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Winston Churchill (1874-1965) served as the prime minister of Great Britain from 1940 to 1945 and again from 1951 to 1955. He led Britain's fight against Nazi Germany in World War II. Churchill was a talented orator, giving many stirring speeches to boost national morale during the war. A close friend of American presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, Churchill hoped to join the Americans in building a postwar order that limited Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's ability to dominate European affairs.
British voters turned Churchill out of office in 1945, but he carried on in his efforts to build a strong anti-Soviet consensus in the West. In a famous 1946 speech delivered in Missouri, Churchill warned that the Soviet Union had built an "Iron Curtain" to divide Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe from the West. He thus coined one of the most defining terms of the Cold War era.
Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969), a Republican, was the popular 34th President of the United States, serving two terms from 1953 to 1961. Prior to his presidency, Eisenhower was a lifelong military man, commanding the D-Day invasion while serving as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II.
As a presidential candidate in 1952, Eisenhower promised to institute a more forceful anticommunist foreign policy than that of his predecessor, Democrat Harry S. Truman. Upon taking office, Eisenhower negotiated an end to the Korean War, but also committed the United States to new covert interventions against Soviet-friendly governments in places like Iran and Guatemala. Eisenhower left office warning the American public about the dangers of the military-industrial complex growing too powerful in American life.
Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) emerged as the new Soviet leader by prevailing in a bitter series of Moscow power struggles after Joseph Stalin's death in 1953. In a famous speech in 1956, Khrushchev denounced Stalin and called for greater cooperation between communism and capitalism. His desire to enact reforms led to unrest in other communist nations, which desired greater reforms than Khrushchev would allow.
Khrushchev's initial conciliatory stance towards the non-communist world suggested a possible thawing in the Cold War, but when, in 1960, Soviet forces shot down an American U2 spy plane within Soviet airspace, Khrushchev once again took a hard line against the United States. He sought to intimidate young American President John F. Kennedy, but his tense confrontation with Kennedy in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis ended in seeming defeat with the withdrawal of Soviet weapons. Khrushchev, weakened by the Missile Crisis, fell from power in 1964 when a conspiracy of rival party leaders pushed him into forced retirement.
Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) was the 32nd President of the United States and the only chief executive to be elected to more than two terms in office. Roosevelt held the presidency from 1934-1945, leading the United States through the Great Depression and World War II. His legislative program, the New Deal, greatly expanded the role of the federal government in American society.
During World War II, Roosevelt met several times with Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, who was an important, if often problematic, ally in the struggle against Nazi Germany. The contradictory agreements Roosevelt negotiated with Stalin and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at Yalta in 1945 failed to establish a successful framework for peaceful postwar cooperation between the Soviet Union and the West.
Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) was the leader of the Soviet Communist Party from 1922 until his death in 1953. Following the death of V.I. Lenin, the first leader of Soviet Russia, Stalin managed to win complete control of the party, ruling as a dictator for the next thirty years. He led the Soviet Union through World War II and—not without justification—believed that his country made the greatest sacrifices to defeat Nazi Germany.
Stalin's absolute insistence upon Soviet domination of Eastern Europe following the war's end wasn't entirely baseless; after all, Germany had invaded Russia via Eastern Europe during both World Wars, at a cost of tens of millions of Soviet lives. In Stalin's view, only Soviet control of the nations of Eastern Europe, including East Germany, could ensure that there would not be another repeat. Americans, however, viewed Stalin's power grab in Eastern Europe—which crushed millions of people's dreams of self-determination—as proof of Soviet aspirations for world domination, and began to take measures to contain Soviet influence. The Cold War was on.
Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) became the 33rd President of the United States upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in April 1945. Truman, who had only a high-school education and had been vice president for just 82 days before FDR's sudden death, inherited the monumental task of leading the United States through the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War. Truman—who was, while in office, one of the least popular presidents in modern American history—won a surprising second term by defeating Republican Thomas Dewey in the election of 1948.
The Cold War began under Truman's watch, as the president came to believe that he must take a hard stance to contain the expansionistic tendencies of the Soviet Union. The president's Truman Doctrine committed the United States to a policy of supporting foes of communism everywhere in the world. Truman's failure to lead the United States to victory in the Korean War led to a severe decline in support for the president's policies among the American people.