Soviet Union During the Cold War

Soviet Union During the Cold War

Soviet Union During the Cold War


While there is much discussion on the role of the United States in the Cold War, this period was very important for the Soviet Union. Following Stalin's death, the Soviet Union had a dramatic economic growth and politcial power shift in Europe.


Learning Objectives

  • Evaluate the differences between Soviet Communism and United States Capitalism.
  • Analyze the impact of the end of World War II on the post-war societies.
  • Evaluate the role of United States foreign policy in shaping the post World War II world. 


Key Terms / Key Concepts

Berlin airlift: in response to the Berlin Blockade, the Western Allies organized this project to carry supplies to the people of West Berlin by air.

Greek Civil War: a war fought in Greece from 1946 to 1949 between the Greek government army backed by the United Kingdom and the United States—and the Democratic Army of Greece (DSE, the military branch of the Greek Communist Party (KKE)—backed by Yugoslavia, Albania, and Bulgaria

Molotov Plan: the system created by the Soviet Union in 1947 to provide aid to rebuild the countries in Eastern Europe that were politically and economically aligned to the Soviet Union

Potsdam Agreement: the 1945 agreement between three of the Allies of World War II, United Kingdom, United States, and USSR, for the military occupation and reconstruction of Germany (It included Germany’s demilitarization, reparations, and the prosecution of war criminals.)

reparations: payments intended to cover damage or injury inflicted during a war


The Berlin Blockade


From July 17 to August 2, 1945, the victorious Allied Powers reached the Potsdam Agreement on the fate of postwar Europe, calling for the division of defeated Germany into four temporary occupation zones (thus reaffirming principles laid out earlier by the Yalta Conference). These zones were located roughly around the then-current locations of the Allied armies. Also divided into occupation zones, Berlin was located 100 miles inside Soviet-controlled eastern Germany. The United States, United Kingdom, and France controlled western portions of the city, while Soviet troops controlled the eastern sector.

In a June 1945 meeting, Stalin informed German communist leaders that he expected to slowly undermine the British position within their occupation zone, that the United States would withdraw within a year or two, and that nothing would then stand in the way of a united Germany under communist control within the Soviet orbit. Stalin and other leaders told visiting Bulgarian and Yugoslavian delegations in early 1946 that Germany must be both Soviet and communist.

Creation of an economically stable western Germany required reform of the unstable Reichsmark German currency introduced after the 1920s German inflation. The Soviets had debased the Reichsmark by excessive printing, resulting in Germans using cigarettes as a de facto currency or for bartering. The Soviets opposed western plans for a reform. They interpreted this new currency as an unjustified, unilateral decision. On June 18, the United States, Britain, and France announced that on June 21 the Deutsche Mark would be introduced, but the Soviets refused to permit its use as legal tender in Berlin. The Allies had already transported 2.5 million Deutsche Marks into the city and it quickly became the standard currency in all four sectors. Against the wishes of the Soviets, the new currency, along with the Marshall Plan that backed it, appeared to have the potential to revitalize Germany.

The Berlin Blockade (June 24, 1948 – May 12, 1949) was one of the first major international crises of the Cold War. In June 1948, Stalin instituted the Berlin Blockade, which blocked the Western Allies’ This blockade prevented food, materials, and supplies from arriving in West Berlin. railway, road, and canal access to the sectors of Berlin under Western control. Stalin looked to force the Western nations to abandon Berlin. However, the Soviets offered to drop the blockade if the Western Allies withdrew the newly introduced Deutsche mark from West Berlin.

