The Big Picture: Who, What, When, Where & (Especially) Why. In 1945, the United States and Soviet Union were allies, jointly triumphant in World War II, which ended with total victory for Soviet and American forces over Adolf Hitler’s Nazi empire in Europe. Within just a few years, however, wartime allies became mortal enemies, locked in a global struggle-military, political, economic, ideological-to prevail in a new “Cold War.”
How did wartime friends so quickly turn into Cold War foes?
Who started the Cold War?
Was it the Soviets, who reneged on their agreements to allow the people of Eastern Europe to determine their own fates by imposing totalitarian rule on territories unlucky enough to fall behind the “Iron Curtain?”
Or was it the Americans, who ignored the Soviets’ legitimate security concerns, sought to intimidate the world with the atomic bomb, and pushed relentlessly to expand their own international influence and market dominance?
The tensions that would later grow into Cold War became evident as early as 1943, when the “Big Three” allied leaders-American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet Premier Josef Stalin-met in Tehran to coordinate strategy. Poland, which sits in an unfortunate position on the map, squeezed between frequent enemies Russia and Germany, became a topic for heated debate. The Poles, then under German occupation, had not one but two governments-in-exile-one Communist, one anticommunist-hoping to take over the country upon its liberation from the Nazis. Unsurprisingly, the Big Three disagreed over which Polish faction should be allowed to take control after the war, with Stalin backing the Polish Communists while Churchill and Roosevelt insisted the Polish people ought to have the right to choose their own form of government. For Stalin, the Polish question was a matter of the Soviet Union’s vital security interests; Germany had invaded Russia through Poland twice since 1914, and more than 20 million Soviet citizens died in World War II. (The Soviets suffered nearly sixty times as many casualties in the war as the Americans did.) Stalin was determined to make sure that such an invasion could never happen again, and insisted that only a Communist Poland, friendly to (and dominated by) the Soviet Union, could serve as a buffer against future aggression from the west. Stalin’s security concerns ran smack into Anglo-American values of self-determination, which held that the Poles ought to be allowed to make their own decision over whether or not to become a Soviet satellite.
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At Tehran, and at the next major conference of the Big Three at Yalta in 1945, the leaders of the US, UK, and USSR were able to reach a number of important agreements-settling border disputes, creating the United Nations, organizing the postwar occupations of Germany and Japan. But Poland remained a vexing problem. At Yalta, Stalin-insisting that “Poland is a question of life or death for Russia”-was able to win Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s reluctant acceptance of a Communist-dominated provisional government for Poland. In exchange, Stalin signed on to a vague and toothless “Declaration of Liberated Europe,” pledging to assist “the peoples liberated from the dominion of Nazi Germany and the peoples of the former Axis satellite states of Europe to solve by democratic means their pressing political and economic problems.” The agreements allowed Churchill and Roosevelt to claim they had defended the principle of self-determination, even though both knew that Poland had effectively been consigned to the Soviet sphere of interest. The provisional Communist government in Poland later held rigged elections (which it, not surprisingly, won), nominally complying with the Declaration of Liberated Europe even though no alternative to Communist rule ever really had a chance in the country.
In the end, the Yalta agreements were not so much a true compromise as a useful (in the short term) misunderstanding among the three leaders. Stalin left happy he had won Anglo-American acceptance of de facto Soviet control of Eastern Europe; Roosevelt and Churchill left happy they had won Stalin’s acceptance of the principle of self-determination. But the two parts of the agreement were mutually exclusive; what would happen if the Eastern Europeans sought to self-determine themselves out of the Soviet orbit? Future disputes over the problematic Yalta agreements were not just likely; they were virtually inevitable.
