Was the Cold War inevitable after World War II?

Categories: Cold WarWorld War 2

Unless you believe in predeterminism, nothing is inevitable in history. However, some things have a higher probability of happening than others, and this is what this study addresses. It looks at possibilities other than the outcome which occurred and explores why these scenarios did not prevail. It then looks at the actual unfolding of events and the deeper history which led to the Cold War emerging between 1945 and 1947/48. It analyses the factors which inclined the world towards ideological polarisation and evaluates what was the most significant.

Several outcomes other than an armed, hostile stand-off could have emerged at the end of World War II. There might have been a hot war, with the vast armies of the Soviet Union pitched against the equally powerful armed might of the Western Allies. Alternatively, there could have been electoral successes and popular uprisings by communist and other radical left-wing movements across Western Europe leading to the coming to power of regimes less willing to take a hostile stance towards the USSR.

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Thirdly, elections in Eastern Europe might have resulted in Soviet influence stopping at her own borders and hence no Iron Curtain “stretching from Stettin to Trieste” (Thomas, 1988, 703). Finally, a more cooperative, consensual and less suspicious approach to diplomacy would possibly have achieved a mutually acceptable rapprochement.

Apart from some hot-headed, dyed-in-the-wool anti-communists, such as General George Patton, there was little desire to start up another war against erstwhile allies. For the politicians of the democracies, initiating a new war would have been political suicide.

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For Stalin, there was little to be gained since he was in control of sufficient east European territory to create a series of buffer states to protect the Soviet Union (Leffler, 1986). Additionally, the USA had developed and demonstrated the use of the atomic bomb, something which the Russians had not yet mastered. Equally significantly, despite Churchill’s extreme wariness about Soviet post-war intentions in Europe, President Roosevelt was less concerned with ideas of Russian expansionism and he was by far the senior Western partner. He was willing to treat with Stalin, seeing the winning of the war as much more important than manoeuvring for later anti-communist geostrategic advantage (Offner, 1999). Despite his death a month before victory in Europe, his cooperative legacy prevailed long enough to make a shooting war with the USSR a non-starter (van Alstein, 2009).

The prospect of a much more left-leaning political Europe was a genuine possibility. In Britain, the Labour Party won an overwhelming victory in the 1945 election, while in Italy there was a very real possibility of the Communist Party at the least being a participant in Italy’s first post-war government. Determined that Italy must remain in the Western camp, President Truman authorised the covert transfer of vast amounts of cash to the anti-communist Christian Democrat Party which proved significant in overcoming the initial broad support for the anti-fascist parties of the left (Mistry, 2014). Even more decisive was the decision to finance and arm the right-wing government in Greece during the civil war which began in 1946. Truman’s support came at a crucial moment when it looked like communist forces might prevail. Significantly Stalin chose not to back the insurgents, honouring the agreements reached at Moscow in 1944 and the Yalta Conference of 1945 over spheres of influence in Europe. Similar US aid was extended to Turkey to prevent her entering into any agreement with Russia over defence and access to the Mediterranean. Had things turned out differently in those countries, it might well have strengthened the already powerful communist movements in France and Belgium (Gaddis, 2005; Edwards, 1989).

The scenario of elections in the eastern European nations occupied by Soviet forces at the end of the war producing non-communist governments was not impossible, although neither was it likely. Western historians have largely seen the Russians imposing puppet communist governments upon unwilling populaces, but in each country there were strong indigenous communist movements (Theoharis, 1976; Joll, 1973). Once in power, however, each regime refused to submit itself for re-election. This was not wholly because of Russian force of arms, but also because these regimes knew that their hold upon power depended on remaining within the Soviet bloc and thus they acquiesced in becoming client states. For Stalin they provided a buffer against what he still saw as a threat from the West to their very existence (Starobin, 1969). After experiencing foreign intervention in the 1917-22 civil war, international ostracism in the subsequent interwar years, and a brutal, genocidal invasion by Germany, it is not altogether surprising that Stalin was somewhat wary.

It has been argued by numerous revisionist historians that, in the immediate post-war years, Stalin was seeking rapprochement with the West (Zubok & Pleshakov, 1996; Roberts, 1994; Starobin, 1969). This seems persuasive since the Soviet Union was in desperate need of a period of retrenchment after the terrible depredations of the life-or-death struggle against Nazi invasion which it had just endured. There was a shield-wall of buffer states in place, Stalin was both unwilling and unable to expand any further, no attempt was made to incorporate Finland or Austria into the communist orbit despite having ample opportunity to do so, both the Western Allies and the USSR had demobilised the great bulk of their armed forces by 1948, and the West had been given free rein to impose its preferred political set-up in Italy, Greece and Turkey (Hobsbawm, 1994). Why then did there not emerge a period of international tensionless coexistence?

There seems to be two principal reasons for this: the presidency of Harry Truman, and Western (especially American) ideological intransigence. Truman was a truculent, belligerent individual who had little experience of foreign affairs when he became president upon Roosevelt’s death. He had a very black-and-white, us-and-them view of the world, and despite his lack of knowledge of political belief-systems beyond the USA, was viscerally anti-communist (Costigliola, 2010). Alan Offner described him as “a parochial nationalist who lacked the leadership to move America away from conflict and towards détente” (1999, 150), seeing his aggressive posturing towards the USSR as a major factor causing Stalin to adopt more hard-line, domineering policies in the Russian zone of influence in eastern Europe.

It was during his speech announcing US aid to Turkey and Greece that Truman first enunciated his Policy of Containment towards the Soviet Union.

