When Harry Truman was elevated to the presidency following Franklin Roosevelt’s death, he brought to the office a serious lack of knowledge regarding world affairs but an equally serious determination to confront Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s apparently hegemonic ambitions. Initially naïve regarding Stalin’s motivations, Soviet actions during the immediate post-World War II period would cement within the new American president a sense of impending confrontation over the fate of Europe. We can never know with absolute certainty what Stalin envisioned for the future of his empire and for the continent of Europe, and there is no question that he suffered from a deep sense of paranoia himself, but Soviet actions in Eastern and Central Europe, irrespective of the content of the agreements arrived at during the Yalta and Potsdam Conferences of 1945, had to be interpreted by the United States and Great Britain as a threat to the nascent democracies slowly taking root in Western Europe and to U.S. interests throughout Eurasia. How much Soviet leaders were influenced by Marxist ideology and how much their decisions were grounded in geopolitical realities irrespective of ideology has been the subject of academic debate for many years. Understanding the Soviet Union was a science for Western analysts, with oft-times little to go on beyond the positioning of Communist Party leaders atop Lenin’s mausoleum during military parades. As Britain’s war-time prime minister Winston Churchill has famously pointed out during a 1939 radio broadcast:
“I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest. It cannot be in accordance with the interest of the safety of Russia that Germany should plant itself upon the shores of the Black Sea, or that it should overrun the Balkan States and subjugate the Slavonic peoples of south eastern Europe, That would be contrary to the historic life-interests of Russia.”
Similarly, one of the United States’ most knowledgeable and well-positioned diplomats, George Kennan, observed in his important article for Foreign Affairs, published under the pseudonym “X” and adapted from a memo he had dispatched from Moscow to his superiors in Washington:
“The political personality of Soviet power as we know it today is the product of ideology and circumstances: ideology inherited by the present Soviet leaders from the movement in which they had their political origin, and circumstances of the power which they now have exercised for nearly three decades in Russia. There can be few tasks of psychological analysis more difficult than to try to trace the interaction of these two forces and the relative role of each in the determination of official Soviet conduct. Yet the attempt must be made if that conduct is to be understood and effectively countered.”
Stalin was clearly driven by an intense need to protect Russia from future invasions such as were undertaken by Napolean and Hitler during their respective reigns. U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union (October 1943 to January 1946) W. Averell Harriman related the details of a conversation he had had with the Soviet leader:
“Poland, of course, was the key country. I remember Stalin telling me that the plains of Poland were the invasion route of Europe to Russia and always had been, and therefore he had to control Poland.”
Stalin was also deeply imbued with an ideological sense of eventual confrontation between the capitalist and communist powers. All the U.S. knew was that Soviet actions in Eastern and Central Europe were threatening the post-war arrangements that Truman had come to understand would divide Europe but not concede Russian/Soviet hegemony over the entirety of that vast region. Communist insurgencies, especially in Greece, communist activities in Italy, the hardening of the division of Germany and, as a microcosm of the larger split of that country, the division of Berlin, the 1948 communist coup d’etat in Czechoslovakia, the Soviet blockade of West Berlin and consequent initiation of a massive U.S. airlift of food to the citizens of that city, the victory in 1949 of the Chinese Communists in that country’s civil war, and the 1950 invasion of South Korea by Soviet North Korean ally Kim il-Sung all fed into Western perceptions of a major communist threat. It was in this context that Truman, the foreign policy neophyte, was forced to formulate policy.
Truman’s foreign policy, of course, would come to be known as “containment” of the Soviet Union, executed through a network or series of collective security agreements in Europe (NATO), South Asia (CENTO), and Southeast Asia (SEATO), in addition to the U.S.-Japan mutual defense agreement. The Truman Doctrine of containment had been announced in the president’s March 12, 1947 speech to Congress, in which he emphasized the threats from communist aggression in Greece and Turkey as well as the hardening of positions in Germany:
“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. I believe that we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way.”
The subsequent series of events involving Soviet or Soviet-allied provocateurs and insurgents lent the policy of containment an enhanced sense of imperative. In short, Truman was driven by his and advisors’ perceptions of a growing threat from the Soviet Union. The aforementioned series of Soviet actions, combined with Stalin’s history of genocidal policies within his own empire and the show trials that he used to justify the most brutal repression imaginable left the U.S. little choice to but to respond with the formation of its alliance system, especially the establishment of NATO in 1949.
As noted, whatever was running through Stalin’s mind will forever remain a mystery. One of history’s deadliest dictators, he was also genuinely fearful of a resurgent Germany. He was also territorially ambitious on a grand scale, seizing regions wherever resistance to Soviet aggression was weak, as in the Kuril Islands claimed by Japan but seized by Russia at the end of the war. Precisely what were Stalin’s goals for Europe and Asia will forever remain a mystery. Judging by his actions, however, they couldn’t have been good.
Simply put, Truman wanted a world of democracy, but he was practical and realized that he cannot simply threaten the Soviets. So through the Truman Doctrine, he stated a policy of containment, a policy enacted to prevent the spread of communism into other countries. Stalin, on the other hand, likewise recognized that expanding communism to the world was not practical. First, they had to perfect it within their own nations. He wanted to keep the status quo, that the nations in Eastern Europe that the Soviets freed from the Germans will stay under the control of the Communists.