While the British and Americans held firmly... the whole position in Africa and the Mediterranean... and the whole of Western Germany... they undertook by negotiation and diplomatic pressure to reduce Russia’s position in Eastern Europe—which the Soviet Union had won because the Red Army had defeated two thirds of the German Army.
THERE IS NO SATISFACTORY DATE TO MARK THE BEGINNING OF THE COLD War, but the issue that gave it life and shaped its early course was East Europe. For centuries East and West have struggled with each other for control of the huge area running from the Baltic to the Balkans, an area rich in human and industrial resources and strategically vital to both sides, either to Russia as a buffer against the West, or to Germany and France as the gateway for an invasion of Russia. Neither the West nor the East has been willing to allow East Europe to be strong, independent, or neutral. Russia and the West have each wanted the area to be aligned with them. The United States participated in this process in 1919, when President Woodrow Wilson took the lead in breaking up the Austro-Hungarian Empire and establishing independent Western-oriented governments designed, in part, to hold the Soviet Union in check. The attempt ultimately failed because of the inability of the capitalist states to stick together, a failure helped along by American refusal in the thirties to participate in European politics.
A climax came at the 1939 Munich conference. For three years Stalin had sought to form an alliance with Britain and France, but the democracies would do anything to avoid getting into bed with the Soviets, with the result that they wound up sleeping with the Nazis instead. Stalin, no more ready than the West to take on Hitler alone, in 1939 signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact, which provided for a division of East Europe between Germany and Russia. They soon began fighting over the spoils, however, and in 1941 Hitler took all of East Europe, then drove deep into Soviet territory. The British and French, meanwhile, had tried to redeem their abandonment of East Europe by declaring war when Hitler invaded Poland, but the aid they gave to the defense of Poland was useless. In the conflict that followed, the West made no significant contribution to the liberation of East Europe, and when the end came the Red Army was in sole possession of the area east of a line drawn from Stettin on the Baltic to Trieste on the Adriatic.
The Soviet Union occupied East Europe. This crucial result of World War II destroyed the Grand Alliance and gave birth to the Cold War.
America was unwilling to accept Russian domination of East Europe. Nearly every important American leader acknowledged that East Europe could no longer maintain an anti-Soviet position, but at the same time they all wished to promote democracy, freedom of religion and speech, and free enterprise. As Secretary of State James Byrnes put it, “Our objective is a government [in Poland] both friendly to the Soviet Union and representative of all the democratic elements of the country.”
It was an impossible program. Given the traditions, prejudices, and social structures of East Europe, any freely elected government would certainly be anti-Russian. It may be that FDR recognized this fact, but was unwilling to explain it to the American people. When he reported on the Yalta Conference in February 1945, he emphasized Stalin’s agreement to hold free elections, which fed soaring American expectations about the shape of postwar East Europe. Poland, Bulgaria, Rumania, and the rest of the region would become, it was hoped, democratic capitalist states closely tied to the West. There never was the slightest possibility that this would happen, but when it failed to occur, millions of Americans were outraged. They demanded liberation and rollback, and hurled insults at the Russians, while professional anti-Communists searched for the betrayers of East Europe and found them in the highest circles of American government, including, in the minds of some, President Roosevelt himself.
The struggle centered on Poland. There were two separate but related questions: Who would rule in Poland? What would the Polish boundary be? The British had tried to answer the first question by sponsoring a government-in-exile in London. The Americans had answered the second in early 1942 by refusing to discuss, as Stalin wished to do, the boundary questions in East Europe. The United States insisted that such discussions had to be postponed until Hitler was crushed, partly because FDR did not want to enter into any secret agreements that could later be denounced, but mainly because Stalin was demanding Russia’s 1941 frontiers, which had extended Soviet influence into East Europe as a result of the Nazi-Soviet Pact.
Given the general desire at Yalta to hold the Grand Alliance together, based on mutual need, the Big Three tried to find a face-saving formula. The Russians had created an alternative to the London-based Polish government-in-exile, the so-called Lublin government, which was a Soviet puppet. In January 1945, Stalin had recognized the Lublin Poles as the sole government of Poland. At Yalta a month later, Churchill and Roosevelt tried to retrieve the situation by insisting on free elections and a broadly based Polish government that would include major figures from the London government. They believed that they had achieved a miracle when Stalin agreed to “free and unfettered elections as soon as possible on the basis of universal suffrage and secret ballot,” and also to “reorganize” the Polish government by bringing in Poles from London. Had these promises been kept, democratic forces in Poland probably would have won power, thereby giving the West the best possible result. Stalin, however, had no intention of giving up Poland, and he never accepted the Western interpretation of the Yalta agreements—that they meant what they said.
