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Who Was Responsible for the Start of the Cold War?

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In many ways it can be argued that American aggression was responsible for the start of the Cold war although this is a claim much easier to make in hindsight. When analysing the way in which relations between the USA and USSR broke down after the defeat of the Nazis in Europe it is now possible to say that America was perhaps over suspicious of the spread of Communism within the Eastern bloc. Broken down into its simplest terms the Cold war can be viewed as a struggle of two economic systems; The success of one system in turn threatened the other and thus America viewed the spread of Communism as a direct threat to its prosperity which was based upon the principals of free trade. They believed that the rise of Communism in Eastern Europe was largely a Stalinist attempt to boost the economy of Russia by creating a large Soviet sphere of influence within the continent, obedient to Moscow yet historians are now able to look back upon the factors, which led America to this belief and conclude that they were in fact misinformed.

In actual fact events such as the Greek communist revolt, into which Stalin had little or no input prove that Stalin’s priority was first to insure the prosperity of Communism within Russia itself. In truth the success of Communism within Eastern Europe can ultimately be attributed to the fact that it was a political system which deeply suited the war torn economies in which it thrived In 1945 in Greece economic condition were awful. The country had been torn apart by war and it became a prime example of the type of central European country which could become susceptible to communist takeover.

During that year Civil war broke out and many people were suspicious that Stalin had helped to stir up support for the Greek communists. However no link has ever been proved, the tide of opinion now sways towards the view that Stalin was never really interested in pursuing the spread of Communism as far as Greece. In short, American over-eagerness to keep Europe open to free trade and in reality as a part of its’ own ‘Sphere of influence’ is perhaps what provoked the start of the Cold war. Whether or not the Americans are to be blamed for holding such suspicions however, especially after such a long World war in which the dangers of appeasing powerful dictators had been so clearly exemplified, is a different issue altogether.

Who shoulders responsibility for the beginning of the Cold war also depends very much on the question of when the ‘Cold war’ actually began? This is because there is in fact no historical consensus as to when relations can be seen to have deteriorated to the point at which they would have ordinarily lead to warfare. Some historians argue that the Potsdam peace conference in July 1945 should be seen as the beginning of the Cold war period, others may view this time period as simply a time of political unrest and argue that Cold war did not become anything near definable as a war until the outbreak of war in Korea 1950. It is in fact very difficult for any real consensus to be agreed by historians and as a result it’s necessary to instead weigh up the relative importance of factors involved with each incident at the start of the Cold war period.

At the beginning of 1945, during February’s Yalta Peace conference relations between America, Britain and Russia were good. The war had not at this stage been won in Europe but victory looked inevitable. However by the time the three nations next meet at Potsdam in August this situation had changed. In many ways this was bound to happen. At Yalta the U.S. had been represented by President Theodore Roosevelt, a man suspicious of Russia and Stalin’s ambitions for Communism but nether the less tactful, a man whom kept his personal views to himself. Britain had been under the guidance of Prime Minister Winston Churchill who was similarly wary of Stalin but had also become a powerful ally of the man during the World War. Now however both men had disappeared from the political forefront. Roosevelt fell victim to Polio and died during the gap between the two conferences, replaced by his deputy Harry Truman, Churchill on the other hand had been defeated in a general election and was replaced by Labour Prime Minister Clement Atlee.

This in turn meant that both countries adopted new attitudes towards Stalin and Russia, which turned out to be more negative than that of their predecessors. Truman the more powerful of the two leaders was much more suspicious of Stalin than Roosevelt ever had been publicly. He saw the immediate post-war period as a power vacuum, the economies of central and Eastern Europe now lay in tatters, their people looking for a new direction and to be lead out of the void they now existed in. Given the chance communist ideas could prosper something that could potentially be damaging to the American economy. One of the products of the Second World War had been to awaken the American people to the fact that they could not survive in isolation. Whether they liked it or not they relied upon trade with their European counterparts, if they turned to a communist rule this of course would disappear. In order to stop this happening Truman had to stem the gradual growth in Communism across Eastern Europe. Looking at a map in 1944 Joseph Stalin remarked to his foreign secretary Molotov,

“There is too much red…the west is bound to oppose communist gains.”

