The year 1945 marked the end of European world dominance. In the sixteenth century, Europeans established colonies around the globe. By the nineteenth century, they had turned much of the world into a European Empire. By 1945, however, both the power and the self-confidence on which Europe’s world-wide empires had been built were completely shattered. Two world wars and Nazi Germany’s savagery reduced the continent to the second rank of powers, and real power shifted to the United States and the Soviet Union. (It was, of course, ironic that these two states were, in many ways, created by Western Europe. The United States had been a British colony, and Russia became a European power largely through borrowing heavily from Europe.)
The new power relationship created a new rivalry. The two superpowers divided the world between them, competing for every possible advantage, whether it was in politics, economics, science, or even sports. This competition was regulated, however, in a way that Europe’s conflicts had never been. First, there were only two superpowers. Each watched the other jealously; each had the power to annihilate the other. The United States became the first and only country to use nuclear weapons in war, when it obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the summer of 1945. The Soviet Union exploded its first atomic weapon in 1949, and in 1957, it became the first country to launch a satellite, called Sputnik, into space. Sputnik’s launch announced the arrival of a new world, as thereafter both the Soviet Union and the United States were able to put nuclear weapons onto missiles that could strike any point on the globe. The world soon entered the grips of a new strategic vision called M.A.D., or Mutual Assured Destruction. Also called “the balance of terror,” the theory was that each side’s nuclear arsenal checked the other, with the result that both sides now had to be cautious on security matters.
Although the US-Soviet competition was fierce, both sides’ need for security ensured their minimal cooperation in a new international institution, the United Nations. Created in 1945 by the Treaty of San Francisco, the United Nations Organization was meant to address the weaknesses that had been so obvious in the League of Nations. Where the League had no enforcement power, the United Nations Organization had a Security Council that could use force to keep the peace. The lessons of Munich had been learned well. The Security Council originally had 11 members, five of which were permanent. (Since 1965, the council has had 15 members.) The permanent members—the United States, Soviet Union, China, France, and the United Kingdom—each held a veto on the council. The other members are elected to the council for two-year terms. With the two superpowers sitting in the Security Council, it was virtually assured that no fundamental threat to post-war arrangements could arise. Hence, the balance between the US and the Soviet Union was essential for keeping revisionist powers in line.
The post-war situation leaves us with a fundamental paradox: both sides competed fiercely with each other, while also needing each other to maintain the rules of the game. We can understand the general rules by considering Poland and Germany. For the Soviets Poland’s fate was non-negotiable. Not only had the Soviets liberated the country, but it was also an historic invasion route into the Russian heartland. Both Napoleon and Hitler had traversed Poland to strike deep into Russia, with the most recent attack leaving behind 20 million dead. For its part, the United States also had an historic interest in Poland. Woodrow Wilson had insisted on an independent Poland after World War I, and the country was carved out of both Polish and German territories. The United States also hosted many Polish immigrants, who were deeply concerned about the fate of their homeland. Moreover, at the level of policy, a democratic Poland would be less likely to follow Soviet orders. Hence, both general historical situation and the strategic realities guaranteed the two sides would be at loggerheads.
On no country was the superpower conflict written more indelibly than Germany. Germany had invaded the Soviet Union and the Communist government was determined to prevent another such attack. A long-term Soviet occupation of German soil was, therefore, inevitable. The Unites States, for its part, was tired of coming to Europe to end Europe’s wars and wanted to ensure that Germany became a stable, prosperous, democratic, and peaceful state. (It was believed, of course, that these things went together.) Also convenient from the American point of view was that a democratic Germany would be less likely to follow Soviet orders. Overall, therefore, both ideology and security concerns guaranteed not only a partition of Europe in general but also Germany specifically. Ironically, however, the fact of partition exacerbated the basic tension. The two powers peered suspiciously at each other from their respective positions on the border, each waiting for a surprise attack from the other. That both sides had nuclear weapons after 1950 only intensified the mutual suspicion.