Both sides wanted a friendly government in Poland for solid strategic reasons. As Stalin put it at Yalta, “For the Russian people, the question of Poland is not only a question of honor but also a question of security. Throughout history, Poland has been the corridor through which the enemy has passed into Russia. Twice in the last thirty years our enemies, the Germans, have passed through this corridor.... Poland is not only a question of honor but of life and death for the Soviet Union.” The West saw Poland in reverse, as the outpost of European civilization holding back the hordes of Asians ready to overrun the Continent. This great fear, a constant in European history, was heightened in 1945 because of the vacuum in Germany and because of the Red Army, by then incomparably the strongest power in all Europe. If the Red Army remained intact, if it occupied Poland and East Germany, if the United States demobilized, and if Poland fell into Communist hands—all of which seemed probable in February 1945—then there would be nothing to prevent the Russians from overrunning all Europe.
Because Stalin’s concerns were less for the Russo-Polish boundary than for the Polish-German boundary and the nature of the Polish government, he agreed to relatively limited Russian gains at Poland’s expense, while insisting that Poland be compensated by taking huge hunks of German territory. He intended to move Poland’s western borders all the way to the Oder-Neisse line, taking not only East Prussia and all of Silesia but also Pomerania, back to and including Stettin. From 6 to 9 million Germans would have to be evicted. The Anglo-Americans were alarmed, but there was little they could do about it. Considering German treatment of the Poles, it was difficult to argue that Stalin’s proposal was anything less than fair, and in any case what mattered was not so much the frontiers of Poland as who would rule in Poland. By leaving the boundary question in abeyance and emphasizing Stalin’s promise to hold free elections, Roosevelt came away from Yalta with a feeling of triumph.
Stalin quickly began to shatter the American illusion. He refused to reorganize the Polish government in any significant way, suppressed freedom of speech, assembly, religion, and the press in Poland, and made no move to hold the promised free elections. To a greater or lesser extent, the Soviets followed this pattern in the rest of East Europe, making it perfectly clear that now that they held the region they would not give it up. They shut the West out completely. By any standard the Soviet actions were high-handed, their suppressions brutal.
The West was shocked and felt betrayed. Stalin either failed to realize this or felt he had no choice. Time and again—at Yalta and later—Stalin emphasized Russia’s security problem, her need to protect herself from Germany and the West by controlling the nations on her border, but increasingly Americans dismissed his statements as lies and denounced him as a dictator whose aim was world conquest. Millions of American voters of East European origin, aided by the Catholic Church and military men who were worried about the new strategic balance in Europe, decided that standing up to Stalin was as important as standing up to Hitler.
One of the first, and surely the most important, of those to feel these impulses was President Truman. His inclination was to take a hard line with the Russians, an attitude that was supported by senior American officials stationed in Moscow. A week and a day after Truman assumed office, on April 20, 1945, he met with Ambassador Harriman to discuss America’s relations with the Soviet Union, which by then were at a critical stage, with the war coming to an end and new policies required.
Harriman had just come from Moscow, where his chief intellectual adviser was George Kennan, one of the leading anti-Soviets in the Foreign Service. Kennan was opposed to the denazification policy the Americans intended to apply to Germany because he felt the Germans would soon be joining the United States in opposition to Russia. But Kennan stopped short of a call to arms. He believed the Russians would never be able to maintain their hegemony over East Europe, that United States-Russian postwar collaboration was unnecessary, that what was needed was just a clear recognition of each side’s sphere of influence, that Stalin had no intention of marching farther west, and most of all that “it was idle for us to hope that we could have any influence on the course of events in the area to which Russian hegemony had already been effectively extended.” When Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s trusted adviser, asked Kennan what the United States should do about the Russian domination of Poland, Kennan merely remarked that “we should accept no share of the responsibility.” “Then you think it’s just sin,” Hopkins rejoined, “and we should be agin it.”
“That’s just about right,” Kennan replied.
Such a do-nothing policy could have been adopted; the indications were that this was the line FDR intended to follow. The President felt that postwar collaboration could be achieved through the United Nations. To get Stalin’s cooperation, Roosevelt was willing to overlook much, or, like Kennan, to adopt a realistic attitude toward developments in Poland.
