Why and with what results for Europe did the USSR become involved in the Cold War?

From IBDP 1998 Test: Paper III

As an 18-year-old writing a simple IB paper, it is mind-blowing [sic] to be expected to answer the question of why the USSR became involved in the Cold War, considering that the point at which the Cold War officially “began” is still being debated by historians to this day. However, as an Iranian-American I am able to understand a certain aspect of the Cold War very well, and this is the tension. After all, in the past few years American threats to Iran have been plenty if they did not stop their nuclear development. To someone watching this conflict from both sides, it is clear that the struggle is not as much rooted in actual fear but simply dominance. Either side is afraid of a war, and is aware that they cannot afford it, yet continue to provoke each other in order not to lose face. From what I have understood about the Cold War it seems to me to have been the same: a power struggle between two nations (though perhaps on a larger scale than the Iran-US conflict that I have just compared it to). This essay will argue why the USSR became involved in the Cold War by focusing on their power struggle in three parts of Europe: Germany, Eastern Europe, and Southern/Western Europe.

World War II ended with the loss of 13 million Russian troops and 418 000 American ones. Neither power could afford another “hot war”. This is why Germany became a focal point in the power struggle, which caused and constituted the Cold War, as it was an area where both these countries bordered each other, yet far enough from their own civilians as to not be a direct risk. From one year after the war, the rivalry in Germany began, as on the 2nd of December 1946 Bevin and Byrnes agreed to unite the British and American sectors of West Germany. This posed a threat to Stalin, as the economic unification of West Germany meant that first of all the U.S. was gaining power in Europe, and second of all Germany was becoming stronger, both points that provoked tension between the USSR and the US. Adding on to this tension, in 1947 France too joined “Bizonia” (now called Trizone), such that the Soviets felt completely encircled. The Soviets felt undermined by this, and the tension rose further as Stalin now felt as though he were being attacked. Therefore once the Trizone announced their new currency the “Deutschmark” on June 21st 1948, Stalin retaliated. Due to the fact that the countries were avoiding direct confrontation, Germany being the area in which they collided, suffered most from the implications of this tension. Stalin blockaded Berlin, such that the West could no longer access West Berlin through the use of cars or trains. This would starve out West Berlin and force them to succumb to East Berlin, such that Stalin would be in full control of the German capital and shift the balance of power between the USSR and USA, at least this was what he had planned. However, the Americans successfully air-lifted resources into West Berlin such that within a year Stalin was forced to end the blockade and had “lost” this competition against the U.S. This can be seen as the reason that the USSR became involved in the Cold War, because they felt as though their power was being undermined by the Americans through the creation of Bizonia, Trizone and then the implementation of a new currency. Thus following William A. Williams’ revisionist argument, the USSR acted as they did in order to defend themselves and their loss of power as opposed to doing this for aggressive purposes. However, Thomas A. Bailey would contradict this, using the “official” American history of the Cold War, as he would argue that the Soviet’s caused this conflict all the way back in Yalta 1945 by betraying the agreement to hold free elections in Poland and arresting the non-communist leaders. This demonstrated the anti-democratic attitude of Stalin, which the West refused to support. This can be used as a reason to argue that the USSR began the Cold War by disregarding the West, however considering the U.S.’s clear provocation of the USSR through the events that were to follow after Yalta, the argument that the USSR became involved in the Cold War in order to defend their sense of power and dignity compared to that of the United States’ seems to have more factual support.

Stalin’s expansion into Eastern Europe however, was definitely another key reason that the Cold War began. The Communists began by taking power in Albania in 1945 immediately after the war, with no opposition. In the same year they took over Bulgaria by allowing a left-wing coalition to gain power, and executing all other parties, as well as giving out 12 000 death sentences. Such violence continued during the occupation of Poland as well two years later when non-communists leaders were forced into exile. In 1947 they became more courageous and invaded Hungary where the allies allowed them to stay if they allowed democracy, of course this failed once again and a puppet government as well as a secret police was installed to oppose opposition. Also in 1947 a communist government was put in place in Romania and Czechoslovakia the year after that, once again with the side note of eradicating any non-communist party. This series of take-overs are known as the Salami-tactics. Thomas A. Bailey pinpoints this as the reason that the Cold War began, labeling it as “Soviet expansionism”. This is certainly a reason for a rise in tension between the two powers, as the USSR was not only openly demonstrating their ruthless methods of gaining power, but also spreading further and further into Central Europe. This threatened the Americans, because as the number of countries that turned communist increased, the number of countries that they could trade with decreased. Thus it could be argued that the Soviets provoked the Americans into joining the Cold War and combatting their expansionism with containment. Nonetheless, William A. Williams would once again argue against this. According to his point of view, the USSR did not expand due to imperialism or the desire to exert power and force, but rather to defend themselves. He would argue that the Americans did wrong, by underestimating Stalin’s fear of a powerful Germany. This is a good argument of course, seeing as the Soviets lost 13 million men in WW2 as well as another 15 million civilians due to the national effects of the war, not to mention that the Russians had been attacked by Germany just thirty years before this too. Although this is a valid argument, it still does not justify the suffering of millions of Eastern Europeans who to this day suffer severe poverty due to the economic differences created in the fifty years that they were part of the Soviet Union. Thus one of the reasons that the USSR became involved in the Cold War is because the Americans felt threatened by their dominance in Eastern Europe and therefore felt the need to increase their own power in the rest of Europe to prevent these countries from suffering the brutal take-overs and conditions the newly occupied Eastern European countries were facing.

