In spring 1945, as World War II wound down in Europe, a historic encounter took place between U.S. and Soviet troops in Germany. Up until that time, the Americans and Soviets had been allies in the war but had not actually fought together. Now the two forces prepared to meet as they moved into Germany, pressing in on the Nazis from both west and east.
As the U.S. Army advanced eastward, it sent small patrols ahead of the main force to search for Soviet troops. Lieutenant Albert L. Kotzebue, a 21-year-old officer from Texas, led one such patrol. On April 25, as his men approached the Elbe River near the German city of Torgau, they spotted a Soviet patrol on the opposite bank. Shouting and waving their arms, they caught the Soviet soldiers’ attention. The men on the other side screamed, “Americanski, Americanski,” pointing and waving back. Lieutenant Kotzebue found a small boat near the shore and made his way across the river. The Soviet and U.S. soldiers greeted each other warmly.
The red star and the hammer and sickle were symbols of the Soviet Union. The star stood for the Communist Party. The hammer and sickle represented Soviet workers. The hammer was for industrial workers and the sickle was for agricultural workers. These symbols were featured on the Soviet flag and on propaganda designed to win support for Soviet communism.
Several such meetings took place along the Elbe. Later, the senior commanders of the two armies exchanged more formal visits. Photographers recorded the historic occasion, capturing an image of a GI and a Soviet soldier shaking hands. Working together, the Allies would soon bring an end to the war in Europe. That would be an event, noted President Harry Truman, “for which all the American people, all the British people and all the Soviet people have toiled and prayed so long.” Furthermore, the friendly meetings on the Elbe suggested that an ongoing partnership between the United States and the Soviet Union was possible.
However, the days of U.S. and Soviet soldiers hugging and shaking hands would not last. Before long, the United States and the Soviet Union would engage in a grim struggle for world power known as the Cold Warm[Cold War: the hostile but nonviolent struggle for power between the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as their respective allies, from the end of World War II to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991] . As one momentous global conflict ended, another was about to begin. The two countries would soon become bitter enemies.
Forming an Uneasy Peace
During the war, the United States and the USSR formed an alliance based on mutual interest. Although they had differences, the two nations set these aside to focus on the shared goal of defeating Germany. The differences resurfaced, however, as the war ended and the Allies began to plan for the postwar era.
A Wartime Alliance Begins to Erode In February 1945, Franklin Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill met in the Soviet city of Yalta for the Yalta Conference [Yalta Conference: held in February 1945 in the Soviet city of Yalta, a conference of the main Allied leaders—U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt, British prime minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet premier Joseph Stalin—to plan the future of post–World War II Europe] . In mostly amicable talks, they agreed to collaborate in shaping postwar Europe. They decided to divide Germany into four occupation zones, each controlled by a different Allied country. They also declared their support for self-government and free elections in Eastern Europe. Roosevelt returned from Yalta with hope that the wartime allies could maintain friendly relations. Soon, however, that relationship began to weaken.
In July, with Germany defeated, the Allied leaders met again in Potsdam, near Berlin. Harry S. Truman now represented the United States, having become president after FDR’s death three months earlier. Churchill, later replaced by new prime minister Clement Attlee, and Stalin also attended. At the Potsdam Conference[Potsdam Conference: in July and August 1945 in the German city of Potsdam, a conference of the main Allied leaders—U.S. president Harry S. Truman, British prime minister Winston Churchill and later his successor Clement Atlee, and Soviet premier Joseph Stalin—to finalize post-World War II plans for Europe] , the Allies finalized their postwar plans for Germany, including the division of Berlin into occupation zones.
The mood at Potsdam was tense. During the conference, Truman learned that the United States had tested its first atomic bomb. He hinted to Stalin that the United States had a powerful new weapon, but he did not name it. This fueled Stalin’s distrust of the United States. Truman also felt wary of Stalin. The Soviet army still occupied much of Eastern Europe, and Truman was suspicious of Soviet intentions. The Soviet leader had promised to allow free elections in Eastern Europe but had not yet fulfilled that promise. In fact, in Poland the Soviets had helped rig elections to ensure a communist win.