Against this backdrop we can begin to consider Cold War’s nature and history. The basic problem of the Cold War was its status as a zero-sum game. The Soviet Union and the Unites States had few common interests, beyond defeating Nazi Germany. After V-E Day two countries with radically different economic systems, political systems, and security concerns now confronted each other. Europe was divided in half, with the Soviet Union setting up a host of client states in the east. Still, although there were many crises after 1945 between the two powers, none of them degenerated into war, as every weapon short of open hostilities between the two superpowers was put to use. For example, in 1947 the Soviets’ desire for absolute security led them to support insurgencies in Greece and Turkey, and the United States began to send money to both governments in response. In 1948, there was a Soviet-sponsored coup in Czechoslovakia, which put that country firmly behind the iron curtain. Also in 1948, the Soviet Union blocked allied access to West Berlin. These heavy-handed tactics unnerved Western Europe, which led to the development of the mutual defense alliances called NATO and the Warsaw Pact.
So who is to blame for this situation? It has been fashionable for some time among scholars in Europe and the United States to confidently affix blame to one side or the other. Left-wing academics claim that United States was at fault. Right-wing academics blame the Soviets. The arguments between the two sides can be lots of fun. However, as was the case with our discussion of World War I, the blame game is unhelpful, since it obscures the fundamental role of national interest in all states’ behavior. Friends and enemies are determined by the strategic situation. There were, for example, deep tensions between all the allies during and after the war. Great Britain and France both had interests different from the United States and the Soviet Union, which created problems right through the Cold War’s end. The situation was, of course, worse between the Soviet Union and the United States, who had almost no common interests before the war; it was only Nazi Germany that united them, and after the German defeat, no common vision united the two sides.
Having set the general context, I will now consider the problem of the Cold War through two conflicts, the Cold War in Germany and the “hot” war in Korea, since these events shed light not only on the basic situation I have outlined, but also point to tensions that affected world politics from the 60s through the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991.
Germany was a problem even in defeat, because of the war’s tremendous destruction and dislocation. Initially, the problems were largely practical. How was one to manage an area that had been so thoroughly devastated? Germany’s big cities were almost completely destroyed. In the case of Dresden, for example, which had been one of Europe’s most beautiful cities before the war, 95% of all the city’s buildings were mostly or completely destroyed. Seven million Germans also died in the war, with a full 25% of the generation that had been born in 1924 killed. Without young men, how was the country to rebuild? There was also a massive refugee problem, as some 10 million Germans were sent to Germany from Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania, and Russia. And then there were also millions of non-German refugees, many of them Jews, whom the Allies had put in camps in Germany for processing. The Jewish refugees often wanted to go to the United States, though the Americans would not take them. And getting them to Israel was problem best put off to another time, since other questions beckoned. Where were all these people to be housed? How would they be fed? (In one of history’s great ironies, many of the Jewish refugees settled in Germany, because they were initially not allowed to leave the country.) In short, Germany had become the victorious allies’ problem.
The problem of defeating Germany turned into the problem of occupying it. Soviet, American, British, and French troops divided what was left of Germany into four zones of occupation. This division had been planned during a series of conferences that the Allies held during the war, and the various negotiations point directly to the Cold War. On January 14, 1943, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met in Casablanca and announced the Allied policy of unconditional surrender. This war was not to end like the last one. In October 1943, the foreign ministers of the various Allies met to discuss Austria’s fate, which they decided would remain an independent state. They also announced that an Advisory Commission would be set up to coordinate post-war policies and to try war criminals. In November and December of 1943 Roosevelt, Churchill, and Josef Stalin met in Teheran, where they agreed on Poland’s future borders, with the so-called Curzon Line marking the border between Poland and the Soviet Union, and the Oder-Neisse line the new border between Germany and Poland. (Poland, as a result, moved about 200 miles to the west.) In January 1944, the Advisory Commission decided on three post-war zones of occupation.