Harriman, however, rejected the do-nothing policy. According to Truman, at their April 20 meeting Harriman “said that certain elements around Stalin misinterpreted our generosity and our desire to cooperate as an indication of softness, so that the Soviet government could do as it pleased without risking challenge from the United States.” But he emphasized that the Soviets would need American economic aid to reconstruct their country, so “we could stand firm on important issues without running serious risks.” Truman stopped Harriman to inform him that he was “not afraid of the Russians,” and that he “intended to be firm,” for “the Russians needed us more than we needed them.” Truman’s statement is a key to much that followed. American postwar policy was based, in part, on the belief that no matter what the United States did or said, the Russians could not protest because they had to have American money.
Harriman then warned that the West was faced with a “barbarian invasion of Europe.” After continuing in this vein for some time, he finally added that, in international negotiations, “there is give-and-take, and both sides make concessions.” Truman argued for the lion’s share. He would not, he said, “expect 100 percent of what we proposed,” but he did feel that “we should be able to get 85 percent.”
As a first practical step to secure 85 percent, Truman promised to tell Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov, who would soon be in Washington, that the Soviets had to immediately hold free elections in Poland. Truman added that he intended to put it to Molotov “in words of one syllable.” At the conclusion of the meeting Harriman confessed that he had rushed to Washington because he was afraid that Truman did not understand the true nature of the Soviet problem. “I am greatly relieved,” Harriman said, “to discover... we see eye-to-eye on the situation.”
Two days later Truman met with Molotov. For the most part it was a diplomatic function and the two men were cordial. Truman did point out that he wanted free elections in Poland “because of the effect on American public opinion.” Molotov said he understood that point, but added that Truman should understand that Poland was “even more important for the Soviet Union,” since Poland was far from America but bordered on Russia. Truman brushed that aside and insisted that Molotov recognize that America was making Poland a test case, “the symbol of the future development of our international relations.”
The next afternoon, April 23, 1945, Truman held his first major foreign-policy conference. Secretary of State Edward Stettinius, Secretary of War Stimson, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, Admirals William Leahy and Ernest King, General Marshall, Ambassador Harriman, and others attended. The subject was Poland. Truman set the tone by declaring that it was obvious “that our agreements with the Soviet Union had so far been a one-way street and that this could not continue.” He then asked each man present to state his views.
Stimson began by saying that unless the United States fully understood “how seriously the Russians took this Polish question we might be heading into very dangerous waters...” Forrestal took the opposite view; he said it was his profound conviction that “if the Russians were to be rigid in their attitude we had better have a showdown with them now rather than later.” Harriman, too, thought the United States should be firm on Poland. Stimson thought “the Russians perhaps were being more realistic than we were in regard to their own security,” and Leahy added that he never expected the Soviets to sponsor free elections in Poland. General Marshall, who favored a cautious policy with regard to Poland, wanted to avoid a break with the Soviets, since it was imperative to get their help in the Pacific war.
Truman, who was to meet with Molotov at 5:30 P.M., still could go either way. His senior advisers were split. He could acquiesce in Soviet actions in Poland, or he could continue to demand 85 percent.
Truman decided upon the latter course. When Molotov arrived the President shouted at him in the language of a Missouri mule driver. The interpreter said “he had never heard a top official get such a scolding.” At the end Truman told Molotov that “there was only one thing to do”: Stalin had to reorganize the Polish government by bringing in elements from the London Poles, and he had to hold elections. Molotov finally remarked, “I have never been talked to like that in my life.” Truman replied, “Carry out your agreements and you won’t get talked to like that.”
The Russians were puzzled as well as upset, as Stalin indicated on April 24 in a letter to Churchill and Truman. “Poland borders on the Soviet Union which cannot be said about Great Britain or the U.S.A.,” he began. Turning to complaints about Soviet actions in Poland, he remarked, “I do not know whether a genuinely representative Government has been established in Greece, or whether the Belgium Government is a genuinely democratic one. The Soviet Union was not consulted when those Governments were being formed, nor did it claim the right to interfere in those matters, because it realizes how important Belgium and Greece are to the security of Great Britain.” He said he could not understand why in the West “no attempt is made to consider the interests of the Soviet Union in terms of security as well.”
Truman’s attitude toward the Polish issue was a compound of many elements. In terms of domestic politics, there were millions of Americans of East European parentage who were enraged by Soviet actions, and Truman had to take their views into account. Churchill was bombarding the President with hard-line telegrams, and Truman had great respect for the Prime Minister. Harriman, the man on the spot in Moscow, had persuaded Truman that no matter how tough the United States got, the Russians would have to yield, for without American aid they could never reconstruct. Truman had recently been briefed on the Manhattan Project, where the atomic bomb was nearing completion, which added to his sense of power. Certainly ideology cannot be ignored. Men like Truman, Harriman, and Kennan were appalled by Russian brutality and Communist denial of the basic Western freedoms.
