The Grand Alliance was the term given to the co-operative mutual assistance relationship between the western powers, especially the United States and Britain, and the Soviet Union, which was formed to engineer the defeat of Nazi Germany in the Second World War.
For the duration of the conflict, relations between these nations were fairly good: the Americans supplied billions of dollars’ worth of war material to the USSR under the Lend-Lease arrangement (though with little enthusiasm: the first shipments did not arrive until late 19421), the Allies made attempts to co-ordinate their military activity, and all were agreed on the common understanding that defeating Hitler’s Germany was essential for world peace and international security.
Propaganda photographs of American and Soviet troops exchanging handshakes over the ruins of a defeated Third Reich gave every impression that the era of antipathy and hatred between nations was over, and that a new order of peace and prosperity would be built on the back of a crushed swastika. 2 In reality however, by the end of the war the alliance was falling apart.
Even before Germany had been defeated, major chasms were opening between the allied powers, and after the war concluded these divisions only widened. The exact date by which the alliance had totally collapsed can be disputed, but it would be uncontroversial to assert that this date can fall no later than the end of the Berlin blockade in May 1949. All semblances of co-operation disappeared, and the world was plunged into a four decade-long confrontation of nuclear proportions, the Cold War.
It has been argued that the actions of the United States were primarily responsible for the alliance’s collapse, that the foreign economic policy of America after 1945 represented an attempt to expand its influence into the already-agreed-upon Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe, or certainly nothing less ambitious than a drive to revitalise west European economies, the better to use them as allies and buffers in a showdown with communism. The Marshall Plan refers to the economic initiative launched by the United States on June 5th, 1947, to assist European economies in recovering from the devastation of World War Two. Though the sums of money involved fell short of the $17bn4 which the Truman administration had initially requested, the amount of aid given between 1948-52 eventually amounted to over $13bn, around 1. 3% of total US economic output during the same period.
After some flirtations with accepting Marshall dollars from the Americans, Soviet authorities rejected the assistance both for themselves and their satellite regimes in what Arthur Schlesinger calls the “point of no return” for US-Soviet relations during the postwar period, in July 1947. Undoubtedly the plan had a political motivation as well as an economic and compassionate one: concerns were rife that if west European countries, especially France and Italy, were allowed to collapse in the aftermath of the war, then communist parties within those countries would win support and possibly even general elections (see below); the Marshall plan was in part intended to end the social discontent on which communist theory thrives, and also to demonstrate to Europeans the ability of capitalism to satisfy their basic needs.
The United States was fairly open about this aim: General Marshall himself stated that one of the goals of the initiative was, “the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist”. 7 The Soviets believed that the Americans intended to undermine the USSR’s attempts to construct centrally planned economies in eastern Europe, or, in the event that they were refused access to these countries, to build up western Europe as a strong opponent of communism.
Soviet spokesperson at the UN Andrei Vyshinsky spoke for the Stalin regime when he told the assembled diplomats: “[T]his plan is an attempt to split Europe into two camps… , to complete the formation of a bloc of several European countries hostile to the interests of the democratic countries of Eastern Europe and most particularly to the interests of the Soviet Union. “8 (italics original). Some historians since have been sympathetic to this view; W. A.
Williams argues that the postwar atmosphere degenerated into hostility in large part because of American insistence on an “open-door policy” of total free trade between nations, rather than, “offer[ing] the Soviet Union a settlement based on other, less grandiose, terms”. 9 However, this argument is predicated on the assumption that eastern Europe was already in economic isolation from the west, whereas in fact this was a state of affairs forcibly created by the USSR.
Therefore, if the Marshall Plan did increase postwar tensions this was only because of the actions already taken by the Soviet Union; without communist domination of east Europe, a plan to revive shattered economies in former warzones would not have had the degenerative effect on international relations which it evidently did have. In this sense, the Marshall Plan was a response to the Soviet aggression which had caused Cold War tensions to increase, rather than an ipso facto cause of antipathy itself.
There are other examples given of where the west was responsible for an increase in superpower hostility following 1945 however. One episode deserves special mention: US interference in the Italian general election of 1948. American and British officials were concerned that in the war-ravaged countries of France and Italy, economic hardship might result in communist parties coming to power through free elections; by 1946 such organisations already seemed poised to become the largest single political forces within those countries. 0 These worries quickly disappeared in the case of France, but when an election was scheduled for April 18th 1948 in Italy, the Italian communist party, at two million members the largest outside of the Soviet bloc, was poised certainly to win a large enough share of the vote to make it impossible to keep them out of a governing coalition, and possibly an outright majority. The United States decided to intervene.
A massive letter-writing campaign was organised, resulting in some ten million letters being sent by Italian-Americans to relatives in Italy arguing against a vote for the communists, and the CIA in conjunction with the Catholic Church ran a huge anti-Marxist propaganda campaign. In addition, some $2-3 million was distributed by the CIA to various anti-communist political parties in Italy. When election day came the communists were humiliated, their share of the vote halved from what they had achieved in the 1946 local elections. 1 This is not the place to discuss whether American actions were justified, but undoubtedly the precedent set by the Italian effort, and its resounding success, resulted afterwards in the United States being far more willing to engage in anti-Soviet activities elsewhere, and this case is therefore cited as an instance where the actions of America contributed to the breakup of the Grand Alliance. Another reason sometimes given is the American monopoly on nuclear weapons in the aftermath of World War Two.
