The heightened tension, which existed between the two major powers of the world in the period after the Second World War until the end of nineteen eighties, completely dominated world politics during the later part of the 20th century. Although the possession of nuclear weapons by the United States and the Soviet Union prevented a direct confrontation between them, several proxy wars were fought around the world as the Soviet Union attempted to spread the doctrine of communism and the U.S. was equally determined to prevent it. This essay is a response to the following questions:
Why did the alliance between the U.S. And the U.S.S.R. collapse so thoroughly after the WW2?
Was it a personal dispute between FDR, Truman, and Stalin? Was it a political / economic disagreement between communism and democracy?
What steps did the U.S. feel compelled to take to restrain the expansion of communism?
What was the influence of George F. Kennan on U.S. policy in relation to the communist world?
How were his views implemented? How did this affect U.S. attitudes for the remainder of the Cold War?
Why did the Alliance Collapse so Thoroughly?
Keeping in view the prevailing global political situation at the end of World War II, there was almost a historical inevitability about the looming conflict between the two major world powers of the time. History shows us that whenever two great powers come into close contact with each other, it becomes almost impossible for them to avoid conflict. Athens and Sparta in ancient Greece, Rome and Carthage during the Punic wars, Britain and France during the eighteenth century are relevant examples. Hence, even while the U.S. And the U.S.S.R. were allied in the fight against the Nazis during World War 2, leaders of the two countries were looking at the world beyond the War itself. For example, President Roosevelt declared in 1944 that: “…there is literally no question, political or military, in which the U.S. is not interested,” and the Soviet foreign minister, Molotov declared: “One cannot decide now any serious problems of international relations without the U.S.S.R.” (Quoted by Bell 2001, p 55) Such pronouncements by leaders of the two countries reflected their determination to assert their influence on world politics. History also shows us that war alliances inevitably break down at the end of most wars and the defeat of common enemies. For example, after the defeat of Germany in 1918, the French and the British promptly became adversaries. It was no surprise, therefore, when the partners in the Grand Alliance against Germany developed serious differences as soon as their common enemy was defeated in 1945 (Bell, 2001)
Other moves by the U.S.S.R. such as the establishment of a pro-Communist provisional government in Poland by the Soviets after driving out the Germans in 1945 exacerbated the situation. While the creation of satellite states on its border was considered as necessary by Russia for its security, the Allies led by the U.S. saw the Soviet move as Communist expansion.
Was it Personal?
Roosevelt, in particular, was a great believer in the importance of developing personal relations with leaders of foreign countries. His close friendship with Churchill during the World War II influenced the course of the War. FDR also realized the importance of having good relations with the Soviet Union in the post War world, as he wanted its co-operation in setting up the United Nations — one of his pet projects. Hence he went out of his way to woo Stalin at the Tehran Conference in 1943, and always maintained that he “could handle Stalin.” Some historians believe that the Cold War may not have started if FDR had not died as he would have a found a way to settle the United States’ disputes with the Soviet Union due to his personal touch with Stalin, but this is pure speculation. The development of historical events can never be attributed to a single reason as they are almost always the result of a combination of causes; so is the case with the Cold War. According to historian Walter Lefeber, Truman was willing to accommodate some of Stalin’s demands at the start of the Post Dam conference in July 1945 but his attitude towards Soviet Union changed decisively when he received news of the successful U.S. atomic bomb tests during the Conference. The U.S. now no longer required Soviet help in defeating Japan and could afford to aggressively oppose Soviet Union’s domination of Poland and Eastern Europe in a post-War Europe. (“Historian Walter Lefeber on Truman’s Soviet Policy” 2000). Meanwhile, the U.S.S.R. considered its domination of Eastern Europe imperative for its security and due to its fear of a resurgent Germany; there were further grounds for mutual antagonism between the U.S. And USSR as both countries represented the opposite spectrums of political ideologies. The Cold War between the two dominant powers thus became almost inevitable.
What Steps Did the U.S. Take to Restrain the Spread of Communism?
After the war, the U.S.S.R. helped bring Communist governments to power in Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary. Unrest had also started in Greece and Turkey. The U.S. feared that if aid was not provided to the Greek and Turkish governments, they would fall to Communism and trigger a “domino effect “in the region. it, therefore, announced the Truman Doctrine in March 1947 that authorized U.S. aid to anti-Communist forces in Greece and Turkey. The doctrine soon extended to support for any nation considered by U.S. To be threatened by Communism and became the official U.S. policy of “containment” towards the Soviet Union. (Legvol, 2005)
The war had devastated the economy of almost all the European countries. Fearing that Communism would inevitably spread in such countries if their economies did not improve, the United States committed itself to a massive economic aid program (called the Marshall Plan, named after the then U.S. Secretary of State) which was designed to rebuild Western European economies.
