Background on Conflict with USSR
Chapter section from:
Airbridge to Berlin --- The Berlin Crisis of 1948, its Origins and A ftermath
By D.M. Giangreco and Robert E. Griffin
(Used with permission)
During World War II, Roosevelt followed a policy of "the Grand Alliance" with the determination to get along with the Soviet Union. He was determined to follow this policy after the war and believed the United Nations, one of his pet projects, would maintain the postwar peace.
Robert Murphy, a "personal representative" of Roosevelt during World War II and later the State Department political advisor to Eisenhower and Clay in Germany, reported on what he determined Roosevelt's foreign policy to be at the Teheran Conference in 1943.
The first of these American policies was established soon after Pearl Harbor, when Roosevelt agreed with General Marshall that international political considerations should defer to military requirements as long as the war lasted. The second policy, emerging in 1943, was that everything possible must be done to win the confidence of Stalin and his associates. (38)
These policies continued throughout the war although there is some evidence Roosevelt began to have some apprehensions at Yalta over Soviet policy in Poland and the other eastern European countries, but Roosevelt maintained he "could handle Stalin." With Roosevelt's death in April 1945, Truman attempted to maintain Roosevelt's policy in getting along with the Soviet Union. However, at the Potsdam Conference in July-August 1945, Truman was exposed to the high-handed demands and intransigence of Stalin.
Unbeknownst to many is the personal affront Stalin imposed rather unknowingly on the American president. One of Truman's pet projects put forward at Potsdam was the internationalization of inland
waterways such as the Danube and Rhine Rivers. Truman maintained most wars of the last two centuries had involved access to these and other inland waterways. Although Truman's proposal appeared to be of secondary importance, it became obvious over the course of the conference that it was important to Truman. The British expressed support in general terms, but Stalin refused to consider it. Truman requested the matter be referred to the foreign ministers, but Stalin ignored the request.
On August 1, 1945, the conference began to consider the final communique. Truman stated he regretted that no agreement had been possible on control of inland waterways, but believed the communique should mention the subject had been discussed. The British again agreed, but Stalin objected. Truman then made a personal plea to Stalin, which Stalin rejected outright even before the translation was completed. Truman could not mistake the rebuff and was furious. (39)
American policy toward the Soviet Union did not change immediately, but evolved gradually. Clay, operating on the basis of JCS 1067 and the Potsdam agreements, was determined to get along with the Soviets. His reading of these agreements made clear that his principle mission was the unification of Germany and, therefore, harmonious cooperation with the Soviets seemed a given. Clay told his staff in Berlin:
We have to make it work. If the four nations cannot work together in Berlin, how can we get together in the United Nations to secure the peace of the world. Obviously, there had to be some give and take and, at the Allied Control Council, this was going to be the American policy. (40)
During the first two years, Clay got along famously with his Soviet counterpart, Sokolovsky. One reporter made the following observation about this relationship.
There was a great deal of mutual respect and each appeared to recognize that the insults and denunciations that were a standing feature at their meetings had nothing personal in them. . . Sokolovsky, because he had been trained in a school of diplomacy where the calculated insult was a standard weapon, and Clay, because he was alert and adaptable, never stood on their dignity once the fishwives' session was over. Out they would go to the bar, arm in arm, and have a drink.(41)
Later, critics of Clay would comment that he seemed to have blinders on and did not appear to take notice of Soviet actions going on outside Germany. As a military man with a mission, Clay directed all his energy and attention to accomplishing this mission and took too narrow a view of Soviet actions. Because Clay, on his level, had established good working relations with the Soviets, he feared that in the long run the mutual suspicion of the two governments would jeopardize the success of his assignment.
Historians have argued long about when the "Cold War" between the United States and the Soviet Union began. Some cite Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech at Fulton, Missouri in March 1946. Others cite the decision by the United States to offer "mutual assistance" to Greece and Turkey in 1947 to combat Communist guerrilla forces, while others would state it was the recognition by US policy officials that Communist stated goals had not changed since 1918, only their tactics. Regardless of exactly when the "Cold War" began, in about 1947 the US policy with regards to the Soviet Union changed from cooperation or, at least, attempting to get along with Soviet Communism, to a policy of "containment."
Charles E. Bohlen, who served as translator/interpreter at Teheran, Yalta, and Potsdam and later as US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, has had rare insight into Soviet-American relations. He traces some of the first US misgivings concerning Soviet post-war goals to Yalta and the Soviet handling of the Polish question, followed by the failure of the Soviets to live up to the Declaration of Liberated Europe whereby they systematically installed Communist regimes in the eastern European countries. This was followed by the failure of the Soviets to withdraw their forces from Iran in 1945.
In 1941, the British and the Soviets had jointly occupied Iran to prevent possible enemy occupation. The agreement with the Iranian government provided for withdrawal of these troops within six months after hostilities ended. The British withdrew as provided, but the Soviets continued to occupy the northern half of Iran well into 1946 and only yielded after the US brought the issue before the UN Security Council.
