Causes of the Cold War
Summary & Analysis
In 1946, a young American diplomat named George Kennan sent to his superiors in Washington a lengthy memorandum that has since become known as "The Long Telegram." Building his analysis upon his own observations of Soviet affairs, made from his post in the US Embassy in Moscow, Kennan judged that the Soviet Union was inherently bent on expanding its sphere of influence around the world. In considering how the Americans should respond, Kennan wrote, "It is clear that the main element of any United States policy towards the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies. ... It is clear that the United States cannot expect in the foreseeable future to enjoy political intimacy with the Soviet regime. It must continue to regard the Soviet Union as a rival, not a partner, in the political arena." Kennan's idea of containment became the basis for American foreign policy during the Cold War. As he later elaborated (writing under the name "X" to maintain his anonymity) in the journal Foreign Affairs, the United States should seek to contain Communism within its present boundaries, blocking any Soviet attempts to expand its sphere of influence through "the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy."
Kennan's doctrine became official United States policy on 12 March 1947, when President Harry Truman gave a well-publicized speech to announce the "Truman Doctrine." "We shall not realize our [foreign policy] objectives," he said, "unless we are willing to help free peoples to maintain their free institutions and their national integrity against aggressive movements that seek to impose upon them totalitarian regimes. This is no more than a frank recognition that totalitarian regimes imposed on free peoples, by direct or indirect aggression, undermine the foundations of international peace and hence the security of the United States." Though the Truman Doctrine, construed in the narrowest sense, only applied to crises then unfolding in Greece and Turkey, in practice it committed the United States to a global policy of containment by pledging American resources towards halting the spread of Communism anywhere in the world.
In support of Truman's policy of containment, Secretary of State George C. Marshall put forth the Marshall Plan. Marshall feared that European nations, which had experienced so much destruction in World War II, might fall into economic crisis and thus become susceptible to Communism. He therefore proposed a massive program of financial assistance for European nations struggling to rebuild from the war. Marshall emphasized that the assistance was available to all nations, but structured the program so that the Communist nations of Eastern Europe would have no realistic prospect of participating. (The Marshall Plan required any interested nation to open its economy up to foreign capitalist investment, and the Soviets and their allies could not allow that without undermining Communism itself.) Charging that the aid program would violate national sovereignty, Soviet Foreign Minister V.M. Molotov walked out of the Marshall Plan conference and withdrew the entire Soviet bloc from participation. However, sixteen Western European nations accepted the aid. As American leaders had hoped, most of that aid money ended up returning to the US as the Europeans used it to buy imported American goods. Therefore, the Marshall Plan was both good diplomacy and good business; it helped Europe recover from World War II and cemented alliances with the United States while also boosting the American economy. The Marshall Plan may have been the most successful foreign policy in American history.
In 1950, Truman's National Security Council issued a report, known a NSC-68, that broadened the scope of containment by emphasizing use of the military to limit Communist expansion. "It was and continues to be cardinal in this policy," the report read, "that we possess superior overall power in ourselves or in dependable combination with other likeminded nations. One of the most important ingredients of power is military strength." NSC-68 called for a massive military buildup with sharply increased peacetime military spending.
In the 1952 presidential election, Republicans attacked the Truman administration for weakness in the fight against Communism. Republican candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower, renowned for his successes as a general in World War II, suggested that containment was not enough, that the United States needed to take more aggressive measures to roll back Communism. Republicans faulted Truman for "losing" China and for failing to win the war in Korea. As Truman's popularity plummeted to the lowest ratings of any modern president, he decided not to run for office again in 1952. Eisenhower easily defeated the Democratic candidate, Adlai Stevenson.
President Eisenhower built his strategy of rolling back Communism upon covert action by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which began mounting operations to oust Communist regimes or provide assistance to anticommunist rebels. Under Eisenhower's administration, the CIA engineered coups in Iran and Guatemala, deposing popularly elected leaders in both countries who strayed too far towards friendship with the Soviet Union. While these covert interventions were successful in the short term, they seemed to betray America's professed ideals of self-determination, and had serious long-term consequences for the United States: lingering resentment over the CIA's role in overthrowing the popular Iranian government of Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 played a large role in fueling the rabidly anti-American Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979.