And the likelihood of future conflict only heightened on 12 April 1945, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt unexpectedly died of a brain hemorrhage. Vice President Harry S. Truman-a former Missouri senator with only a high-school education, who had served just 82 days as vice president and had not been part of FDR’s inner circle-suddenly became the President of the United States. Truman, who may not have ever known just how much Roosevelt had actually conceded to Stalin at Yalta, viewed the Soviets’ later interventions in Eastern Europe as a simple violation of the Yalta agreements, as proof that Stalin was a liar who could never be trusted. Truman quickly staked out a hard-line position, resolving to counter Stalin’s apparently insatiable drive for power by blocking any further expansion of the Soviet sphere of influence, anywhere in the world. Under Truman, containment of Communism soon came to dominate American foreign policy. The Cold War was on.
So who started the Cold War?
In the early days of the Cold War itself, American historians would have answered, nearly unanimously, that the Soviets started the Cold War. Josef Stalin was an evil dictator, propelled by an evil Communist ideology to attempt world domination. Appeasement hadn’t worked against Hitler, and appeasement wouldn’t work against Stalin either. An innocent America had only reluctantly joined the Cold War to defend the Free World from otherwise inevitable totalitarian conquest.
In the 1960s, a new generation of revisionist historians-disillusioned by the Vietnam War and appalled by seemingly endemic government dishonesty-offered a startingly different interpretation. In this revisionist view, Stalin may have been a Machiavellian despot but he was an essentially conservative one; he was more interested in protecting the Soviet Union (and his own power within it) than in dominating the world. Americans erroneously interpreted Stalin’s legitimate insistence upon a security buffer in Poland to indicate a desire for global conquest; Americans’ subsequent aggressive efforts to contain Soviet influence, to intimidate the Soviets with the atomic bomb, and to pursue American economic interests around the globe were primarily responsible for starting the Cold War.
More recently, a school of historians led by Yale professor John Lewis Gaddis have promoted what they call a “post-revisionist synthesis,” incorporating many aspects of the revisionist critique while still insisting that Stalin, as a uniquely powerful and uniquely malevolent historical actor, must bear the greatest responsibility for the Cold War.
In the end, it may be that “Who started the Cold War?” is simply the wrong question to ask. World War II destroyed all other major rivals to American and Soviet power; the US and USSR emerged from the conflict as the only two nations on earth that could hope to propagate their social and political systems on a global scale. Each commanded powerful military forces; each espoused globally expansive ideologies; each feared and distrusted the other. In the end, it may have been more shocking if the two superpowers had not become great rivals and Cold War enemies.
What was the Cold War
The Cold War is the name given to the relationship that developed primarily between the USA and the USSR after World War Two. The Cold War was to dominate international affairs for decades and many major crises occurred – the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, Hungary and the Berlin Wall being just some. For many the growth in weapons of mass destruction was the most worrying issue.
Do note that USSR in 1945 was Russia post-1917 and included all the various countries that now exist individually (Ukraine, Georgia etc) but after the war they were part of this huge country up until the collapse of the Soviet Union (the other name for the USSR).
Logic would dictate that as the USA and the USSR fought as allies during World War Two, their relationship after the war would be firm and friendly. This never happened and any appearance that these two powers were friendly during the war is illusory.
Before the war, America had depicted the Soviet Union as almost the devil-incarnate. The Soviet Union had depicted America likewise so their ‘friendship’ during the war was simply the result of having a mutual enemy – Nazi Germany. In fact, one of America’s leading generals, Patton, stated that he felt that the Allied army should unite with what was left of the Wehrmacht in 1945, utilise the military genius that existed within it (such as the V2’s etc.) and fight the oncoming Soviet Red Army. Churchill himself was furious that Eisenhower, as supreme head of Allied command, had agreed that the Red Army should be allowed to get to Berlin first ahead of the Allied army. His anger was shared by Montgomery, Britain’s senior military figure.
So the extreme distrust that existed during the war, was certainly present before the end of the warâ€¦â€¦..and this was between Allies. The Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, was also distrustful of the Americans after Truman only told him of a new terrifying weapon that he was going to use against the Japanese. The first Stalin knew of what this weapon could do was when reports on Hiroshima got back to Moscow.
