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December 3, 2001

Like many wartime coalitions, the Grand Alliance rapidly fell apart after the defeat of the Axis.  Why did this happen?  Could this have been preserved?  If so, how?


The opportunity for a post-World War II global utopia was not only possible but very close to becoming a reality.  Instead, the two emerging superpowers, the United States and Russia, spiraled down into what has been dubbed “The Cold War” and triggered malignant competition in world events nearly culminating in nuclear devastation.  But what caused this and how could have it been avoided?  I will address three hinging factors associated with American and Russian interactions originally mentioned in the seventh chapter of John Lewis Gaddis’ book Russia, The Soviet Union, And The United States: An Interpretive History.

Furthermore, I will outline alternatives to each problem which, if implemented, would have increased the probability of an alternate, more benign yet fruitful relationship between the two superpowers.  These factors; personality, ideology, and technology combined to put the two countries at odds and I argue that an effort by either side to repair, bridge, or accept these differences would have preserved the Grand Alliance and benefited human civilization to this day.



Fresh from the defeat of the Axis powers, the Grand Alliance faced a precarious choice to stay connected and evolve into a global co-op of sorts or to disband.  The unprecedented unity between such large civilizations as the United States, Britain, France, and Russia formed the aptly name Grand Alliance whose integrated cooperation won a world war and showed great promise to follow up that victory with global stabilization.  While it would be easy to find differences in such divergent countries, the more difficult task was to continue the unity and take advantage of the opportunity to address, understand, and find solutions to unavoidable points of contention.

For Russia’s part, the defeat of the Germany left a large power vacuum in Europe enabling Russia to become that continent’s major presence.  With the defeat of Germany and in the rubble of war-torn Europe, the conditions were ripe for reestablishing order among chaos.  In keeping with its policy of creating buffer zones to protect the motherland, Russia felt justified in filling the vacuum by absorbing land on its periphery and establishing a European order while concurrently establishing the desired buffer.

The United States, on the other side of the globe, had their new nuclear arsenal and was flush with victory.  After showcasing the new American atomic capability by ending the war in two mushroom clouds over Japan, there was no question that the United States would be a dominant figure on the global stage.  But a post-war isolationism and military draw down combined with a containment policy of communism bred mistrust of the former Russian ally.



It is interesting to note that individuals alone rarely have historic repercussions.  Out of the billions of people that have ever lived, relatively few have made significant, long-lasting, individual effects that alter human existence.  But I would contend that during an era that saw one of these emerge, namely Adolph Hitler, there also came another whose choices and personality effected not only the world he lived in but the one where we now find ourselves.

Joseph Stalin, the staunch communist and leader of post-war Russia, not only drove the perception of Russian ideology inside his country, but outside it as well.  His decisions and personality would pervade and alter all interaction and perception of Russia as a whole and was a major reason the Cold War even came into existence.

After the death of President Franklin D.  Roosevelt, the Soviets did not trust America.  In fact, the official Russian history of that transition states “the policy pursued by the US ruling circles after the death of Franklin D.  Roosevelt amounted to renunciation of dependable and mutually beneficial cooperation with the Soviet Union …” (Gromyko, 27).

As President Truman took the American reigns of power, he too made some mistakes in his dealings with the Soviets.  By refusing to show even a perception of weakness and taking a tough approach amounting to not-so-subtle threats of power, Truman was forcing the Soviets into a corner.  Stalin had a obvious and historical Russian response to such boldness which all but required the Soviets to put up political barriers if for nothing else than to satisfy Soviet pride.  Suddenly what started out as a promising union of superpowers turned into a war of words and breakdown of communication ready to poison all other American/Russia interactions.

Stalin was an ageing dictator whose political situation was replete with danger and stress.  He was dealing with the loss of 20 million Russians by the end of World War II, a ruined economy, and the perceived struggle with a powerful Western counterpart.  His views had to be tinged with the recent memory of American involvement in the Bolshevism neutralization.  Furthermore, the atomic bombs unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki must have infused fear in his dealings with America.

It was no secret that fears and personality prevented Stalin from being reassured of his nation’s status.  Stalin’s irrational behavior when it came to Western influence was legendary.  George F.  Kennan, the foremost expert on Russian affairs at the time, went as far as to note that,

Nothing short of complete disarmament, delivery of our air and naval forces to Russia and the resigning of the powers of government to American Communists would even dent this problem… and even then Moscow would smell a trap and would continue to harbor the most baleful misgivings.  (Gaddis, 183).