Truman, Harriman, and others viewed the United States as the chief defender of Western civilization. There were racist undertones to the policy, because insofar as the term Western civilization applied to the colored peoples of the world it meant white man’s rule. Western Europe’s day was over or ending, and the only white men left to take over in Southeast Asia and the Pacific as well as to hold the line in East Europe were the Americans. But again, most of all, Americans of all classes and shades of opinion were outraged by the Russian actions in East Europe.
Of all the ingredients in the policy mix—such as anti-Communism, the equating of Stalin with Hitler, economic motives, and concerns over military security and democracy—the element that gave body to it all was a sense of awesome power. By every index available, save that of men in arms, the United States was the strongest nation in the world. Many Americans, including leading figures in the government, believed that they could use their power to order the world in the direction of democratic capitalism on the American model.
But it could not be, for a reason that most Americans did not like to think about, seldom discussed, and frequently ignored. This was the simple fact that however great America’s military and productive power was, it had limits. Six percent of the world’s people could not run the lives of the remaining 94 percent. In practice this led to restraints on what America tried to do—for example, America’s disapproval of Stalin’s actions in East Europe was always verbal, and no troops ever set forth on a crusade to liberate Poland. But caution in action led to a general frustration, felt not only by millions of ordinary Americans but by the President himself. Truman had unprecedented power at his fingertips and a program for the world that he believed was self-evidently good. Yet he could not block Soviet expansion.
American influence would never be as great as American power. Over the next two decades American leaders and the American people were forced to learn that bitter lesson. American power was vaster than anyone else’s, but in many cases it was not usable power and thus could not be translated into diplomatic victory. Vietnam would be the ultimate proof of America’s inability to force others to do as she wished, but the process began much earlier, in 1945, with Truman’s attempt to shape the course of events in East Europe.
Truman rejected the do-nothing advice of Stimson, Kennan, Leahy, and Marshall at the April 23, 1945, policy conference. Instead, he adopted the get-tough policy of Harriman and Forrestal, primarily because he accepted their view that the Soviet Union was a barbaric nation bent on world conquest. But although he insisted on making an issue out of Poland, he never felt that Poland was important enough to risk World War III. Truman did not threaten to use force to impose his views. In part, this was because he still thought he could make Stalin behave by applying economic pressure. The world was weary of war, the American people were demanding demobilization, and the Red Army in Europe was too powerful for Truman even to consider war. He was, therefore, following a policy that was doomed to failure because he would be satisfied with nothing less than 85 percent—but could not go to war for it. Given Truman’s view of the Soviet Union and his desire to spread American ideals and influence around the globe, he felt he could demand no less. But Stalin would not retreat and the Grand Alliance broke up. Resources that might have been used to reconstruct a war-torn world went instead into new armaments.
On May 8, 1945, Truman suddenly revealed the main outline of America’s plan to use economic pressure to force compliance with its demands. On V-E Day he signed an executive order that terminated lend-lease shipments to America’s allies and he placed an embargo on all shipments to Russia and other European countries. Some ships headed for Russia were turned around and brought back to port for unloading. There had been no warning to either Russia or Britain, the two principal recipients, and both countries had been planning their reconstruction on the basis of a continuation of lend-lease. In a grand understatement, Secretary of State Stettinius, then in San Francisco for the UN organizational meeting, said the order was “particularly untimely and did not help Soviet-American relations.” Stalin was irate, and Truman sent Harry Hopkins to Moscow to pacify him. It was Hopkins’s job to explain to Stalin that the whole thing was a terrible mistake. Truman countermanded his lend-lease order and the flow of supplies resumed.
Stalin accepted the explanation, but as Stettinius’s remark indicated, the mistake was not one of policy but one of timing. The United States had no intention of continuing to send supplies to either Russia or Britain once she no longer needed their help in the Pacific war. What Stettinius found “incredible” was not the termination of lend-lease but that America had revealed the policy change before the Soviets declared war on Japan.