So this was the scene after the war ended in 1945. Both sides distrusted the other. One had a vast army in the field (the Soviet Union with its Red Army supremely lead by Zhukov) while the other, the Americans had the most powerful weapon in the world, the A-bomb and the Soviets had no way on knowing how many America had.
So what exactly was the Cold War?
In diplomatic terms there are three types of war.
In diplomatic terms there are three types of war.
Hot War : this is actual warfare. All talks have failed and the armies are fighting.
Warm War : this is where talks are still going on and there would always be a chance of a peaceful outcome but armies, navies etc. are being fully mobilised and war plans are being put into operation ready for the command to fight.
Cold War : this term is used to describe the relationship between America and the Soviet Union 1945 to 1980. Neither side ever fought the other – the consequences would be too appalling – but they did ‘fight’ for their beliefs using client states who fought for their beliefs on their behalf e.g. South Vietnam was anticommunist and was supplied by America during the war while North Vietnam was pro-Communist and fought the south (and the Americans) using weapons from communist Russia or communist China. In Afghanistan, the Americans supplied the rebel Afghans after the Soviet Union invaded in 1979 while they never physically involved themselves thus avoiding a direct clash with the Soviet Union.
The one time this process nearly broke down was the Cuban Missile Crisis.
So why were these two super powers so distrustful of the other?
No elections or fixed
Autocratic / Dictatorship
‘Survival of the fittest’
Everybody helps everybody
Richest world power
Poor economic base
Society controlled by the NKVD (secret police)
Freedom of the media
This lack of mutually understanding an alien culture, would lead the world down a very dangerous path – it led to the development of weapons of awesome destructive capability and the creation of some intriguing policies such as MAD – Mutually Assured Destruction.
Cold War chronology
1945 : ‘A’-Bomb dropped on Hiroshima + Nagasaki. USA ahead in the arms race.
1947 : Marshall Aid to the west of Europe. Stalin of USSR refused it for Eastern Europe.
1948 : start of the Berlin Blockade – ended in 1949
1949 : NATO established; USSR exploded her first ‘A’-bomb; China becomes communist
1950 : Korean War started.
1952 : USA exploded her first hyrogen bomb.
1953 : Korean War ended. USSR exploded her first hydrogen bomb. Stalin died.
1955 : Warsaw Pact created. ‘Peaceful coexistence’ called for.
1956 : Hungary revolts against USSR. Suez Crisis.
1957 : Sputnik launched.
1959 : Cuba becomes a communist state.
1961 : Military aid sent to Vietnam by USA for the first time. Berlin Wall built.
1962 : Cuban Missile Crisis.
1963 : Huge increase of American aid to Vietnam.
1965 : USA openly involved in Vietnam.
1967 : Six-Day War in Middle East.
1968 : USSR invades Czechoslovakia.
1973 : Yom Kippur War.
1979 : USSR invaded Afghanistan.
1986 : Meeting in Iceland between USSR (Gorbachev) and USA (Reagan).
1987 : INF Treaty signed.
The Iron Curtain
On March 5th 1946, Winston Churchill made his ‘iron curtain’ speech at Fulton, Missouri, USA. The speech was officially entitled “The Sinews of Peace” but became better known as the “Iron Curtain” speech. It set the tone for the early years of the Cold War. Some saw it as unnecessary warmongering while others believed it was another example of how well Churchill was able to grasp an international situation.
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“I am glad to come to Westminster College this afternoon, and am complimented that you should give me a degree. The name “Westminster” is somehow familiar to me. I seem to have heard of it before. Indeed, it was at Westminster that I received a very large part of my education in politics, dialectic, rhetoric, and one or two other things. In fact we have both been educated at the same, or similar, or, at any rate, kindred establishments.
