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Was the Cold War an Inevitable Outcome of World War 2?

By Daniel Ford

[A "short essay" for King's College London. I have omitted citations, not to tempt young people into the sin of plagiarism.]

WW2 ended with Harry Truman as American president, Josef Stalin as Russian dictator, Europe in ruins, the Red Army occupying half the continent, and a rapidly disarming US with a nuclear monopoly. In such a world, an armed standoff was the inevitable outcome.

In his history of the Cold War, David Reynolds begins with the conventional wisdom that it ‘was not inevitable in 1945’—then proceeds to demonstrate the opposite case. Given the two leaders, the situation on the ground, and what they knew about one another, a confrontation was the reasonable and predictable outcome. And of the two, Stalin was the mover: even Reynolds concedes that the Soviet dictator was ‘the immediate cause of the cold war’

When Truman viewed Stalin at the end of 1945, he saw a man who six years earlier had joined with Adolf Hitler to carve up central and eastern Europe. Stalin emerged from that collaboration with his armies holding Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Bessarabia, eastern Poland, and part of Finland. After Hitler’s treachery forced him to ally with Britain and the US, Stalin maintained a cynical neutrality in Asia: his proxies demanded ‘Second Front Now!’ in the west, but he declined to provide a second front in the east until after Japan was ready to negotiate surrender. Summing up the year, the newsweekly Time devoted its final cover of 1945 to a clerkish Truman—juxtaposed with a fist clasping lighting bolts. Victory over fascism, the editors noted, had morphed into ‘the battle of the compromising democrat against the implacable Left’. The magazine characterized Stalin as ‘the most feared man of 1945’.

Meanwhile, US forces in Europe dropped from 3.5 million in May 1945 to 400,000 the following March—scarcely more numerous than the Yugoslav army of the day—and eventually to 81,000. ‘It took the Korean War ... to get the United States to rearm’. Even the nuclear deterrent was largely an illusion: at the end of 1945 ‘the national stockpile of atomic bombs was composed entirely of inadequate and deficient components of a rapidly-obsolescing design’. Not until April 1947 did production of actual bombs start again, and then they remained under civilian control.

The Russians by contrast retained powerful armed forces, now estimated at 4 million men but at the time thought to be much larger. They actively developed the militaries of the satellite nations, and they were correctly assumed to be building an atomic bomb of their own.

Postwar, Stalin annexed the eastern third of Poland and retained Finnish Karelia and the Baltic nations, thus serving notice on Britain and the US that he meant to reap the benefits of his earlier alliance with Hitler. Stalin also took part of Czechoslovakia and demanded territory from Iran, Turkey, and Denmark. Even when not annexing territory, he set about altering societies in the control of his armies: ‘the old elites were to be dispossessed, if not physically eliminated’.

Poland's Daughter

In 1946, western Germany was brought close to starvation by Stalin’s policies: annexing German farmland to Poland, sending hordes of refugees westward, and looting industry in the name of reparations. Britain instituted bread rationing for the first time, the better to send grain to Germany, causing the Manchester Guardian to publish the comforting but false information that ‘The United States, flowing with milk and honey and the rest, also is rather short of bread’.

Above all, the true nature of the man whom the British and American peoples knew as ‘Uncle Joe’ began to reveal itself in the freer postwar press. ‘Stalin’s government was, and showed every sign of continuing to be, as repressive as ever Hitler’s had been.’ Probably no westerner knew how truly murderous was Stalin’s regime, but enough was known about events in the east ‘to create deep and abiding fears throughout the rest of Europe’.

‘The Truman administration could see no inherent limits to the outward push’ by the USSR. The need for a pushback was articulated by George Kennan at the US Embassy in Moscow: Marxism-Leninism, he warned, allowed no permanent peace with capitalism; Russia would foment conflicts among the capitalist nations and, if war came, would sponsor ‘revolutionary upheavals’ within them. The US found itself obliged to lead an alliance of the parliamentary democracies—and, ‘Once an alliance forms, a counter-alliance necessarily follows’.

‘They woke up’, Viacheslav Molotov recalled, ‘only when half of Europe had passed from them’. But they did wake up, and in the summer of 1947 the journalist Walter Lippmann popularized the collision of Russian belligerence and America’s newfound assertiveness as the ‘Cold War’.

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