World History 2 237 - 14.1.1 The Superpowers Divided

In the summer of 1945, the world looked much different from the way it had five years before. Of all the great powers, only the United States had been relatively unaffected by World War II. Its territory and national infrastructure remained intact, its economy was strong, and its civilian population had gone unharmed. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), while badly bloodied, had also emerged relatively whole; its immense size and population had spared it the scale of destruction suffered by the rest of Europe. Britain, though pounded by German air raids, had escaped invasion, but it had been severely weakened by the war and could no longer be the world leader it had been. It was about to be superseded by the United States and the Soviet Union, whose ideological differences shaped the postwar world.

Postwar Goals

The United States and the Soviet Union each saw themselves as the rightful leader of the world emerging from the ashes of the war. Although they had united to defeat Hitler, their deep-seated differences now returned to the fore. For the United States, the ideal world was one in which democratically governed nations would coexist peacefully, enjoying economic prosperity thanks to capitalistic endeavors. In the Soviet Union’s vision of the future, communism would lead the world’s countries to a peaceful, prosperous future, and it would never again fear invasion from the lands to its west. The latter goal was the reason Stalin insisted on establishing satellite states in Eastern Europe, countries the Soviet Union would control by installing communist, pro-Soviet governments within them.

At the Moscow Conference of 1944, which U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt did not attend, Prime Minister Winston Churchill agreed to let Stalin install Soviet-allied communist parties to control the governments of Romania and Bulgaria, which had been German allies during the war. In exchange, Stalin promised to leave control of the Balkans to the British. By the time the victorious Allies met in Potsdam in the summer of 1945 to finalize plans to partition Germany and its capital city of Berlin, Churchill no longer wished Stalin to exercise so much power in Eastern Europe. He warned the new U.S. president, Harry Truman, who was unaware of what had been agreed to at the Moscow Conference, of the danger of allowing the Soviets to control the region. But Stalin then consolidated his grip on Eastern Europe by placing a pro-Soviet government in power in Poland.

In March 1946, in a speech in Fulton, Missouri, Churchill warned his audience that “an iron curtain” had cut Europe in two, trapping half the continent under Soviet domination. This division of the world into United States–allied and Soviet-allied halves characterized the Cold War, a contest for ideological, social, economic, technological, and military supremacy that lasted until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The war was “cold” because it did not include actual fighting between U.S. and Soviet forces. (A “hot” war is a conflict in which countries engage in armed conflict with one another.)

The splintering of Europe that Churchill described deepened in 1948, when a government composed of both communists and non-communists in Czechoslovakia was toppled and replaced by an all-communist government loyal to Moscow. In 1949, Hungary also came under the control of a communist party closely allied with the Soviet Union.

The chief strategy of the United States in the Cold War was containment—an effort to confine Soviet influence to Eastern Europe. Containment was first mentioned by George F. Kennan, a U.S. diplomat stationed in Moscow, in a message to the State Department known as the Long Telegram. Kennan described the Soviet government as paranoid and committed to a war against capitalism. Soviet leaders, he believed, could not be moved by reason and understood only force. Their attempts to spread communism must thus be met with strong resistance.

Link to Learning

Read the text of George Kennan’s “Long Telegram” to the U.S. Department of State.

The foreign policy goals of the Soviet Union following World War II were directly opposed to those of the United States. The USSR sought to protect itself and bolster its economy by strengthening its control over the communist states of Eastern Europe. It also encouraged communist revolution in other countries and maintained close ties with communist parties throughout the world. The Soviet Union regarded itself as the chief opponent of European and U.S. imperialism, and in this role, it supported independence movements in colonies in Asia and Africa. To the Soviet leadership, the United States was an aggressor nation bent upon world domination, and the spread of communism reduced the threat of future wars. To protect its own interests and those of its allies, the Soviet Union needed to be militarily and technologically superior.

The Truman Doctrine

The first test of U.S. resolve to counter the forces of communism came in 1947 in an unexpected place—Greece. During World War II, resistance to the German army occupying Greece had come from both supporters of the country’s Communist Party and loyalists of its monarchical government. In 1944, shortly after the withdrawal of the Germans, the occupying British forces and Prime Minister George Papandreou, who had returned from exile, jointly called for the disarmament of these resistance groups, and violence erupted. In 1946, following the triumph of monarchists in an election the Greek communists boycotted, civil war broke out. Communist forces sought the overthrow of King George II and his government (Figure 14.4). To prevent this, Britain provided the government with economic and military assistance, an extension of the aid it had given during the war. In 1947, however, Britain announced that it would no longer do so, most likely because it was experiencing economic problems.

