The Cold War Begins

*Some of America’s greatest presidents have been accidents:  TR should never have been president; Lincoln owed his victory in part to the division of the Democratic Party; even in 1844, the Whigs asked, ‘Who is James Polk?’  Harry S Truman, another accidental president, set the precedent of American engagement in the world to contain the spread of Communism during the Cold War. 

*A WWI veteran, HST was a failure at farming and business (he was a haberdasher) before entering politics through one of America’s most corrupt organisations, the [Tom] Pendergast Machine of Missouri.  He stood out as perhaps the only honest man in the organisation, and was said to have been the only man to lose money while working for the machine.  Handpicked by Pendergast to fill one of Missouri’s US Senate seats in 1934, Truman first came to the attention of FDR when the Truman Commission's investigation into wartime military spending led him to an unexplained money sink called ‘Manhattan.’  He was told to quietly back away, and he did so.

*In 1944, Truman was chosen as FDR’s third Vice-President, and took over as President on 12 April 1945, much to his surprise and dismay, as FDR had largely kept him in the dark about the executive office’s internal workings. 

*Unlike other presidents, Truman was unable to live in the White House for almost half of his time in office.  During the first few years of his presidency, plaster began falling out of the ceilings and in 1948 he was told it was unsafe to remain in the White House.  Structural analysis of the building showed the White House to be in immediate danger of collapse, partly due to problems with the walls and foundation that dated back to the burning of the building by the British in the early 19th century. 

*The President was moved immediately to Blair House nearby, while the White House interior was systematically dismantled to the foundations and rebuilt (within the shell of the exterior walls), using concrete and steel, with as much of the old interior as possible re-inserted over the new floors and walls.  A new balcony was also added over the curved portico, now known as the Truman Balcony.  Other additions were reflections of the times and of technology:  central air conditioning and a bomb shelter that could withstand anything but a direct nuclear blast.  Truman did not get to move back in until March, 1952.

*Truman had the misfortune to preside over the opening years of the Cold War, although in many ways the Cold War actually began at Yalta in February 1945, where the Big Three met for the last time to divide up the spoils of Europe.  Stalin was permitted control over Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, and other eastern territories, although he promised to permit them to hold free elections.  The USSR was also asked to step into the war with Japan, and agreed, under terms that would end up giving them de facto control of most of Manchuria, North Korea, and any other areas they could take. 

*Many have accused Roosevelt of selling out Chiang Kai-shek and the peoples of Eastern Europe, and there is a measure of truth to this, since none of the free elections ever materialised, or at least had any effect.  In part FDR trusted ‘Uncle Joe,’ or so it has been said, in part FDR was very sick and not at his best, and in part he knew he had no choice but to accede to the requests of the man with the largest army on the planet, a force already occupying much of the land Stalin asked for.

*The truth is that, despite the war-time alliance, the USA and the USSR had never much liked one another.  Shortly after Hitler invaded the USSR, Senator Truman said 'If we see that Germany is winning, we ought to help Russia and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany and that way let them kill as many as possible.' 

*This attitude was fairly common among Americans before the war and did not much change during the war.  Both nations held strongly to ideologies that united large populations across large spaces--ideologies, moreover, that were essentially internationalist in nature yet mutually incompatible. 

*Russians resented the US and UK’s slow and small entrance into the war in Europe, the US gave less lend-lease to the USSR than to other major allies, the US tried to keep the Soviets out of their atomic research (although Communist spies, most famously Klaus Fuchs, ended up keeping Stalin better informed about the bomb than Truman was), and as soon as the war ended the United States cut off support to all her allies, but soon began making new loans to the UK and other nations—but not the USSR.

*Americans resented not only Soviet Communism in its own right, but also the fact that the Soviets were apparently carving out an empire of their own from Germany’s old eastern territories—hardly the desired outcome of a war to keep the world safe for democracy.  The Russians, though, remembered two German attacks through Eastern Europe in the 20th Century alone, and wanted a better buffer than German goodwill. 

*Defeated Germany was dealt with in several ways.  First, the Potsdam Conference just outside Berlin divided up the post-war world.  Germany was reduced, Poland was moved west to take up the last German land (losing land in the east to the USSR in return) and East Prussia ceased to exist.  Germany was split into four zones of occupation, as was the city of Berlin.  Austria, again separate from German, was jointly occupied in all areas, and ended up remaining cautiously neutral during most of the Cold War.  The rest of Eastern Europe (including Finland at the moment, although it later managed to avoid complete Soviet domination and remained neutral throughout the Cold War) were added to the Soviet Sphere.  The free elections promised to the region never materialised in fact, and when elections did occur, they were heavily influenced by the USSR and the Red Army.  Soon all of Eastern Europe, including the state of East Germany, was under Communist rule, and steadfastly opposed to the West.  According to Winston Churchill, ‘From Stettin in Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an Iron Curtain has descended across the Continent.’

