The ideological, economic and military framework of the Cold War

After World War II, the United States of America built the argument that the world had been split into two antagonistic blocks.
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| 26/01/2020 | Last update:


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After the end of the Second World War, the world became divided into two antagonistic blocs, actually differentiated from one another. It based on the theory developed mainly by the United States of America whereby there was an “iron curtain” delimiting the countries that defended the free market and democracy from those that opted for the tyranny of socialism.

Ideological foundations of the Cold War

Political basis

Economical basis

Military basis

Map of military alliances in Europe during the Cold War. The continent divided between the NATO countries and the Warsaw Treaty countries. Source: Wikipedia.org

According to American Cold War ideologues, this was to serve as a denunciation of the Soviet expansion project. It was a call to public opinion in the “free world” for constant mobilization against Soviet imperialism. The guidelines of the capitalist world were democracy, economic freedom, and intolerance of any authoritarian principles. In reality, the United States practised an imperialist, counter-revolutionary and expansionary policy.

From the Soviet perspective, the Cold War was seen as an instrument of the capitalist bloc to attempt stopping the expansion of freedom and democracy that socialism represented.

From 1947 onward, a general theory of the Cold War was developed, leading to a science. It had to encourage the continuous confrontation between the USSR and the United States and their respective allies. Peripheral conflicts had to be provoked before which the two powers and their allies had to adopt antagonistic positions. These peripheral conflicts determined the emergence of another concept: the Peaceful Coexistence (20th Congress of the CPSU 1956).

The Cold War meant the definitive loss of European hegemony in the world. Since the end of the Second World War the world was in the hands of two extra-European superpowers: the United States and the Soviet Union. The World War II was the right instrument to make this move.

The temporary coalition of WWII allies had already been broken, practically, before the war ended. It was the United States of America that caused this breakdown, showing little sensitivity for the requests for assistance made by Stalin (a supporter of collective bargaining for German war reparations).

The United States’ lack of solidarity with its Soviet ally had unforeseen consequences: the foundation of the popular democracies in the occupied territories of Eastern Europe, where Stalin did not hesitate to resort to violence as to avoid internal splits. This is what happened in 1956 when the Soviet army ended the revolution in Hungary and Poland; and in 1968 when the Soviet army liquidated the attempt at democratic opening in Czechoslovakia.

In Western Europe there was no need to resort to this brutality. Control and domination over the population could be achieved by reconciling the democratic system with a new welfare state, a social pact to ease internal tensions that served to control this geostrategic framework without having to resort to violent solutions.

When did the Cold War begin?

The Cold War began all along World War II, mainly in the military. The British military ranks celebrated all the defeats of the USSR, and Churchill was aware that Soviet economic progress was a danger to the Western world. There were plans among the Allies to attack the USSR’s industrial complexes. The clash really began when it became clear that there was a difficulty in matching the two winning projects. It was clear to the United States that a world had to be built which would benefit its military and industrial superiority.

Once the war was over, it was clear to everybody that it was practically impossible to adjust the social projects of the winning bloc as they were quite different. In reality, there was never any fear that the USSR could conquer the world since everybody knew for sure that this was not its will. What they did fear, however, was that the Soviet Union would want to extend its social project through the communist parties in the respective European countries and beyond. That was indeed feared, and the United States knew that they would have the help of Western European governments to stop the advance of the communists.

The U.S. position was exacerbated when the Bretton Woods agreements of 1944 resulted in the establishment of a New International Economic Order typified by a global free market. The Soviets were found to be refusing to enter this system. This was only part of the confrontation between the two blocs.

Each side defended a project they believed to be superior to the other. Stalin believed that the decisive Soviet contribution in the victory over the Nazis (it was the Soviets who fought Germany) gave the USSR the right to be considered on an equal footing. When Stalin saw that the United States excluded it from peace, he believed that at least it was entitled to a world divided into two areas of influence. This was antagonistic to the American project.

Stalin refused to enter into the Marshall Plan, not because he rejected American credits, but because he presumed that this was not economic aid but a system of internal control. These frictions began to manifest themselves at the end of 1945. President Truman was in favour of a tougher policy.

What was Truman’s pretext? On February 9th, 1946, Stalin made an electoral speech in the Bolshoi Theatre where he reproduced a typical world scheme of Stalinist determinist Marxism, of the possibilities of the future.

