Origins of the Cold War
Competing ideologies of capitalism and communism
author Paul Boșcu, September 2019
The Cold War has its origins in events preceding World War II, as far back as the Russian Revolution of 1917.
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.

A common misconception is that when World War II ended, the United States, the Soviet Union and Britain were close allies, whose relationship only broke down in the following years. In fact the hostility of the west towards the Soviet Union dates back to its foundation. What is unarguable is that from the moment the Bolsheviks seized power, foreign governments sought to bring them down.

After Stalin’s purges of his former colleagues and of the Red Army in the late 1930s, Stalin’s will was unchallenged. These purges disgusted Soviet experts in the State Department and US diplomats in Moscow, such as George F. Kennan: men who were to emerge in senior positions in the State Department and the American diplomatic service during and after the Second World War, with their suspicions of the Soviet Union undiminished. They were to exercise a significant influence on American foreign policy during the early stages of the Cold War.

Before the Second World War, the Soviet state was only an intermittently important actor in European politics, and was often ignored or marginalized by the other great powers. After the war, however, the Soviet Union came to head a powerful military-political bloc of states in Eastern Europe.

A classic marriage of convenience, the wartime alliance between the globe’s leading capitalist power and its chief proponent of international proletarian revolution was riddled from the first with tension, mistrust, and suspicion. Beyond the common objective of defeating Nazi Germany, there was little to cement a partnership born of awkward necessity and weighed down by a conflict-ridden past.

The Red Army’s repulse of the German invasion of Russia and its victorious march to Berlin was the mightiest feat of arms the world had ever known. The communist system survived the supreme test of war and, by the end of hostilities, the Red Army occupied half of Europe. In 1945 it was expected that the wartime coalition of Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States would continue in peacetime. That was the prospect proclaimed by the leaders of the Grand Alliance at the Yalta and Potsdam conferences and the vision acclaimed by the citizenry of the victorious allied nations. But the peacetime Grand Alliance proved to be short-lived.

The most overt face of the Cold War was the east-west division of Germany, a Europe divided by the so-called ‘iron curtain’ into competing liberal-democratic and communist camps, and the emergence of two antagonistic military-political alliances, NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Then there were the great international crises of the Cold War era — Berlin, Korea, Cuba and Vietnam — which at times seemed to threaten the outbreak of a new world war. Adding to the drama of these moments of confrontation was the perception of a deeper economic, political and ideological competition between the Soviet and western blocs.

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 after-effects of the two great wars of the twentieth century did more than anything else to shape the Cold War. In addition to the impression of systemic crisis that the wars created, they removed, through the destruction and economic decline that they caused, much of the primacy that the main Western and Central European powers had held in international affairs. The wars also led to an unprecedented emphasis on national security, in which domestic surveillance and international intelligence gained a significance never seen before. The losses suffered by the powers involved in the wars convinced two generations of leaders that lack of military preparedness and political determination had to be avoided at all costs in the future.

The great wars of the twentieth century contributed decisively to the creation of the modern state. Without the increase in the cohesion, the strength, and the reach of the state that took place in the first half of the century, the form of rivalry that the Cold War took would have been impossible. The sheer expense of the conflict, both military and civilian, would have destroyed states if they had not already been primed for the effort. Also, without the experience of two world wars, states would not have been able to mobilize their citizens for a war that had few big battles and little visible heroism.

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.

It was the World War I generation who went on to shape the Cold War. All the elements of the Great War were in it: fear, uncertainty, the need for something to believe in, and the demand to create a better world. The desperation created by total war in Europe and the fear that it would spread to much of the rest of the globe was in the minds of all those who experienced it, regardless of where they experienced it. Major Clement Attlee, later British prime minister, fought in Turkey and Iraq. Captain Harry Truman fought in the important Meuse-Argonne offensive. Second Lieutenant Dwight D. Eisenhower trained soldiers for the front. Konrad Adenauer, later West German chancellor, was mayor of war-stricken Cologne, Germany’s fourth-largest city. Joseph Stalin, who created the Soviet Union, castigated the war from his revolutionary exile in Siberia. Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese Cold War revolutionary, saw France reduced and formed his country’s first independence movement. They all grew out of the disasters of World War I.

The Communist challenge to the capitalist world system also started with the Great War. The war split Social Democratic parties everywhere into pro-war and anti-war camps. Some Social Democrats supported the war efforts out of a sense of obligation to the nation. But in Germany, France, Italy, and Russia, minority socialists, including the Russian Bolsheviks, condemned the fighting as a conflict between different groups of capitalists. Karl Liebknecht, the only socialist who voted against the war in the German parliament, bravely argued that ‘this war, which none of the peoples involved desired, was not started for the benefit of the German or of any other people. It is an imperialist war, a war for capitalist domination of world markets and for the political domination of important colonies in the interest of industrial and financial capital.’ Revolutionaries such as Liebknecht and Lenin contended that soldiers, workers, and peasants had more in common with their brothers on the other side than with their superior officers and the capitalists behind the lines.

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.

United States war aims, as expressed in Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points speech of the previous year, envisaged a world based on the principle of national self-determination and a League of Nations which would replace the unstable pre-1914 system of alliances and balance of power politics. The Soviets, on the other hand, led by V. I. Lenin, insisted that the worldwide victory of the proletariat was the only basis for a peaceful world.

The Bolshevik takeover in Russia came because the empire, a wartime ally of France and Britain, was weakened by the war. As 1917 began, the situation at the front was dismal, with no victory in sight. The liberal opposition was tarnished among the population because of its support of the war. When the Russian monarchy was overthrown in a revolution in March 1917, the influence of the Bolsheviks was limited. But the liberal-socialist coalition that came to power after the revolution could not end the war or deal with its catastrophic economic effects. Lenin’s slogan ‘Land, Bread, Peace,’ as well as his popularity among other socialists because of his opposition to the war, increased his political sway. In November 1917, with the provisional government further weakened through infighting, the Bolsheviks pulled off a coup d’état and took power in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) and Moscow.

