Traditionally, there is a view that lays the blame of the Cold War on the shoulders of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the unforgiving demands of communism, such as the occupation of Eastern Europe by the Soviet Union after the Second World War, which Roosevelt was hesitant in permitting. However, this view has been challenged as time progresses and historians begin acknowledging the shortfalls of Americans in policy-making. Historians that fall under this category are from the revisionist school of thought, including Joyce and Gabriel Kolko. They largely blame the United States of America (USA) for its pursuit in trying to revitalise the war-torn European economy to sustain themselves in the new bipolarised era of two superpowers with opposing ideologies, capitalism and communism – this attempt would jar against the USSR who chose to follow defensive measures instead. Individuals such as John Lewis Gaddis fall under post-revisionism, which concluded that neither side was to blame. Gaddis claims that the two insecure nations, as they attempt to avoid the disastrous events in the aftermath of the First World War, followed different predicted trajectories and misunderstood each other. Historians Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov (hereafter just Zubok) appreciate the Soviet perspective more, with access to documents released after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Their argument exonerates the USSR of the blame originally placed on them, admitting that there was a plan for world revolution, but after an interlude of fortification following the havoc wrecked during the Second World War. Using the works of these historians, the significance of Soviet foreign policy will be measured amongst other factors, such as the role of leaders and the messianic fate of communism filling Soviet minds with the idea of inevitability, as well as conflicting ideologies. This essay will analyse and evaluate the extent to which the USSR’s foreign policy influenced the emergence of the Cold War after the Second World War.
Soon after the entry into the post-war era, the Soviets had followed their own ‘ideological messianism’ on the assumption that the USA would retreat into isolationism as they did after the First World War; they did not anticipate the obsession of Franklin D. Roosevelt over preventing the mistakes of the past. For the Soviets, the Great Depression of the 1930s came as a ‘day of reckoning’ for capitalism, and assuming that the events after the Second World War followed a similar pattern to that of the 1920s and 30s, the USA would enter another period of economic depression. They believed that internal contradictions within capitalism would let them down and thus, continued to pursue their end goal of world revolution, ignoring the democratic desires agreed in the Declaration of Liberated Europe made at the Yalta conference. Stalin, as the length of time since the end of the Second World War increased, showed increasing disinterest in upholding the Yalta agreement. This is made clear in his speech made on February 9th, 1946, as the magazine Time had commented, they were ‘returning to the slogans and tactics of world revolution.’ In this light, the USSR can be easily seen to be the main culprit in causing the Cold War. In The United States and the Origins of the Cold War 1941-1947, Gaddis argues from a post-revisionist point of view, advocating that neither are solely to blame. However, he briefly attributes the cause of the Cold War with the inflexibility of the USSR; dictatorships were free from the restrictions of Congress. With acknowledgement of Stalin’s aggressive speech, this argument proves that the USSR, while not intending to be provocative and instead blindly following their misguided assumptions (George F. Kennan had come to the conclusion that the assumption that capitalism would fall was not based on observations outside the USSR but the need to validate Russian leaders’ power), shows that their part in the world arena aided the creation of the Cold War. Adding further to the USSR’s subtle expansionist intentions, officials within Washington increasingly wanted to ‘make her [Russia] behave.’ This can be seen as the USA attempting to make the USSR conform to their desires, however, it can also be interpreted as the USSR’s misbehaviour having gone too far and requiring them to know that they can't get everything they want without consequence. In 1945, after the San Francisco Conference, the mood of the American public had shifted from Britain being the reason for the lack of progress to the USSR, as people realised the vast difference between the two nations. Washington officials struggled with negotiating with the Soviets as well, and wanted to ‘get tough with Russia,’ the most notable transition of this being the stark difference between Roosevelt and Truman. The USSR consistently made demands that the USA could no longer nor wanted to provide for. This Soviet ignorance for others resisted the idea of a united attempt at securing peace. Gaddis’s interpretation that the USA and USSR’s different visions for the post-war world dividing the honest effort for peace and the freedoms associated with dictatorship are valid. Therefore, the blame can be laid partially on the USSR’s foreign policy, considering the dictators controlled foreign policy, but human errors made in the process of healing the polarised post-war world should also be recognised.
