Cold War: The Actions of Stalin

Year Ten
An essay on the extent to which we agreed with the statement "The Actions of Josef Stalin between 1945 and 1949 were the main cause of the Cold War"

It is certainly true that Josef Stalin was a devious and power-hungry figure. He accomplished his original rise to power, from a lowly background figure in the Russian Revolution to undisputed champion of the Bolsheviks and commander of the Soviet Union, by cunning rather than charisma. Many of his (perhaps more worthy) opponents in the political scene were simply removed, and the empire was purged of any potential threat to its leader.


Although ultimately he took the "good" side in WWII, fighting alongside Roosevelt and Churchill to crush the Nazis, it was no secret that he remained no less evil than Hitler, whom he indeed had at first planned to,side with so as to take on Britain and America. It is therefore not implausible to suggest that, in the aftermath of "The Great Patriotic War", he had been planning not only to "protect" the USSR from another German attack through Eastern Europe — a valid point though that was — but to expand the borders of the USSR's territory further west and spread Soviet influence across the countries for whom capitalism had failed (finally achieving, perhaps, Trotsky's old aim of Socialism in Many Countries and Permanent Revolution). This indeed appeared to be the case, as by 1948 he had successfully installed puppet governments in Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Hungary and Albania. These countries formed the "Eastern Bloc" of Soviet satellites which extended Stalin's power across Europe. Source 5 clearly supports this case, depicting Stalin swiping the whole of the continent, and casually reaching to add most of Asia, while Source 12 shows Stalin the cat beating up Eastern European mice. The former was drawn in Chicago Specshortly after Yalta, and reveals the American perspective of what the Big Three were planning. The latter was made in Britain, 1948, after much of the Eastern Bloc's absorption into the USSR had taken place. Between them, they thus seem to show the prediction and confirmation of what, to the West, was an attempt bye Stalin at world domination.


However, the United States was not unanimously seen as particularly innocent either. Just as Soviet influence swept across the East of Europe, American influence swept across the West. Alongside the establishment of socialist government and collectivist business models in East Germany, the Western side was being plastered with advertisements consumer goods, and high streets became temples to US-style consumerism. While Truman stated that the Marshall Aid plan was purely intended to help broken European nations recover from the effects of Nazi occupation, many Soviets saw it as him attempting to establish a loyal base in Western Europe from which to attack the USSR, and so thought that the "buffer zone" of Eastern Countries was purely for defensive purposes.


It could be said that this caused a mutual defensive complex between Truman and Stalin. Each thought that the other would be striving to absorb territory around their own countries, eventually aiming to conquer the entire planet and force their economic systems upon everybody. To prevent that, each side began to bribe or coerce small, potentially soluble governments in weaker countries to maintain that side's ideology and to become strong enough not to "fall" to the other side's influence. Of course, it was only the enemy power that was using imperialist bullying tactics, the "good" side was merely using its power to protect the weaker countries and keep the enemy at bay. If that meant having to dominate the politics and economics in east/western Europe and occasionally order other countries around, so be it. 


Source 1 neatly summarises this idea. Though rather abstract and lacking in specific details, "striking out for advantage or expansion" was entirely true of both powers during the Cold War. 

In the formative years of the Cold War, Anglo-American interference featured heavily in the events of Eastern Europe. A notable example was the Greek Civil War, in which the UK and USA successfully defended the Royalist side against a potential communist takeover. Truman insisted that he was keeping the Greeks free from totalitarianism — an idea which many Soviets dismissed as American propaganda to justify stealing power and territory from the USSR (as seen in Source 11) .


Another crucial part of the cracks in international relations during this period was the role played by the development and successful deployment of the Atom Bomb, mankind's first true "Weapon of Mass Destruction". Even Truman himself was not initially aware of this, remainin ninformed about the project until the Potsdam Conference, at which point there occurre a paradigm shift in the way he —and subsequent US presidents- viewed world politics. Winston Churchill reports in Source 6 that after Truman (unbeknownst to him or Stalin) was quietly told about the successful bomb test, he underwent a then-inexplicable change of character, suddenly assuming a much more authoritative stance over the foreign delegates, "... [telling] the Russians just where they got off and generally [bossing] the whole meeting." secure in the knowledge that he had become easily the most powerful man at the table. Source 9 well represents the general picture of American foreign policy at this point: Truman is shown asking Attlee and Stalin why the UK, US and USSR could not " together in mutual trust & confidence", while clutching the "private" bomb behind him. It seems that Truman at this time considered normal diplomacy to be a frivolity in terms of getting what they wanted from the world, one rendered unnecessary by the emergence of a new political tool: the fact that the United States possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction whereas the Soviet Union didn't...until the point at which, suddenly, they did. 


Following the dropping of the atomic bombs unto Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the scientists in the Soviet Union soon developed their own nuclear weapons with which to remove the USA's advantage. This began an arms race between East and West which lasted for several decades, and which sparked the production of Weapons of Mass Destruction in other wannabe-world powers today. Among the main pillars of the unease between nations, and integral to the existence of the Cold War, was the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction; either side having the power to destroy the other —and the rest of the world-within minutes. Without the atomic and later hydrogen bombs which reinforced MAD and therefore kept tensions high, it is unlikely that the USA and USSR would have been in such deadlock for so long, instead either declaring true war using conventional means or resolving their problems diplomatically. 


