Prof Rempel lecture: Cold War

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The Cold War

This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.

I. Origins of the Cold War


Whatever the wartime cooperation had done to reduce the basic hostility that had previously marked Soviet relations with the leading democratic and capitalist states, the common heroism and sacrifices could not submerge the basic relationship that East and West were destined to assume toward one another. Rivalry is endemic to the nation-state system. The nature of the system compels every participant to provide its own security; and one nation's security is ant.her nation.s insecurity. The logic of the nation-state system breeds insecurity, distrust, rivalry, and hostility.

In theory all members are enemy to the others, but in practice the international system at any given time does not generally comprise all nations attracting and repelling each other at random. Because all nations are not of equal strength or in exactly similar geographic relationships to each other, or uniformly willing to accept the status quo, individual nation-states sometimes modify the degree of hostility toward certain other nation-states in order to band together to enhance their security against another seemingly threatening single state or cluster of states. This pattern sometimes illustrates the statement, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend.'' Or two rivals may seek to make an alliance with the state on the opponent's other border.

Thus France, fearful of Germany, sought to ally itself before World War I with tsarist Russia and following World War I with the newly independent states on Germany's eastern borderland: Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Rumania. Another pattern was illustrated when Great Britain, confronted by the emergence of Wilhelmian Germany as both a naval rival and as a threat to European balance of power after 1890, relinquished its ambitions in the Caribbean in favor of the United States and in the area of Manchuria in favor of Japan.

Rivalry is also endemic to the nation-state system for psychological reasons. Citizens and nations seek to establish their identity, a process that often manifests itself in hostility toward others. This anxiety and hostility is always seeking an object. The nature of the nation-state system and the mechanisms of ethno-centrism directly interact to reinforce each other. This reaction invariably reinforces the relationship of hostility and rivalry born of the security dilemma. This process may build up to a military eruption or it may subside, but patterns of conflict and hostility are an enduring aspect of relations between nation-states.

The postwar relationship of the United States and the soviet Union was conducive to just such an outcome. The principal consequence of Hitler's attack upon Russia had been to destroy the balance set up in 1919 between Central Europe and Bolshevist Russia and to open the way for Soviet power to flood over Eastern and Central Europe. Similarly, the Japanese conquest of China and Southeast Asia sped the erosion of the status quo in those regions by undermining European hegemony and igniting revolutionary nationalism.

As the war ended, Soviet and American power confronted each other over congeries of prostrate, exhausted, and chaotic societies that provided an invitation to rivalry. 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. For a time the United States believed that the British Empire would continue to play its traditional role in the vast belt of land and sea stretching from Gibraltar to Singapore, and illusion that was soon shattered. Unfortunately, the historical magnitude and consequences of the war were destined to cast Russia and America in the fatal role of antagonists with no third state powerful enough to balance and relieve the acute security dilemma.

The enormous destruction wrought upon the Soviet Union by the German juggernaut was bound to produce a quest for maximum security guarantees. Russia lost 13.6 million soldiers and ''the military campaigns in the Soviet Union devastated 1,710 cities and settlements, 70,000 towns and villages, and over 6 million buildings of all kinds''.

The government of any nation suffering such staggering losses would be bound to seek to take measures against any such catastrophe ever again occurring. 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.

At first subtly and then more and more openly the 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 Russia and the West. For 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. The ideological chasm which until then had been concealed by the soviet Union and disregarded or minimized by the Western nations was too deep.

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 Russian proposals for Germany that would unavoidably magnify Soviet power in Europe. On the last day of the Yalta conference, Secretary of State Stettinius, Foreign Minister Molotov, and Foreign secretary Anthony Eden signed a revised clause on Germany that read as follows:

"The United Kingdom, the USA and the USSR shall possess supreme authority with respect to Germany. In the exercise of such authority they will take such steps, including the complete disarmament, demilitarization and the dismemberment of Germany as they deem requisite for future peace and security."

Stalin and Molotov left Yalta fully conscious that a turning point had been reached in Soviet-Western relations. On May 9, acknowledging Germany's surrender to the USSR, Stalin himself proclaimed that the Soviet Union did not intend ''either to dismember or to destroy Germany." Asked later that month why he had changed his mind, Stalin told Hopkins that ''subsequent events had shown that the proposal in regard to dismembering had really been rejected at the Crimea Yalta Conference." In the special committee studying the question the British representative, ''without objection" by the American member, Stalin said, "had interpreted the Crimea Decision not as a positive plan for the dismembering of Germany but as a threat to hold over the Germans' head in the event of bad behavior.'' Stalin ruefully added that "after Yalta the British press had consistently said that only Russia was for the dismemberment of Germany."

Between Yalta and Potsdam diplomatic sparring between East and West intensified as each side openly maneuvered 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 the master of the Kremlin. Almost from the beginning he regarded Soviet breaches of agreement as just that--breaches of agreement. He did not need to ask whether the ideological terms and the political aims they proclaimed, such as ''peace,'' "freedom,'' and ''democracy,'' 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 t 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 behavior. The Soviet Union sought to consolidate its control over those societies that had come within its military grip; the British and French endeavored 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 two. 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' ''get tough'' line and the hard bargaining with which he opposed Soviet designs in Eastern Europe seemed to strike at Russia'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 tantamount to challenging Russia's security. As early as August 1945, President Mikhail Kalinin warned a meeting of the Moscow Communist Party that the Soviet Union was the ''one socialist state in the world'' and that "the perils of capitalist encirclement had not disappeared with Hitlerite Germany." Molotov amplified this in a speech on November 6, 1945, when he told a meeting of the Moscow Soviet that the "roots of fascism and imperialist aggression had not been...finally extirpated."

Finally on February 9, 1946, Stalin reaffirmed the thesis of basic 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.'' ''It would be wrong,'' Stalin declared,

''to think that the Second World War was a casual occurrence or the result of mistakes. Actually the war was the inevitable result of the development of world economic and political forces on the basis of modern monopoly capitalism. Marxists have declared more than once that the capitalist system harbors elements of general crises and armed conflicts and that, hence the development of world capitalism proceeds... through crises and military conflicts.''

These words were received with foreboding by Western leaders. But certainly 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. Incensed by Secretary Byrnes. 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": "There is not a doubt in my mind that Russia intends an invasion of Turkey and the seizure of the Black Sea Straits to the Mediterranean. Unless Russia is faced with an iron fist and strong language another war is in the making. Only one language do they understand--how many divisions have you?

I do not think we should play compromise any longer. We should refuse to recognize Rumania and Bulgaria until they comply with our requirements; we should let our position on Iran be known in no uncertain terms and we should continue to insist on the internationalization of the Kiel Canal, the Rhine-Danube waterway and the Black Sea Straits and we should maintain complete control of Japan and the Pacific. We should rehabilitate China and create a strong central government there. We should do the same for Korea. Then we should insist on the return of our ships from Russia and force a settlement of the Lend-Lease debt to Russia. I am tired of babying the Soviets." (Truman Memoirs)

Within six months after the war's end all pretense of friendship was being dropped. Henceforth each side would interpret all moves as basically hostile and therefore would act accordingly. The Cold War had begun.


II. Stalin's Foreign Policy: 1945-1953


It is usually thought that the period of so-called "peaceful coexistence" began after Stalin died. Yet here were significant changes in the outlook and behavior of the Soviets in foreign policy even before Stalin's death. It is important to note this because it helps us understand the forces which shape Soviet foreign policy. From the end of the Berlin blockade in 1949 to the end of the 19th Congress of the CPSU in October 1952, there were unmistakable signs of a marked evolution in two directions:

1. the Soviet strategic outlook on Western Europe; and

2. a groping toward a more effective adaptation to the new political and technological facts of life.


The Soviet leadership had a profound grasp of the nature of new weapons and accepted with some anxiety a period of vulnerability. Meanwhile they were concentrating their tremendous energies upon the research and development which were intended to produce a favorable shift in the balance of power.

In short Soviet policy was becoming increasingly concerned with power-block politics and less with the revolutionary awakening of a proletariat that was busy discovering the joys of the installment plan. One of the factors which helped to stimulate this shift had to do with developments in Asia and Africa. Asian and African nationalism in the postwar world surprised both the Russians and the U.S.

Let us look at the domestic side first. In the face of the stirrings in Soviet society and the gear-crunching contradictions between simple theory and complex reality, change was inevitable. There is a sense in which it may be said that Stalin unwittingly and probably involuntarily began the tide of revisionism which swept in like a deluge after him.

On the foreign policy side things are a bit more complex. The general characteristics of Soviet policy are discernable nevertheless:

1. There was a rational responsiveness to changes in the world environment, and particularly to changes in power relationships. It now common to talk about the irascibility or senility of Stalin. It is also conventional to suggest that the Politburo operates in a series of shenanigans. But a study of the behavior of the Soviet Union within a longer framework suggests a degree of rationality and responsiveness to outside conditions, which, though in error at times, is not greatly less than what is found in foreign policy anywhere.

This heightens our awareness of the way in which our own actions have a bearing upon Soviet behavior. One the one hand, the modulations in Soviet policy in 1949-1952 are clearly related to the developing cohesion and strength of the Western alliance in the immediately preceding period. On the other hand, potential weaknesses of that alliance invited various forms of militant or manipulative behavior.

2. There was a recurrent pattern of alternation between two marked syndromes of behavior: one essentially militant and direct; the other manipulative, flexible, and longer-term in perspective. Communists have described this as "left" and "right" policy. In the 1920s the left - right pattern developed as follows:

Left Right a. revolutionary emphasis a. breathing spell b. inevitability of conflict b. peaceful coexistence c. class struggle and revolutionary advance c. flexibility of tactics d. militancy of method d. divisive exploitation of "contradictions abroad e. detachment of communist movement abroad from national and international community e. collaboration with other groups, classes or nations. Both types of policy were used offensively or defensively as the occasion demanded. It was the ultimate demonstration of making ideology and policy "flexible."

During 1949 we can see both functions of the broad-alliance policy: as an instrument for weakening the adversaries of the Soviet Union by exploiting their divisive vulnerabilities and as a form of leverage for maximizing Communist influence on the course of international politics.

The prime determinant in selecting the mode of policy to be followed appears to lie in how the Soviet leadership assessed the historical character of the current period, as modified by domestic needs and the exigencies of the factional disputes among the party leaders. Some examples of "right" policies are the following:

1921-1928 recognition and trade
1935-1939 collective security
1941-1945 wartime alliance
1949-1952 transition.

In each case, on immediately adverse power relationship, combined with the anticipation of a more favorable prospect in the future, evoked a lengthened time perspective, a policy of indirection, maneuver, expedient alliances, manipulation of Western differences, and peaceful coexistence.

But in the striving for a mass base in 1950-1952, the Communists did not repeat the 1935 effort to come to a formal agreement with socialist leaders. Soviet perception of the historical character of the period had begun to change too. Significant steps were accordingly taken toward the continuing adaptation of Soviet ideology toward an essentially non-revolutionary reality. This affected Soviet ideas, forms of perception, structure of thought, strategy, and tactics. Or, to put it more precisely, to a reality in which the revolutionary impulse came from nationalism and from technology, not from the proletariat.

It was no longer a matter of the proletarian revolution, but a closer identification of Soviet interests with the historical forces of nationalism and economic political and social change. This became the preferred means for further conversion of the world to socialism and the further ascendancy of Soviet power and influence.


This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.


Related casahistoria sites on this topic:


Origins of the Cold War
Divided Germany, 1945-49
Korean War
Thaw to Cuban Missile Crisis

Space Race
Vietnam War
SALT, Detente and Collapse




casahistoria is recommended by:
BBC Radio 4 History Channel 4 History
BBC radio,
Channel 4 TV, UK Birmingham GRID for Learning, UK UK joint university database Argentina's national paper
SBC Education
Blue Ribbon HOT site, USA
SovLit, Harvard Univ, USA


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