How far do you agree that the Cold War in Europe broke out because Soviet and Western leaders misinterpreted each other’s words and actions?
The Cold War broke out in 1945 (although some have argued other years) with the Yalta and Potsdam Conferences. They were held to discuss what was to be done with the peace of Europe and how to rebuild the damage that had been caused. It was at these meetings that the Americans and Russians slowly began to mistrust one another, even though they were previously war-time allies.
During the Potsdam Conference in July/August of 1945, America declared that they had tested the first Atomic Bomb (which President Harry Truman referred to as ‘the greatest thing in history’). Stalin was suspicious as to why America had not told him previously, and after this, relations spiraled down rapidly. But it was at this time that America’s suspicions of the USSR were beginning to settle in and it was Harry Truman who later said that ‘unless Russia is faced with an iron fist and strong language another war is in the making’
Their first misinterpretation was over the issue of Poland and what was to happen to it now that the war was over. Russia had been attacked through this country on numerous occasions, including World War 1 and 2 and had lost approximately 25 million people, 700 towns destroyed and their steel industry cut by half. They were keen to dominate and occupy most of the land in order to prevent any further attacks through this country. On the other hand, Britain had gone to war over Poland and was keen for it to remain independent.
Also, there was a Polish Government who had been forced into exile at the beginning of the war and Britain was now keen for them to return to power. As for America, they became extremely suspicious of Russia’s plans and believed that Russia merely wanted to spread Communism. Unlike at the end of World War 1, they were determined not to appease Stalin as Britain had done with Hitler. It should be remembered that they did have the right to believe that Stalin only had the intentions of spreading communism through the quotation of Karl Marx. He declared that ‘We are living not merely in a state, but in a system of states and it’s inconceivable that the Soviet Republic should continue to exist for a long period side-by-side with imperialist states’.
The Warsaw Pact and Marshall Aid are other examples of how the two great powers misunderstood each other, thus causing a start of the Cold War. Western suspicions rose to a height when Stalin refused to allow Marshall Aid to be distributed to Soviet-occupied countries. As a result, the Warsaw Pact was created in retaliation. It could have actually been an attack towards the West, or Stalin trying to hold together his ‘buffer states’ and prevent them from turning to Capitalism.
There are some smaller matters that show that the Cold War was the result of misunderstandings. For example, the Long Telegram, this was written by George Kennan in February 1946. George Kennan was the USA’s Deputy Chief of Mission to the US Embassy in Moscow and in a telegram he declared that the Soviets were aggressive and suspicious and only a hard-line approach would contain Communism. It declared that ‘world communism is like a malignant parasite that feeds on diseased tissue. It [the USSR] does not take unnecessary risks. Impervious to the logic of reason. It is highly sensitive to the logic of force… thus, if the adversary [the USA] has sufficient force and makes clear his readiness to use it, he rarely has to do so’. Taking this evidence from the eyes of a Revolutionist thinker, it can be said that George Kennan was rash and presumed this with little prior knowledge.
But there were other factors which led to the beginning of the Cold War. People such as Vojtech Mastny have accused Stalin as being the sole man to cause the Cold War. He regarded Stalin’s foreign policy in Eastern Europe as the cause of the Cold War. His Red Army ‘liberated’ land, therefore claiming it to be theirs. To the USA, this looked aggressive and a determined effort at spreading World Communism.
The Berlin Blockade was the first direct attack on the West from the Soviet Union. It started when Berlin was divided into 4 parts and these 3 parts that belonged to the West were surrounded by Soviet territory. This upset and frightened Stalin as he believed that they would influence his Eastern Berlin and Germany. In rebellion, he closed of all the main routes by land, sea and road that lead into West Berlin. In response to this, America began to send in 450 aeroplanes of food and other supplies each day in order to prevent West Berlin from collapse.
The America viewed all of this as a first attack on them and so serious action was necessary. But, although it may have seemed like the Soviets wanted to starve all the West Berliners to death, he probably wanted to prevent the emergence of a separate West German state under US influence (West Berlin was improving its economy greatly and the currency had even been changed). In response to all of this, America created NATO, which was a military alliance aimed against further Soviet aggression. And so, although it was seen as the first attack, there are also underlying misunderstandings to be considered.
Some other explanations include the fact that it was simply inevitable. The end of the war left a ‘power-vacuum’ in which countries such as Eastern Europe and Germany ‘sucked’ the Powers in and so aggression would naturally occur. Louis Halle, the author of ‘The Cold War as History’ once stated that ‘the decision to eliminate German power from Europe rather than make peace was the basic cause of the Cold War’. The collapse of the Grand Alliance can also have been seen as inevitable.
During the Yalta Conference, the war-time allies spoke and they all generally agreed on matters. But by the time the Potsdam Conference came a few months later, Roosevelt had died and been replaced with Harry Truman and Winston Churchill had been replaced with George Atlee. Only Stalin remained and this meant that neither of the other powers really knew him. They became suspicious quickly and disliked everything he did. It can be said that as a result of all of this, the Grand Alliance was destined to collapse and then after that tensions rose and the Cold War began.
Another reason can be seen in the Commonwealth and other such countries that were occupied by the Powers, only in this case it was Britain, France and Portugal who suffered the ‘power-vacuum’. Many of these countries had been promised independence if they fought with their occupying country and now that the war was over they were independent and left vulnerable to Communism. The Soviet Union would naturally spread into these countries and as a result, the USA would become suspicious of the Soviet Union.
Also the fact that all the countries had suffered badly during the war (with the exception of America, who’s industry had doubled) meant that they were all desperate to regain their reputation in World Status and so felt that by gaining land would they become more powerful. And so, with many of the countries trying to rebuild their prestige, arguments and suspicion would naturally arise. The USSR had also just become a World Leader and after many years of shying away, they felt that they needed to exert their power, although this could be a much debated view and one usually take by a Traditionalist thinker.
There has been much debate over who really started the Cold War. A traditionalist thinker would say that it was the doings of the Soviet Union, whereas a Revolutionist would say that America was to blame and finally a Post-Revolutionist would say that it was the work of both Powers. A traditionalist would argue that Russia only had plans to spread Communism in an aggressive manner and Britain and the USA were only trying to be defensive. On the other hand, a Revolutionist would assert that it was the Americans who were all to blame and that they were aggressive even before the start of the Second World War.
And so in conclusion, I would say that the Cold War was a result of mainly misunderstandings but it should be remembered that there were many other reasons as to why the USA and the USSR became so suspicious of each other, for example, the fact that there was a huge power-vacuum both around the world and in Europe and the Berlin Blockade of 1948.