In February 1945, another conference was held at Yalta that essentially finalized the post-war picture. Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt agreed that Poland would come under Soviet domination. Some people, later, argued that Roosevelt and Churchill had betrayed Poland. This charge was unfair, since no other outcome was possible. The Soviets had troops in Poland, and that fact was not going to change. It was also agreed at this conference that Germany would be partitioned, though an Allied council was set up to manage the occupation. The Allies asked that a French zone be added, but the Soviets rejected the request, since they did not believe the French had earned one. The French zone of occupation was, however, carved out of the existing British and American ones. It was agreed that Berlin would be jointly administered by the Allies. In addition, it was also agreed that all the liberated populations should be allowed to choose their own governments. This was, of course, a joke, since the Soviet Union was not going to allow elections in any country that it deemed essential to its security.
The Yalta Conference set the stage for the ultimate post-war conference, even though the major political players had changed by then. On April 12, 1945, President Roosevelt died and was succeeded by his Vice President Harry S. Truman. (The “S” stood for nothing. Truman was never given a middle name, and he added the initial, because he thought it made his name sound better.) In July 1945, Clement Attlee became Prime Minister of England, after the British people made his Labour party the majority in Parliament. Hence, when the three major powers met in Potsdam from July 17 until August 2, 1945, only Stalin remained from the original negotiators. Now, however, the problems of the post-war divergence in interests loomed. The Potsdam agreement represented nothing more than the most minimal consensus that could be achieved under the circumstances. It was agreed that Germany would be considered an economic unit, and that the Allied Control Commission would oversee future German governments. These points were meaningless, of course, as their application depended on whose troops were in control. The only policies on which all were in agreement were the final drawing of the Oder-Neisse line and the permanent removal of Germans in Eastern Europe. Nonetheless, these things would have happened anyway, since the Soviets controlled the East and had no desire to encourage German irredentism. (The Soviets also had old German communities that lived on the Volga. These “Volga” Germans had come to Russia in the eighteenth century at Catherine II’s invitation. They no longer had a strong connection to German culture and, in fact, no longer spoke German, but the Soviets sent them to Siberia anyway.)
The United States and the Soviet Union had few mutual interests, and this is why the post-war settlement was so minimal. In order to understand the gap between the two powers, we need to look back to the summer of 1945, which was when the new Cold War realities first appeared. On August 6 and 9, the United States used nuclear weapons on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The atomic bombs used in these attacks were the direct result of the Manhattan Project, a super-secret research program led by the American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. (Ironically, perhaps, Oppenheimer’s father was a German immigrant, and Oppenheimer himself had received his PhD in physics at the University of Göttingen.) The Manhattan Project began officially in 1942, but its origins dated to 1939, when the German-Jewish émigré physicist Albert Einstein warned President Roosevelt that German physics was advanced enough to build a nuclear weapon. Stalin knew of the program by 1943, thanks to his network of spies in the United States. In response, he also threw significant resources into an atomic research program, and when the Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb in 1949, the danger that one side could annihilate the other became the central backdrop to the competition between the two superpowers.
The Cold War’s intellectual foundations were built between 1946 and 1947. During this time, both sides maneuvered to extend their political control as far across Europe as possible. This scramble for influence convinced each side that the other was an enemy, and in 1946, both Truman and Stalin gave hard-line speeches that established the mutual incompatibility of their respective systems. The next year, the Soviet Union set up a series of militarized satellite states, whose existence worried both the United States and the other Western powers. The reactions in the west were severe. In March 1946, for example, former Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave his famous “Iron Curtain” Speech in the United States, in which he argued that the Soviet Union had established its hegemony over Eastern Europe by dropping an “Iron Curtain” that extended from Stettin to Trieste. In the United States the key reaction was the so-called “Long Telegram,” an 8000-word report written by George Kennan, an American diplomat who worked in Moscow. Kennan argued in this note that the Soviets would only understand force and the only way to combat them was with equal force at their point of expansion. Kennan’s ideas gave birth to the policy of “Containment,” which was fundamental to American foreign policy until 1991. The idea was that the US would use money and troops at whatever point the Soviets expanded. The US would not attack the Soviet Union but would combat the spread of its influence point by point.