A poster shows an overly tall man in a long white shirt, black beaded vest, red belt, white leggings and red tasseled shoes holding a sign above his head with Greek lettering. Two smaller men, one in brown clothing dropping a knife from his bloody fingers, the other dressed in a red shirt with the letters “KK” and black pants, flee from the large man, with anger and fear showing on their faces. There is text in Greek across the bottom of the poster.
Figure 14.4 This anti-communist poster encouraged Greeks to support King George II in the 1940s Greek civil war. (credit: modification of work “1946-Greece-pro-royal-poster” by Commons, Public Domain)

The events in Greece worried the U.S. government. Neighboring Turkey was regarded as the gateway to the Middle East and its crucial supplies of petroleum, upon which Western industry and transportation depended. Truman feared that, should Greece become a communist country, a communist uprising might occur in neighboring Turkey as well. This belief—that the neighbors of communist countries would in turn become communist themselves—is known as the domino theory.

Both the United Kingdom and the United States were wary of Soviet activity in this region. In 1946, the Soviet Union had demanded that Turkey allow it to take shipping through Turkish-controlled straits from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. When Turkey refused, the Soviets increased their naval presence in the Black Sea and sent troops to the Balkans. The Soviet Union backed down and withdrew its forces when the U.S. bolstered its own naval presence in the region.

The showdown in Turkey was the second time the postwar Soviet Union had found itself in conflict with its former allies. Earlier it had violated an agreement to withdraw from Iran, which it had occupied along with the British during World War II, by an agreed-upon date the British had honored. Truman now feared the Greek communists were not acting alone and that the Soviet Union was active in the country.

However, Truman was mistaken in assuming all communists acted under the direction of the Soviet Union. The communist governments of Albania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia extended aid to the Greek communists, but most evidence indicates that the Soviet Union did not. The Soviets were largely uninterested in Greece, and at the Moscow Conference of 1944, Stalin had given control of Greece to Britain in exchange for the concessions that allowed him to decide the fate of Romania and Bulgaria. There is little to suggest that Stalin violated this agreement about Greece—until the United States got involved. Once the fate of Greece became of interest to Truman, Stalin took note of it as well.

On March 12, 1947, Truman addressed Congress and requested aid for the governments of Greece and Turkey. He framed the appeal as part of the struggle against communism and argued that it was the duty of the United States to oppose “totalitarian regimes.” Congress approved his request for $400 million (approximately $5 billion in today’s money). The president’s pledge to help “free peoples” resist communist expansion, a promise that became known as the Truman Doctrine, formed the basis of U.S. foreign policy throughout the Cold War. Following the proclamation of the Truman Doctrine, Stalin channeled material support for the civil war to Greece’s communists, but covertly.

The Marshall Plan

The U.S. effort to combat the expansion of communism also led to the creation of the European Recovery Program, named the Marshall Plan for Secretary of State George C. Marshall. In 1947, Marshall called for economic assistance to rebuild postwar Europe. Realizing the attractions of communism to impoverished, war-ravaged Europeans, Congress approved the Economic Cooperation Act in 1948 to pump an eventual total of $12 billion into Europe’s economy (about $147 billion today). The funds were vital in assisting Western Europe as a whole to rebuild their infrastructure and restore their industrial capacity. Because necessary materials often needed to be purchased from the United States, aid given through the Marshall Plan also helped ensure that the U.S. economy did not slide into an economic depression now that the war had ended.

U.S. aid was offered to all European nations, including Germany and the Soviet Union. Stalin, however, rejected it and forbade Eastern Europe’s communist-governed states within the Soviet sphere of influence to accept it. Instead, the USSR proposed the Molotov Plan, which gave aid to and established trade agreements with the communist nations of Eastern Europe: Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and the Soviet zone in Germany that later became the German Democratic Republic, commonly known as East Germany. Finally, in 1949, the United States developed the Point Four Program to provide technical assistance to industrializing countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia for improving their standard of living.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax