In May 2005 President George W Bush, on a brief visit to the Baltic state of Latvia, denounced the Yalta agreements in 1945 as one of the greatest wrongs in history. He was expressing a long-standing conservative view that Franklin Roosevelt had sold out the peoples of Eastern Europe to Joseph Stalin at the Black Sea conference. Despite several leading historians (Robert Dallek, John Lewis Gaddis and David Kennedy) directly rejecting Bush’s views, the President’s interpretation of Yalta has been popular amongst Republicans for more than fifty years. The controversy over the Origins of the Cold War has raged at two levels- political and scholarly. On the political level the right wing Republicans have perpetuated a version of history that can be used to discredit their Democratic opponents. On the scholarly level, those most critical of the Democratic administrations of Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman have usually not been conservatives, but historians from the left.
The term ‘Cold War’ is used here to define the overall relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union and more broadly between the West (‘the free world’) and the communist bloc from around 1945 until 1991. It is usually assumed that the relationship was fundamentally antagonistic although this is not to say that the relationship did not vary over time and if we take a broader view of what the cold war was, it also became more complicated because of divisions within the competing blocs. Above all, as the Sino-Soviet conflict developed, the leading communist powers became even more antagonistic towards each other than they were towards the United States. In the late 1970s wars were fought between communist states (Vietnam and Cambodia, Vietnam and China). There were also periods when the level of international tension was reasonably low. The so-called era of detente during the 1970s is the best example. At other times the tensions were higher. This was the case especially in the years until Stalin’s death in 1953, during the period 1958-62 because of crises over Berlin and Cuba, and during the early years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s. However, despite these fluctuating relations, the United States and the Soviet Union essentially remained rivals throughout this entire period.
Here are some of the major factors - cited by historians in recent years - that may have led to the Cold War. Bear in mind that many of these overlap and that there is no consensus over which single issue or combination of issues was the most important.
Rival Systems of Ideology
Many historians have pointed out that after 1917 there were serious ideological rivalries between the United States and the Soviet Union. Under President Woodrow Wilson the US had committed itself to liberal internationalism, which promoted democracy and the free enterprise system, while the communist emphasis was upon a world wide class revolution to bring about the socialist future. These conflicting views were less important in the 1920s and 1930s because the Soviet Union was a weak military power and the main threat seemed to come from the right wing ideology of Fascism. However the defeat of these powers by 1945 reopened the ideological sense of difference between the Americans and Russians. Daniel Yergin has argued that hard line anti-Russian views became more influential in Washington by 1945 and George Kennan’s famous “Long Telegram” in 1946 also reinforced the idea that the communists were ideologically hostile to US interests and needed to be contained. Although Stalin had a reputation for concentrating upon socialism in his own one country he also had to consider the advancement of world communist ideology of which he was the titular head. How far it affected his individual foreign policy decisions is a matter of uncertainty and debate amongst historians. He certainly believed that the capitalist system was flawed that it would soon sink back into the economic depression of the 1930s. In that event the Americans and British would probably tire of their commitments to Europe and go home. Thus he was less willing to compromise over issues in Europe that were seen as vital to his own interests however these may be interpreted. These Russian moves certainly reinforced American views that it was ideological differences between themselves and the Russians that were profoundly important. See Michael H Hunt, Ideology and American Foreign Policy ( New Haven, 1987)) and Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov, Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War: From Stalin to Khrushchev (Cambridge, MA, 1996)
Differing Economic Interests
Even before the end of the fighting, the United States had taken the lead at Bretton Woods in 1944 in attempting to create a new currency stabilisation scheme and offering loans to poorer countries. By this proposal and by creating bodies such as the International Monetary Fund the US hoped to ensure that the world did not slip back into the depression of the 1930s and that world trade would prosper. American corporations had accumulated vast amounts of savings during the war years that they hoped could be used for both domestic and international investment after 1945. Such a new international economic order based on American capitalism had little place within the communist states of the time. The Soviet Union had been encouraged to support Bretton Woods but they finally pulled out of endorsing it by the end of 1945. Although the reason was the growing tension with the United States over other issues, Stalin was apprehensive about an economic system so dominated by the Americans and afraid of exposing the Soviet style economy to capitalist forces. He appears to have promoted the idea of a closed economic system in Eastern Europe. In turn, Americans were sensitive to any attempts by the Russians to block American penetration into this region. Such moves were at odds with American plans for an economically integrated and revived world trading order. Interestingly few historians have challenged the economic arguments of the revisionists in any depth over recent years. However this seems to be because the emphasis is upon other factors and many of the revisionists themselves have failed to continue to argue strongly on these issues. On the absence of a real interest in economic issues in recent interpretations see Robert Buzzanco, “What Happened to the New Left? Toward a Radical Reading of American Foreign Relations” Diplomatic History, Vol 23 No 4 Fall, 1999, pp. 575-607
Military Superiority in a Bipolar World
Many historians of the Cold War have rightly pointed out that by 1945 a bipolar world was already starting to take shape. In 1939 the world’s great powers had included France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, the Soviet Union, the United States and possibly China. By 1945 the United States and the Soviet Union had an overwhelming military ascendancy over all other states, though Britain and, to a lesser extent, France and China retained significant military capacity. Moreover, of the two superpowers,the United States was far ahead of the Soviet Union in terms of economic and military strength. It would largely remain so throughout the entire Cold War period. The United States therefore thought in terms of being able to maintain and even enhance its military edge against its main opponent to secure its interests in the post-war world. At the same time, the multiplicity of great power relations that had characterised European history for centuries was now destroyed as these two major powers stood face to face and had to deal directly with one another. This only made their obvious differing interests more apparent. See John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy (New York, 1982); and Melvyn P Lefler, A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration and the Cold War (Stanford, 1992).
