Modern history

The Opening of the Cold War



Did one American's fears about Soviet intentions spark a decades-long conflict that threatened the world with nuclear destruction? Certainly no one person can be held responsible for the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, but George Frost Kennan played a critical role in shaping the confrontation between these two superpowers. Kennan's views were based on extensive experience with the Soviets. A graduate of Princeton University, where he majored in history, and a career diplomat, Kennan served two tours of duty at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. During the first, from 1933 to 1937, he witnessed the brutality of the Stalin regime, as countless “enemies of the state" were arrested, exiled, or executed in Stalin's purges. His experiences convinced him that there was little basis for a positive relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Kennan's second tour of duty in Moscow, from 1944 to 1946, came at a critical juncture in U.S.-Soviet relations. As the war came to a close, tensions over the nature of the postwar world escalated, and by 1946 the wartime alliance had collapsed. Against this backdrop, Kennan sent an 8,000-word telegram to Secretary of State James F. Byrnes outlining a proposal for future U.S. strategy. Convinced that Stalin was committed to expanding communism throughout the world, Kennan advised President Harry S. Truman to adopt a policy of containment. In Kennan's view, all Soviet efforts at expansion should be met with firm resistance. At the same time, the United States should take an active role in rebuilding the economies of war-torn Western European countries, thereby reducing the appeal of communism to their populations. Kennan's concept of containment would become the basis for President Truman's foreign policy and would establish the initial strategic parameters of the Cold War.

Kennan, however, was not a rigid cold warrior. He soon insisted that his containment strategy had been misunderstood. As the Cold War intensified and expanded, Kennan argued that containment would work best through political and economic rather than military means. Increasingly, his views fell out of favor at the State Department, and Kennan left in 1950 in a disagreement with the Truman administration's growing militarization of the conflict with the Soviet Union.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were casualties of the Cold War that Kennan helped shape. Accused of passing military secrets to the Soviet Union, they were tried for espionage in an atmosphere of growing anti-Communist fervor. Ethel Greenglass and her future husband, Julius Rosenberg, both grew up in families that suffered economically during the Great Depression. During the 1930s, Ethel worked as a secretary in New York City and took part in labor union organizing. Like other young idealists of the period, she became disillusioned with capitalism and joined the Young Communist League. Julius attended the City College of New York, where he, too, joined the Young Communist League. Three years after they met in 1936, Julius and Ethel married and started a family.

During World War II, Julius worked for the Army Signal Corps as an engineer, but his political past came back to haunt him. In 1945 he lost his job after a security investigation revealed his Communist Party membership. Five years later, the federal government charged that during World War II the Rosenbergs had provided classified information about the construction of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union, charges that the Rosenbergs denied.

A jury found them guilty on April 5, 1951, and the presiding judge sentenced them to death under the 1917 Espionage Act, which prohibited the transmission of information "relating to the national defense" to a foreign government. Despite an international campaign for clemency and after unsuccessful appeals to the Supreme Court, on June 19, 1953, the Rosenbergs became the only two American civilians executed for espionage during the Cold War. Though recent evidence has confirmed Julius Rosenberg's role as a spy, the case against Ethel remains inconclusive. Without the heightened Cold War climate that then existed in the country, it is likely that neither would have gone to the electric chair.

U.S. soldier in Korea, 1951. Time & Life Pictures/Getty images

THE AMERICAN HISTORIES of both George Kennan and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg revolved around their views of communism and the Soviet Union. Kennan designed an approach to containing Soviet aggression based on his close dealings with Stalin—one that he believed would check Soviet expansion without precipitating another world war. The Rosenbergs believed in communism’s promise of social and economic equality and saw the Soviet Union as a defense against Nazi aggression—views that led Julius into spying for the Soviets, a U.S. ally, during World War II. Kennan and the Rosenbergs were famous in their time and played prominent roles in the Cold War, but in at least one respect they were unexceptional. As the Cold War deepened over the course of the 1950s, the lives of all Americans would be profoundly shaped by the epic military and ideological battle between the superpowers.

