by ProfDave, ©2022

Mushroom cloud over Nagasaki, Japan, August 9, 1945 (public domain)

(Jun. 23, 2022) — Good morning, ladies and gentlemen!  Welcome to the Cold War – a war in which there was very little fighting, but truly global hostility and ghastly risk such as the human race had never experienced before.  Planet earth was in jeopardy of self-destruction.  Some have suggested that this very terror was the guarantee of peace.  How did this situation arise out of the wartime Grand Coalition?

One of the peculiarities of the period between 1945 and 1990 is that we came to think of humanity as living in three worlds: the Western World of modern capitalist democracies, the Eastern World of communist dictatorships, and the Third World of developing economies and former colonies.  This article and the next will focus on the First, or Western world, and its search for a new identity in the late 20th century.  Next week we will come back to the Third World and hazard some guesses as to the brave new world of the 21st century.  But this week we set the stage of international consciousness and look at the Second, or Communist world.


Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, Charlottenburg, Germany (Wikimedia Commons, CC by SA 3.0)

I.  The Legacy of World War II

After Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, Winston Churchill told his critics, “If Hitler were to invade Hell, I would at least make a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.”  Up until that time, he had regarded Stalin as an ally of Hitler – to the extent of considering an Anglo-French expedition in support of Finland against invasion by the Red Army!  It was a strange alliance, to say the least.  Mutual suspicion went back to the very first.  US, Japan, Britain and France had all intervened against the Bolsheviks in the Russian civil war.  In communist ideology, Fascism was merely the last stage of capitalism.  Lenin had made world revolution his first foreign policy priority.  The violent overthrow of not only the governments of Western Europe, but their entire social and economic systems was the prerequisite for Soviet success.  Even under Stalin’s “socialism in one country,” the Third International made international subversion its business.   Nor had ordinary trade relations gone well.  Stalin had actively cooperated with Hitler from 1939 to 1940, hoping, perhaps, that the capitalists would destroy – or weaken – each other.  Then the West let Stalin fight Hitler pretty much alone for the next three years.  About 70% of the allied fighting was done by the Red Army until the end of the war!  It was not a happy marriage!

Churchill and Stalin had few illusions about each-other’s intentions, but Roosevelt played the role of peacemaker.  The war must be won first, before any consideration was given to postwar political arrangements.  First, in Stalin’s mind, was the demand for a second front in 1942.  It was promised in ’43, in January ’44, and was not fulfilled until June of 1944.  North Africa and Italy were side shows so far as Stalin was concerned.  At Casablanca, in January 1943, the big three met – along with Chiang Kai-shek (for China).  The key decision was made to demand unconditional surrender.  This cut off the likelihood of the German resistance overthrowing Hitler and meant that East and West would meet in the heart of Europe. 

At Teheran in November 1943 the second front was again promised for May, 1944, and postwar arrangements were discussed.  Churchill wanted to restore the Polish republic of 1939 with the government in exile from London.  Stalin insisted on the Curzon line – a British proposal of 1919 that “just happened” to correspond with the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty.  In the end, Poland was simply moved 100 miles west!  Discussions of the future of Germany were postponed at Roosevelt’s insistence. 

About a year later Churchill met with Stalin in Moscow and made progress towards an understanding on Eastern Europe.  Churchill recognized that everything depended on who liberated what.  Failing an allied invasion of the Balkans, Romania and Bulgaria would be liberated by the Red Army and under Soviet influence.  He sought agreement that Greece would pass predominantly under British influence and that Yugoslavia and Hungary would be shared equally.  Poland, however, was a problem.  The German army had discovered mass graves of thousands of Polish officers executed by the Communists in Katyn Forrest.  The London government-in-exile felt compelled to protest.  “They are not friends of the Soviet Union,” said Stalin.  He had a government-in-exile of his own.  At the approach of the Red Army, the London Polish underground liberated Warsaw.  Stalin stopped his advance until the Germans had destroyed them.  The presence of the Red Army in Poland would be decisive.