Truman and Stalin clearly held very different visions of postwar Europe. Security concerns drove many of Stalin’s decisions. Germany had attacked the Soviet Union in two world wars, using Poland as its invasion route. Stalin wanted to create a buffer zone of friendly communist states to protect the USSR. Viewing control of Eastern Europe as critical to his nation’s security, he claimed the region as a Soviet sphere of influence. Truman, on the other hand, wanted to allow Eastern European nations to determine their own form of government. He believed that given free choice, they would pick democracy.
The U.S. and the USSR Count Up the Costs of War The United States and the USSR viewed Europe’s future differently in part because of their very different experiences in World War II. The USSR had suffered enormous casualties. As many as 20 million Soviet citizens died in the war, including at least 7 million soldiers. Many were killed or died of disease in German labor camps. Others starved when Nazi invasion forces stripped the Soviet countryside of crops, farm animals, and equipment and torched farms and villages. In addition, the Nazis leveled several Soviet cities, including Stalingrad and Kiev. Flying into the USSR in 1945, General Dwight D. Eisenhower noted, “I did not see a house standing between the western borders of the country and . . . Moscow.”
Soviet citizens suffered greatly during World War II. Some 20 million died. The survivors endured hunger, loss of land, and shortages of basic goods. The table shows the steady decline in availability of household goods as the war progressed. For example, in 1942 the Soviet Union produced only 10 percent as much clothing as it had in 1940.
In contrast, the United States suffered far less from the war. Approximately 290,000 U.S. soldiers died, but civilian casualties were limited to those killed or wounded at Pearl Harbor. Other than that attack, no fighting took place on U.S. soil. No cities were bombed, and no farms or factories were destroyed. In fact, the U.S. economy boomed during the war. By 1945, the United States was producing more than half of the world’s total industrial output. The United States had spent at least $320 billion financing the war, but most Americans felt the money was well spent. President Truman called it “an investment in world freedom and world peace.”
Like the rest of Europe, the Soviet Union hoped for aid to rebuild after the war. It asked the United States for a loan, but Truman, angered by Stalin’s broken promises and disregard of the Yalta agreements, decided on a “get tough” policy toward the Soviets. Shortly after Germany fell, Truman stopped all lend-lease shipments to the Soviet Union. Even American ships already traveling to the Soviet Union returned home. Stalin called this action “brutal.”
Differing Ideologies Shape the U.S. and the USSR The differences between the United States and the Soviet Union resulted from more than just wartime experiences. They also represented sharp differences in ideology, or the set of beliefs that form the basis of a political and economic system.
The U.S. system centered on a belief in democratic government and capitalist economics. In capitalism, individuals and private businesses make most of the economic decisions. Business owners decide what to produce and consumers decide what to buy. Most property, factories, and equipment are privately owned. The United States hoped to see capitalist democracy spread throughout Europe.
The USSR also hoped European countries would accept its system, which was communism. Communists regard capitalism as an unjust system that produces great social inequalities and denies the proletariat[proletariat: the working class in a society] , or working class, a fair share of society’s wealth. Communism revolves around single-party rule of politics and government control of the economy. The state owns and runs most businesses and decides what goods will be produced. Such a system is also known as a command or centrally planned economy. In this type of system, small farms are often joined together in collectives, which the state and the farmers own together. This economic arrangement is known as collectivism[collectivism: an economic system in which the people, often under supervision of the state, jointly own the means of production and distribution] .
Origins of the Cold War
By 1946, the balance of power in the world was shifting. Two global wars and the destruction of economic infrastructure had greatly weakened formerly strong countries such as Britain, France, and Germany. The United States and the Soviet Union now stood alone as leading powers in the world. Their size, economic strength, and military prowess enabled them to dominate global affairs. They became known as superpowers[superpower: a nation that is so powerful that it influences or controls less powerful states] —nations that influence or control less powerful states. Most nations chose or were forced to align with one superpower or the other. The world was dividing into two power blocs.
Tensions Rise Between Two Superpowers In February 1946, Stalin gave a speech attacking capitalism. He declared that peace was impossible as long as capitalism existed. He said that capitalist nations would always compete with one another for raw materials and markets for their products and that such conflicts would always be settled by “armed force.” War, he said, was inevitable “under the present capitalist conditions of world economic development.” He seemed to suggest that communism should replace capitalism.