The Origins of the Cold War, 1945-1947

The wartime partnership between the United States and the Soviet Union (USSR) was an alliance of necessity. Putting aside ideological differences and a history ofmutual distrust, the two nations joined forces to combat Nazi aggression. As long as the Nazi threat existed, the alliance held, but as the war ended and attention turned to the postwar world, the allies became adversaries. The two nations did not engage directly in war, but they entered into a struggle for political, economic, and military superiority known as the Cold War. In general, most Cold War maneuvers did not take place on battlefields; rather they consisted of building military and economic alliances to establish spheres of influence, stopping short of “hot wars” (actual fighting) between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Mutual Misunderstandings

Guided by competing ideological and economic values, the United States and the Soviet Union pursued their national interests on the world stage in a manner that led to dangerous confrontations. After World War II, the United States came to believe that the Soviet Union desired world revolution to spread communism, a doctrine hostile to free market individualism. At the same time, the Soviet Union viewed the United States as seeking to make the world safe for capitalism, thereby reducing Soviet chances to obtain economic resources and rebuild its war-shattered economy. Thus each nation tended to see the other’s actions in the most negative light possible and to see global developments as a zero-sum game, one in which every victory for one side was necessarily a defeat for the other.

Problems had already surfaced during World War II, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin were able to keep tensions in check (see chapter 23). The president went a long way toward defusing Stalin’s concerns at the Yalta Conference in 1945. Stalin viewed the Eastern European countries that the Soviets had liberated from the Germans, especially Poland, as a buffer to protect his nation from future attacks by Germany. He refused to allow hostile, anti-Communist governments to rule these countries and wanted to maintain a regional sphere of influence favorable to Soviet foreign policy objectives. Roosevelt understood Stalin’s reasoning, and he recognized political realities: The Soviet military already occupied Eastern Europe, a state of affairs that increased Stalin’s bargaining position. Still, while accepting Stalin’s basic position, the president insisted that the Yalta Agreement include a guarantee of free elections in Eastern Europe. Roosevelt believed in spreading democracy and freedom, but he was also a realist, and the Yalta Agreement reflected his effort to strike a delicate balance.

By contrast, his successor, Harry S. Truman, took a much less nuanced approach to U.S.-Soviet relations. He believed that the Soviets threatened “a barbarian invasion of Europe,” and he intended to deter it. Stalin’s ruthless purges within the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s, which led to the deaths of millions of his opponents, convinced Truman that the Soviet dictator was paranoid and extremely dangerous. President Truman did not expect the United States to achieve “100 percent of what we propose” in negotiations with the Russians, but “we should be able to get eighty-five percent.” In his first meeting with Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov in April 1945, Truman rebuked the Russians for failing to support free elections in Poland. Molotov, recoiling from the sharp tone of Truman’s remarks, replied: “I have never been talked to like that in my life.”

Despite this rough start, Truman did not immediately abandon the idea of cooperation with the Soviet Union. At the Potsdam Conference in Germany in July 1945, Truman and Stalin agreed on several issues (see chapter 23). The two leaders reaffirmed the concept of free elections in Eastern Europe; Soviet troop withdrawal from the oil fields of northern Iran, which bordered the USSR; and the partition of Germany into four Allied occupation zones. (Berlin was also divided into four occupation zones.) After Stalin assured Truman that he did not support the Communist revolution in China against the Western-backed government of Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek), Truman wrote, “I can deal with Stalin. He is honest—but smart as hell.”

Within six months of the war’s end, the president had changed his mind, and relations between the two countries quickly soured. The United States was the only nation in the world with the atomic bomb, which it had used on Japan, and boasted the only economy reinvigorated by the war. As a result, the Truman administration believed that it held the upper hand against the Soviets and could gain most of what it wanted. With this in mind, the State Department offered the Soviets a $6 billion loan, which they needed to help rebuild their war-ravaged economy. But when the Soviets undermined free elections in Poland in 1946 and established a compliant government, the United States withdrew the offer. Soviet troops also remained in northern Iran, closing off the oil fields to potential capitalist enterprises. The failure to reach agreement over international control of atomic energy proved the last straw. Before reaching an accord, the United States wanted to make sure it would keep its atomic weapons, while the Soviets first wanted the United States to destroy its nuclear arsenal. Clearly, the former World War II allies did not trust each other, and each suspected the other of trying to gain an atomic advantage.