He was proved to be right. Many historians argue that Truman’s response to this threat was what is referred to by revisionist historian Gar Alperovitz as, “Atomic diplomacy.” In August, one week after Potsdam when it had become clear the mood amongst the three countries had changed Truman authorised the use of atomic capability against Japan. The result of the ‘Manhattan project’ founded under Roosevelt, Atomic bombs were dropped on the islands of Hiroshima then Nagasaki. Alperovitz argues that the U.S.’s main motive was to intimidate Stalin and to use it’s new-found power as a “Diplomatic lever to wring concessions from the Soviet Union” Knowing what we know now i.e. that Stalin never really planned the expansion of Communism any further than the borders of Poland, this justifies the conclusion that the U.S. was over aggressive in its defence of Capitalism and Free trade. Therefore this misjudgement on the part of Truman, unnecessarily stoking the tensions between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. could be concluded as the beginning of the Cold war period. There is however no concrete evidence to suggest that Stalin’s foreign policy was affected by the Atomic bomb and as a result this synopsis is debatable.

The nuclear attack on Japan did ultimately create new tensions between East and West yet to many historians for instance Francis Fukuyama, the Cold war is seen not as a war in conventional terms but as, “Mankind’s ideological evolution” in which ultimately Capitalism flourished along with its ideas of Free trade based upon the principal of survival of the fittest. Arguing this course, it is perhaps more logical to argue that instead Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech in Missouri (March 5. 1946) was where the Cold war really began. His speech in which he coined the infamous phrase was the first instance whereby a political leader had explicitly highlighted the ideological divide between East and west.

“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.”

In many ways it angered President Truman because in America the conception of Stalin was still one of friendly ‘Uncle Joe’ the wartime hero who’s courageous Red Army had led the allies to victory. This sudden portrayal of Stalin as the enemy came as a shock to the system to the American public and they were not sure how to take Churchill’s speech. As a result anti Sovietism started to seep into the American media and people were suddenly warned of the danger communism posed to their own individual liberty. Further more Churchill’s speech can be seen as the beginning of the end for American-Russian relations as it became almost a diplomatic point of no return. Now he, despite being out of office had laid out his beliefs, as a powerful wartime politician people listened to what he had to say.

The significance of Churchill’s speech can however be slightly overlooked as a month prior to that in February, on the request of Truman George Kennan American ambassador to Moscow had already delivered his famous ‘Long telegram.’ This was a report on the state of contemporary Russia and it’s shifting attitude towards the West and in particular America. He holds the Russian’s responsible for the increase in aggression and explores the intolerant tendencies of Communism towards other political systems.

“It was no coincidence that Marxism which had smouldered and burnt ineffectively in Western Europe caught hold and blazed for the first time in Russia. Only in this land which had never known a friendly neighbour or indeed any tolerant equilibrium of separate powers, either internal or international, could a doctrine thrive which viewed economic conflicts of society as insoluble by peaceful means. After establishment of the Bolshevik regime, Marxist dogma rendered…became a perfect vehicle for sense of insecurity within the Bolsheviks, even more than previous Russian rulers, were afflicted. In this dogma…they found justification for their instinctive fear of outside world, for the dictatorship without which they did not know how to rule, for cruelties they did not dare not to inflict, for sacrifices they felt bound to demand.”

Although heavily biased, perhaps exaggerated in places Kennan’s summary of 1940’s Russia does highlight some valid points. Under Stalin the Russian people had undergone some of the most horrific abuses of human rights. Stalin’s five year plans and his policy of collectivisation provide just two examples of the dictatorial like ways in which he ruled the country in which the good of the state most certainly came before the good of the individual. Anyone who opposed Stalin and his ideas was quickly ‘purged’ and removed from the scene. Although not widely known to the outside world the American government did have some idea of the scale of atrocities carried out under Stalin and therefore it can be argued that America felt it had a moral obligation to protect Europe from the evils which communist regimes could pose.