George Kennan, a U.S. diplomat at the American Embassy in Moscow, studied Stalin’s speech and sent a long reply to the U.S. secretary of state. This “Long Telegram,” as it became known, helped shape U.S. foreign policy for decades to come. In it, Kennan described the Soviets as being “committed fanatically” to the belief that the U.S. system and way of life must be destroyed “if Soviet power is to be secure.” To prevent this outcome, he said, the Soviet Union must be “contained” within its present borders. After he returned to the United States, Kennan expanded on this notion in an article for a foreign policy journal. In that article, he wrote, “It is clear that . . . any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.”
Kennan later pointed out that he viewed the policy of containment[containment: after World War II, the U.S. foreign policy practice of attempting to restrict the expansion of Soviet influence around the world] —the restriction of Soviet expansion—as a political strategy, not a military one. He did not want war. He felt that in time, containment would lead to either communism’s collapse or its transformation into a milder, less hostile system.
By the time Kennan wrote his famous telegram, U.S. leaders had grown very uneasy. They feared that the USSR planned to spread communism beyond Eastern Europe to other parts of the world. These concerns deepened in March 1946, when the Soviets refused to withdraw troops from northern Iran. During the war, Britain and the Soviet Union had shared control of Iran. In refusing to leave, the Soviets ignored a 1942 agreement with Britain stating that both countries would withdraw within six months of the war’s end. This action generated the first major postwar crisis. It ended peacefully after the USSR gave in to U.S. pressure and withdrew. Tensions, however, were clearly rising.
New Nuclear Technologies Raise the Stakes for Both Sides Conflicts between nations have always prompted fears of war. In the new age of the atomic bomb, the possible effects of a superpower conflict became even more frightening. The threat of a nuclear attack compelled both countries to show restraint in their use of force, but it also fueled the race to develop nuclear weapons.
After World War II, the United States continued to test and improve its nuclear capability. In the summer of 1946, American scientists conducted tests of two atomic bombs at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands of the Pacific Ocean. Scientists studied the impact of atomic bombs on naval vessels, using a fleet of more than 90 battleships and aircraft carriers as targets. Many battleships were old; some were captured enemy ships. Nuclear testing on Bikini Atoll continued into the 1950s. For three years, the United States was the only country with an atomic bomb. But Soviet scientists were working hard to develop their own atomic weapon.
At the United Nations in 1946, presidential adviser Bernard Baruch proposed a plan for international control of atomic energy. However, the Baruch Plan failed to win Soviet support.
Turning to the United Nations to Mediate Conflicts Truman and his advisers knew the damage an atomic bomb could do, and they sought ways to control this powerful new weapon. They asked the United Nations to help limit the development and use of atomic energy[atomic energy: the power released by a nuclear reaction] , the power released by a nuclear reaction.
In June 1946, Truman sent a key adviser, Bernard Baruch, to the United Nations to explain U.S. goals to the UN Atomic Energy Commission[UN Atomic Energy Commission: a panel established by the United Nations in 1946 to propose ways to control atomic energy and restrict the development of nuclear weapons]. He told the panel that the United States wanted the United Nations to enact strict controls on raw materials used in bomb making and a ban on the making of any future bombs. Baruch’s proposal, known as the Baruch Plan, would allow the United States to retain its small nuclear stockpile for the time being. However, it would deny the Soviet Union and other nations the right to build bombs. The plan called for UN inspections of nuclear plants and stiff sanctions on nations found making such weapons. Under the plan, UN Security Council members would not be allowed to use their veto power to prevent UN sanctions.
The Baruch Plan prompted strong opposition from the Soviet Union. Soviet delegate Andrei Gromyko asked why the United States should be allowed to keep its atomic bombs while denying the Soviet Union the right to develop its own weapons. He declared that further talks on international control of atomic weapons could take place only after the United States destroyed all of its atomic weapons. Until then, he refused to discuss the terms of the Baruch Plan. He also declared that the Soviet Union would not give up its veto power in the Security Council. Because neither side would budge, this early effort at nuclear arms control came to an end