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Who is to blame for the Cold War?

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The blame for the Cold War cannot be placed on one person — it developed as a series of chain reactions as a struggle for supremacy. It can be argued that the Cold War was inevitable, and therefore no one’s fault, due to the differences in the capitalist and communist ideologies. It was only the need for self-preservation that had caused the two countries to sink their differences temporarily during the Second World War. Yet many of the tensions that existed in the Cold War can be attributed to Stalin’s policy of Soviet expansion. It is necessary, therefore, to examine the role of Stalin as a catalyst to the Cold War.

Stalin’s foreign policies contributed an enormous amount to the tensions of the Cold War. His aim, to take advantage of the military situation in post-war Europe to strengthen Russian influence, was perceived to be a threat to the Americans. Stalin was highly effective in his goal to gain territory, with victories in Poland, Romania, and Finland. To the western world, this success looked as if it were the beginning of serious Russian aggressions. The western view of the time saw Stalin as doing one of two things: either continuing the expansionist policies of the tsars that preceded him, or worse, spreading communism across the world now that his “one-state” notion had been fulfilled. It also must be mentioned that Stalin is seen as wanting “unchallenged personal power and a rebuilt Russia strong enough to withstand ‘capitalist encirclement.'”1

Admittedly, the first view of Stalin, as an imperialist leader, may be skewed. The Russians claim, and have always claimed, that Stalin’s motives were purely defensive. Stalin’s wished to create a buffer zone of Communist states around him to protect Soviet Russia from the capitalist West. In this sense, his moves were not aggressive at all — they were truly defensive moves to protect the Soviet system. His suspicions of Western hostility were not unfounded: the British and U.S. intervention in the Russian Civil War (1918-1920) were still fresh in Stalin’s memory when he took power. Furthermore, Stalin was bitter because he was not informed of U.S. nuclear capabilities until shortly before the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Compounding tensions was the fact that Stalin’s request that Russia be allowed to participate in the occupation of Japan was denied, even though Russia had declared war on Japan on 8th August (the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on 10th August) and had been responsible for annexing south Sakhalin as agreed to at Yalta. This failure to be included in the Western world’s politics created an even deeper rift between the two superpowers.

Clashes between Stalin and the West first appear at the Yalta and Potsdam Conferences in February and July 1946, respectively. Though the mood at Yalta was more or less cooperative, Stalin agitated matters by demanding that all German territory east of the Rivers Oder and Neisse be given to Poland (and thus remain under Soviet influence). Both Roosevelt and Churchill refused to agree to these demands. The Soviet Union responded bluntly, saying “..the Soviet Government cannot agree to the existence in Poland of a Government hostile to it.” The atmosphere at the Potsdam Conference was noticeably cooler, with Truman replacing Roosevelt as the representative from the United States. “Truman…had been kept in complete ignorance by Roosevelt about foreign policy,” which meant that Truman was not aware of the secret assurances of security Roosevelt had made to Stalin.

His policy towards Soviet Russia, then, was much more severe than that of Roosevelt. He was quoted as saying “We must stand up to the Russians…We have been too easy with them.” Truman and Churchill were annoyed because Germany east of the Rivers Oder and Neisse were being occupied by Russian troops and were being run by the pro-communist Polish government, who expelled over five million Germans. This went directly against the agreements made at Yalta earlier in the year. The west viewed this as an act of aggression on the part of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union responded with a statement saying “Poland borders with the Soviet Union, what [sic] cannot be said of Great Britain or the United States.

From this point, the Cold War truly becomes a chain reaction. In March of 1946, Churchill presented his ‘Iron Curtain’ speech at Fulton, Missouri, in response to the spread of communism in eastern Europe. He called for a western alliance to combat the threat. Stalin’s response was hostile: rather than trying to negotiate a peaceful settlement, Stalin continued to tighten his grip on eastern Europe. Communist governments were installed in every area of eastern Europe (barring Czechoslovakia) by the end of 1947. These governments were implemented by guerrilla tactics: elections were rigged, non-communist members of the governments were expelled, with many being arrested or executed, and eventually, Stalin dissolved all non-communist political parties. Stalin began to implement a reign of terror using the Russian Army and his secret police force. Moreover, Stalin had increased his influence in the Russian zone of Germany as if it belonged to Russia. He allowed only the communist party and drained the area of its vital resources.

The West reacted. It appeared to them that Russia’s attitude went against all of the promises that Stalin had made at Yalta — namely, that Stalin would permit free elections in the eastern European states. Russia argued that it needed to maintain a sphere of influence in the area for security reasons: to this, even Churchill agreed in 1944. Further, Russia argued that the areas had never had democratic governments, and that a communist system would allow these ‘backward countries’ to progress and flourish. Stalin’s policy of expansion worried the West: in response, the West introduced the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, both of which sought to arrest the spread of communism.

Stalin’s aggressive tactics did not end with creating a sphere of influence. Stalin re-established Cominform in September 1947. Cominform represented a union of all of the communist states within Europe, including representatives from the French and Italian communist parties. Even within this communist structure, Stalin had to exert his influence. It was not enough for a state to be merely communist: it had to adopt the Russian-style communism. Furthermore, the states within Cominform were expected to keep trade within the Cominform member states, and were discouraged from making any contact with the Western world. Russia strengthened the ties with the Cominform countries through the Molotov plan, which offered Russian aid to the satellite states, and the establishment of Comecon, which served to coordinate the economic policies of the communist states. These actions on the part of Stalin only increased the rift between the capitalist and the communist systems, and made future compromise and negotiations more difficult.

Perhaps the most aggressive move that Stalin made, however, was the takeover of Czechoslovakia in February 1948. Several key issues arose in this conflict. First, the U.S. felt alienated when Czechoslovakia rejected Marshall Aid, which the U.S. blamed on the influence of the communist party. Second, the Prime Minister of Czechoslovakia was a communist, the President and Foreign Minister were not. Finally, the fact that the communists took power in Czechoslovakia by means of an armed coup sent waves of fear through the western world, causing the ‘iron curtain’ to fall even further. The U.N. had its hands tied, because there were ‘free’ elections (the candidates were all communist) and there was no proof of Russian involvement. While it cannot be proved that Stalin ordered the coup, the signals were clear: Stalin had likely encouraged the coup, and it was not coincidental that Russian troops in Austria were moved up to the Czech border. Czechoslovakia was the final east-west bridge, and with the fall of it, the ‘iron curtain’ was complete.

The final hostile movement of Stalin of importance was the Berlin blockade and airlift. When Russia grew dissatisfied with the economic disparity that had developed in Berlin, it responded by closing all road, rail and canal links between West Berlin and West German. The goal was to force western powers from West Berlin by reducing it to the starvation point.

While the blame for the Cold War cannot be placed on a single man, Stalin’s expansionist policy was clearly an ever-present catalyst in the war. Certain Truman was not blameless, but the U.S. was not expanding its empire — the Soviet Union was. Whether the expansion was for self-preservation, or whether it was merely imperialistic expansion, is relatively immaterial. What Stalin’s actions unarguably did was start a string of chain-reactions within the western powers, and therefore, a good deal of the blame must rest with him.

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