History of the Soviet Union (1927-1953)

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Stalinist development


At the Fifteenth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in December 1927, Stalin attacked the left by expelling Trotsky and his supporters from the party and then moving against the right by abandoning Lenin's New Economic Policy which had been championed by Nikolai Bukharin and Alexei Ivanovich Rykov. Warning delegates of an impending capitalist encirclement, he stressed that survival and development could only occur by pursuing the rapid development of heavy industry. Stalin remarked that the Soviet Union was "fifty to a hundred years behind the advanced countries" (the United States, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, etc.), and thus must narrow "this distance in ten years." In a perhaps eerie foreboding of World War II, Stalin declared, "Either we do it or we shall be crushed."

To oversee the radical transformation of the Soviet Union, the party, under Stalin's direction, established Gosplan (the State General Planning Commission), a state organ responsible for guiding the socialist economy toward accelerated industrialization. In April 1929 Gosplan released two joint drafts that began the process that would industrialize the primarily agrarian nation. This 1,700 page report became the basis the first Five-Year Plan for National Economic Construction, or Piatiletka, calling for the doubling of Soviet capital stock between 1928 and 1933.1

Shifting from Lenin's NEP, the first Five-Year Plan established central planning as the basis of economic decision-making and the stress on rapid heavy industrialization (see Economy of the Soviet Union). It began the rapid process of transforming a largely agrarian nation consisting of peasants into an industrial superpower. In effect, the initial goals were laying the foundations for future exponential economic growth.

The new economic system put forward by the first Five-Year plan entailed a complicated series of planning arrangements (see Overview of the Soviet economic planning process). The first Five-Year plan focused on the mobilization of natural resources to build up the country's heavy industrial base by increasing output of coal, iron, and other vital resources. At a high human cost, this process was largely successful, forging a capital base for industrial development more rapidly than any country in history.

Industrialization in practice

The mobilization of resources by state planning augmented the country's industrial base. From 1928 to 1932, pig iron output, necessary for development of nonexistent industrial infrastructure rose from 3.3 million to 10 million tons per year. Coal, the integral product fueling modern economies and Stalinist industrialization, successfully rose from 35.4 million to 75 million tons, and output of iron ore rose from 5.7 million to 19 million tons. A number of industrial complexes such as Magnitogorsk and Kuznetsk, the Moscow and Gorky automobile plants, the Urals and Kramatorsk heavy machinery plants, and Kharkov, Stalingrad and Cheliabinsk tractor plants had been built or were under construction.

Based largely on these figures the Five Year Industrial Production Plan had been fulfilled by 93.7 percent in only four years, while parts devoted to heavy-industry part were fulfilled by 108%. Stalin in December 1932 declared the plan a success to the Central Committee, since increases in the output of coal and iron would fuel future development.

While undoubtedly marking a tremendous leap in industrial capacity, the Five Year Plan was extremely harsh on industrial workers; quotas were extremely difficult to fulfill, requiring that miners put in 16 to 18-hour workdays. Failure to fulfill the quotas could result in treason charges. Working conditions were poor, even hazardous. By some estimates, 127,000 workers died during the four years (from 1928 to 1932). Due to the allocation of resources for industry along with decreasing productivity since collectivization, a famine occurred. The use of forced labor must also not be overlooked. In the construction of the industrial complexes, inmates of labor camps were used as expendable resources.

From 1921 until 1954, during the period of state-guided, forced industrialization, it is claimed 3.7 million people were sentenced for alleged counter-revolutionary crimes, including 0.6 million sentenced to death, 2.4 million sentenced to labor camps, and 0.7 million sentenced to expatriation. Some other estimates put these figures much higher. Much like with the famines, the evidence supporting these high numbers is disputed by some historians, although this is a minority view.


Main article: Collectivisation in the USSR.

