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Origins of the Cold War

The Cold War was the most important political and diplomatic issue of the early postwar period. It grew out of longstanding disagreements between the Soviet Union and the United States that developed after the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Soviet Communist Party under V.I. Lenin considered itself the spearhead of an international movement that would replace the existing political orders in the West, and indeed throughout the world. In 1918 American troops participated in the Allied intervention in Russia on behalf of anti-Bolshevik forces. American diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union did not come until 1933. Even then, suspicions persisted. During World War II, however, the two countries found themselves allied and downplayed their differences to counter the Nazi threat.

Beginning in the 1930s Josef Stalin had tried to reach some sort of understanding with the West, but only because he viewed Nazi Germany as the greater threat. Indeed, after concluding that the West was not interested in working with him, he made his own agreement with Hitler in 1939. That agreement, of course, was quickly forgotten after the German invasion of the Soviet Union two years later. After the United States entered the war in December 1941 the administration began encouraging Americans to view the Soviet Union not as a threat, but rather as a partner both for victory over the Axis and for maintaining peace in the postwar world. In newspaper and magazine articles, speeches and Hollywood films, Americans were told again and again that although the Russian people had a different economic system, they were equally committed to democratic values and to a peaceful, stable world order.

The military alliance with the Red Army during the Second World War only served to defeat Hitler and Mussolini and liberate Europe. Towards the end of the war hostilities resurfaced and the former comrade in arms became bitter adversaries in the Cold War. War did not end in 1945 but simply shifted to a lower level. At the war's end, antagonisms surfaced again.

As the War neared its conclusion, the future of Eastern Europe became a point of contention between the Soviet Union and its Western allies. From the Soviet perspective, the Western democracies had provided material assistance to the Soviets during the Great Patriotic War, their struggle to expel the forces of Hitlerite Fascism which had invaded the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union demanded "defensible" borders and "friendly" regimes in Eastern Europe and seemingly equated both with the spread of Communism, regardless of the wishes of native populations. However, the United States had declared that one of its war aims was the restoration of independence and self-government to Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the other countries of Central and Eastern Europe. From the Western perspective, during the Second World War, the Soviet Union was an ally of the Western democracies, in their struggle against the Axis Powers of Germany, Japan and Italy.

The United States hoped to share with other countries its conception of liberty, equality, and democracy. It sought also to learn from the perceived mistakes of the post-WWI era, when American political disengagement and economic protectionism were thought to have contributed to the rise of dictatorships in Europe and elsewhere. Faced again with a postwar world of civil wars and disintegrating empires, the nation hoped to provide the stability to make peaceful reconstruction possible. Recalling the specter of the Great Depression (1929-1940), America now advocated open trade for two reasons: to create markets for American agricultural and industrial products, and to ensure the ability of Western European nations to export as a means of rebuilding their economies. Reduced trade barriers, American policy makers believed, would promote economic growth at home and abroad, bolstering U.S. friends and allies in the process.

The Soviet Union had its own agenda. The Russian historical tradition of centralized, autocratic government contrasted with the American emphasis on democracy. Marxist-Leninist ideology had been downplayed during the war but still guided Soviet policy. Devastated by the struggle in which 20 million Soviet citizens had died, the Soviet Union was intent on rebuilding and on protecting itself from another such terrible conflict.

THe official Soviet view was that immediately after the end of World War II, the strategic concepts and doctrines for achieving world domination became the official program of the American government. US President H. Truman in a message to Congress in December 1945 stated: "The victory which we have won has placed on the American people the burden of constant responsibility for world leadership." Having overtly laid claim to world domination and having set out to eliminate the socialist states for force of arms, the United States sharply intensified its military preparations and initiated measures to rebuild the military potentials of the imperialist powers and establish military blocs.

The Soviets were particularly concerned about another invasion of their territory from the west. Having repelled Hitler's thrust, they were determined to preclude another such attack. The Soviet Union had been invaded via Eastern Europe in both the First and Second World Wars. In both conflicts, some of the nations of Eastern Europe had participated in those invasions. Both Wars had devastated the Soviet Union. An estimated twenty-five million Russians were killed during the Second World War. The Soviet Union was determined to install "friendly" regimes throughout Eastern Europe following the War. The strategic goal was to protect its European borders from future invasions. Since the Soviet Union was a communist state, the Soviet government preferred to install communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe. The Red Army was liberating the nations of Eastern Europe and therefore, the Soviet Union was in a position to influence the type of governments that would emerge following the War.

