Stalin at Potsdam

The Russian demand for reparations had been accepted in principle at Yalta. The special commission set up to examine the subject failed to reach agreement. At Potsdam, Stalin pressed constantly for acceptance of a figure for reparations. The Allies refused to be committed. They were incensed by reports that the Russians were already removing from occupied territories machinery and other property which were not accepted as booty of war. Various practical difficulties forced the Western Allies to abandon their policy of treating the German economy as a whole. New U.S. Secretary of State James Byrnes finally proposed that each power should satisfy its reparations claims from its own zone. Some 40 percent of the value of German industrial equipment deemed unnecessary for a peace economy was in the Soviet zone. Byrnes proposed further that 10 percent of such industrial equipment in the western zones should be given to Soviet Russia, who could also request additional equipment from the U.S. and British zones in exchange for food or coal.

Stalin and Molotov argued against this arrangement, although in some ways it was favorable to them because it would lead to the breakup of Germany. In the end, they accepted it as part of a package in which they were conceded the right to collect German assets throughout Eastern Europe, as well as other demands. But their proposal for joint administration of the Ruhr was rejected, and the Western Allies excluded them from their occupation zones. The policy of maintaining Germany as a unit under Allied control collapsed. Germany was divided between east and west.

On July 25, 1945, in the midst of the conference, Churchill and Eden departed from Berlin to be in London for the results of the general election. Stalin had told Churchill earlier at a private dinner that all his information from communist and other sources had confirmed his belief that the Conservatives would be returned with a majority of about eighty seats. Churchill had answered that he was not sure how the soldiers had voted. Stalin assured him the Army preferred a strong government and would therefore vote Conservative. It seemed to Churchill that Stalin wanted to maintain contact with him and with Eden rather than with Attlee, whom he knew as a small, reserved, humorless man, and some strange foreign secretary. But Churchill’s government was severely defeated.

Four days later, Attlee arrived in Potsdam as prime minister, accompanied by Ernest Bevin, the new foreign secretary. Bevin, a trade-union leader, was a big man with a warm personality, but uneducated and ill-equipped for the office of foreign minister. In Potsdam, he was openly aggressive toward the Russians, treating the negotiations as though they were a confrontation between a trade union and employers. Attlee was increasingly curt. Truman and his staff became truculent. The Americans and British were united in their confidence that they were negotiating from a position of overwhelming strength and that they had no need to be conciliatory or understanding.

The chasm between Soviet Russia and the two Allies widened, as the Americans sought ways of forestalling Russia’s entry into the war against Japan. The Soviet government had denounced its neutrality pact with Japan on April 5, 1945, and had evaded Japanese approaches for Soviet mediation to negotiate peace. Meanwhile, Roosevelt’s undertaking to obtain the agreement of Chiang Kai-shek to Stalin’s conditions for Soviet participation in the war had led to Soviet-Chinese talks, lasting two weeks before the Potsdam conference. The talks continued from August 7 to 14, 1945, and it was apparent that Chiang Kai-shek was prolonging them on American instructions. Again an ultimatum demanding immediate unconditional surrender by the Japanese was issued on July 26, 1945. The Russians complained that they had not been consulted, and when they asked that publication of the ultimatum be delayed for three days, they were informed that the text had already been released. Stalin was particularly incensed because he was convinced that while Japan was ready to surrender, it would fight to the end against unconditional surrender.

On August 6, 1945, the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Stalin and most Russians recognized at once the awesome significance of the event. Truman had merely told him of a “super bomb,” and according to Molotov the word “atomic” was not mentioned. Japan was already on the point of capitulating and would probably have laid down arms within a few days even if the bombs had not been dropped on Hiroshima and then on Nagasaki and even if Russia had not declared war. Stalin realized the Americans had made use of the bomb primarily to impress and threaten Russia. Indeed, Byrnes acknowledged later that the bomb was needed not so much against Japan as to “make Russia manageable in Europe.”