The day after the June 18, 1948 announcement of the new Deutsche Mark, Soviet guards halted all passenger trains and traffic on the autobahn to Berlin, delayed Western and German freight shipments, and required that all water transport secure special Soviet permission. On June 21, the day the Deutsche Mark was introduced, the Soviet military halted a United States military supply train to Berlin and sent it back to western Germany. On June 22, the Soviets announced that they would introduce a new currency in their zone. On June 24, the Soviets severed land and water connections between the non-Soviet zones and Berlin. That same day, they halted all rail and barge traffic in and out of Berlin. On June 25, the Soviets stopped supplying food to the civilian population in the non-Soviet sectors of Berlin. Motor traffic from Berlin to the western zones was permitted, but this required a 14.3-mile detour to a ferry crossing because of alleged “repairs” to a bridge. They also cut off Berlin’s electricity using their control over the generating plants in the Soviet zone. At the time, West Berlin had 36 days’ worth of food, and 45 days’ worth of coal.

Militarily, the Americans and British were greatly outnumbered because of the postwar reduction in their armies. The United States, like other western countries, had disbanded most of its troops and was largely inferior in the European theater. The entire United States Army was reduced to 552,000 men by February 1948. Military forces in the western sectors of Berlin numbered only 8,973 Americans, 7,606 British, and 6,100 French. Soviet military forces in the Soviet sector that surrounded Berlin totaled 1.5 million. The two United States regiments in Berlin could have provided little resistance against a Soviet attack. Believing that Britain, France, and the United States had little option than to acquiesce, the Soviet Military Administration in Germany celebrated the beginning of the blockade.

In response to the blockade, the Western Allies organized the Berlin airlift to carry supplies to the people of West Berlin, a difficult feat given the city’s population. Aircrews from the United States Air Force, the British Royal Air Force, the Royal Canadian Air Force, the Royal Australian Air Force, the Royal New Zealand Air Force, and the South African Air Force flew over 200,000 flights in one year, providing the West Berliners up to 8,893 tons of necessities each day, such as fuel and food.

On November 30, 1945, it was agreed in writing that there would be three 20-mile-wide air corridors providing free access to Berlin. Additionally, unlike a force of tanks and trucks, the Soviets could not claim that cargo aircraft were some sort of military threat. In the face of unarmed aircraft refusing to turn around, the only way to enforce the blockade would have been to shoot them down. An airlift would force the Soviet Union to either shoot down unarmed humanitarian aircraft, thus breaking their own agreements, or back down. The Soviets did not disrupt the airlift for fear this might lead to open conflict.

The American military government, based on a minimum daily ration of 1,990 calories, set a total of daily supplies at 646 tons of flour and wheat, 125 tons of cereal, 64 tons of fat, 109 tons of meat and fish, 180 tons of dehydrated potatoes, 180 tons of sugar, 11 tons of coffee, 19 tons of powdered milk, 5 tons of whole milk for children, 3 tons of fresh yeast for baking, 144 tons of dehydrated vegetables, 38 tons of salt, and 10 tons of cheese. In all, 1,534 tons were required each day to sustain the more than two million people of Berlin. Additionally, for heat and power, 3,475 tons of coal and gasoline were also required daily. During the first week, the airlift averaged only ninety tons a day, but by the second week it reached 1,000 tons. This likely would have sufficed had the effort lasted only a few weeks as originally believed. But by the end of August, after two months, the Airlift was succeeding; daily operations flew more than 1,500 flights a day and delivered more than 4,500 tons of cargo, enough to keep West Berlin supplied.

The Communist press in East Berlin ridiculed the project. It derisively referred to “the futile attempts of the Americans to save face and to maintain their untenable position in Berlin.” However, as the tempo of the Airlift grew, it became apparent that the Western powers might be able to pull off the impossible: indefinitely supplying an entire city by air alone. In response, starting on August 1, the Soviets offered free food to anyone who crossed into East Berlin and registered their ration cards there, but West Berliners overwhelmingly rejected Soviet offers of food.


Berlin Airlift: Berliners watch a Douglas C-54 Skymaster land at Tempelhof Airport, 1948


End of the Blockade


On April 15, 1949 the Russian news agency TASS reported a willingness by the Soviets to lift the blockade. The next day the U.S. State Department stated the “way appears clear” for the blockade to end. Soon afterwards, the four powers began serious negotiations and a settlement was reached on Western terms. On May 4, 1949, the Allies announced an agreement to end the blockade in eight days’ time.