Seizing power was easy for the Bolsheviks, keeping it was anything but easy. Central government control over most of Russia collapsed. Opposition to the Bolsheviks soon gathered. Russia’s former allies were quick to offer support to those opponents, collectively called Whites. They only sent token forces, however, as they hoped to form new Russian armies to drive out the Bolsheviks and re-enter the war. Later their aim was clearly to destroy the Bolshevik state. They helped lengthen a civil war, which claimed about 10 million lives. They also had a profound impact on the views of the Bolshevik leaders who became convinced that the capitalist world would never allow them to survive. Sooner or later they would return, and the Soviet Union must be prepared.

The United States, angered by the Bolsheviks’ repudiation of the Tsarist debts owed to the West, refused to recognize the Moscow regime, even after it became clear in 1920 that the Soviet Union would survive both internal and external threats to its existence. Washington’s belated recognition of the Soviet Union, which came 17 years after the state’s establishment, was insufficient to drain the reservoir of bad blood, especially since Stalin’s efforts to knit together a common front against Hitler’s resurgent Germany in the mid- and late 1930s were met with indifference from the United States.

For its part, the United States entered the post-World War I period with nothing but disdain for an unruly, unpredictable regime that had confiscated property, repudiated pre-war debts, and pledged support for working-class revolutions across the globe. American strategists worried about the appeal of the Marxist-Leninist message to downtrodden masses in other lands – as well as in the United States itself – and about the revolutionary insurgencies and resulting instability it might spark. Washington, accordingly, labored to quarantine the communist virus and to isolate its Moscow quartermasters throughout the 1920s and early 1930s. It was like ‘having a wicked and disgraceful neighbor’, recalled President Herbert Hoover in his memoirs: ‘We did not attack him, but we did not give him a certificate of character by inviting him into our homes.’

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.

London and Paris hoped that the Bolsheviks would be destroyed by their internal enemies and in the meantime refused to recognize the regime or allow it to represent Russia at the Paris Peace Conference. Bolshevik propaganda and financial assistance were used to incite revolution amongst the working classes of Western Europe, and this caused the ruling classes in the West considerable concern and anger.

Subsequent Soviet efforts to spread disaffection in India against British imperialism also made the establishment of stable relations between the Soviet Union and Britain extremely difficult. Indeed, towards the end of the 1920s, British military strategists were drawing up plans for a possible war with Soviet Russia on the northwest frontier of India.

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.

The Comintern was intended to be an international organization of national Marxist groups, promoting world revolution. Its mere existence horrified foreign governments, who condemned it as a monstrous conspiracy. Supposedly an organization of equals, it was from the start completely dominated by the Bolsheviks. Lenin was convinced that the world was on the brink of revolution. Furthermore, he had justified seizing power in Russia in the expectation of imminent world revolution. Given the hostility shown by foreign powers to the Bolshevik state, the sooner revolution arrived the better.

The problem with the Comintern was that the Bolsheviks simply did not understand the nations in which these parties operated. Trying to impose tactics which had worked in Russia led to ludicrous orders being issued. Communists in Britain and America were instructed to form tactical alliances with a non-existent peasantry. Polish Communists were ordered to organize a rising to support a Russian invasion in 1920 – utterly ignoring deeply ingrained Polish hatred of Russians. Even when the Comintern turned its attention to the less developed world, where conditions were similar in many ways to Russia in 1917, they had no success. In India and the Middle East, Hindu and Muslim beliefs were unsympathetic to the Communist creed. In Korea, very effective Japanese repression prevented any real progress.

In China, a working alliance between the Communists and the Guomindang (nationalists) had been formed. It broke down in 1926 when the Guomindang leader, Chiang Kai-shek, turned on his allies and arrested their leaders. Moscow wanted the alliance to continue, and so ordered the Chinese Communists to compromise. This left them utterly helpless when Jiang crushed the party in Shanghai, Canton and Hunan province amidst a ferocious wave of terror.

The Comintern never organized a single successful revolution in its history. It would perhaps appear odd that it was so widely feared. But the fact that this international revolutionary organization existed was threatening to many. By the end of the 1920s the weak and persecuted American party had less than 10,000 members, but as part of an international movement it was widely portrayed as a threat to the very existence of the United States.

An American or British Communist might be well aware that they would never see revolution in their own country. But as part of an international movement, they could console themselves that they were contributing to success elsewhere. Many of the attitudes that shaped the Cold War had, in short, already been formed.

The Red Scare led to arrests and deportations of suspected radicals, restrictions on the freedom of speech, and federal assistance for employers to break strikes and workers’ protests. In 1920, Seattle’s mayor, Ole Hanson, embodied the Scare: ‘With syndicalism—and its youngest child, bolshevism—thrive murder, rape, pillage, arson, free love, poverty, want, starvation, filth, slavery, autocracy, suppression, sorrow and Hell on earth. It is a class government of the unable, the unfit, the untrained; of the scum, of the dregs, of the cruel, and of the failures. Freedom disappears, liberty emigrates, universal suffrage is abolished, progress ceases, manhood and womanhood are destroyed, decency and fair dealing are forgotten, and a militant minority, great only in their self-conceit, reincarnate under the Dictatorship of the Proletariat a greater tyranny than ever existed under czar, emperor, or potentate.’