“Now, victory means above all, that our Soviet social system has won; that the social system has passed the acid test of war and proved its full vitality (…) The Soviet social system has proved to be more capable of living and more stable than a non-Soviet social system (…). The Soviet social system is a better way of organizing society than any non-Soviet social system.

(…) Our Marxists declare that the capitalist system of the world economy contains elements of crisis and war; that the development of world capitalism does not follow a firm and uniform path forward, but proceeds through crisis and catastrophe. The uneven development of the capitalist countries leads, in time, to great disturbances in their relations, and groups of countries that consider themselves inadequately supplied with raw materials and export markets often try to change this situation and to change their position by armed force.”

“If we provide our wise men with the necessary help, they will know not only how to achieve, but also how to advance, in the near future, the results achieved by science, beyond the borders of our country.”

Excerpt from Stalin’s speech in Moscow on February 9, 1946

Truman’s idea of Stalin’s speech was that it was a declaration of war. As an idea, it was ridiculous.

Stalin made the mistake of thinking that his enemies would give him thirty years to develop his social project. This was not the case, as the United States believed that if they let him do this, it would cause a major problem in Western European countries where there were governments formed with the participation of the communist parties as well as in the popular democracies of the East. They thought that the communists could be radicalized.

Why did the Russians not accept the Bretton Woods system? The most fortunate explanation is that of George Kennan (American military officer stationed in Russia and later ambassador to the USSR). In the famous “long telegram of 1946, Kennan explained that the American way of life was not compatible for the Soviets, and that their mission was to liquidate it. Kennan assured that it was impossible to negotiate with the Soviets and that the best way to do so was to adopt a policy of containment. Under the scenario presented by Kennan, from the American perspective it was not possible to maintain agreements with the Soviets, just a hard policy of containment. Kennan’s telegram was well-received throughout Truman’s anti-communist circle. Truman and his advisors believed that they should not let the communists make a move so that they would see that their system could not work and would end up rectifying it.

Main events between 1946 and 1948

Churchill’s speech at Fulton University (March 1946)

On March 5th, 1946, Churchill, who was no longer the prime minister of Great Britain, gave a speech at Fulton University in the United States. In his speech, Churchill denounced the proselytizing tendencies of the Soviets: “The Russians do not want war but the fruits of war.” The speech made Stalin actually angry. It was then that Stalin finished maturing the idea of having some friendly governments around the USSR. Stalin found it logical and reasonable.

Churchill durante su discurso en Fulton
Churchill during his speech at Fulton

Churchill’s speech was important because of its intent and consequences. Churchill intended to influence the United States out of its traditional isolationism. According to Churchill, the full involvement of the United States in the new historical phase opened after the war was essential.

In 1946, the British were unable to cope with the communist forces in the Greek civil war. In addition, in the Hindustan peninsula and the Palestine they also had problems. Churchill argued that if the Western world was to be saved from Soviet expansionism, American help was needed. It was an incitement not to fall back into isolationism: “you have to go into immediate interventionism.”

In this framework, it was necessary to undertake a large-scale psychological warfare, through the radio: Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.

A political fight had also to be waged by cause of world peace. It was necessary to organize covert operations in which the United States’ name would never appear: “plausible deniability.” Operations where the protagonism could always be denied. Propaganda, economic warfare, subversion… Hence, that American protagonism could in all cases be rejected. They were very hard targets. In a sense the United States failed.

Greek Civil War

The first large-scale confrontation after the Second World War took place in Greece in 1946. The Greek resistance movement was mainly made up of communist groups. When World War II ended, the British, supported by right-wing and royalist forces, unleashed a bloody civil war (1946-1949).

It was clear to Stalin that it was not feasible for Greece to switch to the communist side, and he even refused to help the communist guerrillas. On the other hand, Marshal Tito (Prime Minister of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) did support them.

Faced with the difficulties of the British in ending the Greek war, the United States considered their intervention. In a meeting between President Truman, Secretary of State George Marshall and Under-Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Acheson convinced them that the Greek revolution could cause a “domino effect” on other countries. It was absolutely necessary to stop the communist advance in Greece by supporting the monarchical and right-wing forces.

The official turning point in the U.S. policy came on March 12th, 1947, as President Truman addressed Congress, calling for approval of the main guidelines of what became the new U.S. foreign policy. Truman solemnly sanctioned before the representatives of the Congress: “our old ally is now the enemy of peace and freedom”.