The Soviet blockade of Berlin was lifted at one minute after midnight on May 12, 1949. A British convoy immediately drove through to Berlin, and the first train from West Germany reached Berlin at 5:32 a.m. Later that day an enormous crowd celebrated the end of the blockade. General Clay, whose retirement had been announced by US President Truman on May 3, was saluted by 11,000 US soldiers and dozens of aircraft. Once home, Clay received a ticker-tape parade in New York City, was invited to address the US Congress, and was honored with a medal from President Truman.

Berlin Airlift Monument in Berlin-Tempelhof displays the names of the 39 British and 31 American airmen who lost their lives during the operation. Similar monuments can be found at the military airfield of Wietzenbruch near the former RAF Celle and at Rhein-Main Air Base.


The Warsaw Pact


The Warsaw Pact formally the Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation, and Mutual Assistance—was a collective defense treaty among the Soviet Union and seven other Soviet satellite states in Central and Eastern Europe during the Cold War. The Warsaw Pact was the military complement to the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CoMEcon)—the regional economic organization for the communist states of Central and Eastern Europe. The Warsaw Pact was created in reaction to the integration of West Germany into NATO in 1955, but it is also considered to have been motivated by Soviet desires to maintain control over military forces in Central and Eastern Europe.

The Soviets wanted to keep their part of Europe and not let the Americans take it from them. Ideologically, the Soviet Union demanded the right to define socialism and communism and act as the leader of the global socialist movement. A corollary to this idea was the necessity of intervention if a country appeared to be violating core socialist ideas and Communist Party functions, which was explicitly stated in the Brezhnev Doctrine. Geostrategic principles also drove the Soviet Union to prevent invasion of its territory by Western European powers.

The eight member countries of the Warsaw Pact pledged the mutual defense of any member who was attacked. Relations among the treaty signatories were based upon mutual non-intervention in the internal affairs of the member countries, respect for national sovereignty, and political independence. However, almost all governments of those member states were indirectly controlled by the Soviet Union.

While the Warsaw Pact was established as a balance of power or counterweight to NATO, there was no direct confrontation between them. Instead, the conflict was fought on an ideological basis. Both NATO and the Warsaw Pact led to the expansion of military forces and their integration into the respective blocs. Its largest military engagement was the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia (with the participation of all Pact nations except Romania).


Soviet Nuclear Strategy 


In 1960 and 1961, Khrushchev tried to impose the concept of nuclear deterrence on the military. Nuclear deterrence holds that the reason for having nuclear weapons is to discourage their use by a potential enemy. With each side deterred from war because of the threat of its escalation into a nuclear conflict, Khrushchev believed, “peaceful coexistence” with capitalism would become permanent and allow the inherent superiority of socialism to emerge in economic and cultural competition with the West.

Khrushchev hoped that exclusive reliance on the nuclear firepower of the newly created Strategic Rocket Forces would remove the need for increased defense expenditures. He also sought to use nuclear deterrence to justify his massive troop cuts—his downgrading of the Ground Forces, traditionally the “fighting arm” of the Soviet armed forces. Krushchev also wanted to justify his plans to replace bombers with missiles and the surface fleet with nuclear missile submarines. However, during the Cuban missile crisis the USSR had only four R-7 Semyorkas and a few R-16s intercontinental missiles deployed in vulnerable surface launchers. In 1962 the Soviet submarine fleet had only eight submarines with short-range missiles that could be launched only from submarines that surfaced and lost their hidden submerged status.

Khrushchev’s attempt to introduce a nuclear “doctrine of deterrence” into Soviet military thought failed. Discussion of nuclear war in the first authoritative Soviet monograph on strategy since the 1920s—Marshal Vasilii Sokolovskii’s “Military Strategy”—focused on the use of nuclear weapons for fighting rather than for deterring a war. Sokolovskii argued that should such a war break out both sides would pursue the most decisive aims with the most forceful means and methods. Intercontinental ballistic missiles and aircraft would deliver massed nuclear strikes on the enemy’s military and civilian objectives, and the war would assume an unprecedented geographical scope. Essentially, Soviet military writers argued that the use of nuclear weapons in the initial period of the war would decide the course and outcome of the war as a whole. Both in doctrine and in strategy, the nuclear weapon reigned supreme.


