home | history

The Cold War: 1945 to 1949

Hitler's dream of European borders dictated by him and dominated by a racially purified Germany died with him in April 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, Stalin was in power and seen by Russians as having led them to victory over German aggression. The victorious Russian military had spread Soviet power into Bulgaria, Albania, Hungary, Czecho-Slovakia and overwhelmingly into Poland and zones of military occupation in Austria and Germany.

Stalin had enough prestige among his fellow Communist Party members that his powers are considered by some to have been dictatorial. He conformed to the old party "Marxist" ideology that held the war as a product of class warfare. He saw Hitler as having been funded by capitalists and as representing capitalist reaction. He believed that capitalist economic crises were inevitable and another of its crises would be coming in a couple of decades. And with it, he believed, capitalist reactionaries would again try to defend capitalism by leading an attack on socialists, that again the Soviet Union would be facing a war against the capitalist West. He told the Yugoslav communist Milovan Djilas that another war would come in twenty years or so with the anti-Communist West. He said that he believed the Soviet Union would recover by then and that he was looking forward to meeting that new war with unity among his allies. (Milovan Djilas, Conversations with Stalin, p 110-111.

Stalin angered President Truman by not living up to his promises he had made at the end of the war about Poland. For reasons of security Stalin was pursuing a heavy-handed and murderous oppression in Poland. He didn't want a hostile Poland on his border and feared, with good reason, that free elections in Poland would bring to power Poles who were critical of him and the Soviet Union.

President Truman described the Soviet Union as not really wanting peace. Truman was aware of Stalinist expectations of another economic depression in the United States, and he spoke of the Soviet Union being eager to take advantage of it to spread communism. Truman called Stalinist Romania and Bulgaria police states, and in a speech on 27 October 1945 he announced that the United States would recognize no government "imposed upon any nation by the force of any foreign power."

In February 1946, Britain's former prime minister, Winston Churchill, standing alongside Truman, gave a major address in Truman's home state, Missouri. Churchill spoke of an "iron curtain" having fallen from the city of Stettin on the Baltic Sea to the city of Triest on the Adriatic and that in front of the curtain were "Communist Fifth Columns." But Churchill said also that he was repelled by the idea of inevitability of another war. He said that "We aim at nothing but mutual assistance and collaboration with Russia." The Soviet newspaper Pravda responded to Churchill by calling him a "warmonger" and compared him to Goebbels and Hitler. Stalin used Churchill’s speech to reinforce his claim that conflict with the West was inevitable and to persuade people that a threat from the capitalist West made adherence to his policies and leadership in their interest. The idea that Stalin's policies were themselves contributing to the Soviet Union's insecurity did not appear to have any strength among the Soviet people.

In June, 1947, Truman and his new Secretary of State, George Marshall, began pushing what was to be known as the Marshall Plan. Its purpose was said to be economic cooperation among European states, to stimulate economic growth, to create hope in the place of social unrest.

Yugoslavia, Poland, and Czechoslovakia agreed to join in the U.S. plan for economic help. Stalin described the plan as a ploy by Truman. "They don't want to help us," he said. "They want to infiltrate European countries." Stalin's foreign minister, Molotov accused the Western powers of diving Europe into two hostile camps, one devoted to socialism and democracy and the other to reaction and war. The US was described as imperialist and the Marshall Plan as an attempt to revive a German industry controlled by US financiers.

In mid-April 1948, sixteen European nations signed onto the Marshall Plan. Not joining were Czechoslovakia, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and Albania — places where Communists had considerable influence. Finland did not join either, wishing to avoid antagonizing the Soviet Union.

Berlin Airlift

In June 1948 a new currency, the Deutschmark, was issued by the Western powers in their zones of occupation in the divided city of Berlin. The Soviet Union retaliated by cutting the West's access by rail and road to Berlin. They offered to drop the blockade if the Deutschmark was withdrawn. The US and Britain stood firm and on June 26 they began what was called the Berlin Airlift. C-47 transport aircraft that day took off from bases in England and western Germany and landed in West Berlin — 32 flights carrying a total of 80 tons of provisions.

Stalin did not want war. There was to be no shooting down of air transport planes flying into Berlin. By February the average daily delivery of goods by the US and Britain by airplane to West Berlin was 5,437 tons. In March it increased to 6,328 tons per day. In April this climbed to 7,845 tons per day. More tonnage of goods was being transported by air than had been delivered to West Berlin by truck, rail and barge prior to March 1948.

While the US and Britain were conducting their airlift they were considering a defense organization for Europe. US intelligence had no information telling them that the Soviet Union was preparing to march into Western Europe, but there was belief that a defensive force should be established. On 4 April 1949 five nations joined together in a defensive alliance called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Membership soon increased to twelve: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Britain and the United States. Parties to the treaty pledged their faith in "the purposes and principles" of the UN and their "desire to live in peace with all peoples and all governments." They pledged their determination "to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law" and to "seek to promote stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area."

In the Soviet Union a press campaign began describing the West as remilitarizing a hostile Germany. But Stalin expressed desire for a settlement of the crisis being played out in the Berlin Airlift. The United States began secret negotiations with the Russians: the Jessup-Malik negotiations. In May, the Soviet Union lifted its blockade and the Western powers lifted a counter-blockade. Stalin had gained nothing with his blockade, but both sides claimed victory. An open meeting between the Soviets and the Western powers took place. The closing communiqué of this meeting acknowledged that no agreement had been reached on the economic and political unity of Germany, but it did describe Germany's occupation powers as duty bound to take necessary measures which would assure a normal functioning of traffic and other communications to and from Berlin.

West Germany and East Germany

In West Germany, the Americans had been gaining respect. Chancellor Adenauer was openly associating himself with the United States, and many Germans viewed their country's future as aligned with the United States. There was still the view that people who had abandoned Germany during World War II, such as Willy Brandt, had been traitors, but admiration for fascism was dying a natural death. Leftists in West Germany were blaming wars on capitalism, and some of Germany's Social Democrats wanted more central planning, but what was coming to the fore in West Germany was a belief that the best way to recover from the war was to let the economy run freely.

Business confidence was rising in West Germany and other countries that had accepted the Marshall Plan. Agriculture was also improving, and agriculture was being revolutionized with the arrival of tractors and fertilizers from the United States. Inflation was being brought under control – except in France.

Stalin's reaction to West Germany was the creation of a rival German government in the Soviet zone of occupation. An attempt was made make the regime in the Soviet zone look democratic by creating a coalition government consisting of members of the Social Democratic Party and others who had opposed Hitler. But few Social Democrats in the Soviet sector were interested in joining such a government. So it was done in Stalinist fashion. Social Democrats were ordered to join the government. Those Social Democrats who resisted mysteriously disappeared. Some were sent to Buchenwald – a concentration camp in the Soviet zone that had been converted to Soviet uses. Some were sent to Siberia. The forced integration between the Communist Party and the Social Democrats in the Soviet zone produced what was called the Socialist Unity Party (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands) — a party subservient to Moscow.

In October 1949, the Soviet zone became the German Democratic Republic, the GDR (also called East Germany). The city of Berlin was in the middle of the GDR and East Berlin was its capital. The coercion involved was a demonstration of weakness. Hearts and minds was the source of real political strength, and it was being gained more by what the Stalinists saw as nefarious US policies rather than Stalin's defenses against fascistic capitalism.

CONTINUE READING: China, Korea and a Hot War, to 1953

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