To what extent was the United States responsible for the collapse of the Grand Alliance at the end of the Second World War?

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Academic Research Task – To what extent was the United States responsible for the collapse of the Grand Alliance at the end of the Second World War?

The Grand Alliance was the term given to the co-operative mutual assistance relationship between the western powers, especially the United States and Britain, and the Soviet Union, which was formed to engineer the defeat of Nazi Germany in the Second World War.  For the duration of the conflict, relations between these nations were fairly good: the Americans supplied billions of dollars’ worth of war material to the USSR under the Lend-Lease arrangement (though with little enthusiasm: the first shipments did not arrive until late 1942), the Allies made attempts to co-ordinate their military activity, and all were agreed on the common understanding that defeating Hitler’s Germany was essential for world peace and international security.  Propaganda photographs of American and Soviet troops exchanging handshakes over the ruins of a defeated Third Reich gave every impression that the era of antipathy and hatred between nations was over, and that a new order of peace and prosperity would be built on the back of a crushed swastika.  In reality however, by the end of the war the alliance was falling apart.  Even before Germany had been defeated, major chasms were opening between the allied powers, and after the war concluded these divisions only widened.  The exact date by which the alliance had totally collapsed can be disputed, but it would be uncontroversial to assert that this date can fall no later than the end of the Berlin blockade in May 1949.  All semblances of co-operation disappeared, and the world was plunged into a four decade-long confrontation of nuclear proportions, the Cold War.

It has been argued that the actions of the United States were primarily responsible for the alliance’s collapse, that the foreign economic policy of America after 1945 represented an attempt to expand its influence into the already-agreed-upon Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe, or certainly nothing less ambitious than a drive to revitalise west European economies, the better to use them as allies and buffers in a showdown with communism.  The Marshall Plan refers to the economic initiative launched by the United States on June 5th, 1947, to assist European economies in recovering from the devastation of World War Two.  Though the sums of money involved fell short of the $17bn which the Truman administration had initially requested, the amount of aid given between 1948-52 eventually amounted to over $13bn, around 1.3% of total US economic output during the same period.  After some flirtations with accepting Marshall dollars from the Americans, Soviet authorities rejected the assistance both for themselves and their satellite regimes in what Arthur Schlesinger calls the “point of no return” for US-Soviet relations during the postwar period, in July 1947.  Undoubtedly the plan had a political motivation as well as an economic and compassionate one: concerns were rife that if west European countries, especially France and Italy, were allowed to collapse in the aftermath of the war, then communist parties within those countries would win support and possibly even general elections (see below); the Marshall plan was in part intended to end the social discontent on which communist theory thrives, and also to demonstrate to Europeans the ability of capitalism to satisfy their basic needs.  The United States was fairly open about this aim: General Marshall himself stated that one of the goals of the initiative was, “the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist”.  The Soviets believed that the Americans intended to undermine the USSR’s attempts to construct centrally planned economies in eastern Europe, or, in the event that they were refused access to these countries, to build up western Europe as a strong opponent of communism.  Soviet spokesperson at the UN Andrei Vyshinsky spoke for the Stalin regime when he told the assembled diplomats: “[T]his plan is an attempt to split Europe into two camps…, to complete the formation of a bloc of several European countries hostile to the interests of the democratic countries of Eastern Europe and most particularly to the interests of the Soviet Union.” (italics original).  Some historians since have been sympathetic to this view; W.A. Williams argues that the postwar atmosphere degenerated into hostility in large part because of American insistence on an “open-door policy” of total free trade between nations, rather than, “offer[ing] the Soviet Union a settlement based on other, less grandiose, terms”.  However, this argument is predicated on the assumption that eastern Europe was already in economic isolation from the west, whereas in fact this was a state of affairs forcibly created by the USSR.  Therefore, if the Marshall Plan did increase postwar tensions this was only because of the actions already taken by the Soviet Union; without communist domination of east Europe, a plan to revive shattered economies in former warzones would not have had the degenerative effect on international relations which it evidently did have.  In this sense, the Marshall Plan was a response to the Soviet aggression which had caused Cold War tensions to increase, rather than an ipso facto cause of antipathy itself.

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There are other examples given of where the west was responsible for an increase in superpower hostility following 1945 however.  One episode deserves special mention: US interference in the Italian general election of 1948.  American and British officials were concerned that in the war-ravaged countries of France and Italy, economic hardship might result in communist parties coming to power through free elections; by 1946 such organisations already seemed poised to become the largest single political forces within those countries.  These worries quickly disappeared in the case of France, but when an election was scheduled for April 18th 1948 in Italy, the ...

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