Pronouncement of the Truman Doctrine on March 12th, 1947

Truman made an apocalyptic speech to Congress on “democracy, freedom, good and evil,” on March 12th, 1947. The terms of his speech were situated in the confrontation between the free world and communism. The United States, Truman claimed, would intervene in Europe with money investments.

Truman expressed what the policy should be from that moment on. The Truman Doctrine meant helping countries that were threatened by the communists.

El Presidente Trump mientras presenta su doctrina para salvar al mundo del peligro comunista
President Trump as he presents his doctrine to save the world from communist danger

President Truman announced a total confrontation with communism. However, the situation in Western Europe was what worried the United States the most. After the war, these were ruined countries. In addition, Western Europe was going through a severe food shortage, and it was evident that they would not have any foreign currency to buy products from abroad.

From the American perspective, it was disastrous if Europe ran out of resources to buy in the foreign markets. Truman said: “We have won the battle against totalitarianism, now we have to fight for democracy.” The Americans’ fear was that the extreme poverty in Europe would strengthen the communists. It had to be avoided. How?

In June 1947, the Marshall Plan (Economic Reconstruction Plan) was presented to the public. In total, 12.7 billion dollars were allocated to Europe for the purchase of American products.

Also, noteworthy was the intervention of the CIA in the general elections in Italy in 1948, where the Christian Democrat Alcide De Gasperi won, a success of the American covert operation. Meanwhile, the Operation Gladio was set up, with funding from the CIA and with 600 agents involved.

In the short term the Truman doctrine failed miserably. If what Truman was proposing was to prevent the expansion of the Soviet model, what he achieved with this systematic hostility was parallel responses that led Stalin to set up models of states modelled on those of the USSR in the countries occupied to secure Soviet interests.

Establishment of the CIA

In 1947, the CIA was established. The specific task of the CIA was obedient with the Truman doctrine, as an agency with complete independence was needed that could carry out tasks of dubious legality all over the world. In 1952 President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles appointed Allen Dulles as the director of the CIA. The CIA, through parallel channels, influenced the policy of states that did not conform to what was determined by Washington.

Taft–Hartley Act

During 1941-45 the war had been a big business for the United States. Unemployment, driven by the needs of war, had virtually disappeared. Women had partially replaced the male workforce. During those years, labour agreements were made outlining many of the rights of workers. There was also an important expansion of trade unionism. Maximum performance of all available productivity was needed, and the demands for labour improvement were always accepted so as not to lose productive capacity.

But when the war was over, in 1945, the workforce had to be relocated. The end of the war was also a brake on economic growth. The trade unions wanted to consolidate the rights acquired during the previous period. And the employers wanted to take advantage of the need for work to penalize union attitudes.

The employers were asking for a return to the pre-1939 labour situation. The Taft-Hartley Act legally supported these measures. It made it legal to freely dismiss all those workers with union membership who participated in strikes. The law was a further step in creating a climate of fear towards anything that could be associated with communism, trade unionism, solidarity among workers.

McCarthyism

Speech: “If we have won the war against the enemy outside, we cannot be so naive as to lose the peace. We must pursue the enemies within.” Trade unionists, the labour movement, leftists and naive Democrats were victims of Senator McCarthy‘s persecutions. Inquisitorial processes where everyone could be suspected.

Rio Conference

Prelude to the creation of the OAS in 1948: Organization of American States. At the Rio Conference, the United States’ interference in the people south of the Rio Grande was legitimized. The Marshall Plan, which came into effect in 1948, had a disastrous effect on the South American economy. The Plan involved closed shipments, many of which involved the purchase of foodstuffs, raw materials and weapons that had to be purchased in the United States.

During World War II, Latin America became one of the main markets for countries at war. The establishment of populist governments was encouraged, with measures of social reform. The war brought a period of economic prosperity. But once the war was over, the Marshall Plan collapsed the economy and caused social upheavals that culminated in the proliferation of dictatorships.

The Marshall Plan did not repeat the mistake of the First World War. After World War II, there was no overproduction. With loans and massive exports to a needy Europe, the United States subordinated aid to its interests.

Creation of NATO

In 1948 Truman was re-elected. In April 1949, NATO, the armed international organization of the Cold War, was established. There was a contradiction between the creation of the UN and NATO due to the creation of a duality. The UN was an absolutely ineffective body from its very beginning. NATO was born out of the fear of the British that the Americans would leave Europe.