The Division of Germany and the Berlin Wall
American policy in Germany in the early years of the Cold War was symbolic of America's commitment to containment. As the wartime alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union began to break down, the two powers clashed over the roles they would play in occupied Germany, and each sought to counter the other's moves there.
Having won the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany in May 1945, the Allied powers—Great Britain, the United States, France, and the Soviet Union—determined to ensure that an aggressive, militaristic Germany would never be able to threaten Europe again. At the Yalta conference, in February 1945, Allied leaders agreed to divide postwar Germany into four zones, each to be administered by one of the Allies. The German capital city, Berlin, which sat in the Soviet zone, would itself also be split into four zones among the four allies. For the duration of the occupation, the Allied powers would cooperate to make major policy decisions jointly, with each having veto power. The plan soon fell apart, however, as the emerging Cold War made cooperation difficult and the erstwhile Allies sought to enact very different policies in their respective occupation zones.
The Soviet Union suffered more bloodshed and destruction in World War II than all the other Allies combined. Four long years of brutal fighting along the Eastern Front left most of western Russia in ruins. More than twenty million Soviet citizens—both soldiers and civilians—died in the conflict. (By way of comparison, that's more than sixty times the number of Americans who died in the war.) After suffering such losses, Stalin wanted to keep Germany weak and disunited forever to ensure that another German invasion of his country would never happen again. Stalin had little interest in helping to rebuild Germany into a thriving nation-state, instead looting the country's valuable industrial machinery while endeavoring to prevent its political reunification.
The Western Allies had a very different vision for postwar Germany. Britain, France, and the United States hoped to stimulate rapid economic recovery in the conquered nation, both to help the German people and to relieve the economic burden placed upon their own economies by the occupation. Furthermore, as Cold War tensions began to mount, the Western Allies began to see a reconstructed Germany as a counterbalance to the rising Soviet threat. By 1948, the Western Allies had combined their three zones of occupation under a single administration and created a new currency, the Deutsche Mark, for use in all three zones. West Germany had become a country in all but name.
Stalin could see that his former allies (and new rivals) in the West were working to build up West Germany as an anti-Soviet anchor in Central Europe, and in the summer of 1948 he sought to retaliate by imposing a blockade upon West Berlin. (West Berlin—comprising the British, American, and French sectors of the German capital—was an anticommunist island, surrounded on all sides by Soviet-controlled East Germany; the geography made it easy for Stalin to cut off access.) On 24 June 1948, Stalin blocked all traffic into and out of West Berlin and cut off the city's electricity. President Harry Truman did not want to start World War III by challenging Stalin's blockade with force, so instead he ordered General Lucius Clay to organize a rescue mission, known as "Operation Vittles," which we now know as the Berlin Airlift. For nearly a year, the population of West Berlin would survive entirely upon food and supplies flown into the city aboard British and American military aircraft. Over the course of the Berlin Airlift, cargo planes touched down in the besieged city an average of once every three minutes, 24 hours a day. A phenomenal feat of military coordination and humanitarian assistance, the Berlin Airlift demonstrated American resolve not to give in to Communist expansion. In May 1949, a frustrated Stalin lifted his embargo upon the city. Soon after, the western zones of the country officially united into a new country, the Federal Republic of Germany (a.k.a. West Germany). In October 1949, the Soviets followed by announcing the organization of the German Democratic Republic (a.k.a. East Germany) to take over the former Soviet zone of occupation. Germany would remain divided for the next forty years.
During the decade that followed Germany's division, West Germany's economy grew so quickly that West Germans began speaking of an "economic miracle." Meanwhile Soviet-dominated East Germany languished. The growing disparity between prosperous West Germany and impoverished East Germany led many people in the East to begin to envy the success of the West. Increasingly, that success began to draw young, educated East Germans to West Germany. Between September 1949 and August 1961, nearly 2.7 million East Germans migrated to the West by crossing from East to West Berlin, and then flying out to West Germany. To stop this bleeding of his country's population, East German leader Walter Ulbricht sought Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's approval to build a physical barrier between the two sides of Berlin. On 13 August 1961, East German troops began to build the infamous Berlin Wall. The wall, a massive bulwark of concrete and barbed wire that divided families and isolated West Berlin, became the enduring symbol of Germany's brutal division and the hardships of life behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.