Another important incident that took place in the initial stages of the Cold War was the attempted blockade of Berlin by the Soviet Union in the summer of 1948 and the massive airlift of supplies to West Berlin by the West to circumvent the Soviet blockade. To ward off Soviet designs beyond Eastern Europe, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) of 11 Western countries led by the U.S. was formed in April 1949.
The Influence of George F. Kennan on U.S. Foreign Policy
George F. Kennan, the first director of the U.S. State Department’s Policy Planning Staff from 1947 to 1950, played a key role in the development of the long-term U.S. foreign policy of “containment” of the Soviet Union and Communism.
Kennan’s thesis of containment was first formulated and published in an anonymous contribution to the journal Foreign Affairs in 1947 — the “X-Article” — in which he emphasized that “the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” (Quoted in “Kennan and Containment” n.d.) Kennan considered the Soviet threat to be primarily political and advocated economic assistance and “psychological warfare” to counter the spread of Soviet influence. Moreover, his concept of “containment” was restricted in scope to the defense of the world’s major centers of industrial power, i.e., Western Europe, Japan, and the United States against Soviet expansion. Kennan’s policy article was, however, interpreted by some people as advocating confrontation of Soviet expansionism all over the world and the “firm and vigilant containment” was misinterpreted as advocating of the use of military force. Others, notably John Foster Dulles criticized Kennan’s policy of containment as too soft and believed that United States’ policy towards the Soviet Union should not aim at just “containment,” but target a “rollback” of Soviet power and the eventual “liberation” of Eastern Europe.
The Implementation of Kennan’s Views
The policy of ‘Containment,’ soon became one of the two main pillars of the U.S. foreign policy and a prominent feature of the “Truman Doctrine.” The Marshall Plain (the massive U.S. economic aid plan to Western Europe) represented the direct implementation of Kennan’s view on the use of economic assistance for countering expanding Soviet influence in the major centers of industrial power. The U.S. role in the rebuilding of Japan too owes much to Kennan’s long-term policy recommendations. On the negative side, Kennan also played a significant role in launching the CIA’s covert operations, which he later described as “the greatest mistake I ever made.” (Quoted in “George F. Kennan on the Web” 2005)
How did this affect U.S. attitudes for the remainder of the Cold War?
Except for some minor modifications in Kennan’s policy recommendations, such as a drastic expansion of the U.S. military budget and an extension of containment’s scope beyond the defense of just the major centers of industrial power, ‘containment’ as described by Kennan remained the bedrock of U.S. foreign policy throughout the Cold War.
It is pertinent to add that the United States did not “roll back” Soviet power during the Cold War, as John Foster Dulles had advocated and neither did the country withdraw into isolationism as it had done at various times during its history; in fact every U.S. administration after Truman’s adopted Kennan’s policy of ‘containment’ or its variation as a cornerstone of their foreign policy right until the eventual collapse of Communism in 1989. (“Kennan and Containment” n.d.)
Bell, P.M.H. (2001). The World since 1945 — an International History. New York: Oxford University Press
George F. Kennan on the Web” (2005). History Politics and Future. Retrieved on May 28, 2005 at http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Forum/2496/future/kennan.html
Historian Walter Lefeber on Truman’s Soviet Policy.” (2000). PBS Online. Retrieved on May 28, 2005 at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/truman/filmmore/it_1.html
Kennan and Containment.” (n.d.) Bureau of Public Affairs: U.S. Department of State. Retrieved on May 28, 2005 at http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ho/time/cwr/17601.htm
Legvold, R. (2005). “Cold War.” Article in Encyclopedia Encarta Online. Retrieved on May 28, 2005 at http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761569374/Cold_War.html#p11
While the U.S. represented democracy, individual liberty and capitalism, the U.S.S.R. was committed to the spread of the communist revolution among the ‘down-trodden’ masses of the world
The USSR had already established a pro-Communist provisional government in Poland before the end of the Second World War and the Communists had already gained control of Albania and Yugoslavia in 1944 and 1945 through overt propaganda and covert operations the other being ‘deterrence’
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