With such hard line beliefs, the United States found themselves in a tough situation with little hope of gaining the trust of the Russian leader and therefore of breaking down the barriers between the two superpowers.

The resulting decision at the time was just to continue to promote capitalism in emerging markets and wait out the current Soviet leadership until a more cooperative regime came to power (Gaddis, 184).

By being such powerful leaders of their respective countries, both Truman and Stalin had an incredible opportunity to initiate a spirit of cooperation that would have trickled down within their political systems.  If they would not have allowed the communication breakdowns to occur and instead had forced their cooperation through their very own example, the results would have been history-changing.  That this did not happen is a failure they both shared.  Truman went as far as to call Stalin “a fine man who wanted to do the right thing” (Blum, 490) but he still feared that any sign of weakness or appeasement would result in Russia asking for even more.  Stalin, facing internal catastrophes listed above, became more and more anti-American as events unfolded.  In 1945 he shipped hundreds of thousands of returning prisoners of war to labor camps because he believed their exposure to Western ideas while incarcerated would somehow corrupt the Communist purity of the Soviet Union (Gaddis, 190).

If the entirety of the Cold War could be mapped as a branching chart of events, the highest order split between the two superpowers would have to be the communication breakdown between Truman and Stalin right from the start.  If that personality-driven fissure could have been mended early, the resulting contentions which bred even more friction could almost surely have been avoided.



If high-level personalities played a big part in the strained American/Russian relations, the ideologies represented almost irreconcilable differences.  By their very nature and by definition, capitalism and communism can almost never co-exist.  But it is not hard to see why each country chose their form of government.  With its millions of square miles of homeland, satellite nations, and population, the Soviet Union had a history of needing cooperative communism to survive.  On the other hand, America has always thrived on the competitive spirit of capitalism to fuel innovation and production.

Many believed that Soviet participation in the Grand Alliance coupled with Stalin’s downplay of communism during the war proved that Russia was ready to convert to a more capitalistic world view.  After all, Stalin had even abolished the Comintern in 1943.  (Gaddis, 177).

But after the war ended and Stalin felt he could fill the power vacuum by absorbing surrounding countries, the natural way to govern those new territories, from the Russian perspective, was by communism.  What set the Soviet states against not only the American government but also the American people was the way in which they achieved their goal.  America wanted its Western influence within the new geo-political landscape also but the big difference, as America and Britain saw it, was that while non-communistic states also felt the need to extend their influence and fill the post-war vacuum, they did so with the will of those countries.  America believed that their Western views could be seen for its merits while Russia imposed its ideology on the states it wanted to own.  The situation only gave credence to latent fears about communism and that Russia wanted to take over the world.  Anti-communists argued that the world was trading one Hitler-style dictator state for another with much more influence politically and militarily.  Even Truman himself publicly announced that Russia was the “one nation [that] has not only refused to cooperate in the establishment of a just and honorable peace but –even worse– have actively sought to prevent it.” (Truman, 265).

To deal with this “threat,” America developed a containment strategy that sought to restore the balance of power in Europe.  The containment strategy originally aimed to restore confidence in individual European powers that would balance out power, in essence keeping everyone in check so as not to let one system dominate.  The way America implemented this idea was with economic aid for the struggling nations and promoting capitalism to counter communistic influences in Europe.

The best both sides could have hoped for is to agree to disagree and try to increase communication, cooperation, and diplomacy.  With two such divergent systems, it is hard to say what could have brought the two to an understanding.  But with a shut down in communication and stubbornness on both sides, mutual hatred festered.  It is ostentatious to believe that Russia should have embraced capitalism just as it would be to say that an American conversion to communism would have aligned the two superpowers.  If the Soviet takeovers of neighboring states could have been accomplished with the will of the people, Russia would not have appeared so predatory.  If America could have been more open to concessions, Russia might not have been so defensive of its tactics.

What emerged was policies on both sides that reflected their own ideologies, independent of the other.  America wanted to infuse money accompanied by capitalistic ideas into the struggling European nations.  Russia simply took over by force.  Under a more cooperative and fair system, a better national tactic at the time would be to offer the nation a choice between the two ideologies and respect their decision.  If communism was as beneficial as the Soviet government believed, a fair choice between two alternatives should not have been a problem.  In this way, the predatory tactics of strong-arming a struggling nation would not ignite the United States and breed mistrust in their true intentions.