The Propaganda War


Soviet propaganda was disseminated through tightly controlled media outlets in the Eastern Bloc. Media in the Eastern Bloc was an organ of the state, completely reliant on and subservient to the communist party. Radio and television organizations were typically state-owned, while print media was usually owned by political organizations, mostly by local communist parties. Soviet propaganda used Marxist philosophy to attack capitalism, claiming labor exploitation and war-mongering imperialism were inherent in the system.

Along with the broadcasts of the British Broadcasting Corporation and the Voice of America to Central and Eastern Europe, a major propaganda effort begun in 1949 was Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, dedicated to bringing about the peaceful demise of the communist system in the Eastern Bloc. Radio Free Europe attempted to achieve these goals by serving as a surrogate home radio station, an alternative to the controlled and party-dominated domestic press. Radio Free Europe was a product of some of the most prominent architects of America’s early Cold War strategy, especially those who believed that the Cold War would eventually be fought by political rather than military means, such as George F. Kennan.


Propaganda in the Eastern Bloc


Eastern Bloc media and propaganda was controlled directly by each country’s Communist party, which controlled the state media, censorship, and propaganda organs. State and party ownership of print, television, and radio media was used to control information and society in light of Eastern Bloc leaderships viewing even marginal groups of opposition intellectuals as a potential threat to the bases underlying Communist power therein.

The ruling authorities viewed media as a propaganda tool and widely practiced censorship to exercise almost full control over information dissemination. The press in Communist countries was an organ of and completely reliant on the state. Until the late 1980s, all Eastern Bloc radio and television organizations were state-owned and tightly controlled.

In each country, leading bodies of the ruling Communist Party exercised hierarchical control of the censorship system. Each Communist Party maintained a department of its Central Committee apparatus to supervise media. Censors employed auxiliary tools such as: the power to launch or close down any newspaper, radio or television station; licensing of journalists through unions; and the power of appointment. Party bureaucrats held all leading editorial positions.

Circumvention of censorship occurred to some degree through samizdat (underground publications produced and disseminated by hand) and limited reception of western radio and television broadcasts. In addition, some regimes heavily restricted the flow of information from their countries to outside of the Eastern Bloc by regulating the travel of foreigners and segregating approved travelers from the domestic population.


Molotov Plan


The Molotov Plan was the system created by the Soviet Union in 1947 to provide aid to rebuild the countries in Eastern Europe that were politically and economically aligned with the Soviet Union. It can be seen as the USSR’s version of the Marshall Plan,which for political reasons the Eastern European countries would not be able to join without leaving the Soviet sphere of influence. Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov rejected the Marshall Plan (1947), proposing the Molotov Plan – the Soviet-sponsored economic grouping which was eventually expanded to become the COMECON. The Molotov plan was symbolic of the Soviet Union’s refusal to accept aid from the Marshall Plan or allow any of their satellite states to do so because of their belief that the Plan was an attempt to weaken Soviet interest in their satellite states through the conditions imposed and by making beneficiary countries economically dependent on the United States.

The plan was a system of bilateral trade agreements that established COMECON to create an economic alliance of socialist countries. This aid allowed countries in Europe to stop relying on American aid, and therefore allowed Molotov plan states to reorganize their trade to the USSR instead. The plan was in some ways contradictory, however, because at the same time the Soviets were giving aid to Eastern bloc countries, they were demanding that countries who were members of the Axis powers pay reparations to the USSR.


Soviet Censorship: Nikolai Yezhov, the young man strolling with Joseph Stalin to his right, was shot in 1940. He was edited out from a photo by Soviet censors. Such retouching was a common occurrence during Stalin’s reign.
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