Another consequence of this game would be that the French did not want to create a European army. How did the French refusal to do so go unheeded? Through the Economic Cooperation Treaty and the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community, where Germany was relatively accepted. Global form of cooperation: economic, political and military.

Zhdanov Doctrine and the Founding of the Cominform

In October 1949, a publication of the German Democratic Republic declared the Truman Doctrine to be “an anti-Soviet crusade,” a prelude to the Marshall Plan. The United States had designed a complex system out of the Truman Doctrine in March 1947, with the introduction of the Marshall Plan in June 1947 (it came into effect in 1948) and the foundation of NATO in April 1949. This entire system was intended primarily to be used for Europe’s economic recovery.

With the presentation of the Zhdanov Doctrine, developed in Poland on October 5, 1947, during the presentation of the Cominform, discussion was held about the constitution of two antagonistic blocks, nothing new, since Truman had already anticipated it. Zhdanov spoke of the anti-democratic and imperialist bloc (USA), and the anti-imperialist and democratic bloc (USSR). The anti-imperialist bloc was made up of democratic forces with a strength residing in the USSR and the new people’s democracies. Zhdanov was safeguarding a political model in Western Europe that guaranteed the spirit of the populist front.

The West denounced Stalin’s salami tactics.” Since the Soviet occupation of Eastern and Central Europe, Stalin had pushed the Communist parties in the national concentration governments to occupy more spaces of power, until they ended up absorbing everything: Bulgarian CP, CP Romania, PZO (Polish United Workers’ Party), POSH, Communist League Yugoslavia, SED (United Socialist Party GDR).

A certain political pluralism existed in Eastern Europe, till the initial hostilities between the two blocs forced the imposition of one-party regimes. This process coincided with the creation of the supranational bodies of the Cold War. Thus, Stalin reinforced the role of the communists in the occupied countries. Stalin wanted the power of the western communists not to be lost and reinforced in Eastern Europe the role of the communists, who ended up imposing a Soviet model. The Zhdanov Doctrine was a defensive discourse.

With the founding of the Cominform in Poland, a coordinating body for the various communist parties was recovered. It was created exclusively for those parties that were already in power, but there were also the PCF (French Communist Party) and the PCI (Italian Communist Party). The Greek Communist Party, the Communist Party of China, and Spanish Communist Party were not represented (there was no desire to enter into a battle within the Spanish Communists, at a time when Titoist dissidence was being branded as bourgeois. Besides, the Spanish dictatorship was very far from the Soviet interests). The Cominform found an immediate answer in the socialist scheme, in 1948-9, with the foundation of the Comecon. In 1956, the Cominform was dissolved.

The Marshall Plan

A priori, the Plan was designed so that no Nazi-occupied state would be excluded. The offer was made for the USSR and the popular democracies as well. Poland and Czechoslovakia asked to enter the plan, yet it was accompanied by unacceptable conditions. How could the USSR accept a plan that consolidated private property and the law of supply and demand? The only state that participated in the Plan was Yugoslavia, with the counterweight that it stopped helping the Greek guerrillas: this was the final ebb in the defeat of the EAM-ELAS National Liberation Front.

Characteristics of the Plan:

In 1948, the United States imposed the concession of some credits to the Franco dictatorship outside the Marshall Plan. Greece, Turkey and Portugal joined NATO despite being dictatorships. Before 1945-1946, there were already signs of European recovery. The protectionist measures of the governments had worked. The Americans wanted the European recovery to be non-native: the United States became the great architects of European economic and social welfare.

What the United States wanted was to avoid the post-war economic ruin of World War I. It was essential to reactivate all the trade so to avoid surplus production. Clientele was common to most European states. An influx of dollars into the international system.

The Marshall Plan was an ideological instrument that entailed dire consequences for the European economy. Before 1939, trade between all European states represented 35% of world trade. After 1945, it was 15%. Willingness to isolate the economies of Eastern Europe and the USSR.

World War II caused brutal devastation in Latin America and actually serious political consequences. Once the war was over, the oligarchies wanted to renegotiate working conditions. This was a period of social upheaval, which ended up with the establishment of authoritarian military regimes, with American approval.


All articles of the course: History of the Contemporary World (1945-1991)

The WWII Peace ConferencesThe ideological, economic and military framework of the Cold WarMcCarthyism and the Persecution of Inner Enemies in the Cold War

Recommended bibliography:


Key figures:

Winston Churchill

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