Of course Stalin was also a dictator who was gaining an increasingly immovable position within his own country. Should America be wary of yet another power hungry dictator gaining more and more military might as had Adolf Hitler. The last thing Truman wanted to do was to repeat the mistakes of the past. Truman was undecided and unsure what to do, thus why he took the advice of Kennan. Writing and living in Moscow Truman thought he should be a well informed and a creditable enough source of information to rely upon and therefore in many ways his telegram became a catalyst in developing the way that American foreign policy became over-aggressive towards the Soviet Union as it perhaps makes out that Stalin’s communist regime was more ambitious and intolerant than it was in reality. As we know now Stalin’s priority was first to make Russia great, he believed that communist revolution worldwide would only occur as an attempt by other countries to mimic the success of the Soviet Union not via violent or aggressive means.

The 1946 ‘Iran crisis’ marks yet another catastrophic misjudgement between the two sides. As already established, post World War II Russia was in a state of ruin, its economy in tatters. Stalin’s aim was to rebuild the Soviet Union through a rapid plan of industrialisation but he could not do this completely alone. In truth he drained regions of the Soviet Union such as the Ukraine almost until the barrel was empty yet in many ways he needed, as there was still a demand for more oil in order to fuel Russia’s economic recovery. In 1944 Stalin had marched troops into Iran but had agreed that six months after the end of the war he would remove them. The West did not recognise that oil was Stalin’s one and only real motive aside from border protection for maintaining a presence in Iran or at least publicly this is the attitude they displayed. Instead they made out that it was a Stalinist attempt to expand communist ideas into Asia as a result the United States went to the United Nations to demand Stalin withdraw troops from the country. Initially Stalin ignored their demands but eventually succumbed in 1946.

The West viewed this as a victory on their part; Stalin had realised that he could not do as he pleased just because he had played a major part in winning the war, the threat of Communism had be extinguished but the East on the other hand saw the Iran crisis as America bullying Russia into a corner and a generally hypocritical and favouritist politics. This was because currently Iran granted oil concessions to the U.S.A and Britain but not Russia. This was most unfair because Russia was the country which most definitely needed the oil the most and arguably deserved it the most too. The crisis, the end of the lend-lease agreement and rejection of reparations to Russia by the West had the cumulative effective of convincing Stalin that the U.S. was set upon the economic destruction of the Soviet Union. It became one of the factors that led to Truman prompting Kennan for his ‘Long telegram’ and sparked the wave of Anti-Sovietism that permeated the American media. U.S. paper Newsweek in a September 1946 addition lead with the headline,

“The Soviet government has made up its mind that Capitalism must be destroyed if Communism is to survive”

The battle lines were now well and truly beginning to be drawn between the two superpowers. In terms of the beginning of the Cold war, the Iran crisis marked the first direct political confrontation between Truman and Stalin. How far this would develop it would remain to be seen.

What happened next in 1947 was then in some ways inevitable. It was the year in which both the ‘Truman doctrine’ and the ‘Marshall plan’ were announced to the world. In February the British government announced to Truman that it could no longer afford to support either Greece or Turkey with financial aid. This caused a powerful dilemma for the president. If he allowed both countries slip further into poverty then as his Sectary of State Dean Acheson remarked

“Soviet pressure on Northern Greece bought the Balkans to the point where a possible breakthrough might open up three continents to Soviet penetration.”

As a result the Truman doctrine was announced to the world on 12th March and was seen by observers as the American presidents first direct challenge to the rule of Stalin. For the first time Truman explicitly stated his belief that Communism posed a direct threat to capitalist society and that the two could not co-exist in harmony. In it he promised American support for countries that could potentially fall into communist government. Truman declared that,

“Every country must choose between two ways of life…it is the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting subjection by armed minorities or by outside pressures”

After making such a bold and forthright statement Truman then needed to put his money where his mouth was. After all Communism was merely ‘The parasite which thrived in countries of economic ruin.’ If he could revitalise Greece and Turkey their people would then have no need to turn to the Soviets for help. Truman’s answer to the problem came in the form of the ‘Marshall plan’, an economic recovery package for any poverty-stricken country in Europe that would help war torn economies back on their feet. It became an enormous success and despite the fact that over $13.2 billion of taxpayers money was granted to sixteen European countries the America n people saw it as a shrewd investment that would ward off the threat that Communism posed to them.