[T]otalitarian regimes imposed upon free peoples, by direct or indirect aggression, undermine the foundations of international peace and hence the security of the United States… It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures. (Edwards, 1989, 131)

Truman was setting up the USA as the world’s policeman, and in the process was creating the basis of American policy towards the USSR for the next forty years. The Soviet Union was to be treated as an implacable foe, as the ideological antithesis of what America believed it stood for, and as a state intent on undermining democracy and Western civilisation (Roberts, 1991). As such it was an existential threat which must be opposed and contained everywhere and at all times. Some historians have argued that “Containment” was the wrong term for American/Western aims during the Cold War – the goal was in fact “the collapse and destruction of the Soviet state and system and its displacement by liberal democratic institutions, whatever the rhetoric about co-existence.” (Kimball, 2001, 352) Truman began this policy, marking a distinct break with the consensual approach of his predecessor (Costigliola, 2010).

Obsessive anti-communism so permeated successive high-level American thinking that almost all foreign policy was seen in terms of defeating the Russians and their evil doctrines. Joseph Siracusa described the USA developing “an increasingly rigid ideological view of the world – anti-communist, anti-socialist, anti-leftist – that came to rival that of communism.” (Siracusa, 2001, 154) The roots of this preoccupation can be traced to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, not so much the events or even the consequences for Russia, but rather the self-proclaimed global mission of fomenting world insurrection against the established order, the propertied classes and liberal capitalism. However, during the interwar years, the USSR was not viewed as a dangerously powerful state, and when Stalin promulgated the policy of “socialism in one country” there was even less reason to be proactively hostile. Ideological animosity was still intense, but action was confined to trade embargoes and a refusal to recognise the Soviet Union. It was only in 1933 that Roosevelt extended recognition when the threat of fascism appeared much greater than that of communism (Roberts, 1991).

As well as the personality and worldview of Truman, events between 1945 and 1948 progressively and cumulatively increased the polarisation and ratcheted up hostility. Among these were the abandonment by Britain and the USA of their commitment to making the Germans pay substantial reparations, something which had been agreed at Yalta and was seen as important and necessary by Russia which had suffered far worse infrastructural and economic damage than the Western Allies. Choosing the option of rehabilitation over repression (Thomas, 1988), the British and Americans merged their occupations areas into the Bizone, then created the Trizone by adding the French sector, introducing a single currency for the whole area. This established a framework for an integrated administrative economic area in the Western sectors, a development advanced greatly in 1947 by the Marshall Plan (Lewkowicz, 2008). The Marshall Plan was not the simple gesture of a generous United States unselfishly seeking to help a debilitated Europe recover. The aim was to create an Open-Door policy within a free-trade Europe where the USA could freely sell its surplus production and invest its huge capital reserves. Money which was offered as aid came with strings attached. What could be bought and from whom was carefully prescribed, the greater part being American-made goods, while the supra-national decision-making body administering the Plan was dominated by the Americans (Roberts, 1994).

The Russians, initially welcoming the Plan, quickly recognised its underlying economic and political disadvantages. They saw it creating a design for Europe which would work to the benefit of the USA within an ideologically unacceptable framework, and declined to participate. The creation of the Trizone and its further binding together with Marshall Aid was only one step away from the implementation of political integration. Following the Berlin Blockade, this duly happened in May 1949 with the declaration of the Federal Republic of Germany. Five months later the German Democratic Republic was established (Lewkowicz, 2008; Roberts, 1994).

The crystallisation of a bipolar Europe was mirrored in the Far East. As part of a deal struck with Stalin, the Americans were given free rein to restructure both Japan and the Philippines which they turned into compliant pro-American, pro-capitalist states. Korea was divided between the two blocs, while Vietnam was prevented from unifying as one nation under Ho Chi Minh and his nationalist-communist liberation movement by the Americans. Against all the anti-imperial promises of Roosevelt, Truman encouraged the French to return as colonial masters in the South rather than let the country be united under a left-wing regime (Theoharis, 1976; Herring, 1986). Effectively, the USA was engaging in an economic, ideological and military-backed expansionist policy while accusing the USSR of that self-same activity.

Post-war international relations were always going to tend towards the development of two rival camps, but that is not sufficient to explain the intense hostility which emerged. In early 1945, cooperation was still the dominant paradigm among the Allies, not just to defeat the Axis, but for reasons of future security and peace. Ideological differences were seen more as domestic matters than major shapers of international relations. Soviet expansionism and her claim to zones of influence were regarded largely as conventional Russian nationalist ambitions, and were matched by the Western Allies’ own zones of influence. However, coinciding with the advent of Truman, suspicions and misreadings of the other side’s intentions emerged. Fearing the worst, both began acting upon their misconceived views of the other and started behaving in ways that confirmed their opponents preconceptions, creating self-fulfilling prophecies about what the other would do (van Alstein, 2009).

It is not surprising that Stalin acted out of paranoia and suspicion as his domestic record in the late 1920s and 1930s testifies, but Truman was his ideological counterpart in his misreading of Russian intentions and his doggedly anti-communist certainty. William Fulbright summed up the emerging ideological mind-set which would dominate US foreign-policy thinking for four decades and which was the most important factor in creating the reality of the Cold War:

Like medieval theologians we had a philosophy that explained everything to us in advance, and everything that did not fit could be readily identified as a fraud or a lie or an illusion… The perniciousness of the anti-Communist ideology arises not from any patent falsehood but from its distortion and simplification of reality, from its universalization and its elevation to the status of a revealed truth. (Fulbright, 1972, 43)

It was not inevitability which led to the Cold War, but inflexibility.


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Zubok, Vladislav, and Constantine Pleshakov. Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War: From Stalin to Khrushchev. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Updated: Feb 23, 2021
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Was the Cold War inevitable after World War II?. (2019, Aug 19). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/was-the-cold-war-inevitable-after-world-war-ii-essay

Was the Cold War inevitable after World War II? essay
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