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The Origins of Containment

Great Britain (GB), the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the United States (US) formed a ‘Grand Alliance’ to defeat Nazi Germany during the Second World War, after the Third Reich had invaded the USSR (June 22, 1941; Operation Barbarossa), Japan attacked Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941)[1], and Germany and Italy declared war on the US (December 11, 1941). The three powers decided that the defeat of the Third Reich should be their main priority, because it was seen as the greatest threat. The ‘Big Three’, British Prime Minister Churchill, Soviet Premier Stalin, and US President Roosevelt, met for the first time during the Teheran Conference (November 28-December 1, 1943) and discussed the alliance’s aims and objectives albeit in rather general terms. They declared that they

have shaped and confirmed our common policy. We express our determination that our nations shall work together in war and in the peace that will follow. [. . ] And as to peace-we are sure that our concord will win an enduring Peace. [. . .] Emerging from these cordial conferences we look with confidence to the day when all peoples of the world may live free lives, untouched by tyranny, and according to their varying desires and their own consciences. We came here with hope and determination. We leave here, friends in fact, in spirit and in purpose.[2]

The high hopes expressed at Teheran were not fulfilled after the war ended. The relationship between the US and the USSR quickly deteriorated and the Cold War started. However, did the Cold War start in Eastern Europe or was Eastern Europe irrelevant to the origins of it? Did it actually start in the Middle East? This essay will analyze the relations of the USSR and the US[3] from the beginning of 1945 until the pronouncement of the Truman Doctrine (March 12, 1947) to determine which of the two regions was more important or if they were equally important for the onset of the Cold War.

That the alliance of GB, the USSR and the United States would break apart shortly after the defeat of the Third Reich was not a foregone conclusion, even though there were legacies of distrust and tensions already apparent during the war. The former included “the distinction between authoritarian and democratic traditions; the challenge communism and capitalism posed to one another; Soviet memories of allied intervention in Russia after WWI; more recent American memories of Stalin’s purges and his opportunistic pact with Hitler.”[4] The latter included the question of a second front, the question if the USSR should have a seat at the negotiating table after the surrender of German troops in Northern Italy, and conflicts over the future of Germany. Nevertheless, the most important tension, concerning the start of the Cold War, was the problem of Eastern Europe.[5] The US wanted to see the principles of the Atlantic Charter (August 14, 1941) applied to the countries of the region. The Atlantic Charter was influenced by Wilsonian thinking and its main objectives for the post-war world were: self-determination, open markets[6], and collective security.[7] Roosevelt was unwilling to discuss any territorial settlement before the war ended[8] and thought that any disputes that might arise would be dealt with by the United Nations, with GB, China, the US and the USSR acting as policemen to secure peace. Thus, Roosevelt’s more idealistic Wilsonian thinking was linked to realistic ideas of how to achieve these principles and he clearly wanted to cooperate with the USSR after the Second World War.[9]

The USSR’s main aim after the war was to increase its security. Stalin equated the security of the USSR with territorial gains. After the German attack in 1941, he demanded that the USSR could retain the territories it had obtained through its collaboration with Nazi Germany (the Baltic states; parts of Finland, Poland, and Romania) after the war.[10] Additionally, increasing Soviet security meant preventing the resurgence of Germany and establishing regimes in the neighboring countries that were friendly towards Moscow. Since President Roosevelt was not willing to “openly commit himself to accepting Soviet territorial claims, Stalin acted unilaterally to enforce his viewpoint [. . .] exhibiting little concern for Western wishes.”[11] Security was a zero-sum game for Stalin and this is not surprising since the USSR’s priorities were not defined by hopes of common or collective security in the post-war environment, as were the British or American priorities. Stalin did not adhere to the aims of the Atlantic Charter, of which he said that the “‘practical application of these principles will necessarily adapt itself to the circumstances, needs, and historic peculiarities of particular countries.’”[12] More specifically, on the concept of self-determination he declared that “‘whoever occupies a territory also imposes his own social system. [. . .] It cannot be otherwise.’”[13] Furthermore, the Soviet economy was in ruins after the fighting and thus the restoration of the economy was a second Soviet priority. Resources from the territories occupied by the Soviet Army were seen as a valuable help to achieve restoration as were reparation payments expected from Germany and other ex-enemies.[14] Thus, both objectives of the USSR were diametrically opposed to the aims of GB and the US.


[1] The US declared war on Japan on December 8, 1941.

[2] Teheran Conference, Declaration of the Three Powers, December 1, 1943. Furthermore, the conference determined a date for the begin of Operation Overlord and when the USSR would enter the Pacific War after the defeat of Germany. Antony Best et al., International History of the Twentieth Century and Beyond (Oxon, 2008), p.203.

[3] GB will be important in the analysis, but it will not be a main focus of this essay.

[4] John L. Gaddis, We Now Know – Rethinking Cold War History (Oxford, 1997), p.12.

[5] Martin McCauley, The Origins of the Cold War (Essex, 1983), pp.33-41.

[6] To achieve this objective a conference at Bretton Woods (US) was convened in July 1944, 3 which established two institutions: the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (known as World Bank as well). Antony Best et al., op.cit., p.208.

[7] John L. Gaddis, op.cit., p.12.

[8] The Americans, for example, did not endorse the ‘Percentages Deal’ (October 9, 1944) of Churchill and Stalin. Martin McCauley, op.cit., p.38.

[9] Ibid., p.38; John L. Gaddis, op.cit., pp.12-13.

[10] Eduard Mark, ‘American Policy toward Eastern Europe and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941-1946: An Alternative Interpretation’, The Journal of American History, 68:2 (1981), pp.314-316.

[11] Martin McCauley, op.cit., p.38. Some examples of the unilateral acting of Stalin include: “[t]he Beneš agreement, the breaking off of diplomatic relations with the London Poles, the surrender terms presented to Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary, [and] the refusal to help the insurgents during the Warsaw uprising”. Ibid., p.38.

[12] Quoted in John L. Gaddis, op.cit., p.16.

[13] Quoted in Ibid, p.14.

[14] Ibid., p.13; Martin McCauley, op.cit., p.17; Melvyn P. Leffler, A Preponderance of Power – National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War (Stanford, 1992), pp.5-6.


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Titel: The Origins of Containment