The Origins of the Cold War

The Cold War had its roots in World War II, when the repeated delays in opening a second front in Europe made the Russians suspicious of the Western Allies' motives. Those concerns were heightened when the United States discontinued lend‐lease aid to the Soviet Union soon after the war ended. Stalin's commitment at Yalta to allow free elections in Eastern Europe was quickly broken. To ensure “friendly states” on its western borders, the USSR supported and helped install Communist‐dominated governments in Poland, Bulgaria, and Rumania (Romania) in the spring and summer of 1945. Within a year, as Winston Churchill told an American audience, an “iron curtain” had descended across Europe, separating the “free” democratic nations of the West from the “captive” Communist nations of the East.

The containment policy and the Truman Doctrine. George Kennan, a State Department official stationed in Moscow, developed a strategy for dealing with the Soviet Union in the postwar years. In a lengthy telegram to Washington in February 1946, he outlined what became known as the containment policy. Kennan argued that while the USSR was determined to extend its influence around the world, its leaders were cautious and did not take risks. Faced with determined opposition (from the United States, for example), Kennan postulated that the Soviet Union would back down. The policy was concerned with future Soviet expansion and accepted, in effect, Russian control over Eastern Europe.

An early test of containment came in Greece and Turkey. In 1946, a civil war broke out in Greece, pitting Communist groups against the British‐supported government. At the same time, the Soviet Union was pressuring Turkey to allow it to build naval bases on its northwestern coast, thereby giving the Soviet Black Sea Fleet easy access to the Mediterranean. When Great Britain announced it no longer had the resources to help the two countries meet the threats to their independence, the United States stepped in. Truman asked Congress for $400 million in military and economic aid for Greece and Turkey in March 1947, citing the United States' obligation to back free peoples resisting control by an armed minority or outside pressures. This policy, known as the Truman Doctrine, appeared to work: the Communists were defeated in the Greek Civil War in October 1949, and the foreign aid helped strengthen the Turkish economy.

The Marshall Plan and the Berlin airlift. Two years after the end of World War II, much of Europe still lay in shambles; European countries struggled to rebuild their devastated infrastructures, and the continuing hardships people faced contributed to the growing electoral strength of the Communist parties in France and Italy. The United States recognized that bolstering the economies of the European states would not only undercut Communist influence but would also provide markets for American goods. Consequently, Secretary of State George C. Marshall announced a massive commitment of financial assistance to Europe in June 1947. Between 1948 and 1951, more than $13 billion was funneled to 16 countries through the Marshall Plan, contributing significantly to the reconstruction of Western Europe. The United States was also ready to provide help to the USSR and Eastern Europe, but the Soviet Union flatly refused to participate in the aid program.

The first direct confrontation between Russia and the West came over Germany. In 1948, Britain, France, and the United States began to merge their zones of occupation into a unified state. The Soviet Union responded by blocking all access to Berlin in June 1948. With the blockade, Stalin hoped to force the Western powers to either relinquish Berlin to the Communists or end the plan to unify West Germany. Truman avoided a direct confrontation with the USSR by ordering a massive airlift of supplies to the two million residents of West Berlin. For almost a year, British and American planes landed around the clock at Tempelhof Airport and unloaded food, clothing, and coal. The president also sent B‐29 bombers, the only planes that could carry atomic bombs, to bases in Britain as a clear warning to the Soviet Union about how far the United States was prepared to go. Seeing that the Berlin airlift could continue indefinitely, the Russians ended the blockade in May 1949.

Another factor in ending the Berlin crisis was the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty in April 1949. Under its terms, the United States, Canada, Great Britain, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Portugal, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland agreed that an attack against one country would be treated as an attack against all. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization ( NATO) was created in the following year to integrate the military forces of the member states in Europe. NATO was expanded in 1952 to include Greece and Turkey, and the admission of West Germany in 1955 caused the Soviet Union to establish a counterpart to the alliance through the Warsaw Pact.

The Cold War in Asia. In October 1949, the Communist party, led by Mao Zedong, came to power in China. The Communists had been fighting the Chinese Nationalists since the 1920s, and although the civil war ended in 1937 because of the war against Japan, the fighting between Communists and Nationalists resumed in 1946. Corruption within the administration of nationalist leader Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai‐shek) cost the Nationalists considerable popular support that even two billion dollars in American aid could not shore up. When the Nationalist government collapsed in 1949 and the Communists established the People's Republic of China, Jiang and the Nationalists retreated to the island of Formosa (Taiwan). The United States continued to recognize Jiang's party as the legitimate Chinese government until 1972. While the Communist victory sparked a debate over “who lost China,” most historians agree that there was little the United States could have done, short of providing direct military assistance to the Nationalists. Less than a year after the Communist takeover in China, the United States did commit American troops to fight Communism in Asia when North Korea invaded South Korea.

In 1948, the Korean Peninsula, which had been occupied by the Russians and the Americans since the end of World War II, was split Democratic into two separate countries — the Communist‐run People's Democratic Republic of Korea, north of the 38th parallel, and the U.S.‐supported Republic of Korea in the south. In June 1950, the North Korean army invaded South Korea. Truman brought the matter to the United Nations Security Council, which called on member states to provide South Korea with all possible aid to resist the aggression. The Security Council was able to take action because the Russian representative was not present to exercise the Soviet Union's veto. (The Russians were boycotting the Council because of the United Nations' refusal to admit the People's Republic of China.) Although 16 countries sent troops, the Korean War was largely a United States operation, loosely under U.N. auspices. The U.N. troops were under American command — first by General Douglas MacArthur and then by General Matthew Ridgeway — and about 90 percent of those troops were American. Altogether, more than 1.5 million American men and women served in Korea.

The North Koreans were successful in the early months of the war. In the fall of 1950, however, MacArthur's forces landed at Inchon behind the North Korean lines, captured Seoul, and moved north of the 38th parallel. When they advanced toward the Chinese border at the Yalu River, Chinese “volunteers” intervened (October–November 1950) and forced a general retreat to the south. By March 1951, the fighting had stabilized, and Truman was ready to negotiate a settlement to restore the pre‐invasion boundary. Wanting total victory, MacArthur opposed the settlement. He undermined the president and threatened to attack China directly, causing Truman to relieve him of his command in April 1951. Talks between North and South Korea finally began in July but dragged on for two full years. By the time a truce was signed in July 1953, more than 30,000 Americans had been killed and the truce line was pushed slightly north of the 38th parallel.