How far were the personalities of Truman and Stalin responsible for the increased tension between the USA and the Soviet Union in the years 1945-1950?

Tension increased dramatically between 1945 and 1950. Initially co-operation looked highly likely, with both the US and USSR armies demobilising, both countries suffering severe economic difficulty and America’s isolationist policy. However, relations rapidly deteriorated due to documentation produced such as the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Aid Plan, agreements made at the Yalta and Potsdam conferences (and violations of their terms) and events such as the Berlin Blockade. All of these were affected and arguably caused by the personalities of Truman and Stalin. It is widely believed, particularly amongst Revisionist historians, that the personalities of Stalin (who was ambitious, paranoid and communist) and Truman (who was capitalist and adopted an ‘Iron fist’ approach) were responsible for the increase in tension. However, ideological differences (Capitalism and Communism) rather than differences of personality were the most responsible for the increased tension as their personalities were merely a reflection of the systems they presided over.

It is undeniable that relations between the two countries significantly worsened after Truman became president, partly due to how although the former President Roosevelt disagreed with Stalin’s policies he was willing to co-operate with him and trusted him. However, although Truman initially tried to continue Roosevelt’s policy of accommodation with the USSR, his inexperience and insecurities lead him to become suspicious of Stalin and adopt an ‘Iron fist’ approach. The personality of Truman in particular contributed directly to the deterioration of relations between the US and USSR. Truman was politically inexperienced and relied heavily upon his advisers, stating in 1946 that, ‘Unless Russia is faced with an iron fist and strong language, another war is in the making’. He was also na�ve and gullible, believing the George Kennan telegram which contained only the opinion of the American Embassy in Russia, and no actual evidence as Russia has demobilised. Historian Daniel Yergin emphasised the influence of ‘Riga axioms’: upper class intelligentsia based in Riga, who were anti-Bolshevik and influenced the reports sent back to the USA. Truman’s decision to make US foreign policy more assertive implies that it was his personality that was to blame, at least in part, for the Cold War, but ideological, political and economic factors also caused this.

The Yalta and Potsdam conferences were held to ease tension that inevitably existed between America and Russia due to the power vacuum (both countries being drawn to protect their interests). Stalin was present at both conferences, Truman only the latter (as he became president afterwards: America had been represented by President Roosevelt). They agreed to split Germany into four zones, four sectors in Berlin and to establish a four power control council. They agreed to set up the United Nations, the Declaration on Liberated Europe was signed and reparations arranged. However, tension was already emerging as the Declaration on Liberated Europe alienated Russia as it was based on democracy (an American principle) and the reparations that Russia was to receive (10% of all zones) did not reflect her effort and sacrifices in the war. As the first conference was held agreements were made before Truman became President, this suggests that his personality was not to blame for the increased tension, as tension already existed and, due to the agreements made without him, was likely to increase.

However, both countries violated the terms agreed in these conferences and as the decision to do this was by Stalin and Truman, which suggests that it their personalities may have been responsible to some degree. The US announced in May 1946 that the US would suspend reparation payments, which the USSR economy relied upon and violated terms previously agreed upon. The Soviets breached the Declaration on Liberated Europe through vote rigging, use of terror, delaying elections in Poland, Romania and Hungary and the 1948 coup d’�tat in Czechoslovakia. This confirmed Truman’s views on Communism and acted as a catalyst for US policy becoming more assertive.

Examples of how US policy became more assertive include the Truman Doctrine, NSC-68, the George Kennan Long Telegram and the Marshall Aid Plan. NSC-68 and the George Kennan Long Telegram both emphasise the threat of Russia to America, with the former stating that Russia, ‘seeks to impose its absolute authority upon the world’ and the latter describing it as, ‘more dangerous and insidious than ever before’. As a result of these documents and the Berlin Blockade, US policy became more assertive and the Truman Doctrine was produced. It was a policy statement issued in 1947 pledging to aid any country of government that was under attack by armed minorities. This meant that the US would act if communists attempted to overthrow a democratically elected government, and that the US would support any anti-Communist country. The Marshall Aid Plan promised to provide financial support to capitalist countries, which Russia considered foreign interference, ‘dollar imperialism’ and ‘an attempt to enslave the weakened capitalist states of Europe’. The USSR reacted aggressively by setting up the Comiform to co-ordinate European Communist parties and the Comecon to provide economic aid.

The event which most demonstrated how far relations between the US and USSR had deteriorated is the Berlin Blockade, which began on the 24th August 1948 and lasted 320 days. Its consequences made co-operation even more unlikely, as in April 1949 NATO was established which was a defensive alliance to protect Western Europe and made it clear that it would act defensively if necessary, which marked the end of US peacetime isolationism. In 1949 Germany continued to be divided and a source of tension, with the Federal Republic of Germany being set up in August 1949 which included America, Britain and France, which excluded Russia. This suggests that circumstances and events caused by ideological differences were to blame, rather than the personalities of Truman and Stalin.

The idea that ideological differences rather than Russia and America’s leaders were to blame is further confirmed by the Chinese Revolution. The US considered themselves to be the ‘guardian of China’ and were their main trading partner and considered them essential for economic development. When China became communist, the US were offended and threatened, believing that China had become Communist due to Stalin’s support for Mao and that it was part of Stalin’s master plan for ‘world domination’.

To conclude, the personalities of Truman and Stalin did contribute towards the increased tension between the USA and the Soviet Union, but were the sole cause. The personalities of others besides Stalin and Truman were also arguably responsible: Historian D Donnelly emphasised how the previous President Roosevelt’s optimism and weakness, as demonstrated by his failure to stand up to Stalin at the Yalta Conference, allowed Stalin to take advantage of the ‘gullibility of the west’. Ultimately, the ideological differences between the two countries were responsible for the increased tension between the USA and USSR between 1945 and 1950, as the personalities of Truman and Stalin merely reflected the principles of the countries they presided over.


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