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Was The Cold War Inevitable?

With the end of WWII, the Soviet Union and the United States confronted each other for dominance over a pile of, exhausted and chaotic countries. The historical magnitude and consequences of the Second World War were destined to cast the Soviet Union and the US in the fatal role of antagonists with no third state powerful enough to balance and relieve the acute security dilemma (China was not as powerful as the US or USSR). The enormous destruction wrought upon the Soviet Union by the German war machine in WWII was bound to produce a quest for maximum security needs. The Soviets lost nearly 9 million soldiers and more than 27 million civilians; nearly 1,710 cities and settlements, 70,000 towns and villages, and over 6 million buildings of all kinds were devastated.1 The government of any nation suffering such staggering losses would be bound to seek to take measures against any such catastrophe ever occurring again.

The Soviet Union engaged in a supreme wartime effort to conquer as much of the vital borderlands as possible. As long as this effort also served the common purpose of defeating the Axis, its implications for the future were passed over in silence or veiled with some ambiguous and face-saving formula by Roosevelt and Churchill. But as victory drew near, the necessity for suppressing the security dilemma implicit in Soviet expansion lessened (Mastny). British and American leaders began to challenge the legitimacy of Soviet activities in Eastern Europe. Between the Yalta and Potsdam conferences (February and June 1945) a critical transformation occurred in the expectations between the Soviet Union and the West. During the discussion of ways and means of reforming Europe politically in order to ensure peace in the world and in the wake of unilateral measures in Eastern Europe, the alliance fell apart.

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The ideological chasm, which until then had been concealed by the Soviet Union and disregarded or minimized by the Western nations, was too deep (Gaddis). The United States was content during the closing months of the war and the first months of the postwar period to preserve those advantages with which it was emerging from the war. Even before his death, Roosevelt had reversed himself on Germany. Instead of going forward with either the ”Morgenthau Plan” or other plans for the dismemberment of Germany, he and Churchill refused to commit themselves to Soviet proposals for Germany that would unavoidably magnify Soviet power in Europe. On the last day of the Yalta conference, a revised clause on Germany was signed. It gave the United Kingdom, the USA and the USSR supreme authority over Germany.

Between Yalta and Potsdam diplomatic sparring between East and West intensified as each side openly manoeuvred to be in a position of maximum advantage at the war’s end. Both sides were content to preserve the fiction of cooperation but neither really believed that it could afford to trust the other. However, the United States still did not have the inclination or the incentive to challenge Soviet activities in Eastern Europe because it was obviously dependent on Soviet assistance in the Far East and was still hoping that nothing would interfere with a return to normalcy. Truman lacked Roosevelt’s incentive to avoid a rupture with Stalin. Almost from the beginning, he regarded Soviet breaches of agreement as just that–breaches of the agreement. He did not need to ask whether the ideological terms and the political aims they proclaimed, meant the same in the East as in the West.

Truman could see that the consequences of Soviet actions posed difficult problems for the United States, and he was personally convinced that further concessions would only worsen rather than improve the Western position. Consequently, without adopting any consistent or purposeful course of action, Truman nevertheless refused to make any more concessions for the sake of preserving amicable relations or to concede anything that was not already within the Soviet orbit of power. As cooperation between Soviet and Western powers weakened, the relationship inevitably turned into competition and rivalry. The Soviet Union was guided by a view of history that postulated the inevitability of a hostile international environment as long as capitalist states existed.

In the first months of the postwar period, each of the great victors acted consistently with their wartime behaviour. The Soviet Union sought to consolidate its control over Eastern Europe; the British and French endeavoured to regain control over lost parts of their empires and to recover economically, and the United States began to retreat into its traditional political and military noninvolvement. This uneasy state of affairs did not last long. No one of the principal victors could act within its own sphere without its actions appearing hostile to the other powers. By its very nature, state action usually seeks to enhance the stability and security and therefore the power of the state. The accretion of power by one member can only appear threatening and therefore hostile to the other states in the system. Thus Soviet efforts to consolidate its power in Eastern Europe appeared threatening to Western Europe.

Secretary of State James Byrnes tough attitude and the hard bargaining with which he opposed Soviet designs in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe seemed to strike at the USSR’s hard-won security interests. Because of their Marxist-Leninist view of the world, the Soviet leaders were especially prone to view Anglo-American strictures as fundamentally hostile toward Russia. Their conception of security required communist governments in Eastern Europe. For the United States to challenge the legitimacy of those governments was equal to challenging the USSR’s security needs. The Soviets were paranoid that they were the only socialist state in the world and that the perils of capitalist encirclement had not disappeared with Nazi Germany. They constantly reaffirmed the thesis of capitalist ill will and hostility, by declaring that the capitalist system of world economy conceals within itself the elements of general crisis and military clashes.

Anglo-American leaders at the same time viewed Soviet actions as fundamentally hostile to Western interests. Soviet obstructionism and resistance to American demands concerning Eastern Europe prompted an unabashedly hostile response from President Truman that reflected the mood of a growing number of Americans. Failure to consult with him adequately and with his apparently conciliatory attitude toward Russia in the course of the December Foreign Ministers Meeting in Moscow, Truman bluntly ordered Byrnes to adopt a ”tough line”.5 Within six months after the war’s end, all pretence of friendship between the US and USSR was being dropped. Henceforth each side would interpret all moves as basically hostile and therefore would act accordingly.

Had Germany and Japan not been reduced to impotence by unconditional surrender or had France, Britain, and China been able to maintain control of their traditional spheres of influence, the Soviet-American confrontation might have been somewhat less stark and threatening (Leffler). Nothing is inevitable, but the leaders of that period of time couldn’t predict the future, and thus they didn’t realize what consequences their actions would have. Judging from the way the two sides acted, the Cold War was inevitable. Both sides misunderstood each other and were equally uncompromising. Their actions dragged the world into the “Coldest” of all conflicts, the Cold War.

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Was The Cold War Inevitable?. (2021, Apr 14). Retrieved May 9, 2021, from