The first clear policy to emerge from Containment was the so-called Truman Doctrine, which called for the US to support any government that was menaced by Communism. On March 12, 1947, President Truman offered the governments in Greece and Turkey over $400 million in aid to prevent the spread of Communism there. Greece had been fighting since 1944 against a Communist insurgency that was being funded by Yugoslavia, while the Turkish government had been under pressure from Soviet activity in the Mediterranean. The massive aid prevented both governments from falling, and henceforth money would be the United States’ most significant weapon. The next great policy to emerge from Containment was the Marshall Plan. On June 5, 1947, Secretary of State George C. Marshall gave a speech at Harvard University that outlined massive foreign aid plan for Europe. All the nations of Europe, including the Soviet Union and its satellite states, were invited to apply for the funds. In the end, the U.S. disbursed $13 billion dollars over the next four years for the European reconstruction effort, and the result was a powerful economic recovery in the west, as by 1951 industrial output in Europe had hit prewar levels. Things were different in the east, as the Soviet Union refused to apply for the funds and forbade its satellites from doing so as well. It saw both the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine as capitalist plots to interfere in its zone of authority. The Soviets responded in January 1949 by founding an economic development program called Comecon, to which all its satellites had to belong.
American attitudes toward the Soviets were no less paranoid, which accelerated the great division between the two. The Communist coup in Czechoslovakia (1948) and Mao Zedong’s declaration of a Communist Chinese state on October 1, 1949 transformed US concern into paranoia, and this had effects on Europe, for it accelerated the US policy of creating a separate German state. Already on January 1, 1948 the United Kingdom and the United States merged their two zones of occupation into one economic unit, giving the new entity the catchy name Bizonia. In March the French merged their zone into Bizonia, and the Germans received control of daily administration. By June of 1948, the Allies were beginning to talk of an independent West Germany, and this state was essentially created on June 18, 1948 with the issuance of a new currency, the Deutsche Mark. The moribund post-war German economy sprang to life almost immediately, a moment that marked the start of an almost two-decades-long economic recovery. The creation of the Deutsche Mark was, however, a clear violation of the war-time agreement to treat Germany as an economic unit. The Soviet Union responded by trying to push the Allies out of Berlin and on June 24 announced that the four-power administration had ended. A blockade of West Berlin was the next logical step. In addition, the Soviets walked out of the Berlin Commission and did not return until after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
The Western powers refused to be pushed out of Berlin, and an awkward non-war ensued. The US could not shoot its way to Berlin, since the Soviets had seventeen divisions in Eastern Europe to the US’s four. (During the blockade the Soviets would bring their troop strength to forty divisions. The US increased its commitment to eight, and added three bomber squadrons.) An idea came up for an airlift to supply the city. On July 1, 1948 the United States and the United Kingdom committed to feed the city by air. Berlin needed about 4,500 tons of food per day to survive. That July the Allies shipped an average of 2,226 tons of food per day. In August the average increased to 3,830 tons. By October the number was up to 4,760 tons. This contest was a test of wills, and the US won by showing both its resolve and old-fashioned American pluck. In order to impress on the Soviets how serious they were, the Americans planned and executed a special “Easter Parade” in April 1949. From noon on Saturday until noon on Easter Sunday American planes flew 13,000 tons of supplies into Berlin and made certain that the Soviets knew about it. This show of western resolve and an Allied embargo on Eastern European products brought the blockade to an end by May 12, 1949. The post-war division of Germany was set for the next forty years.
