The Day the Cold War Started
On May 7, 1945, at General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s headquarters at Rheims in France, Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Allies, formally ending almost six years of war in Europe. It took less than a year, three seasons only, for the Grand Alliance of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union to fall apart, and with it, lasting hopes of a peaceful international order. In that time the Soviets had swallowed much of Eastern Europe, and the West was beginning to accept, however reluctantly, the inevitability of a divided continent. The Soviets were also occupying northern Iran and were threatening to extend their influence, if not their outright domination, to the Persian Gulf. But as the year 1946 began, no country felt the menace of Soviet expansionist pressure more than Turkey. The Russians were asking—demanding, rather—to be allowed to establish naval and army bases in the Bosporus and Dardanelles. Would control of the eastern end of the Mediterranean be next? Soviet troops began to mass on the borders with Turkey.
As early as January 5, 1946, the new American president, Harry S. Truman, worried out loud to his secretary of state, James Byrnes, that the Soviets intended to invade Turkey. “Unless Russia is faced with an iron fist and strong language,” Truman said, “another war is in the making.” Then he added (and remember, this was a time when the American armed forces were demobilizing thousands of men each day), “Only one language do they understand—‘How many divisions have you?’” A month later, the Soviet ruler, Joseph Stalin, gave a speech announcing a new five-year plan. He went on to attack capitalism and to remark threateningly that his nation should be prepared for “all kinds of eventualities.” Back in Washington, Justice William O. Douglas remarked to the secretary of the navy, James Forrestal, that Stalin’s speech sounded like “the declaration of World War III.”
The gloves were off. The former British prime minister, Winston Churchill, spoke at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, on March 5; Truman introduced him. “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic,” Churchill said, “an Iron Curtain has descended across the Continent.” His words were not a call for war—not yet—but a counsel of preparedness. The time had come to check Soviet expansionism. “From what I have seen of our Russian friends and allies during the war, I am convinced that there is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness, especially military weakness.” Stalin could not let the Fulton speech go without a public comment: “Mr. Churchill is now in the position of a firebrand of war.”
Truman’s January 5 outburst, Stalin’s February broadside, or Churchill’s Missouri warning: One might pick any number of symbolic days when the ideological and military struggle that was to consume the world for the next forty-five years began. James Chace, the biographer of Dean Acheson, argues that the pride of date belongs to August 19, 1946. That was the day when the Truman administration publicly rejected Stalin’s call for joint Soviet-Turkish defense of the Straits—and backed up its words by dispatching a naval task force to Istanbul. For the first time (and not for the last), the United States had proclaimed to the Soviets that, to protect its interests, it was not afraid to resort to arms.
JAMES CHACE, who died in the fall of 2004, was a distinguished historian, foreign policy analyst, editor, and teacher. He is best known for his biography, Dean Acheson: The Secretary of State Who Created the American World, as well as several books on international affairs, including Solvency, America Invulnerable (with Caleb Carr), The Consequences of the Peace, and a memoir, What We Had. His final book was 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs—the Election That Changed the Country. The former managing editor of Foreign Affairs and editor in chief of World Policy Journal, Chace was the Henry Luce Professor in Freedom of Inquiry and Expression at Bard College.
From the Hardcover edition.