Truman had significantly underestimated the strength of the Soviet position. The Soviets were well on their way toward building their own atomic weapons, negating the Americans’ nuclear advantage. In the meantime, until the Russians obtained the bomb, they could rely on the power of their huge army—the largest in the world— poised in Eastern Europe. The Soviets could also ignore the enticement of U.S. economic aid by taking resources from East Germany and mobilizing the Russian people to rebuild their country’s industry and military. Indeed, on February 9, 1946, Stalin delivered a tough speech to rally Russians to make sacrifices to enhance national security. By asserting that communism was “a better form of organization than any non-Soviet social system,” he implied, according to George Kennan, that capitalist nations could not coexist with communism and that future wars were unavoidable unless communism triumphed over capitalism.

Whether Stalin meant this speech as an unofficial declaration of a third world war was not clear, but U.S. leaders interpreted it this way. A few days after Stalin spoke, Kennan sent his 8,000-word telegram from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to Washington, blaming the Soviets for stirring up international tensions and confirming that Stalin could not be trusted. “Driven by a neurotic view of world affairs,” Kennan maintained, “[the Soviet Union] would respond only to force.” The following month, on March 15, former British prime minister Winston Churchill gave a speech in Truman’s home state of Missouri, which the president read in advance and presumably approved. Declaring that “an iron curtain has descended across the Continent” of Europe, Churchill observed that “there is nothing [the Russians] admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for military weakness.” This comment reaffirmed Truman’s sentiments expressed the previous year: “Unless Russia is faced with an iron fist and strong language another war is in the making.” The message was clear: Unyielding resistance to the Soviet Union was the only way to avoid another world war.

Not all Americans agreed with this view. Although some 60 percent of the public believed that cooperation with the Soviets was unlikely, a minority argued that a more amicable relationship was possible. Led by Roosevelt’s former vice president Henry Wallace, who served as Truman’s secretary of commerce, critics voiced concern about taking a “hard line” against the Soviet Union. Stalin was pursuing a policy of expansion, they agreed, but for limited reasons. Wallace claimed that the Soviets merely wanted to protect their borders by surrounding themselves with friendly countries, just as the United States had done by establishing spheres of influence in the Caribbean. Except for Poland and Romania, Stalin initially accepted an array of governments in Eastern Europe, allowing free elections in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and, to a lesser extent, Bulgaria. Only as Cold War tensions escalated did the Soviets tighten control over all of Eastern Europe, snuffing out any semblance of democracy. Critics such as Wallace considered this outcome the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy; by misinterpreting Soviet motives, the Truman administration pushed Stalin to counter the American hard line with a hard line of his own.

The Truman Doctrine

By 1947 U.S.-Soviet relations had reached a new low. International arms control had proven futile, the United States had gone to the United Nations to pressure the Soviets to withdraw from Iran, and the rhetoric from both sides had become warlike. From the American vantage point, Soviet actions to expand communism in Eastern Europe appeared to threaten democracies in Western Europe. By contrast, the Soviets viewed the United States as seeking to extend economic control over nations close to their borders and to weaken communism in the Soviet Union.

Events in Greece allowed Truman to take the offensive and apply Kennan’s policy of containment. The Mediterranean Sea linked the United Kingdom (formerly Great Britain) to the Middle East, the Suez Canal, and its Asian colonies, and the British therefore considered it vitally important to keep Greece within its sphere of influence. During the war, Churchill and Stalin had agreed that after the war the United Kingdom (UK) would resume its oversight of Greece, while the Soviets would predominate in Eastern Europe. All did not go according to plan. In 1946 a civil war broke out in Greece between the right-wing monarchy, which the UK supported, and a coalition of insurgents consisting of members of the wartime anti-Nazi resistance, Communists, and nonCommunist opponents of the repressive government. Under normal conditions, the British would have provided the necessary resources to prop up the Greek government. The United Kingdom, however, was exhausted by the war and in desperate financial shape, so it had no choice but to turn to the United States for help.

