The Beginnings of the Cold War

Title:       Civilizations Past And Present

The Bipolar "North," 1945-1991

Author:      Leon Clarck 



The Elusive Peace


Soviet And American Spheres




     The Cold War - the 50 years of great power tension after World War II -

did not see a formal state of war between the U.S. and USSR. However, "proxy

wars" fought by the clients of each superpower and conflicts occurring in the

wake of decolonization killed millions in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Ironically, Europe, caught in the stalemate between the United States and the

Soviet Union enjoyed its longest time of peace in recorded history.


     Washington and Moscow led their allies through the postwar decades with a

mixture of aggressiveness and wisdom. From the first, the west's economic and

social structures were more productive than those of the eastern bloc. Yet

through a massive effort, the Soviet Union achieved military parity with the

west by the mid-1970s. By the last decade of the twentieth century, economic

exhaustion brought an end to the Cold War. Increased cooperation characterized

the relations between Moscow and Washington, as both looked to a new era in

which they would try to keep their dominant roles in the world.


The Elusive Peace


     After World War II, many of the living had reason to envy the dead. Fire

bombs and nuclear weapons depopulated and spread radiation to parts of Japan.

One-fourth of Germany's cities were in rubble as were much of Italy and

central Europe. The war claimed 10 percent of Yugoslavia's population. In

China, after 15 years of fighting, the survivors faced hunger, disease, civil

war, and revolution. Twenty-five million people died in the Soviet Union, and

the country lost one-third of its national wealth. Although casualty rates in

Britain and France were lower than in World War I, both countries paid dearly

in lives and in the ruin that took one-fourth of their national wealth. The

allied countries such as the United States - which suffered 389,000 casualties

- Canada, Australia, and New Zealand suffered no material damage but paid a

heavy price in combat dead.


Postwar Problems


     Postwar Europe faced two immediate problems: the fate of collaborators

and millions of Nazi labor slaves. In countries that had been occupied by the

Nazis, resistance groups began to take vigilante justice against those who had

worked with the Germans. Across Europe they executed thousands of

collaborators. In France alone 800 were sent to their deaths. After the war,

courts sentenced thousands more to prison terms. Eight million foreign labor

slaves who had been used by the Nazis remained to be dealt with. By the end of

1945, five million of them had been sent home, including many Soviet citizens

who were forced to return. Some of them chose suicide rather than return to

Stalin's rule.


     In Germany, following the Yalta agreement, the Allies established four

occupation zones - French, British, American, and Russian. They divided the

capital, Berlin, located in the Soviet sector, into four parts. The Russians

promised free access from the western zones to Berlin. The Allies then began

to carry out a selective process of denazification. Some former Nazis were

sent to prison while thousands received the benefits of large-scale

declarations of amnesty. Many ex-Nazis were employed by the scientific and

intelligence services of the Allies.


     The most important denazification act came at the 1945-1946 trials of war

criminals held at Nuremburg. An international panel of jurists conducted the

proceedings and condemned 12 leading Nazis to be hanged and sent seven to

prison for crimes against humanity. The panel acquitted three high officials.

Critics condemned the trials as an act of vengeance, "a political act by the

victors against the vanquished." The prosecution stated, however, the Nazi

crimes were so terrible that "civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored

because it cannot survive their being repeated." ^1


[Footnote 1: Max Radin, "Justice at Nuremberg," Foreign Affairs, April 1946,

p. 371.]


     By the end of 1945, the growing tension between the Soviet Union and the

United States made it impossible to construct a peace settlement. At the

Potsdam Conference in the summer of 1945 a council of ministers was set up to

draft peace treaties. After two years of difficult negotiations treaties were

signed with Italy, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Finland. In 1951, an accord

between the western powers and the Japanese reestablished Japan as a sovereign

state. Austria's position remained uncertain until 1955 when a peace treaty

was signed and occupation forces withdrawn. The western allies and the Soviets

were completely at odds over the German peace settlement. Not until the

signing of the Helsinki Accords in 1975 was a status quo for Europe

acknowledged, and that agreement did not have the force of a binding legal

treaty. Finally, in the summer of 1990 the diplomatic issues spawned by World

War II were put to rest in a series of treaties signed by all European



[See Division Of Germany]