Errors made in handling the growing crisis between the USA and the USSR aided the continental drift between the two superpowers. Dictatorships tend to end with death, resignation or successful coup d’états, while the American presidency regularly and reliably cycled through new leaders. As a result, new relationships formed between Soviet and American leaders, and disrupted or jolted progress in implementing foreign policy. Truman entered the presidency following Roosevelt’s thinking – to discipline the USSR. The Soviet diplomats had confidence in Roosevelt, who had yet to turn stern with the Soviets before his death, and was dancing along the lines of appeasement with a quid pro quo strategy; Truman, who often tried to assert himself instead of erring, came across as ‘belligerent’ – he had already adapted to the dominant mood in Washington at the time, unlike Roosevelt. Truman was committed to negotiating with the Soviets, however, their first impression of him was not pleasant. Stark changes in the leadership of the USA and the USSR would result in a disjointed effort for peace, an image that even varied between the two superpowers. Gaddis makes this argument using the relationship between the Soviet diplomats and the representatives of the aforementioned American leaders, contrasting with his interpretation that the flexibility of dictatorships would permit lenience in their actions. Looking at the argument that the leaders themselves were to blame limits the view of everything in play at that moment and would omit the legacies of these individuals (as Gaddis, despite his post-revisionist approach, has a disliking for the USSR) in the continuation of the American presidency. Each president left their mark, a legacy that the next would have to shoulder whether it was their choice or not. For example, Truman felt ‘like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me’ when he entered the presidency, as he saw little of Roosevelt before his death and wasn’t up to date as his predecessor was on matters such as the atomic bomb. Thus, the presidents were not only bound by their duty to their country, but also by circumstance. With this in mind, the American leaders that guided the USA on the world stage are partly to blame. Similarly, the Cold War was ‘not his [Stalin’s] choice or his brainchild’ as Stalin and the other leaders of the Soviet Union were moulded by surrounding events, such as Stalin’s paranoia over territorial security through previous invasions, Lenin’s dream of revolution extending to Khrushchev, and Stalin’s ‘immortality’ looming over the heads of his successors (Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization had shocked communists around the world and led to tensions among them). The Cold War was not simply a creation of the inflexibility of the American system of government combined with the juxtaposing system used in the USSR. The individuals behind the term ‘leader’ and their legacy are also an important contributor to the Cold War, from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
The USSR being reactive to the USA is an argument that is suggested by Zubok. The USA made the first move. For example, Truman’s usage of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 to intimidate Stalin, as Gar Alperovitz argues. In response to this, the Soviets developed their own, keeping pace with the Americans through espionage. Maintaining this balance of power was a task that Stalin was able to pursue because of his faith in the inevitable fall of capitalism, allowing him to set aside the ideological pursuit of world revolution. From this, it’s clear that the USA was agitating the pre-existing tension created by the dichotomy of their political stances, as the Soviets were also convinced that the USA were following their own ‘messianic anti-communism and national arrogance.’ The aggressive stance adopted by the USA would only help escalate the situation. This contrasts with Soviet attitude. At the Yalta and Potsdam conferences, Stalin, as recommended by his strategists Maisky and Litvinov, pursued cooperation ‘in order to have a few decades of peace.’ This approach would have found sympathy with the likes of Henry Wallace, however, the détente strategy was favoured particularly by leftists in the USA and so did not gain much credit. Hence, the reality of the situation resulted in American confrontation with the Soviets, and the idea of a shared modus vivendi with each other became increasingly impossible. While both parties promoted the distancing of their relationship, it is mainly due to the USA since they hastened the process. It is true that Stalin ‘wanted to conquer the world,’ acknowledged by orthodox historians and Zubok, and since 1917 communism threatened to undermine the capitalist system. However, what the latter recognises is that the orthodox historians did not appreciate the inner workings of the Kremlin. Undeniably, there were plans for world revolution, and the Americans were at a disadvantage not knowing when. But as the name ‘Cold War’ implies, there were tensions between them that weren’t directly discussed, that did not erupt with fire and fury. With the knowledge of what they did within their fear induced limited perspective and Zubok’s interpretation, it can be made known that the USA attempted to anticipate the USSR, whose ‘ideas have assumed the quality of devilish.’ The USSR was involved in a greater game, taking them away from the ‘concept of territorial security’ that Stalin feared and into an era of anxiety as the Soviet officials clung onto ‘Stalin’s empire’ and ‘ideological messianism.’ Insight into the Kremlin reveals that the Cold War was not something the USSR voluntarily chose to engage in, as supported by Zubok, whose core argument is ‘He [Stalin] wanted to avoid confrontation with the West.’ The Cold War was the hasty result of the USA trying to ensure its own place in the world, knowing that there was the looming fear of capitalist irrelevance above their heads, but misinterpreting the intentions to cope with the USSR’s territory insecurity, planted by Stalin’s paranoia.
Zubok places a large emphasis on the Soviet side of the Cold War, especially on the personalities that navigated through foreign affairs. Consequently, interpretations relating to the USA’s involvement in the Cold War are limited. The fear of communism in the USA was legitimate as the USSR were persistent and visibly aggressive in their approach to surviving in the post-war era, such as the claiming of Eastern European states after the Second World War. The Americans realised, as negotiations went on during the 1940s, that there was more and more communist ideology sinking into the Soviet’s foreign policy. Stalin was committed to communism, as in the 1920s, he began following the ‘rationale’ that strengthening the USSR was necessary to promote communist revolutions elsewhere. ‘[W]inning souls and space’ were two items that were deemed necessary to produce a strong Soviet Union. The victory of the Allies in the Second World War proved that this was a winning formula as the USSR was another nation that opposed Nazism, and as a result the number of communist and Soviet sympathisers within the USA had increased. This expansion, through gaining sympathy from abroad and claiming territory, clashed with the fundamental principles of the USA as they advocated democracy and trade. One could argue that the incompatible ideologies, the commonly claimed reason for the Cold War, is the reason for its outbreak. Instead, the USSR could be directly blamed from here. The Soviet regime was based on revolution, Russian xenophobia and messianism, and imperialism, which Zubok names the ‘revolutionary-imperial paradigm.’ Despite the mission for peace after the Second World War, the Soviets were focused solely on themselves, and the post-war era was a continuation of the ideas and policies first laid out in the 1920s. This expanding force of communism would naturally present itself as a danger to the USA multiple times, from the Greek Civil War (1946-49) to the proxy wars in Korea (1950-53) and Vietnam (1954-1975) where both superpowers and the People’s Republic of China sponsored their respective sides. The fear of communism would come in many forms, such as the Red Scares, but also Domino Theory, which was first publicly mentioned, by Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954 to justify participation in the Vietnam War. Permitting communism to spread without restraint echoed the appeasement of Hitler that failed to prevent the Second World War and the numerous invasions committed under the Empire of Japan in Asia during the 1930s. This argument is in conjunction with Gaddis’s line of thought, where leaders such as Roosevelt did not want to see a disastrous repeat in history and actively took steps to avoid it. Again, it can be seen that the USSR was taking steps down its own twisted path, rather than a cohesive one with the USA. Thus, the USSR is accountable for the Cold War. The continuation of their policies, paranoia and superiority complex after the Second World War agitated relations with the USA and left them with the rationale that they could not let a nation weaker than them manipulate their foreign policy, making pinky promises of peace. The Soviet’s foreign policy – the ‘revolutionary-imperial paradigm’ – holds much of the responsibility for the outbreak of the Cold War.
