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Harry S. Truman: ‘The buck stops here.’


Harry Truman at the Potsdam Conference of July-August, 1945, with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin: ‘The Big Three’. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)


Harry S. Truman: ‘The buck stops here.’

Now to the most famous ‘haberdasher’ in history, Harry S. Truman. The ‘S.’ in Truman’s name, by the way, did not actually stand for anything but was an attempt by his parents to please both of his grandfathers, Shipp Truman and Solomon Young. Anyway, Harry Truman was originally from a town called Independence, Missouri, but he opened his haberdashery (in the USA that means a gentlemen’s clothes shop) in Kansas City after he returned from the Great War in which he had served as a captain in the Field Artillery. It was not a hugely successful enterprise and it failed in the tough economic conditions of the early 1920s. Truman changed career and took advantage of some useful contacts to get elected as a county court judge, a post he held for eight years. Truman’s political career really took off during the 1930s. He was a Democrat and a strong supporter of Harry Hopkins, one of FDRs most trusted allies. Truman was elected Senator for Missouri in 1934 and he headed off to Washington to help drive through the radical ideas behind the New Deal. There is not really the space here to look at his relatively uninspired time as a senator so we will move on; this is what might be called a ‘convenient excuse’.

Truman was elected to the vice-presidency in 1944, the fourth election victory for Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR was seriously ill at this time and there was a widespread expectation that he would not survive the next four years so Truman has to have been considered at least a ‘safe pair of hands’ by the Democratic leadership, most of all FDR himself. His move into the White House probably came sooner than expected as Roosevelt died less than three months after being sworn into office; Truman was 60 years old at the time. Dismissed by many as a bland and uninspiring man of little conviction or courage, Truman proved to be a far tougher and more aggressive character than was expected. He was in office for nearly eight years and pulled off one of the most remarkable election victories in US history when returning to the White House in 1948. His time in the Oval Office were those crucial years in which the USA adopted its role as the superpower of the West and he played a pivotal in shaping the post-war world as tensions developed into the Cold War. It was his vision and values which were fundamental in providing the foundations of US foreign policy for much of the second half of the century, so shaping world affairs and international relations in the most profound way. Harry Truman may have been an ‘accidental’ President but he grew into the role and grabbed his opportunities with both hands. This is just a part of his story.


Harry S. Truman (1884-1972), the 33rd President of the USA (Author: Frank Gatteri; Source: here)

In the first weeks after Harry Truman became vice-president he hardly saw the president as FDR was away at the Yalta Conference, that meeting of the ‘Big Three’ which stood out as the most positive of the wartime meetings of the Allied Powers. Despite the natural tensions and simple politics of the occasion, it was generally an optimistic meeting between FDR, Churchill and Stalin which benefited from the knowledge that the war against the Nazis was effectively won, the final stages simply being played out in Central Europe. FDR’s health was a cause for concern and he was clearly a very sick man in the early months of 1945. This was one of the factors which led to various ‘details’ of what should happen in the post-war world being left open for a future conference, which would eventually take place at Potsdam near Berlin. FDRs poor health also meant that Truman rarely spent time alone with the great man, and actually only had one-to-one meetings with him on two occasions. When FDR died on 12th April, the country was in mourning for one of its most important leaders and also rather concerned as to how the relatively unknown Truman would handle his promotion. With no great track record of political leadership and rather lacking in the experience of foreign affairs, there were many questions and concerns as Truman took the responsibility for guiding the USA through the end of World War II and, it was hoped, into the post-war world.

Despite his less than inspiring background and the accidental manner of his arrival in the White House, Truman grew into a job which to most observers seemed to be beyond him in 1945. Rather surprisingly, Truman turned into a president who is regularly voted as one of the ‘Top Ten Presidents’ of all time, not matching Washington, Lincoln and FDR, maybe, but certainly well ahead of, say, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford and, of course, Warren Harding. So, what did Harry Truman do that makes it worth giving up a few minutes of your life to finding out about him? Here we will look at just a few things: his decision to drop the Atom Bombs on Japan; his relationship with Joseph Stalin; the Truman Doctrine and his commitment to the Marshall Plan.

First of all, then, let’s look at the impact made by the development of the atom bomb at the end of World War II, a technological event whose importance is rather difficult to over-state. Its use on two occasions in August, 1945, brought a swift end to World War II, killing tens of thousands but probably saving the lives of millions. It brought a dramatic shift in the balance of power in international relations. Its use marked the beginning of the ‘nuclear age’, an age in which the threat of total destruction hung over the world. Nuclear weapons cast the longest, broadest and darkest of shadows over the lives of people who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. This in turn led to the rise of a new form of political activism in the form of pressure groups like CND, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, creating a culture which has transformed the political landscape. There was a real sense of fear and impending doom in the back of people’s minds as they feared the ‘mushroom clouds’ that would come with the threatened nuclear attacks. And, also to the delight of many politicians and others, the new technology heralded the arrival of nuclear power and transformed the nature of war, giving a huge boost to ‘defence’ spending as research and development went into over-drive during the Cold War period. In the process, this impacted on the nature of political funding in the US as campaigns were increasingly supported by the defence industry. The fear factor in the Nuclear Age was an extraordinarily powerful driver of policy.


A scene from ‘Duck and Cover’, a US Civil Defense Film from 1951. It’s hero was the Bert the Turtle who helped children with his advice on how to survive a nuclear attack.

If you want a sense of the tension and fear of this time, get onto ‘YouTube’ or buy the DVD called ‘Nuclear Scare Stories’, especially ‘Duck and Cover’, which is a classic. I won’t spoil it for you but people really were taught that putting a table cloth over your head would do wonders when it came to saving your life in the face of such an attack. After that, you might read the splendid but frightening, ‘When the wind blows’, by Raymond Briggs.

But the main issue in all this was, of course, Truman’s use of the atom bomb itself. Technological and industrial developments had already transformed war in the Twentieth Century. No more would there be soldiers in colourful uniforms, marching steadily in formation towards the enemy lines, and never again would cavalry and swords be seen on the battlefield. The atom bomb was just one more dramatic step in the transformation of conflict, a step on from the artillery, planes, machine guns and tanks which had slaughtered people in numbers beyond counting in the two world wars and other conflicts of the first half of the century. This was different, though, as complex science came to the fore and took the destructive capability to a whole new level and put astonishing potential in the hands of politicians and generals.

The atom bomb was finally developed by Robert Oppenheimer and his team who ran the ‘Manhattan Project’, which was based at three sites in the USA, most famously Los Alamos in New Mexico. It ran between 1942 and 1946, building on the theories of Albert Einstein and the research of other great scientists like Ernest Rutherford, at Manchester University. There were many other brilliant if lesser known scientists involved on various projects in Germany, Denmark, Britain and the USA, such as  Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner and Fritz Strassmann. Although the ‘Manhattan Project’ turned out to be the ‘winner’ in the race for the bomb which could harness atomic power, there was no certainty that this would be the case despite the US funding and the brilliance of Oppenheimer’s team. The Nazi regime had been seeking such a development itself during the war and there were major concerns for the Allies when Germany invaded Denmark in October 1943, so closing in on Niels Bohr, a leading atomic researcher. The British managed to move Bohr to Sweden and also disrupted some factories and supplies in the Nazi nuclear programme but this all reflected how tight things were at the time. This may well be seen as a decisive moment in the war as keeping Bohr safe gave a vital advantage to the Allies and helped the ‘Manhattan Project’ them to develop the atom bomb first. By 16th July, 1945, Oppenheimer had three bombs ready to test at the top secret Los Alamos base in New Mexico.


