What was the character of Stalin’s policy towards the West between 1945 and 1953?

“When Roosevelt and I met we did not call each other such names. I am neither a sectarian nor a propagandist. I am a man of business.”1 The fall of Nazi Germany in May 1945 ushered in a new era for the global arena: the Cold War. Despite being allies during the war, relations between the West and the Soviet Union soured over time, eventually leading to an “us versus them” mentality shared by both sides. The policies carried out by Stalin from 1945 to his death support that assertion. The memories of the two German invasions from the West were still fresh in his mind, and there is certainly evidence that he misunderstood the west (particularly the USA) which explains the cold, defensive character of his foreign policy. That is the argument that we are presenting: Stalin’s foreign policy towards the West was cold, defensive and even at times opportunistic based on a misinterpretation of policies carried out by the West. In February 1945, three months before the surrender of the Nazis, the “big three” of Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt and Stalin himself met at Yalta to discuss the futures of Germany and Poland, the latter being a particular source of debate between the leaders. Stalin agreed to permit the Poles free, democratic elections and carve up Germany into zones, each being under the control of a particular ally.2 The Declaration on Liberated Europe extended this assurance throughout the whole of Europe as it stated that all three allied countries were to provide equal assistance to weakened nations, thus ending the “spheres of influence” agreement made between Stalin and Churchill at the Tehran conference four months prior to Yalta.3 Stalin interpreted the agreement differently, believing that it “represented nothing more than rhetorical window dressing, perhaps to placate voters of East European descent in the United States”.4 It has even been argued that Stalin expected Eastern European countries to vote for communist governments anyway, thus leaving him in a winwin situation.5 Even before the war had ended, there were worrying signs from a Soviet perspective that the allies were going back on the Yalta agreements. In March 1945 Stalin was informed that negotiations were underway between Nazi general Wolffe and US agent Alan Dulles over a surrender agreement.6 He also
1 Timothy Dunmore, Soviet Politics, 1945-53 (MacMillan Press Ltd, 1984), p. 109 2 William Keylor, The Twentieth-Century World and Beyond: An International History Since 1900 5th Edition (Oxford University Press, 2006) p. 174 3 Caroline Kennedy-Pipe, Stalin’s Cold War: Soviet strategies in Europe, 1943 to 1956 (Manchester University Press, 1995) p. 49 4 Keylor, Twentieth-Century, p. 175 5 Kennedy-Pipe, Cold War, p. 50 6 Ibid p. 59

noticed that while the Germans focussed on defending the largely irrelevant Zemlenice station on their eastern frontier, they were doing little to prevent the allies marching through in the west where more important stations such as Osnabruck and Mannheim were positioned. Stalin referred to Zemlenice as something “they [the Germans] need as much as a dead man needs a poultice”. 7 Anxiety can be detected in the General Secretary’s tone. With his documented history of paranoia, this is probably another example of his jumping to conclusions which subsequently led to his cold relations with the west. To further sour relations, by the end of the war president Roosevelt had died and was succeeded by his vice president Harry Truman. The new president was not as cooperative with Stalin as his predecessor; he had not been president for two weeks before he accused the Soviet foreign minister Molotov of acting with bad faith.8 This set the tone for the respective leaders’ relationship, each accusing the other of foul play (as one can see in Stalin’s quote at the beginning of the essay). Stalin’s relationship with Britain was also weakened. Soon after the end of the war, Churchill lost the general election that summer. This did not stop his influence from being felt around the world: in 1946 he delivered the “Iron Curtain” speech, arguing that all of Eastern Europe was now under the “Soviet sphere” of influence.9 This further damaged Western relations with the Soviet Union.

Yalta: The “big three” of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin in February 1945.10

7 Ibid p. 60 8 Thomas Paterson (ed), The Origins of the Cold War 2nd edition (D.C. Heath and Company, 1974) p. 3 9 Winston Churchill, “Iron Curtain Speech” http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/churchilliron.html (March, 1946) 10 “FDR at Yalta”, http://www.princeton.edu/~bsimpson/2008%20Hist %20380/history380week4.html (February, 1945)