There is no doubt about the technological status of each country after World War II.  While much of Europe bore the ravaged scars of battle, not a American blade of grass was scathed as a result of the war, excluding Pearl Harbor of course.  In fact, America emerged with a more advanced industrial plant than when it started while much of the Russian industry was all but destroyed.  (Gaddis, 178).

The biggest technological difference though was the atomic bomb.  The power that now belonged solely in the American arsenal scared the entire world but the opportunity for a monumental cooperation was at hand.  With a temporary advantage in nuclear technology, the United States could have turned a weapon of mass destruction into a trust offering of never before seen proportions.

History has proven that such advancements in technology rarely enjoy a singular master for very long.  America had to know that the Russians would eventually obtain their own nuclear capability and that it was working on it at a fevered pace.  Therefore the advantage of being the sole owner of nuclear weapons had a short lifespan.  As radical as it sounds, America should have helped Russia come up to speed with their nuclear technology.

The fact is that there was going to be an arms race and Russia would eventually get the bomb.  The real advantage to America having the technology first was not a deterrent factor but a bargaining chip to usher in the nuclear age in a spirit of cooperation.  An announcement that the United States would share nuclear technology with Russia at the end of the war in the spirit of cooperation and unity could have sealed a friendship that strengthened and extended the Grand Alliance for decades.

While this might sound ludicrous in view of the Cold War and the nuclear proliferation that so scared generations of Americans and Soviets, it must be remembered that international friction did not begin until the post-war reconstruction period.  Before that, America was allied with Russia and while Russia was licking her wounds, America had a technology that was sure to be developed by the Soviets.  By extending the inevitably obtainable technology to the Russians, a bond could have been created that had a chance to thwart the diplomatic breakdowns seen after the war.

The atomic fig leaf was short lived because, as history has shown, the Soviets did indeed develop their own nuclear program.  Maybe the tactic would not have worked but it could not have worsened the situation.  The Soviets would still posses nuclear weapons and the Cold War would still occur.  Unfortunately, the opportunity to help a struggling Soviet nation and promote a trust that could have altered world events passed and with it, global stability.



There is little doubt that the differences inherent in the United States and Russia at the end of World War II made the continuation of their alliance difficult to maintain after the Axis Powers had been defeated.  Creating such a large European power vacuum, each side had its own motivations for a post-war world fashioned after their respective political beliefs.  The Soviets felt they needed buffer zones to protect their motherland against future attacks.  The Americans wanted to promote Capitalism and open foreign markets while at the same time, balancing out the power in Europe.

During this critical period, two men had the opportunity to lead their nations toward this cooperative coexistence.  Joseph Stalin, the gruff Russian, was a strong leader but had a deep mistrust for Western ideas.  His fears and irrational choices made it difficult for Americans to shake of the stereotype of communism as evil.  Harry Truman, the normally astute leader of the United States, chose to assert himself to the Russians in such a bold manner that friction was almost guaranteed.  The two personalities, or more importantly the clashes between them, filtered down the entire chain of command and suddenly communication between the two nations became strained.  A more asserted effort to cooperate by the leaders would have most certainly went a long way to set an example and spirit of cooperation between the two superpowers they represented.

What the two sides needed at the time was a common focus and an instrument to base their cooperation upon.  Cutting through their personal and ideological differences, a technological solution was at hand to bridge the widening gulf between them.  If Truman could have approached Stalin with the nuclear bomb information, even the cold Russian mistrust may have melted away.  The dividends realized for such an unprecedented act would have reverberated through the two countries for decades.  Building on that initial offering of trust and understanding, other differences could have been worked out in a frank and honest manner which would mitigate many of the setbacks between the two countries that are currently part of our history.  The Grand Alliance could have continued and the resulting world would have never known of the term “Cold War.”


1.  Blum, John M. The Price of Vision: The Diary of Henry A. Wallace 1942-1946, Houghton Mifflin: Boston, 1973.

2.  Gaddis, John L. Russia, the Soviet Union, and the United States: An interpretive History, McGraw-Hill: New York, 1990.

3.  Gromyko, A.A. and Ponomarev B.N. Soviet Foreign Policy 1917-1980, Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1981.

4. Truman Press Conference, June 5, 1947, Truman Public Papers, 1947.

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