J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967): leader of the ‘Manhattan Project’. (Author: Department of Energy, Office of Public Affairs ; Source: here)

When the tests on the bombs were completed, some of those involved in the project were astonished and horrified by the power they had unleashed. Oppenheimer himself declared, ‘Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds’, based on a quote from the ‘Bhagavad Gita’, a sacred Hindu book. Oppenheimer and many others feared what might happen as these new weapons were unleashed on the world. But for President Truman, the bombs were a necessary evil, a weapon that gave the US an unprecedented advantage in a war which had no clear end in sight, at least in the Pacific. The Atom Bomb had been developed at huge cost and Truman knew that they might be developed by the enemy who could use them against the US and her Allies. Being under huge pressure to justify the costs and to act quickly to end the war, Truman decided to use the atom bombs. Originally the plan had been to use them against the Nazi forces in Europe but Germany but  had surrendered on 8th May, 1945, and so it was that Japan was to face attack the atomic bombs in August, 1945. Whether or not Truman made the right call is hotly debated to this day.

The full details of the dropping of the atom bombs are obviously available through many websites and books. Some of the key facts are here, though. At 8.15 am on Monday, 6th August, 1945, the city of Hiroshima was devastated when the first atom bomb, codenamed ‘Little Boy’, was dropped from a B-29 Superfortress bomber, called ‘Enola Gay’ in honour of the mother of Paul Tibbets, the pilot. The city had a population of about 340 000 and was an important military supply centre in the south of Honshu, Japan’s main island. It was an acceptable target for the bomb because of its use by the military but also because it had suffered no significant damage during the war up to that point which allowed a clear analysis of the power of the bomb. Even though ‘Little Boy’ only exploded with about 2% of its full potential, apparently, the explosion destroyed 70% of the city, killing 70 000-80 000 people almost instantly, many of them being vapourised in the process. Some of the dead included a small group of US prisoners of war. On Thursday, 9th August, a second bomb, ‘Fat Man’, was dropped on the city of Nagasaki on the southern island of Kyushu from a B-29 called ‘Bockscar’. Here there were fewer immediate deaths than in Hiroshima with about 50 000 – 70 000 killed but the bomb, which had a plutonium core as opposed to the uranium used in ‘Little Boy’, was a more powerful blast. The fewer deaths were partly down to the fact that Nagasaki was more hilly than Hiroshima. In both cities, the devastation was astonishing and the deaths from injuries and illness continued long after, mainly from the effect of burns and radiation sickness.  So far, these two incidents represent the only use of nuclear weapons although there were many near misses from accidents in the subsequent decades and on two particular occasions, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and during a NATO Training exercise in 1983, the world stood on the brink of full nuclear war. But back in 1945, Harry Truman was comfortable with his decisions and happy with the outcome, despite the deaths of so many civilians. A war against a fierce opponent who had never before surrendered in any war was brought to an end just a week afterwards with the announcement of the Japanese surrender. The actual statement had come the day before when Emperor Hirohito of Japan made his first ever radio broadcast and, to the shock and shame of many people, announced the surrender following the “use of a new and cruel bomb” which meant that continued fighting could bring the destruction of the nation and endanger the whole of humanity. The atom bomb clearly achieved its goal for President Truman who had shown a ruthless streak in his decision making.


On 2nd September, 1945, the Japanese Foreign Minister, Mamoru Shigemitsu, signed the official surrender on behalf of his government. It took place on board the USS ‘Missouri’, a ship named after Harry Truman’s home state. (Author: Army Signal Corps; Source: here)

The question, “Was Truman right to use the atom bombs against Japan?” has been debated many times. No simple or clear solution is evident but the logic of Truman’s arguments always show that he has a case to support his actions despite the horrific number of casualties, especially those of innocent civilians – although some people argue that in war-time, very few people are completely ‘innocent’. On the ‘pro-Truman’ side of the argument are some rather important factors, especially for a politician. It meant that the USA and its Allies won. It meant a quicker end to the war against an enemy with a fierce reputation and no willingness to surrender. It meant far fewer casualties for the USA, which was a huge factor based on the experience of the fighting in the Pacific Islands. It saved money and enabled the USA to get on with other matters, such as addressing the crisis facing Europe which had seen so much death and destruction; ‘Marshall Aid’ and the recovery of Europe happened partly because of the Atom Bombs. For a former vice-president looking to prove himself as President, it showed Truman as a strong leader who could make tough decisions. It showed Stalin and the USSR just how powerful the Atom Bomb was and that the USA was willing to use it, giving a powerful message about future conflicts. By dropping two different types of bomb, scientists had a clear understanding of which one was more powerful  which allowed further developments in future; despite the lower level of destruction and fewer casualties, the ‘better’ bomb was ‘Fat Man’, the one dropped on Nagasaki and the plutonium method was the one developed. The development and use of the atom bombs marked the USA’s pre-eminent position on the world stage, a massive development from its days of isolationism and firmly established it as the Western ‘Superpower’.

One particular example of war in the Pacific may be of use here to explain the pressure Truman came under to use the atom bomb. Many will have heard the story of the ‘Battle of Iwo Jima’, either from history books, novels, photos or films. The battle took place over five weeks in February-March, 1945, some months before the atom bombs were dropped. Iwo Jima is a tiny island just south of Japan. It had been attacked by the US Army as they tried to fight their way towards Japan. The island was defended by a force estimated at 21000 Japanese soldiers. In the fighting, the Americans lost nearly 7000 men out of a force of 70 000 with another 20 000 wounded. The Japanese, by contrast, refused to surrender, and suffered a death rate of 95% as less than one thousand were taken prisoner – and some sources put that figure as low as 216, with many of them having to have their guns dragged from them. That battle was 70 000 against 21 000; there were many other islands to fight for – and what would happen when the Americans got to Japan itself? How many more would have to die? What would it cost? How long might it take? Many people believe the atom bomb saved lives; these figures suggest that was almost certainly true.

The argument against dropping the atom bombs on Japan is simpler. The fundamental point is that the bombs killed many thousands of people in a most violent and horrific manner and most of those who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were civilians. Although Hiroshima and Nagasaki were important places, the majority of casualties were non-military: women, the elderly and children. The destruction was indiscriminate. Death in war is rarely ‘clean’ but these were casualties of a new kind, a terrible agony being suffered from horrendous burns and the agony of radiation sickness; many people ceased to exist as their bodies were destroyed by the heat and the blast. And the agony went on for the survivors with many people suffering blindness and cancers, many giving birth to babies with the most severe deformities long after the bombing. Every death is a tragedy but Truman’s decision to use the atom bomb undoubtedly led to the deaths of thousands of innocent people.