*Within Germany, war crimes trials were held at Nuremberg.  The showcase trial put 22 major German and Nazi leaders on trial.  12 were hanged, Hermann Göring committed suicide before he could be executed, 7 more leaders got long jail terms, and all the rest served some time in prison.  Lesser Nazis were prosecuted in trials lasting for years, even into the 21st Century.  Claiming ‘I was just following orders’ was not good enough.

*German scientists were captured by or surrendered to both sides.  The OSS conducted Operation Paperclip to recruit, and in some cases capture, German scientists, even creating false paperwork to cover up Nazi connections, and other branches of the military made similar efforts to capture German scientists and engineers. Some scientists were known to have gone to great effort to be captured by the Americans, rightly figuring them to be kinder than the Soviets.  Perhaps the most famous of these was Wernher von Braun, who became instrumental in the American rocket program. 

*Despite this rapid growth of tensions among the great nations of the world, an attempt was made at co-operation.  In 1945 the United Nations was founded, allowing all nations representation in the General Assembly (who choose a Secretary-General) and with the USA, UK, France, USSR, and China holding permanent seats with veto powers on the 11-member Security Council (expanded to 15 in 1965).  FDR, unlike Wilson, had made the creation of the UN a bi-partisan effort, and it was accepted by the USA and, after FDR’s death, fully supported by Truman, who sent a very distinguished group to the early meetings, including Eleanor Roosevelt. 

*The UN helped create Israel as a modern nation-state in 1948 with a great deal of support from both the US and USSR.  This was seen at the time as a great humanitarian move to give Jewish people a place to go to escape persecution and to make up for the crime of the Holocaust.  Since then it has been at the heart of almost every regional war in the Middle East, and even at the time, many members of the US State Department opposed American support for Israel, fearing it would turn the Arab countries against America and possibly lead them into the Soviet Sphere.

*In Eastern Europe, the Red Army ensured that the promised ‘free elections’ were won by Communists, and even in Western Europe and elsewhere, starving nations devastated by war also seemed ripe for Communist revolutions or takeovers.

*In 1947, Britain became unable to send money to Greece to support their struggle against Communist insurgents.  Fearing that the fall of Greece would also lead to the fall of Turkey, which was also threatened by communism, Truman called a joint session of Congress and addressed them asking for money for Turkey and Greece, declaring that ‘it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.’  This became known as the Truman Doctrine, the promise to support any country that was resisting Communism.  It was part of the process whereby the entire world became essentially two armed camps in which everyone was either with us or against us. 

*This policy was also known as containment, and was originally proposed and supported by an American diplomat named George Kennan.  Truman believed this was necessary because if America did not stand up to Soviet aggression early, it would encourage the Soviets to expand further, just as appeasement had encouraged Hitler, and ultimately lead to World War III. 

*To rebuild Europe, so that post-war poverty would not lead Europeans to turn either to Communism or to some other totalitarian system as they had after the First World War, Truman and his Secretary of State, General George Marshall, created a plan--the Marshall Plan--to encourage Europeans to create a joint plan for rebuilding the continent.  The incentive for co-operation was that the USA would pay for it.  Many congressmen, particularly isolationists like Senator Bob Taft, were initially reluctant to spend the billions of dollars required by the plan, but agreed to do so in 1947 after watching a weak democratic government in Czechoslovakia overthrown by a Soviet-backed Communist insurrection.

*From 1948 to 1951, the Marshall Plan rebuilt much of Western Europe, paying over $13 billion (perhaps $100 billion in to-day’s funds).  The Communist countries were invited to take advantage of it as well, but the Soviet Union forbade them (and the Czechoslovakian foreign minister who suggested attending a conference to discuss accepting American aid was found dead not long afterwards).  The USSR created their own version instead.  That version in fact did little for most conquered nations; in fact, the Russians actually dismantled German factories and moved them back to Russia as a form of reparations. 

*Thanks to the Marshall Plan, most of Western Europe was more prosperous (or at least had a higher industrial output) than they were before the war, and local Communist parties declined in popularity.