With these factors in mind, we need to assess Stalin’s options when dealing with the West. Timothy Dunmore summed up Stalin’s options into two Rs: revolution or retrenchment.11 These in turn symbolise the two main points of view held by historians in regards to the character of Stalin’s foreign policy. On one hand, he could make a risky attempt to unsettle the citizens of the West in the hope of spurring revolutions as his Leninist-Marxist ideals promoted – thus supporting the “traditional” argument that Stalin fully intended to spread communism, and with that, Soviet control throughout the world (historian Anthony Bouscaren even goes so far as to describing communism as a “disease of the mind”) 12.On the other hand, he could avoid Western contacts and focus on strengthening the Soviet Union’s internal position, thus promoting his own “socialism in one country” slogan. This in turn supports the “revisionist” argument made by historians who claim that Stalin’s foreign policy was purely defensive in nature; not expansive. Stalin chose the latter, which Caroline Kennedy-Pipe describes as being his “strategy of denial”.13 Stalin intended to deny Germany’s potential to rearm and also deny allied forces any influence in Eastern Europe - especially the United States who still had troops deployed there. To start with, Stalin proceeded to establish a strong buffer zone on Russia’s western front which came to be known as the Eastern Bloc. People’s Republics sprung up, including nations such as Bulgaria (1946), Romania (1947), Hungary (1947) and, to the dismay of the allies, Poland (1947). Stalin was able to bring Poland into Soviet control at the Potsdam conference in July 1945. As a result of his troops occupying the country at the end of the war, he along with Molotov was able to force the allies into accepting the new Oder-Niesse line in which Poland ceded their eastern territory to the Soviet Union but gained eastern parts of Germany.14 In reality, both territories were under strong Soviet control – strengthening our argument that Stalin was opportunistic as well as cautious. If Stalin’s statement of intent had not yet been acknowledged, then by February 1948 it most certainly was. Czechoslovakia, the country that Churchill remarked as being the only exception to the “police governments” of Eastern Europe in his Iron Curtain speech was overrun after a communist coup. As one would suspect, the Czech communists had support from Moscow – particularly from their Soviet ambassador Valerian Zorin.15 With Czechoslovakia added to the Soviet satellite states, Stalin had the defensive line he so desired on the Soviet Union’s western frontier. What needs to be stressed, however, is that Stalin did not suddenly forbid non-communist parties from getting involved in their political arenas at the end of the war: some

11 Dunmore, Soviet Politics, p. 100 12 Anthony Bouscaren, Soviet Foreign Policy: A Pattern of Persistence (Fordham University Press, 1962) p. 7 13 Kennedy-Pipe, Cold War, p. 35 14 Chris Ward, Stalin’s Russia: Second Edition (HodderArnold, 1993) p. 204 15 Bouscaren, Persistence, p. 121

were still able to participate in their political arenas for at least a few years before Stalin began tinkering with their governments.16

The “Iron Curtain”: The map on the left17 shows Europe on the eve of war in 1939 while the map on the right18 shows Europe 10 years later in 1949. Europe has changed significantly: the buffer states (light red) are in place to prevent future invasions from the West, emphasising the defensive side of Stalin’s foreign policy.

Germany, of course, was a vital cog in putting Stalin’s defensive plan into action. However, the country was split into four sections in accordance to the Yalta conference. Berlin, which was deep in the Soviet section, was also split. In June 1948 the city was to become the arena for arguably the first major Cold War crisis between the great powers. The previous year, the United States followed up on her commitment to remain involved in international affairs by introducing the Marshall Plan, an economic relief plan that handed out financial aid to struggling European countries to help them rebuild after the war. Stalin again perceived this differently. To him, it was “a capitalist offensive against his rule”. 19 It would be easy to assume that Stalin simply dismissed the Marshall Plan with little thought. On the contrary, Stalin sent Molotov along with 100 Soviet specialists to hear the details of the plan in Paris – demonstrating that he did at least for a time take this plan seriously.20 After rejecting the plan, Stalin did two things. First, he created Cominform in September 1947 to provide Eastern Europe with Soviet foreign aid and manage the communist parties scattered around the continent. Second, and most crucially, he ordered all road and railways used by the allies to access Berlin to be blocked on the 24th of June
16 Keylor, Twentieth-Century, p. 234 17 “Europe on the Eve of World War II”, http://www.wwnorton.com/college/history/ralph/resource/wwii.htm (n.d) 18 “Europe’s Changing Borders”, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/spl/hi/europe/02/euro_borders/html/8.stm (2003) 19 Ralph B. Levering, The Cold War, 1945-1972 (Harlan Davidson Inc, 1982) p. 34 20 Ward, Russia, p. 207