In reality, the atom bomb was used twice against Japan and the argument is to some extent irrelevant or academic; the bombs cannot be ‘unused’ or the destruction be ‘undone’. What is clear is that nuclear bombs have not, so far, been used again. The shock of the destruction may have played a part in curbing the actions of politicians since then, according to some observers, most notably in the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was not a decision Truman took lightly but it was one which met with the strong approval of most Americans; and in a democracy, that is a pretty powerful justification for any politician.


A burns victim being treated after the attack on Hiroshima. (Author: Shunkichi Kikuchi; Source: here)

The atom bomb had a huge impact politically as well as militarily with repercussions that shaped international relations between the ‘Superpowers’ in those early post-war years. Truman’s relationship with Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union, was tense from the start and a vital factor in the development of the Cold War. Stalin had respect for, and felt respected by, FDR and Churchill, there being a certain bond between the three leaders who had seen their respective countries, and the Alliance as a whole, through one of the darkest chapters in world history. The most positive conference they had was at Yalta in February, 1945, where they sketched out what was to happen after victory had been won. Things actually looked reasonably bright in the following weeks until other events kicked in; firstly, Roosevelt died in early April 1945, to be replaced by Truman and then, in July, during the Potsdam Conference itself, Churchill was replaced by Clement Attlee as Prime Minister of Britain. Stalin was saddened by FDR’s absence but death happens; he was absolutely stunned and horrified by the loss of Churchill to be replaced by, in his opinion, such an inconsequential figure as Attlee. The photos of Attlee at the Potsdam Conference do present him as a totally different presence from Churchill. Stalin had never been keen on democracy but the defeat of Churchill sealed its fate in Eastern Europe and the USSR: if the voters could get rid of a great hero like Churchill, Stalin was not going to be taking any risks in his sphere of influence. The wartime alliance was disintegrating even before the war ended. The relationship between Stalin and Truman would do nothing to help that relationship.

Truman had little by way of real experience in foreign affairs and certainly nothing in terms of dealing with Stalin and the Soviets when he arrived at Potsdam, near Berlin, for the conference in July, 1945. He was a man who felt that he had a lot to prove and so he took a very aggressive line with the Soviet delegation, many of whom said they had never been spoken to as rudely as they were by Truman. When referring to the existence of the atom bomb, Truman did it in a way which was meant to be slightly obscure and with a threat, effectively warning Stalin that it could be used against the USSR at some stage. Stalin was not hugely impressed by the news as he already knew of the atom bomb because of spies; but he was certainly not happy with Truman, who he dismissed as a little man who was not worthy of replacing the great Roosevelt.



The Big Three at Potsdam: Attlee in a crumpled three piece suit, Truman in a bow tie and Stalin in military uniform. They make an unlikely team of allies. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Truman’s view of Stalin and the USSR was that both the man and the country were evil. When he received George Kennan’s famous  ‘Long Telegram’ in 1946, the idea that Stalin was calculating and aggressive, the modern equivalent of a dreadful modern Tsar, it made perfect sense to Truman. The ‘Long Telegram’ said that Stalin was seeking to expand Communism and he wanted ‘world revolution’ as Marx had called for. Truman responded with his policy for the ‘containment’ of Communism, the so-called ‘Truman Doctrine’ which would, despite some name changes under later presidents, come to dominate US foreign policy for most of the Cold War. The tension in the relationship between Truman and Stalin was certainly a significant contributory factor at the start of the Cold War, one which took it further and deeper than it might otherwise have gone.

Another crucial element in Truman’s contribution to world affairs was the ‘Marshall Plan’. It was a key aspect of ‘Truman Doctrine’ in action and transformed the post-war world. Its full title was the ‘European Recovery Plan’ and it was developed under the guidance of one of the most significant and reliable figures of the Twentieth Century: General George C. Marshall, Truman’s Secretary of State (which means he dealt with Foreign Affairs). It was on a visit to Europe in 1947 that Marshall saw the destruction of the continent, the plight of the refugees and the potential growth in influence by Communist supporters if recovery did not come quickly. He proposed the ‘Marshall Plan’ as a way of ensuring this recovery and eventually Truman’s support enabled $13.5 billion of aid to be given to 16 countries in Western Europe. Britain and France were the biggest beneficiaries, although even that would not be enough to ensure a full recovery; Britain had been effectively bankrupt in 1946-47, having to withdraw from its commitments to support Greece at a time when it faced the on-going threat of Civil War and this would be a crucial moment in which Truman further established himself as the first of the ‘Cold Warriors’.

Truman saw that Britain’s economic plight was a true crisis and that the USA had to step into support and, effectively, to replace the old powers who had for so long been the main players in international affairs, through their Empires and the League of Nations. This demanded a massive change of attitude in the US as he had to overturn the country’s long standing isolationism, whereby it had stayed out of foreign matters unless it had to get involved during a war. He also know that the decisions that would be faced had to be backed  by a huge amount of money so that the US could deliver on promises it would have to make. Truman managed to do this and so changed the role of the USA in world affairs, creating a new world order which was to ensure that the US would be the biggest player on the global stage throughout the rest of the Twentieth Century. Truman was fundamental in shaping the modern world order.

As indicated earlier, the primary goal of ‘Marshall Aid’ and the ‘Truman Doctrine’ was to contain the spread of Communism in the post-war era. These put the ‘Long Telegram’ into action but there was more to containing Communism than these high-profile policies. One country where the Communists/Socialists were especially strong in politics after World War II was Italy. It had turned away from the Fascism of Mussolini to embrace Left Wing ideology and, as elections loomed in 1948, the USA became deeply concerned at the prospect of a Communist Government in such a key European state. Such a result would extend Communist influence right into the heart of the Mediterranean and to the border with France. It would be a sign of the failure of containment, a sign of ‘domino theory’ in action. It would be a failure for the ‘Marshall Plan’ and for Truman himself. The Catholic Church was also deeply concerned at the thought of an atheistic Government in power in Italy, the heartland of the church and effectively the home of the Pope who lived in the Vatican. The shock of a Communist Government in a country such as Italy would have been immense and, at a time when stories of communist spies in the US itself were beginning to grab the headlines, Truman and the Democrats were under great pressure to act, especially as they faced own elections in November 1948. Something had to be done and Truman was prepared for a radical approach, so in stepped the recently formed CIA for its first direct attempt at influencing foreign affairs on behalf of capitalism and democracy.


The CIA, an organisation brought into existence by President Truman (Author: US Central Government; Source: here)

The CIA is, of course, the ‘Central Intelligence Agency’. Although the USA had always gathered intelligence through spies and in other ways, there was nothing formally coordinated until World War II when FDR set up the OSS (Office of Strategic Services). This was closed down after the war but the importance of such work in the increasingly threatening atmosphere of the ‘Cold War’ led to it being re-established by the National Security Act. The CIA was set up in 1947 when President Truman gave it responsibility for overseeing security and intelligence matters abroad. Its first major attempt at going beyond intelligence gathering and into influencing events overseas was to be in those Italian elections, where they were directed to help the Christian Democrats against the Communists. With support also coming from the Catholic Church, whose priests often directed their congregations how to vote and excommunicated members of the Communist Party, the CIA gave money, technology and resources to help the anti-Communist politicians. F. Mark Wyatt, one of the CIA ‘operatives’ on the ground during what was a violent and dirty campaign, was interviewed for the CNN ‘Cold War’ series and said that he quite literally took bags of money around with him to hand out to politicians for their ‘expenses’ and to pay for propaganda posters and pamphlets. In addition, a massive campaign was run encouraging millions of Italian-Americans in the USA to write home, telling people of the dangers of communism.

