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History, The Cold War

State Department official George Kennan, Soviet expansionism, satellite nations, Soviet security, Sea of Marmara

At the end of World War II, the United States and the USSR emerged as the world’s major powers. They also became involved in the Cold War, a state of hostility (short of direct military conflict) between the two nations. The clash had deep roots, going back to the Russian Revolutions of 1917, when after the Bolshevik victory, the United States, along with Britain, France, and Japan, sent troops to Russia to support the anti-Communists. During World War II, the United States and the USSR were tenuously allied, but they disagreed on tactics and on postwar plans. After the war, relations deteriorated. The United States and the USSR had different ideologies, and they mistrusted each other. The Soviet Union feared that the United States, the leader of the capitalist world, sought the downfall of Communism. The United States felt threatened by Soviet expansionism in Europe, Asia, and the western hemisphere.

The United States and the Soviet Union disagreed over postwar policy in central and eastern Europe. The USSR wanted to demilitarize Germany to prevent another war; to control Poland to preclude any future invasion from its west; and to dominate Eastern Europe. Stalin saw Soviet domination of Eastern Europe as vital to Soviet security. Within months of the war’s end, Stalin installed pro-Soviet governments in Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania. Independent Communist takeovers in Albania and Yugoslavia provided two more “satellite nations.” Finally, the Soviets barred free elections in Poland and suppressed political opposition. In March 1946 former British prime minister Winston Churchill told a college audience in Fulton, Missouri, that a Soviet-made “Iron Curtain” had descended across Europe.

President Harry S. Truman, enraged at the USSR’s moves, at once assumed a combative stance. He believed that Soviet expansion into Poland and Eastern Europe violated national self-determination, or the right of people to choose their own form of government; betrayed democratic principles; and threatened the rest of Europe. In contrast to the USSR, the United States envisioned a united, peaceful Europe that included a prosperous Germany. Truman became an architect of American Cold War policy. So did State Department official George Kennan, then stationed in Moscow, who in 1946 warned of Soviet inflexibility. The United States, wrote Kennan, would have to use “vigilant containment” to deter the USSR’s inherent expansionist tendencies. The doctrine of containment became a principle of U.S. policy for the next several decades.

Throughout 1946 a sequence of events drew the United States and the USSR deeper into conflict. One area of conflict was defeated Germany, which had been split after the war into four zones: American, British, French, and Soviet. Stalin sealed off East Germany as a Communist state. The two countries also encountered problems beyond Europe.

In 1945 and 1946, the Soviet Union attempted to include Turkey within its sphere of influence and to gain control of the Dardanelles, the strait in Turkey connecting the Aegean Sea and the Sea of Marmara. Control of the Dardanelles would give the USSR a route from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. In response, Truman offered Turkey large-scale aid, and the two countries entered a close military and economic alliance. Meanwhile, an arms race began; each superpower rejected the other’s plans to control nuclear arms, and the United States established the Atomic Energy Commission to oversee nuclear development. Within the year, the Cold War was under way.

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