Saturday, September 30, 2006

Was the Cold War the inevitable outcome of WW2?

Its not my turn to write a presentation or essay but I felt I needed the practice in tackling the question anyway. I hope I will be excused for using my blog to splurge my thoughts!

I spent a long time pulling apart the question and thought there are maybe a couple of issues at stake -- was a Cold War inevitable or not? and was it the result of WW2 or not? My initial instinct was to try and argue that it was not inevitable at all but reading further I became less certain of that. I decided that the inevitability part of the question might by about following an orthodox or traditional view versus a revisionist view of how the Cold War came about. Gaddis argues that Stalin's personality plays an important role in sparking the conflict and so I initially thought this pointed to its non-inevitability. Rereading my notes on Schlesinger, however, I saw the strength of the inevitability argument. My conclusion is that: conflict was inevitable after WW2, but the Cold War was driven by variable (non-inevitable factors) like Stalin's personality...

The Second World War created the economic and political circumstances for tensions to develop between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. In Poland and Germany it also provided the physical location for those tensions to come to a head. However, this essay will argue that the Cold War was not the inevitable result of WW2. Rather it grew out of resurfacing animosities and was driven by other factors, including the personality of its key actors.

After decades of separation, the Grand Alliance was formed by common interest in securing Germany’s surrender and in maintaining post-war cooperation to prevent the re-emergence of the German threat. (1) This sustained them through the WW2, despite U.S. and British unease over Soviet atrocities (c.f. Katyn (2)) and Stalin’s motives (The threat of a separate peace). The suspicion was mutual (Stalin’s belief that there was a delay in opening the second front) and arguably never let up.

In 1945, there was hope that the various interests of the wartime allies could be accommodated, for instance in a “three policemen” concept. (3) Relations, however, became further strained by actions that either side considered threatening to national security. Stalin grew suspicious as the U.S. and Britain came increasingly closer over Britain’s interests in the Mediterranean, while his failure to adhere to the Yalta promises rang alarm bells in Washington and London. The U.S.’s temporary nuclear monopoly also played a role. The defeat of Hitler then, meant the glue keeping the Grand Alliance together dissolved.

It is worth considering what each party wanted from the situation at the end of WW2 before asking whether they would inevitably collide.

As the war ended, Britain and the U.S.S.R. were counting the cost of the conflict in financial and human terms. Both countries continued to seek ways of shoring up their spheres of influence (as they had done in Yalta with the “naughty document” (4) – the percentages agreement”). Schlesinger makes the point that Britain, like the U.S.S.R, had probably always tended towards the spheres of influence concept. (5) Britain, which was about to lose India to independence in what started the decline of its empire, wanted to maintain its influence in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, primarily as a means of securing its economic interests there (through Suez Canal for instance), but also to keep intact its colonies in Africa and elsewhere. As Britain shifted closer towards the U.S. post Potsdam (6), the Cold War’s battle lines were forming. (7)

The United States sought an end to nationalist power politics and the notion of spheres of influence that it believed was responsible for two world wars. As Schlesinger notes, this conveniently ignored the U.S. influence in Latin America at the time. (8) Roosevelt, following Wilson, hoped to export the U.S. concept of universalism, a new world order based on the notions of self-determination and international, free market trade. There were also significant economic considerations. The Great Depression was fresh in U.S. memories and fearing another crash, Washington sought to put in place through the World Bank and IMF the means to stabilise Europe’s economy. This would lessen the risk of economic collapse spreading to the U.S. economy and also ensure that the conditions of hyperinflation and chronic unemployment that buoyed Hitler in the 1930s would not be repeated. There was also a sense of moral obligation to act in Europe, spurred on by pressure from the √©migr√© lobbies in Washington. (9)

After a series of invasions via Poland, Stalin primarily sought to secure the Soviet borders and wished to do so by creating a belt of friendly nations to the west of the U.S.S.R. He also sought territory at the expense of Poland and ports in the Mediterranean. His nation had been decimated by the war and paid a high price in human and material costs. He sought reparations from Germany and was resentful of persistent resistance to the “liberating” Red Army in Poland. This ignored of course the appalling treatment meted out to the Poles, their resentment of the Molotov/Ribbentrop pact and their fear of emerging from one occupation to immediate succumb to another. Stalin, due in part to his inherent insecurity, never relinquished the notion of spheres of influence, meaning that a collision course with the U.S. was set. What is arguable is the extent to which his aim to control neighbouring countries was ideological (born of the notion of a permanent people’s revolution) or truly in defence of national security. (10)

The case of Poland showed that the fate of third nations was subordinated to domestic political interests and questions of national security. It was clear that Stalin was not going to accept a Polish government which could resist his influence (11) and that he would seek to secure the passage through Poland which had in the past been used to invade his country. (12) Britain and the United States equally stood to lose credibility at home if they did not act.