In November 1928 the Central Committee decided to implement forced collectivization. This marked the end of the NEP, which had allowed peasants to sell their surpluses on the open market. Grain requisitioning intensified and peasants were forced to give up their private plots of land and property, to work for collective farms, and to sell their produce to the state for a low price set by the state itself.

Given the goals of the First Five Year Plan, the state sought increased political control of agriculture, hoping to feed the rapidly growing urban areas and to export grain, a source of foreign currency needed to import technologies necessary for heavy-industrialization.

By 1936 about 90% of Soviet agriculture was collectivized. In many cases peasants bitterly opposed this process and often slaughtered their animals rather than give them to collective farms. Kulaks, prosperous peasants, were forcibly resettled to Siberia (a large portion of the kulaks served at forced labor camps). However, just about anyone opposing collectivization was deemed a "kulak." The policy of liquidation of kulaks as a class, formulated by Stalin at the end of 1929, meant executions, and deportation to forced labor camps.

Despite the expectations, collectivization led to a catastrophic drop in farming productivity, which did not regain the NEP level until 1940. The upheaval associated with collectivization was particularly severe in Ukraine, and the heavily Ukrainian adjoining Volga regions, a fact which has led many Ukrainian scholars to argue that there was a deliberate policy of starving the Ukrainians. The number of people who died in the famines is estimated at between three and to ten million in Ukraine alone, not counting the adjoining regions. Soviet sources vary between denying the existence of the famine and estimating much smaller numbers of dead. The actual number of casualties is bitterly disputed to this day. In 1975, Abramov and Kocharli estimated that 265,800 kulak families were sent to the Gulag in 1930. In 1979, Roy Medvedev used Abramov's and Kocharli's estimate to calculate that 2.5 million peasants were exiled between 1930 and 1931, but he suspected that he underestimated the total number.

Changes in Soviet society

Missing image
Endorsed by the Constitution of the USSR in 1924, the State Emblem of the Soviet Union (above) was a hammer and sickle symbolizing the alliance of the working class and the peasantry. Ears of wheat were entwined in a scarlet band with the inscription in the languages of all the 15 union republics: "Workers of All Countries, Unite!" The grain represented Soviet agriculture. A five-pointed star, symbolizing the Soviet Union's solidarity with socialist revolutionaries on five continents, was drawn on the upper part of the Emblem.

Stalin's industrial policies largely improved living standards for the majority of the population, although the debated mortality levels resulting from Stalinist policies taints the Soviet record.

Employment, for instance, rose greatly; 3.9 million per year was expected by 1923, but the number was actually an astounding 6.4 million. By 1937, the number rose yet again, to about 7.9 million, and in 1940 it was 8.3 million. Between 1926 and 1930, the urban population increased by 30 million. Unemployment had been a problem during the time of the Tsar and even under the NEP, but it was not a major factor after the implementation of Stalin's industrialization program. The mobilization of resources to industrialize the agrarian society created a need for labor, meaning that the unemployment went virtually to zero. Several ambitious projects were begun, and they supplied raw materials not only for military weapons but also for consumer goods.

The Moscow and Gorky automobile plants produced automobiles that the public could utilize, although not necessarily afford, and the expansion of heavy plant and steel production made production of a greater number of cars possible. Car and truck production, for example, reached 200,000 in 1931.2

Because the industrial workers needed to be educated, the number of schools increased. In 1927, 7.9 million students attended 118,558 schools. This number rose to 9.7 million students and 166,275 schools by 1933. In addition, 900 specialist departments and 566 institutions were built and functioning by 1933.3

The Soviet people also benefited from a degree of social liberalization. Females were given an adequate, equal education and women had equal rights in employment, precipitating improving lives for women and families. Stalinist development also contributed to advances in health care, which vastly increased the lifespan for the typical Soviet citizen and the quality of life. Stalin's policies granted the Soviet people universal access to health care and education, effectively creating the first generation free from the fear of typhus, cholera, and malaria. The occurrences of these diseases dropped to record-low numbers, increasing life spans by decades.