Much has been made of Roosevelt’s weakness at the Yalta conference, February 1945.  He was dying, but his Wilsonian idealism was not health related.  His primary concern was to gain Soviet assistance in the Pacific and his leverage was not great.  This promise he obtained.  A joint declaration on liberated Europe called for a free and democratic Eastern Europe, with elections as soon as possible.  Just what this pledge meant to Stalin, however, was not spelled out [This section loosely based on Feis and Kieft.  See Duiker & Spielvogel 771-73]. 

World War II destroyed most of Europe (and wide swaths of East Asia).  Cities were in rubble and economies in collapse.  Transportation and communications infrastructures were gone.  A hundred million subsisted on relief of some kind, rationed at 1550 calories a day.  Social and moral chaos prevailed.  Fascism had atomized society, depreciated the family, and destroyed community.  The totalitarian structures it had put in their place vanished in an instant.  Survival ethics and demoralization prevailed – frauleins for cigarettes on the black market were just one example.  World-wide, more than 60 million had died, two-thirds of them civilians, [Duiker & Spielvogel 760] and millions more had been maimed and traumatized.  Displaced persons were a special problem in Germany: 6-7 million alien workers brought in during the war, 10-15 million ethnic Germans expelled (or fled) from the East, Jews (!) and anti-communists from the Soviet Union, and 7 million POW’s.  They went from concentration camp to DP camp.  And the remaining buildings, like as not, were commandeered for allied military use [Clay 15 ff.  Check out for first person accounts, and more].

In Eastern Europe, the Treaty of Brest Litovsk was undone and Stalin kept what Hitler had given him in 1939, plus additional territory from Czechoslovakia and Romania.  The Baltic states, independent since 1919, became member Republics of the Soviet Union.  Politically, parliamentarians had been discredited by their collaboration with Germany.  Only the left survived: agrarians and socialists.  Local communist groups had played a major role in the resistance to the Axis since 1941 – sometimes cooperating with, sometimes fighting against democratic and nationalist groups.  In Albania and Yugoslavia (Marshall Tito) they were the liberators – before the Red Army got there – and Stalin’s control was never secure.  United Front governments were formed in Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, including non-communist parties.  Liberal democratic governments were formed in Poland and Czechoslovakia.  The presence of the Red Army was decisive, however, as non-communists were gradually edged out and “Peoples Democracies” were formed.  Key industries were nationalized, and NEP style economic controls introduced.  In Czechoslovakia, it required a spectacular seizure of power in 1948.  The third stage was the replacement of national communists with Moscow-trained Stalinists.

Germany was organized (or disorganized) into four zones, with four different policies.  The Atlantic Charter had proposed a Wilsonian reorientation to democracy.  The opposite extreme was the Morgenthau Plan (by the US Treasury Secretary): “the Germans . . . forfeited any claim to ordinary humanity.”  Germany should be punished and dismembered.  At Yalta, thinking had coalesced to de-nazification, de-industrialization, perhaps dismemberment, but economic unity.  At Potsdam agreement was reached on the democratic reconstruction of politics.  But what did that mean?

Nazis were to be eliminated from public life and influence.  But there were no Nazis in 1946!  “Ich werde immer dagegen” – “I was always against it.”  In reality, everyone had participated – it was the nature of totalitarianism.  The Americans tried to examine everybody: the infamous questionnaire.  The process broke down half-way through and a lot of big ones got away.  The British let the small fry go and only looked for major war criminals.  The French were cynical and systematic in attempting to stamp out German culture through reeducation.  Only the Soviets knew how to conduct a proper purge.  They had very definite political goals, using the German Communist Party.  One totalitarian regime was replaced by another by ideological reeducation.  Former Gestapo members were easily converted to New Peoples Police [Heughins, Clay etc – specific references lacking].

II.  Theories of Cold War

There are at least five major interpretations of the Cold War.  The western “cold warriors,” Truman, Dulles, Johnson, and others, saw it as a giant global conflict of freedom versus totalitarianism, begun in 1948 in the Soviet blockade of Berlin.  The lessons of the thirties should be applied to the new enemy: hold no illusions of good intentions, dictators who are brutal and devious at home could be expected to be the same abroad, and diplomacy must be backed by force.  No appeasement. 