However, the Truman Doctrine of 1947 in combination with the Marshall Plan of 1948 demonstrated that the U.S. was not exactly subtle when it came to conveying their power to the Soviet Union. The Truman Doctrine declared the U.S. responsible for maintaining peace in the world, such that they were able to support Greece as the British pulled out. The Marshall Plan had similar aims, which were: to rebuild devasted war regions, remove trade barriers and modernize industry. To conduct this they gave a total of 13 billion dollars worth of credits and grants to the countries in Europe, which requested the aid. Though this seems like a very altruistic plan, when taking a second look it becomes clear that there was a lot of self-interest on behalf of the Americans involved. Firstly, they wanted to remove trade barriers, an aspect that William A. Williams would argue is obviously due to the fact that America wanted to expand economically and create markets, which could then trade with them and ultimately buy their goods. (Although it is worthwhile to note that Williams writes after the Vietnam War, a time in which public opinion about America’s involvement in the Cold War took a radical anti-American shift). Not only was this capitalist concept provoking Stalin, but also the clear statement from Truman that the whole plan was an anti-communist scheme. “The seeds of totalitarianism are sown in wants and misery”, he claimed, suggesting that the money provided by the Marshall plan would protect the given countries from being taken over by the communists. Stalin of course recognized this as an attack on communism, and did not allow the countries under his sphere of influence to have take part in this capitalist plan. This sparked conflict within the Soviet sphere of influence, most probably a side effect of the Marshall Plan that the Americans had intended, especially considering they offered the benefits of the plan to all Soviet-block countries as well. Thus, we cannot deem the Soviet Union solely responsible for provoking the initiation of the Cold War through their Salami-tactics as the United States also took measures such as the Marshall Plan, which was definitely not an act based of self-defense considering the countries being threatened were an ocean away from the United States.

The results of the Cold War for Europe can still be seen to this day. After all, the Crimean crisis has demonstrated to the whole world how much influence Russia continues to have on Eastern European governments (whether willingly or forced). Not only are the economic differences between Eastern Europe and Central Europe severely noticeable, but even in Germany the partition has left its mark. The chancellor Angela Merkel for example, although enjoying popular support in Germany, is referred to as “East German” in her mannerisms and style.  Even upon visiting Berlin one can see a stark difference between what used to be the East and West side, whilst the West is modern and expensive, the East is still impoverished, apartments are small and grey, and prices are considerably lower than on the West. However, one of the major effects of the Cold War is the luring existence of nuclear weapons that were developed due to the Soviet-American nuclear arms race, another source of competition and power during the Cold War. Although the fear now is not as much Russia and the U.S. bombing each other but rather Iran and Israel, the fact that is that Mutually Assured Destruction will forever be a threat to the world ever since nuclear arsenals were developed in the Cold War. Although this essay focuses on Europe, it is worthwhile to note that historians such as Gar Alperovitz blame the U.S.’s dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki for starting the Cold War, claiming that the Soviets then had to develop their own as well to ensure their own safety, putting a start to the rising tension. This too is a valid reason as to why the Soviets may have joined the Cold War.

In conclusion, the USSR may have become involved in the Cold War for various reasons, but most these reasons were rooted in the power struggle over Europe between themselves and the United States. Also, based on the arguments presented in this essay, it can be concluded that neither the U.S. nor the USSR can be blamed specifically for instigating the Cold War, as both were always quick to respond to each other in any situation of provocation or tension. As for the results for Europe, these are apparent to this day, just by taking a look at the GDP of Eastern European countries nowadays compared to that of Central European countries.