The United Nations


     On only one issue, the establishment of an international peacekeeping

organization, could the powers agree after the war. Great Britain and the

United States laid the foundations for the United Nations in 1941 when they

proposed "the establishment of a wider and permanent system of general

security" so "that men in all lands may live out their lives in freedom from

fear and want." Subsequent meetings at Moscow and Yalta led representatives of

fifty governments meeting at San Francisco from April to June 1945 to draft

the Charter of the United Nations.


     To pursue its goals of peace and an improved standard of living for the

world, the UN would work through six organizations: the Security Council, to

maintain peace and order; the General Assembly, to function as a form of town

meeting of the world; the Economic and Social Council, to improve living

standards and extend human rights; the Trusteeship Council, to advance the

interests of the colonial peoples; the International Court of Justice, to

resolve disputes between nations; and the Secretariat, headed by the

secretary-general, to serve the needs of other organizations. Much of the

responsibility for improving the economic and social conditions of the world's

people was entrusted to a dozen specialized agencies, such as the

International Labor Organization, the Food and Agricultural and the World

Health Organizations, and the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural



     The greatest controversy at San Francisco arose over the right of veto in

the Security Council. The smaller countries held that it was unjust for the

big powers to be able to block the wishes of the majority. But the Big Five -

the United States, the Soviet Union, China, France, and Great Britain -

affirmed that singly and collectively they had special interests and

responsibilities in maintaining world peace and security. The UN Charter,

therefore, provided that the Security Council should consist of 11 members,

five permanent members representing the great powers and six elected by the

General Assembly for a term of two years. These numbers would be increased as

the membership of the UN grew. On purely procedural matters a majority of

seven votes was sufficient; on matters of substance, all permanent members had

to agree.


     The UN proved to be more effective than the League of Nations. The UN,

like the League, lacks the sovereign power of its member states. However, as

was shown in the Korean conflict in the 1950s and in the Gulf War in 1991 it

has become more wide-reaching in its impact. In 1946 it had 51 members. At the

beginning of the 1990s membership stood at more than 160. Over the years the

UN's usefulness has repeatedly been demonstrated despite the difficulties of

the Cold War, the strains of massive decolonization, and four Arab-Israeli

wars - not to mention an interminable series of smaller crises. As was the

case with the League, the UN cannot coerce the great powers when any of them

decide a major national interest is involved.


[See UN Charter: Nations put their hope in a new international organization,

the United Nations, to rebuild the shattered world and preserve the peace.

Here, U.S. senator Arthur Vandenburg signs the charter of the United Nations

on June 16, 1945, as other members of the U.S. delegation wait for their

turns. U.S. President Harry Truman and Secretary of State Edward Stettinus,

Jr. wathch from Vandenberg's right. Courtesy United Nations]


[Hear Churchill And Truman]

In Washington, DC


The Cold War


     The Cold War between Washington and Moscow dominated the world in the

half century after World War II. When it began the United States held the

advantage in nuclear weapons and world trade; when it ended each power had

equal military power and dissimilar, but serious, economic crises. From 1945

to 1953 the struggle was centered in Europe. In the wake of decolonization the

conflict shifted to Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa.


     The Soviets and Americans have differed in their views on economics,

politics, social organization, religion, and the role of the individual since

1917. The Nazi threat produced a temporary unity, but by 1943 Soviet

frustration with the slowness of its allies to open the second front,

discontent with being shut out of participation in the Italian campaign, and

unhappiness with the amount of U.S. financial assistance increased tension.

The western allies were suspicious of Soviet secrecy. London and Washington

gave detailed data on strategy and weapons to Moscow, but got little

information from the Soviets. Over $12 billion dollars in Lend-Lease aid was

sent to the Soviet Union, but its extent and value were not publicly

acknowledged for four decades in the Soviet Union. ^2


[Footnote 2: A useful guide to the historiography of the Cold War can be found

in J. L. Black, Origins, Evolution, and Nature of the Cold War: An Annotated

Bibliographic Guide (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 1986).]


