Cold War (1947-1953) and its origins

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Cold War

Tsarist Russia and the West

A few scholars have traced the origins of the East-West conflict well before the Bolshevik Revolution. World System theorists have argued that Russia was late to be absorbed by the capitalist world-system, and only in its periphery or semi-periphery upon the Bolshevik Revolution, leaving it ripe for a radical break with capitalism. Some scholars even argue that East and West are fundamentally different civilizations. Among scholars in the latter camp, many have argued that Eastern Orthodox Slavs are heir to the Byzantine tradition. Others point out aspects of the Slavic cultural heritage, Asiatic influence, and a fundamentally different political culture shaped by rule of the tsar.

Others have argued that geographical causes would lead to intractable conflict. They see the states of the North Atlantic and East Asia as being fundamentally maritime powers base on trade and openness, while the states of Central Eurasia, most notably Russia, were land based powers based on large armies and centralized control.

Imperial rivalry between Britain and Tsarist Russia would foreshadow the East-West tensions of the Cold War. Throughout the nineteenth century, improving Russia's maritime access was a perennial aim of the tsars' foreign policy; impeding it was a perennial obsession of Britain's. Despite Russia's vast size, most of its ten thousand miles of seacoast was frozen over most of the year or controlled by other powers, particularly in the Baltic and Black Seas. The British had been determined since the Crimean War in the 1850s to slow Russian expansion at the expense of Ottoman Turkey, the "sick man of Europe." After the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869, the prospects of seizing a portion of the Ottoman seacoast on the Mediterranean, whereby it could threaten the strategic waterway, were all the more mortifying to the British. The close proximity of the Tsar's territorially expanding empire in Central Asia to India also terrified South Asia's British imperial overlords, triggering a series of quixotic British adventures in Afghanistan. Fears over Russia, however, subsided following Russia's stunning defeat in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. Some historians have noted that the British long exaggerated the strength of the relatively backward sprawling empire, which in hindsight was probably concerned with trade and securing its frontiers, not threatening Western interests. Some historians have even noted the parallels to the post-World War II period, when, again, the West exaggerated Russian "expansionism" in Eastern Europe, which, like the territorial growth of imperial Russia, was probably motivated by securing vulnerable frontiers.

Strategic rivalry between the United States and Russia—both huge, sprawling nations—goes back to the 1890s when, after a century of friendship, Americans and Russians became rivals over the development of Manchuria. Tsarist Russia, unable to compete industrially, sought to close off and colonize parts of East Asia, while Americans demanded open competition for markets.

Many believe the Cold War was an inevitable conflict between the two continent sized states, each with huge reserves of manpower and natural resources who were destined to compete for world preeminence.

Bolshevik Revolution

In 1917 the rivalry gained an intensely ideological side. The United States did not even establish relations with the Soviet government until 1933. The western allies never forgot that the Soviet government negotiated a separate peace with Germany in the First World War in 1918, leaving the Western Allies to fight the Central Powers alone. Lasting Russian mistrust stemmed from the landing of western troops in Soviet Russia in 1918, which became involved, directly and indirectly, in assisting the anti-Bolshevik Whites in the civil war. This helped solidify lasting suspicions among Soviet leadership of the capitalist world.

The West saw the Soviet system as a threat. In Europe, and to a lesser degree in the United States, there were strong socialist and communist movements that threatened the status quo. The atheistic nature of Soviet communism also concerned many. Up until the mid-1930s, both Britain and the United States believed the Soviet Union to be a much greater threat than Germany and focused most of their intelligence efforts against it.

The wartime alliance

When Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, the Soviets and the Western Allies quickly put their past tensions behind them and cooperated. Most notably, the United States shipped vast quantities of material to the Soviets, keeping their war effort alive. But the wartime alliance between the Anglo-Americans and the Soviet Union was an aberration from the normal tenor of Soviet-US relations and Soviet-British relations. Even during the warmest days of the alliance, tensions existed below the surface. In the words of Winston Churchill "If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons".