In the end the policy of applying economic pressure, pursued so actively, failed. In January 1945, Stalin had asked for a $6 billion loan. The State Department refused to discuss the request unless, as Harriman put it, Stalin became more receptive to American demands in Europe. Aid should go to the Soviets, Harriman said, only if they agreed to “work cooperatively with us on international problems in accordance with our standards....” Later in 1945, the Soviets asked for a $1 billion loan. The United States government “lost” the request. When it was finally “found,” months later, the State Department offered to discuss the loan if the Soviets would pledge “non-discrimination in international commerce,” allowing American investment and goods into the Russian sphere of influence. Stalin rejected the offer. Instead the Soviets announced a new five-year plan to rebuild heavy industry and to ensure “the technical and economic independence of the Soviet Union.” The Russians would rebuild through forced savings at home, at the expense of their own citizens, and by taking whatever they could move out of the areas in East Europe they occupied.
In his discussions with Stalin on Poland, Hopkins could not influence the Soviet dictator. The United States had to recognize the Russian puppet government or break relations, so in June Truman accepted the inevitable and the United States established relations with the Communist government of Poland. America continued to try to force Poland to accept, as the State Department put it, “a policy of equal opportunity for us in trade, investments and access to sources of information,” but there was never any chance that the policy would succeed. America had suffered what many considered to be a major defeat, which caused much resentment and was not forgotten.
Hopkins’s other major task was to ensure Soviet entry into the Pacific war. On May 28 he jubilantly cabled Truman, “The Soviet Army will be properly deployed on the Manchurian position by August 8th.” There was, naturally, a price. Stalin expected Truman to see to it that Chiang would keep the promises Roosevelt had made at Yalta; in return Stalin would support Chiang’s leadership in China. President Truman had no objections. Hopkins also said Stalin expected to share in the occupation of Japan and he wanted an agreement with the Anglo-Americans to establish zones of occupation in Japan, a demand to which Truman did not reply. Such an agreement could, however, be worked out at Potsdam, where the Big Three had arranged to meet in July 1945.
At Potsdam, Truman said, his “immediate purpose was to get the Russians into the war against Japan as soon as possible,” for he realized that “Russia’s entry into the war would mean the saving of hundreds of thousands of American casualties.” American lives could be saved, however, only by substituting for them Russian lives, which Stalin was not going to sacrifice for nothing. Truman recognized this, which indicated that he was willing to make concessions in return for the Soviet aid, an attitude reinforced by his second objective at Potsdam, “to come out with a working relationship” with the Russians “to prevent another world catastrophe.”
As soon as the meeting began, however, irreconcilable differences emerged. Truman proposed as an agenda item an agreement reorganizing the governments of Rumania and Bulgaria with a view to early free elections. Stalin instead proposed to discuss the questions of German reparations, trusteeships for Russia (among other things, he wanted a share of the Italian colonies in Africa), an end to the Franco regime in Spain, and a settlement of Poland’s western frontier on the Oder-Neisse line, with a liquidation of the London government-in-exile. Arguments went on and on, with some minor agreements reached, but nothing important could be settled.
Sniping and jabbing were the hallmarks of Potsdam. The Russians had given the Poles administrative control of eastern Germany. Truman and Churchill protested that Polish control meant the forced evacuation or death of millions of Germans, as well as a unilateral decision by Russia to bring another occupying power into Germany. Stalin shrugged off their criticism, saying that all the Germans had already left the territory and that the frontier had been determined at Yalta, neither of which was true. The Soviets wanted to participate with Turkey in the control of the Black Sea straits. Truman proposed an international guarantee that the straits would be open to all nations at all times, as a substitute for fortification or Russian participation in the control of the straits. Molotov asked if the Suez Canal were to be operated under such a principle. Churchill said the question of Suez had not been raised. Molotov retorted, “I’m raising it.” Churchill explained that the British had operated Suez for some seventy years without complaints. Molotov replied that there had been many complaints: “You should ask Egypt.”
The major issue at Potsdam was Germany. At Yalta the Big Three had agreed to divide Germany into four zones (one to the French), with each area governed by the local military commander. Together, the generals formed the Allied Control Council (ACC), which would lay down rules for reuniting Germany. The ACC would be governed by a rule of unanimity, a rule that proved disastrous for reunification, since the Anglo-Americans wanted one outcome, the French and Russians another. England and the United States aimed to create a politically whole Germany that would have self-sufficient industry; the other two occupying powers wanted to keep Germany divided and weak. No reconciliation of such divergent views was possible and at Potsdam none was really attempted. The Americans did agree that German industry should not exceed a certain level, but within less than a year they violated the agreement.