The Russians felt now that they had emerged from the tragic war against Germany only to find themselves threatened from the West with a new and terrible weapon. Stalin was acutely aware of the vulnerability of Russia. He is reported to have summoned five of the foremost Soviet scientists and to have ordered them to develop a Soviet atom bomb in the shortest possible time and regardless of cost.

The Soviet forces under the command of Vasilevsky advanced swiftly into Manchuria. They were seasoned troops with superiority in equipment, and the Japanese could not halt them. Vasilevsky’s orders were to seize the areas specified by Stalin at Yalta before the Americans could reach them. He dismissed the declaration of surrender by the Japanese emperor on August 14, 1945, and on August 17 sent his own ultimatum to the commander of the Japanese Kwantung Army, calling for his surrender by August 20. During these days, Soviet airborne troops seized Dairen and Port Arthur and penetrated into northern Korea, while the Soviet Pacific fleet occupied southern Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands.

On September 2, Stalin broadcast to the nation. It was the day on which the final surrender of Japan was signed on board the U.S. warship Missouri, a ceremony to which he had sent an unknown general. In his broadcast, Stalin dwelt on the war of 1904-5. “Russia was defeated in that war,” he said. “As a result, Japan grabbed Southern Sakhalin and firmly established herself in the Kuriles, thus padlocking our exits to the Pacific. . . . This defeat of the Russian troops in 1904 left a bitter memory in the minds of our people. Our people waited and believed that this blot would some day be erased. We, people of the older generation, have waited forty years for this day. Now this day has come.”

Stalin went on to say that peace had come at last and that Soviet Russia was no longer threatened by Germany and Japan. He paid tribute to the armed forces of the United States, China, and Britain. But he was speaking as a Russian patriot, taking pride in having reversed a historic defeat and finding in it some compensation for the rebuffs to Russian national pride at Potsdam.

Relations with the Western powers declined sharply in the following months. Stalin believed that the menace of American domination was pressing inexorably on Russia. At the meetings of foreign ministers in London, Moscow, and Paris to draft the peace treaties and discuss postwar problems, Molotov was constantly attacked by Byrnes and Bevin for installing totalitarian regimes in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Yugoslavia. Molotov insisted that Russia was entitled to the security of having friendly governments in the countries of Eastern Europe. He argued that the Western powers had no right to impose their conception of democracy on other countries. But the Western powers claimed the right, because they had military power, because they were confident that democratic elections in those countries would result in the formation of anticommunist governments, and because they were determined to halt any extension of Soviet influence beyond central and Eastern Europe.

In Iran, a conflict developed which Stalin saw as a sinister demonstration of the American menace. British and Soviet forces had occupied Iran early in the war to forestall any attempt by the pro-German shah to aid the enemy in an invasion of Russia from the south. American forces later joined the Allies, and Iran was kept open for the transport of war supplies to Russia. Toward the end of the war, the Allies agreed on a date for the withdrawal of the occupation forces. British and American troops withdrew, but Soviet forces lingered. The Western Allies accused the Russians of seeking to establish a pro-Soviet regime in Iran. The Soviet reply was that Russian troops were needed in Iran to bring pressure on the government to grant oil exploitation rights, for Russia was desperately short of oil as a result of German damage to its oil fields.

American and British demands for the withdrawal of the Soviet units threatened a major clash. Stalin was unwilling to press the dispute too far and finally recalled his troops. The Americans at once stepped in with dollar aid to Iran and sent military and other advisers. Quickly Iran was brought under American domination as complete as the Soviet domination of Romania and Bulgaria. Stalin regarded this as an act of American aggression. Iran was far removed from the United States, but on Russia’s frontier, and the Americans were setting up military installations. Pressure by the Western powers also forced the Russians to give up their demands to share in the control of the Dardanelles and access to the Black Sea.

