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Lecture: The Early Cold War


Document: Photo of Bikini Island H-Bomb Test Bravo (1955)

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Origins During WWII

As I mentioned in the last lecture, Roosevelt, Winston Churchill of Great Britain, and Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union were in charge of planning Allied strategy. The fourth member should have been Charles deGaulle of France. But since France was occupied by the Nazis, deGaulle was directing the French Resistance (also known as the French Underground) to undermine Nazi control. He could not show his face in public in occupied territory, so was left out of strategy planning.

Winston Churchill of Britain was a historian, a far-seeing man during his second world war. He feared Stalin and the power of Soviet Communism, and was concerned that Stalin's ultimate plan was for the global domination of communism through Soviet military expansion. As it turned out, he was right, but no one knew that at the time.

Stalin didn't trust Churchill either. Great Britain commanded one of the largest capitalist empires in the world, and had a history (as did the U.S.) of wanting everyone to have a free-market economy (connected to Britain, of course) and a republican system of government. He was concerned that the ultimate plan of Britain and the U.S. was to expand their trading influence and promote capitalistic republics worldwide. He was right too. "Big Three: Stalin, FDR, Churchill"

At planning meetings, Churchill and Stalin rarely sat next to each other. There are very few photos that show the "Big Three" (as they were called) without Roosevelt in the middle. This was more than just a seating preference. Despite his own goals for the war, Franklin Roosevelt frequently found himself in the position of arbitrator and mediator between Churchill and Stalin. This is important to understanding the strategy that developed during the war, and why it provided a foundation for the Cold War.

Shortly after Pearl, the differences between British, American and Soviet strategy became clear. The British wanted to attack the Nazis and Italians at their weak points, wearing them down as they headed closer to the center of power, Berlin. The American military wanted to head straight for Berlin and bomb the hell out of them. The Soviets wanted a second front in France opened immediately, perceiving that Germany would be quickly weakened (and Soviet lives saved) if Germany had to fight on two fronts.

The Soviet perspective was well known. There was a joke that Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov only knew three English words: "yes", "no", and "second front".

But the U.S. had taken a long time to enter the war, and British casualties had been extreme too. When Churchill wanted the first move to be the recapture of North Africa, FDR agreed. Opening North Africa would prevent Italian and Nazi expansion on that continent, and open up a waterway to the USSR so aid could be shipped. Stalin was angry, demanding that the British and Americans land immediately in France and open up the second front. He was overruled, two against one.

After North Africa was secured, Churchill had wanted Italy to be next. Stalin again demanded France. FDR again sided with Churchill. The American military was frustrated, wanting to head for Berlin. Italy took much longer than anticipated, although Mussolini himself was eventually captured and killed by Italians trying to overthrow him.

Next Churchill wanted the Balkans. What he was trying to do was occupy Eastern Europe, circling around to Berlin so that Soviet troops couldn't dominate the east by themselves. But by now Stalin had been put off twice. FDR had a dream for a United Nations in which the Soviets would play a part, preventing future war between communists and capitalists. If the Soviets weren't treated with respect now, there would be trouble later. It's easy to see his point of view (I would have decided the same way). So D-Day was planned: the invasion of Normandy, France, by combined British and American troops, which would then head for Berlin. This took place in 1944, and the Soviets headed toward Berlin from the east at the same time, crushing Germany. "Germany Map"

As they made their way westward, the Soviets discovered the Nazi death camps, and liberated survivors. They were horrified by what they saw. So were Americans and British viewing the fewer concentration camps west of Berlin. But the fact is that most survivors in eastern Europe were rescued by Russian troops. Berlin fell, and the Allies occupied Germany and Berlin. Germany was divided into four sectors: British, French, American, and Soviet. Berlin was in the middle of the Soviet sector, and the Allies agreed to subdivide the city itself into British, French, American, and Soviet sectors too. No walls were built, but each part of the city was under the control of different occupying troops.

The democratic allies wanted Soviet troops to evacuate eastern Europe after the war and establish republican government. But Stalin instead encouraged the communist parties of each eastern European country to take over. With Soviet assistance, the local communist parties came into power all over eastern Europe, and Churchill made his famous speech about an "Iron Curtain" descending. It was nice of him not to point out that if his plan for the Balkans had been followed, Soviet troops would not have been in a position to pull down that curtain.

