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Cold War Overview, 1945 to 1991


Hitler's dream of European borders dictated by him and dominated by a racially purified Germany died with him at the close of the war in Europe in 1945. Mussolini's dream of a fascist state and a new Roman Empire died when he was ousted from power in 1943. Plans by Japan's imperial militarists for a co-prosperity empire also ended in 1945.

In the Soviet Union, collective rule and group-think called Stalinism ruled. Dissidents were doing prison labor, but the government that Stalin led was supported by a sense of patriotism among a majority of Russians.

A victorious Russian military had spread Soviet power or at least influence into Bulgaria, Albania, Hungary, Czecho-Slovakia and definitely power into Poland and zones of military occupation in Austria and Germany. Stalin had enough prestige among his fellow Communist Party members that his powers were considered by some to be dictatorial. He conformed to the old party ideology that saw the war that had just ended a product of class warfare. He saw Hitler as having been funded by capitalists, and he believed that a new economic crisis, an inevitable part of capitalist development, would be coming in a couple of decades. And with it, he believed, capitalist reactionaries would lead an attack on people who believed in overthrowing capitalism. He believed the Soviet Union would face another war in something like twenty years (around 1965).

Moving our attention to China, it emerged from World War II divided between Communist forces and government forces led by Chiang Kai-shek. The Communists held territory in northern China and had gained prestige and power among their fellow Chinese by fighting Japan's invasion. (Japanese militarists described the purpose of their invasion as eliminating China's communists, an endeavor Chiang Kai-shek had also participated in, disrupted by the Japanese.)

In China at the end of the war the Communists had something like two million men in militia units and another 900,000 or more in regular troop units. The war had traumatized the Chinese and had created a passion for peace and stability, but in 1946 civil war erupted Chiang's regime and the Communists. The Communists appealed to poor peasants – China's majority – and to students, workers and others looking for change. Chiang Kai-shek's government was described as a "landlord's government." By late 1948, Chiang's troops were suffering from demoralization and lack of discipline. Corruption was siphoning off aide from the United States. Communist forces were using weapons taken from the Japanese and using US weapons captured from Chiang's forces. By August 1948, Chiang's currency had inflated to 67 times what it had been in January. In December, Communist forces moved into Beijing unopposed. By February 1949 Chiang's currency had inflated 32,000 times. The US had given Chiang two billion dollars in military aid since 1945, but it was unwilling and unprepared to send troops to try to rescue Chiang's regime. In the summer of 1949, Communist forces swept southward across the Yangtzei River. Soon Chiang's forces were fleeing to Taiwan. They rounded up and executed those they saw as enemies. In Beijing, on 1 October 1949, Mao Zedung announced the founding of the People's Republic of China. In December, he was in Moscow having discussions with Stalin about the possibility of an attack on China by what he called "the imperialist countries."

In the United States were many who feared an expanding Communism, expanding because it had an appeal to people here and there that could be exploited and because Communists were eager to force the Soviet system on the unwilling. Communists winning domination in Czechoslovakia in 1948 had added to the fear. So too did Soviets able to get the the Atomic bomb, announced in 1949, accomplished it was believed by Communist spies, added to what became known as the Red Scare. Some anti-Communists believed that Communists coming to power in China had origins in the Soviet Union – Moscow to be exact.

The Korean War added to the anti-Communism. Korea should never have divided. But it December 1943, while the Roosevelt administration was is a cooperation mood with its ally the Soviet Union there had been too little appreciation of Stalinist dangers. The Koreans did not need to be occupied. They had an organized and substantial resistance movement against Japanese rule. They had their own government in exile in China – at Chongqing. In losing the war, the Japanese would be pulling out of Korea as they would Burma and other lands they occupied. At the end of the war, in the northern half of Korea, Stalin supported as a local power a regime led by a famous guerrilla fighter and friend of the Soviet Union, Kim il-sung. The West and the United Nations wanted elections to unit the northern and southern halves of Korea. Kim il-sung and the Soviet Union were not cooperative. Kim il-sung tried to unite Korea under his rule, and he had Stalin's support. China joined the Communist side in Korea, to stop the advance of imperialists on neighboring territory.

Americans fighting and dying in Korea contributed to an animosity toward Communists. There were those who thought it best to extend the war into China. There was talk of unleashing Chiang. Instead, President Truman relieved General MacArthur of his command. The front in Korea came to a standstill, with trench and bunker warfare. A compromise was reached and the fighting ended, but between the two Koreas the war was never officially ended. Into the 21st century, North and South Korea are still at war.

By the end of the Korean War the Soviet Union was viewed by most Americans as the biggest problem in the world, as an implacable enemy in the place of the fascists defeated in World War Two, and as a threat to their way of life. Many saw Communists as confused idealists, gullible, or power-hungry opportunists. They saw the Soviet Union as an empire rather than a union of republics, as a vast prison (to be reinforced in 1961 when the Berlin Wall went up). Indeed, in the Soviet Union an ideological campaign had begun in 1946 by Stalin's underling, David Zhdanov, beginning what would be called the "Era of Zhdanov." In the West the government's ideological controls would be called totalitarianism. Its aim was to hold to or demonstrate the superiority of socialism over capitalism in all fields. It attacked Soviet writers, composers, economists, historians, and scientists whose work appeared to someone like Zhdanov to have been influenced by capitalist societies. Some researchers would estimate that in 1953 labor camps in the Soviet Union, mainly Siberia, had a total prison population of 1,727,970 in 1953.

In the United States, little sympathy was extended to the Soviet Union for its losses during World War II. The Soviet Union had lost about 40 million people during the war, 8.7 million of these combat deaths, the non-combat deaths caused by starvation in the Siege of Leningrad, conditions as prisoners under the Germans, famine and disease. Much of the Soviet Union's industry had been destroyed, and Stalin was eager to rebuild his country's industrial strength for the sake of security in what he saw as the coming challenge by reactionary capitalists. His rebuilding included compelling Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe to supply the Soviet Union with machinery and raw materials, and it included an economy geared to heavy industry, long hours and hard work with little reward in the form of consumer goods. For Americans it was a picture of a society with much attraction.

In the United States, peace with the Communists was impossible. It was believed that Communist aggression would continue, that either the Communists would have to be defeated or "freedom" loving people would become enslaved.

Then, on 5 March 1953, Stalin died, and new developments would follow (besides the end of the Korean War four months later). Soviet Communism would show itself to be less than as inherently Stalinist as some in the US had come to believe it to be.

CONTINUE READING: The Eisenhower Years

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.