Flush from their unconditional victory over the Axis powers, the triumphant Allies (and especially the United States) issued reams of idealistic rhetoric. The end of balance-of-power realpolitik had arrived; peace, prosperity, democracy, and capitalism would reign worldwide; even the USSR, in the eyes of the US media, "was moving toward something resembling our own and Great Britain's democracy." Even as these optimistic proclamations were being made, however, the geopolitical ground was shifting beneath the Allies' feet. Within months, tension and suspicion between the Soviets and the Western powers would begin to escalate, and, by 1948 at the latest, explode into the Cold War that would dominate international relations for the next half-century.
Because the origins of the Cold War are too complex a subject to be tackled in a short paper, this essay examines one particular thesis about the Cold War's outbreak and early development: that it was primarily a consequence of the failure of the Western powers to accommodate Soviet security needs. Stating this thesis, of course, begs further questions: To what extent did the West* [*in this essay, I use the term 'the West' to refer to the United States, the United Kingdom, and their major allies in Western Europe and Asia] actually make an effort to respond to Soviet security concerns? Did the Soviets view these efforts as going far enough? Most importantly, what factors underlie the degree of Western accommodation, and the Soviet perception of these policies? In brief, I argue that the Western powers did make a modest effort to cater to legitimate Soviet security concerns, but that their policies were nevertheless perceived by the USSR as either not going far enough, or actually undermining Soviet security. I then explore the fascinating mix of historical, geopolitical, ideological, and psychological factors that explain why the West did not go further in accommodating Soviet security needs, and why the Soviet response to the West's limited but notable concessions was so negative.
Beginning, then, with the West's approach towards Soviet security concerns, it is quite clear that the US and UK felt that they were making unprecedented concessions to the USSR. At the Yalta conference, Roosevelt and Churchill were both "willing to concede that Russia should have 'friendly' neighbours in Eastern Europe," as, in the wake of two devastating German invasions in thirty years time, they considered it "understandable that Moscow wished to create a buffer zone between itself and Germany." Roosevelt was not ready to accede to the conversion of the Eastern European states into Communist dictatorships, but did not disagree over the basic principle of a friendly buffer zone. Churchill, for his part, shrugged off concerns about democracy, and eagerly began offering suggestions for the division of UK-USSR influence in Yugoslavia (50-50), Greece (90-10), and other states. On issues outside of Eastern Europe, prominent American statesmen such as Harry Hopkins and Henry Stimson counseled conciliation with the Soviet Union, and had some sway over accommodating US policies like the concession of Japan's Kurile and Sakhalin Islands to the USSR, Soviet inclusion in the Security Council, the initial payment of reparations from Germany to the USSR, and the promise of American economic aid under the Marshall Plan. It is difficult to doubt, therefore, that the Western powers' post-war policies were at least somewhat responsive to Soviet security concerns.
Nevertheless, in the eyes of the Soviet Union, these Western efforts fell far short of satisfaction - and, if anything, hinted ominously towards a sinister Western plan to "contain" and dominate the Soviet Union. The underlying rationales for this not entirely inaccurate viewpoint are discussed later in the essay; here, I only outline the array of Western policies that, to the Soviets, suggested more malicious motives than those professed in Roosevelt and Churchill's lofty language. In particular, the policies that alienated and threatened the Soviet Union spanned the military, economic, and rhetorical realms. Militarily, the USSR understandably saw its security threatened by the US's move to "encircle the western hemisphere with a…ring of outlying bases" and "acquire bases in closer proximity to the Soviet Union," by the explicitly anti-Communist Truman Doctrine and its concomitant package of military aid for Greece and Turkey, by the deployment of American nuclear weapons in Europe, and, most of all, by the eventual establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. All these policies, in Soviet eyes, indicated an American commitment to militarily restraining, and perhaps striking the USSR.
Economically, Soviet fears were heightened by the immediate American termination of the Lend-Lease program when the war finished, by the rejection of the USSR's application for trade credits, by the cessation of reparations payments from Germany to the USSR and the subsequent decision to rebuild the shattered German economy, and by the Marshall Plan's program of economic assistance to Western Europe, which threatened to transform the region into a uniformly anti-Communist bloc. These menacing military and economic actions were complemented by viciously confrontational rhetoric from important American and British figures. George Kennan decried the use of "fig leaves of democratic procedure to hide the nakedness of Stalinist dictatorship," and, in his Long Telegram, famously declared that "there can be no permanent peaceful co-existence" with the "malignant parasite" of world communism. Churchill, similarly, described the "iron curtain" descending across Europe, and Truman, while outlining the doctrine that bears his name, expressed his opposition to totalitarianism and Communism. Were all these policies and statements motivated by anti-Soviet feeling? Of course not, but the already paranoid USSR leadership cannot easily be blamed for construing them as fundamentally contrary to its security and interests.