A Chronology of the Cold War

Usually, memorizing dates and chronology is not that important so long as you understand the sequence, the cause and effect of what takes place. The Cold War is an exception, since events follow each other very quickly. Departing completely from the pattern in order to demonstrate to you the flow of Cold War events, I'm going to write about all major events from 1945 into the 1960s, when the character of the Cold War really changes.

The atomic bomb, dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, left the U.S. at the forefront of the new "arms race". Some have suggested this was one reason for using it, so that the world (especially the Soviets) would know that the U.S. was on top. Certainly Truman tried to threaten Stalin with it at the Potsdam Conference, even before he knew what it could do. Other reasons, of course, included not having to undergo American losses with an invasion of Japan (since the Japanese fought to the last man on every square inch of territory, causing unexpectedly large body counts in the Pacific), and testing the new toys. None of which, frankly, I've ever found a good excuse for annihilating two cities, and inadvertently causing massive amounts of radiation sickness and death from people having their eyes fry and skin fall off. But that's just my opinion.... again..

1945-1949: The U.N. to the Soviet Bomb

"U.N." In April 1945, the United Nations was founded in San Francisco, with the intention that its location be in the U.S. so that America would have to always be a member. The first hope was that the U.N. would take charge of disarmament. Since only the U.S. had the atomic bomb, this was a touchy subject. The Baruch Plan proposed that the U.N. take over all disarmament activity, with international investigations to ensure that no country built atomic weapons. This would effectively have frozen the situation with the U.S. being the only country with the knowledge of how to make an a-bomb. Unacceptable to the Soviets, the Baruch Plan was vetoed in the Security Council.

Understanding the Security Council is important to understanding the Cold War. The U.N. consists of a General Assembly, where each member state has one vote. But the Security Council can take any issue involving international security (such as potential war, embargo, etc.) and make it their own. The five permanent members of the Security Council have veto power; these are the victors of the war -- the U.S., the Soviet Union, (Republican) China, France, and Great Britain. The other members rotate from the General Assembly.

Although it had been hoped that the U.N. could act in international interests, it quickly became obvious that the U.S. and the USSR would use their veto power against each other, and that the Cold War would dominate the U.N. If the western republics wanted Stalin to remove support for communist governments in eastern Europe, for example (and they did), the USSR could simply veto the measure.

In 1946, it became apparent that Europe was in deep trouble economically. The destruction of the war had led to severe post-war depression, and many of these countries had not been doing well since 1929. As a result, left-wing solutions became popular, and with fascism discredited the communists started to look good. Although the U.S. had feared that Soviet military aggression would make Europe communist, it looked like Europe was going communist all by itself, voting radicals into office in all the republics.

To protect our trading partners and prevent the spread of Soviet Communism, the Marshall Plan was offered to Europe in 1947. Western Europe accepted $13 billion. Eastern Europe rejected"Marshall Plan goods" the offer as an attempt by the U.S. to buy with money what it could not earn with philosophy. Certainly the communists had a point: capitalism, unlike communism, is not a very sociable philosophy. It's based on competition and winner-take-all, not helping each other in troubled times. That's why so many people were voting communist and socialist after the war. The only chance for capitalism to succeed in this environment is if good times returned. Money ensured that good times returned. Thus the Marshall Plan, while it helped western Europe recover economically, proved to the Soviets that the U.S. would buy what it could not win (which is what communists had accused us of doing all along).

Document: George C. Marshall: The Marshall Plan (1947)

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With West Germany receiving Marshall Plan money, East Germany remained poor and thus so did East Berlin. This became intolerable: East Berliners could look across the street and see prosperity. The Soviets blockaded in 1948, preventing all surface access to West Germany. The U.S. responded with the Berlin Airlift, flying all supplies into West Berlin until the Soviets stopped the blockade. (See the US Air Force's website on the Berlin airlift.)

