Happy October! Happy Upcoming Sputnik anniversary!
Here is a summary of developments taking place in Cold War over the last couple of weeks:
We left off with Stalin and the Russians’ having allied with Nazi Germany, so as to be able to stay out of war, and(just incidentally, of course)pick up some key territories they had lost in the various peace settlements that ended World War I: the Baltic nations(Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia), west Ukraine/Eastern Poland(depending on your point of view), and a swatch of disputed Romanian territory known as Bessarabia. Plus, the Soviet Union agreed to a series of raw material shipments to Germany, which fueled Hitler’s efforts in the blitzkrieg war against France and the low countries in l939-40.
This was on paper a great deal for both countries: Hitler bought off the Soviet Union for his invasion of Poland, and Stalin not only avoided war, he was able to reclaim lost lands for the Soviet Union. Moreover, when he got back his part of Poland, he was able to use the NKVD to kill off the Polish Home Guard, the most intelligent and accomplished men in Polish society—a big help, he thought, in making Poland a permanent part of the Soviet sphere of influence. But there were storm clouds on the horizon. Hitler’s agreement with Stalin was designed to buy Germany time to secure its rear—conquer all the countries that could cause him trouble if he moved farther east—and bring closer his dream of conquering part of the Soviet Union for the great German people, whom he believed to be crowded and shut into their current borders. When evidence began to emerge that Hitler would soon doublecross Stalin and invade Russia—diplomats leaving Moscow in droves, ships departing St. Petersburg, German infantry massing on the border—Stalin refused to take action. Hitler, he believed, would never do something so dastardly. The result was that the ensuing invasion on June 22, l941, caught the Soviet people completely unawares. Thousands died in the initial bombing raids, and nearly the entire Soviet air force was destroyed.
Needless to say, when the Soviet Union was attacked, Winston Churchill and Great Britain knew they would have to bring Stalin onto their team. If Hitler captured Russia, the entire world would be looking down the barrel of a big German gun, and the way to defeat Germany is to make it fight on two fronts. Therefore Churchill offered Stalin an alliance, and Stalin took it—when he recovered from his mini-meltdown just after the invasion took place. The United States still sat on the sidelines, but did offer Lend-Lease aid to Britain and the USSR: food, vehicles, war materiels, that sort of thing.
We all know the war eventually found the US on December 7, l941, with the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Once the US declared war on Japan, a German ally, Hitler declared war on the US, which brought the US into the European as well as the Pacific war. Now the US, Great Britain and the USSR became a sort of grand alliance against Hitler. They were an unlikely threesome, in that their systems had been diametrically opposed to one another since l9l7, but all three faced mortal peril from Hitler. It was clear what the strategy had to be: the US and Britain would invade Europe from the west, chasing Nazi invaders back to Germany, and the Russians would do the same from the east. The two sides would rendezvous in Berlin for the final defeat of the Nazi regime.
Despite the evidence of shared purpose in the alliance, there were hints of trouble ahead. The US and Britain announced their war objectives—nearly identical to Woodrow Wilson’s l4 Points-- in the Atlantic Charter of l941. The focus was as usual: self-determination for all affected peoples, open borders, free trade, the traditional democratic/capitalist values. Stalin made no declarations, but he did hint at what he wanted from the war when he told a British diplomat sent to boost morale that he wanted “at a minimum, the territories won in the Nazi-Soviet pact.” We also know from Milovan Djilas that he intended to bring the Soviet system to all territories he liberated from Nazi rule.
At the very least, it was difficult to see how these two views of the postwar world would be reconciled.
The timing of the launch of the Allied invasion into Europe also caused trouble between the US and Britain and Stalin. Understandably, Stalin wanted a second front opened immediately, in order to take the pressure off the eastern front, where Russian troops faced the full strength of the Wehrmacht. When that did not happen, largely due to the US and Britain’s having been basically disarmed in the l920s and 30s, Stalin read it as the western powers’ desire for Russians to bleed themselves white, so that the Soviet Union could be invaded and toppled after the war. No explanations from the Allies succeeded in altering this view, despite their clear lack of preparedness for war, and it remains a hot issue for Russians even today.
When the Normandy invasion finally did come in June l944, the Russians were well on their way to Berlin. They had come nearly halfway across Poland and the other states bordering the Soviet Union. They came as liberators, in that they were the first to reach the death camps in Poland, but they also came as conquerors, bringing with them the basis for “friendly(that is, COMMUNIST)” governments in the states they liberated. When the three allied nations met at Yalta in February l945, there was disagreement about the status of Poland, and by extension all the other Soviet-liberated territories: Great Britain and France insisted that they be allowed to choose their leaders and their destiny; Stalin insisted on his right to impose “friendly” governments, since Russia had suffered invasion through these states twice in the 20th century. Eventually, the issue was dropped, because both sides realized Stalin would probably have his way there. His army was in full control of those territories, and at least Roosevelt still needed Stalin’s help in ending the war in the Pacific.
Thus, on VE Day—Victory in Europe Day—the allies were still united and euphoric in their triumph over Hitler and most powerful army ever, but the cracks in the united front were showing already. Those cracks would widen to become a chasm, approximating the physical and political differences between Soviet-liberated Europe and American/British-liberated Europe.