On one hand, before the war the Soviets had stunned the world by signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany, and then participated in the dividing up of Eastern Europe. On the other, the Soviets were annoyed at having to the bear the brunt of the Axis alliance since 1941, despite calls for the Allies to open a second front in Europe, which did not occur until June 1944. In the meantime, the Russians suffered horrendous casualties, with as many as twenty million dead.

Throughout the war, mutual distrust was always present. The United States and Britain did not tell Stalin about breakthroughs such as Ultra, the decoding of German cyphers. Stalin suspected that the West would stand by and watch Germany defeat the USSR right up to the Invasion of Normandy. However, a mutual interest in the need to defeat a still powerful Germany was enough to keep a functioning alliance. This changed when Franklin D. Roosevelt collapsed with victory in sight. His vice president Truman, an amateur in foreign affairs, was "not up on all details" as he himself admitted. His failure to inform Stalin of the decision to drop the atomic bomb, which was scheduled right after the Potsdam Conference, was seen as a deep personal insult. The Soviets had gained knowledge of these U.S programs through elaborate Soviet spy rings that had continued to operate during the wartime alliance.

The "Big Three" Allied leaders at Yalta: British Prime Minster  (left), US President Franklin D. Roosevelt (center), and Soviet First Secretary  (right)
The "Big Three" Allied leaders at Yalta: British Prime Minster Winston Churchill (left), US President Franklin D. Roosevelt (center), and Soviet First Secretary Joseph Stalin (right)

The breakdown of postwar peace

When the war ended in Europe on May 8, 1945, Soviet and Western (US, British, and French) troops were located in particular places, essentially, along a line in the center of Europe. Aside from a few minor adjustments, this would be the "Iron Curtain" of the Cold War. In hindsight, Yalta signified the agreement of both sides that they could stay there and that neither side would use force to push the other out. This tacit accord applied to Asia as well, as evidenced by US occupation of Japan and the division of Korea. Politically, therefore, Yalta was an agreement on the postwar status quo in which Soviet Union hegemony reigned over about one third and the United States over two thirds.

There were fundamental contrasts between the visions of the United States and the Soviet Union, between capitalism and communism. Those contrasts had been simplified and refined in national ideologies to represent two ways of life, each vindicated in 1945 by previous disasters. Conflicting models of autarky versus exports, of state planning against private enterprise, were to vie for the allegiance of the developing and developed world in the postwar years. Even so, however, the Cold War was not obviously inevitable in 1945.

Despite the wherewithal of the United States to advance a different vision of postwar Europe, Stalin viewed the reemergence of Germany and Japan as Russia's chief threats, not the United States. Stalin assumed that the capitalist camp would soon resume its internal rivalry over colonies and trade and not pose a threat to the USSR. Economic advisers such as Eugen Varga reinforced this view, predicting a postwar crisis of overproduction in capitalist countries, which would culminate by 1947-1948 in another great depression.

Trends in federal expenditure in the United States reinforced Stalin's expectations. By this time, business had been reinforced by government expenditures as a consequence of depression and the war. Between 1929 and 1933 unemployment soared from 3 percent of the workforce to 25 percent, while manufacturing output collapsed by one-third. Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs tried to stimulate demand and provide work and relief for the impoverished through increased government spending, backed up later by the British economist John Maynard Keynes. In 1929 the proportion was only 3 percent. Between 1933 and 1939, federal expenditure tripled, and Roosevelt's critics charged that he was turning America into a socialist state. But the cost of the New Deal pales in comparison to World War II. In the first peacetime year of 1946, federal spending still amounted to $62 billion, or 30% of GDP! In short, federal expenditures went from 3% of GDP in 1929 to about a third in 1945. War spending financially cured the depression, pulling unemployment down from 14 percent in 1940 to less than 2 percent in 1943 as the labor force grew by ten million. The war economy was not so much a triumph of free enterprise as the result of the government bankrolling business.