The USA’s economic aims have been noted since the 19th century, with the expression Manifest Destiny. Adopted as a mind-set for the USA since, the American economy has been a priority, and in the 20th century, this would be expressed clearer than before, considering the mere existence of the USSR posed a threat to them. The USA was not keen on the USSR’s attitude towards their national security, as they attempted to practice self-determination following the Second World War, contradicting with the USSR’s occupation of Eastern European states. There was concern for their security, with the need to ‘secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.’ This worry was repeated by the likes of Truman, leading to his eponymous doctrine in 1947, as he spread his concern to unite Congress. The consequent actions taken have been perceived by the likes of Joyce and Gabriel Kolko, revisionists, as American economic expansionism to ensure the survival of the capitalist system. They argue that one of the USA’s reasons for engaging in this geopolitical game was to prevent the events that occurred after the First World War, when they had been isolationist but also had to endure the Great Depression of the 1930s. That, among other reasons such as the anti-communist sentiment engraved within society since 1917, resulted in the USA attempting to create a capitalist world order, which would guarantee the survival of the USA. This attitude, to globalise capitalism, was asserted upon Europe in places such as Greece and Turkey, which in their case, came in the form of $400 million in aid to prevent the encroaching force of communism that the Americans feared so much. The USA’s proactive international role, especially as a world superpower, bipolarised the world as they challenged the abstract spheres of influence with their capitalist influence, an explicit example of this being the Marshall Plan in 1948. According to Kolko, the role of the USA and their economic appetite was the core reason for the Cold War. In their light, the USSR was also acting in self-interest, although this was built upon the ‘instinct of survival, based on caution.’ This is an attitude that can be verified by Zubok and Pleshakov’s interpretation, as well, as the Soviets had intentions of ‘preserving Russia as the headquarters of the world revolution.’ Therefore, the USSR was not an actively aggressive participant. The USA also intended to preserve itself by ‘turning outward, not with disinterested aid but with new designs to save itself.’ No matter how innocent these acts of self-defence appear, the blame can be shifted more towards the USA as an expansionist policy, especially one that acts near an idle country’s borders, can be perceived as aggressive. It also doesn’t help their image that the Soviets were willing to talk. Instead, the USA insisted on using an economy based foreign policy, unwilling to change their post-war vision of a capitalist world order, determined by their ‘self-assigned destiny’ to protect the free world and their own needs. In the argument presented by the leftist historian, the USA had contributed a great deal to the Cold War, making the first move to engage with the enemy via their own aggressive expansionism. This portrays the USSR as the equal and opposite force that would attempt to balance the USA’s assertiveness. Therefore, the USA, with an emphasis on their capitalist system, can be held more responsible for causing the Cold War, instead of the USSR’s foreign policy.