1949 was truly a watershed year in the Cold War. Air samples from Soviet airspace showed that the Soviets had detonated their first atomic weapon, years ahead of schedule. Someone must have sold them the secrets; a "red hunt" ensued against all suspected U.S. communists, and some spies were discovered. With the Soviets having the bomb, the U.S. no longer had a monopoly on global destruction. Also in 1949, we "lost China" to Communists. This was the perspective of many Americans, who had counted on our government's financial support of Republican Chinese troops to prevent such an occurence. The government even had to publish a paper explaining why no amount of money could have stopped Mao Zedong's successful takeover.

This was because the war of the Chinese Communists against the Republican government had been going on since the early 1930s. It had just been interrupted by World War II, which had made it necessary for both sides to fight the Japanese. With the Japanese gone in 1945, the war had resumed. For 15 years, the communists had been working among the peasants, fomenting a popular revolution that had to succeed. But to Americans, the map of the world was "turning red".

Lastly, 1949 was the year the U.S. created NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization). NATO was made up ostensibly of all the republican nations bordering the north Atlantic, but since it also included Turkey and West Germany, everyone could see it was an alliance against communism. The alliance said that an attack on any country in NATO was an attack on every country in NATO. So if Portugal got bombed, the U.S. was at war. The problem with NATO was that it was a violation of the United Nations charter, which forbids any defensive alliances that might pull countries into another world war. Some American isolationists weren't happy that we were members of the U.N., much less NATO. There is a sign on Gopher Canyon Road in Fallbrook (and one on Union Avenue in Bakersfield) saying, "Get US out of the U.N."

Korean War to the Warsaw Pact

"Tank"Certainly we got into another war right away. Korea had been a country occupied by the Japanese early in the war. They had attempted to erase Korean culture, forcing the adoption of Japanese names and the use of the Japanese language. At the very end of the war, Soviet troops had invaded Korea from the north. This had been a token expression of Soviet Allied support in Asia (the Soviet Union throughout the war had a secret treaty with Japan saying they would not attack, to avoid both parties fighting on two fronts). It was obvious Japan was losing, so the USSR finally lent a hand. American troops had already landed in the south, and the two Allied groups met in the middle. Like in eastern Europe, this meant that half the enemy had surrendered to the Russians, and half to the Americans.

In the north, the Soviets supported the establishment of the large Korean communist party as the government, and pulled out its troops. In the south, the U.S. wanted a republican government, but no one knew how to do it, so the troops had to stay. A divided Korea resulted, which the U.N. had partitioned into North Korea (not a member of the UN, even today) and South Korea (a member). In 1950, the North Korean government decided to reunify their country, and invaded South Korea.

President Truman wanted to stop them, but it was unlikely that he could get Congress to vote for war. So he decided to go to the U.N. instead, to create an international force. The U.N. charter calls for a standing permanent army, with people from all member nations. In fact, this has never been created, with the result that whichever countries are interested in a particular U.N. action create their own army under the U.N. auspices. Obviously, the Soviets would be prepared to veto any interference in Korea in the Security Council. "Korea Memorial"

But the Soviets were boycotting one meeting of the Council, because the U.N. had refused to allow Communist China to take over the seat held by Republican China (which had lost the war and was in exile in Taiwan). The U.S. brought up the Korean operation at the one session where the Soviets weren't there, so no one vetoed it. The Soviets never again missed a session.

Mostly Americans went to Korea; for many of them it was their second war in five years. They were at first successful under MacArthur's leadership, and easily pushed the North Koreans out of South Korea. But then MacArthur decided to continue into North Korea, to unify Korea under republican government, and Truman did nothing to stop him. Despite warning signs that the Chinese army was massing along the North Korean border, MacArthur didn't stop. 300,000 Chinese troops poured into North Korea, and chased the U.N. troops back to a little zone in the southern tip called the Pusan Perimeter. Reinforcements pushed the Chinese back to the original border between North and South. MacArthur wanted to drop the bomb on the Chinese and fight China; Truman said no and fired MacArthur. Many more men fought and died while the combatants sat around the peace table, arguing for three years who should sit in which seat. In 1953, the border was almost the same as it had been when the war started.