The Truman administration agreed to help the UK. Although the Greeks were fighting a civil war, the president and his advisers viewed the situation differently. They believed that the presence of Communists among the Greek rebels meant that Moscow was behind the insurgency. In fact, Stalin was not aiding the revolutionaries; the assistance came from the Communist leader of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito, who acted independently of the Soviets and would soon break with them. Following Kennan’s lead in advocating containment, Truman incorrectly believed that all Communists around the world were ultimately controlled by the Kremlin.

While Truman was convinced that the United States had to intervene in Greece to contain the spread of communism, he still had to convince the Republican-controlled Congress and the American people to go along. In 1946 the Republicans had run on a platform of lowering taxes and cutting government spending—positions that enjoyed considerable public support and were incompatible with appropriating huge sums to support the Greek government. In order to overcome potential opposition to its plans, the Truman administration exaggerated the danger of Communist control of Greece. Truman sent Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson to testify before a congressional committee that “like apples in a barrel infected by one rotten one, the corruption of Greece would infect Iran and all to the east.” The administration’s presentation of the issues to the American public was even more dramatic. On March 12, 1947, Truman gave a speech to a joint session of Congress that was broadcast over national radio to millions of listeners. He interpreted the civil war in Greece as a titanic struggle between freedom and totalitarianism that threatened the free world. “I believe,” the president declared, “that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” Truman’s rhetoric stretched the truth on many counts—the armed minorities to which the president referred had fought the Nazis; the Soviets did not supply the insurgents; the right-wing monarchy, propped up by the military, was hardly democratic; and the United Kingdom had long exerted “outside pressure.” Truman achieved his goal of frightening both lawmakers and the public, and Congress appropriated $400 million in military aid to fortify the existing governments of Greece and neighboring Turkey.

The Truman Doctrine, which pledged to contain the expansion of communism, was the cornerstone of American foreign policy throughout the Cold War. The United States committed itself to shoring up governments, whether democratic or dictatorial, as long as they were avowedly anti-Communist. Americans believed that the rest of the world’s nations wanted to be like the United States and therefore would not willingly accept communism, which they thought could be imposed only from the outside by the Soviet Union and never reasonably chosen from within.

Although Truman misread Soviet intentions with respect to Greece, Stalin’s regime had given him cause for worry. Soviet actions that imposed communism in Poland, along with the USSR’s refusal to withdraw troops from the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, reinforced the presidents concerns about Soviet expansionism and convinced many in the U.S. government that Stalin had no intention of abiding by his wartime agreements. Difficulties in negotiating with the Soviets about international control of atomic energy further worried American foreign-policy makers about Russian designs for obtaining the atomic bomb.

The Marshall Plan and Economic Containment

George Kennan’s version of containment called for economic and political aid to check Communist expansion. In this context, to forestall Communist inroads and offer humanitarian assistance to Europeans facing homelessness and starvation, the Truman administration offered economic assistance to the war-torn continent. Secretary of State George Marshall recognized that if the United States did not offer help, European nations would face “economic, social, and political deterioration of a very grave character,” which in turn might plunge the world and the United States, which depended heavily on European markets, into another Great Depression. In a June 1947 speech that drew heavily on Kennan’s ideas, Marshall sketched out a plan to provide financial assistance to Europe. Although he invited any country, including the Soviet Union, that experienced “hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos” to apply for aid, Marshall did not expect Stalin to ask for assistance. To do so would require the Soviets to supply information to the United States concerning the internal operations of their economy and to admit to the failure of communism.

Following up Marshall’s speech, Truman asked Congress in December 1947 to authorize $17 billion for European recovery. With conservative-minded Republicans still in control of Congress, the president’s spending request faced steep opposition. The Soviet Union inadvertently came to Truman’s political rescue. Stalin interpreted the proposed Marshall Plan of economic assistance as a hostile attempt by the United States to gain influence in Eastern Europe. To forestall this possibility, in late February 1948 the Soviets extinguished the remaining democracy in Eastern Europe by engineering a Communist coup in Czechoslovakia. Congressional lawmakers viewed this action as further proof of Soviet aggression. In April 1948, they approved the Marshall Plan, providing $13 billion in economic assistance to sixteen European countries over the next five years.


• Why did American policymakers believe that containing Communist expansion should be the foundation of American foreign policy?

• What role did mutual misunderstandings and mistrust play in the emergence of the Cold War?

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