     After the February 1945 Yalta Conference it soon became clear that Stalin

had his view of the composition of postwar eastern Europe and Roosevelt and

Churchill had theirs. As early as April 1, 1945, Roosevelt sent a telegram to

Stalin protesting the violation of Yalta pledges. A month later Churchill sent

a long message of protest to Stalin in which he concluded:


          There is not much comfort in looking into a future

          where you and the countries you dominate ... are all

          on one side, and those who rally to the English speaking

          nations ... are on the other ... their quarrel would tear

          the world to pieces. ^3


[Footnote 3: Winston Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin,

1953), p. 497.]


     From 1945 to 1948 Stalin expanded his control over the region carefully,

working through coalition governments. He had a number of advantages. Most of

the local elites had either been killed during the war or were condemned for

collaborating with the Nazis. The communist parties, most of whom were

underground during the interwar period, had gained public support by leading

the resistance to the Nazis after June 1941. Further, the Red Army remained in

place to intimidate eastern Europe.


     The communists occupied the most powerful positions in the coalition

governments; opposition parties gained largely symbolic posts. The communists

soon used intimidation and outright force. The Czechs remained free longer

than the other eastern European states. In the 1946 elections the communists

had received only 38 percent of the vote, and they were losing support. In the

spring of 1948 the Soviets forced Czechoslovakia to submit to communist

control. By the end of 1948, when the Americans had totally withdrawn from

Europe, the governments in Warsaw, East Berlin, Prague, Budapest, Bucharest,

Sofia, and Tirana operated as satellites orbiting the political center of



     Stalin used the Soviet bloc as a four-hundred-mile-deep buffer against

capitalist invasion and as a source to help the USSR rebuild. He blocked any

political, economic, or cultural contact with the west. Once his allies gained

control, he ordered a purge of the local parties, based on those in the Soviet

Union in the 1930s. The main target for the purge was the national communists,

those who were seen as being more loyal to their own nation than to Moscow or

Stalin. Overall, the purge removed one in every four party members. Many of

those eliminated had been loyal communists since the beginning of the century.


     Meanwhile, in the three years after 1945, the four-power agreement on the

governing of Germany soon broke apart. In the fall of 1946, Britain and

America merged their zones into one economic unit, which came to be known as

Bizonia. The French joined the union in 1948. Germany was now split into two

parts, one administered by the western allies and the other by the Russians,

and would remain divided until the line between the two powers - dubbed the

Iron Curtain by Churchill - disappeared in 1990.


The Marshall Plan And Containment


     The Soviets did not return their armies to a peacetime status after 1945.

They and their allies challenged the west in Greece, Turkey, and Iran. Britain

was too weak to play its former role in the region. The Americans, as they

would subsequently do throughout the globe, filled the gap left by the British

and French. President Harry Truman responded to Soviet pressure by announcing

that the United States would support any country threatened by communist

aggression. Soon after proclamation of the Truman Doctrine in 1947, the United

States sent economic and military aid to Greece and Turkey, a move

traditionally held to mark the American entry into the Cold War.


     The United States' wartime goodwill toward the Soviet Union turned

quickly to paranoid fear of international communism. The Americans,

comfortable with their nuclear monopoly, had looked forward to a postwar

peaceful world. They were angered by Soviet actions in the United Nations,

Eastern Europe, China, and the growth of communist parties in western Europe.

Conservatives attacked the Yalta agreement as a "sellout" and launched a new

"Red Scare" campaign. A French observer noted the rapid change in attitude by

pointing out that "a whole nation, optimistic and naive, placed its trust in a

comrade in arms." ^4 Now that comrade was the enemy.


[Footnote 4: Raymond Aron, "The Foundations of the Cold War," in The Twentieth

Century, Norman F. Cantor and Michael S. Werthman, eds., (New York: Thomas Y.

Crowell, 1967), p. 157.]


