The Cold War in Europe (1948-55)
The first Cold War crisis was over Germany, through which the victors had drawn the line of demarcation between Soviet and Western spheres of influence in 1945. France, Britain, and the United States held the Western two-thirds of Germany, while Russia held the eastern third. At first this division was meant to be temporary with a permanent settlement to be hammered out in the future. But Stalin and the Western allies were soon at odds over the fate of Germany. Stalin wanted it to be Communist and the Western allies wanted it to be Capitalist and democratic.
In 1948, the United States and its allies made several moves that led to a crisis: a military and economic alliance that was aimed against a resurgent Germany but which Stalin thought was against him, the Marshall Plan to stop the spread of Communism, the unification of the three western sectors into what would become West Germany, and the introduction of a new currency to stabilize the German economy. Stalin kept this new currency out of his sector and tried to introduce his own currency into the West. The allies responded by keeping his currency out of the West. Stalin, sensing a resurgent West German economy and fearing that this might threaten his dominance in East Germany and Eastern Europe, raised the stakes in what is known as the Berlin Crisis.
Berlin, which itself lay deep inside East Germany, was divided between the allies in much the same way as the rest of Germany. The Western allies had access to West Berlin through three land corridors and three air corridors. Therefore, West Berlin was quite vulnerable to Soviet pressure, and that is where Stalin struck.
On June 24, Stalin started cutting off utilities and the flow of traffic and supplies along the three land corridors leading into West Berlin. This presented the Western Allies with a difficult choice. If they abandoned West Berlin to its fate and let Stalin have his way, it would encourage more aggression that might lead to war just as a similar sort of appeasement had done in 1939. By the same token, crashing the Soviet blockade could lead to war just as similar acts of aggression had done in 1914.
The Allied solution was tedious but ingenious: an airlift of supplies into West Berlin. This would supply West Berlin while using three-dimensional air space that could not be blockaded. It was a classic case of brinkmanship, since stopping the airlift would require shooting down American and British planes, which might provoke a war. Since the United States had the Atomic bomb and he did not (at least until the following year), Stalin did not want to risk a war with the United States. Therefore, he let the planes go, hoping the British and Americans would get tired of this whole costly operation. They did not. For nearly eleven months, they kept up the round-the-clock flights that were only 30 seconds apart, taking in supplies and taking out some 50,000 sick, elderly, and very young people. Besides food and medical supplies, they also took in cars, heavy machinery, and even Clarence the Camel, a defiant symbol to Stalin that the Western Allies could bring anything they wanted into West Berlin.
Each succeeding day of the airlift embarrassed Stalin with proof of the West’s technical ability to pull off such a feat. After eleven months, he lifted the blockade. The Berlin airlift had saved West Berlin. It had involved 276,926 flights that brought in 1,592,287 tons of supplies at the cost of 24 air crashes and 79 lives. The importance of the Berlin Crisis was that it stopped further Stalinist aggression in Europe. The same month that the blockade was lifted (May, 1949), West Germany was formed as a parliamentary democracy.
The Berlin crisis prompted two rival alliances led respectively by the United States and Soviet Union. In 1949 the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed between the United States, Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Greece (1952), and Turkey (1952). It was mainly a defensive alliance to stop Soviet aggression by hemming it in to the west and south. In 1954, the NATO allies, in need of manpower and firepower to combat the Soviets, allowed West Germany to rearm itself and admitted it to NATO. Outside of the United States, the West German army became the biggest and best-trained army in NATO.
A similar alliance, the South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) was formed in 1954 between the United States, Britain, France, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, and the Philippines to contain the Soviets and Communists to the south and east. A third alliance, the Mideast Treaty Organization (1955) completed the ring of hostile powers on Russia’s borders to the south. These alliances proved to be less stable and reliable than NATO, but they did ring the Soviet Union with unfriendly alliances, which alarmed its leaders.
In response to this threat, Russia formed the Warsaw Pact in 1955 with its satellite states in Eastern Europe: East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Albania. Making this threat much more potent was the fact that the Soviets now had nuclear weapons of their own. In the following years, Britain, France, China, and India all would join the “nuclear club” and develop their own nuclear arsenals.
Therefore, by the mid 1950’s, distinct battle lines had been drawn in Central Europe. Armies which people expected to be demobilized and sent home in 1945 remained in place for nearly a half century, draining their countries’ economies, turning Central Europe into an armed camp, and presenting the constant threat of war, which this time would probably be accompanied by a devastating nuclear exchange. Whole generations grew up under the ominous cloud of this atomic umbrella, acutely aware that the next war might well be the last for the human race.
The struggle widens: East Asia (1945-53)
World War II had been a truly global war, especially involving Europe’s colonial empires in Asia. By the mid twentieth century, the areas outside of Europe loomed much larger in importance as they shook off Europe’s grip and started developing on their own economically and politically. Japan had led the way since the late 1800’s, and its early success against the European colonial powers inspired others in Asia to challenge European supremacy as well.
One such country was China, whose civil war between the Communists led by Mao Zedong and the Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek had been interrupted by World War II. That civil war resumed right after Japan’s defeat. Although the Nationalists started out with more men and resources, the Communists were better led and disciplined and had Soviet help. By 1949, the Communists emerged victorious, and the West found itself confronted by another Communist power that was heavily backed by the Soviet Union. The ensuing clash between Communist East and Capitalist West came in a third country: Korea.
The victorious Americans and Soviets partitioned Korea, which had been occupied by Japan since the early part of the century, after the war at the thirty-eighth parallel. Soviet dominated North Korea became Communist; while American backed South Korea was capitalist and democratic in form. In 1950, North Korean forces invaded South Korea and overran most of it.
This crisis brought to the forefront the fledgling United Nations, founded in 1945 in the recurring hope that such an international organization could help defuse conflicts and safeguard the peace. The members of its main executive body, the Security Council, each had the power to veto any proposed actions. As luck would have it, when the Security Council met to discuss the Korean crisis, the Soviets boycotted its meeting. This allowed the United States to pass a resolution calling for an international force to stop the North Koreans.
The bulk of this force consisted of American troops led by General Douglas Macarthur. With the United Nations forces barely hanging on to a toehold in the south, Macarthur landed an amphibious invasion behind North Korean lines and drove them back north. When the U.N. forces advanced dangerously close to the Chinese border in the North, Chinese forces entered North Korea and drove them back south. What ensued was a long bloody stalemate that ended with a ceasefire at the original border, the thirty-eighth parallel. The Korean War had two major results. For one thing, it contained the spread of Communism, but at the cost of a divided Korea and the loss of millions of lives and untold material damage.
It also affected Japan where the United States was worried about the further spread of Communism and Soviet power into East Asia. Feeling that poor and unstable conditions created the ideal conditions for the spread of, the United States decided to provide Japan with economic aid to help it revive. As a result, Japan’s prosperity and stability rapidly recovered, making it a strong ally and trading partner for the United States. However, by the 1980’s, Japan’ was seriously challenging American dominance of world trade.