Post-war tensions, mutual provocations, and growing paranoia extended the US-Soviet split through the rest of Europe. The result was the creation of two new defensive alliances, each headed by a superpower. On April 4, 1949, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Italy, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Iceland, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, and France founded the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which held that “An armed attack on one shall be construed as an armed attack on all.” West Germany, Greece, and Turkey joined the alliance later. The eastern states responded on May 1, 1955, with the Warsaw Pact Treaty, which organized a common defense against the West. The treaty included the People's Republic of Albania, the People's Republic of Bulgaria, the Hungarian People's Republic, the German Democratic Republic, the Polish People's Republic, the Rumanian People's Republic, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and the Czechoslovak Republic. These two alliances faced each other down in Europe until the Warsaw Pact was dissolved in 1991. NATO still exists, though its role in the world remains unclear.
Europe’s division into mutually hostile alliances paralleled Germany’s division. The former cannot be understood without the latter. In Germany, the years 1945 to 1949 saw a slow rebuilding of the political party system that had been destroyed by the Nazi era. In 1946, the CDU (Christian Democratic Union) was founded. The FDP (Free Democratic Party) appeared in 1948. Meanwhile, the SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany) and the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) returned from exile. On May 23, 1949, the western German parties met in a conference to promulgate the Germany’s Basic Law (Grundgesetz), and on September 15, 1949, Konrad Adenauer of the CDU was elected Germany’s first post-war chancellor. This new state then rapidly gained international legitimacy by tying itself to the west. In 1950, it became part of the European Coal and Steel Community, the ancestor to today’s EU. In 1952, it joined the European Defense Community, which was the Continental antecedent to NATO. In 1954, West Germany joined NATO. And on May 5, 1955, the Federal Republic of Germany declared itself a sovereign state.
Accompanying these political changes was a great economic revival. In 1955, the Federal Republic of Germany’s gross domestic product exceeded that of all Germany in 1936. Average real wages had already reached pre-war levels in 1950. In that year, Germany’s industrial growth rate was 25%. In 1951, it was still a stunning 18%. By 1960, overall industrial production was 25-times what it had been in 1950. By 1962, West Germany’s total foreign trade was $25.4 billion, which ranked it second in the world. This tremendous rise in production was due to a number of reasons. First, the Marshall Plan gave Germany $4 billion, which it used to rebuild its devastated infrastructure. Second, the Korean War (1950-53) increased demand for German products. Third, the war had not fully destroyed Germany’s industrial plant, since so much of it had been moved underground. Finally, the ten million refugees were immediately absorbed into an economy that was desperately short of labor, which helped to keep labor costs low. When Konrad Adenauer resigned in 1963, Germany was a stable, prosperous, and democratic state.
East Germany’s history was quite different. Free political parties were not welcome there. On April 21, 1946, the KPD and the SPD were forcibly merged into the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany), a party that existed only to follow Soviet orders. Other parties were allowed to exist, but suffered constant harassment. On October 7, 1949, the Democratic Republic of Germany was founded in direct response to the appearance of a German state in the west. Another dictatorship had appeared in German soil. For all its political limitations, however, the new GDR was the jewel in the Soviet Bloc. Eastern Germany had a long industrial tradition, and its optics and weapons were always the best in the east. Nonetheless, the East German economy also had severe handicaps. First, the Soviets spent the first few years after the war removing all the industrial equipment that was undamaged. Unlike its sibling state, East Germany really had to start from rock bottom. Second, the GDR was not allowed to accept Marshall Plan funds, which slowed any future recovery. Finally, the East German economy remained centralized and state-planned. As a result, by 1960, the East German economy was lagging well behind the FRG in both general wealth and overall productivity. By 1989, the East German economy no longer belonged to the first world.
The picture I have just painted of German history is one of general stability within the superpower conflict. Although both sides were suspicious of each other, they had more to gain by avoiding war in Europe than in starting one. This new situation helped Europe avoid another war, but it also shift the US-Soviet competition to other areas, especially Asia. In 1950, for example, the conflict that everyone feared would start in Europe broke out halfway around the globe in Korea, when North Korea launched an unprovoked attack on South Korea. Korea had been a victim of a brutal Japanese invasion and occupation during the Second World War. During the war, the Allies agreed that Korea would be freed, and peninsula-wide elections would be held. This never happened, since the Soviets occupied the North and set up an undemocratic puppet state.