Marxists, as represented by Soviet foreign minister Molotov, saw a global civil war between capitalism and socialism, going back to Brest Litovsk (Lenin vs Wilson) and to the October Revolution itself.  The world was hostile, but victory was inevitable.  Western talk of democracy and national self-determination were smokescreens.  American free trade policy, foreign aid, the Marshall Plan – all of it were expressions of global economic imperialism.

There was also a Roman Catholic interpretation, seeing the world as a village threatened by a new wave of barbarians.  It emphasized the inherent superiority of the Christian West challenged by “godless” communism.  Protestants, too, noted the strident atheism of the Soviet regime.  Communism represented not just another ideology or economic theory, but the anti-Christ: a pseudo-scientific world-view antithetical to Western Christianity, with religious persecution at its core.

The conventional diplomatic interpretation saw the Cold War as the direct result of the collapse of Germany and the meeting of Russian and Western armies in the heart of Europe.  The satellite states of Eastern Europe were a buffer between East and West and Soviet penetration of the Middle East and Central Asia was a continuation of Russian Imperial policy.  Likewise, Vietnam and Korea had always been part of the Chinese orbit.  In a broader view, the clamoring states of Europe were pushed off the world stage, and the age of two superpowers had begun.  Two political and economic systems competed for the allegiance and resources of the third world.

The New Left came along in the sixties and attempted to see things from the other side.  Western capitalism, with its history of colonialism, was deeply flawed.  On the other hand, some form of Marxist socialism might well be the wave of the future.  There was much to admire in the ideals of social justice, the five-year plans, the scientific achievements, and the bold materialism of the USSR.  At best, the United States misunderstood the Soviet Union.  At worst cold warriors attempted to intimidate and undermine their foes in order to exert global hegemony through nuclear blackmail.  That, from the New Left perspective, was the true meaning of Hiroshima.

III. Outline 1945 – 1990 

Giving each of these perspectives their due, we will apply the term “Cold War” to the period 1945 – 1990, when the West was consciously hostile toward the Soviet Union and the world was polarized between the two superpowers, USA and USSR (as distinct from the reality of conflicting ideologies and economic systems).   We will look at the German question, the Iron Curtain, the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, NATO and the Warsaw Pact, global cold war, the nuclear threat, and the Velvet Revolution.

Germany was the first crucible of conscious “Cold War,” as recounted by General Lucius D. Clay, the occupation commander.  The first thing he noticed, was the rapid departure of western armies from Europe and the 200 divisions of Soviet troops still stationed in Eastern Europe.  “All they needed was their boots” to march to the English Channel.  In reality, however, it was 30 divisions, and they didn’t have the boots. 

Secondly, how could capitalists and communists run the wreck of Germany as an economic unity?  The Soviet economy was ruined and their immediate concern was to salvage anything usable for themselves.  The British, American, and French zones were being run by ex-businessmen colonels who were not willing to run a losing enterprise, therefore they insisted the German economy must be rebuilt.  Germany could only feed itself by selling industrial exports, therefore no more dynamiting factories!  The Soviets would not cooperate, so the western zones went their own way: not de-industrializing, but re-industrializing Germany [Kieft 5/20/71, Clay 38ff].

Eisenhower had intentionally halted the western advance to allow the Red Army to take Berlin at the end of the war.  Under the Potsdam agreement, it was jointly administered as the capital of Germany, 325 miles inside the Soviet zone.  No access problems had been foreseen, until March 1948, when the Soviets walked out of the joint administration in a conflict over policy.  Stalin had accepted the idea of a permanently divided Germany and viewed the western position in Berlin as an untenable anomaly.  To convince Germans – or at least East Germans – that their future was with Communism, he sealed off ground access to Berlin in May 1948.  It was a serious mistake, making Stalin appear criminal.  Truman (and the West) responded with an awesome demonstration of air power, supplying the city from the air for almost a year while maintaining a cordon of B-29 bombers day and night, armed with atomic bombs, all along the “iron curtain.”  “We” no longer meant the war-time allies, but the western democracies [Kieft 5/18 & 20/71].