Kolko is openly known as leftist as well as anti-capitalist. He sees Soviet actions as steps towards security, which Zubok has confirmed such behaviour in places, such as the negotiations at Yalta and Potsdam. He does not see faults in the Soviet regime, as seen in the amount of analysis dedicated to US foreign policy but not Soviet policy in Limits of Power. The USA should not be seen as cruelly as they also established relations with the People’s Republic of China. After the Sino-Soviet split in the mid-20th century, the Chinese sought to establish good relations with the USA to counteract the threat from the USSR. This was aided by Nixon who declared that ‘[a]fter a period of confrontation, we are entering an era of negotiation’ in his inauguration speech. A symbolic example of this ‘thaw’ was ping-pong diplomacy in the early 1970s, where both nations grasped the opportunity to communicate despite the opposing natures of capitalism and communism, resulting in productive conversations such as the Three Communiques. In light of this, it is more to do with the reluctance of Stalin’s USSR that caused the Cold War. After the Second World War, the USA adopted a Wilsonian liberalism approach which advocates the expansion of capitalism and an opposition to isolationism, which Kolko acknowledges. Kolko views this as an act of American imperialism, as would the Chinese, including Zhuang Zedong before he became the ‘architect’ of ping-pong diplomacy. Their increased part in the world arena could also be seen as a helping hand, after all they were the world’s most powerful nation with nuclear capability and economic fortune. Unlike the Chinese in the 1970s, the Soviets were unable to achieve such a relationship with the USA. Gaddis argues that the USSR’s continuation of communism and the quid pro quo approach to negotiations inconvenienced the Americans, resulting in a lack of progress. They could not find the ‘common ground’ Nixon and Mao sought out together. Although Molotov and the Soviets developed a bad impression of Truman that would hinder negotiations (their ‘dream partner’ would have been Roosevelt), Stalin’s paranoia, or lack thereof, did not aid the bridging of the USA and the USSR either. Stalin’s paranoia eclipsed his analytical skills in the years before his death in 1953, where his ‘dark forebodings about the future of his empire’ persuaded him to avoid direct confrontation with the USA during the Korean War. The intensified paranoia led to a greater will for peace, rather than pushing past the 38th parallel for communist conquest as the Chinese wanted. In the years between the Second World War and the deterioration of Stalin, he was reluctant in pursuing ‘postwar imperialist partnership’ with the West, noted here by Zubok, but also supported by Gaddis as mentioned earlier. The USSR, during the short time between the peace negotiations in 1945 and the beginning of the Korean War, were mindful of their own considerations for the future of communism, but were reckless in the eyes of the West who still needed the USSR as an ally to achieve peace. Stalin also wholeheartedly believed in the fated failure of capitalism, hence his choice to abandon collaboration with the USA. China and the USA had managed to find a shared interest and developed their relationship; the USSR and the USA repeatedly could not manage this as their goals infringed on each other, in imperial ways. The rigidity of Stalin’s philosophy echoed in Soviet foreign policy, resulting in a series of events that many would consider to be a clash of ideologies. The unwillingness of the USSR to participate was a significant contributor to causing the Cold War. The USA had extended their hand, but the USSR refused to take it, and continued to be an ‘international pariah’ in the post-war era.
The emergence of the Cold War had two main contributors, the USA and the USSR – that much is certain. The extent of their roles is open to interpretation. While Kolko and Zubok’s works are convincing arguments in favour of America being the greater cause (or, in Zubok’s case, the USSR being the lesser cause of many factors), especially put together as one acknowledges the Soviet side and vice versa, Gaddis’s core argument is the most convincing and comprehensive. His post-revisionist approach realises that ‘Moscow wanted peace,’ a thought that is also echoed in Zubok’s work, specifically regarding Stalin’s wish to avoid conflict. Thus, the blame on the USSR can be alleviated slightly, although their own messiah complex can still be held accountable for their behaviour in world affairs. However, with consideration of Kolko’s argument condemning the USA for their economic imperialism can also be interpreted as messianic, as Soviet officials had thought decades ago, one can disagree with Gaddis’s lenience for the USA. One would also remain wary of Kolko’s strongly leftist position. Despite the latter, Kolko also proposes a good argument that draws on a ‘you are either with us or against us’ mentality under the iron curtain that would explain their insistence on creating a trading bloc and open door policy. Perhaps the strangest was Zubok’s line of argument as it did not go to lengths to pinpoint the blame but tried to humanise the tyrants of the revolution hungry Soviet regime, thereby exonerating the typical Western thought that it was the USSR all along. In this perspective, as well as considering the amount of control over foreign policy given to the leader, Zubok provides convincing analyses of the personalities. Overall, the role of Soviet foreign policy was quite small. Admittedly, they had converted from cooperation to communism and they weren’t always nice to negotiate with because of this. However, there were other contributors to foreign policy within both the USA and the USSR, including the paranoid control and reckless desperation of the leaders (in this case, Stalin and Truman, respectively), the designs of government systems as well as the innate fear of the USA that propelled them to extend their reach to the point it could be considered invasive.
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