The Soviets believed that they had an agreement with the western democracies that made Eastern Europe a Soviet sphere of influence, i.e. the Soviet Union would have dominant influence in that region. In 1945 Joseph Stalin pronounced that any freely elected governments in Poland, Czechoslovakia and other Eastern European states would be anti-Soviet and he refused to allow this. In March 1946 Winston Churchill referred to an iron curtain descending across the continent.

The origins of the cold war have, almost from the beginning, attracted wide attention from commentators, participants, and policy advocates. More recently, access to some archival sources and different ideological perspectives have sparked a lively historical debate over the degree of US and USSR culpability for the breakdown of the wartime alliance.

In the "revisionist" view of the Cold War, the United States, not the Soviet Union, was mainly to blame for the hostility that arose in US/Soviet relations after 1945. The revisionists argued that Stalin believed he had negotiated a clear security perimeter in eastern Europe, with Churchill at least, and that the increasingly negative US reactions to these policies prompted his countermeasures. The revisionists were generally certain that the atomic bomb further scared Stalin into many such actions. Some argued the United States dropped the bomb, not to defeat Japan, but to intimidate the Soviet Union and that US/Soviet relations were dominated by the Soviets' resulting fear and insecurity. Most revisionists said that throughout the Cold War US policy was victim to a mistaken view of the situation, misled by long-outdated lines of thought. Some also believed that there wes large groups of people on both sides with a vested interest in the Cold War and its continuation.

If Churchill's strategy had been followed, Western military forces would have produced a greater geographical balance with the Soviets. Berlin, Vienna, and Prague would not have been as much of a problem as they were. Churchill (unknown to Roosevelt) made his arrangement with Stalin in October 1944 - giving the Soviet Union primacy in Rumania and Bulgaria in exchange for British predominance in Greece and a fifty-fifty interest in Yugoslavia and Hungary. If he had not done so, there would probably not have been such aggitated US reaction to Soviet moves in those areas. Roosevelt appeared to fear resurgent British and French colonialism more than he feared the Soviets, being genuinely scandalized, for example, at the British intervention in Greece.

On 05 March 1946, Britain's wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, in a speech in Fulton, Missouri, warned: "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia; all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject, in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow." Some have suggested the temporal boundaries for the Cold War as running from the March 1946 "Iron Curtain speech of Winston Churchill to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.

The reaction to Churchill's speech was mostly negative. Though the Wall Street Journal thought it brilliant with a "hard core of indisputable fact," most papers viewed with alarm and distaste the prospect of a British-American military alliance. In Congress three Democratic Senators described the speech as "shocking" and Henry Wallace, Secretary of Commerce said: "Mr. Churchill is not speaking for the American people and their government."

The famous author, Pearl Buck, called Churchill's speech, the Iron Curtain speech, a "catastrophe." George Bernard Shaw deemed it "a declaration of war on Russia." And Walter Lippmann, the commentator, privately wrote that the speech was "a direct incitement to a preventive war" and an "almost catastrophic blunder." Newspapers had little better to say about it. The Chicago Sun denounced Churchill's comments about the Iron Curtain as "poisonous," and Newsweek that the speech had produced "the worst diplomatic storm of the post-war period."

The English House of Commons also largely disapproved of Churchill's speech; one hundred members of parliament signed a formal motion prqtesting it. In Russia, Stalin charged that Churchill's speech was a "dangerous acf calculated to sow the seeds of discord among Allied governments and hamper their cooperation." Churchill speech was received unfavorably on both sides of the Atlantic for several reasons. American and British peoples still remembered the heroic resistance of the Russians during the war, and there was wide spread hope that the wartime alliance could be extended to peacetime.

Although Churchill did not coin the term "Iron Curtain" it was this speech that popularized it - so much so that to this day the address is usually referred to as the "Iron Curtain Speech." It seems the term was actually was first used by German Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels in the final weeks of World War II. In "Das Jahr 2000," Das Reich, 25 February 1945, pp. 1-2, Goebbels wrote that "If the German people lay down their weapons, the Soviets, according to the agreement between Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, would occupy all of East and Southeast Europe along with the greater part of the Reich. An iron curtain would fall over this enormous territory controlled by the Soviet Union, behind which nations would be slaughtered. The Jewish press in London and New York would probably still be applauding. "

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Page last modified: 19-09-2017 12:02:43 ZULU