soviet territory. Finally, mistrust over military intentions hobbled East-West relations during this time. The West feared the Soviet lead in space technology and saw in the buildup of the Soviet military an emerging "missile gap" in the Soviet Union's favor. By contrast, the Soviet Union felt threatened by a rearmed Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), by the United States alliance system encircling the Soviet Union, and by the West's superior strategic and economic strength.
To offset the United States military advantage and thereby improve the Soviet negotiating position, Khrushchev in 1962 tried to install nuclear missiles in Cuba, but he agreed to withdraw them after Kennedy ordered a blockade around the island nation. After coming close to war in the Cuban missile crisis, the Soviet Union and the United States took steps to reduce the nuclear threat. In 1963 the two countries established the "hot line" between Washington and Moscow to reduce the likelihood of accidental nuclear war. In the same year, the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which forbade testing nuclear weapons in the atmosphere.
A major concern of Khrushchev's successors was to reestablish Soviet primacy in the community of communist states by undermining the influence of China. Although the new leaders originally approached China without hostility, Mao's condemnation of Soviet foreign policy as "revisionist" and his competition for influence in the Third World soon led to a worsening of relations between the two countries. Sino-Soviet relations reached a low point in 1969 when clashes broke out along the disputed Ussuri River in the Far East. Later the Chinese, intimidated by Soviet military strength, agreed not to patrol the border area claimed by the Soviet Union; but strained relations between the two countries continued into the early 1980s.
Under the collective leadership, the Soviet Union again used force in Eastern Europe, this time in Czechoslovakia. In 1968 reform-minded elements of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia rapidly began to liberalize their rule, loosen censorship, and strengthen Western ties. In response, Soviet and other Warsaw Pact troops entered Czechoslovakia and installed a new regime. Out of these events arose the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine, which warned that the Soviet Union would act to maintain its hegemony in Eastern Europe. Soviet suppression of the reform movement reduced blatant gestures of defiance on the part of Romania and served as a threatening example to the Polish Solidarity trade union movement in 1980. But it also helped disillusion communist parties in Western Europe to the extent that by 1977 most of the leading parties embraced Eurocommunism, which freed them to pursue political programs independent of Moscow's dictates.
Soviet influence in the developing world expanded somewhat during this period. New communist or Marxist governments having close relations with the Soviet Union rose to power in several countries, including Vietnam, Ethiopia, and Nicaragua. In the Middle East, the Soviet Union vied for influence by backing the Arabs in their dispute with Israel. After the June 1967 War, the Soviet Union rebuilt the defeated Syrian and Egyptian armies, but it suffered a setback when Egypt expelled Soviet advisers from the country in 1972 and subsequently entered a closer relationship with the United States. The Soviet Union retained ties with Syria and supported Palestinian claims for their right to an independent state. But Soviet prestige among moderate Muslim states suffered in the 1980s as a result of Soviet military activities in Afghanistan. Attempting to shore up a communist government in that country, Brezhnev sent in Soviet armed forces in December 1979, but a large part of the Afghan population resisted both the occupiers and the Marxist Afghan regime. The resulting war in Afghanistan continued to be an unresolved problem for the Soviet Union at the time of Brezhnev's death in 1982.
Soviet relations with the West first improved, then deteriorated in the years after Khrushchev. The gradual winding down of the United States commitment to the war in Vietnam after 1968 opened the way for negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union on the subject of nuclear arms. After the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons was signed in July 1968, the two countries began the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) in 1969. At the Moscow Summit of May 1972, Brezhnev and President Richard M. Nixon signed Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Interim Agreement on the limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms. Both agreements essentially froze the deployment of strategic defensive andd offensive weapons.
A period of détente, or relaxation of tensions, between the two superpowers emerged, with a further agreement concluded to establish ceilings on the number of offensive weapons on both sides in 1974. The crowning achievement of the era of détente was the signing in 1975 of the Helsinki Accords, which ratified the postwar status quo in Europe and bound the signatories to respect basic principles of human rights.
But even during the period of détente, the Soviet Union increased weapons deployments, with the result that by the end of the 1970s it achieved parity or even superiority in strength compared with the United States. The Soviet Union also heightened its condemnation of the NATO alliance in an attempt to weaken Western unity. Although SALT a second agreement was signed by Brezhnev and President Jimmy Carter in Vienna in 1979, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the Carter administration withdrew the agreement from consideration by the United States Senate, and détente effectively came to an end. In reaction to the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan, the United States imposed a grain embargo on the Soviet Union and boycotted the Summer Olympics in Moscow in 1980. Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union continued up to Brezhnev's death.
In 1989, the people of Eastern Europe' started a series of revolutions that ushered in many dramatic changes. In August 1989, following success in elections, the newly legalised Solidarnosc attempted to form a coalition government with the communists. On 22 August 1989 the communists agreed to participate in the Solidarnosc led government. This was a key moment as it meant that the Soviets were prepared to see East European communists give up power, and really were not prepared to return to the past and use force (or the threat of force) to sustain communist power and Soviet influence in Eastern Europe.
Perhaps the most notable was when, on November 10, 1989, the Berlin Wall was peacefully torn down by thousands of jubilant East and West German citizens. For twenty-eight years, the Berlin Wall bottled up far more than the frustration of 17 million East Germans, it symbolized the division of Europe and the 20th century's longest war - the Cold War. In 1989, forty years of history in Eastern Europe the Communist period was challenged and rejected and by some the Cold War was declared over. Life after the Berlin Wall was radically different for the people of East Europe.
When the Berlin Wall came crashing down it symbolically foretold the end of the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The collapse of the monolithic communist state soon followed, and by 1991 much of what was one termed by Ronald Reagan as "the evil empire" had disappeared. What emerged were independent states with uncertain futures; states whose promised goal was democracy, but whose reality bespoke a lingering attachment to past practices.
Within a year the 106-kilometer-long Berlin Wall was being dismantled, former jailed dissident Vaclav Havel was president of Czechoslovakia, dictatorships from Bulgaria to the Baltics were overturned, and 100 million people in Eastern Europe were given an opportunity to choose their own governments after 40 years of communist domination.
The West, above all, did not win the cold war. The Soviet Union lost the Cold War.
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