Affairs in Berlin, Asia and Latin America are omitted. They will be covered in another article.
As a result of increasing levels of conflict, violent and non-violent across Europe as the precise alignments of countries was decided, the USA moved, astonishingly, in favour of an interventionist policy in Europe. Having isolated itself for the past half century, providing little but small financial aid until the Second World War, Truman now positioned the USA as the firm leader of the west, fathering the recovery of all the European states. He outlined, in a speech to Congress, his goals of containing communism through interventionist policy, in fears of a growing monolithic communist power structure based in the USSR. This fear of a monolithic communist bloc, while theoretically sound, was largely made off misjudgements from the US security services in relation to affairs in Europe.
The situation in Greece and Turkey, allocated $400 million in financial aid to help defeat the communists by the USA, was not truly a Russian-backed uprising, but a home-grown one. However, American fears of expanding communism in Europe moved them to stop it at all costs, desperately trying to quell communist revolution in Greece and Turkey. An uprising in those countries, supposedly allocated to the UK during the Percentages Agreement of 1944, served as another example, in the view of the western leaders, of the defiance and unwillingness to cohere to agreements of Stalin and his government, and further undermined any potential trust or relationship with potential to come to fruition between both sides.
Proposal of the Marshall Plan
Following on from the aid bill to Greece and Turkey, the USA moved to create a sweeping new economic aid plan, in the form of the European Recovery Program (ERP), and the most significant part of it, the Marshall Plan. In June 1947, it was announced that $17 billion of aid was to be given to Europe, to any country that asked for it, whether they be on the eastern or western side. The announcement, while a relief to struggling European countries, set off alarm bells in the Soviet government. Fears of dollar imperialism had been rising within the eastern bloc, the USSR in particular fearful that the USA would seek to control the world’s markets through domination and exacting influence over their own currency, which appeared to be becoming the most prominent form of money in the west, supplied in aid packages. The Marshall Plan, in the eyes of the USSR, vindicated such worries of America’s imperialism, and served to increase tensions in the eastern bloc. The forcing of most European countries then to use their economic aid to buy American industrial goods as “approved suppliers” only furthered this concern, the east considering the USA blatantly using the cover of good-willed financial aid to further bolster their own economy (and rightly so).
However, in the eyes of the majority of western European nations, this was a much-needed olive branch thrown to a continent struggling to recover. The deep poverty of Britain, having lost its empire after the war, and France, practically destroyed by conflict on the western front, necessitated help from a foreign source. The placing of the USA as that friendly source then helped unity within the west, supportive economic aid binding together the USA and the rest of Europe.
These fears and desire to not economically aid the USA in any way then triggered response from a desperate USSR, incredibly wary of accepting western help. In October of 1947, the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform) was created, with regular meetings in Moscow for eastern bloc leaders. This organisation essentially served for Stalin to exert his control over the eastern bloc and influence policy-making in the satellite states, by controlling the leaders of the eastern countries. The creation of Cominform not only acted in the short term to prevent any eastern states from accepting the help given by the Marshall Plan, under Stalin’s immediate directive, but also to exert dominance over the rest of the world. The inaction of the USSR while the USA had declared its interventionist policy had caused the east to appear weak, and the creation of Cominform sought to rectify that, the USSR proving that it had the strength to oppose purported western imperialism and dominance.
For the west, as well as a show of opposing power, the instatement of Cominform also served as evidence of a monolithic communist bloc centred in Moscow. The idea of a centrally-controlled super-state in the hands of Stalin deeply frightened the west, and escalated tensions, as well as increasing fear of the east. Reports of totalitarian influence from Moscow over the satellite states only worked to create deeper rifts between the two sides, the west deeply mistrusting the east for its lack of freedom.
Introduction of the Marshall Plan
The actual introduction of the Marshall Plan then occurred in April of 1948, nearly a year later than its proposal. $17 billion was given in total to Europe, significant amounts going to Britain, France and Germany, as decided before the payments. The satellite states and the USSR, as per Stalin’s directive, refused all semblance of aid from the ERP, further driving the wedge between east and west, now solidified in ideological, geographical, and economic realms.
However, the Marshall Plan would also prove troublesome within the eastern bloc. Yugoslavia, led by Josip Tito, who had spearheaded his own communist revolution without help from the USSR, had accepted Marshall Plan aid, in defiance of Stalin. Yugoslavia’s constant defiance of Stalin’s directives, often seemingly an overt hatred of Stalin from Tito, then created a rift within the eastern bloc. To stop other eastern countries following Yugoslavia’s example, Stalin expelled Yugoslavia from Cominform, effectively alienating it from the rest of the satellite states. The cracks growing within Stalin’s tightly controlled bloc would create issues in future, not only in Yugoslavia, but in Hungary, Germany and Prague, as countries rebelled against USSR directives done for the large part to spite the west. Many of the satellite states considered the USSR inconsiderate for forcing a refusal of Marshall Aid, creating small rifts between the satellite states and their leader, Stalin.
The inconsiderate appearance of Stalin in forcing countries to refuse economic aid that they sorely needed, however, required correction, and thus, the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon), was born. Centred in Moscow, Comecon managed the economic state of the eastern bloc and offered financial aid to countries in need of it, at least appearing to do so. Another use of Comecon for the USSR was to follow through on one of Stalin’s core tenets, that of economic specialisation. He engaged his power over the eastern bloc to force most countries to specialise in one form of good, giving up capacity to be self-sufficient, and requiring exchange and trade with the USSR to obtain essentials left not produced in the satellite states. This caused great economic inefficiency within the eastern states, countries forced to trade with the USSR at inordinate prices, enriching the Moscow-centralised council at the expense of economic development in the east. The awareness of this process within the east then served to increase tensions, the bloc becoming distrusting of central directives, and dissatisfaction with USSR overseeing in the satellite states
The imposing of Comecon also increased global tensions, with the west viewing it as further evidence of monolithic communism, Moscow taking every opportunity to control affairs in the east. The imposition of economic control from Comecon, in addition to political control from Cominform, vindicated the fears in the USA of a strictly authoritarian Moscow-controlled communist bloc, posing a threat to the ‘free’ west. By exerting economic control, the USSR aimed to more tightly manage economies within the bloc, but also sought to limit contact with the west. Prohibiting the significant portion of trade a country could do with the west by limiting the scope of their productive capacity through specialisation impaired the economic contact an eastern country could have with the west by trade, and effectively cut off the satellite states from potentially mutually beneficial trade with Britain, the USA, or any of their potential western partners.