On July 16th 1945, the largest man-made explosion in history took place at the Alamogordo test site in New Mexico,12 and the United States was immediately catapulted into a position of total military superiority. Though the Soviet Union had ended the war with colossal conventional armed forces, the atomic bombings of Japan in August of that year left the Russians in no doubt that their on-paper ally had become indisputably the most powerful military force in the history of the world.
It has therefore been argued that this obvious fact caused Stalin and his government to feel threatened and bullied by the United States, and that this was the reason for the antagonistic nature of postwar negotiations. Williams again writes: “Particularly after the atom bomb was created and used, the attitude of the United States left the Soviets with but one real option: either acquiesce in American proposals or be confronted with American power and hostility. 13 Undoubtedly the US was sometimes guilty of flaunting its nuclear dominance: American officials evidently thought that the Paris Peace Conference of July 1946 would be far more productive were it to be immediately preceded by two nuclear weapons tests. 14 On the other hand, it is quite possible that considerations of American nuclear power did not factor significantly into Soviet thinking.
At the Potsdam conference (July-August 1945), more than one western official observed Stalin’s surprising calmness, even nonchalance, when told by President Truman that the US was in possession of a “new weapon of unusual destructive force”. Only later did it transpire that not only did the USSR have an atomic weapons programme dating back to 1942 but that, due to the laxness of the Manhattan Project’s managers respecting its wartime ally,15 the Soviets had spies passing nuclear secrets to Moscow’s scientists. 6 Stalin was therefore fully aware that the United States’ monopoly on atomic weapons would be only temporary, and therefore that this need not be factored into long-term Soviet strategic thinking.
Furthermore, the aggressive actions taken by the USSR in the postwar period (see below) show no signs of restraint by Russian leaders on account of the destructive capability of the Americans’ nuclear arsenal. The Berlin Blockade (June 1948-May 1949) took place and concluded before the Soviets successfully tested a nuclear bomb of their own on August 29th 1949. 7 The USSR’s leaders seem to have calculated, probably correctly, that the United States wanted to avoid war with the Soviet Union at almost any cost; after August 1949 this only became more true as MAD thinking began to gain widespread acceptance. The more orthodox interpretation of the postwar period is that the alliance collapsed primarily because of the actions taken by the Soviet Union after the defeat of Germany, especially concerning the areas of Europe occupied by soldiers of the Red Army.
At the Yalta conference in February 1945, only months away from the defeat of Germany, major disputes arose over the fate of European nations such as Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia which had been liberated from German control by the troops of the Soviet Union. The western leaders, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, wanted Stalin to conduct free and fair elections with the aim of establishing self-governing sovereign entities, but were under no illusions that the Soviet leader intended to turn them into friendly buffer states, and probably totalitarian one-party regimes at that. With respect to Poland especially, Stalin had already shown his contempt for national democracy movements by allowing the Wehrmacht to crush the Warsaw uprising in August-October 1944, and had a pro-Soviet puppet government ready and waiting to take over from the German authorities. 18 Previous Soviet treatment of Finland and the Baltic states gave every indication needed of how Stalin would react to attempts made at installing democracy in other countries.
Section V pledged all of the allied powers, including the Soviet Union, to “the earliest possible establishment through free elections of Governments responsive to the will of the people”, and asserted “the right of all people to choose the form of government under which they will live”. 19 It does not need to be repeated that Stalin never had any intentions of carrying out the requirements of this passage. Immediately after the war the leaders of national communist parties, many of whom had spent the pre-war and wartime years in exile in Moscow and had long been subdued under Stalin’s whip, began their gradual accumulation of power.
Invariably, the communists would contest a free-ish election under the auspices of the Red Army, win a minority of the vote (as little as 17% in Hungary and never more than 38%, in Czechoslovakia), and then agree to take part in a coalition government. Under pressure from Stalin, their rivals would agree to give communists control of ministries of justice and of the interior, which would then be used to “disappear” political opponents.
In Poland the Soviet puppets’ methods were less subtle: a massive campaign of violence and intimidation preceded the first postwar elections in 1947, and the communists claimed 80% of the vote. 20 Despite assertions by some historians that western leaders “handed over” Eastern Europe to the Soviets at Yalta, short of a full-scale war with the USSR there was little if anything Roosevelt and Churchill could have done to prevent Stalin from turning eastern European countries into satellite states.
Nevertheless, the dictator’s flagrant violations of the USSR’s promises at Yalta created a chasm between the former Allies even before V-E Day, and is therefore frequently cited as the primary reason for the collapse of the Grand Alliance. As Roosevelt’s biographer Conrad Black has written, “The issue of whether the British and Americans’ (and France’s) foremost ally would be Germany or Russia would be determined by whether Stalin could resist the temptation of enslaving Eastern Europe. “21