Reactions to Soviet expansion

For the Western Allies the setting up of communist governments in Eastern Europe was a major concern. World War Two had been fought in the name of freedom. Now it seemed that in many countries the hard-won freedom from Nazi dictatorship was being replaced by communist dictatorships.

An exchange of Telegrams

The Long Telegram

In 1946, George Kennan, an official at the US Embassy in Moscow, was asked to provide a summary of what the Soviets were up to and their intentions in Eastern Europe. Kennan’s response became known as The Long Telegram because at 8,000 words, it was indeed long! The importance of the Kennan telegram is that it shows that at this point there was still no concept of a Cold War. The American State Department had to be alerted by a Moscow-based official of the Soviets’ activities.

In much fewer than 8,000 words, what Kennan’s telegram said was that the USSR was heavily armed and feared the outside world. It was determined to spread communism and therefore there could be no peaceful co-existence between the USSR and the USA. However, the USA was stronger than the USSR and so communism could be ‘contained’.

The Novikov Telegram

The Soviet response to The Long Telegram was The Novikov Telegram, in which the Soviet ambassador to the USA, Nikolai Novikov, warned that the USA had emerged from World War Two economically strong and bent on world domination. As a result, the USSR needed to secure its buffer zone in Eastern Europe.

These two telegrams set the scene for the Cold War in Europe. The USSR would attempt to dominate Eastern Europe and spread communism where possible. The USA would commit to a policy of containment, which meant stopping the spread of communism into Western Europe. The Americans rejected a policy of rollback, which would have been much more aggressive and confrontational. A rollback approach would have involved American intervention to overturn a communist government in another country.

Revision tip

Explain the difference between the policies of rollback and containment. Consider what groups would have preferred each of the two policies. Why do you think American politicians rejected the idea of rollback?

The Iron Curtain Speech

A map showing the Iron Curtain boundary that divided Europe into two distinct areas, separating Western Europe from the Soviet Union and communist states in the east

On 5 March 1946, the by-now former British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, condemned the Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe in his famous Iron Curtain speech. In that speech he famously noted that from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.

In a nutshell, what Churchill meant by this was that the Allies had spent six years fighting for the freedom from fascism in Europe, only to have half the continent now under Soviet dictatorship.

The Truman Doctrine

American and British politicians were concerned about events in Greece and Turkey. From 1946 a civil war had been happening in Greece between its western-backed government and pro-communist forces. Britain had been giving support to the anti-communist forces of the Greek government. However, Britain was forced to withdraw its support due to lack of funds. Truman had to persuade the usually isolationist US government to grant American money to support Greece’s fight against communism and laid out his reasons in a speech to Congress in March 1947.

Truman Doctrine to US Congress

In that speech he promised that the USA would provide aid to any country standing up to oppression:

It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.

This was developed into the Truman Doctrine. It was clear that Truman was referring to countries resisting an armed communist takeover, but it was not spelt out in such straightforward terms and so gave the US government opportunity for interpretation. America was now committed to a policy of containment, or stopping the spread of communism.

The Marshall Plan

A map of Europe showing which countries received the most and least Marshall Aid after the end of World War II

In some Western European countries, for example France and Italy, the desperate economic circumstances after World War Two meant support for communist parties was strong, and there was a possibility that they could win the democratic elections. The USA did not want this to happen. In 1947 President Truman sent General George Marshall to see what could be done to dilute popular support for communism. Marshall recommended spending a lot of money - over $12 billion to be exact. This Marshall Aid would be spent to help the economies of Western Europe to recover after World War Two and make them less likely to be won over by communism. The money was to be offered to all the countries of Europe, not just the West, but Stalin prohibited the countries in his sphere of influence from taking it. There were strings attached to Marshall Aid, and it was conditional on the country allowing free elections and free trade. Stalin was not prepared to permit the Eastern bloc countries to accept such conditions.

Marshall Aid was effectively a propaganda tool, aimed at convincing countries they would be prosperous with American capitalist support. Marshall Aid was strongly linked to the Truman Doctrine and was effectively the economic wing of the USA’s containment policy.

The Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan

Revision tip

When he came to write his memoirs, President Truman described the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan as ‘two halves of the same walnut’.

Explain why Truman would have used this expression – what did he mean? Consider how the two plans worked together, one giving economic support and the other promising funds to support armed resistance.

The Soviet Response

The USSR objected to the Marshall Plan in the following ways:

  • it declared Marshall Aid to be ‘dollar imperialism’ and claimed the USA was throwing its economic weight around, using it to gain influence in Europe
  • it forbade the Eastern Bloc countries under its control to apply for Marshall Aid
  • it set up Cominform – the Communist Information Bureau – an organisation which had as its aim to tighten Soviet control in Eastern Europe, to build collective heavy industry in those countries and to create a trade network between communist countries
  • it also established Comecon – the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance – to administer its own Molotov Plan of financial aid to keep the Eastern Bloc countries happy