In the United States and Britain, liberalism split under the pressure of war and radical challenges. In ways similar to what would happen after World War II, many liberals joined with conservatives in a wave of anti-revolutionary activism. Winston Churchill, in 1920 still a Liberal member of Parliament, said, ‘In every city there are small bands of eager men and women, watching with hungry eyes any chance to make a general overturn in the hopes of profiting themselves in the confusion, and these miscreants are fed by Bolshevist money... They are ceaselessly endeavouring by propagating the doctrines of communism, by preaching violent revolution, by inflaming discontent, to infect us with their disease.’ Only a few liberal skeptics remained. While criticizing the methods the Bolsheviks used, the philosopher Bertrand Russell believed that ‘the heroism of Russia has fired men’s hopes.’ For Russell, in the early years of the Russian Revolution, the possibility for a better world explained its attractiveness.

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.

When the Soviet Union joined the League of Nations and began to call for collective action by the democratic states against fascism, many policy-makers in Western Europe mistrusted its motives, suspecting that this was a new Soviet ruse to project its influence and ideology into Europe.

In January 1933, Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Henceforth the USSR’s foreign policy would focus on protecting itself from the Nazi threat. This would require an international coalition to contain Germany, and it must include those states hitherto seen as the USSR’s bitterest enemies: Britain and France. Communists were ordered to cease attacking other left-wing groups and to press for joint action against fascism. To this end Socialists, Liberals and even anti-fascist Conservatives were to be persuaded to join parliamentary coalitions, or Popular Fronts. To convince their new allies that Communists were trustworthy, henceforth they were to oppose any revolutionary act. In France and Spain this had its effect, and Popular Front governments were formed. In Britain nearly all political parties remained unimpressed.

Diplomatically, the Soviet Union entered the international arena as never before. A series of non-aggression pacts were signed with the USSR’s neighbors. In 1934 the Soviet Union entered the League of Nations. The USSR became one of the foremost supporters of collective security, constantly demanding that the League impose sanctions on aggressors and protect the victims of aggression. Continued Japanese aggression in China and the Italian conquest of Abyssinia, without effective League action, however, showed the organization to be no protection for the Soviet Union, which soon lost its enthusiasm.

The USSR entered into alliances with Czechoslovakia and France. The Soviet Union would only defend the Czechs if France acted first, which Stalin saw as a first step in forming his anti-German coalition. For all Stalin’s efforts, the coalition he sought never materialized. Despite his intentions, his own conduct inside the Soviet Union did little to help his cause. The great purges aroused international distaste. When the Red Army was purged, the Soviet Union’s value as a potential ally was compromised. But more importantly, Britain and France seemed to lack the will to contain Germany. To Stalin this was proof that no coalition could be built. It went further, however, and aroused deep suspicions in the motives of Britain and France. Perhaps they were happy to give Hitler a free hand in the east. A major reorganization of the Red Army was urgently needed; the damage Stalin’s purges had inflicted had left it sadly weakened. This would require time. Stalin sought to buy that time by reaching an understanding with Hitler. He did so by signing the Nazi-Soviet pact.

In Britain and France, more attention was paid to welfare than warfare in the 1930s. Leaders in all three countries realized that if the disastrous social effects of the Great Depression were not ameliorated, their political systems would be threatened from within, from the same kind of forces that had taken power in Russia, Germany, Italy, and Spain. In Britain the government introduced unemployment benefits, commenced a program of public works, and doubled overall welfare spending. France went even further, with obligatory insurance arrangements and regulated working hours set by the state.

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.

The gigantic sacrifices the industrialization process imposed on the Soviet people and economy led to a preoccupation with internal affairs, just as the onset of the depression in the United States in 1929 had a similar effect in increasing isolationist sentiment there.

The new administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the United States broke with the policies of its predecessors and launched what it called a New Deal. The president termed it ‘a tremendous adjustment of our national life.’ It meant using unprecedented methods of planning and government regulation to provide relief and stabilize the economy. In his methods, FDR drew on great American campaigns from the past: the progressive welfare movement at the turn of the century and the mobilization of all of US society to fight World War I. The New Deal was a campaign of great political intensity, intended to jump-start the economy by getting people back to work. Roosevelt’s intention was not to abolish capitalism, but to use the state to strengthen it so that its critics both on the Right and the Left could be outplayed and outnumbered.

Right after becoming president, FDR had established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. Much was made of this at the time (and later) by both the president’s enemies and friends, but in fact Roosevelt did little beyond what Britain, France, and even Germany and Italy had done a long time before: recognize the Soviet regime as a reality that would not soon go away. By the late 1930s, FDR understood that Nazi Germany was the greatest threat to international peace, but he had to work hard to get US public opinion to accept that German aggression might also be a threat to the United States. A massive majority of Americans, 95 percent in 1936, thought that the United States should stay out of any war in Europe. The memory of US intervention in World War I, which most people regarded as a failed crusade, hung heavy over FDR’s foreign policy.

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-American relationship remained frigid right up until Hitler’s betrayal of his Soviet ally in June 1941. Before then, the pact between Germany and Russia had just served to intensify American distaste for Stalin’s regime.

The pact was not just about not attacking each other. It was also about dividing parts of eastern Europe between the two dictators: western Poland went to Hitler, while the pact allowed Stalin to invade eastern Poland, Finland, the Baltic states, and Romania. Even if the details of the unlikely compact were not fully known at the time, the deal between the two archenemies led to incredulous and furious reactions all over the world. ‘Whatever the agreement means,’ editorialized the New York Times, ‘it is not peace; it serves only to aggravate the crisis.’ Hitler attacked Poland and two days later, because of their defense agreement with the Poles, Britain and France declared war on Germany. The Soviets moved into Poland from the east.

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.

When the Soviet dictator opportunistically used the German cover to launch aggression against Poland, the Baltic states, and Finland in 1939-40, anti-Soviet sentiment burgeoned throughout Western society.

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.