Wait a minute!  “Iron curtain?”  That came from a speech by Winston Churchill, back in ’46: “From Stettin on the Baltic to Trieste on the Adriatic and iron curtain has descended across Europe,” he said.  It just took Americans two years longer to recognize what was going on!  But even in 1947, the USA had taken two steps that were to define the conflict.  First, on February 21, a note was received from Great Britain: as of March 31, His Majesty’s government would cease all international obligations – they were no longer able to police the world.  So, Truman, in the middle of a speech on poultry (typical of his lack of dramatic timing) announced that the USA would help free peoples resist subversion anywhere in the world – “the Truman Doctrine.”

The second step was the Marshall Plan: eventually $13 ½ billion, with no strings attached, for European recovery.  USA had once again emerged from world war with more economic and industrial power than ever before.  Instead of withdrawing from the world, as in 1918, Truman and Eisenhower chose to engage.  It was in America’s best interests, and most Americans saw it as an act of generosity, but to Stalin it was an act of economic aggression.  No east block nation accepted aid.  In a sense, Stalin was right.  With the hope of American aid, Communist parties in Western Europe (who opposed accepting it) were unable to gain traction from post-war crisis conditions [Kieft 5/25/71].  This was worth more than American armored divisions or B29s.

Meanwhile, back in Germany, the western zones moved gradually towards self-government and integration.  The Bonn Republic was duly set up in May 1949.  The Berlin crisis convinced Europeans that the Soviet Union was a threat to their freedom.  The lessons of the thirties were still fresh.  The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was established for mutual defense of Europe, with the USA and Canada included.  Commitment was made to common military forces and planning.  American troops were to be stationed in Europe as a trigger for nuclear retaliation in case of Soviet invasion.  But there were two problems: nobody wanted to contribute foot soldiers and the US had global entanglements.  During the Korean war, for example, American troops were withdrawn from Europe.  The conclusion was that Germany must be included as an ally, with full sovereignty (1955) and a strong army.  Americans have no memory.  Germans had mixed feelings about this (they had grown to rather like not having a military budget), and the Russians were traumatized – between a hostile Germany and a hostile Japan again?  The Warsaw Pact was organized [See Duiker & Spielvogel 774-76].

By the 1950’s, however, the Cold War in Europe was a tempest in a tea pot.  Truman inadvertently sent the message that Korea was not important to American interests and North Korea (viewed as a Soviet client) invaded the South.  The United Nations commissioned the United States to lead intervention and the cold war got hot in East Asia. 

Remember!  Mao Zedong had been active in China since the twenties and Ho Chi-minh in French Indo China since before the war.  To make a long story short, Communism was a world-wide phenomenon, with or without Soviet agents.  It offered an anti-colonialism ostensibly without the contamination of westernization.   Wherever there was discontent with the status quo, communists could offer a banner and the Truman doctrine could find – or imagine – Soviet or Maoist subversion.  An extreme was reached when Senator McCarthy found infiltrators in the U.S. State Department and Hollywood!  But it would be equally illogical to claim that no subversion existed, and that Moscow engaged in no exploitation of even good causes.  In the process of using American aid and occasional force to contain Communism, some negative regimes were propped up and some positive ones left to flounder – spilling hordes of refugees over the wall or into the sea.  Ultimately, political and economic freedom prevailed, while Stalinism, at least, has been isolated to Cuba and North Korea.

The other, perhaps most ugly, aspect of the cold war, was the doomsday scenario.  The cold war would not be called a war at all if it had been simply a matter of European balance of power or of colonial competition.  Hiroshima and Nagasaki made it feel like war.  From 1949-54 a sort of global Monroe Doctrine prevailed, with American troops in Berlin as the trigger for a one-month war if Stalin put his toe across the line.  The A-bomb was a deterrent to attack.  Then the Soviets got one, too.  We had air-raid drills in schools, crouching under our desks.  We scanned the sky for planes and wondered if they were ours or theirs.  Nuclear strategy 1954-58 was one of massive retaliation.  There was no provision for limited wars, but the Soviets closed the technological gap to put Sputnik in orbit.  1958-64 were the “flexible response” years.  Limited war was conceivable (Vietnam was beginning), but escalation was always the threat.  In 1960 Kennedy defeated Nixon in debates on the missile gap issue – only to find out after the election that he was wrong – but not for long.  Sputnik and the missile gap motivated a generation of children to go into science.  In the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy and Khrushchev went to the brink of World War III – everything stopped, and we prayed – but did not consult our allies!  Between 1964 and 1967, William MacNamara advocated a no-cities strategy: missiles were carefully aimed at military targets.  The problem was hardened missile sites.  Then in 1967 it was “Controlled Response:” trading city for city, nuclear chess.  Problem: most military targets were in heavily populated areas, such as Europe.  We built fall-out shelters and stocked bottled water and toilet kits in church basements [Kieft, 5/27/71]. 

