Dickinson College, Fall 2023

Origins of the Cold War


PotsdamWinston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech at Fulton, Missouri in March 1946 surely “evoked divergent reactions in America,” as H.W. Brands claims in American Dreams (p. 32), but there can be little doubt that it struck a particular chord among key policymakers in the Truman administration, most notably with the new president himself.  Students should listen to the opening of the famous speech and try to explain why Harry Truman (on stage, far left) found it so persuasive, remembering that less than just a year earlier, Churchill, Truman and Stalin had been together at the Potsdam conference, happily shaking hands as victorious allies.

Churchill’s stern 1946 warning about the Soviets highlighted a growing tension in superpower relations, a period that columnist Walter Lippmann described memorably as “The Cold War.”  The US policy toward the Soviet Union which subsequently defined this Cold War period has come to be known as containment.  State Department official George Kennan helped develop this containment doctrine, principally through two powerful documents, the so-called “Long Telegram,” and an anonymous article for the journal Foreign Affairs, titled, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.”  Here is an excerpt from the now-famous 1947 article:

These considerations make Soviet diplomacy at once easier and more difficult to deal with than the diplomacy of individual aggressive leaders like Napoleon and Hitler. On the one hand it is more sensitive to contrary force, more ready to yield on individual sectors of the diplomatic front when that force is felt to be too strong, and thus more rational in the logic and rhetoric of power. On the other hand it cannot be easily defeated or discouraged by a single victory on the part of its opponents….In these circumstances it is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.

Students should be able to explain the significance of this passage and to articulate how key developments such as the Truman Doctrine (1947), Marshall Plan (1947) and Berlin Airlift (1948) help illustrate the initial application of containment principles.  They should also be able to describe the views of early critics of US policy.  It’s important to understand why  figures such as Senator Robert Taft, a leading conservative, or Henry Wallace, a prominent progressive, questioned the rush toward Cold War.  Some students might also find it helpful to view some of the placemarks in the map below (under the layer from Early Cold War, 1945-62), from the US Diplomatic History course here at Dickinson:

Dewey Defeats TrumanWhen Harry Truman became president in 1945 following the death of Franklin Roosevelt, he had seemed ill-prepared for the job.  Yet according to H.W. Brands, “Truman grew into the presidency, far more quickly than most people, including himself, had considered possible” (p. 25).  That growth helps explain why Truman prevailed in the 1948 election.  He ran an aggressive campaign, calling a Republican-controlled Congress into special session, mobilizing core constituency groups within the New Deal coalition, and then conducting the last great “whistle-stop” campaign tour in American political history.  Yet perhaps more important than anything else in this complicated four-way race, Truman managed by the fall of 1948 to appear to a majority of Americans as a safe choice for a commander-in-chief.  It was a peacetime election, but the public was still in so many ways holding onto a wartime mentality.  Arguably, nothing else better explains Truman’s success.  At least to a majority of American voters, he appeared to be the right leader for a dangerous and fast-evolving Cold War era.


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1 Comment

  1. Penelope Bencosme

    The reason that the U.S. was in agreement with the Soviet Union was because they wanted to defeat the Germans. Although Stalin, Churchill, and Truman did shake hands once they had defeated the Germans, it did not mean that they were friends. In the first chapter Brands even mentioned that the purpose of the US and the Soviet Union coming together was because they had a common enemy, Germany. Once Adolf Hitler died and Germany had been defeated, they were likely to become enemies again, specially after Winston Churchill told Joseph Stalin that the United States had built a very deadly weapon like no other. Stalin didn’t act very surprised, but Brands mentioned that it was possibly because he was scared that the Soviet Union was now weaker, but later on the soviets got their hands on information about how to build an atomic bomb, so that made them regain their confidence.
    Truman found Churchill’s speech persuasive because he knew that the Soviet Union and the United States were never really allies and so when the Soviets were taking control of important cities and those places became communist, Truman was not entirely surprised since he knew that the Soviets would want to become a powerful nation again. Churchill mentions in the speech Iron Curtain speech, “…whatever conclusions may be drawn from these facts, and facts they are, this is not the liberated Europe we sought to build up, nor is it one, which contains the essentials of permanent peace.” This is because the Soviets were seeking to make certain countries communist even though that would bring problems to Europe since many people in Europe opposed communism.

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