The Cold War was a period crucial to shaping 21st century history as we know it today. Fought passively between the two remaining axes of the modern world after the destruction wrought by the Second World War, (the US and USSR), this long period of hostility lasting until 1991 threatened to cause a collapse of the world. The conflict caused unprecedented upheavals globally, leading to a rapid development of technology and armament, the space race and a competition between the two opposing ideologies. Significant to sparking this war was the breakdown of the Grand Alliance, a shaky alliance formed between USSR, UK and USA after World War 2 to maintain security and peace in a post-war world. At the helm of these countries were the administrations of Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin and Franklin D. Roosevelt, respectively. Arguably, the three post War conferences from 1943-45, particularly the Tehran (1943), Yalta (1945), and Potsdam (1945) conferences, raised several critical points of contention, which played a role in leading to the breakdown of the Alliance.
During the wartime conferences, several historians argued that Eastern Europe was one of the biggest causes of disagreement due to the opposing interests of the parties involved. As early as the Tehran Conference, Stalin stated his desire to keep territories he acquired in Eastern Europe during the Second World War. Although the UK and USSR acquiesced to this demand, there was an imminent fear about Stalin’s intentions to spread Communism to the countries in Eastern Europe. The fact that this demand opposed the agreements made in the Atlantic Charter (which laid out a vision for post-war collective security and disarmament) made the West more suspicious of the Soviets. The situation was only worsened further by the Yalta and Potsdam conferences by 1945. Stalin had, by this time, consolidated a series of satellite states in Eastern Europe; despite his past assurances to uphold democracy and refrain from an authoritarian regime by conducting free and fair elections, this was far from the case. His attempts to set up Communist regimes through infamous “salami tactics”, slowly eliminating the existing administration in the region through Soviet intervention, confirmed the fears of the West. Arguably, it led to the perception that the USSR was imposing their ideology on vulnerable, impoverished countries such as Bulgaria and Romania. Moreover, the hostility and distrust caused by the issue of Eastern Europe were so significant it appears to have prompted one of the turning points in the breakdown of the Alliance, the Iron Curtain speech. Churchill, in 1945 made an explosive speech, with the support of Truman, who was visibly seated in the background, condemning Russian actions, emphatically declaring that “an iron curtain has descended across the continent”, alluding to Soviet influence in Eastern Europe. Hostility caused by this officiated the Cold War, and an inability to come to a consensus on how to move forward with the Eastern European question led to an escalation of tensions.
On the other hand, some historians argue that the Eastern European question held limited significance in the context of the breakdown of the Grand Alliance. They suggest that, as opposed to a specific issue, the breakdown was caused fundamentally by an ideological rift between the nations over several years.
Ideological disagreements between countries in the West had existed since 1917 and culminated in the breakdown closer to 1945. For instance, Western fear of Communism was pervasive and led to a feeling of one being threatened by the other early on. The intervention of the United States and Britain in the White Counter-Revolution of 1917 is often cited as an example of this, as it was an attempt to prevent the Bolsheviks from getting into power. This fear of Communism existed for a long time and led to hostility between the powers. Russia’s exclusion from the League of Nations is another commonly cited example demonstrating Western apprehension towards Communism. As early as WW1, these events led to mutual distrust; it led to an anti-Western perception in Russia and the feeling that the West would go to any extent to work against Russia and threaten its security.
Differences in Poland were another significant factor cited by historians as the cause for the breakdown of the Grand Alliance. Stalin’s primary concern in all three conferences beginning with the Tehran Conference, was security. He wanted to secure his Western Territory by gaining land from Poland and maintaining a Pro-Soviet government. Instead, Poland was given territory on its Western Border with Germany. However, disagreements soon began to emerge as a result of opposing perspectives. Britain and the US wanted the London Poles to administer the region to ensure democracy, yet Stalin demanded that the administration be run by the Lublin Poles, who were pro-communist and not a threat to Stalin’s borders. Arguably, his disagreement over administration led to a belief in the West that Stalin was misusing his power, while Stalin held the perception that the West was intentionally trying to restrict his power and paint the USSR in a bad light. Therefore, the US and USSR’s inability to reach a consensus was perceived to be another cause of the breakdown.
However, some argue that these issues (such as disagreement over Poland) were not significant to causing the breakdown of the Grand Alliance. Instead, they argue that the tensions and eventual breakdown were caused due to great power rivalry that had existed long before the wars. For instance, Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger– in his writings in the 1980s- claimed that the USSR’s actions and expansionist tendencies were not due to conflicts with the Allied powers but were instead a continuum of the long history of “tsarist empire building”. He, therefore, argues that expansionism had historically been a part of Soviet culture, and thus Stalin’s desire to expand and take control of Poland was not due to a desire to spread Communism per se but was a natural continuation of the actions taken in the early 19th century.
Another massive area of dispute during the conferences was the issue of Germany and how to deal with Germany. America desired a revitalisation of the German economy post WW2 as it was viewed as a promising market for American goods. As a result of this, America took several significant actions and steps to achieve this. For instance, they introduced a new currency in Berlin, which was meant to boost the German economy while promoting American soft power. On the other hand, the USSR desired entirely different outcomes for Germany. Stalin viewed Germany as a security threat, particularly after the violation of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1941 and the surprise attack on Russia; As a result, they wanted to exact revenge and ensure that Germany remained weak. Conceivably, the Western powers’ insistence on helping Germany again caused a feeling of mistrust and the perception that the West was sabotaging the USSR by strengthening their opponent. Historian William Appleman Williams also suggests that the USSR began to view America negatively because they believed that America was pursuing a policy of “Dollar Imperialism” and boosting Capitalism while trying to contain Communism entirely.
From the extensive scholarship and historical debate on this topic, therefore, it becomes evident that a multitude of factors, both long and short-term, led to the breakdown and subsequent Cold War. Notably, however, it was the conflicts that arose between 1943-46, disagreements over the issues of Germany, Poland and Eastern Europe, that were the most significant in causing the breakdown of the Grand Alliance. Although factors such as ideology may be conceded for their role in exacerbating tensions in the leadup to the escalation, this is not an all-encompassing argument that accounts for a sudden breakdown in relations in 1945, after the three post-war conferences.