Nuclear war is suicidal.  Those B-29s could be shot down, or called back, but were soon replaced by ICBM’s.  Once an attack was launched, the other side had minutes to launch their own missiles before being destroyed.  This gave the advantage to the aggressor.  To deter such an attack, missile sites were hidden or “hardened” to withstand all but a direct hit.  Then missiles were placed on submarines.  Then cruise missiles with multiple independently targeted warheads (MIRV’s).  At some point we passed from first strike capability to mutual assured destruction.  Fall-out shelters went out of fashion.  What was the use of surviving the blast if there were to be nothing left?  It became apparent that each superpower possessed enough warheads to destroy the planet several times over: the concept of overkill was born and its absurdity recognized. 

Remember the novel, On the Beach?  [Neville Shute, 1957] After World War III the last survivors are taking cyanide pills in Australia?  Thus, nuclear weapons became useless.  They couldn’t win the war in Vietnam – or anywhere else – because they were too horrible, too dangerous, to be used.  But the nightmare continued.  What if deterrence didn’t work?  What if the enemy refused to see reason?  Nuclear technology was proliferating.  What if some small nation got “the bomb” and was ready to take an all or nothing risk, like Serbia in 1914?  How about Israel?  Iraq? the Palestinians?  The last straw was the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI, the concept of stopping incoming missiles.  At that point the Soviet economy collapsed, and Ronald Reagan declared victory.  The Cold War was over – but we still have the proliferation problem and a residue of East – West suspicion.

It wasn’t just Ronald Reagan and SDI, of course.  As we shall discuss in our notes on “the Socialist Man,” it was a systemic failure – perhaps a worldview failure.  The most repressive regimes in the world cannot long survive when their subjects lose respect for their authority.  Uprisings in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968) were crushed by Soviet tanks, but military intervention reached its limits in the Afghan war.  When the “workers’ paradise” in Poland found itself confronted in the 80’s by an independent labor movement (Solidarity) supported by the Roman Catholic Church, the Soviets declined to intervene [See Duiker & Spielvogel 792-94, 810-11].  Large scale popular protest, determined but mostly non-violent, spread throughout the Communist World – and beyond (for example, the Philippines).  Established religious resistance – willing to lay down their lives – led the way.  Conscience and economic despair, emboldened by perestroika, joined in massive outcry against repressive regimes.   In most instances, except China (Tiananmen Square), the coercive nerve failed and the troops did not fire [See Heydt]. 

Think about it:

1.  When and how did the Cold War begin?

2.  What do you think was the most important characteristic of the Cold War?

3.  Which interpretation of the Cold War makes the most sense to you?  Why?


Clay, Lucius D.  Decision in Germany.  Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1950.

Duiker, William L. and Spielvogel, Jackson J.  World History, 6th edn., Boston:        Wadsworth,             2010.

Feis, Herbert.  Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin. Princeton: Princeton U, 1957.

Heughins, David.  “The Occupation of Germany,” unpublished (1969).

Heydt, Barbara von der.  Candles behind the Wall.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,1993.

Kieft, David.  “Diplomatic History of Modern Europe,” lectures at the University of             Minnesota,      1971.

Munholland, J. K.  “Twentieth Century Europe,” lectures at the University of Minnesota,         1970.

Shute, Neville.  On the Beach.  London: Heinneman, 1957.  (novel, for illustration only)

Zink, Harold.  The United States in Germany: 1949 – 1955.  Princeton: van Nostrand, 1957.

David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College. He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. He is the author of (2020). He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.

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