The Cold War has its origins in events preceding World War II, as far back as the Russian Revolution of 1917. During and after the Second World War, a series of political, economic and social events highlighted tensions between the Soviet Union on one side and the Anglo-Americans on the other. Soviet rejection of democratic decision concerning Eastern Europe exacerbated those tensions after the end of the war.
The historical background for the Cold War was created by the expansion of capitalist economies in ever-widening circles from the West European and North American cities in the nineteenth century. While offering plentiful opportunities for people to change their own lives, the new economic system also created recurrent social and political crises, such as the depressions of the 1890s and 1930s, which were followed by World Wars I and II. Given the many underlying strengths of the economic system, it is reasonable to believe that the utopian and authoritarian alternatives to liberal capitalism – such as National Socialism, Fascism, and Communism – would not have stood a chance of mass popular support if not for these crises. Instead, by the middle of the twentieth century, for many people capitalism had become synonymous not with progress, but with wars and economic collapse.
The Great War jump-started the destinies of the two future Cold War Superpowers. It made the United States the global embodiment of capitalism and it made Russia a Soviet Union, a permanent challenge to the capitalist world. The outcome of the conflict therefore prefigured the Cold War as an international system, even though much was to happen before the full bipolarity of the late twentieth century came into being.
Antagonism had been inherent in the American-Soviet relationship since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The two great continental states represented totally opposed ideologies: the United States embraced the values of liberal, capitalist democracy, while the Soviet Union was the first socialist republic, a communist dictatorship dedicated to spreading world revolution by overthrowing the existing world order. Western assistance to anti-communist forces in Russia attempting to overthrow the Bolshevik regime in the early post-war years heightened the suspicions of the Soviet leadership about the implacable hostility of the capitalist states towards them. Thereafter the United States retreated into isolationism. However, the mutual suspicion between the United States and the Soviet Union did not subside.
American hostility towards the Soviet Union after 1919 was mild compared with the intensity of the fear and suspicion with which that country was regarded by Britain and France, particularly during the 1920s. These two democracies had taken the lead in organizing Western assistance to the anti-communist forces during the civil war in Russia. Antagonism in the West towards the Bolsheviks had been provoked by Lenin’s decision to withdraw Russia from the war with Germany and to sign a peace treaty with the Central Powers in the spring of 1918. The repudiation by the Bolsheviks of the debts owed to foreigners by the Tsarist regime had particularly hurt the French, who had invested large sums in Russia’s industrialization and rearmament programs.
The end of the Great War was followed by economic crises throughout the world. These were accompanied by industrial and social unrest. To many governments, the Bolsheviks were the obvious cause of this unrest. Several states neighboring Bolshevik Russia enacted repressive laws to exclude Communist influence. In the United States in 1919-20 a national panic erupted – the ‘red scare’. Americans soon recovered their sense of proportion and the scare died down. But it did show the panic which international Communism and the Comintern (the Communist or Third International) could generate.
Although the rise of Hitler’s Germany brought France and Soviet Russia together in a shaky alliance in 1935, the connection remained unpopular in France, and Paris refused to sign a military convention with its new ally. Britain distanced itself from Soviet appeals for cooperation, preferring to seek agreement with Nazi Germany to preserve peace in Europe. Only when this effort failed in 1939 did Britain join with France in attempting to negotiate a military convention with the Soviet Union. The failure of these talks, followed by the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact in August 1939, convinced British leaders that their caution had been justified.
Following the death of V. I. Lenin in 1924, a struggle for power between his heirs led to the emergence of Joseph V. Stalin as Soviet leader. Stalin was less interested than his rivals in exporting revolution and more concerned with building up the Soviet Union’s industrial and military base in order that Russia might become the bastion of communism and, as such, able to resist aggression by the capitalist West. Japanese aggression in Manchuria and China prompted Stalin and the newly elected US President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt - each increasingly concerned about the threat of a militarist Japan to their interests in Asia - to open diplomatic relations with each other in 1933. Stalin agreed to recognize the former Tsarist debts in return for a loan from the United States, but this agreement soon foundered on mutual disagreements about its terms. There was little meeting of minds, given their two different systems of government.
American hostility towards the Soviet Union during the late 1930s was increased by the signature of the Non-Aggression Pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in August 1939. Stalin justified his alliance with Nazi Germany by pointing to the reluctance of Great Britain and France to join the Soviet Union in the 1930s in standing up to Hitler, preferring instead to appease Hitler, with the object, Stalin claimed, of encouraging Germany to turn on Russia.
The Soviet Union’s seizure of part of Poland, and later of the Baltic States and other border territories in the Balkans, and especially its attack upon Finland, were further serious blows to the little remaining credibility the Soviet Union possessed in London and Paris. Indeed, during the Soviet-Finnish war, there was talk in official circles of Anglo-French intervention to assist the Finns against the Soviets.
Despite the dramatic events in the summer of 1941, with the Soviet Union now fighting Germany, a considerable fund of distrust of Soviet ambitions had been built up, particularly in London, during the interwar period, and this was to resurface after 1945. Indeed, Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister during the war, had been the prime mover in organizing Western intervention against the Bolsheviks in 1919, and in 1945 he repeatedly urged an unresponsive Roosevelt and a wavering Truman to a more vigorous Western reaction to Soviet challenges in Eastern Europe.
When the Germans turned on their former ally and invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, Winston Churchill and Roosevelt insisted that Britain and the United States should supply the Soviet Union with munitions although their respective military chiefs did not think that the Red Army would survive for more than a few weeks. The two Western leaders believed it was essential that the West should supply the Soviet Union with sophisticated military equipment of all kinds of which the Red Army was in critical need. If the Soviet Union collapsed, Nazi Germany would be able to devote all its efforts to subduing Britain and then, backed by captured Soviet raw materials and other resources, it would become a major threat to American security.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, followed by Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States, finally brought the latter into the war as an ally of Britain and the Soviet Union. However, underlying tensions between these three great powers, while hidden from public view, did not diminish. The Soviet Union complained bitterly about the repeated Anglo-American delays in launching a second front – a cross-Channel invasion of France from Britain to relieve German pressure on the Soviet Union.