And it all worked, much to the despair and anger of the Italian Communists who were defeated. The success of the campaign saw the Christian Democrats in power. There was relief in the capitals of Western Europe and a new belief in Washington: the ‘dominoes’ had not fallen and it was possible to get the desired results if there was an appropriate level of commitment and intervention. The CIA would be at the heart of many more years of covert American activities aimed at supporting anti-Communist groups in places like Guatemala, Chile, Cuba as well as around Europe and Asia. In Italy itself, declassified records from the CIA show that the tactics used in 1948 were repeated at every Italian General Election for at least the next 24 years: so much for democracy, it might be said.

Just back to Harry Truman to finish off. Truman amazed everyone by winning the 1948 election after he had been written off and some newspapers had even printed news of his defeat before the election was over. Despite his victory over the Republican candidate, Thomas Dewey, though, there was lots of trouble ahead. Within a year, the defeat of Jiang Jieshi at the hands of Mao Zedong saw the greatest ‘domino’ falling as China went ‘red’, taking Communism from central Europe to the Pacific coast of Asia. This led to the accusation that Truman had been responsible for ‘the loss of China’, a phrase which would haunt Truman. It was also used to threaten subsequent presidents who feared that they would be accused of the loss of another state which fell to Communism in future. In this way ‘Domino theory’ was a central part of US foreign policy in the next two decades, never more so than when Kennedy and Johnson became embroiled in the troubles of south-east Asia. In addition to the Chinese Revolution, the Soviet Union’s development of the atom bomb, spying scandals and difficulties of the Korean War, as well as the rise of McCarthyism, all made his final years in office a difficult time. Despite these problems, Truman is usually regarded as a successful president and a tough politician who seized his opportunities and made the the most of his talents.

Even if the ‘S.’ in his name stood for nothing, Truman himself certainly stood for something very important.  His most famous quote was, ‘The buck stops here’, a man who believed that as president he was ultimately responsible for what happened, for good or ill. And whether you think he was right or wrong over the Atom Bombs or anything else, Truman was a man who made some pretty big decisions and, in doing so, transformed the USA and shaped the modern world in a most profound manner.

Harry Truman died in 1972 at the age of 88.


Find out more

Books: ‘Truman’ by David McCullough (1992); ‘Hiroshima’ by John Hersey (1946); ‘American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer’ by Kai Bird & Martin J. Sherwin, 2009)

Films and DVDs: ‘Truman’ (Starring Gary Sinise) (1996); ‘The World at War’ (Thames Television); ‘Cold War’ (CNN); ‘Hiroshima’ (Paul Wilmhurst) (2011)


“I remember when I first came to Washington. For the first six months you wonder how the hell you ever got here. For the next six months you wonder how the hell the rest of them ever got here.” Harry S. Truman

The enemy of my enemy is my friend – for now: The origins of the Cold War, 1945-49


June 5th, 1945: Supreme Commanders of the Allied Forces in Berlin. From left: Montgomery (UK), Eisenhower (USA), Zhukov (USSR) and de Lattre (France)

The enemy of my enemy is my friend – for now: The origins of the Cold War, 1945-49

“We have to get tough with the Russians. They don’t know how to behave. They are like bulls in a china shop. They are only 25 years old. We are over 100 and the British are centuries older.  We have got to teach them how to behave.” Harry Truman, April 1945.

In life, the shared hatred of another figure often unites people who themselves have little love for each other. As the old saying goes, ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’, and there are many examples of this tension in history. Alliances formed by fear and necessity in the face of a dangerous enemy rarely survive the peace, though. Of the many examples, the point is made by the likes of the city states of Ancient Greece fighting the mighty Persians, the Communist and Nationalist forces in China putting aside their differences to oppose Japan in World War II and the very interesting case of US aid being given to the Mujahideen to oppose Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In each case, peace brought a brief period of celebration and easy relations which were soon followed by a re-establishment of the old order. The truth is, of course, that the two sides were never really allies with completely shared goals and never fully trusted each other. With regard to World War II, In reality, the USSR, the USA and Britain, the East and the West, were clearly divided on ideological grounds before hostilities began. The history of the three very different countries, their cultures, political systems and industrial structures were such that only the expansionist ideas of an Adolf Hitler could ever bring them to unity. When things like their values, needs and goals came to find expression in the shaping of the post-Nazi world, there was no realistic hope that the alliance could survive, and so it proved. By 1949, the Cold War was well and truly established and would dominate world affairs for four decades.

In summarising how the Cold War developed, there are a number of factors to consider. Just as happens in any relationship breakdown, each story about the end of a war-time alliance is unique but there are often shared and identifiable themes. When analysing the collapse of the East-West alliance of World War II, it is quite clear that some pretty fundamental issues were at work. These factors included: the leadership of the different countries, with the complex world of ego and personality to the fore; the historic tension between the different countries based on values and political systems, including the way the war had been fought; and the deeply held hopes and fears about the future, especially around the role of Germany. On top of these historic factors, there was then a range of events which added complexity and tension to the potentially volatile and anxious relationship. Any looking at the Allies and their ‘marriage of convenience’ in 1941 would have expected that it was doomed in the long run. The only real question was just how acrimonious the divorce would be. It turned out to be only just short of apocalyptic.

So, the first factor to consider is the role of the leaders of the three Allied nations: The United States of America (USA), the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the United kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (Britain). During the war, President Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) had led the USA, Winston Churchill was Prime Minister of Britain and Joseph Stalin had ruled the USSR. Together they were the ‘Big Three’. They were from very different backgrounds: Stalin was the son of Georgian peasant, FDR was from a very wealthy New York family and Churchill was born in one of the greatest houses in Europe, Blenheim Palace, a grandson of the Seventh Duke of Marlborough. Stalin had long been a Communist revolutionary, regularly imprisoned by the Tsar, a long-standing and under-estimated member of the Politburo following the Russian Revolution who came to power through manipulation and force in the aftermath of Lenin’s early death. FDR had known a life of leisure and privilege before going into politics under the US system of democracy before being struck down by polio. His rise to the Presidency and his role as the saviour of the country through the ‘New Deal’ in the 1930s saw him returned to the White House four times, a record which will never be matched. Churchill was one of the most famous men in Britain for forty years before finally becoming Prime Minister in 1940. His extraordinary life took him being a journalist and prisoner of war in the Boer War, to a leading role in the Liberal Government of Herbert Asquith, to becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Baldwin Government of the 1920s before he entered his years of isolation in the thirties. The great alliance which stood up to Hitler and the Nazis was led by three quite extraordinary figures, none of whom lacked attitude, experience and vision – and none of whom completely trusted the others.