What would be the result of massive postwar demilitarization? Stalin predicted overproduction and depression. Given the trend in federal expenditure, his predictions were not absurd. Stalin thus assumed that the Americans would need to offer him economic aid, needing to find any outlet for massive capital investments just to maintain the wartime industrial production that brought the US out of the Great Depression. Thus, the prospects of an Anglo-American front against him seemed slim from Stalin's standpoint. However, there would be no postwar crisis of overproduction. And, as Stalin anticipated, this was averted by maintaining roughly the same levels of government spending. It was just maintained in a vastly different way.

But the whole role of government was not set in stone and was in question once again. Although America's military-industrial complex was born in World War II, it could have been scaled back. Pressures to "get back to normal" were intense. Congress wanted a return to low, balanced budgets, and families clamored to see the soldiers sent back home. The Truman administration worried first about a postwar slump, then about the inflationary consequences of pent-up consumer demand. The GI Bill of Rights, adopted in 1944, was one answer: subsidizing veterans to complete their education rather than flood the job market and probably boost the unemployment figures. Moreover, on July 20, 1948 President Harry S. Truman issued the first peacetime military draft in the United States amid increasing tensions with the Soviet Union.

Thus, a conversion to the prewar economy would be extremely difficult, and in the end, it did not happen. In the end, the postwar government would look a lot like the wartime government, with the military establishment, along with military-security dominant. The postwar capitalist slump predicted by Stalin would not be averted by domestic management, supplemented perhaps by a greater role in promoting international trade and monetary relations. In fact, President Roosevelt in 1941 hoped that after the war, the world's largest building, the huge, mile-circumference Pentagon complex in northern Virginia, would be converted into a storage facility. It was not; the military-industrial complex dominated postwar life, largely the result of the Cold War.

Two visions of the world

The United States hoped to shape the postwar world by opening up the world's markets to capitalist trade - a rebuilt capitalist Europe that could again serve as a hub in world affairs. The Atlantic Charter was publicized regarding this with principles such as "people have right to choose own government" - this was given about as much credence by the West as by the East however. Franklin D. Roosevelt had never forgotten the excitement with which he had greeted the principles of Wilsonian idealism during World War I, and he saw his mission in the 1940s as bringing lasting peace and genuine democracy to the world. According to this view, it was important to not to repeat the punitive measures of the Treaty of Versailles that had produced hardship and resentment in pre-war Germany.

But this vision was equally a vision of national self-interest. World War II resulted in enormous destruction of infrastructure and populations throughout Eurasia, from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans, with almost no country left unscathed. The only major industrial power in the world to emerge intact—and even greatly strengthened from an economic perspective—was the United States, which moved swiftly to consolidate its position. As the world's greatest industrial power, and as the only world power unravaged by the war, the United States stood to gain more than any other country from opening the entire world to unfettered trade. The United States would have a global market for its exports, and it would have unrestricted access to vital raw materials. Determined to avoid another economic catastrophe like that of the 1930s, Roosevelt saw the creation of the postwar order as a way to ensure continuing US prosperity.

Truman could advance these principles with an economic powerhouse that produced 50 percent of the world's industrial goods and military power that rested on a monopoly of the new atom bomb. These aims were at the center of what the Soviet Union strove to avoid as the breakdown of the wartime alliance went forward. It also required new international agencies: the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which were created to ensure an open, capitalist, international economy. The Soviet Union opted not to take part.

The fate of postwar Europe

The withdrawal of the United States to advance a different vision of the postwar world conflicted with Soviet interests, which motivated their determination to shape postwar Europe. The Soviet Union had, since 1924, placed higher priority on its own security and socialist development than on Trotsky's vision of world revolution. Accordingly, Stalin had been willing before the war to engage non-communist governments that recognized Soviet control of the former Tsarist Empire and offered assurances of non-aggression. Germany's betrayal of its non-aggression promise convinced Stalin that he could no longer rely on non-communist governments.