Potsdam did try to deal with the problem of German reparations. Since the United States had already indicated that it would not continue lend-lease after the war or extend a loan to the Soviet Union, for Stalin the question of German reparations was crucial. Geography was against him, however, because the prime industrial area of Germany, the Ruhr, was in the British zone. His advantage was that the Ruhr could not feed itself and he controlled the major agricultural regions of Germany. In the end a deal was made: The West recognized the Oder-Neisse line as Germany’s eastern border, and Stalin accepted 25 percent of German capital equipment from the Western zones as his share of reparations. Fifteen percent of this figure was to be in exchange for food from eastern Germany. Stalin also got carte blanche on reparations from the Russian zone, which he quickly stripped.
Perhaps more important than the agreements and arguments at Potsdam was the attitude Truman took back to the White House. At Potsdam, he learned that the only thing the Russians understood was force. He decided he would no longer “take chances in a joint setup with the Russians,” since they were impossible to get along with. The immediate result of this decision was Truman’s determination “that I would not allow the Russians any part in the control of Japan.... As I reflected on the situation during my trip home, I made up my mind that General MacArthur would be given complete command and control after victory in Japan.8
The successful test of the atomic bomb, which took place while the President was at Potsdam, encouraged him to take a harder line. The notion was widespread in high American government circles that American possession of the atomic bomb would, in Stimson’s words, result in “less barbarous relations with the Russians,” or, as Byrnes put it in June 1945, the bomb “would make Russia more manageable in Europe.”
The bomb, coupled with the financial position the United States enjoyed, gave Truman and his chief advisers a feeling of awesome power. From Potsdam on, the bomb was the constant factor in the American approach to the Soviet Union. The new policy was aptly described by Stimson as wearing “this weapon rather ostentatiously on our hip,” which he himself later came to admit had fed “their suspicions and their distrust of our purposes and motives....”
The bomb appeared to be a godsend to the Americans. They could impose their will on any recalcitrant nation merely by threatening to use it. Stopping aggression would be simplicity itself—just drop the bomb. America could retain a powerful position in Europe without having to maintain a mass army there. One of the great fears in American military circles was that, having smashed Germany, the West now had to confront the Red Army, and the only nation capable of doing so was the United States. But in the United States domestic political realities precluded the maintenance of a large, conscripted, standing army in postwar Europe. The Republican Party, soon to take control of Congress, meanwhile had made it clear that taxes had to be cut and the budget balanced. The administration would have neither the men nor the money to engage actively in war.
The bomb seemed to solve all these problems. America could fight a cold war without demanding any sacrifices of her citizens. America’s leaders hoped that through a judicious use of financial credit and the veiled threat of the bomb the United States could shape the postwar world. In the fall of 1945, Truman met with de Gaulle, who was worried about the intentions of General Lucius Clay, head of the American occupation zone in Germany, to reunify Germany and to raise its levels of production. De Gaulle was also concerned about the Red Army in Central Europe. Truman offhandedly remarked that there was nothing to fear. If any nation did become aggressive, he explained, the United States would use the atomic bomb to stop it.
The strategy would later be called massive retaliation. The trouble with it was that even as early as 1945 it bore little relation to reality. The atomic bombs of the 1945-49 period were not powerful enough to deter the Russians, nor did America have enough of them to institute a true massive retaliation program. These truths were only gradually realized by the politicians, but they colored the military situation from the beginning. Even had the U.S. Air Force been able to deliver all the bombs available in 1947 or 1948, they were hardly sufficient to destroy the Soviet Union.
Should the Russians realize the West’s worst fears and march across the Elbe, the most that bombs could achieve would be retaliation on principal Russian population centers, which would kill tens of thousands but which would not hamstring the Russian war machine. Stalin could match American destruction of Moscow with Soviet occupation of Western Europe.
There was a psychological as well as a military problem involved in massive retaliation. Whatever the limitations on the bomb, the world regarded it as the ultimate weapon, an attitude the American press and politicians encouraged. In the end this backfired, since it meant the bomb could only be used in the most extreme situation imaginable. It was easier for the United States to threaten to use the bomb to punish aggression than to find an aggression serious enough to justify its use. When in 1948 the Communists took over Czechoslovakia, for example, no responsible American official thought the outrage serious enough to start dropping bombs on Moscow, but because the United States had put its faith in the bomb there were no other tools available to stop the aggressor. The United States, therefore, could do nothing. This helplessness had been clear, in fact, as early as 1945.
American possession of the bomb had no noticeable effect on Stalin’s policy in East Europe. He and Molotov continued to do as they pleased, refusing to hold elections or to allow Western observers to travel freely in East Europe. At foreign ministers’ meetings, the Russians continued to insist that the West had to recognize the puppet governments in East Europe before peace treaties could be written. Byrnes’s hope that the bomb would “make Russia more manageable” proved abortive, and by the summer of 1946 both sides had accepted the fact of a divided Europe.
