The years following the close of the Second World War would see an escalation of tensions between east & west in the political outlook and policy of the leaders of the respective sides. The USA, having emerged relatively unscathed from the war, a gift of its geographically isolated position and delayed entry into the conflict, was in a better economic state than the rest of the west, and proffered a hand to help Europe recover through its interventionist policies and European Recovery Program (ERP). The USSR, while severely damaged in both industrial and overall economic capacity, aimed to also exert its dominance over Europe. The long arm of Soviet Expansionism reached through Europe, eradicating opposition and installing communist dictatorships across Eastern Europe, in Poland, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary amongst others. However, for now, let us look at a single year following the war: 1946.
The first act of raising the hatchet, in proverbial terms, came from the creation of the Zhdanov Doctrine in 1946, in which the alignments and intents were laid out from a Soviet perspective. Andrei Zhdanov, presented his cultural doctrine, in which the world was ideologically divided into two camps, an ‘imperialistic’ western camp led by a greedy USA, and a ‘democratic’ eastern side, with the USSR at the helm. The distinct separation of the two sides in a public cultural doctrine outlined by a senior Soviet official drove a wedge in the already cracked relations between east and west, and encapsulated already-extant hostile attitudes in formal Soviet policy. By publicly announcing this divide, the USSR increased tensions in a wary Europe still reeling from the effects of the Second World War, and effectively forced neutral-lying countries to align themselves with the eastern or western blocs.
Speech of Stalin at the Soviet Supreme
While the flags of the two sides had effectively been raised with the enthronement of Zhdanov Doctrine in the beginning of 1946, weapons had yet to be levelled at each other from either of the sides, figuratively speaking. Stalin’s speech at the Soviet Supreme in February 1946, however, changed that dramatically. By proclaiming that conflict between east & west was inevitable due to a conflict of interests, he had immediately thrown aside any notion of co-operation and friendly international relations. In formally suggesting the idea of conflict, publicly in a political space, Stalin had increased the stakes of the Cold War. While the USA was at the time still the only country with nuclear power, and had almost certainly planned contingencies for a conflict with the USSR, the formal declaration of effective interest in war served to escalate tensions within Europe, new fears of war creating an ever more strained relation between east and west. The knowledge that one side considered war inevitable damaged international relations, and plunged the ideological bridge between east and west even further into ruin.
The Kennan Long Telegram
A further escalation of tension in the suggestion of conflict came later in the month, with the American ambassador in Moscow sending a telegram, later named the “Kennan Long Telegram”, informing the president that preparations for an east against west war must be made. The assertion that the USA must prepare for conflict, while not unthinkable given the suggestions of Stalin and Zhdanov only weeks and months prior, were deeply shocking to American officials, some of whom considered the aggressive stance merely the bluster of a weakened state attempting again to find its position in the world stage. However, the implications of an all-too-real conflict, only months after the USA had formally declared victory over Japan and ended the last of the fighting of the Second World War, were dire, and served to increase tensions within the west. The deep possibility of war, confirmed by an inside source, the American ambassador, only served to create a stronger sense of tension between the two sides, a formal friendly political source within the USSR carrying the message only working to make the threat more tangible to the west.
The “Iron Curtain”
“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…all [are] subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow.”
In the following month, while touring the USA, Churchill made a speech at a small gathering, in direct contradiction of President Truman’s advice, outlining the state of political affairs of the world, as he saw it. He described, transcribed as seen above, a world separated irrevocably by an “iron curtain”. The affirmation of a distinct separation of the two sides by geographical terms by a deeply influential political figure, the ex-Prime Minister Winston Churchill, deeply revered in the west for his wartime leadership, only served to create an even wider chasm between two sides ideologically, both sides having in practice declared their separation. However, this was the first time that the border between east and west had been drawn geographically, rather than purely ideologically. The alignment of countries, whether they ‘belonged’ to the east or west, had now been drawn as the line in the sand, the lands of Europe firmly divided into two camps by country, rather than by vague ideological belief. The far more real terms of separation are shown in the speech, and served to increase tensions at the time, the much more tangible notion of a country being held on the other side of a great wall, the “iron curtain” creating an era of fear and hysteria surrounding the eastern bloc that would endure for the remainder of the Cold War.
The idea of not knowing what was happening behind the “iron curtain” only furthered this belief, western paranoia on the workings of the eastern bloc drawing suspicion and increasing tension. Fears of oppression, of dictatorships and cruel secret police regimes, exaggerated by western media, created a unique form of propaganda in which the west was told (and to high degree, accurately) of an east where the oligarchs lived in luxury separated from the impoverished masses. Similar forms of propaganda took place in the eastern bloc, the Soviet media engine, captained by the newspaper reportedly edited by Stalin himself, Pravda, presenting a west that was depraved and immoral, imperialistic and greedy.¹ The openings between the two sides, in Berlin in particular, where people from either side could look through and see what was on the other side, would become especially problematic in future, holes in the east/west wall proving to be thorny spots for international politics.
However, Churchill’s speech not only escalated tensions between east and west, but also impeded the fledgling sense of unity within the west. Truman had been wary of Churchill’s campaign against the east, particularly of any such divisive comments (that Churchill made during the speech against his advice), as he had been trying to protect some sense of unity within the west, but also throughout the world. Despite numerous internal and public declarations of hostility and animosity between east and west, Truman desperately had attempted to hold onto a sense of world unity through the new United Nations, pushing an image of a new world brought together by the ravages of the Second World War. Churchill’s statements only served to undermine this, making Truman appear disingenuous to the Soviet government, and presenting an image of a west squabbling amongst themselves, influential leaders and politicians unable to agree on beliefs and ideological policy.
¹It must be noted that while both sides stretched the truth, the east stretched it to a far greater extent: the west recovered much more quickly due to its already industrialised state, whereas the east was in no such position.
In September of 1946, similar political circumstances becoming apparent akin to that which created the Kennan Long Telegram in February of that year, created an implicit response in the hands of the USSR. The Russian ambassador in the USA sent back a telegram to the Soviet authorities in Moscow, portraying an image of an imperialistic, bent on world-domination west, spearheaded (supposedly) by USA policy. An almost exact reflection of the American telegram, Novikov warned the USSR that they must strengthen their European buffer zone in a protective effort over themselves and the rest of their established eastern bloc. This caused fear within the east, of military and economic actions from the west potentially levelled to threaten the recovery of the communist bloc, but also then an overall negative effect on international relations as the USSR responded to the telegram by accelerating their expansionist efforts. This is shown then in the expulsion of Polish politicians opposed to the communist party in early 1947. The fighting in Greece and Turkey then, between the communists and monarchists, while not actually supported by the USSR, was interpreted as such, in the context of other confirmed USSR action, and pushed the west to intervene, in the interest of protecting the ‘free world’ from the clutches of communism.