A simple conclusion about the thesis that this essay set out to examine - that the outbreak of the Cold War was primarily a consequence of the failure of the Western powers to accommodate Soviet security needs - would therefore read as follows: the Western powers did seek to respond to the Soviet security concerns that they considered most important, but the USSR viewed these efforts as grossly inadequate, and perceived other Western policies as actually threatening its basic security needs. The resulting ratcheting of tension was the primary explanation for the arising of the Cold War. However, this conclusion, though probably accurate, ignores two of the most interesting questions provoked by the discussion so far: Why did the West not go further in accommodating Soviet security needs? And why did the Soviets persist in viewing Western policies in such a negative light?
The first of these questions has at least three important answers. First, and most obviously, Western planners did not respond sufficiently to Soviet security needs because they failed to understand them properly. As Leffler points out, the US paid little heed to the tremendous casualties suffered by the Soviet Union during the war (20 million dead, 31,000 factories destroyed, 100,000 farms uprooted, etc.), and therefore never grasped the deep insecurity that these losses bred. Second, and even more importantly, the Western powers genuinely did not know whether the Soviets' expansionary policies in Eastern Europe and elsewhere were rooted in security concerns (which presumably were limited), or in ideology (which bespoke a desire for world domination). The harshness of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe, and aggressiveness of Soviet maneuvers in Turkey, Iran, and the Middle East, suggested the latter scenario. As a result, when they decided "that they had to contend with an implacable and expansionist Communist state," American planners both began painting US interests in extremely broad strokes (e.g. "the preservation of a favorable balance of power in Eurasia"), and became very reluctant to cater any further to Soviet security needs. The final explanation for the limited degree of Western accommodation to Soviet security interests was the West's growing dismay with Soviet policy in Eastern Europe. Flouting the Yalta summit's declaration that governments would be "broadly representative of all democratic elements" and "responsive to the will of the people," the USSR moved quickly to ensure Communist influence, eliminate rivals through subtle "salami" tactics and the blunter presence of its Red Army, and eventually impose totalitarian rule on the Eastern European states. In combination, these factors limited the extent to which the West could respond to Soviet security needs, and established a paradigm in which all Soviet actions were viewed as suspicious and threatening.
The answers to the second question, about the negative Soviet perceptions of Western policy, are in many ways the mirror image of the answers to the first. Just as the West failed to comprehend the USSR's visceral fear of invasion through Eastern Europe, the Soviets never appreciated that the war had also drastically broadened American conceptions of national security. Just as the West began perceiving Soviet moves as part of an ideologically driven campaign for global hegemony, the Soviets saw American policies as elements of a capitalist plot to subvert their own socialist state. Just as the West became indignant about the USSR's spurning of democracy in Eastern Europe, the Soviets complained that the West was reneging on its side of the Yalta agreement: its promise to allow the Eastern European states to become a friendly buffer zone for the USSR. Add to this volatile mix the impetus of Marxist/Leninist ideology, the confrontational pattern of past relations between the USSR and capitalist states, and Stalin's own perpetual paranoia - and a compelling case can be made for why the USSR persistently undervalued Western efforts to accommodate its security needs, and misconstrued unrelated Western policies as detrimental to its interests.
What, then, of the thesis about the Cold War's origins that this essay has been examining? In short, the conflict's outbreak was in part a consequence of the Western powers' failure to accommodate Soviet security needs, but this very failure, rather than arising exogenously, stemmed from Soviet policies and the West's particular perceptions of them. In addition, it was not so much actual Western failure to respond to Soviet security that caused the Cold War, as much as perceived Western failure in the eyes of the Soviet Union - a perception itself derived from specific Soviet views of the world and interpretations of Western policy. Like most great historical phenomena, then, the Cold War was not the outcome of concrete forces and factors, but the unintended repercussion of endless layers of perception and misinterpretation.
Works Cited:- Andrew, Christopher and Oleg Gordievsky, KGB: The Inside Story (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1991)
- Andrew, Christopher and Oleg Gordievsky, Instructions from the Centre (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1993).
- Leffler, Melvyn P. and David S. Painter, Origins of the Cold War: An International History (London: Routledge Press, 1994)
- Walker, Martin, The Cold War (London: Vintage Press, 1994)
- Young, John W., Cold War Europe: 1945-1989: A Political History (London: Arnold Press, 1991)