*Douglas MacArthur commanded the US reconstruction of Japan essentially single-handedly, and did so with great skill, becoming loved by the Japanese people.  Although seven war criminals had been hanged by the US, the American presence, the American-written constitution, and American dollars were largely welcomed. 

*The Cold War grew colder in 1948 when the USSR, tired of sharing Berlin with the other Allies (who refused to allow reparations to be demanded of Germany) cut off all contact between Berlin and West Germany, shutting down rail traffic and closing off all roads.  The USSR assumed that the Allies would be starved out, but, instead, the Berlin Airlift began.  For almost a year, the US Air Force and Royal Air Force flew food and other supplies into Berlin, supplying not only their own and allied troops, but the civilian population as well.  Although the blockade lifted in 1949, this event, combined with the obvious electoral fraud in all the supposedly free nations of Eastern Europe over the past few years, convinced the West that the Soviets could not be dealt with.

*In fact, 1949 was one of the most frightening years in American history.  In August, 1949, the Soviet Union tested their first atomic bomb, using technology closely based on America's plutonium bomb, thanks largely to communist spies in the Manhattan Project. 

*In September, 1949, Chinese Communists, led by Mao Tse-tung (Zedong) won the Chinese Civil War and announced the formation of the People's Republic of China.

*In China, Chiang Kai-shek’s (Jiang Jieshi) nationalists had fought Mao’s Communists for years, sometimes even at the same time both fought off the Japanese.  Although Chiang was supported by US dollars, he was a poor leader with a corrupt administration, while Mao was more efficient and had better access to Soviet assistance, and in 1947, the US accepted that no truce could be created, and quietly pulled out of China. 

*Nonetheless, Chiang’s defeat was a serious blow to American morale, despite his escape to Formosa (now called Taiwan) and his continuation of the Republic of China from the new capital at Taipei in opposition to Mao’s People’s Republic of China.  Many Republicans blamed the Democrats, accusing them of withholding support from the Nationalists.  While there may be some truth in this, the fact is that Chiang lacked support from his own people as well, and that is why his government fell.

*Still, the United Nations recognised the Republic of China as the legitimate government of China until 1971 and the United States would until 1979.

*In response to the world situation, America and Western Europe began to re-arm.  The United States had already re-organised the structure of the armed forces.  In 1947, the old departments of War and the Navy were subsumed, along with a new department of the Air Force, into the Department of Defense.  Located in the new Pentagon office building, this unified command would, at least in theory, allow the different branches of the armed services to work together more efficiently and effectively.  Military reformers had wanted a unified Defense Department for years, and the difficulties of co-ordinating the massive effort of WWII, along with the promotion of many new, young officers to important posts, finally accomplished it. 

*The US created a peace-time draft in 1948. 

*With this new force, the United States did something else unprecedented in peace-time:  in 1949 the USA joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation along with eleven other nations, pledging than an attack on any one of them was an attack on all of them.  Later more nations would join, including beleaguered Greece and Turkey.  In response, the Soviet Sphere signed the Warsaw Pact, pledging much the same thing to one another (with the exception of Yugoslavia, which, under Marshal Tito, began to go its own route—still Communist and totalitarian, but not dominated by Moscow, making it almost unique in Communist Europe).

*The National Security Council was created to advise the president and the Central Intelligence Agency was formed out of the old Office of Strategic Services to spy on foreigners while the ‘Voice of America,’ created by the Office of War Information during the War, began broadcasting American radio across the Iron Curtain.

*The United States exploded the world’s first hydrogen bomb (or H-bomb) on November 1, 1952, on Elugelab Island in the Eniwetok Atoll of the Marshall Islands, code-named Mike. It yielded 10.4 megatons of explosive power (equal to 10.4 million tons of TNT), which is over 450 times the power of the bomb that fell on Nagasaki. The detonation obliterated Elugelab, leaving an underwater crater 6,240 ft wide and 164 ft deep where an island had once been.  A year later the Soviets would test a smaller (i.e. more easily delivered) H-bomb a year later. 

*Thenceforth both the USA and USSR would seek ‘nuclear superiority,’ hoping to have more atomic weaponry than the other.  Britain announced the possession of atomic bombs in 1952, and France and Red China would also develop atomic weapons during the Cold War.  This escalation and proliferation of nuclear armaments--the Arms Race--would characterise the Cold War for decades to come.  On the other hand, it would keep the Cold War Cold, because neither side dared go into open combat with the other out of fear of Mutual Assured Destruction--the old Balance of Power had been replaced by the Balance of Terror.

This page last updated 14 April, 2021.
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