In part the ‘Truman doctrine’ had also been a form of response by the American’s to Stalin’s speech to the Russian parliament in Moscow in February. In it’s content he had similarly highlighted the incompatibility of the communist and capitalist systems and therefore it cannot be too surprising that Truman now recognised this as well however, Stalin’s reaction to Marshall aid was on of hostility. Many countries within the Soviet sphere of influence that could have benefited greatly from financial help were intimidated into not doing so because they feared that Stalin would see them as pro-Western and take retributary action. In response to ‘Marshall aid’ in October Stalin decided that he would establish Cominform, a league of pro-communist nations that would fall under the influence of Stalin. As time went by it became clear that Truman and Stalin were to stand firm upon their respective views, all that remained now was for other nations to choose their allegiance.

At first most countries in Europe sympathised with Truman and his democratic policies but what worried many in the West was the way in which Stalin seemed to be getting away with communist revolution because he done in it in a way so gradually. The way in which he gently developed Eastern Europe into a Communist ‘Sphere of influence’ has come to be referred to as Stalin’s ‘Salami tactics’ because of the way in which the Russian leader was able to slice up pieces of the continent into small, unnoticeable sections. Under Cominform this had become even easier for Stalin to achieve as he had been able to collaborate with other Soviet powers to remove non-communist sympathisers from power. Before the end of 1948 leaders in Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Albania had all been eliminated by fake trials, terrorism and purges.

However when this began to happen in Czechoslovakia it became slightly more significant to the ‘civilised world.’ In late ’47 the economic situation in the country started to deteriorate and the communist minister of the interior filled key posts with communist comrades. This infuriated the non-communist members of the government who resigned in protest in February 1948. Their positions were in-turn filled by more communist politicians to form a totalitarian communist government. Seen as one of the only countries that had been able to successfully hold together a democratic government whilst retaining a ‘friendly’ stance towards the Soviet Union the outside world was shocked at the sudden ‘Czech coup.’ Ultimately its impact upon the West was to help strengthen support for the ‘Truman doctrine’ and in many ways it bought about the end to ‘Salami tactics’ as the world was now awakened to the gradual imposition of Communist regimes upon Eastern Europe. Now any threat or step towards making a gain by either side would be immediately recognisable and appear war-like. In the West people started to get worried that Communism was encroaching just a little too far in their direction.

The smell of war was most defiantly in the air come June of 1948, in fact more so than it had ever been as a consequence of what has come to be known as the Berlin Blockade. This was the last and perhaps desperate attempt by Stalin to halt the success of Marshall aid. Representing a microcosm of 1940’s Germany itself, Berlin had been divided into four sections; towards the West were sections controlled by Britain, France and the U.S. towards the East was a section under Russian control. Stalin had no qualms about this fact alone, instead it was the way in which the three Western powers seemed to be using the division to send out a political message to the Russians. They seemed to want to create a new revitalised West German economy and exclude the Soviets in the East.

This angered Stalin not least because while West Germany was being rebuilt his own country lay in a state of ruin. In 1947 the three Western powers had agreed to merge their three zones of occupation and, in 1948 they then went one step further in infuriating him when they announced the formation of the Federal Deutschland Republic with its own new uniform currency. This proved to be the last straw for Stalin and on June 24th, one day after the currency had been introduced he ordered that all passenger and freight traffic to West Berlin be terminated. Stalin’s main reasons for doing so was to protect his Eastern section of Berlin from becoming the victim of a mass exodus of workers and businessmen. He feared a new economically superior Western Germany would prove too attractive to the largely poverty stricken East Berliners and without any real incentive to keep people there he simple stopped them from leaving instead. In doing so Stalin thought he was being extremely cunning and in many ways he was.