It is also an honour, perhaps almost unique, for a private visitor to be introduced to an academic audience by the President of the United States. Amid his heavy burdens, duties, and responsibilities – unsought but not recoiled from – the President has travelled a thousand miles to dignify and magnify our meeting here to-day and to give me an opportunity of addressing this kindred nation, as well as my own countrymen across the ocean, and perhaps some other countries too. The President has told you that it is his wish, as I am sure it is yours, that I should have full liberty to give my true and faithful counsel in these anxious and baffling times. I shall certainly avail myself of this freedom, and feel the more right to do so because any private ambitions I may have cherished in my younger days have been satisfied beyond my wildest dreams. Let me, however, make it clear that I have no official mission or status of any kind, and that I speak only for myself. There is nothing here but what you see.
I can therefore allow my mind, with the experience of a lifetime, to play over the problems which beset us on the morrow of our absolute victory in arms, and to try to make sure with what strength I have that what has been gained with so much sacrifice and suffering shall be preserved for the future glory and safety of mankind.
The United States stands at this time at the pinnacle of world power. It is a solemn moment for the American Democracy. For with primacy in power is also joined an awe-inspiring accountability to the future. If you look around you, you must feel not only the sense of duty done but also you must feel anxiety lest you fall below the level of achievement. Opportunity is here now, clear and shining for both our countries. To reject it or ignore it or fritter it away will bring upon us all the long reproaches of the after-time. It is necessary that constancy of mind, persistency of purpose, and the grand simplicity of decision shall guide and rule the conduct of the English-speaking peoples in peace as they did in war. We must, and I believe we shall, prove ourselves equal to this severe requirement.
When American military men approach some serious situation they are wont to write at the head of their directive the words “over-all strategic concept.” There is wisdom in this, as it leads to clarity of thought. What then is the over-all strategic concept which we should inscribe today? It is nothing less than the safety and welfare, the freedom and progress, of all the homes and families of all the men and women in all the lands. And here I speak particularly of the myriad cottage or apartment homes where the wage-earner strives amid the accidents and difficulties of life to guard his wife and children from privation and bring the family up in the fear of the Lord, or upon ethical conceptions which often play their potent part.
To give security to these countless homes, they must be shielded from the two giant marauders, war and tyranny. We all know the frightful disturbances in which the ordinary family is plunged when the curse of war swoops down upon the bread-winner and those for whom he works and contrives. The awful ruin of Europe, with all its vanished glories, and of large parts of Asia glares us in the eyes. When the designs of wicked men or the aggressive urge of mighty States dissolve over large areas the frame of civilised society, humble folk are confronted with difficulties with which they cannot cope. For them all is distorted, all is broken, even ground to pulp.
When I stand here this quiet afternoon I shudder to visualise what is actually happening to millions now and what is going to happen in this period when famine stalks the earth. None can compute what has been called “the unestimated sum of human pain.” Our supreme task and duty is to guard the homes of the common people from the horrors and miseries of another war. We are all agreed on that.
Our American military colleagues, after having proclaimed their “over-all strategic concept” and computed available resources, always proceed to the next step – namely, the method. Here again there is widespread agreement. A world organisation has already been erected for the prime purpose of preventing war, UNO, the successor of the League of Nations, with the decisive addition of the United States and all that that means, is already at work. We must make sure that its work is fruitful, that it is a reality and not a sham, that it is a force for action, and not merely a frothing of words, that it is a true temple of peace in which the shields of many nations can some day be hung up, and not merely a cockpit in a Tower of Babel. Before we cast away the solid assurances of national armaments for self-preservation we must be certain that our temple is built, not upon shifting sands or quagmires, but upon the rock. Anyone can see with his eyes open that our path will be difficult and also long, but if we persevere together as we did in the two world wars – though not, alas, in the interval between them – I cannot doubt that we shall achieve our common purpose in the end.