Soviet women under Stalin were also the first generation of women able to give birth in the safety of a hospital, with access to prenatal care. Education was also an example of an increase in standard of living after economic development. The generation born during Stalin's rule was the first near-universally literate generation. Engineers were sent abroad to learn industrial technology, and hundreds of foreign engineers were brought to Russia on contract. Transport links were also improved, as many new railways were built. Workers who exceeded their quotas, Stakhanovites, received many incentives for their work. They could thus afford to buy the goods that were mass-produced by the rapidly expanding Soviet economy.

The Great Purges

Main article: Great Purge.

As this process unfolded, Stalin consolidated near-absolute power using the 1934 assassination of Sergei Kirov (which many suspect Stalin of having planned) as a pretext to launch the Great Purges against his suspected political and ideological opponents, most notably the old cadres and the rank and file of the Bolshevik Party. Trotsky had already been expelled from the party in 1927, exiled to Kazakhstan in 1928 and then expelled from the USSR entirely in 1929. Stalin used the purges to politically and physically destroy his other formal rivals (and former allies) accusing Zinoviev and Kamenev of being behind Kirov's assassination and planning to overthrow Stalin. Ultimately, those supposedly involved in this and other conspiracies numbered in the tens of thousands with various Old Bolsheviks and senior party members blamed with conspiracy and sabotage which were used to explain industrial accidents, production shortfalls and other failures of Stalin's regime. Measures used against opposition and suspected opposition ranged from imprisonment in work camps (Gulags) to execution to assassination (of Trotsky's son Lev Sedov and likely of Sergei Kirov - Trotsky himself was to die at the hands of one of Stalin's assassins in 1940). The period between 1936-1937 is often called the Great Terror, with thousands of people (even merely suspected of opposing Stalin's regime) being killed or imprisoned. Stalin is reputed to have personally signed 40,000 death warrants of suspected political opponents.

During this period, the practice of mass arrest, torture, and imprisonment or execution without trial, of anyone suspected by the secret police of opposing Stalin's regime became commonplace. By the NKVD's own estimates, 681,692 people were shot during 1937-38 alone (although many historians think that this was an undercount), and millions of people were transported to Gulag work camps.

Several show trials were held in Moscow, to serve as examples for the trials that local courts were expected to carry out elsewere in the country. There were four key trials from 1936 to 1938, The Trial of the Sixteen was the first (December 1936); then the Trial of the Seventeen (January 1937); then the trial of Red Army generals, including Marshal Tukhachevsky (June 1937); and finally the Trial of the Twenty One (including Bukharin) in March 1938. See also: Moscow Trials

In spite of the Stalin's seemingly progressive constitution, enacted in 1936, the party's power was in reality subordinated by the secret police, the mechanism whereby Stalin secured his dictatorship through state terror.

The Great Patriotic War

War and Stalinist development

Heavy-industrialization contributed to the Soviet Union's wartime victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War (known throughout the former USSR as the Great Patriotic War). The Red Army overturned the Nazi eastern expansion single-handedly (although relying heavily on lend-lease aid from the United States and United Kingdom), with the tide of war on the Eastern Front turning at the Battle of Stalingrad. The Germans never recovered after the attempt to reverse their fortunes at the Battle of Kursk was crushed; following this clash the initiative passed fully to the Red Army.

Although the Soviet Union was getting aid and weapons from the United States, its production of war materials was greater than that of Nazi Germany because of rapid growth of Soviet industrial production during the interwar years. The Second Five Year Plan raised the steel production to 18 million tons and the coal to 128 million tons. Before it was interrupted, the Third Five Year Plan produced 19 million tons of steel and 150 million tons of coal. During the war, the allies were able to outstrip Nazi Germany in the production of war materials, in some cases ten-fold. The tank production, for example, was equal to 40,000 per year for the allies, to only 4,000 for Nazi Germany.