This was followed by Communist attempts, supported by the Soviet Union, to take over Greece and Turkey. Great Britain, which had been supporting these two governments, came to the United States in February 1947 and stated they could no longer afford to support this effort. This came as a shock to US foreign policy makers, who, until then, had not realized the extent of Great Britain's decline as a Great Power. Truman, supported by a bipartisan Congress, took up the challenge. Bohlen maintains: "It was in the face of such realization that the United States, in the person of President Truman, made probably the biggest decision for the future of American policy."(42)
The president's message to Congress proposing the Greek-Turkish Act came on the very eve of the Council of Foreign Ministers conference in Moscow which was scheduled to discuss Germany seriously for the first time since Potsdam. The strong anti-Communist text of Truman's message could not have gone unnoticed by the Soviet leaders.
The Council of Foreign Ministers was established at Potsdam to direct the peacemaking of the World War II belligerents and the members were the same five governments who were permanent members of the UN Security Council-Great Britain, the USSR, the United States, France, and China. Because China had not been involved in the European part of the war, it did not take part in those conferences involving the European belligerents. The council was supposed to meet every three months, but it soon broke down into haggling over protocol and procedure. To separate the massive German peace questions from the other minor Axis partners, it was decided a separate peace conference would first deal with Italy, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Rumania. After much debate, this was finally accomplished in Paris from July to October 1946, but the US Senate did not confirm these peace treaties until June 1947.
In January 1947, Brynes resigned as US Secretary of State and was succeeded by George C. Marshall, the former US Army Chief of Staff during World War II. Marshall had barely taken over when, in March 1947, he was called upon to attend the Council of Foreign Ministers meeting in Moscow which was scheduled to discuss the German peace treaty. The meetings lasted six weeks and the net accomplishment was complete failure.
The failure was due to the stiffening of US attitude toward Soviet actions in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union's attitude that delay would best serve their political purposes. They had consolidated most of their gains in eastern Europe and, by 1947, western Europe was an economic "basket case." The Communist party in France and Italy was the largest of any political party in either country. Although the Communists did not control either government, they and the Communist dominated labor union in both countries could bring down the weak coalition governments on any pretext.
Great Britain had suffered great economic losses as a result of World War II and the British empire was being broken up. India gained its independence in 1947 and the British were deeply involved in the Arab-Jewish problems in Palestine. Food rations in some commodities in Great Britain in 1947 were less than those in defeated Germany. To the Soviets it must have appeared that, if they were patient, the entire European continent would be theirs. The key was to prevent German unification under any terms unfavorable to Communist goals.
Marshall recognized the Soviet tactics and their potential success. Bohlen reported on Marshall's meeting with Stalin at the close of the Moscow conference of the Council of Ministers.
When General Marshall went to call on Stalin on April 17, 1947, I went along as his interpreter and note-taker. He found Stalin in a very relaxed mood, saying, in effect, what difference does it make if we can't agree now; after all, we can come back in six months and try again, and even if we don't agree then, life will still go on. This attitude impressed General Marshall very much indeed. He talked about it all the way back to the Embassy and all the way back to Washington on the plane. General Marshall felt Stalin was obviously waiting for Europe harassed and torn by war and in virtual ruins, to collapse and fall into the Communist orbit. Stalin, as Marshall saw it, seemed to think that it didn't make any difference to the present situation whether there was much recovery in Europe. By implication, sooner or later the Communist party would take over.(43)
Upon his return to Washington, Marshall immediately established the Policy Planning staff in the State Department, which was headed by George Kennan. The first task assigned was to draw up a plan for economic assistance to Europe. On June 6, 1947, in the low-key forum of the Harvard commencement, Marshall proposed the plan, which was given his name, for the economic recovery of Europe. This plan became one of the great successes of the US postwar diplomacy and a turning point in halting the Communist tide.
The positive reaction by Great Britain and France was immediate. Representatives of sixteen countries met in Paris from July 12 to September 22, 1947, to consider the program. Molotov flew to Paris to represent the Soviet Union and promptly denounced the Marshall Plan as another form of imperialism. He then dramatically rejected the US offer, not only for the Soviet Union, but all eastern European Soviet satellite countries. The western European countries accepted the program, thus dividing Europe more sharply than ever.
Murphy believes Molotov made a tactical blunder in his outright rejection of the Marshall Plan because the US Congress may have balked at economically supporting Communist countries had Molotov agreed for the Soviet Union and the Soviet satellites to participate.(44) When Czechoslovakia accepted the invitation to Paris, Stalin called key members of the Czech government to Moscow and threatened them with severe consequences if they agreed to participate. Under this pressure, the Czechs backed off, but their show of independence in accepting the invitation was evidently too much for Stalin. In February 1948, a Soviet backed coup eliminated the last vestiges of an independent Czechoslovakia and a Communist government was installed.
The last meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers before the Berlin Blockade took place in London during November and December 1947. Efforts to reach Four Power agreement on Germany went on for four weeks with no important agreement on any subject. It became obvious that the Soviet Union had no intention of permitting unification of Germany. Finally, completely exasperated, Marshall, just before Christmas 1947, proposed the council adjourn indefinitely.
In the meantime, the United States and Great Britain had decided to go forward with plans for the creation of a West German state. Before this should become a reality, they decided, among other things, to implement the long planned currency reform. It was realized that both of these plans would be opposed by the Soviet Union and most likely result in a confrontation. The most likely spot for confrontation was the exposed outpost of Berlin.