These three men led three powerful countries. In the simplest terms it could be said that the USA was the richest country in the world, the USSR was the largest country in the world and Britain controlled the greatest Empire the world had ever seen. As individuals, FDR, Stalin and Churchill were complex figures who considered the status in the world and history. As leaders of countries whose populations had such high expectations of them, they were not free to compromise on potential security and influence in the post-war world. However, although they knew they were not real allies and were divided on numerous issues, their collaboration had been forged in the heat of battle and there was a strong and shared respect. Each of the countries had made major sacrifices and significant contributions to the struggle, and there was a powerful bond between them as they planned to shape the world after the defeat of National Socialism and its allies. They all seemed to enjoy being on the greatest political stage, sharing it with other powerful politicians and knowing that what they were doing would touch the lives of every person on earth. For Stalin, in particular, as a man from a peasant background in Georgia, there was real pride in standing alongside the leaders of the USA and Great Britain. From FDR and Churchill there was a recognition that the Soviet Union had suffered more than any other country in casualties and damage and it had made a mighty contribution to victory. The relationship was tense but they held together reasonably well, especially while victory was in the future.


The ‘Big Three’ at Yalta, February 1945: Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

None of the leaders could ever be described as stupid, though. FDR, Stalin and Churchill all knew that respect did not necessarily mean trust. The peace-time challenges would clearly be different but there was hope that that their fragile but real bonds of respect might enable those difficulties to be met in a reasonably smooth and acceptable manner. However, one thing that became evident in the war conferences was that FDR and Churchill in particular were keen to manoeuvre against each other so as to get into as good a position as possible to deal with Stalin after the war. These conferences, which were held at Tehran in Persia (modern Iran), Yalta in the USSR (modern Ukraine) and Potsdam in Germany, were fundamental to the shaping of the post-war world – and they played a key role in laying the foundations for the Cold War, too.

The basic facts about the war-time conferences, such as the dates, venues, attendees and agendas, tell us a lot but not everything that we need to know. There is a ‘back-story’, some of which can be useful in helping us more fully appreciate the significance of the Conferences. This will be looked at in the second point, about the history of tension between the USSR and the Western Powers, in particular, going back to 1917. But, in this section, the focus is on the leading protagonists themselves and in this, there were some very momentous shifts.

The first change came on 12th April, 1945, Roosevelt died in Warm Springs, Georgia. He was only 63 years old but he was exhausted and he had looked terribly unwell when attending the Yalta conference in February of that year. People had been shocked at how frail he looked although the press releases all suggested that he was well, as they had done before the 1944 election. Obviously his polio and the pressures of office contributed to his premature death but there is little doubt that Joseph Stalin also made a contribution. Stalin was very unwilling to travel outside the USSR, or at least to move beyond the area under the control of the Red Army. He was unwilling, for example, to travel to London or Washington for any conference and so it was that FDR and Churchill, the former having problems with blood pressure and his heart, amongst other things, had to make the long journey to Yalta in the Crimea in the winter of 1944. The fact that it was the western powers who travelled is one of the signs of how much influence Stalin actually held and the way in which FDR and Churchill were keen not to be seen to upset him.

In place of the four-time President, a truly great statesman, who was the hero of the ‘New Deal’ and the man who had led the USA toward victory since the shock of Pearl Harbor, there stood an almost unknown figure, Harry S. Truman, the former haberdasher from Independence, Missouri. Having known Roosevelt, a man usually seen as one of the three greatest presidents of all time in the USA, Truman was a shock to Stalin when they met for the Potsdam Conference in late July, 1945. However, his arrival was at least something he could understand as, obviously, death comes to us all, and it was known that FDR had been seriously ill for some time. The second change, on the other hand, left Stalin stunned and horrified. At Potsdam, Winston Churchill arrived as leader of Britain but awaiting the result of a General Election which had been held at the start of July, 1945. There was a three week delay in announcing the result because of counting votes from military personnel around the world. It was during the conference itself that the result came through: Churchill had lost and was replaced as Britain’s Prime Minister by the Labour leader, Clement Attlee. Stalin could simply not understand how Churchill, the great war-time leader, could be replaced by Attlee, a man he saw as a non-entity with nothing of the power, vision and status of Churchill. While no one could ever claim that Stalin was a fan of democracy, it is difficult to believe that this did anything but harden his position against it; Attlee’s victory ensured that democracy was certain to remain unused in the USSR’s sphere of influence after the war, regardless of any promises that were made. More importantly, Stalin never had the respect for Truman and Attlee that he had for FDR and Churchill; something fundamental to the alliance was broken at Potsdam. There would have been problems after the war whoever had led the three great powers but there is little doubt that the sudden changes in the final months of the war added something to the chaos and tension that developed afterwards.


The not quite so ‘Big Three’ at Potsdam, July-August 1945: seated from left to right are Clement Attlee, Harry Truman and Joseph Stalin. It always appears that Attlee looks so small and slight in this picture, lacking any physical presence. Truman had come to be president by accident and had much both to learn and to prove. Stalin was confused about the relationships but absolutely clear about what he wanted to achieve. (Author: Army Signal Corps Collection in the U.S. National Archives; Source: here).

A second factor that impacted on the post-conflict situation was the history of distrust and fear between the two sides. All of the Western Powers had looked on with great concern as the revolutions of 1917 tore Russia apart. The ‘February Revolution’ saw the Tsar removed and Russian forces effectively withdraw from the Great War where they had fought with France and Britain against German expansionism. The revolutionaries were seen as, at best, unreliable, tearing down traditional institutions and values such as the monarchy, church and landownership, which were seen as the bedrock of civilisation. On-going confusion in Russia during that remarkable year had ended with the ‘October Revolution’, which saw the Bolsheviks come to power. Lenin’s extreme form of communism was in control of Russia, the largest country in the world, and a peace treaty was agreed with Germany at Brest-Litovsk, placing great strain on Allied forces in the West. In one of the most notorious acts of the century, an action which sent shock waves around the world, Tsar Nicholas II and his family were killed in July, 1918. The limited democracy enjoyed in Russia since 1906 was ended, religion was attacked and freedoms were removed as Lenin took control; Communism was feared by many across the ‘free world’. When the Russian Civil War (1918-1921) broke out between the Bolsheviks and their opponents, the USA, Britain, France and Japan, sent troops to fight with the ‘Whites’, a mixture of monarchists and some of the military, against the ‘Reds’, the Bolshevik forces. Stalin, amongst others, would never forget the way those Western forces had worked for the destruction of Bolshevism and saw them as a threat he had to resist and, if possible, to eliminate. Victory for the Bolsheviks sent renewed anxiety around the world, threatening landowners, politicians, business leaders and religious powers in equal measure. ‘Communism’ was suddenly the greatest menace on earth.

A key expression of this in the 1920’s was the ‘Red Scare’ in the USA, the perceived threat of Communist infiltration, which spread fear across the country. The trial and subsequent execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, Italian anarchist immigrants, was just one famous anti-communist moment in that decade of prosperity, gangsters and prohibition. There was a powerful sense of Communist expansion, something felt just as keenly in Europe at that time. The collapse of the world economy triggered by the ‘Wall Street Crash’ in 1929 only increased tensions as the USSR’s economy began to grow under the first of Stalin’s five-year plans. The progress may have come at a horrid cost but it still caused many people from the USA to visit and even to move to the USSR. The support of people like Paul Robeson, the American singer and civil rights activist, George Bernard Shaw, the great writer, and Malcolm Muggerdige, a well-known journalist, made Moscow’s policies seem credible and there was great concern in the capitals of the West over the possible spread of left-wing influence at home.