     The American diplomat, George F. Kennan, explained that the correct

stance to take toward Stalin's policies was one of containment. In an article

entitled "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," written under the byline of "Mr. X"

in the July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs, Keenan proposed a "realistic

understanding of the profound and deep-rooted difference between the United

States and the Soviet Union" and the exercise of "a long-term, patient but

firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies." ^5 This advice

shaped U.S. policy throughout Europe.


[Footnote 5: David Rees, The Age of Containment (New York: St. Martin's Press,

1967), p. 23.]


     The policy of containment was first used in Yugoslavia where a split

between Joseph Broz Tito (1891-1980) and Stalin marked the first breach in the

Soviet advance. The Yugoslavs initiated the ideological break known as

national communism. Supported financially by the west, the Yugoslavs were able

to survive Stalin's attacks.


     The broad economic and political arms of containment came into play.

Secretary of State George C. Marshall proposed a plan of economic aid to help

Europe to solve its postwar financial problems. Western European nations

eagerly accepted the Marshall Plan while the Soviet Union rejected American

aid for itself and the bloc. Congress authorized the plan, known as the

European Recovery Program, and within four years the industrial output of the

recipients climbed to 64 percent over 1947 levels and 41 percent over prewar

levels. The European Recovery Act stabilized conditions in western Europe and

prevented the communists from taking advantage of postwar problems.


Rival Systems


     In July 1948, after opposing a western series of currency and economic

reforms, the Soviets blocked all land and water transport to Berlin from the

west. For the next ten months the allies supplied West Berlin by air. They

made over 277,000 flights to bring 2.3 million tons of food and other vital

materials to the besieged city. Rather than risk war over the city and the use

of American nuclear weapons, the Russians removed their blockade in May 1949.

In the same month the Federal Republic of Germany, made up of the three

western allied zones came into existence. Almost immediately, the Soviet Union

established the German Democratic Republic in East Germany. Germany would

remain divided for the next 41 years.


     In the spring of 1949 Washington established the North Atlantic Treaty

Organization (NATO), an alliance for mutual assistance. The initial members

were Great Britain, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway,

Denmark, Portugal, Italy, Iceland, the United States, and Canada. Greece and

Turkey joined in 1952, followed by West Germany in 1955. In 1955 also the

Soviets created the Warsaw Pact, which formalized the existing unified

military command in Soviet-dominated eastern Europe. Warsaw Pact members

included, in addition to the Soviet Union, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania,

Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and East Germany. The alliance lasted until



     The tension between the rival systems finally snapped in Korea. After

Japan's surrender, Korea had been divided at the 38th parallel into American

and Soviet zones of occupation. When the occupying troops left, they were

replaced by two hostile forces, each claiming jurisdiction over the entire

country. On June 25, 1950 North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel into

South Korea. Washington immediately called for a special meeting of the UN

Security Council, whose members demanded a cease fire and withdrawal of the

invaders. The Soviet delegate was boycotting the Council at the time and was

not present to veto the action.


[Hear Korean War Conference]

Lt. Col. McPheron, Paratrooper Conference, Korean War



     When North Korea ignored the UN's demand, the Security Council sent

troops to help the South Korean government. Three years of costly fighting

followed, in what the UN termed a "police action." UN forces led by the United

States, which suffered over 140,000 casualties, repelled the invaders, who

were supported by the USSR and the Chinese Peoples' Republic. An armistice was

signed in July 1953, after Stalin's death in March and the U.S. threat to use

nuclear weapons against China. ^6 The border between the two parts of the

country was established near the 38th parallel, and South Korea's independence

was maintained. The peninsula remained a crisis point for the next 40 years.


[Footnote 6: Joseph L. Nogee and John Spanier, Peace Impossible - War

Unlikely, The Cold War Between the United States and the Soviet Union

(Glenview: Scott, Foresman/Little, Brown, 1988), p. 67.]


     By 1953 the first phase of the Cold War was over. Both the Soviet Union

and the United States possessed terrifying arsenals of nuclear weapons, both

competed in all aspects of the Cold War, and both constantly probed for

weaknesses in the other's defenses. Varied forms of controlled conflict

characterized the next four decades of relations between Moscow and


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