A realist explanation of the origins of the Cold War would identify the need for territorial expansion and an innate quest for power among the key players as the two main determinants behind the conflict. This would then imply that whatever efforts were made at Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam by the three major powers to reach an agreement on the make-up of post-war Europe, their desires to exert or maintain control over countries beyond their borders would inevitably bring them into conflict.

Taking into account factors such as personality and the influence of domestic opinion mean that identifying the origins of the Cold War becomes more complicated. However, it is perhaps a more accurate reflection of the factors which escalated the tensions between the western allies and the U.S.S.R. into the Cold War.

As Young and Kent suggest the external projections of capitalism and communism were a reflection of their leaders’ needs to keep themselves in power. This points to the importance of domestic politics and leaders’ personalities when considering the origins of Cold War.

“Thus foreign policy goals reflect elite ambitions in the form of state preoccupations with power and expansion as linked to status rather than security. Domestic goals reflect elite needs to preserve the socio-economic order that secures their position and secures its acceptance through the portrayal of ideological challenges as external threats.” (13)

As Gaddis argues, the principal reason why the Grand Alliance crumbled was Stalin’s insistence on equating security with territory. (14) He argues that Stalin’s own personal insecurity permeated Soviet society and was also projected outwards in the form of an antagonistic and expansionary foreign policy. Not only did this bring the U.S.S.R. in to conflict with its former allies, but it also ironically increased the risk of insecurity in the Eastern European states which Stalin was attempting to secure. The hostility which the Red Army faced put Stalin and Communism on the defensive in those countries and demanded an iron-fisted rule which guaranteed that the U.S. could only oppose what was happening. This mismatch between the coercion needed by the Soviets and the U.S. methods caused an imbalance which only righted itself when the wall fell.

“The resulting asymmetry would account, more than anything else, for the origins, escalation, and ultimate outcome of the Cold War.” (15)

Stalin’s behaviour then was largely responsible for creating the conditions which led to the Cold War by provoking the U.S. to the point where they felt compelled to contain the perceived threat he presented. Gaddis argues that the U.S. delay in accepting this need for containment (16) shows that they were still willing to consider coexistence despite their long-held ideological differences.

In conclusion, the perceived needs of the various players and the circumstances they found themselves in 1945 can explain many of the sources of conflict. However, the Cold War was not the inevitable outcome of WW2 since the escalation in tensions required to reach that point was dependent on variable factors such as personality and domestic concerns.

(1) Young, J.W. and Kent, J, International Relations Since 1945, Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 52
(2) The Katyn Massacre, Bruce Kennedy, CNN Interactive, (accessed Sept. 29, 2006)
(3) Pechatnov, V O, (date??) The Big Three After World War II: New Documents on Soviet Thinking about Post-War Relations with the United States and Great Britain, online: (accessed 23/09/2006)
(4) Jenkins, R, Churchill, Pan, 2001, p. 760
(5) Schlesinger Jr, A., Origins of the Cold War, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 46, 1967, pp.23-52
(6) Young, J.W. and Kent, J, ibid, p. 63
(7) Young, J.W. and Kent, J, ibid, p. 64 (After London: “The diplomatic battleground which was to become a Cold War was thus being laid out in power political terms.”)
(8) Schlesinger Jr, A., ibid
(9) Conversations from Yalta; source material from WiWM. F.D.R: "It would make it easier for me at home if the Soviet Government could give something to Poland."
(10) Young, J.W. and Kent, J, ibid, p. 27
(11) Foreign Relations of the United States, 1943, The Conferences of Cairo and Tehran, Dept. of State, Washington, 1961. (accessed via on Sept. 23, 2006)
(12) Foreign Relations of the United States, 1945, The Conferences of Malta and Yalta, Dept. of State, Washington, 1955. (reproduced in Young, J.W. and Kent, J. 2004)
(13) Young, J.W. and Kent, J., ibid, p. 23
(14) Gaddis, J.L., We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History, 1997, Oxford University Press, p.15
(15) Gaddis, J.L., ibid, p.17
(16) Gaddis, J.L., ibid, p.22

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