The Cold War: The Iron Curtain (1945-1947)

Winston Churchill: “From Stettin in the Baltic, to Trieste in the Adriatic, an Iron Curtain has descended across the continent.” This now famous speech outlined what Churchill called the Soviet sphere of influence in Europe.

Unlike after World War I, it was clear that the United States would not be allowed to languish in the isolationist fantasies of the past. The U.S. had risen to the pinnacle of the western world after the end of World War II through a combination of industrial might and its overwhelming resources. The economic conditions in the United States after the war were prosperous and a time of abundance compared to the “Great Depression” of the 1920’s and 1930’s.

Likewise, in the Soviet Union, the period following the war was one of general happiness and relief considering the toll the “Great Patriotic War” had taken on Soviet society. The devastation of the war left visible scars on the Russian landscape, with ruined cities and barely functioning infrastructure. The United States, largely untouched because of its geographic distance from the majority of the conflict, did not share this hobbling problem. Because of the wanton destruction of Soviet cities and villages, Soviet retaliation on the ground-level against German citizens is well noted and tragic but also moderately understandable given the scale of German atrocities against the Soviet republics.

As a result of the Nazi’s loss, Germany was divided into four occupation zones with each ally commanding a sector of the German capital Berlin. Reparations were demanded by the Soviets, with particular advocacy from the now-legendary Marshall Zhukov, architect of the Soviet comeback and defeat of the Nazi Empire. Reparations came in the form of taking advanced machinery and capital equipment from occupied Germany. As part of the postwar settlement, lands in eastern Germany were given over to the new Polish state, partly to compensate for the Soviet annexation of portions of eastern Poland. Like the Nazis had done to Jews and others before, the Germans in eastern Poland were driven from their homes and had their possessions repossessed. In total, some 12 million Germans were expelled in total in what was called population transfer.

Clement Atlee eventually replaced Winston Churchill in Great Britain with Labour’s victory over the Tories in 1945 but otherwise the postwar geopolitical landscape had continued on in much the same way as before; however, the days of European colonial empires were numbered, and many feared the fall of these colonies to communism and Soviet influence.

These fears were not calmed with the formation of what the West termed ‘satellite states’ in Soviet-occupied eastern Europe. Particularly the West was critical of the Soviet suppression of regime non-desirables, often making dissidents vanish from civil society or attempting to reform them through various measures. After the war, the Soviet Red Army was the largest in the world. Stalin’s hold on power over the Soviet Union’s populace was undeniably strong but his paranoia was not allayed by his successes. Stalin’s infamous Party Congress speech warned of future entanglements with capitalist and imperialist countries, which was interpreted in the West as a prelude to World War III.

Yet others argue that Stalin’s speech was misconstrued and was only his reiteration of his strongly held beliefs that capitalist and communist countries could not coexist and that wars to overcome imperialism would be necessary if not inevitable. Many analysts drew a connection between the Soviet present and the tzarist past.

Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill labeled communist fifth columns and communist movements as threats to the very foundations of Christian civilization. The speech referenced in the beginning of this article, the ‘Iron Curtain Speech’ at Fulton, Missouri, was decried by Stalin and was, expectedly, poorly received by the Soviet Union. Countries in contention between the former allies were initially Turkey and Iran.

Iran had been occupied by the Allies during World War II to prevent it from falling into Nazi hands. Its Shah, thought to have been pro-German, was removed and replaced with one thought to be more friendly to the Allies. After the war, the Soviets wanted to continue their occupation of Iran, though Britain and the United States staunchly opposed such a maneuver. Stalin nonetheless removed his troops from Iran.

The Clifford-Elsey Report – commissioned by President Truman and completed by one of his senior advisors, Clark Clifford – calculated that a war with the Soviet Union would be horrific. The report was commissioned by President Truman to turn the infamous ‘Long Telegram’ into concrete policy initiatives. This report was highly secretive and of great importance to Truman’s administration. Delivered on September 24, 1946, the report is the first instance of the concept of ‘containment’ or ‘restraining and confining’ Soviet influence. Further, the report stressed the need for an informed American public to get support for the harsh policies outlined in the report to counter Soviet directives.

The U.S. still had the atomic advantage, though this was a short lived advantage. The Ukraine was gripped with famine in 1947 and general food shortages persisted throughout the country, even in the capital of Moscow. In Germany there were deprivations suffered as well and the West feared this level of poverty would drive the Germans into the Soviet camp. The 1946-47 winter in Britain placed strains on the British economy and hampered industrial output. One particular deprivation was bread rationing in Britain after the war. Bread was rationed in order for Britain to send grain to Germany to prevent mass starvation. Truman’s promise to contain the advance of communism anywhere on the globe officially inaugurated the Cold War, and the two sides immediately began to define their interests and goals amidst this post-war backdrop.

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