The Soviet Union's industrial output helped stop Nazi Germany's initial advance, and stripped them of their advantage. According to Robert L. Hutchings, "One can hardly doubt that if there had been a slower buildup of industry, the attack would have been successful and world history would have evolved quite differently." For the laborers involved in industry, however, life was difficult. Workers were encouraged to fulfill and overachieve quotas through propaganda, such as the Stakhanovite movement. Between 1933 and 1945, some argue that seven million civilians died because of the demanding labor. Between 1930 and 1940, 6 million were put through the forced labor system.

Some historians, however, interpret the lack of preparedness of the Soviet Union to defend itself as a flaw in Stalin's economic planning. David Shearer, for example, argues that there was "a command-administrative economy" but it was not "a planned one." He argues that the Soviet Union suffered from a chaotic state of the Politburo in its policies due to the Great Purges, and was completely unprepared for the Nazi German invasion. When the Soviet Union was invaded in 1941, Stalin was indeed surprised. Economist Holland Hunter, in addition, argues in his Overambitious First Soviet Five-Year Plan, that an array "of alternative paths were available, evolving out of the situation existing at the end of the 1920s... that could have been as good as those achieved by, say, 1936 yet with far less turbulence, waste, destruction and sacrifice."

While by no means an "orderly" economy or an efficient one, the Five Year Plans did plan an offensive, but since the Soviet Union was under attack, the situation required a defensive response. The result, as Shearer points out, was that the command economy had to be relaxed so that the mobilization needed was achieved. Sapir supports this view, arguing that Stalin's policies developed a mobilized economy (which was inefficient), with tension between central and local decision-making. Market forces became more significant than central administrative constraints. This view, however, is refuted by Stephen Lee, who argues that Soviet Union's "heavy industrialization translated into ultimate survival."

Wartime developments

The Nazi invasion caught the Soviet military unprepared. A widely-held belief is that this was caused by a large number (an estimated 40,000) of the senior officers being sent to prison in the "Great Purges" of 1936-1938. To secure Soviet influence over Eastern Europe as well as open economic relations with Germany, Stalin arranged the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany on August 23, 1939 and the German-Soviet Commercial Agreement. A secret appendix to the pact gave Eastern Poland, Latvia, Estonia and Finland to the USSR, and Western Poland and Lithuania to Nazi Germany. Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1; the USSR followed on September 17. With Poland being divided between two powers, the Soviet Union put forth its territorial demands to Finland for a minor part of the Karelian Isthmus, a naval base at Hanko (Hangö) peninsula and some islands in the Gulf of Finland. Finland rejected the demands and on November 30, the Soviet Union invaded Finland, thus triggering the Winter War. Despite outnumbering Finnish troops by over 50:1, the war proved embarrassingly difficult for the Red Army, although it concluded with the Soviet annexation of strategically important border areas, particularly those to the immediate north of Leningrad. The war triggered an international outcry and on December 14 the Soviet Union was expelled from the League of Nations.

On June 22, 1941, Hitler broke the non-aggression pact and invaded the Soviet Union (see Operation Barbarossa).

Using his contacts within the German Nazi party, NKVD spy Richard Sorge was able to discover the exact date and time of the planned German invasion of the Soviet Union. This information was passed along to Stalin, but went ignored, despite warning from not only Sorge, but Winston Churchill as well.

It is said that Stalin at first refused to believe Nazi Germany had broken the treaty. However, new evidence shows Stalin held meetings with a variety of senior Soviet government and military figures, including Vyacheslav Molotov (People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs), Semyon Timoshenko (People's Commissar for Defense), Georgy Zhukov (Chief of Staff of the Red Army), Nikolai Kuznetsov (Commander of both North Caucasus and Baltic Military Districts), and Boris Shaposhnikov (Deputy People's Commissar for Defense). All in all, on the very first day of the attack, Stalin held meetings with over 15 individual members of the Soviet government and military apparatus.