Influence of the British
Although we can speak of the presence of two potential superpowers in the United States and Soviet Union in 1945, this ignores the presence of Great Britain. Although now the junior partner, Britain still possessed the world’s largest empire, the second largest navy and the third largest air force, and Sterling was one of the world’s main trading currencies. In Europe it was a long-standing British foreign policy objective that no single power should dominate the continent. This was in ruins because of the Russian victories over Germany. During 1945-6 it was often the British rather than the Americans who adopted the strongest stance against Russian influences in Europe. It was no surprise that the term “Iron Curtain” was popularised by Winston Churchill in 1946 in a speech that urged the English-speaking peoples to deal with the problems of Europe and the threat of communism. In the war years, the United States had sometimes been suspicious of British intentions and their old-fashioned ideas on empire, but as relations with the Russians deteriorated, the Americans became more sympathetic to the British point of view. While the United States was quite capable of waging the Cold War by itself, the fact that the British strongly supported them and even pushed them forward in the early years was another factor in the equation. Fraser J Harbutt, The Iron Curtain: Churchill, America, and the Origins of the Cold War (New York, 1986); and Alex Danchev, On Specialness: Essays in Anglo-American Relations (New York, 1998).
Change of Personnel
The contentious issues that emerged from the differing interests in the wartime alliance needed very experienced statesmen to handle them. Franklin Roosevelt had won a record fourth term as president in November 1944. He had led his nation through economic depression and most of the world war. He was easily America’s most effective international statesman. Whether Roosevelt could have held the allies together in the post-war world can never be known. In April 1945 the president died suddenly while on holidays at Warm Springs, Georgia. The ending of the war against Germany and then Japan as well as dealing with the growing differences in the wartime alliance now fell to his vice president, Harry S. Truman. The new president was inexperienced in foreign policy and had a temperament that tended to meet problems head-on and find cut and dried solutions to problems. He soon fell under the influence of men that wanted to take hard line towards the Russians and make a clear stand in terms of the US position. While a change of personnel does not alone explain the Cold War, it was yet another factor influencing the breakdown of the old wartime alliance. See David McCullough, Truman (New York, 1992);Daniel Yergin, Shattered Peace: The Origins of the Cold War and the National Security State (London, 1980).
The Problems of Germany
By 1945 it was clear that Germany was to be occupied by the Allies who would then carry out some degree of de-nazification of that country. The Russians wanted repatriation paid by the Germans because of the destruction caused to large areas of the Soviet Union. The Americans and British, fearful of the problems reparations had caused after World War I, eventually accepted some limited compensation. A re-drawing of the borders of Poland at Germany’s expense was also necessary to compensate for the loss of Polish territory to the Soviet Union. Beyond these general points the Allies were unable to reach any serious agreements on the future of Germany. It was clear to the Americans and British that Germany would have to be revived at least economically as a major power if Europe was to become prosperous. As a result the Americans, British and to a lesser extent the French now embarked upon their own plans for German reconstruction which only alienated their Russian allies. By 1948 the two sides were at loggerheads over the German problem. See Carolyn W. Eisenburg, Drawing the Line: The American Decisions to Divide Germany, 1944-49 (New York, 1996); and James McAllister, No Exit: America and the German Problem (Ithaca, 2002).
The Beginnings of the Cold War
It was suggested earlier in the section dealing with definitions of the Cold War that it could be traced to at least 1945 –although some historians have argued that the beginnings of the antagonism between the United States and the Soviet Union commenced as early as 1917 with the Bolshevik Revolution. However, even allowing for that earlier antagonism the issue of whether the wartime alliance broke down in 1945 has been questioned by many historians. Despite the unflattering views held of Yalta by many conservatives, the reality was that the United States and the Soviet Union continued to cooperate during 1945. Truman may have disliked Stalin’s crude control over Poland but he essentially accepted it During May and June 1945 presidential adviser Harry Hopkins was sent to Moscow for further discussions with Stalin. In the end a deal was struck whereby non-communists were finally included in the Polish government that was to be dominated by the Soviet backed communists. Truman then recognised the new Polish government on 5July 1945. A month later the Soviets also fulfilled a promise to their American ally by declaring war on Japan.
Although there were obvious strains in the US-Soviet relationship, historians have attempted to identify different starting dates for the Cold War other than during 1945. Here are some suggestions recognising that, once again, there is no consensus on any of these dates:
It was the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan that really split Europe and made the concept of an Iron Curtain permanent during 1947/8.
It was the final breakdown of the Allied cooperation over Germany that led to tensions and permanent divisions in the centre of Europe in 1948/9 as witnessed by the Berlin blockade and Allied airlift.
It was the explosion of the Soviet atom bomb and American membership of NATO that created a bi-polar nuclear world during and after 1949.
It was the expansion of the Cold War to Asia when the Communists took control of China that created a more systematic American global expansion of their military commitments as proposed by the blueprint document NSC 68 and by the decision to fight in the Korean War. In this case the Cold War now reached its fullest extent byspreading to Asia.
Whatever the starting date, and whatever the causes, in order to wage the Cold War both sides would engage in an expensive arms race in conventional and nuclear weapons, create elaborate alliance systems, involve themselves in military campaigns (but not directly against one another), provide substantial aid to client states, make use of espionage and covert operations, engage in sustained propaganda wars and create a vast bureaucracy and military/industrial complex to help sustain these objectives for over half a century.