Stalin had counted on the cooperation of the three powers in maintaining world peace and stability. He had endorsed the charter of the United Nations, which had as a basic purpose the prevention of nations forming blocs and holding peace and the balance of power between them. Churchill’s “Iron Curtain Speech,” made at Fulton, Missouri, in the United States on March 6, 1946, alarmed and appalled him. It proclaimed the division of the world into the communist and Western blocs, and it advocated a strong political and military “fraternal association” of the United States, Britain, and the Commonwealth to maintain the balance of power and ensure peace. It was a declaration of hostility, falling short of war. Stalin denounced the speech in measured terms as “a dangerous act, calculated to sow seeds of dissent and hinder collaboration among the allied nations. It has harmed the cause of peace and security. Mr. Churchill has now adopted the position of a war-monger.”

Stalin understood that, although no longer prime minister, Churchill was expressing the views of the American and British governments. Truman had shared the platform with him at Fulton. The British Labour party had expressed disagreement, but the Labour government was following the policy which he advocated.

In the United States, dissenting voices were raised. Henry Wallace, Secretary of Commerce, declared: “We should be prepared to judge [Russia’s] requirements against the background of what we ourselves and the British have insisted upon as essential to our respective security. We should be prepared, even at the expense of risking epithets of appeasement, to agree to reasonable Russian guarantees of security.” But this and other statements by Wallace were not acceptable to Truman and Byrnes or to public opinion generally in America, where the sense of power and of the mission to defend freedom were dominant. Byrnes insisted on the resignation of Wallace and threatened to resign himself if Truman did not back him; Wallace resigned.

The peace conference in Paris and the meetings of the council of foreign ministers were protracted. Stalin and Molotov were relying on obstructionist tactics to avoid being continually outvoted by the Anglo-American bloc. Treaties with Italy, Hungary, Finland, Romania, and Bulgaria were signed, however, in February 1947.

The angriest and longest negotiations concerned Germany. Stalin was determined to exact maximum compensation from the enemy who had devastated Russia. He pressed his demand for $2 billion in reparations to be paid by Germany from capital, current production, and labor. The Western powers rejected the figure as too high and insisted that reparations could be paid only from capital. In a mood of growing exasperation, they opposed other Soviet demands, which they interpreted as blatant communist aggrandizement.

Underlying Stalin’s demands, however, were his continuing fear of German resurgence and a third attempt to conquer Russia, and his suspicion now that the Western powers would aid Germany in recovering its economic and military strength and use it as an ally against Russia. This was the real and most alarming danger. The decision of the British and Americans to merge their zones of occupation intensified his fears.

Interpreting Soviet policy as wholly concerned with communist expansionism, the Western powers became more aggressive. On March 12, 1947, Truman proclaimed his doctrine of the containment of Soviet Russia. This policy was strongly influenced by the ideas of G. F. Kennan, a state department officer whose views on Russian affairs were then highly regarded. He argued that communism was an evil creed, alien to Russian traditions, and that the Soviet leaders depended on the use of force to remain in power. There was little hope that politicians of the caliber of Truman and Byrnes, Attlee and Bevin, would recognize that this and other militant anti-Soviet policies were driving the Soviet leaders to the wall and that their threats merely strengthened popular support for the regime they were seeking to destroy.

Complementary to the doctrine of containment was the Marshall Plan, launched in the summer of 1947. It was a bold and generous policy to promote the rapid economic recovery of Europe. In the announcement of the plan, there had been no reference to its application to Russia. At a press conference, however, Marshall himself stated that he saw no reason why Russia should not be included. The U. S. Congress, in the mood of the time, would undoubtedly have raised obstacles in the way of Russia’s benefiting. But, prompted by his party and acting on the assumption that the Marshall Plan was open to Russia, the British Foreign Secretary invited Molotov to Paris to discuss possible Russian participation.

Stalin’s attitude was extremely cautious. He had been disappointed in earlier hopes of American aid. Now he was on guard against American domination. He was suspicious of the motives of the Western powers, which had become so openly hostile to Soviet Russia. Promptly he decided that Russia would have nothing to do with the plan. It was part of American expansionist policy and of the Truman doctrine of containing and destroying communism. Moreover, he brought pressure on Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, who had accepted the plan, to withdraw.