Churchill urged Roosevelt to agree to Anglo-American negotiations with Stalin to reach agreement on the limits to Soviet behavior in Eastern Europe while the Soviet Union was still dependent on the West for assistance. Negotiations about territorial acquisitions and spheres of influence would lead to dissension between the Allies while the war was still to be won, and would cause an outcry in the United States if they became public knowledge. That was a major reason why Roosevelt did not welcome the so-called ‘percentages’ agreement which Churchill worked out with Stalin in Moscow in October 1944, giving the Soviets effective control over Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary, joint influence with Britain in Yugoslavia, and Britain freedom of action in Greece. In the early post-war years Stalin adhered to this agreement.

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.

By September 1941 both Britain and the Soviet Union were receiving as much material support as the steadily reviving American industrial economy could supply, but the United States remained outside the conflict. While isolationism in the United States was slackening, Roosevelt realised that the American people were opposed to American involvement in another war.

Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union, ideological antipathy yielded to the dictates of realpolitik. Roosevelt and his chief strategists quickly recognized the great geostrategic advantages for the United States of a Soviet Union able to resist the German onslaught; they worried, conversely, about the enhanced power Germany would gain were it to subdue a country so rich in resources. Consequently, beginning in the summer of 1941, the United States commenced shipping military supplies to the Soviet Union in order to bolster the Red Army’s chances.

The Big Three’s joint war against Germany was less than half over by February 1943, but the outcome no longer seemed in doubt — assuming that the Allies remained united in the war effort. And if they won, the two largest and most powerful nations on their side, America and Russia, stood to have far more influence in world affairs than either of them had ever had before.

Suddenly world opinion changed. The Red Army became greatly admired for its heroism. Stalin ceased to be a villain, and became a valued and respected ally. Britain and America, fearing an early Soviet collapse, rushed to offer supplies to Moscow. Soviet needs were massive, Stalin wanted aircraft by the thousand and entire factories – far beyond the ability of the west to supply. But much was promised. Far more, in fact, than it proved possible to deliver. An alliance was being forged, but already it contained sources of friction.

Churchill gave voice to the West’s dilemma of aiding the Soviets when he addressed the nation via radio after the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union. Never even mentioning the Soviets or Stalin by name, Churchill still declared a de facto alliance with Moscow: ‘The Nazi regime is indistinguishable from the worst features of Communism… [and] no-one has been a more consistent opponent of Communism than I have for the last twenty-five years. I will unsay no words that I’ve spoken about it. But all this fades away before the spectacle which is now unfolding. The past, with its crimes, its follies and its tragedies, flashes away. I see the Russian soldiers standing on the threshold of their native land.… It follows, therefore, that we shall give whatever help we can to Russia and to the Russian people.… [Hitler’s] invasion of Russia is no more than a prelude to an attempted invasion of the British Isles.’

After three months of war on the Eastern Front, most western observers still expected the Soviet Union to collapse, either through a military breakdown or through internal uprisings, just like in 1917. A couple of months later they were no longer so sure. The defense of Moscow and Leningrad, organized by Stalin and his generals, was tenacious. When the Germans failed to defeat the Soviets in the fall of 1941, the international situation changed fundamentally. A sudden invasion of Britain became much less likely. In occupied Europe, people began to hope that Germany could after all be defeated.

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.

The Americans, the Soviets, and the British thus suddenly found themselves battling a common enemy, a fact formalized with Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States two days after Pearl Harbor. Precisely how, where, and when to fight their common German adversary, however, were questions that almost immediately generated friction within the Grand Alliance. Stalin pressed his Anglo-American partners to open a major second front against the Germans as quickly as possible so as to relieve the intense military pressure on his own homeland. Yet, despite Roosevelt’s promises to do so, the United States and Great Britain chose not to open a major second front until two and a half years after Pearl Harbor.

Although there were important logistical and technical arguments against an early cross-Channel invasion, an associated factor in the minds of both Churchill and Roosevelt was the need to avoid heavy losses of American and British lives in a premature assault on German-occupied France. Stalin suspected that the two Western powers intended to let the Soviet Union suffer most of the human and material losses in the war against Germany. He did not regard the Anglo-American invasions of North Africa and Southern Italy in 1942 and 1943 as substitutes for a full-scale Allied attack into the heartland of the Reich. For their part, London and Washington feared that a beleaguered Stalin might make a separate peace with Germany.

Roosevelt’s efforts to remain on good terms with the Soviet Union were assisted by Stalin’s relaxation of strict party controls on Soviet culture after June 1941, by his emphasis on the traditional military and patriotic values of Russia and by his toleration of a limited religious revival. American commentators persuaded themselves that these concessions heralded moves towards a more liberal and humane Russian society.

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.

What stood out was a general spirit of cooperation, made easier by the fact that winning the war — an easier task than working out the details of the ensuing peace — would continue to have the highest priority for the foreseeable future. This emphasis at Tehran on not letting specific disagreements undermine the broader commitment to Big Three cooperation would continue for the next fifteen months, until after the Yalta Conference.

At the Tehran summit, a pattern was set that would last until the war was over. The Soviet role had changed from supplicant to demander. The Red Army had broken the German offensive at Stalingrad. From the summer of 1943, Soviet forces were on the attack along several broad fronts toward eastern Europe. The often-promised second front in France had not happened, even though Allied forces had landed in Italy. On the Asian side, Japan was still on the offensive in China, while US forces were slowly pushing Japan’s Imperial Army back across the Pacific.

By the time of the Tehran Conference, both Stalin and Roosevelt appeared to be committed to working out a peace settlement that would be acceptable to both nations. From Stalin’s standpoint, this should have been fairly easy to do — except for the inherent untrustworthiness of the ‘imperialist’ (capitalist) nations. The key, Stalin thought, was for the Big Three to make deals in which each nation’s basic interests were protected. To Stalin, the Big Three, having won the war, should make the peace. The opinions of the people of the defeated Axis nations, or even of other small countries in Europe and Asia, were not important.