George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), the only man to win both a Nobel Prize and an Oscar, was a supporter of Communism who visited the USSR in 1931. (Author: Nobel Foundation; Source: here)

The fear of communism was also evident in Germany, where it led to a lot of support for Hitler and the Nazis. The ‘Spartacist Uprising’ of the post-war year had been the first sign of a move to the left in German politics, a movement which was harshly put down and saw the deaths of leaders like Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Leibknecht. Throughout the twenties, the extremes of the left and the right both lost support in the country as economic stability and growth returned in the wake of the ‘Dawes Plan’, which addressed the problem of war reparations. However, as the banks closed, unemployment rose and the economy collapsed in the Great depression, support for the extremist groups in Germany rose once more. The fear of communism was such that it led to some very powerful groups uniting behind Hitler, including Church leaders, businessmen, the aristocracy and the centrist politicians. This support was crucial to the rise of the Nazis.

But while there was fear in the west towards the rise of Marxist-Leninst ideology, Moscow also had concerns as it looked to the west during the decade before the war. The rise of right-wing Fascist dictatorships, such as Benito Mussolini in Italy and Admiral Horthy in Hungary could not be ignored. The failures of capitalism and democracy in the face of the economic crisis after the Wall Street Crash did not suggest a model for growth and stability for the USSR or the world. The dithering of the League of Nations in dealing with expansionist actions of Japan in Manchuria and Italy in Abyssinia suggested both weakness and a selfish, Imperialist attitude on the part of Britain and France in particular. The lack of support for the democratically elected but Republican Government in Spain, while it was known that Italy and Germany were supporting the Fascist forces of General Franco, served only to convince Stalin that the Western Powers were morally bankrupt opportunists. In addition to this, the failure of the League of Nations to stand up to Hitler over the Rhineland, the Anschluss with Austria and the invasion of the Sudetenland/Czechoslovakia, had strengthened Stalin’s view that Britain and France would allow German expansion towards the East, even as far as the USSR itself, just as long as Hitler did not disturb their world.

Stalin was a hard-headed analyst with a clear sense of what he wanted and this was expressed in the scandalous and shocking Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939. The agreement ‘guaranteed’ peace between the two obvious enemies just a few days before the German invasion of Poland was to take place. Stalin would argue that it was necessary to buy time for the Soviet forces to prepare for the invasion which would inevitably come at some time; for Hitler it was a way of guaranteeing that he would get a pretty free run at Poland. In London and Paris, there was horror at the pact but for Stalin, such words smacked of hypocrisy for appeasement had done exactly the same thing through the decades, avoiding conflict when it was inconvenient so saving lives, money and resources – and buying time. Stalin understood the criticisms and was under no illusions about what he was doing but there was no way he would compromise his goals for the sake of the West. This was something which was equally clear after 1945, for Stalin was a man of consistent principles, clear goals and with an astonishing memory, not only for what happened but also able to hold on to the power of those memories too. The fact that he was a psychopath with paranoid tendencies only served to make him an impossible man for FDR and Churchill, Truman and Attlee to deal with. Where the democratically elected also tended to look to the future and planned in the short term, Stalin had a strong sense of history and, as a dictator, could play the long-term game.

A third factor which shaped the Cold War was closely linked with the previous section, namely the vision for the future, the post-war world, which above all meant what to do with Germany. This had been under discussion since the Teheran Conference of October, 1943, when the leaders were convinced that the tide had turned in their favour and that, although victory was some way off, they could believe that the Allies would defeat Hitler. But it was at the second major conference of the ‘Big Three’, the February 1945 meeting held in the Crimean town of Yalta, that this vision was fully sketched out. This turned out to be a positive gathering as victory in the West was assured. The D-Day landings of June, 1944, had joined with the progress through Italy and, most of all, the huge advance of the ‘Red Army’ which was already at the Germany’s eastern border, and it was clear that victory over Germany was a matter of weeks away. At Yalta, the three leaders were optimistic and spoke in generous terms, promising to work together so as to cooperate after the war and to respect each other, especially in running Germany. The agreements reached at Yalta were big on ideas but thin on the specific details, which were left to a later date, what was to be the ‘Potsdam Conference’. The division of Germany and Austria, Berlin and Vienna, into zones to be occupied by the victors was agreed, and it was also decided that all issues affecting Germany and Austria would be discussed openly, there would be no secret talks and decisions would be reached unanimously otherwise they would not happen. Things sounded good on paper but reflection would show that there was plenty of cause for concern as the leaders returned to their respective capitals.

Some of the issues of those days would become significant in the early post-war years. There was, for example, division between FDR and Churchill as they tried to cut favourable deals with Stalin, often under-estimated and described as ‘Uncle Joe’. There was a sense of a change to the old world order, with Britain and France in decline and the USA and the USSR on the rise. Roosevelt was not happy about Britain and France, for example, keeping its empires and did not want to be tied into using US dollars to enable them to do that. There had already been some separate meetings amongst the three leaders, as well, with Roosevelt and Churchill meeting at Casablanca on the way to Yalta but, more importantly, one between Churchill and Stalin in October, 1944, which had led to the famous ‘Naughty document’, the agreement by which the Balkans were divided into ‘spheres of influence’. The ‘Percentages Agreement’ was completed on the back of an envelope over drinks one night, with Churchill doing the writing and Stalin giving his assent with a big tick. While Churchill knew that it stood on rather flimsy ground, a clear breach of some basic principles of democracy, it was a significant document for Stalin, one he would keep in mind in later discussions. One other area of debate, was the role that France should play in post-war affairs. For Churchill it was essential that France was involved as a victorious nation, one of the Allies, despite the fact that they had been defeated in just six weeks of fighting back in 1940. He believed that if France were humiliated then it could become a de-stabilising force in Europe. For Stalin, in particular, it seemed incredible that Paris should be invited to have a say but both he and Roosevelt went along with the plan, an act of respect to Churchill.


The ‘Percentages Agreement’ or ‘Naughty Document’ produced one night in Moscow. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

At Yalta, then, the spirit of cooperation was strong in the talking but it did not transfer well into action. The final meeting of the war leaders at Potsdam in late July-early August, 1945, showed just how quickly things could fall apart. As already mentioned, Harry Truman arrived to replace Roosevelt while Clement Attlee turned up during the Conference to replace Churchill. The focus of tension was the relationship between Truman and Stalin. Harry Truman had only been Vice-President for a few months when FDR died, leaving him as the President but one who had, obviously, not been elected, and someone with limited profile and experience. Truman had actually had very little time and contact with Roosevelt in the wake of the Yalta Conference so he had much to learn. He needed to prove himself and show that he had what was needed to ensure that the USA was kept safe and able to act with strength on the world stage. He also needed to ensure that the war in the Pacific was ended successfully and as swiftly as possible. Truman believed he had to stand up to Stalin and Communism, although he did need the USSR to guarantee that it would stand by its promise to join the fight against Japan in the weeks after the Conference.