Hungary to the Cuban Missile Crisis

1953 was the same year that Stalin died in the Soviet Union. The communist leadership changed toward those who wanted reforms, what came to be called "de-Stalinization". Nikita Khrushchev took over, denouncing Stalin's murder of loyal Communist Party members and collaboration with Hitler before the war. Khrushschev wanted "peaceful coexistence" with the west, while at the same time persuading nations in Africa and Asia to adopt Soviet communism. In 1955, the USSR cemented the Warsaw Pact, a communist response to NATO. The Warsaw Pact was the alliance of all communist bloc nations; an attack on one was considered an attack on all. Partly this was to show the world that the Soviets would protect against any attempt to interfere in eastern Europe.

Some countries behind the Iron Curtain got overly enthusiastic about the change. Poland was able to skillfully gain some freedoms without alienating the USSR. Hungary, however, tried to install a liberal reformer (still a communist), eject Soviet troops, renounce the military alliance with the Soviets, and call for free elections. Soviet tanks rolled in and crushed the revolution in 1956. Americans responded with fear that the Soviets were getting out of hand.

In Germany, the "hole in the Iron Curtain" was leaking. You remember how Germany was divided after the war? People from eastern bloc nations could travel to East Germany, enter East Berlin, cross the street to West Berlin, and leave for the west by air or rail. By 1961, this had become a habit, a "brain drain" as all of eastern Europe's best scientists and thinkers left for university jobs in the west. The East German government decided to build a wall to prevent East Berliners from crossing into West Berlin. The Berlin Wall went up literally over night, separating families and causing many to risk shooting and injury crossing barbed wire before the wall was complete. The U.S. government decided not to start World War III over Berlin, although for several tense days East German tanks faced American tanks across the space where the Wall was being built. The Wall became a visible symbol of the Cold War, guarded heavily with document checks at the gates.

Then it was discovered that the Soviets were involved in Cuba, a country that had recently gone communist under Fidel Castro. A futile and embarrassing attempt was made to "liberate" Cuba in 1961, when CIA-trained Cuban exiles attempted to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. In 1962, an American U-2 spy plane flying a routine mission over Cuba photographed missile platforms being set up by the Soviets. At this time, there were not yet ICBMs, Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles that could hit the U.S. from the Soviet Union. Medium-range and intermediate-range missiles were cheaper anyway; we had set some up in Turkey (so that's why they're part of NATO) pointed at Moscow. The Soviets wanted some in Cuba pointed at Washington. When President Kennedy asked Khrushchev about the platforms, he was told they were for SAM's (surface-to-air missiles) for Cuba's defense. But the photos clearly showed that they were for large missiles, surrounded by SAMs.

Kennedy and his advisors decided to set up a quarantine, stopping and examining any Soviet ships entering Cuban waters for missile parts. The world waited, holding its breath as the first Soviet ship approached the quarantine line. If the ship had run the blockade, World War III might have begun in the Caribbean. But the ships stopped, and turned back as they were instructed. At the same time, however, construction was continuing on the missile platforms, and it's very likely Cuba already had enough to attack the U.S. Americans bit off all their fingernails with this one, but in the end Khrushchev backed down and pulled out the missiles, a move that saved the world but cost him his career.

1964 onward

From 1964, the Cold War was something everyone knew about as a background to American life. No one built bomb shelters anymore like they had in the 50's; the arsenals of a-bombs and h-bombs had become so large and potentially destructive they were beyond anyone's comprehension. Vietnam would be an issue beginning in 1965, and it would be another failed attempt to stop the spread of communism.

Popular culture reflected the Cold War as a sort of on-going obsession; even comedy took a stab at it from time to time:

"War Songs"

Although this performance dates from 1965, Tom Lehrer started writing parody songs in college during the 50s, and attained a cult following. This one, which focuses on World War III, provides an excellent perspective on cold war satire. Lyrics

Red-hunting versus Civil Rights

You have read about McCarthyism in the 50's; there's just a couple of things I need to add.

Be sure you know your Senators from your Representatives. Joseph McCarthy was a Senator from Wisconsin. He conducted the Senate hearings that investigated the State Department and the Army for communists during the Korean War. HUAC is the House Un-American Activities Committee, run by the House of Representatives. They were the ones who went gunning for reds in Hollywood.