Despite tensions, relations between the Soviets and their western allies improved in the fall of 1943, culminating in a generally positive meeting between Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin at Tehran, Iran. At this meeting, the two western leaders made a firm commitment to Stalin to open a second front in France the following spring. Stalin promised to enter the war against Japan within three months of Germany’s defeat. Numerous other issues were discussed, but few concrete decisions were made.
When it became clear that, despite its immense losses, the Soviet Union would survive the German onslaught, Stalin exploited the Western fears of a German-Soviet separate peace by demanding Allied recognition of the territorial gains he had made as a result of the Nazi-Soviet pact. In 1944, as his victorious armies began to sweep across Central and Eastern Europe, he pressed the Western powers to agree that the post-war governments of these countries should be pro-Soviet in orientation.
Stalin’s aims did not fit comfortably into Anglo-American notions about the post-war world. By 1944 the United States was the dominant partner in the alliance, and it fully intended to have a major voice in the post-war settlement. Roosevelt had not formulated a precisely defined post-war peace program but had instead articulated a set of idealistic principles which were intended to unite both American and Allied opinion against dictatorships. Another strand in American thinking, and one which appealed particularly to the American Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, was that the post-war world economic order should be based on the principle of the open door to trade and investment.
On the brink of Germany’s defeat, Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt met at Yalta in the Crimea in February 1945 to discuss the future of Europe. As at Tehran, Roosevelt failed to make clear to Stalin how far he could pursue Soviet aims in Eastern Europe, and the vague wording of the agreements reached at Yalta on the future of the region again left Stalin with the impression that he was being given virtually a free hand. The three powers merely accepted the agreements their officials had reached in 1944 on the military zones the three Allies would occupy in Germany after its surrender – although, on Churchill’s insistence, France was also given a small zone. A four-power military council for Germany was set up in Berlin, which was also to be divided into four Allied military sectors. The three powers also reached a tentative understanding over Poland.
Roosevelt died in April 1945. His successor, Harry S. Truman, a former Senator from Missouri, who had been chosen as a compromise vice-presidential candidate in 1944, had been kept in complete ignorance by Roosevelt about foreign policy. Roosevelt’s dual policy of public rhetoric about the principles governing the post-war world and his private assurances to Stalin that he recognized Soviet security concerns was not understood by Truman, who, while he promised to continue Roosevelt’s policies, was unsure quite what these were.
Truman soon realized that angry exchanges with the Soviets were self-defeating, and he had reverted to Roosevelt’s policy of conciliation. He sent Harry Hopkins, a close intimate of Roosevelt, to suggest to the Soviet leader a Big Three meeting in the early summer, and also to reach a compromise over the vexed Polish question. This direct approach appeared to work: Stalin accepted a summit, and agreed that the non-communist leaders would be given places in the Polish provisional government. Despite this improvement in the atmosphere, Truman remained at heart suspicious of Soviet policy. Stalin regarded Truman as an unknown quantity whose conduct so far towards the Soviet Union had been inconsistent.
The Potsdam Conference of July - August 1945 did temporarily conceal the growing divergence between East and West. A reparations agreement was reached, designed to reduce Soviet claims to German industrial capital in the three Western zones. The United States finally accepted the Oder-Western Neisse line as Poland’s future Western frontier. Substantive issues, such as the long-term future of Germany and peace treaties with Germany’s former European allies, were referred to future meetings of the foreign ministers of the great powers for resolution. Stalin used the West’s refusal to allow the Soviet Union a voice in Italy to deny the Western Allies a say in the Control Commissions in Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania.
East-West relations experienced further deterioration during the autumn and winter of 1945 as the Soviet Union ignored Western protests about the ill-treatment of non-communist parties in Eastern Europe. The first post-war meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers in London was the scene of angry accusations and counter-accusations. Truman’s new Secretary of State, James F. Byrnes, still hoped for an agreement with the Soviet Union. He was convinced that he could achieve a working relationship with the Soviet Union by direct talks with the Soviet leaders. Soviet leaders were more concerned with the immense problems of trying to recover from the effects of war and occupation, with resources inadequate to the task, than with foreign policy issues. However, the Soviet Union remained willing to take advantage of a more conciliatory approach, especially if this implied a rift in the Anglo-American relationship.
Ideology imparted to Soviets and Americans alike a messianic faith in the world-historical roles of their respective nations. On each side of what would soon become the Cold War divide, leaders and ordinary citizens saw their countries acting for much broader purposes than the mere advancement of national interests. Soviets and Americans each, in fact, saw themselves acting out of noble motives – acting to usher humanity into a grand new age of peace, justice, and order. Married to the overwhelming power each nation possessed at a time when much of the world lay prostrate, those mirror-opposite ideological values provided a sure-fire recipe for conflict.
The competing ideologies of capitalism and communism, the Soviet repudiation of the former Tsarist debts and American intervention in the Russian Civil War resulted in a climate of suspicion and hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union which failed to dissipate even when the United States recognized the Soviet Union in 1933. Inevitably the Soviet Union’s alignment with Nazi Germany in 1939-1941 further antagonized the United States. However, the entry of both countries into the war against Germany in 1941 led to nearly four years of often uneasy collaboration against a common enemy. With the defeat of Germany and later Japan in 1945, the two camps’ divergent ideology eventually led them to suspicion and mistrust of each other.