I have, however, a definite and practical proposal to make for action. Courts and magistrates may be set up but they cannot function without sheriffs and constables. The United Nations Organisation must immediately begin to be equipped with an international armed force. In such a matter we can only go step by step, but we must begin now. I propose that each of the Powers and States should be invited to delegate a certain number of air squadrons to the service of the world organisation. These squadrons would be trained and prepared in their own countries, but would move around in rotation from one country to another. They would wear the uniform of their own countries but with different badges. They would not be required to act against their own nation, but in other respects they would be directed by the world organisation. This might be started on a modest scale and would grow as confidence grew. I wished to see this done after the first world war, and I devoutly trust it may be done forthwith.
It would nevertheless be wrong and imprudent to entrust the secret knowledge or experience of the atomic bomb, which the United States, Great Britain, and Canada now share, to the world organisation, while it is still in its infancy. It would be criminal madness to cast it adrift in this still agitated and un-united world. No one in any country has slept less well in their beds because this knowledge and the method and the raw materials to apply it, are at present largely retained in American hands. I do not believe we should all have slept so soundly had the positions been reversed and if some Communist or neo-Fascist State monopolised for the time being these dread agencies. The fear of them alone might easily have been used to enforce totalitarian systems upon the free democratic world, with consequences appalling to human imagination. God has willed that this shall not be and we have at least a breathing space to set our house in order before this peril has to be encountered: and even then, if no effort is spared, we should still possess so formidable a superiority as to impose effective deterrents upon its employment, or threat of employment, by others. Ultimately, when the essential brotherhood of man is truly embodied and expressed in a world organisation with all the necessary practical safeguards to make it effective, these powers would naturally be confided to that world organisation.
Now I come to the second danger of these two marauders which threatens the cottage, the home, and the ordinary people – namely, tyranny. We cannot be blind to the fact that the liberties enjoyed by individual citizens throughout the British Empire are not valid in a considerable number of countries, some of which are very powerful. In these States control is enforced upon the common people by various kinds of all-embracing police governments. The power of the State is exercised without restraint, either by dictators or by compact oligarchies operating through a privileged party and a political police. It is not our duty at this time when difficulties are so numerous to interfere forcibly in the internal affairs of countries which we have not conquered in war. But we must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world and which through Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Habeas Corpus, trial by jury, and the English common law find their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence.
All this means that the people of any country have the right, and should have the power by constitutional action, by free unfettered elections, with secret ballot, to choose or change the character or form of government under which they dwell; that freedom of speech and thought should reign; that courts of justice, independent of the executive, unbiased by any party, should administer laws which have received the broad assent of large majorities or are consecrated by time and custom. Here are the title deeds of freedom which should lie in every cottage home. Here is the message of the British and American peoples to mankind. Let us preach what we practise – let us practise what we preach.
I have now stated the two great dangers which menace the homes of the people: War and Tyranny. I have not yet spoken of poverty and privation which are in many cases the prevailing anxiety. But if the dangers of war and tyranny are removed, there is no doubt that science and co-operation can bring in the next few years to the world, certainly in the next few decades newly taught in the sharpening school of war, an expansion of material well-being beyond anything that has yet occurred in human experience. Now, at this sad and breathless moment, we are plunged in the hunger and distress which are the aftermath of our stupendous struggle; but this will pass and may pass quickly, and there is no reason except human folly of sub-human crime which should deny to all the nations the inauguration and enjoyment of an age of plenty. I have often used words which I learned fifty years ago from a great Irish-American orator, a friend of mine, Mr. Bourke Cockran. “There is enough for all. The earth is a generous mother; she will provide in plentiful abundance food for all her children if they will but cultivate her soil in justice and in peace.” So far I feel that we are in full agreement.
Now, while still pursuing the method of realising our overall strategic concept, I come to the crux of what I have travelled here to say. Neither the sure prevention of war, nor the continuous rise of world organisation will be gained without what I have called the fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples. This means a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States. This is no time for generalities, and I will venture to be precise. Fraternal association requires not only the growing friendship and mutual understanding between our two vast but kindred systems of society, but the continuance of the intimate relationship between our military advisers, leading to common study of potential dangers, the similarity of weapons and manuals of instructions, and to the interchange of officers and cadets at technical colleges. It should carry with it the continuance of the present facilities for mutual security by the joint use of all Naval and Air Force bases in the possession of either country all over the world. This would perhaps double the mobility of the American Navy and Air Force. It would greatly expand that of the British Empire Forces and it might well lead, if and as the world calms down, to important financial savings. Already we use together a large number of islands; more may well be entrusted to our joint care in the near future.