Russian mistrust of the West, along with Stalin’s determination to maintain an iron grip on his satellites, had grown so great that Molotov refused to consider seriously Secretary of State Byrnes’s proposal that the Big Four powers sign a treaty unifying Germany and guaranteeing German demilitarization, an offer sincerely made and one that represented the best hope of solving the German problem. Instead, the Soviets stopped removing machinery from East Germany and began instead to utilize the skilled German manpower to produce finished goods in their zone, goods they then shipped to the Soviet Union. On May 3, 1946, meanwhile, General Clay unilaterally informed the Russians that they could expect no more reparations from the Western zones. Later that year at Stuttgart, Secretary Byrnes gave a highly publicized speech in which he announced that Germany must develop exports in order to become self-sustaining. Byrnes said the Germans should be given primary responsibility for running their domestic affairs and allowed to increase their industrial productivity (policies Clay had already been putting into practice), and emphasized that the American presence in Central Europe would not be withdrawn.
Solutions acceptable to both East and West were hard to find in 1946. This impasse applied especially to the atomic bomb. Whatever the limitations on the size and number of nuclear weapons in the first half decade of the atomic age, it was obvious that the growth potential was almost unlimited. Control of the bomb was crucial to the future welfare of the world. How to get the weapon under control was not so clear, On the one hand, the United States had a monopoly, something no nation would ever give up lightly. On the other hand, all the atomic scientists agreed that it was only a question of time before the Soviets developed the bomb. If the Russians got atomic weapons on their own, and if they continued to be treated as just another military weapon to be used by sovereign nations as they saw fit, the world would live in continual terror.
What made a solution especially difficult was the postwar atmosphere in which America and Russia made their proposals for atomic control. There were almost daily crises in Germany among the occupying powers. Tension dominated the Middle East, reaching its peak in Iran and Turkey. According to the terms of a 1942 occupation treaty, the Russians were required to withdraw their forces from Iran six months after the end of the war. They refused to do so because Stalin wanted oil concessions from the Iranian government. To apply pressure, the Russians supported a revolt in northern Iran. As the crisis moved forward, Byrnes sent a strong note (March 6, 1946) to Moscow demanding immediate Russian withdrawal. Three weeks later Iran and the U.S.S.R. announced that the Soviet occupation troops would be pulled out of northern Iran and that a joint Iranian-Soviet oil company would be formed by treaty, subject to ratification by the Persian Parliament. On May 6 the Russians withdrew; early in 1947 the Parliament rejected the oil company treaty.
The reaction to this major Soviet diplomatic defeat illustrated how far apart the former allies had drifted. To the Russians it seemed only fair that they be allowed to participate in the exploitation of Iranian oil. To be forced out showed that the West was up to its old tricks of encircling the Soviet Union and doing everything it could to keep it weak. To the Americans the crisis proved once again that the Soviets were bent on world conquest.
Churchill interpreted these and other events for the benefit of the American public on March 5, 1946, in a speech at Fulton, Missouri, with Truman on the platform beside him. Churchill declared that “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” He wanted to lift that curtain, to liberate East Europe, and to hold the Russians back elsewhere, as in Iran and Turkey. He suggested that a fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples, operating outside the United Nations, should do it. The tool would be the atomic bomb, which Churchill said, “God has willed” to the United States alone.
Churchill’s speech did not help American efforts, then being undertaken, to find an acceptable solution to international control of the bomb. Stalin reacted with the full fury of a wounded animal at bay. He compared Churchill and his “friends” in America to Hitler, charging that like Hitler they held a racial theory that proposed world rule for the English-speaking peoples. Stalin said Churchill’s speech was “a call to war with the Soviet Union.” He reminded the West that twice in the recent past Germany had attacked Russia through East European countries that had “governments inimical to the Soviet Union.” Within three weeks of Churchill’s iron curtain speech, the Soviets rejected membership in the World Bank and in the International Monetary Fund, announced the start of a new five-year plan designed to make Russia self-sufficient in the event of another war, built up the pressure on Iran, and mounted an intense ideological effort to eliminate all Western influences within the, Soviet Union.