This, however, concerns the long-term effects of the bombs. In the short term, it seemed more likely that they would indeed be used as the flagship weapon of an upcoming Russo-American war. Source 8, from the memoirs of Marshal Georgii Zhukov, says that Stalin wanted to "'...speed things up'" which was interpreted as a desire for to accelerate the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons research. While future Soviet dictators were more conservative in the levels of mass annihilation they were prepared to wreak, Stalin was apparently prepared to use nuclear force to destroy the USSR's main enemy. 


There is yet another school of thought to this entire debate: that such a deadlocked "war" between the USA and the USSR was inevitable, no matter what events took place prior to it. Americans and Soviets were too different from each other, the reasons for which lay in the ideologies by which their respective countries were originally established. Oddly, both believed themselves to be the best for the common man, though in different ways. The American philosophy stated that anyone, given the opportunity, could turn their ideas into vast sums of wealth, and live a comfortable life. The Marxist philosophy, meanwhile, dictated that there should be no individual wealth, that all property should be owned by the state, and that all people should be equal.


The United States of America were — and remain to this day — the model of Free-Market Capitalism. Business, corporations and profit have been seen as the defining trait of the American way of life. Although there are many strong capitalist nations around the world, it has long been the United States which represents the pinnacle of it and all related ideas. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, on the other hand, only came into existence because the Russian Empire was a prime example of capitalism and right-wing politics failing. The nation born to Lenin, Trotsky and the other Bolsheviks from 1917 to 1924 was therefore made into the benchmark of Communism and Collectivism. Again, nearly all creations of socialist states in history were inspired, seeded by or modelled on the USSR.


The result of this was that Russia and America became polar opposites of each other. This, though, should not alone have been enough to lead to a potential war. After all, the two countries and their spheres of influence were huge enough to be self-sufficient worlds of their own, so surely Truman and Stalin could have gone about their business without disturbing each other. The real problem lay in the fact that neither the main proponents of Capitalism and Communism, nor the founders of them were content to stop there. Both saw their way? life as the only true solution to mankind's problems, and the alternative as the root of all evil. Lenin and Marx had long been convinced that the human greed behind Capitalism was the cause of all wars, and that the lust of one person for profit could only be fulfilled as a result of taking wealth from someone else, that the rich survived by exploiting the poorest. Most Americans believed instead that Communism would lead to the unaspiring masses leaching from the best of humanity due to the lack of incentive to work hard and create something, to the end that society as a whole would stagnate, with no real driving force behind the improvement of life. (The American viewpoint is best expressed in Source 3, in which Truman describes capitalism as everything good, and communism as everything evil.) Ultimately, both have proven to be legitimate concerns about serious problems, but in the late 1940s, none were apparently serious enough.


By means of capitalism and profiteering in the form of businesses driving industries and industries driving profits, the United States had become incredibly rich and powerful.  Meanwhile, by means of communism and Marx/Lenin/Stalinism in the form of collective agriculture and heavy industry, the Soviet Union had also become very rich and powerful. In fact by mid-I945 (when Britain and France, the last bastions of European imperial might, were clearly on their last legs), they were emerging as the richest and most powerful nations on Earth. This presented a problem: communists firmly believed that capitalism was fundamentally unstable, and doomed to failure, and vice versa. Yet clearly this was not the case, as both systems appeared to be thriving. So it was that the mere existence of each superpower was an insult to the other's core principles. Source 17 sums this up, saying that "...the conflicting and unyielding ideological ambitions were the source of the complicated and historic tale that was the Cold War." and Source 16 agrees that "The Cold War was caused by the conflicting interests of the United States and the U.S.S.R. ... [which] led to the unravelling of the new international order nearly established in Roosevelt's wartime conferences with Churchill and Stalin." and Source 15 (referring specifically to the bomb, but applicable generally) describes the USSR as "... a nation who practiced a political ideology different from America, which was unacceptable to the "free democratic" United States...". All three were posted online after the Cold War ended, and reflect a sense of mutual guilt between Russians and Americans about everything that happened. 


In conclusion, it is fair to say that the titular statement is true only in a very literal sense. The actions of Josef Stalin between 1945 and 1949 were the main cause of THE Cold War, that is, the Cold War which unfolded in our history. That there would have been A Cold War of some description was inevitable, due to the ideological incompatibility of Americans and Soviets as described above. This particular version of events, however, was dependent on Stalin's actions after the War. Had the Moscow Kremlin at the time been led by Trotsky, Bukharin or any other potential successor to Lenin, perhaps different moves would have been made. Perhaps different boundaries would have been drawn up so that Germany was not turned into a political battleground for four decades, due to the USSR being content to regain its own territory rather than expanding beyond them, or even pushing further westwards to dominate the whole continent. Perhaps both sides could have negotiated joint power over broken Europe, forming a mixed political set-up rather than splitting countries up and moving them further apart economically. Perhaps the USA could have been talked out of nuclear strikes, dampening the fire behind the arms race. No matter what happened at that point, however, the Cold War could only have been delayed or reshaped, never averted. It would always have taken place in some form, because neither side could be satisfied until the other totally ceased to be, which is why it seemed that all of the problems simply melted away when, finally, one side gave in and did just that.


Originally written May 2013 by Robin Taylor. Scored at 38/50 (OCR)

Much of this was in fact done as classwork. It has been included here to complete a series of essays on this topic.

This essay refers to numbered sources, which were given to us in a booklet. A copy of that source booklet can be found here.