He had exploited a loophole in the terms of Berlin’s division which never stated that the West had rights of access to the city. He was however, also bringing the two superpowers dangerously close to war. For days people lived in fear of a possible super-war breaking out on a scale never seen to the world before and their fears may have indeed been realised had it not been for the ingenuity of the West. The British and Americans overcame the blockade by airlifting supplies into West Berlin. They knew that at anytime supply planes could be blown out of the sky by Soviet missiles but equally knew that Stalin would be taking a massive risk in doing so and effectively making a declaration of war. The gamble paid off and in a way left Stalin blushing.

In the eyes of the world’s media the Soviet Union had been portrayed as power hungry and as trying to starve poor women and children. More importantly the crisis had established that although hostile toward one another neither was prepared to take the first vital step towards war. Therefore the Berlin Blockade can be interpreted as the beginning of the Cold war as its events determined the uncertain nature of the conflict. Of course the inevitable result of the Blockade was also that the Soviets formed their own official state in Germany which was ironically named as ‘The German democratic Republic.’ And with the later construction of the Berlin Wall Churchill’s metaphorical ‘Iron Curtain’ had now become a physical entity. Further more the Berlin Wall marked the end of Soviet incursion into Europe ‘freezing the geographical status quo.’ It was now most certainly East versus West.

Tensions between the two superpowers were now at an all time height; yet it is true to say that at this stage the Americans still held the upper hand over their Soviet counterparts because they had nuclear capability. This however, changed in August 1949 when the Russians exploded their first H-bomb. Now crucially both sides held the ability to completely destroy one another if provoked into doing so leading to a state of ‘nuclear stalemate.’ The revelation of Soviet nuclear capability also made Truman increasingly wary of the threat of Soviet spying in the U.S. To him, the ease and rapidity at which the Soviets had been able to develop nuclear weaponry indicated that spies must have infiltrated the American military.

As a result hostility between the two countries rose to an all new level, even to the extent where ordinary Americans were told to look for ‘Red’s under the bed,’ a reference to communist spies. There is definitely a strong case for arguing that the dawn of Russian nuclear capability marked the beginning of the ‘Cold war.’ In essence the existence of nuclear arms was what made the ‘Cold war’ cold, indirectly fought conflict. This issue posses a number of further questions to the historian; firstly would the Russians have ever possessed the will or the necessity to develop nuclear weaponry had the American’s not intimidated them into doing so in 1946? And, given this, is it possible to argue that had neither side possessed nuclear weapons there would have been less self-restraint exercised by Stalin and Truman instead leading to the possibility of real and ‘Hot’ war which could potentially have had been far more disastrous implications that what in reality actually happened?

In conclusion therefore, it is impossible come to any solid judgement as to when the Cold War actually began and further more who should hold responsibility for its beginnings. A historian must instead try to attach relative significance to each important event which occurred during the early Cold war period and attempt to infer in what ways each was significant to the conflict as a whole. In my opinion Truman’s decisions to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were highly important events which shaped the nature of the conflict to come.

When in 1949 Stalin responded by developing his own nuclear arsenal this was also highly significant as it removed President Truman from his military high ground and left both sides careful where they trod politically. Ultimately though responsibility for the start of the ‘Cold war’ conflict has to be laid at the feet of the Americans. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were both acts of extreme aggression not just upon the Japanese but against the entire world – they sent out the message ‘Don’t mess with America or you’ll live to regret it.’ In a world already in a fragile state after two world wars in quick succession the U.S. was far too aggressive in it’s immediate post-war foreign policies towards East Europe and the Soviet Union and showed no sympathy or willingness to allow this war-torn area to recover economically in a way which suited it. The incentive of increased American economic growth proved to be too great for Truman and his administration and although they were right to be weary of Stalin they took things too far and perhaps had ulterior motives in shielding European countries from communist regime change.

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