1948. This was done in frustration to the success of Marshall Plan aid and certainly demonstrated that any hint of friendship was absent from the General Secretary’s policy towards the West – one can argue that the Berlin blockade policy was jealous and bitter in nature. Yet, one can also argue that Stalin was simply using the blockade for tactical gain: by bolting the doors to Berlin, he may have gained the whole city for himself, which yet again, indicates opportunism. Yet, Stalin underestimated the allies’ resolve. In response, they flew cargo over the barriers and were able to provide the Berliners with supplies. Despite taking measures to end the aid, Stalin later relented and reopened the routes on the 12th May 1949. By 1950, a number of events had occurred. Of particular importance was the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) by the allied forces in April 1949 and the fact that, two four months later, the Soviet Union had successfully tested their own atomic bomb which meant Stalin “could come to any future diplomatic negotiations as the equal of the American and British leaders”.21 Both superpowers were now in possession of nuclear weapons, giving Stalin more of a say in international affairs. The global politics of the early 1950s saw a shift from Europe to Asia: by 1950 China was a communist state run by Mao Zedong’s Communist Party and, more importantly to the superpowers, North and South Korea went to war in June 1950 with the north representing the People’s Republic and the south representing the Republic. In other words, it was a clash of ideologies. As with the case with Eastern Europe, historians have argued that Stalin saw Korea as vital for forming a buffer zone against potential invaders – in this case Japan.22 The North, led by Kim Il Sung, invaded the South on the 25th June armed with Soviet weapons whose soldiers had been trained by the Soviet Marshal Malinovsky, indicting that Stalin had intentions to spread communism around the continent.23 There is also evidence indicating that Stalin provided Chinese forces (fighting on behalf of the North) with $2 billion worth of military equipment (Keylor, 2006:333).24 The United States, in retaliation, utilised the United Nations to fight on behalf of the South, leading to a proxy war between East and West, communism and capitalism, the Soviet Union and the United States. By this stage, the United States was underway in carrying out Truman’s containment policy which aimed to “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures”.25 The Soviet Union were clearly in his thoughts which further froze relations between Stalin and the West. The Korean War ended on July 27th 1953, when an armistice was signed between the two factions. In a Cold War context, it was an ideological stalemate. On reflection of the Korean War, George Kennan, the
21 Robert Service, Stalin: A Biography (MacMillan, 2004) p. 509 22 Dunmore, Soviet Politics, p. 120 23 Bouscaren, Persistence, p. 138 24 Keylor, Twentieth-Century, p. 333 25 Harry Truman, “The Truman Doctrine” http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/trudoc.asp (March, 1947)

United States’ ambassador to the Soviet Union between May and September of 1952, believed Stalin’s foreign policy in Asia was “tended to the reliving of old situations and to the re-employment of old devices rather than to the recognition of the realities of a new day”.26 He argued that Stalin, rather than act purely with the intention of securing the Soviet Union from future invasions, planned to oust Western (particularly American) forces from the Eurasian territories and replace them with his own communist regimes, thus giving him more political clout on the world stage.27

The Korean War: Chinese soldiers marching to war in April 1951, likely armed with Soviet weapons.28

Having acknowledged the two main historian arguments regarding the character of Stalin’s foreign policy along with examining events during the period 1945 to 1953, we have shown that there is a strong argument behind the claim that Stalin’s foreign policy towards the West was cold, defensive and opportunistic. The historian’s arguments appear to largely ignore each other, but when some points of each are merged, we can see a fuller picture of the nature of Stalin’s foreign policy. On one hand, the buffer states emphasised Stalin’s determination to defend his country from the West – supporting the “revisionist” argument. His occasional remarks about the West also portrays him as anxious – perhaps even paranoid – which strengthens our own argument that he mistrusted the West and misinterpreted a number of policies from the final months of World War Two to the Marshall Plan. On the other hand, his success at Potsdam to bring Poland under Soviet control, failed attempt to block Berlin off from the allies and his
26 George Kennan, Russia and the West under Lenin and Stalin (Mentor Books, 1961) p. 361 27 Ibid 28 “Korean War: Chinese Troops” http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topicart/322419/71893/Chinese-soldiers-prepare-to-advance-in-their-Fifth-Offensive-of (April, 1951)

involvement in the Korean war (where communism had potential to spread) are strong arguments that he was even willing to take risks if it gained more control for his Soviet Empire, as argued by the “traditional” side of the debate. This essay believes that both arguments have strengths and weaknesses; we have simply taken the strong points from both and merged them – giving us the conclusion that Stalin was both defensive and opportunistic despite the occasional pragmatic act.

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