The division between the communist and Western blocs was now seen as unbridgeable. Stalin was convinced that the Western bloc, led and supported by the economic and military might of the United States, was intent on the destruction of Soviet Russia and the communist world. His policy was to develop Eastern Europe as an integrated bloc under Moscow’s absolute control, politically and economically independent of the West. The Western powers interpreted this to mean that Moscow was planning a general offensive against them and was even considering military action. The “cold war,” a tragic period of recriminations, exaggerated suspicion on both sides, and bitter animosity, had begun.

In the course of the next three years, the two blocs came dangerously close to military conflict. Stalin consolidated the Soviet bloc, eliminating all noncommunist elements and transforming their regimes into people’s democracies, regarded as a traditional stage before socialism. Economic integration followed with the setting up of Comecon (Council for Economic Mutual Assistance), embracing the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Poland. When the Yugoslav communists asserted their independence of Moscow, Stalin in a fury denounced them for betrayal of the revolutionary cause. He went so far as to have the Yugoslav Communist party expelled from the Cominform (Communist Information Bureau), the modified form of the Communist International, which he had revived in September 1947.

The climax in the anti-Soviet policies of the Western powers came for Stalin on April 4, 1949, when the North Atlantic Pact was signed. It provided for a military alliance of twelve countries and established the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to maintain a combined military force. This military alliance was declared to be wholly defensive, but to Stalin and all Russians, it was obviously offensive in intention. The inclusion of the Federal Republic of Germany as an equal member three years later was a horrifying development.

Work on the buildup of heavy industry and military strength in the Soviet Union and throughout the Soviet bloc was intensified. In June 1948, Stalin attempted to secure complete control over Berlin by preventing deliveries of food and goods by land and water from the West. The Allies countered by airlifting supplies to the city. He was not prepared to provoke a war and in September 1949 allowed a return to the use of the land and sea routes. But in the United Nations, and especially in the discussions on international control of atomic energy, it was plain that a great chasm of mistrust and hostility separated Soviet Russia from the countries of the West.

Two events gave Stalin and his people encouragement in this tense period. The first was the explosion of a Soviet atom bomb in September 1949, and the second was the establishment of the communist regime, under Mao Tse-tung’s leadership, over the whole of China. Possession of the atom bomb was important to Russian morale. Stalin and others in the Kremlin had actively feared the United States might use atomic weapons against Russia, and there were influential voices in Washington urging that this was the way to deal decisively with the Soviet government.

Also important to Russian prestige and confidence was the fact that China, with its population of nearly 600 million people, had become part of the communist bloc, of which Soviet Russia was the accepted leader. Moreover, the United States now considered its security in the Far East to be threatened by the emergence of this mighty communist power. War in Korea brought the blocs close to a major conflict. The Americans, deciding to make Japan the cornerstone of their anticommunist policy, pressed agreement on a peace treaty with Japan, which the Soviet government refused to sign. For the time being, the position of the two blocs in the Far East was deadlocked.

Nothing disturbed Stalin more profoundly, however, than the Anglo-American policy of establishing western Germany as an economic and military power. He was opposed particularly to the integration of a German army into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the defenses of the Western powers. This was to him the most sinister aspect of the Western offensive against Russia. In March 1952, he proposed that the four Allied powers should meet without delay to discuss a German peace treaty. He conceded many points in the exchange of notes that followed his initiative. He was prepared to agree that Germany should have its own armed forces for defense purposes but insisted it be barred from joining an alliance directed against any power which had taken part in the war against it. He accepted the principle of free elections throughout Germany. But the exchange ended in the rejection of Stalin’s proposals. The Western powers would not yield. It was clear to Stalin that Russia was a beleaguered country, threatened by the Western capitalist powers, and that it must prepare for war.

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