Potsdam was an unhappy and tense conference. Stalin did not have much time for his two new ‘allies’, and the whole Soviet team believed that Truman was rude, bullying and disrespectful towards them. They believed that Roosevelt would never have spoken to them the way Truman did and they very quickly settled for obstruction, limited discussion and the repetition of demands. The most memorable moment at the Conference, though, came with Truman’s indirect reference to the atom bomb which had just been tested by Robert Oppenheimer and his team at Los Alamos. Stalin already knew about the bomb, thanks to spies within the USA. However, the tone Truman used and the implication that it might be used against the Soviet Union if things did not go as the USA wanted, left Stalin feeling insecure and concerned. His relationship with Truman was such that it was the trigger for the many tensions which came to put the Cold War in place. Clement Attlee, it should be noted, was already seen as a marginal figure, a sign of what was to come as the two new superpowers came to lead world affairs.

The atom bombs were, of course, used to devastating effect on Hiroshima on 6th August and Nagasaki on 9th August, 1945. Japan surrendered on 15th August and so the greatest war in world history came to its official close. However, the damage was such that, in many ways, an equally great challenge awaited. In Europe, the focus for the difficulties was Germany and, most of all, Berlin and it was there that tensions most clearly developed. As is well-known, the four powers were to divide both Germany and Berlin (as they did with Austria and Vienna) into zones which they would administer together. They had particular responsibility for the control and security of each zone themselves but all decisions were to be taken together, unanimously, and following full and open discussions.

Germany occupies a crucial place in Europe, bordering so many other countries, and possessing many resources, a large and skilled labour force and with a powerful culture and history. Berlin was at the heart of Prussian power, elevated to being the capital of the new united Germany under the influence of Otto von Bismarck following victory over France in 1870-71. The city was at the heart of Nazi Germany, too, and it was there that Hitler died in 1945. Being far towards the east of the country, it meant that, as the Allied forces closed in on Germany, it was the Red Army of the USSR rather than the Western forces which captured the city in early May, 1945. This meant that the Soviets were in control of the city, giving it a powerful hand in what was to happen there afterwards. By the end of the war, the USSR had control of all of Germany to the east of the River Elbe, meaning that Berlin was surrounded by Soviet controlled territory. The Allies, by contrast, had control of the west of the country but were also given the western half of Berlin, putting them within the Soviet zone. The country and the city were, therefore, divided into four sections, with the French zones being slightly smaller than the others.


The division of Berlin after 1945. (Author: historicair; Source: here)


The division of Germany after 1945. (Author: Bwmoll3; Source: here)

Berlin had far greater significance than Vienna, the other divided city in Europe, and so it was the key place where East met West after the war. The extraordinary advance made by the Red Army had brought Soviet influence into the heart of Europe. Whereas communism in the 1920s and 1930s had controlled only one large but distant state, from the Western perspective, the post-war situation was markedly different. Stalin’s influence extended from the Pacific Ocean to central Germany, so he was effectively knocking at the door and the West was not keen to open it to him in. Stalin was equally determined, though, not prepared for anything that resembled concession or retreat simply to placate the Western democracies which he believed wanted only the destruction of the USSR at some time in the near future.

The opportunity for any of the powers to cause trouble in the running of German affairs, was clear from the start. All planning and decision-making about Berlin from 1945 onwards was supposed to be completed by a council of the four governing nations and decisions had to be unanimous. Regular meetings were held but progress was slow and sporadic, not least because of the differing goals the two sides had. While the Western Powers, particularly the USA and the UK, wanted to see rebuilding and recovery, the Soviets wanted to ensure that Germany remained weak. For the West, the lessons of Versailles were strong, and a weak German state would create a vacuum at the heart of Europe, a destabilising influence which might make it more likely to fall to communism. In addition to this, Germany was a potentially powerful trading partner and an economic power, so recovery there would be beneficial to their economies. The USSR, on the other hand, wanted to ensure its own safety so there was little desire to see a strong Germany back on its feet and able to influence affairs – and threaten the East once again.

There are a few issues that came up which highlight the problems of the time. One thing that was known by everyone was that Germany after the war was going to be in turmoil with many refugees and displaced people, problems with industry and issues over food production. With the west in control of the more industrial areas and the Soviets having more of the agriculture land, there was a need to transfer resources between the zones. As industrial products and machinery were to go to the east, so food was to be sent the other way. People were also to be free to move to where they wanted to live and most wanted to move out of the Soviet zone. However, although there were more people in the western zones, the USSR did not send any of the food that was promised even though machines and goods went the other way. There were clearly problems to be addressed and part of the solution for the USA and the UK was to administer their zones jointly, and so in January 1947 they created ‘Bizonia’. In April, 1949, the French decided to join their zone to this and that was the basis for the new West German state.

A second issue was raised by the London Conference of December 1947. This again saw the three Western Powers holding a meeting without the knowledge or agreement of the USSR, even though, due to spies in London, they knew what was discussed and what was decided. The meeting looked to introduce a new currency into the western zones and West Berlin, a way of restoring confidence and improving business conditions. When the new currency was released in June 1948, it was hugely popular and successful but caused chaos in the Soviet zone as everyone rushed to exchange their old currency for the new money. The USSR was angry and felt vulnerable to these actions, which were a clear breach of the wartime agreements. For Stalin, there was a clear body of evidence that the USSR was being marginalised and disrespected; for the west, Stalin was clearly impossible to work with.

A third factor came into play when the ‘Marshall Plan’ was approved and aid became available to the western zones in the spring of 1948. The money was offered to every country in Europe on condition that they accepted democracy and the capitalist system, and consequently Stalin prevented any country under Soviet influence from accepting it. This further destabilised relations and ‘Marshall Aid’ would prove to be a pivotal moment in the Cold War as it ensured that the different areas of Europe would recover at very different rates and in different ways. The USSR did offer its own aid to the countries under its influence later on, through a body known as COMECON, but it never matched the power of the USAs aid and it would, in time, become a terrible drain on the USSRs economy which eventually contributed to the failure of communism itself.

Underpinning these decisions by the West was a new vision for the post-war world. The USA was keen to force the pace of change in Europe for various reasons. The country was rich and powerful but also new to the world stage and had a desire to make things happen, using money and resources as it saw fit. The emergence from isolationism after pearl harbour and the recognition that it should act as a global power after 1945 meant a new policy had to be developed. The need for action based on a clear policy was especially true for the inexperienced and under-pressure president. As people watched his every move to see if he would stand up for American interests and oppose Communism, Truman went on the offensive. In the wake of Britain’s economic troubles after the war, when it was basically bankrupt and unable to fulfil its obligations to support the Government forces of Greece in the Civil war, Truman persuaded congress to step in. Using the countries unprecedented wealth and technology, Truman established the policy known as ‘Truman Doctrine’, the idea that the USA would support any nation placed under threat, either from within or from abroad, a clear reference to its willingness to constrain the growth of Communism, in line with the ideas in George Kennan’s famous ‘Long Telegram’.

