How and why did the Cold War begin?

Cold War: The dramatic turn in Western attitudes towards the USSR is caused by two events in 1948 - the coup d'état in Czechoslovakia and the beginning of the Berlin blockade.

How and why did the Cold War begin?
How and why did the Cold War begin? Photo: Wikimedia

By May 8, 1945, the three allies - the United States (US), the United Kingdom, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) - had the common goal of defeating Nazi Germany. But what to do next: what should be the future development of Europe, and how should the relationship between liberal democracies and the Soviet superpower be shaped?


The Great Alliance - the United Kingdom, the United States, and the USSR - could only exist as a common enemy. After the defeat of Nazi Germany, ideological contradictions were too great to agree on the future of Europe.

The biggest controversy between the former allies was about the future of the Central European and Balkan countries - the US and Great Britain were aimed at strengthening the democratic system and the USSR was about establishing Soviet regimes.

Already in the first months after the war, the Soviet Army's occupied countries began with an initially covert but later revealed Sovietization policy. USSR policy was unacceptable to lead British and US politicians. However, in the first years after the war, active anti-politics lacked public support.

The dramatic turn in Western attitudes towards the USSR is caused by two events in 1948 - the coup d'état in Czechoslovakia and the beginning of the Berlin blockade. The anti-expansionist policy of the USSR is becoming popular. A series of decisions - the establishment of the Federal Republic of Germany, the establishment of NATO, the approval of the Marshall Plan - strengthen the unity of the Western democratic countries. Meanwhile, with the support of the USSR, the local communists are closing their power in the countries occupied by the Red Army. Two hostile blocks have formed and the Cold War begins.

The limits of the old diplomacy

Traditionally in Europe, the new order of international relations, after major military conflicts, was determined by the victorious powers in holding a peace conference. As the Second World War drew to a close, the Allies followed the tradition. At the end of 1943 and early 1945, the leaders of the three leading Allied powers - Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin - met at the Tehran and Yalta conferences, respectively.

On the one hand, the talks were conducted in the spirit of 19th-century "big game" diplomacy, redistributing spheres of influence and deciding on the future of countries without the involvement of the nations themselves. Churchill and Stalin, for example, agreed to share their influence in the Balkans using a sticky note. On the leaflet, Churchill had listed the Balkans, showing the percentage of influence over the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom, but Stalin approved the offer with a big blue check.

However, unlike previous conflicts, World War II was not just a superpower clash. It was a war of ideologies, with the carriers of two ideologies - liberalism and communism - uniting to destroy the third one, National Socialism. And as the common enemy shrank, the contradictions became more acute. If the United States and the United Kingdom wanted to see a free and democratic Europe, then how does it develop behind the Soviet Iron Curtain? And if Stalin was hoping for a communist victory in the world, then the socialist revolution was to take place not only in Berlin but also in Paris, London, and New York.

Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin.
For the time being, allies - Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin - were in Yalta in February 1945. Photo: Wikimedia

Hardened old forged diplomats were able to rewrite the map of Europe to their degree of dislike and disorganization in the course of the talks, but there was an agreement whose formal recognition would mean the moral bankruptcy of the leaders of the countries involved. Nobody was going to argue that Germany and its allies deserve punishment. By contrast, changing one hostile dictatorship to another was too blatantly contrary to the political values ​​of the United States and the United Kingdom. Similarly, in Stalin's view, major deviations from the conqueror would mean surrendering to the "reaction" and denigrating the victims of the Red Army and the Soviet people. In addition, several countries were victims of Nazism (or, as in the case of the Baltic States and Poland, Nazism, and Communism), whose exile governments had every right to regain their lost sovereignty.

In Tehran and Yalta, an agreement was reached on very specific issues, mostly punitive measures for the loss. But the conceptual agreement on the future of Europe failed for the reasons mentioned above. For example, Stalin agreed to sign the Declaration on the Liberation of Europe, which provided for democratic elections in all European countries, while making sure that the text of the declaration allowed a wide margin of interpretation.