But Stalin was no more ready for war than Truman, as events in Turkey showed. The issue there was control of the Dardanelles. In August 1946, Stalin demanded of the Turks equal partnership in running the straits. This participation was an ancient Russian dream. But Under Secretary of State Dean Acheson interpreted the demand as a Soviet attempt to dominate Turkey, threaten Greece, and intimidate the remainder of the Middle East. He advised a showdown. Truman agreed: “We might as well find out whether the Russians were bent on world conquest now as in five years or ten years.” The United States told the Turks to stand firm. To back them up, Truman sent the most modern American aircraft carrier through the straits. The Soviets backed down.
In this atmosphere of threat and counterthreat, bluff and counterbluff, achieving workable international control of atomic weapons was almost hopeless. Still, the Americans tried. On March 16, 1946, the United States released a plan, the Acheson-Lilienthal proposal, which called for international control to be reached through a series of stages. The proposal was an honest attempt to avoid the horrors of a world in which Russia and the United States rattled nuclear-tipped sabers at each other. It did not, however, satisfy the Soviets, for during the transitional stages the Acheson-Lilienthal proposal reserved to the United States full control of its own bombs. “Should there be a breakdown in the plan at any time during the transition,” Acheson declared, “we shall be in a favorable position with regard to atomic weapons.” The Soviets, meanwhile, would not be allowed to develop their own bomb.
Given the tension in Soviet-American relations, it was unthinkable that the United States could go further in sharing the bomb; it was equally unthinkable that the Russians could accept. The Soviet counterproposal called for an end to the production and use of atomic weapons and insisted on the destruction within three months of all existing stocks of atomic bombs. Only then would they discuss international control.
No way could be found out of the impasse. In April 1946, Truman appointed Bernard Baruch, financier and adviser to presidents, as the American delegate to the UN Atomic Energy Commission. Baruch thought the Acheson-Lilienthal proposal had gone much too far because it contained no reference to Russia’s veto power. Baruch wanted majority rule at all stages, which meant that the Soviets could not veto the use of the bomb against themselves if violations were discovered, nor could they prevent inspection teams roaming at will through their country. It could hardly have been expected that they would accept Baruch’s proposal.
Baruch, however, insisted upon the elimination of the veto. He was backed by Army Chief of Staff Eisenhower, who advised him that only through effective international control of atomic energy could there be any hope of preventing atomic war, but who also insisted that national security required that methods of such control be tested and proven before the United States gave up its monopoly. “If we enter too hurriedly into an international agreement to abolish all atomic weapons,” Eisenhower pointed out, “we may find ourselves in the position of having no restraining means in the world capable of effective action if a great power violates the agreement.” He warned that the Russians might deliberately avoid the use of atomic weapons and undertake aggression with other—but equally decisive—weapons.
This was the central dilemma for the United States in its efforts to get some international control of atomic energy before it was too late, an issue more important by far than the veto or inspection. The question Eisenhower raised was straightforward enough: If the United States gave up the atomic bomb, how could it stop the Red Army? The only alternatives to American possession of the bomb were to build up a mass army or get the Russians to demobilize, and in 1946 there was little chance of doing either one. Both sides made various concessions, but neither would back down on the crucial points. America insisted on retaining the bomb until it was satisfied with the effectiveness of international control, and the Russians would not give up the veto.
The only hope of eliminating the bomb, which in the political atmosphere of 1946 was never very great, was gone. America would not give up its monopoly as long as the Red Army was intact and the Russians would never demobilize as long as the Americans had the bomb. In a relatively short period of time the Russians would have their own bomb; eventually the United States would be maintaining a large standing army. An arms race unprecedented in the world’s history would be under way. This would force a qualitative change in American foreign policy and in international relations generally. Every crisis would strike terror into the hearts of people everywhere. There would be no security, no defense. Much of American foreign policy after Baruch’s proposal has been a search for a viable method of using the bomb to achieve overseas goals. The bomb had already failed America once, in East Europe, where the Soviets refused to behave. How effectively it could be used elsewhere remained to be seen. Russian probes toward Iran and Turkey had been met and stopped. By the end of 1946 spheres of influence in Europe were clearly drawn, but elsewhere what belonged to whom was uncertain. Perhaps, as with Iran and Turkey, there would have to be a confrontation at each point around the world until the line was drawn and accepted everywhere. The Cold War would meanwhile continue to be fought under the shadow of the mushroom-shaped cloud.
Strangely, the world was being drawn into two spheres of influence: the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. But there was also a new global club, one which caused the world deep worry. It was the Atomic Club. Where would nuclear proliferation end? How many countries would get the bomb? Nobody knew for sure. What was certain, however, was that the genie was out of the bottle.