In their discussions at Tehran, Stalin attempted to set the agenda because he knew that the Americans now wanted something from him. A Soviet attack on Japan could save hundreds of thousands of American soldiers’ lives in the Pacific, not to mention in the battles that would follow an invasion of the Japanese home islands. Roosevelt also had his mind set on a post-war world organization — what became the United Nations — in which he wanted Soviet participation. Given the increasing weakness of the British economic and political position, many of the key points of the conference were settled by Stalin and Roosevelt without Churchill’s direct participation.

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.

Inevitably, since the area would be under Red Army occupation, communist parties would play a leading role in whatever governments were established. Stalin was determined that the region should never again become a conduit for German aggression against the Soviet Union.

The Soviet blueprint for post-war order was also born of deep-rooted security fears. As in the American case, those fears were refracted through the filters of history, culture, and ideology. Soviet memories of Hitler’s surprise attack were just as vivid – and far more terrifying – than were American memories of Pearl Harbor. The overwhelming need to defend the Soviet homeland lay at the heart of all Kremlin designs for the postwar world. Blocking the Polish invasion route, or ‘gateway’, ranked foremost in that regard. Poland, stressed Stalin, was ‘a matter of life or death’ to his country. ‘In the course of twenty-five years the Germans had twice invaded Russia via Poland’, Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin lectured US envoy Harry Hopkins in May 1945. ‘Neither the British nor the American people had experienced such German invasions which were a horrible thing to endure... It is therefore in Russia’s vital interest that Poland should be strong and friendly.’ This policy required, at a minimum, that acquiescent, pro-Soviet governments be installed in Poland and other key Eastern European states.

Soviet rulers recognized that an open break with the West needed to be avoided, at least for the foreseeable future. Given the crippling losses to manpower, resources, and industrial plant inflicted on their nation by the war, a premature conflict with the United States and Great Britain would place the Soviets at a severe disadvantage. Second, Stalin and his chief lieutenants were hopeful that the United States could be induced to make good on its promise of generous financial support to their reconstruction efforts. A policy of unbridled territorial expansion would likely prove counterproductive.

The Soviets were looking to be treated as a respected, responsible great power after being shunned as a pariah state for so long. They craved respect, somewhat paradoxically, from the same capitalist states their ideological convictions taught them to loathe. The Russians did not just want respect, of course; they insisted upon an equal voice in international councils and acceptance of the legitimacy of their interests. Even more to the point, they sought formal Western recognition of their expanded borders and acceptance of, or at least acquiescence in, their emerging sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.

In the aftermath of World War II, Stalin viewed his Western allies, as he viewed all potential competitors at home and abroad, with the deepest suspicion and mistrust. Yet Russian foreign policy cannot be understood as the product, pure and simple, of Stalin’s brutishness and unquenchable thirst for dominance. Stalin pursued a generally cautious, circumspect foreign policy, seeking always to balance opportunity with risk. He evinced a realist’s respect for the superior military and industrial power possessed by the United States. The needs of the Soviet state, which always took precedence for Stalin over the desire to spread communism, dictated a policy that mixed opportunism with caution and an inclination to compromise, not a strategy of aggressive expansion.

The ideology of Marxism-Leninism that undergirded the Soviet state also influenced the outlook and policies of Stalin and his top associates, although in complex, hard-to-pin-down ways. A deep-seated belief in the teachings of Marx and Lenin imparted to them a messianic faith in the future, a reassuring sense of confidence that, whatever travails Moscow might face in the short run, history lay on their side. Stalin and the Kremlin elite assumed conflict between the socialist and capitalist worlds to be inevitable, and they were certain that the forces of proletarian revolution would eventually prevail. They were thus unwilling to press too hard when the correlation of forces seemed so favorable to the West. ‘Our ideology stands for offensive operations when possible’, as Foreign Minister V. M. Molotov put it, ‘and if not we wait’.

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.

Although in 1941 Churchill and Stalin had associated themselves with Roosevelt’s concept of a post-war world based on the rights of all peoples to self-determination, Stalin had no intention of letting such ideals affect his policy towards Eastern Europe, while Churchill had equally no intention of applying them to the British Empire.

In Hull’s view the rise of the aggressors in Asia and Europe had been primarily the result of the dislocation of the world economy after 1929, when tariff barriers had so diminished world trade that the most economically deprived, and yet vigorous, states like Germany and Japan had turned to overseas expansion for their economic salvation. Thus a renewed post-war slump could be avoided if all nations had equal access to world markets, supplies of raw materials and investment opportunities. As a result, world trade would burgeon and all nations, rich and poor, would prosper, thus reducing the economic discontent and the gross inequalities which had provided fertile soil for fascism.

Revisionist American historians, in attempting to counter American accusations that the aggressive behavior of the Soviet Union had been responsible for the Cold War, used the economic aspects of American planning for the post-war world as a means of laying the major part of the blame on the United States. They argued that the United States’ search for world economic domination after the war led to a collision with the Soviet Union, determined not to allow its war-weakened economy to be dominated by American big business. Thus, in this view, the ensuing deterioration in American-Soviet relations resulted from Soviet efforts to defend itself and its interests against American economic expansionism.

Roosevelt, a shrewd and pragmatic politician, recognized that American ideas about the post-war world would not necessarily be acceptable to the Soviet Union. They did not always appeal to the United States’ closest ally, Great Britain. When it became clear that the American people wanted something more principled than a world dominated by the ‘Big Four’, Roosevelt had embraced the concept of a United Nations (UN) as a peacekeeping organization.

Roosevelt thus sought to defer detailed discussion of territorial and other questions until the war was over, since the United Nations would, he believed, provide a forum for the reconciliation of differences between the great powers. Unlike the post-1919 League of Nations, dominated by Britain and France, the United Nations would be a truly worldwide organization, with the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain and China as founding members.