The United States has already a Permanent Defence Agreement with the Dominion of Canada, which is so devotedly attached to the British Commonwealth and Empire. This Agreement is more effective than many of those which have often been made under formal alliances. This principle should be extended to all British Commonwealths with full reciprocity. Thus, whatever happens, and thus only, shall we be secure ourselves and able to work together for the high and simple causes that are dear to us and bode no ill to any. Eventually there may come – I feel eventually there will come – the principle of common citizenship, but that we may be content to leave to destiny, whose outstretched arm many of us can already clearly see.
There is however an important question we must ask ourselves. Would a special relationship between the United States and the British Commonwealth be inconsistent with our over-riding loyalties to the World Organisation? I reply that, on the contrary, it is probably the only means by which that organisation will achieve its full stature and strength. There are already the special United States relations with Canada which I have just mentioned, and there are the special relations between the United States and the South American Republics. We British have our twenty years Treaty of Collaboration and Mutual Assistance with Soviet Russia. I agree with Mr. Bevin, the Foreign Secretary of Great Britain, that it might well be a fifty years Treaty so far as we are concerned. We aim at nothing but mutual assistance and collaboration. The British have an alliance with Portugal unbroken since 1384, and which produced fruitful results at critical moments in the late war. None of these clash with the general interest of a world agreement, or a world organisation; on the contrary they help it. “In my father’s house are many mansions.” Special associations between members of the United Nations which have no aggressive point against any other country, which harbour no design incompatible with the Charter of the United Nations, far from being harmful, are beneficial and, as I believe, indispensable.
I spoke earlier of the Temple of Peace. Workmen from all countries must build that temple. If two of the workmen know each other particularly well and are old friends, if their families are inter-mingled, and if they have “faith in each other’s purpose, hope in each other’s future and charity towards each other’s shortcomings” – to quote some good words I read here the other day – why cannot they work together at the common task as friends and partners? Why cannot they share their tools and thus increase each other’s working powers? Indeed they must do so or else the temple may not be built, or, being built, it may collapse, and we shall all be proved again unteachable and have to go and try to learn again for a third time in a school of war, incomparably more rigorous than that from which we have just been released. The dark ages may return, the Stone Age may return on the gleaming wings of science, and what might now shower immeasurable material blessings upon mankind, may even bring about its total destruction. Beware, I say; time may be short. Do not let us take the course of allowing events to drift along until it is too late. If there is to be a fraternal association of the kind I have described, with all the extra strength and security which both our countries can derive from it, let us make sure that that great fact is known to the world, and that it plays its part in steadying and stabilising the foundations of peace. There is the path of wisdom. Prevention is better than cure.
A shadow has fallen upon the scenes so lately lighted by the Allied victory. Nobody knows what Soviet Russia and its Communist international organisation intends to do in the immediate future, or what are the limits, if any, to their expansive and proselytising tendencies. I have a strong admiration and regard for the valiant Russian people and for my wartime comrade, Marshal Stalin. There is deep sympathy and goodwill in Britain – and I doubt not here also – towards the peoples of all the Russias and a resolve to persevere through many differences and rebuffs in establishing lasting friendships. We understand the Russian need to be secure on her western frontiers by the removal of all possibility of German aggression. We welcome Russia to her rightful place among the leading nations of the world. We welcome her flag upon the seas. Above all, we welcome constant, frequent and growing contacts between the Russian people and our own people on both sides of the Atlantic. It is my duty however, for I am sure you would wish me to state the facts as I see them to you, to place before you certain facts about the present position in Europe.
From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one
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