Yes, there were real communists in Hollywood, and they felt they should be permitted to be communists under the Bill of Rights. But the Smith Act, passed in 1940 before U.S. entrance into the war, had extended the powers of the old Espionage Act. It made it a crime to, according to historian Howard Zinn, "advocate the overthrow of the government by force and violence, or to join any group that advocated this, or to publish anything with such ideas". The Smith Act effectively made any Communist Party affiliations illegal, although the party itself was not outlawed. Arrests could be made for distributing Marxist-Leninist literature, such as the 1848 Communist Manifesto; the leaders of the American Communist Party were put in prison, and most of its organizers went underground.

HUAC questioned anyone suspected of being a communist, and many Representatives participated because it gave them great publicity. They encouraged interviewees to "name names", tell the committee the names of people they knew or suspected of being communists. Some (like the Hollywood Ten) "pled the Fifth", refusing to testify against themselves under protection of the Fifth Amendment. Author Lillian Hellman said, "I refuse to cut my conscience to fit this year's fashion". Those objecting to the committee were very well spoken; Albert Maltz is an example. As you read his testimony, think to yourself:

Document: Albert Maltz: Testimoney Before HUAC (1947)

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Even liberal politicians supported the anti-communist crusade, including President Truman, who authorized the Justice Department to conduct intrusive investigations into people's private lives. The fear of communism, and the willingness to allow almost any actions to prevent it, reached unbelievable proportions. President Truman did, however, veto the Internal Security Act of 1950).

Document: Harry S. Truman: Veto of the Internal Security Act (1950)

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Even the American Civil Liberties Union expelled one of its charter members, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, for being a member of the Communist party, and refused to defend its own board members when they were attacked. It even avoided participation in the Rosenberg case, when many (including Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Einstein, and the sister of Vanzetti) supported the Rosenbergs.

Pop Culture: Shelters, Body Snatchers, Trends in Jazz

But people built bomb shelters in their backyard. Bill Moyers, in his television series A Walk Through the 20th Century tells of the college classes his wife had to take. She spent an entire semester's class in nutrition planning how to feed the entire state of Texas in the event of nuclear attack. The government, Moyers said, wanted to keep Americans walking the fine line between panic and complacency. "Body Snatcher Poster"

It's hard to imagine how far it went. Even Thomas Jefferson, the third president and author of the Declaration of Independence, was declared inappropriate reading (he wrote things like, "a little rebellion now and then is a good thing") and pulled from school libraries. Popular magazines ran articles on how to tell if a co-worker was a communist. Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer enjoyed killing "commies". Air raid drills were held in school: get under the desk, cover your head, don't look toward the window. Movies were made like, "I Married a Communist". Massive military spending was justified, although it was later discovered that there had been no "missile gap", that the U.S. was way ahead in the military stockpile game.

One of the most popular films of the time was the science-fiction classic, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers".

Although seemingly not similar to the heavy-handed anti-

commie films of the time, which weren't at all popular, this film was nevertheless about the fear of communism. In the movie, aliens come from outer space in plant pods. As the pods mature, they grow into exact replicas of the individuals they are near, killing the real people when they mature to replace them. It's impossible to tell who is and who isn't an alien (read: communist). They take over the entire community; no one is safe. Click on the image on the right to see the film clip.

In general, movies about aliens taking over became very popular during this time, and I think you can see parallels even today. We make films about what we're afraid of, especially science fiction movies. Then it was communism, now it's disease, or other disasters perceived of as beyond human control.

As a break from Cold War culture, I want to note the maturity of jazz during this era as a musical form, with such performers as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie "Bird" Parker, and Sarah Vaughan. Notice the level of sophistication compared to earlier examples of jazz.


This is a composition entitled "Dizzy Atmosphere", written and performed by Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet), with Charlie Parker (one of the greatest saxophonists). These musicians are part of the be-bop tradition.

"Torch Song"

The torch song gained popularity in the 30s and 40s with Billie Holiday and other blues and jazz singers. Torch songs are sentimental ballads of unrequited love, often sung in a sensual manner. Vaughan was known for her excellent range (she could have sung opera) and controlled technique. This number, "Loverman (Oh, Where Can You Be?)" was sung with the Dizzy Gillespie quintet in 1945. Lyrics


All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.