Nazi German troops reached the outskirts of Moscow in December 1941, but were diverted to shore up southern flanks. At the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942-43, after losing an estimated 1 million men in the bloodiest fighting in history, the Red Army was able to regain the initiative of the war. Due to the unwillingness of the Japanese to open a second front in Manchuria, the Soviets were able to call dozens of Red Army divisions back from eastern Russia. These units were instrumental in turning the tide, because most of their officer corps had escaped Stalin's purges. The Soviet forces were soon able to regain their lost territory and push their over-stretched enemy back to Nazi Germany itself.

Missing image
Marking the Soviet Union's victory, a soldier raises the Soviet flag over the German Reichstag in the Nazi capital, Berlin

From the end of 1944 to 1949 large sections of eastern Germany came under the Soviet Union's occupation and on May 2nd 1945, the capital city Berlin was taken, while over fifteen million Germans were removed from eastern Germany and pushed into central Germany (later called GDR German Democratic Republic) and western Germany (later called FRG Federal Republic of Germany). Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, Czech etc. were then moved onto German land.

The Soviets bore the brunt of World War II because the West could not open up a second ground front in Europe until the invasion of Italy and D-Day. Approximately 28 million Soviets, among them 17 million civilians, were killed in "Operation Barbarossa," the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany. Civilians were rounded up and burned or shot in many cities conquered by the Nazis. Many feel that since the Slavs were considered "sub-human," this was ethnically targeted mass murder. However, the retreating Soviet army was ordered to pursue a 'scorched earth' policy whereby retreating Soviet troops were ordered to destroy civilian infrastructure and food supplies so that the Nazi German troops could not use them.

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 Soviet Union was especially scathed due to the mass destruction of the industrial base that it had built up in the 1930s. The only major industrial power in the world to emerge intact, and even greatly strengthened from an economic perspective, was the United States.

As mentioned, the Soviets bore the heaviest casualties of World War II. These war casualties can explain much of Russia's behavior after the war. The Soviet Union continued to occupy and dominate Eastern Europe as a "buffer zone" to protect Russia from another invasion from the West. Russia had been invaded three times in the 150 years before the Cold War, during the Napoleonic Wars, World War I, and World War II, suffering tens of millions of casualties.

The Soviets were determined to punish those peoples it saw as collaborating with Germany during the war. Millions of Poles, Latvians, Georgians, Ukrainians and other ethnic minorities were deported to Gulags in Siberia. (Previously, following the 1939 annexation of eastern Poland, thousands of Polish Army officers, including reservists, had been executed in the spring of 1940, in what came to be known as the Katyn massacre.)

Stalin also had all Russian soldiers taken captive by Germany sent to isolated work camps in Siberia. This was done because many Soviet prisoners-of-war had been recruited to fight alongside the Germans in the Vlasov army, and to minimize any perceived counter-revolutionary ideas they might have been exposed to while in captivity.

The Cold War

The tenor of Soviet-U.S. relations

The wartime alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union was an aberration from the normal tenor of Russian-U.S. relations. Strategic rivalry between the 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.

In 1917 the rivalry turned intensely ideological. Americans never forgot that the Soviet government negotiated a separate peace with Germany in the First World War in 1917, leaving the Western Allies to fight the Central Powers alone. Lasting Russian mistrust stemmed from the landing of U.S. troops in Soviet Russia in 1918, which became becoming involved, directly and indirectly, in assisting the anti-Bolshevik Whites in the civil war.

In addition, the Soviets never forgot their requests that the United States and Britain open a second front on the European continent; but the Allied invasion did not occur until June 1944, more than two years after the Soviets had demanded it. In the meantime, the Russians suffered horrendous casualties, as high as twenty million dead, and the Soviets were forced to withstand the brunt of German strength.