The obsession with national security that became so central a motif of US foreign and defense policy throughout the Cold War era can be traced back directly to the Japanese strike of 7 December 1941. Military strategists became convinced, first, that technology, and especially air power, had so contracted the globe that America’s vaunted two-ocean barrier no longer afforded sufficient protection from external assault. True security now required a defense that began well beyond the home shores – a defense in depth, in military parlance. That concept led defense officials of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations to advocate the establishment of an integrated, global network of US-controlled air and naval bases, as well as the negotiation of widespread military air transit rights.

Senior American strategists determined that the nation’s military power must never again be allowed to atrophy. US military strength, they were agreed, must form a core element of the new world order. The Roosevelt and Truman administrations were, accordingly, insistent upon maintaining naval and air forces second to none; a strong military presence in the Pacific; dominance of the Western hemisphere; a central role in the occupations of defeated World War II and the destruction of the old order adversaries Italy, Germany, Austria, and Japan; and a continued monopoly on the atomic bomb. Even before the eruption of the Cold War, US strategic planners were operating from an extraordinarily expansive concept of national security.

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 refused Churchill’s request for a coordinated Anglo-American policy at the conference. Roosevelt persisted in his belief that personal discussion with Stalin would be more successful than if the Soviet leader were faced with an Anglo-American effort to ‘gang up’ against the Soviet Union.

A casual remark by Roosevelt that he doubted the American people would allow American troops to remain in occupation of Germany for more than two years after the war, and the obvious lack of any carefully thought out American proposal for the future of Germany, convinced Stalin that the United States was not greatly concerned about the fate of Central and Eastern Europe.

The only post-war plan the Americans had formulated for the country was one drawn up in October 1944 by Henry Morgenthau, the Secretary of the Treasury, which proposed that Germany should be de-industrialized and turned into a pastoral community. Roosevelt and Churchill had assented to this plan at a time when anti-German feelings were running high but, by February 1945, they had come to the conclusion that it was impractical. Neither did Stalin have any definite policy about Germany, except to insist that the Russians should extract as much compensation as possible from the German economy for the damage the Nazis had inflicted on the Soviet Union.

Stalin agreed that the Soviet Foreign Minister, V. M. Molotov, would attend a conference of the victorious powers at San Francisco in April 1945 to set up the United Nations Organization. He insisted that each of the great powers represented on the executive organ of the United Nations, the Security Council, should have the right to veto any substantive resolution. Having ensured that the United Nations would not be able to thwart future Soviet policy, Stalin was quite willing to support the establishment of the UN, in which Roosevelt put so much faith, especially as, in return for Stalin’s support, Roosevelt appeared to look sympathetically at Soviet demands elsewhere.

Shortly before the Yalta meeting, Stalin had recognized a Soviet-backed Polish Communist Committee based at Lublin in Soviet-occupied Poland as the provisional government of Poland. Britain and the United States continued to recognize the Polish government-in-exile in London as the legitimate government, but this had shown itself too anti-Soviet and pro-Western for Stalin’s taste. However, the two Western leaders avoided a confrontation over this issue by agreeing that the Lublin Committee was to form the nucleus of a Polish provisional government, with a few members of the London government allotted ministerial posts in this administration.

Roosevelt was unwilling to risk a breach with Stalin over Poland, a country in which in any case he appeared to take little interest. On the other hand, he was anxious to secure a Soviet promise to enter the war against Japan as soon as possible. Stalin agreed to declare war on Japan six weeks after the end of the European conflict. However, in return he demanded that the Soviet Union acquire the Japanese Kurile Islands, the southern half of Sakhalin Island, and railway, economic and port concessions in Chinese Manchuria. Roosevelt agreed to these transfers despite their apparent contradiction of Allied wartime pledges of no territorial aggrandisement.

Stalin had good reason to be satisfied with the results of the conference. In return for minor concessions – the acceptance of the United Nations and a future role for France in the councils of the great powers – he believed that the West had accepted Soviet control over Poland and Eastern Europe, although he recognized that this would have to be achieved behind a façade of self-determination.

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’s foreign policy advisers, men he had inherited from Roosevelt, were also divided about what course the new President should pursue. W. Averell Harriman, the United States ambassador to Moscow, State Department officials, James F. Forrestal, the Navy Secretary, and Admiral William D. Leahy, the White House Chief of Staff, were all, in varying degrees, suspicious of Soviet policies. They urged Truman to adopt a tough line towards Soviet violations of the Yalta accords. Henry L. Stimson, the War Secretary, Joseph E. Davies, a former pro-Soviet ambassador to Moscow, and General George C. Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff, pressed Truman on the other hand not to jeopardise the long-term prospects for Soviet-American cooperation for the sake of relatively minor Soviet transgressions in Eastern Europe, an area of little interest to the United States and where it was in any case powerless to influence the course of events.

From London Truman was bombarded with telegrams from Churchill advocating a firm Anglo-American stand against the Soviet Union. Truman was unwilling to adopt some of Churchill’s more extreme suggestions, such as ordering Anglo-American forces to liberate Prague before the Russians arrived there, in order to prevent the communisation of Czechoslovakia.

Beginning with post‐Yalta acrimony over the fate of Eastern Europe in March and April 1945, Soviet relations with America and Britain deteriorated gradually and fitfully during 1945, and then more sharply and steadily after the turn of the year.

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.

Churchill was irritated by Truman’s volte face but had no alternative but to accept the results of the Hopkins mission and agree that the new Polish government should be recognized by the West once it had been reconstituted.

Truman’s dilemma was that, given the rapid rundown in the numbers of American troops in Europe after Germany’s surrender, the United States would soon have only a limited physical presence in Europe with which to back up its diplomacy. In these circumstances, the only leverage available to the United States was its financial strength. In 1944 the American Treasury proposed that the United States offer the Soviet Union a loan to assist its post-war recovery. Stalin and Molotov expressed interest. Molotov’s repeated suggestions for negotiations about a loan were answered by hints that political conditions might be attached to it. The loan scheme lapsed in the summer of 1945.

