The Cold War Begins

At first, the focus of the Cold War was Eastern Europe. Stalin had two main goals in Eastern Europe. First, he wanted to spread communism into the area. Second, he wanted to create a buffer zone of friendly governments as a defense against Germany, which had invaded Russia during World War I and again in 1941.

As the Red Army pushed German forces out of Eastern Europe, it left behind occupying forces. The Soviet dictator pointed out that the United States was not consulting the Soviet Union about peace terms for Italy or Japan, both of which were defeated and occupied by American and British troops. In the same way, the Soviet Union would determine the fate of the Eastern European lands that it occupied.

Roosevelt and Churchill rejected Stalin's view, making him promise “free elections” in Eastern Europe. Stalin ignored that pledge. Most Eastern European countries had existing Communist parties, many of which had actively resisted the Nazis during the war. Backed by the Red Army, these local Communists in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere destroyed rival political parties and even assassinated democratic leaders. By 1948, pro-Soviet communist governments were in place throughout Eastern Europe.

Soviet Aggression Grows

Stalin soon showed his aggressive intentions outside of Eastern Europe. In Greece, Stalin backed communist rebels who were fighting to overturn a right-wing monarchy supported by Britain. By 1947, however, Britain could no longer afford to defend Greece. Stalin was also menacing Turkey and the vital shipping lane through the Dardanelles.

The Iron Curtain

In 1946, Winston Churchill, former prime minister of Britain, spoke of how the Soviet Union was sealing off the countries in Eastern Europe that its armies had occupied at the end of World War II.

[A]n ‘iron curtain' has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all of the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe … all these famous cities … lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and are all subject … to a very high … measure of control from Moscow.

—Winston Churchill

In the West, the “iron curtain” became a symbol of the Cold War fear of communism. It described the division of Europe into an “eastern” and a “western” bloc. In the East were the Soviet-dominated, communist countries of Eastern Europe. In the West were the Western democracies led by the United States.

The Truman Doctrine

President Truman saw communism as an evil force threatening countries around the world. To deal with the growing communist threat in Greece and Turkey, he took action. On March 12, 1947, Truman outlined a new policy to Congress: “I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”

This policy, known as the Truman Doctrine, was rooted in the idea of containment, limiting communism to the areas already under Soviet control. Stalin, however, saw containment as “encirclement” by the capitalist world that wanted to isolate the Soviet Union.

Photo of a damaged city, where soldiers are raising a hammer and sickle flag.

The Red Army entered Berlin in April 1945. The Soviets installed communist governments in East Germany and throughout Eastern Europe in the postwar years.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments