The Cold War

Although the Allies rejoiced together at the defeat of Nazi Germany, the celebration was short lived. East and West had separate motives and could not cooperate politically. The result was a rigid division between Eastern and Western Europe in which the entire continent lived on the brink of another war, an uneasy stalemate that lasted for forty years.

Military victory had been the top priority of British and American leaders in 1942; as a result of which they avoided discussion of Stalin’s war aims. When Stalin asked the two powers to agree to an extension of the Soviet Union’s western borders (in effect ratifying the land that Stalin had grabbed from Poland in his deal with Hitler) both were noncommittal, and offered Stalin only a military alliance. No postwar commitments were made for fear that hard bargaining would lead Stalin to make a separate peace with Hitler. As a result, they emphasized unconditional surrender to solidify the alliance with no discussion of post-war settlement.

At the Allied Conference in Teheran, Churchill had argued that American and British forces should follow up their invasion of Italy with an attack on Germany through the Balkan Peninsula. Stalin argued for a frontal assault by British and American forces through France. Roosevelt sided with Stalin in order to pacify the dictator; however this decision meant that American and British troops would come together with the Soviets along a north/south line, and Soviet forces would be in control of Eastern Europe. When the Big Three met again at Yalta in February, 1945, the Soviet Army had occupied much of Eastern Europe and was within 100 miles of Berlin. At the same time, American/British forces had not yet crossed the Rhine and America was increasingly preoccupied with Japan. Stalin’s position was considerably stronger than the U.S. or British position; and to further complicate matters, President Roosevelt was ill (he would die within a few months) and apprehensive. He also needed Stalin’s promise to enter the war against Japan. Fatefully, he relied on Stalin’s presumably peaceful intentions and agreed that Germany would be divided into zones of occupation and pay heavy reparations to the Soviet Union. An ambiguous (almost contradictory) compromise was reached concerning the countries of Eastern Europe. Their governments were to be freely elected but pro-Soviet. (Secretary of State Cordell Hull rightfully called Eastern Europe ("that Pandora’s Box of infinite troubles.") At the Potsdam Conference of July, 1945, President Harry Truman, more determined than his predecessor, insisted on free elections throughout Eastern Europe, and Stalin refused point blank, stating, "A freely elected government in any of these East European countries would be anti-Soviet, and that we cannot allow."

Thus the origins of the Cold War: America insisted on free elections in Eastern Europe, occupied by the Soviets. Free elections and free people were the paradigm of Western democracy. Stalin had lived through two German invasions and wanted absolute military security from Germany. He argued that only communist states could be truly dependable allies, which would not occur if independent governments were elected. Stalin was so determined that the issue could only be resolved by war and for the U.S. and Britain, war was out of the question.

The situation grew worse. In May, 1945, Truman cut off all aid to the Soviets and in October stated that the U.S. would never recognize any government established by force. In March, 1946, Churchill warned that an"iron curtain" had fallen over Europe. When the Soviets appeared to use subversion to upset free governments in Iran, Turkey and Greece and a civil war broke out in China, Truman proclaimed the "Truman Doctrine," aimed at "containing" communism in areas where it already existed. Stalin was not swayed. Communist governments were established all over Eastern Europe, and subsequently, all land traffic to Berlin across the Soviet zone was blocked. Stalin’s obviously planned to starve Berlin (which was divided East and West) into submission. The allies acted firmly, however, and flew supplies around the clock into West Berlin to keep the city from starvation. The Soviets eventually backed down. Because of the controversy, the U.S. joined with other European governments in forming the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); Stalin countered by uniting the Soviet satellite countries into the Warsaw Pact.

The Western Renaissance: Economic conditions in Europe were terrible immediately after the war, especially in Germany. A large portion of eastern Germany was forcibly ceded to Poland to compensate for land taken by the Soviets, leaving the country greatly reduced in size. Under the guise of reparations, the Soviets seized factories and equipment, and even pulled up railroad tracks and sent them to Russia. Western Germany was not much better off. Many German families sold priceless family heirlooms to American soldiers to buy food.

But Western Europe was not finished. Konrad Adenauer, the former mayor of Cologne, became Chancellor as head of the Christian Democratic Party. A Catholic party also successfully established leadership in France under General Charles De Gaulle. Italy elected an anti-fascist government under Alcide de Gasperi. All of Western Europe seemed joined by its Christian heritage. Authoritarianism and narrow nationalism were rejected.

By 1948, Europe had begun to recover economically. Several factors were responsible:

Republics were re-established all over Western Europe, and under the leadership of Christian Democrats, a move toward a "united Europe" emerged. In 1957, six nations signed the Treaty of Rome which created the European Economic Community, otherwise known as the Common Market. The treaty gradually eliminated tariffs among the six to create a single market almost as large as that of the U.S. The agreement was a tremendous success, in that it encouraged the various countries to specialize in what they did best, and tied them together so closely economically that war became virtually impossible.

Political unity was not to be, however. France in particular, reverted to nationalism under General De Gaulle who established the Fifth Republic in 1958. De Gauge considered the U.S. a threat to French independence and withdrew all French forces from NATO which he said was "American controlled." He also blocked a move toward majority rule in the Common Market.

Always the romantic nationalist, de Gaulle got himself in trouble when he visited Quebec and made a statement which seemed to support Quebec’s movement to secede from Canada. He said to a crowd, "Vive Quebec; "followed by "Vive Quebec Libre." The Prime Minister was not amused.

With the rising demands of Asian and African people for national self determination, Europe’s overseas expansion rapidly collapsed. Even so, these countries were so deeply influenced by "westernization" that western civilization became the mode of the free world.

Europeans had based their empires on a perceived military, technological and moral superiority. The devastation of World War II had destroyed much of this arrogance, and opponents of imperialism gained influence. Europe no longer had the moral authority it once possessed, and would either submit to de-colonization or engage in wars of re-conquest, which no one had the stomach for. More or less voluntarily, Europeans let go of their colonies.

India became independent of Britain in 1947 and most Asian colonies achieved independence shortly thereafter. The French were not so willing to turn loose. They attempted to maintain control of Indochina and were defeated in 1954 at which time two Vietnamese states were created, North and South. They also attempted to hold on to Algeria; but after a bitter civil war, relinquished control in 1962. In sub-Saharan Africa, decolonization proceeded smoothly. Most colonies were freed with little or no bloodshed, and entered into a loose association with Britain known as the British Commonwealth of Nations. De Gaulle, in 1958 offered France’s colonies the choice of a total break with France or immediate independence with a sort of French commonwealth. All but one chose the commonwealth. The commonwealths allowed the French and British to maintain their influence in their former colonies and at the same time gave them access to the rich natural resources of Africa. Critics referred to this as a form of neocolonialism, which kept African nations subordinate to their former masters.

Eastern Europe under the Soviet Block

Eastern Europe did not progress as had the West after the end of the war; rather the Soviet Union tightened its grip on those countries it had "liberated." Political and social changes were slow, uneven, and largely influenced by events in the Soviet Union.

Most Russians had hoped that after the "Great Patriotic War of the Fatherland," Stalin would relax his dictatorial controls on the country; however they were disappointed. Even before the end of the war, a new slogan was circulated: "The war on Fascism ends, the war on Capitalism begins." By 1946, Stalin insisted that war with the West was inevitable, and this gave him the necessary excuse to reestablish harsh controls. Many returning soldiers and ordinary citizens were purged in 1945 and the forced labor camps of the 1930’s were revived.

Culture and art were purged to impose rigid anti-Western ideological conformity. Composers Sergei Prokofiev and Dimitri Shostakovich were denounced along with film director Sergei Eisenstein, whose masterpiece, Ivan the Terrible, showed an uncanny resemblance between Stalin and the paranoid Ivan. Stalin also began verbal attacks on Soviet Jews, accusing them of being anti-socialist and pro-West. He reasserted complete control of politics by the communist party and his own personal absolute control of the party. New five year plans were introduce to rebuild the economy in which heavy and military industry were given priority and consumer goods, housing, and agriculture were neglected. It was the 1930’s all over again, although with less police terror.

By 1948, Communist parties in Eastern Europe had established one-party states with the help of the Red Army and the Russian secret police. Everyday life consisted of attacks on religion, no civil liberties, and rigid ideological indoctrination. Industry was nationalized and the middle class stripped of possessions. Forced industrialization was the order of the day throughout the East with the human cost considered collateral damage. Collectivization of agriculture, similar to that in the Soviet Union, was also instituted. The sole exception was Yugoslavia, where its communist leader, Josip Broz, Tito, stood up to Stalin and proclaimed independence from the Soviets. Since there was no Soviet army in Yugoslavia, he got away with it, but Stalin was furious, and reinstituted purges in other parts of Eastern Europe.

Reform and De-Stalinization: Stalin died of a stroke in 1953, and was succeeded by a Ukrainian, Nikita S. Khrushchev, after a brief power struggle. All realized that the reign of terror instituted by Stalin could not last. The economy was in bad shape, there were tremendous shortages of consumer goods which discouraged hard work and initiative; plus Stalin’s belligerent attitude toward the West had led to the formation of a strong alliance against the U.S.S.R. At a closed meeting of the Party Congress in 1956, Khrushchev attacked Stalin and described how he had tortured many loyal communists, had trusted Hitler, and "supported the glorification of his own person with all conceivable methods." Although the speech was presumably secret, it was read at communist meetings throughout the country and reforms resulted. Stalin’s body, which had been specially embalmed and placed on permanent display in a mausoleum next to the body of Lenin, was removed and buried in an insignificant grave with a small marker.

In the meantime, although he maintained strict party control Khrushchev shifted economic emphasis from heavy industry to consumer goods and agriculture, and relaxed Stalin’s controls over workers. The economy boomed as a result, and the standard of living of the average Russian improved. Artists and writers also flourished, such as Boris Pasternak who wrote Doctor Zhivago in 1956. The work was a direct challenge to communism, but although Pasternak was denounced, he was not shot. Stalinist labor camps were brutally portrayed in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, written from personal experience.

Foreign policy was also modified to embrace "peaceful coexistence" with capitalism, wherever possible. War, Khrushchev argued, was not inevitable. With the relaxation of controls in Eastern Europe, the people who had suffered in silence under Stalin began to rise up. Poland instituted a new government in 1956 that had more autonomy from the Soviets. In Hungary, students and reformers led a revolution which forced the Red Army out of the country, but the revolution was short-lived. Russian leaders ordered an invasion, and the revolution was crushed. The Hungarians had hoped the U.S. would come to their aid, but this did not happen.

The End of Reform: Khrushchev’s reforms ultimately brought opposition. His denunciation of Stalin many feared would lead to denunciation of the party itself and its dictatorial authority. If the communist system were to survive, then it would be necessary to tighten the belt again. His foreign policy had also been a disaster. In 1958, he had ordered Western allies to leave Berlin. When they refused, he backed down, but ordered a wall built between East and West Berlin sealing off the East, a clear violation of access agreements between the Great Powers of World War II. The U.S. President, John F. Kennedy, did nothing and this emboldened Khrushchev who then ordered missiles with nuclear warheads installed in Cuba in 1962. Kennedy responded with a naval blockade of Cuba, and Khrushchev was forced to back down. He ended up looking like a buffoon. Additionally, relations with China had gone sour. Khrushchev’s influence was beginning to wane.

Khrushchev was forced from office in a bloodless coup in 1964 and replaced with Leonid I Brezhnev. He and his supporters spoke quietly of Stalin’s "good points," and ignored his crimes. Efforts at reforms were stopped dead. When Czechoslovakia, under Alexander Dubćek began to institute reforms, Brezhnev sent 500,000 troops into the country to occupy it. Breznev then declared the "Brezhnev Doctrine," stating that the Soviet Union had the right to intervene in any Socialist country whenever it saw the need.

The Late Cold War: By the late 1940’s, most Americans viewed the world in terms of a struggle to stop the spread of communism. It was this idea that directly led to American involvement in Korea and Vietnam. While the struggle continued outside Europe to contain communism, in Europe efforts were made to relax Cold War tensions, a policy known as détente.

West Germany led the way in Détente. In December, 1970, West German Chancellor Willy Brandt visited Poland and while there signed a treaty of reconciliation. He also laid a wreath at a monument commemorating the death of Polish Jews at the hands of German soldiers. Brandt knelt at the monument and commented later, "I wanted to ask pardon in the name of our people for a million-fold crime which was committed in the misused name of the Germans."

In 1969, Brandt negotiated treaties with the U.S.S.R., Poland, and Czechoslovakia which formally recognized existing state boundaries and the loss of German territory during the war in exchange for a mutual renunciation of force or the threat of force. He also improved relationships with East Germany on a somewhat fanciful idea of "two German states within one German nation." West Germany, formally the Federal Republic of Germany, had previously refused to even recognize the government of East Germany (People’s Republic of Germany) or the boundaries established after the war. In 1975, all European nations (except Albania, which was isolationist) and the United States signed the Helsinki Accords which stated that existing European boundary lines could not be changed by force and also guaranteed human rights and political freedom to the citizens of their respective countries.

Détente suffered a setback under Brezhnev, particularly I December, 1979 when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in an attempt to shore up a Marxist regime there. This caused considerable discomfiture in the United States and ultimately led to a buildup of arms under President Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980. He was joined by Great Britain under Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl, the conservative Chancellor of West Germany. The buildup was largely responsible for convincing the Soviets, under Mikhail Gorbachev that the continuation of the cold war was dangerous and expensive.