A further means of influencing Soviet behavior emerged when Stimson acquainted Truman with the closely guarded secret of the Manhattan Project – the development, during the war, of the atomic bomb – which was now approaching fruition. Some of Truman’s advisers did think that the bomb would give the United States some bargaining strength in dealing with the Soviet Union. However, the US’s employment of the A-bombs against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which was followed by the Japanese surrender, did not appear to have any effect on the course of Soviet policy. The Red Army entered the war as promised and speedily over-ran Japanese positions in Manchuria. The Americans soon realized that their possession of the A-bomb gave them little diplomatic leverage to influence Soviet policy.

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.

Each occupying power in Germany was allowed to extract reparations freely from its own zone, while the Soviet Union was authorized to take 10 percent from the Western zones and a further 15 percent provided that this was matched by supplies of food and raw materials from the Soviet zone.

Italy was governed largely by the British and American occupying forces through an Allied Control Commission, on which the Soviet Union had an advisory role, although in practice its presence was ignored. Although Molotov protested at Potsdam about the Soviet Union’s exclusion from the decision-making process in Italy, he did not press the matter. Italy remained in the Western camp after 1945, a result of the generous American economic assistance.

Molotov demanded that the Montreux Convention, which restricted the passage of non-Turkish military vessels through the Dardanelles, should be scrapped, and that Soviet and other Black Sea countries should be allowed to use the Straits freely in future, while a joint Soviet-Turkish administration should replace the international regime of the Straits. Molotov linked his demands with a call for restoration to the Soviet Union of Turkish territory in the border provinces of Kars and Ardahan, ceded by the Soviet Republic to Turkey in 1921, and later pressed for Soviet naval bases in the Straits. These far-reaching demands only increased Western suspicions of Soviet policy towards Turkey.

In February 1945 the Soviets ordered King Michael of Romania to appoint a new pro-Soviet government dominated by the Communist Party. In August the king tried to dismiss this government, invoking the Declaration on Liberated Europe and appealing to Britain and the United States for support. The West did nothing – Britain had no desire to disturb the 1944 percentages agreement with Stalin and risk Soviet interference in Greece, while Truman was indifferent to the question. In February 1946 the government was slightly enlarged by the addition of a few liberal politicians and in return, the West agreed to recognize this new government. The change was purely cosmetic: the king was eventually forced to abdicate and the communists took over the country completely.

During the conference, Churchill and the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, were replaced by Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin respectively as a result of the Labour Party’s victory in the British general election in late July 1945. Some left-wing MPs pressed the new government to renounce its ties with capitalist United States and throw in its lot with socialist Russia, but these were in the minority. In any case Attlee and Bevin were men of a different stamp. Neither shared the pro-communist or wartime sentimentality towards the Soviet Union of some of their supporters, although they made some half-hearted attempts to keep the wartime friendship with the Soviet Union alive.

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.

Molotov alleged British atrocities against Greek communists: Bevin condemned Soviet actions in Eastern Europe. The Soviets demanded a voice in the Allied occupation regimes in Italy and Japan, renewed their calls for the revision of the Montreux Convention and put forward a claim to a share in the trusteeship of Italy’s former North African colony, Libya. Nor could any agreement be reached about the future of Germany – each side feared that a reunited Germany would fall under the other’s influence. The occupation authorities had already started to treat their respective zones as their own separate satrapies, rendering the Potsdam agreement a dead letter.

It was by now clear that American possession of the atomic bomb had not affected Soviet policy – if anything Molotov was even more obstinate at the London Conference than before. The Soviet demands in Turkey and Libya were put forward either as bargaining counters or to test Western will, but the Soviet Union also calculated that, since the United States was expanding its power worldwide, with bases in the Philippines and Japan, and had taken over Japan’s former Pacific Island trusteeships in 1945, the Soviet Union, as a co-victor, had the right to achieve Russia’s long-held ambition to secure unimpeded access to the Mediterranean. To the West, however, its demands appeared to be exorbitant, and they were bound to increase British anxiety about Soviet intentions in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, still a British preserve.

Molotov accepted with alacrity a proposal by Byrnes that the three foreign ministers should meet in Moscow in December 1945. Britain was not consulted in advance about this initiative; plainly Byrnes hoped to reach agreement directly with Stalin and Molotov. In Moscow, after Byrnes had spoken to Stalin, the Soviet Union agreed that a Four-Power Control Commission should be sent to Romania to ensure non-communist representation in its government, while non-communists would be given posts in the Bulgarian government. In return, the United States agreed to set up an Allied Council in Tokyo. These mutual concessions were purely cosmetic: the Western powers would continue to have as little influence in internal political arrangements in Romania as the Allied Council would have in Tokyo. Nevertheless the Moscow Conference led to a temporary thaw in American-Soviet relations.

While determined to maintain Soviet control in Eastern Europe, Stalin had demonstrated a willingness to accept a façade of Allied cooperation in the area. At the same time, Truman was not willing to consider a complete breach with the Soviet Union while there remained a chance, however slender, of a deal, despite his complaints that Byrnes had made too many concessions to the Soviet Union in Moscow. He was becoming increasingly aware that the public mood in the United States was beginning to turn against the Soviet Union, although it would not become completely anti-Soviet until the end of the following year.

Despite the Truman administration’s trump cards, Soviet-American relations progressively deteriorated in the months that followed the Japanese surrender. In addition to Eastern Europe and Germany, still the most vexing problems, the former allies clashed over competing visions of how international control of atomic weaponry might be attained, over conflicting interests in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean, over the question of US economic aid, and over the Soviet role in Manchuria. Although some compromises were forged in the various meetings of the Council of Foreign Ministers, 1946 marked the demise of the Grand Alliance and the beginning of a fully fledged Cold War.

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.