The "Big Three"  Allied leaders at Yalta: British Prime Minster  (left), U.S. President  (center), and Soviet First Secretary  (right)
The "Big Three" Allied leaders at Yalta: British Prime Minster Winston Churchill (left), U.S. 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 ranging from Lubeck to Triest. 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 evinced by U.S. 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.

The Soviets were able to use a well organized ring of spies in the United States, to gain critical advantages during meetings with representatives of Britain and the United States. Several of FDR’s advisors and cabinet members regularly reported their activities to NKVD handlers.

There were fundamental contrasts between the visions of the United States and the Soviet Union, between capitalism and socialism. And 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 free 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. At the time, the prospects of an Anglo-American front against the USSR seemed slim from Stalin's standpoint. 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. For one, Stalin assumed that the capitalist camp would soon resume its internal rivalry over colonies and trade and not pose a threat to Russia.

Varga's analysis was partly based on trends in U.S. federal expenditures. Due to the war effort mostly, in the first peacetime year of 1946, federal spending still amounted to $62 billion, or 30% of GDP, up from 3% of GDP in 1929, before the Great Depression, New Deal, and Second World War. Thus, Stalin assumed that the Americans would need to look to Russia, to maintain the same level of exports and state expenditures.

However, there would be no postwar crisis of overproduction. And, as Varga anticipated, the U.S. maintained a roughly comparable level of government spending in the postwar era. It was just maintained in a vastly different way. In the end, the postwar U.S. government would look a lot like the wartime government, with the military establishment, along with military-security, accounting for a significant share of federal expenditures.

Two visions of the world

The United States, however, led by President Harry S. Truman since April 1945, was determined to shape the postwar world to open up the world's markets to capitalist trade according to the principles laid down by the Atlantic Charter: self-determination, equal economic access, and a rebuilt capitalist democratic Europe that could again serve as a hub in world affairs. 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.

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 one of the few nations unravaged by the war, the United States stood to gain more than any other country from opening up a global market for its exports and access to vital raw materials.

The beginning of the Cold War

Truman could advance these principles with an economic powerhouse that produced 50 percent of the world's industrial goods and a vast military power that rested on a monopoly of the new atomic bomb (see also Soviet atomic bomb project). Such a power could mold and benefit from a recovering Europe, which in turn required a healthy Germany at its center; these aims were at the center of what the Soviet Union strove to avoid as the breakdown of the wartime alliance went forward.

The wherewithal of the United States to advance a different vision of the postwar world conflicted with Soviet interests. National security had been the real cornerstone of Soviet policy since the 1920s, when the Communist Party adopted Stalin's "socialism in one country" and rejected Trotsky's ideas of "world revolution." Before the war, Stalin was uninterested in pushing Soviet boundaries beyond their full Tsarist extent.

In this sense, the aims of the Soviet Union were not aggressive expansionison but rather consolidation, i.e. attempting to secure the war-torn country's western borders. Stalin, assuming that Japan and Germany could menace the Soviet Union once again by the 1960s, thus quickly imposed Moscow-dominated governments in the springboards of the Nazi onslaught: Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria.

Disagreements over postwar plans first centered on Eastern and Central Europe. Having lost 20 million dead in the war, suffered German and Nazi German invasion, and suffered tens of millions of casualties due to onslaughts from the West three times in the preceding 150 years, first with Napoleon, the Soviet Union was determined to destroy Germany's capacity for another war. U.S. aims were quite opposed, since they would require a restored Germany as a trade and perhaps military partner.

Winston Churchill, long a visceral anti-Communist, condemned Stalin for cordoning off a new Russian empire with an "iron curtain." Afterwards, Truman finally refused to give the war-torn Soviet Union reparations from West Germany's industrial plants, Stalin retaliated by sealing off East Germany as a Communist state.

Russia's historic lack of maritime access, a perennial concern of Russian foreign policy well before the Bolshevik Revolution, was also a focus for Russia, yet another area 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.