After the war, Stalin sought to secure the Soviet Union's western border by installing Communist-dominated regimes under Soviet influence in bordering countries such as Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria. This decision was a response to a 150-year history of repeated Western assaults on Russia, including World War I, World War II and Napoleon's 1812 invasion. Stalin considered it essential to destroy Germany's capacity for another war, which conflicted with the US desire to rebuild Germany as the economic center of a stable Europe. Winston Churchill accused Stalin of cordoning off a new Russian empire with an "Iron Curtain." The dispute over Germany escalated after Truman refused to give the Soviet Union reparations from West Germany's industrial plants; Stalin responded by splitting off the Soviet sector of Germany as a communist state.

Russia's historic lack of direct, year-round maritime access, a perennial concern of Russian foreign policy well before the Bolshevik Revolution, was also a focus for Russia where interests diverged between East and West. Stalin pressed the Turks for improved access out of the Black Sea through Turkey's Dardanelles Strait, which would allow Soviet passage from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Churchill had earlier recognized Stalin's claims, but now the British and Americans forced the Soviet Union to pull back.

There were other signs of caution on Stalin's part. The Soviet Union eventually withdrew from Northern Iran, at Anglo-American behest; Stalin did observe his 1944 agreement with Churchill and did not aid the communists in the struggle against a weak and authoritarian government in Greece that was supported by Britain; in Finland he accepted a friendly, noncommunist government; and Russian troops were withdrawn from Czechoslovakia by the end of 1945.


The Truman Doctrine

Main article: Truman Doctrine

The immediate post-1945 period may have been the historical high point for the popularity of communist ideology. The burdens the Red Army and USSR endured have earned it massive respect which, had it been exploited by Stalin, had a good chance of resulting in a communist Europe. Communist parties won sizeable shares of the vote in countries such as Belgium, France, Italy, Czechoslovakia, and Finland and won significant popular support in Asia - in Vietnam, India, and Japan - and throughout Latin America. In addition, they achieved a significant popularity in such nations as China, Greece, and Iran.

Britain and the United States were concerned that a political victory by communists in any of these countries could lead to a Soviet takeover similar to those in Eastern Europe. While the Soviet Union acquiesced to Anglo-American efforts to impede Soviet access to the Mediterranean (a perennial focus of British foreign policy since the Crimean War in the 1850s), the Americans increased their anticommunist campaign.

Both East and West regarded Greece as a nation well within the sphere of influence of Britain. Stalin had respected his agreement with Churchill to not intervene, but Yugoslavia, under Tito, continuously sent arms and supplies during the Greek Civil War to the partisan forces of the Communist Party of Greece, the ELAS (National Popular Liberation Army). Initially Britain had given aid to the royalist Greek forces, and ELAS leaders, failing to realize that there would be no Soviet aid and foolishly boycotted the elections, were at a disadvantaged position. However, by 1947, the near-bankrupted British government, forced to take aid from such nations as New Zealand, could no longer maintain its massive overseas commitments. In addition to granting India independence and handing back the Palestinian Mandate to the United Nations, the British government decided to withdraw from both Greece and the nearby Turkey. This would have left the two nations, in particular Greece, vulnerable to a communist takeover.

Notified that British aid to Greece and Turkey would end in less than six weeks, Washington, already hostile towards and suspicious of Soviet intentions, decided that they had to act. With the Congress solidly in Republican hands and populated by the traditional isolationists, Truman adopted an ideological approach. In a meeting with congressional leaders, the argument of "like apples in a barrel infected by one rotten one" was used to convince them of the significance in supporting Greece and Turkey. It was to become the Domino Theory, the justification for containment. On the morning of March 12, 1947, Truman appeared before congress to ask for $400 million of aid to Greece and Turkey. Calling on congressional approval for the United States to "support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures," or in short a policy of containment, Truman articulated a presentation of the ideological struggle that became known as the Truman Doctrine. Although based on a simplistic analysis of internal strife in Greece and Turkey, it was to be the single dominating influence over US thinking until at least the Vietnam War.

