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Cold War (1947-1953) and its origins

 This article is part of
Cold War series.
 Cold War (1947-1953) and its origins
 Cold War (1953-1962)
 Cold War (1962-1991)

Table of contents
1 The breakdown of postwar peace
2 The Korean War
3 Related topics:

The breakdown of postwar peace

Background: East-West relations

Some 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, such as Samuel P. Huntington, 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.

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 were 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 a 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 in 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.

In 1917 the rivalry turned intensely ideological. The United States did not even establish relations with the Soviet government until 1933. 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 US troops in Soviet Russia in 1918, which became becoming involved, directly and indirectly, in assisting the anti-Bolshevik Whites in the civil war.

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. And even during the warmest days of the alliance, tensions were seating underneath. The Soviets never forgot the repeated assurances from Roosevelt that the United States and Britain would 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. The West had delayed the invasion, forcing the Soviets to absorb the brunt of German strength.

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, which moved swiftly to consolidate its position.

The Big Three: The Allied Leaders at Yalta
Prime Minster Winston Churchill (UK),
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (US),
and First Secretary Joseph Stalin (USSR)

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 evinced 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.

And there were fundamental contrasts between the visions of the United States and the Soviet Union, between capitalism and communism. 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. Stalin assumed that the capitalist camp would soon resume its internal rivalry over colonies and trade and not pose a threat to Russia. 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 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. And 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 government/business sectionalism, of 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 stifled in its incipiency. Pressures to "get back to normal" and 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-long in 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 Soviet coat of arms

The United States, however, led by President Harry S. Truman since April 1945, was determined to shape the postwar world according 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 Europe that could again serve as a hub in world affairs. Franklin 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 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.

Such a Europe required a healthy Germany at its center. 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.

Aside from geo-political machinations, the United States led the effort to impose its vision of the world with 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 collapse of postwar peace

The wherewithal 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. 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 disinterested in pushing Soviet boundaries beyond their full Tsarist extent.

After the war, the aims of Soviet Union were not aggressive expansionism, but attempts 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 invasion through Poland twice in 30 years, 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. US aims were ostensibly opposed since they would require a healthy Germany at the center of Europe.

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 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 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 Cold War

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 have to $400 million to efforts to "contain" communism.

By successfully aiding Greece, Truman also set a precedent for the US aid to regimes, no matter how repugnant, that were anti-Communist and pro-capitalist. American foreign policy moved from 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 capitalized on the Cold War fears to launch 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 obvious: What was the point of having such overwhelming productive superiority if the rest of the world could not muster effective demand? Furthermore, economic reconstruction helped create clientelistic obligations on the part of the nations receiving US aid; this sense of obligation fostered willingness to enter into military alliances and, even more important, into political subservience.

Stalin, fearing a revived Germany, responded by blocking access to Berlin, which was deep within the Soviet zone although subject to four power control, hoping to extract concessions for the blockade to be ended. However, it greatly backfired. Military confrontation loomed while Truman embarked on an impressive, provocative move that would humiliate the Soviets internationally: flying supplies in over the blockade during 1948-1949.

Truman joined eleven other nations in 1949 to form the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), America's first "entangling" European alliance in 170 years. Stalin retaliated against these provocative 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.

Confronted with growing Soviet successes to respond to provocative Western actions, 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 Americans to fight this costly cold war. Truman ordered the development of a hydrogen bomb; in early 1950 the US 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 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 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 interfere in the internal affairs and sovereignty of other countries or impose its will upon others under the guise of "freedom", "democracy" and "human rights". 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.

The Korean War

For details see the main article Korean War.

Kim Il Sung during the Korean War

In early 1950 came the first U.S. commitment to form a peace treaty with Japan that would guarantee long-term U.S. military bases. Some observers (including George Kennan) believed that the Japanese treaty led Stalin to approve a plan to invade U.S.-supported South Korea on June 25, 1950. Fearing that a united communist Korea could neutralize U.S. power in Japan, Truman committed U.S. 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, power, because it 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 human-wave attacks in November 1950 that decimated U.S.-led forces. 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.

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