On August 10, 1945, the United States unilaterally decided to make the south an independent state with its capital in Seoul. This maneuver irritated the Soviets, the Chinese—who had recently become Communist—and the Communist government in the North. On June 25, 1950, the Communist North shocked the world by invading the capitalist south, calculating that the world would do nothing in response to their attack. In doing so, however, the North Koreans surprised their Soviet and Chinese sponsors, and this created an opening for the west. (There is evidence that Josef Stalin knew of the invasion plan and approved of it, but he did not know that it would be launched so soon.)
On June 27, 1950, UN Security Council called for a cease-fire and requested that its member states provide assistance to the beleaguered South. It was here that the North’s secrecy cost it dearly, for the Soviets were at that point boycotting the UN Security Council meetings to protest mainland China’s exclusion from the UN. Taiwan had been occupying China’s seat, since the revolution. Hence, when the Security Council called for a vote, the Soviets were not there to veto it. This mistake would never be repeated. Nonetheless, on the same day, President Truman ordered US forces into Korea. Together with a smattering of allies, the US forces pushed the North’s army back not only to the 38th parallel, but also to the North Korean border with China. However, as American forces advanced to the Yalu River, the border between North Korea and China, China was forced to respond. On October 26, 1950, Chinese forces crossed the Yalu River basin, and with Soviet military aid, pushed the allies back to the 38th parallel. On July 27, 1953, the two sides signed an armistice. A peace treaty has yet to be signed.
After three years of fighting and 3 million people dead—including 140,000 Americans—the war ended with a rigidly patrolled status quo ante bellum. Nonetheless, although nothing fundamental had changed in Korea, the war had worldwide effects. Since both the Soviet Union and Communist China were associated with this war, Communism came to be seen by many states as a world-wide menace. The effects were dramatic. First, the Korean War and the Berlin Crisis convinced many Europeans that the only way for NATO to be able to stand up to the Soviet Union was if Germany were to rearm. Given Germany’s recent behavior was quite a conceptual shift. By 1955, however, Germany had its first post-war military and was a member of NATO.
Second, the fear of Communist aggression pushed many states to seek collective security arrangements with the United States that were modeled on the NATO treaty. On September 1, 1951, the United States, Australia and New Zealand signed the ANZUS pact, which committed each to the defense of the others. This pact was in force until 1986, when opposition to nuclear weapons in New Zealand led the US to suspend its responsibilities under the treaty toward that state. On September 8, 1954, SEATO (Southeast Asian Treaty Organization) was formed. This treaty committed the Unites States to joint security arrangements with Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Republic of the Philippines, and Thailand. Pakistan withdrew from the organization in 1968. France ceased providing financial support in 1975, and the organization formally ended operations in 1977. On February 4, 1955, what became known as CENTO (Central Treaty Organization) was formed. Its history is complicated. It was originally composed of Britain, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and Iraq. In 1956, the US became an associate member. In 1958, Iraq withdrew from the group after a coup, and the group’s headquarters were moved to Ankara. It became inactive after the withdrawal of Turkey, Pakistan, and Iran in 1979.
By the end of the 1950s, the Cold War was in full swing. Two nuclear-armed superpowers competed for influence, acquiring allies as best they could to prevent the other side from getting to them. Much of the world was carved up into treaty alliances that made the post-war world ever more rigid and tense, and the world found itself in a situation that mirrored the pre-World War I arrangements in Europe. All it might have taken to spark another Great War was another futile act of stupidity in some overlooked part of the world. As we will see in the lecture on the end of the Cold War, there were many futile acts of stupidity, but none of them led to war. That this never happened is probably due to the “balance of terror” that the superpower’s nuclear arsenals created. Neither side had any incentive to try for major changes in the world’s security order, since the other side could always blow up the world in response. This situation constrained both powers, but it also guaranteed that their great power game would be played out in less developed parts of the globe. The results did not lead to a general conflagration, but were often a bloody disaster for the people actually involved.