‘Truman Doctrine’ did not mention Communism or the USSR directly but anyone could see what was intended. The USA had declared that it would operate a policy of containment against Moscow, as it believed that every Communist Party in the world was under the direct control of Stalin himself. No move could be made in Korea or Berlin without Stalin’s approval, as far as Washington was concerned. Communism across the world presented itself as one enemy – and the wartime alliance was clearly at an end with that policy. It was no surprise, therefore, when the USSR reacted as it did to the plans of the West in Berlin. ‘Marshall Aid’ and currency development were, for example, seen as a way of threatening the Soviet Union. At the ‘Control Commission’, the regular meetings to oversee the administration, the Soviet delegation walked out over the plans to introduce the Deutschmark for the whole of Germany. When the currency was introduced, firstly in the western zones of Germany and a few days later into West Berlin, Stalin decided to act. Lucius D. Clay, the administrator of the US sector of Berlin, had already made it clear that no matter what happened, the Allies were going to stay in the city and they would not be intimidated by any Soviet threats. The possibility of problems arising from things like interfering with traffic and transport in Berlin were clear but as the new notes began to circulate, the USSR did finally act.


Lucius D. Clay, (1897-1978) the chain-smoking, coffee-drinking head of the US sector in Berlin. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

On 23rd-24th June, 1948, Stalin gave an order which would in many ways mark the start of the Cold War. He ordered that a blockade of west Berlin be started, so preventing any transport of goods between western zones of Germany and West Berlin. All essential items needed by West Berlin had to be brought in by railway, road and canal links with the west of the country, so when these links were cut, a crisis was immediately on the cards. Although some supplies were stockpiled, there was no way the western half of the city could hold out for too long – and Stalin knew this.

Everything needed by the two million and more people of West Berlin had to come in from the west. Food, coal, paper, medical supplies, clothes and so on, all came along the road, railway and canal links. The Allies faced a huge dilemma. Did they try to break the blockade and run the risk of provoking a war – or did they try to beat the blockade in some way? The world watched on to see how ‘Truman Doctrine’ might be put into action. The initial plan of Lucius Clay and the US army was to take a direct approach by driving a convoy up to the barriers at the border and challenging the blockade directly, forcing their way through if necessary. The British were more circumspect, though, and proposed first trying to supply the sectors by using the three air paths (or corridors) that linked the western sectors with two airfields and one lake (for sea-planes) in the city. Most people believed this was impossible as the planes were small, huge quantities of goods were needed, and the winter weather could be terrible, but it was agreed to at least attempt such an airlift during the summer and into the autumn.

The massive operation against the blockade was known as the ‘Berlin Airlift’ and lasted from June, 1948, to September, 1949, although the blockade itself failed and was lifted by Stalin in May, 1949. In one of the most remarkable actions of the whole Cold War, the planes supplied everything needed for the people of West Berlin. The airlift became a crusade, a symbol of hope, skill and commitment. It showed the power of the West, its commitment to the German people and its ability to face up to Communism. West Berlin became totally westernised, as the people became tied in with the resistance to Stalin. Where Allied bombers had destroyed the city just a few years earlier, now they brought hope and salvation; the people united and worked for the cause of democracy and capitalism as never before. Under the guidance of Ernst Reuter, the Mayor-elect of the West Berlin, and in co-operation with the chain-smoking Lucius D. Clay, the US Military Governor, the airlift was co-ordinated and the legend of ‘Free Berlin’ was established. 79 people died in the airlift but without it, the casualties could have been so much higher.


Ernst Reuter (1889-1953), Mayor of West Berlin, pictured with Erich Duensing, Head of the West Berlin Police in 1953 (1889-1953). (Author: Georg Pahl; Source: here)

The ‘Berlin Blockade’ was a major defeat for Stalin, a plan which failed for various reasons. Stalin was not able to shoot down the planes, although he did try to intimidate them, because the airspace they flew in was western controlled. He had not anticipated that the West would attempt an airlift and he had no real plan to deal with it. Likewise, he could not have expected the people of West Berlin to be so resilient and supportive of the countries which had helped to destroy their city just a few years earlier. And he was very unlucky with the weather because the winter of 1948-49 was so mild, a factor which played a key role in saving the city for the West. If the snow had fallen as it did the previous winter, then it would have been impossible for the airlift to have worked. Stalin’s failure over Berlin ensured that the Cold War was well and truly established by 1949.


A plane comes in to land at Templehof Airport during ‘Operation Vittles’, the Berlin Airlift. (Author: Unknown ; Source: here)

So, by 1949, Berlin was a divided city but with no internal barriers. You could walk from streets under communist control to capitalism in just a few minutes. People often lived in one sector and worked in another, socialised in one and visited relations in another, played games in one zone and shopped in another. Direct comparisons were easy to make and people soon reached a conclusion in comparing the two sides. The differences between the sectors was exacerbated by the fact that from this time on, the Western controlled areas really started to recover from the impact of the war on the back of Marshall Aid. This aid was pumped into much of Western Europe by the USA and there was a special commitment to ensure that West Berlin in particular would be strong and dynamic, giving out a clear message to people under Communist control that there was a better quality of life under capitalism and democracy.

The city of Berlin had a unique place in the origins of the Cold War. It was both fascinating and dangerous in equal measure, a point of contact, encounter and comparison between East and West. West Berlin was, effectively, a crack in the “Iron Curtain”, the open border between the Communist and Capitalist worlds. Originally made famous by Sir Winston Churchill in 1946 at a speech in Fulton, Missouri, the home town of President Truman, it defined the nature of division across Europe.

“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and … increasing measure of control from Moscow…The Communist parties, which were very small in all these Eastern States of Europe, have been raised to pre-eminence and power far beyond their numbers and are seeking everywhere to obtain totalitarian control. Police governments are prevailing in nearly every case, and so far, except in Czechoslovakia, there is no true democracy.”

But Berlin and Germany were the focus of a Cold War caused by many factors, including: fear and distrust, historic events, widely differing ideologies, personality clashes, the needs of an inexperienced leader, the paranoia of a psychopath, lack of knowledge and understanding and change imposed by democracy. For forty years, for long after Stalin had died and Truman had been replaced, the world held its breath as the frightening cloud of nuclear war hung over the world. The Cold War was one of the greatest examples of former allies falling out over history, goals, ideology and personality. The world was very lucky that it stayed ‘cold’.

Find out more:

TV/DVD: ‘Cold War’ (CNN Series) by Jeremy Isaacs, especially episodes 1-4; ‘World at War’ final episodes.

DVD: ‘Truman’ (2002) (Prism Leisure Corporation)

Book: ‘Stalin: A Biography’ by Robert Service (Pan, 2010); ‘Truman’ by David McCullough (Simon & Schuster, 1993); ‘The Cold War’ by John Lewis Geddis (Penguin, 2005); ‘Savage Continent’ by Keith Lowe (Penguin, 2012);’Cold War’ by Jeremy Isaacs and Taylor Downing (Santam Press, 1998); ‘The Cold War: A Very Short Introduction’ by Robert J. McMahon (OUP Oxford, 2003)