The movement of the USSR to tightly control its eastern bloc through organisations triggered a response to it from the west, taking the form of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in April of 1949, only months after Comecon. The organisation and subsequent defence treaty agreed by the original twelve signatories (including the USA and major European states of the time) then allowed the extension of interventionist American policy in Europe to include military influence. The placement of NATO troops (mostly American) across western Europe, and the instalment of American nuclear facilities near the iron curtain would serve to deter the east from invading the west, and also to intimidate the USSR, potential military opposition now always ready and much closer geographically. The creation of the NATO treaty, allowing the defence of the west against the east, served to raise tensions between east and west, the USA placing a military foot in Europe.
“The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them…will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”
Uniting the western countries in a defensive treaty also served to create a solidified west, to reduce the threat from a consolidated eastern bloc. Article 5 (an extract is seen above) of the NATO treaty created a formal assertion of collective defence, in which a single military mass of the west would oppose the forces of the eastern bloc in military combat. This idea of the west ‘ganging up’ on the east was not well received in the east, raising tensions as movements to place US military installations across Europe sparked fears across the satellite states and in the USSR. The formation of a military defence organisation, while intended as a deterrent, and a justification for large military presence of the USA in Europe, only increased the possibilities of war, bringing tensions alongside it.
The creation of NATO increased tensions in the east, fears of military action from the west threatening the dominance of the USSR in its own bloc. Expansions to NATO over the next few years, most notably West Germany joining in early May 1955, spiked tensions in the east, a growing western force bearing down on a hardly changed set of eastern satellite states propped up by the USSR. Provocation, in this case in the form of a direct east-west border country joining NATO, engenders response, in the form of the Warsaw Pact, created only weeks later. The USSR and all the satellite states signed the Pact agreement, similar in nature and content to the NATO treaty, but with significantly larger powers of military force, and a much larger mobilised army, propped up by the USSR.
The provocation towards the USSR by NATO and the subsequent response in the form of the Warsaw Pact worried the western states. In solidifying their own military strength to oppose the east, they had caused the east to retaliate with a much stronger and larger force, both sides with nuclear weapons (the USSR having successfully tested atomic bombs in 1949). The retaliation and response of east to west, and west to east, would come to characterise this period of political history, each bloc struggling to maintain dominance and security, in a protective effort to avoid the military attention of the opposing side.
Opinion in East & West
While the politics of the two sides grew increasingly hostile over the course of the 1940s and 1950s, so did public opinion, particularly within the USA. The creation of a House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) led by senator Joseph McCarthy created the famous “Red Scare” of the 1950s, widespread western propaganda proclaiming communist spies and espionage working against America everywhere, including on their own home soil. The public entered a state of mass hysteria and fear, reporting their colleagues and friends to the authorities in fear of communist infiltration, later famously described as a ‘witch-hunt’ of almost medieval proportions.
Heightening fears over events in Europe, catalysed by the aggressive policies and military formations of east and west, only served to exacerbate the Red Scare, fear of the Russian atomic bomb increasing alongside fear of the Communist machine slowly moving towards the USA. McCarthyism, denouncing, interrogating and arresting suspected communists, served as a fuel to the fire, once intended to root out communists, but simply becoming another product of it, caught up in a witch-hunt of mythic proportions but little effect in terms of the security of the USA.
De-Stalinisation under Khrushchev
However, while this period is defined by escalating tensions, it is also marked by a change towards the mid-1950s, with the death of Stalin and his replacement after months of chaos by new Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. The changing of hands within the USSR government caused some concern in the west, who were largely unaware of internal Russian political movements, and for many, a power struggle in the USSR simply meant more trouble for the west. Despite this, it would appear, initially, not to be the case, the late 1950s marking decades of co-operation and communication, albeit limited and often left unfinished.
In February of 1956, Khrushchev made his “secret speech” at a meeting of the Soviet government, announcing a new era, and denouncing Stalin’s “cult of personality”. To illustrate change, the USSR released political prisoners, lightened media censorship, and planned a slight increase in the economic and political independence of the eastern bloc from the USSR. This represented a slight decrease in tensions, the USA wary but somewhat willing to look upon the east with fresh eyes and to search for co-operation. New hands, and seemingly more liberal new hands at the helm of the USSR reduced tensions across the world, the era of military and economic competition and hostility seemingly over, marked by the disbanding of Cominform in 1956 as Khrushchev sought to dismantle the controlling apparatus of Stalin’s eastern bloc.
It must be noted, however, that Khrushchev’s reforms were not to be entirely trusted, and were treated with great suspicion by the west. The creation of the Warsaw Pact was a directive led by Khrushchev, and continued oppression in many of the satellite states signified little change to many eyes in the west. Soon enough, Khrushchev would prove to be an equally unforgiving and cruel leader as Stalin had been, in his actions in Hungary, and in Berlin. The new leadership in the Soviet Union signified then, not a liberalisation as such with respect to interactions with the west, but a shift in attitudes and outlook, albeit with little difference in treatment as the west would soon discover.