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COLD WAR: 1945-49 (1 of 9)

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Cold War: 1945-49

Truman and Churchill versus Stalin | Civil War in Greece, 1944-49 | Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, to 1948 | Stalin against Tito | Communism in Italy to 1948 | Politics in the United States | The Berlin Airlift, NATO and Division of Germany | The Soviet Union acquires the Bomb | Communists win China's Civil War

Harry S. Truman

Harry S. Truman

Truman and Churchill versus Stalin

At the end of World War II, the Soviet army was in parts of Germany and Austria, in Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and in Poland. At the Yalta conference in February, 1945, Josef Stalin, representing the Soviet Union, had promised "free and unfettered" elections in Poland and in the other East European countries that it occupied. Stalin feared, with good reason, that free elections in Poland would bring to power Poles who were critical of him and the Soviet Union. Stalin had been involved in the murder of Poles, including the Katyn massacre. Also, Stalin and his colleagues were mindful of Poland's history of hostility to the Bolshevik Revolution, including Poland's invasion of Soviet territory in the early 1920s, and mindful of Poland having been a corridor for invasions eastward. If Stalin saw it necessary for the sake of security to have a regime in Poland that was friendly to him and his policies it was a calculation that would prove to not work well. A democratic Poland would have been hostile to the Stalin, but it is hard to imagine Poland launching another war against the Soviet Union or contributing to another invasion of the Soviet Union.

Stalin's heavy hand in Poland was foremost in turning the United States from what had been its friendship with the Soviet Union. Just before his death in early April, President Roosevelt had been disappointed with and angered by Stalin. Stalin was giving the new administration in Washington, led by President Harry S. Truman, grounds for expressing hostility toward him. Truman and some others in Washington had in the1930s been hostile to the Soviet Union. Stalin, by his policy in Poland and his broken promises, contributed to the creation of the Cold War – with its enhanced insecurities and enhanced possibility of war.

Perhaps it was not the security of the Soviet Union that Stalin was most interested in. Stalin was interested in protecting a certain kind of Soviet Union, the kind of Soviet Union that he had created. He wanted to protect Stalinism. This was more important to him than the best of relations with the United States. Stalin still spoke of being at war with capitalism. He believed that another economic depression was coming in the capitalist economies. He had told Milovan Djilas of Yugoslavia that another war would come in twenty years or so with the anti-Communist West. He had stated his belief that the Soviet Union would recover by then, and he was looking forward to meeting that war with his brand of unity. To repeat a quote that I used in a previous chapter, Stalin had said to Djilas: "If the Slavs keep united and maintain solidarity, no one in the future will be able to move a finger against them. Not even a finger!" note8

In May, 1945, President Truman reacted to Stalin's policies in Poland by cutting off all aid to the Soviet Union, and in late August he expressed misgivings about a world dominated by rivalry between the Soviet Union and the rest of the world. As he saw it, the Soviet Union did not really want peace. Truman was aware of Stalinist expectations of another economic depression in the United States, and he spoke of the Soviet Union being eager to take advantage of it to spread communism.

Truman was not afraid of offending the Soviet Union's diplomats and was described as having used "mule driver's language" with foreign minister Molotov. Truman was impatient with talk and compromise concerning the number of non-communists in the governments of those nations occupied by the Soviet Union. He called Romania and Bulgaria police states, and in a speech on October 27, 1945, he announced that the United States would recognize no government "imposed upon any nation by the force of any foreign power."

In the U.S. Senate, the Soviet Union was under attack. Senator Burton Wheeler of Montana proclaimed that the  Soviet Union was in Eastern Europe because the United States had appeased it.  From the Senate came announcements that Soviet aggression was on the march, and there were calls for no more appeasement.

On February 9, 1946, Britain's former prime minister, Winston Churchill, standing alongside Truman, gave a major address in Truman's home state, Missouri. In the speech he said that an "iron curtain" had fallen from the city of Stettin on the Baltic Sea to the city of Triest on the Adriatic and that in front of the curtain were "Communist Fifth Columns." Churchill criticized the Soviet Union, saying:

We cannot be blind to the fact that the liberties enjoyed by individual citizens throughout the United States and throughout the British Empire are not valid in a considerable number of countries, some of which are very powerful.

But he was adamant about the talk that could be heard in the U.S. about the inevitability of another war. He said that he repelled that idea, and still more that a war was “imminent.” He added:

We British have also our twenty years Treaty of Collaboration and Mutual Assistance with Soviet Russia. I agree with Mr. Bevin, the Foreign Secretary of Great Britain, that it might well be a fifty years treaty so far as we are concerned. We aim at nothing but mutual assistance and collaboration with Russia… I have a strong admiration and regard for the valiant Russian people and for my wartime comrade, Marshall Stalin. There is deep sympathy and goodwill in Britain – and I doubt not here also – towards the peoples of all the Russias and a resolve to persevere through many differences and rebuffs in establishing lasting friendships. We understand the Russian need to be secure on her western frontiers by the removal of all possibility of German aggression. We welcome Russia to her rightful place among the leading nations of the world. We welcome her flag upon the seas. Above all, we welcome, or should welcome, constant, frequent and growing contacts between the Russian people and our own people on both sides of the Atlantic.

Churchill spoke in support of the United Nations. “We must make sure that its work is fruitful, that it is a reality and not a sham." This was far from the anti-internationalism and anti-communism of the fascists. But the Soviet Union responded to the speech in a most primitive fashion. The Soviet newspaper Pravda described Churchill as a "warmonger," like Goebbels and Hitler. Stalin used Churchill’s speech to reinforce his claim that conflict with the West was inevitable and to persuade people that a threat from the capitalist West made adherence to his policies and leadership in their interest.

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