But when Soviet security was not at stake, Stalin demonstrated no overtly aggressive designs: 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 the corrupt, British-led monarchial autocracy in Greece; in Finland he accepted a friendly, noncommunist government; and Russian troops were withdrawn from Czechoslovakia by the end of 1945.

"Containment" and the Marshall Plan

While the Soviet Union acquiesced to Anglo-American designs to impede Soviet access to the Mediterranean (a perennial focus of British foreign policy since the Crimean War in the 1850s), the Americans heated up their rhetoric; Anglo-American aims to prop up the Greek autocracy became a struggle to protect "free" peoples against "totalitarian" regimes. This would be articulated in the Truman Doctrine Speech of March 1947, which argued that the United States would spend as much as $400 million in efforts to "contain" communism.

By successfully aiding Greece, Truman also set a precedent for the U.S. aid to anticommunist regimes, even authoritarian ones at times. U.S. foreign policy moved into alignment with State Department officer George Kennan's argument that the Soviets had to be "contained" using "unalterable counterforce at every point," until the breakdown of Soviet power occurred.

The United States launched massive economic reconstruction efforts, first in Western Europe and then in Japan (as well as in South Korea and Taiwan). The Marshall Plan began to pump $12 billion into Western Europe. The rationale was economically stable nations were less likely to fall prey to Soviet influence, a view which was vindicated in the long run.

Stalin, fearing a revived Germany due to the Marshall Plan, 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. Convinced that he could starve and freeze West Berlin into submission, no trucks or trains were allowed entry into the city. However, this decision backfired when Truman embarked on a highly visible move that would humiliate the Soviets internationally--supplying the beleaguered city by air. Military confrontation threatened while Truman, with British help, flew supplies over East Germany into West Berlin during the 1948-1949 blockade. This costly aerial supplying of West Berlin became known as the Berlin Airlift.

Truman joined eleven other nations in 1949 to form the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the United States' first "entangling" European alliance in 170 years. Stalin replied to these moves 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 Communist China in February 1950, and forming the Warsaw Pact, Eastern Europe's counterpart to NATO.

U.S. 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 Americans to fight this costly cold war. Truman ordered the development of a hydrogen bomb; in early 1950 the U.S. embarked on its first attempt to prop up colonialism in French Indochina in the face of mounting popular, communist-led resistance; and the United States embarked on what the Soviets considered a blatant violation of wartime treaties yet: plans to form a West German army.

The immediate post-1945 period may have been the historical high point for the popularity of communist ideology. Communist parties won large shares of the vote in free elections 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 won large support in China, Greece, and Iran, where free elections remained absent or constrained but where Communist parties enjoyed widespread appeal.

In response, the United States sustained a massive anticommunist ideological offensive. The United States aimed to "contain" communism through both aggressive diplomacy and interventionist policies. In retrospect, this initiative appears largely successful: Washington brandished its role as the leader of the "free world" at least as effectively as the Soviet Union brandished its position as the leader of the "progressive" and "anti-imperialist" camp.

Korean War

Main article: Korean War

The Korean War, which lasted from 25 June 1950 to 27 July 1953, was the first major conflict after World War II. It heightened the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union considerably, in fact it is generally considered a major stepping stone in the Cold War (even when the term Cold War seems contradictory, meaning war without battles). The Soviet Union firmly favoured the North Korean cause and showed this by sending it huge amounts of modern war material.

In 1950 the Soviet Union protested against the fact that the Chinese seat at the UN Security Council was held by the (Nationalist controlled) Republic of China, and boycotted the meetings. It came to regret this decision when the Korean War started. The UN passed a resolution condemning North Korean actions and offering military support to South Korea. Had the Soviet Union been present at the meetings it would certainly have vetoed the outcome. After this incident the Soviet Union was never absent at the meetings of the Security Council.


1 Robert C. Tucker, Stalin in Power (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1990) p. 96.
2 Ibid. p. 96.
3 Ibid. p. 228.

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