In July 1945, the former Vice President Harry Truman became President of Roosevelt, but Churchill was replaced a few days after the conference by the new Prime Minister Clement Utley, whose Labor Party had just won a surprising victory in the Parliament ) the leaders of the great powers met again in Potsdam. Once again, there was no consensus on the future of Europe, with negotiators paying much more attention to negotiating a war against Japan. A final agreement on the future of Europe had to be reached at the next conference, which it did not.

Potsdam Conference
Potsdam Conference: In a bid to win, Labor Clement Etley replaces the lost Winston Churchill, with Harry Truman replacing the recently deceased US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Joseph Stalin remains the only one of the founders of the great Alliance to negotiate the future of Europe. Photo: Wikimedia

In search of hope

By the end of 1945, Europe was devastated, hungry and tired, but there was little hope of seeing the huge piles of rubble. In US domestic politics, voices calling for Europe to leave and leave it alone with its problems became louder. And most people in the US were keen to support such an idea. If Europe were left alone, where would Europeans look?

During the first post-war period, public opinion in Western Europe was positive towards the Soviet Union. Europeans viewed Stalin and the Red Army as liberators of fascism and Nazism, and not only did the communist parties succeed in record elections in Italy and France but also for the first time gained significant representation in Denmark, Norway, Belgium, and so on. in the parliaments of democratic countries.

In a devastated and hunger-ridden Europe, promises of a better future for communism seemed tempting to many. Looking east, for a moment it even seemed that Stalin, in the best of his conscience, could live up to his promise of democracy in the countries occupied by the Red Army. In 1945 and 1946 elections were held in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania, where other leftist parties, agrarian parties, and liberals could challenge local communist parties. In none of these countries did the Communists win a majority in parliament, and in all four countries, the head of government was not a communist. As Stalin himself had said, the bourgeois revolution unfinished in 1848 was concluded in these countries, thus a reasonable path to progress. Perhaps '' Soviet democracy '' is a workable idea?

Milan after the bombing attack.
Milan after the bombing attack. Photo: Wikimedia

Sovietization and salami tactics

While Western society thought of the Soviet Union as a respectable ally, and even created hope in propaganda and press coverage, leading politicians and diplomats had a very different picture. Although the three major conferences were held in a friendly atmosphere, Churchill, Roosevelt, Truman and the accompanying diplomats did not cherish the illusions of Stalin. Western governments received detailed intelligence on events in the "liberated" countries. For the time being, a yet-to-be-hidden Sovietization had begun by local communist groups trained during the war in the USSR.

The Hungarian Communist leader attributed the Sovietization method used to the everyday term "salami tactics". The communists, like a piece of salami sausage, will separate all oppositional elements piece by piece until only the communists and their supporters remain in power. The first victims were old, collaborative elite and nationalist parties. This was followed by moderate conservatives and liberals. Finally, all kinds of socialists were subject to communist dictation. Those excluded from the political process were, at best, expected to be completely excluded from public life or exile, but at worst, to death. Communists with willing politicians joined forces on the '' homeland rescue fronts '', or common election lists, which ruled the countries concerned until the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

The homeland, of course, had to be rescued from "fascism" in which the Communists accused their opponents. While in the West many were willing to believe the Communist story of the hidden fascists, diplomats and politicians were very aware of what was happening in those countries. And in response to the events, the idea of ​​at least curbing Soviet expansion and preventing continental Europe from falling into the hands of Communists began to emerge. Similarly, a series of new diplomatic tensions in Greece, Turkey, and Iran showed that Stalin's ambitions were not confined to Western Europe.

Lowering the Iron Curtain and 'Democrats' against 'Imperialists'

By early 1946, it was clear to any serious international relations analyst that the United States was the only country that could confront the USSR militarily and economically. However, public opinion in the United States was still negative about active foreign policy. In private, Truman had warned Stalin several times, including pointing to an existing and later demonstrating a new super-weapon, the atomic bomb. But without public support, Truman's mandate for more active action in Europe was limited.