There is no doubt that the fervor of the confrontation of ideas contributed strongly to Cold War bipolarity. The predominant ideology in the United States, emphasizing markets, mobility, and mutability, was universalist and teleological, with the built-in belief that all societies of European extraction were necessarily moving in the same general direction as the United States. From the very beginning, Communism — the special form of socialism developed in the Soviet Union — was created as the antithesis of the capitalist ideology that the United States represented: an alternative future, so to say, that people everywhere could obtain for themselves.

Like many Americans, the Soviet leaders believed that ‘old’ societies, based on local identifications, social deference, and justification of the past, were dead. The competition was for the society of the future, and there were only two fully modern versions of it: the market, with all its imperfections and injustices, and the plan, which was rational and integrated. Soviet ideology made the state a machine acting for the betterment of mankind, while most Americans resented centralized state power and feared its consequences. The stage was set for an intense competition, in which the stakes were seen to be no less than the survival of the world.

While similar in terms of the state emphasis on big projects, civilian as well as military, the United States and the Soviet Union symbolized two modern extremes in the conduct of domestic politics. In the United States there were many centers of power, and even though the president’s administration always held the upper hand, the legislature, the courts, and the state governments had significant autonomous influence both on specific decisions and on the conduct of politics. In addition, military leaders and the heads of big companies had their own voice in decision making. In the Soviet Union, on the other hand, politics was extremely centralized, in theory and very often also in fact.

The Cold War was a clash of ideas and cultures as much as a military and strategic conflict. Different from the nationalist projects in Europe and East Asia that had led to war in 1914 and 1937-39, the ideas put forward by the American and Soviet contenders in the Cold War were universal in nature – they were supposed to be valid for all peoples at all times now and forever. By 1945, these ideas – individual liberty, anticollectivism, and market values on the US side; social justice, collectivism, and state planning among the Soviets – had hardened into ideologies, in which universalist political ideals mixed freely with older and more specific cultural traits.

The elites of both countries believed that the future was theirs, because the world was unavoidably moving in the direction of the aims they themselves had set. Much of the reason why such a faith could persist for as long as it did (or does, in the American case) has to do with the common lineage that the two ideologies represent. Against traditions of privilege, heritage, family, and locality, both Soviets and Americans offered a modern and revolutionary alternative, in which people could reinvent themselves and help create a new world.

The differences in domestic roles and methods were of crucial importance when Soviet and American elites were spreading their message of progress abroad. While the United States, because of its democratic politics at home, was able to forge diverse and pluralistic alliances with elites in Europe and East Asia – alliances that contributed decisively to its predominance during the Cold War – the Soviet alliances failed spectacularly, from Germany to China to Eastern Europe.

The Cold War influenced all forms of popular culture, film, and television. By implicitly portraying their own societies as victors in a global struggle, US and Soviet films had a significant influence on the views of their own populations and those of people abroad. By the 1980s, this particular contest for hearts and minds was won by the United States, as US programming filled television schedules across the world.

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.

In early 1945 the Big Three, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, managed to reach a shaky agreement on the future of Germany and Eastern Europe, but with Roosevelt’s death the new President, Harry Truman, became suspicious of Soviet policy, particularly towards the Eastern European countries, now occupied by the Red Army. However, at the Potsdam Conference the three powers managed to paper over the cracks and produce an agreement which virtually confirmed the Yalta settlement, with Truman’s confidence buoyed up by news of the American explosion of the atomic bomb. But when the three foreign ministers met in London in September for detailed negotiations over the principles reached at Potsdam, Molotov proved to be unyielding in his determination to secure Moscow’s desiderata.

James Byrnes, Truman’s new Secretary of State, hoped to avert a breach between the two sides by calling for a new Conference of Foreign Ministers in Moscow in December 1945, which managed to achieve a temporary modus vivendi. Republican sentiment in the United States was outraged by what it regarded as Byrnes’ sell-out at Moscow, particularly in Eastern Europe, while Truman was annoyed by Byrnes’ failure to keep him fully informed about the progress of the conference. Much would now depend on Stalin’s view of future Soviet policy and on Truman’s reaction to any real or alleged Soviet attempt to alter the existing status quo.

The vast swath of death and destruction precipitated by the war left not only much of Europe and Asia in ruins, but the old international order as well. Indeed, the Eurocentric international system that had dominated world affairs for the past 500 years had vanished. Two continent-sized military behemoths had risen in its stead, each intent upon forging a new order consonant with its particular needs and values. As the war moved into its final phase, even the most casual observer of world politics could see that the United States and the Soviet Union held most of the military, economic, and diplomatic cards.

The vast swath of death and destruction precipitated by the war left not only much of Europe and Asia in ruins, but the old international order as well. Indeed, the Eurocentric international system that had dominated world affairs for the past 500 years had vanished. Two continent-sized military behemoths had risen in its stead, each intent upon forging a new order consonant with its particular needs and values. As the war moved into its final phase, even the most casual observer of world politics could see that the United States and the Soviet Union held most of the military, economic, and diplomatic cards.

The tension, suspicion, and rivalry that came to plague US-Soviet relations in the immediate aftermath of war was, in that elemental sense, hardly a surprise. Yet the degree and scope of the ensuing conflict, and particularly its duration, cannot be explained by appeals to structural forces alone. It was the divergent aspirations, needs, histories, governing institutions, and ideologies of the United States and the Soviet Union that turned unavoidable tensions into the epic four-decade confrontation that we call the Cold War.

World War II, which lasted six years, set the framework for half a century of Cold War. For much of the war, the Soviets, the British, and the Americans were allies. But the defeat of their common enemies — Germany, Italy, and Japan — meant that the conflict between Communism, led by the Soviet Union, and its opponents, led by the United States, became the new central focus of world politics. The outcome of World War II assured American global hegemony, with the Soviet Union and the Communist parties it had inspired as the only major challenge remaining.