Truman's speech had a tremendous effect. The anticommunist feelings that had just begun to hatch in the US were given a great boost, and a silenced Congress voted overwhelmingly in approval of aid. The United States would not withdraw back to the Western Hemisphere as it had after the First World War. From then on, the US would actively engage any perceived (hence often false) communist threats anywhere in the globe under the guise of "freedom", "democracy" and "human rights." Washington brandished its role as the leader of the "free world." Meanwhile, the Soviet Union brandished its position as the leader of the "progressive" and "anti-imperialist" camp.

The Berlin Blockade

Main article: Berlin Blockade

Stalin responded by blocking access to Berlin, which was deep within the Soviet zone although subject to four power control. The Soviets cut off all rail and road routes to West Berlin. No trucks or trains were allowed entry into the city during the Berlin Blockade. Truman embarked on a highly visible move that would humiliate the Soviets internationally: flying supplies in over the blockade during 1948-1949. Military confrontation loomed while Truman flew supplies through East Germany into West Berlin during the 1948-1949 blockade. This costly aerial supplying of West Berlin became known as the Berlin Airlift.


Main article: North Atlantic Treaty Organisation

Truman joined eleven other nations in 1949 to form the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), America's first "entangling" European alliance in 170 years. Stalin retaliated against these steps by integrating the economies of Eastern Europe in his version of the Marshall Plan, exploding the first Soviet atomic device in 1949, signing an alliance with People's Republic of China in February 1950, and forming the Warsaw Pact, Eastern Europe's counterpart to NATO.


Main article: NSC-68

US officials quickly moved to escalate and expand "containment." In a secret 1950 document, NSC-68, they proposed to strengthen their alliance systems, quadruple defense spending, and embark on an elaborate propaganda campaign to convince the US public to fight this costly cold war. Truman ordered the development of a hydrogen bomb; and in early 1950 came the first US effort to opposing communist forces in Vietnam, plans to form a West German army, and proposals for a peace treaty with Japan that would guarantee long-term US military bases.

Communist China

Shortly after the World War II, the Chinese communist leadership led by Mao Zedong triumphed in a three years civil war against the Nationalists who were supported by the United States. The establishment of communism in China greatly boosted the world Communist movement and sent a shockwave to the United States, which began to raise the question of who was responsible for the "fall of China". A treaty of alliance signed in 1950 between the newly formed People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union again caused much worries in the United States about the spread of communism in Asia.

The Korean War

For details see the main article Korean War.

Missing image
North Korean leader Kim Il Sung during the Korean War

In early 1950 came the first US commitment to form a peace treaty with Japan that would guarantee long-term US military bases. Some observers (including George Kennan) believed that the Japanese treaty led Stalin to approve a plan to invade US-supported South Korea on June 25, 1950. Fearing that a united communist Korea could neutralize US power in Japan, Truman committed US forces and obtained help from the United Nations to drive back the North Koreans, to Stalin's surprise. In a historic diplomatic blunder, the Soviets boycotted the UN Security Council, and thus its power to veto Truman's action in the UN, because the UN would not admit the People's Republic of China.

However, Truman would offset this with his own monumental, historic error: allowing his forces to go to the Chinese-Korean border. Communist China responded with massive attack in November 1950 that decimated US-led forces as well as their own. Fighting stabilized along the thirty-eight parallel, which had separated the Koreas, but Truman now faced a hostile China, a Sino-Soviet partnership, and a bloated defense budget that quadrupled in eighteen months.

it:Guerra Fredda (1947-1953) e sue origini

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