To weigh public opinion in favor of more active politics, in March 1946 the Truman administration helped organize a Churchill guest lecture at Westminster College, Missouri. Out of government, Churchill was able to express a non-diplomatic and direct view of developments in Eastern Europe. In his lecture, Churchill declared that an "iron curtain" had fallen over Europe from the Baltic to the Adriatic Sea, behind which the Communists were destroying democracy. The speech caused a great stir - for the first time the USSR and Stalin received such sharp public criticism from an ally's top politician.

Several Truman public criticisms of Soviet politics soon followed and were finally formulated in Truman Doctrine the following year. Doctrine predicted that the United States would support human aspirations for freedom anywhere in the world.

The USSR did not owe an answer, declaring Soviet propagandist Andrei Zhdanov that the world was divided into "imperialist" and "democratic" camps. But after the Truman doctrine was published under the leadership of the USSR, Europe's leading communist parties merged under a new umbrella organization, the Communist Information Bureau, or Kominform. The role of Kominform was to coordinate the activities of the Communist parties and gradually began to take shape in the capitalist West.

Churchill and Truman.
Churchill and Truman agree that if the United States and Western European countries do not unite, communism will take over the whole of Europe. Photo: Wikimedia

Breaking point

Mutual insults and declarations by former Allies did not yet mean open conflict. The ultimate breakdown required a diplomatic crisis, and 1948 brought two. At the beginning of the year, Czechoslovakia remained the only country behind the "Iron Curtain" in which communists had not completely taken over. President Benedict was not only beloved in Czechoslovakia himself but also highly respected and popular in the West. There was no "salami tactic" against Bennett applying the Fascist tag. He had spent the war as head of the Czechoslovak exile government in Britain, participating in the war against Nazi Germany as one of the Allies. But after the war, Benes had done his best to maintain good relations with the USSR and not cause the slightest suspicion of endangering Soviet interests.

It was not possible to end Sovietization in Czechoslovakia in the usual way. As a result, the local Communist Party, with the support of Moscow, decided to take a radical step: on February 21, 1948, a communist coup took place in Czechoslovakia. A few days later the government was overthrown and local communists could proudly announce the victory of the revolution.

Such an outright seizure of power and the overthrow of a respected ally leader shocked the international community. The coup was criticized by almost every prominent Western politician outside the communist parties. Similarly, members of the Western Communist parties protested en masse in protest, and they never repeated the high results achieved immediately after the war. More importantly, events in Czechoslovakia finally weighed on US public opinion in favor of Truman's political course, with the majority of voters ready for the first time to support US economic and military aid to Europe. Changes in sentiment allowed Congress to approve the plan proposed by General George Marshall for European economic support.

The coup prompted France, Britain, and the United States to seek faster solutions to Germany's further development without the involvement of the USSR. Stalin was angry with the adoption of new decisions without the USSR's approval, and on June 24, 1948, the so-called blockade of Berlin began. The Red Army blocked the supply of supplies from France, Britain, and the United States via land-based occupation zones of three countries in Berlin. Stalin called for the recent monetary reform to be lifted to lift the blockade. The Western Allies refused to obey Stalin's demands, and in the following years, Berlin was supplied by an air bridge.

Berliners look at a US transport aircraft.
Berliners look at a US transport aircraft supplying Berlin during the blockade. Photo: Wikimedia

Stalin's blockade plan turned out to be exactly the opposite. The image of the USSR and the communist movement suffered even more in the world, but the Western Allies became even closer. On April 4, 1949, 12 states - the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Portugal - signed a treaty establishing a new transatlantic military union. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, was born, a military alliance whose main task was to prevent further Soviet aggression. The founding of NATO was a clear message from Western democracies of a united stance against Soviet politics. The remnants of the last World War II Alliance had disappeared as former Allies turned into enemies.

A few months later, the USSR announced a successful nuclear bomb test. By the time the new weapon fell into Soviet hands, the balance of power between the West and the East had leveled out in technical news. Analysts on both sides soon concluded that using a new weapon in a war would mean mutually guaranteed destruction. An open war between the West and the East would cost too much. The Cold War had begun.