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The "Iron Curtain"

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The uneasy wartime alliance between the United States and Britain on the one hand and the Soviet Union on the other began to unravel soon after the surrender of Nazi Germany. Western leaders were seriously concerned about the USSR’s growing influence in the postwar world. The Soviet victory over a fascist capitalist state served to enhance the international appeal of the Communist ideology. The Americans and the British feared the Soviet domination of eastern Europe and the threat of Soviet-influenced Communist parties coming to power in the democracies of Western Europe. Less than a year after their grand common victory, the Allied powers found themselves on the opposite sides of an “iron curtain,” to use the famous phrase coined by the former British prime minister Winston Churchill in his speech made in Fulton, Missouri, in March 1946:  

The Iron Curtain. Map: 

A shadow has fallen upon the scenes so lately lighted by the Allied victory. . . . I have a strong admiration and regard for the valiant Russian people and for my wartime comrade, Marshal Stalin. . . . It is my duty, however, . . . to place before you certain facts about the present position in Europe.

From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe . . . subject in one form or another . . . to a very high . . . measure of control from Moscow. . . . [T]his is certainly not the liberated Europe we fought to build up.

The Soviets were determined to maintain control of eastern Europe to safeguard against any possible renewed threat from Germany, and also for the ideological reasons of spreading communism worldwide. By 1948 local Communists, directly or indirectly supported by Soviet bayonets, took power in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Albania.

Soviet expansion into eastern Europe led to counteractions by the Western powers designed to curb any further enlargement of the Soviet sphere of influence and the spread of the Communist ideology. These included the Truman Doctrine of containment of Soviet expansion proclaimed in March 1947 by U.S. President Harry S. Truman and the offer in June of that year by U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall of a recovery program to Europe. Containment of communism was enforced by setting up a network of U.S. military bases close to the USSR’s borders in Greece and Turkey and by support of anti-Soviet elements in the Soviet bloc countries.

The Americans also sought to establish a military-political alliance of Western nations under their leadership. This was successfully achieved in 1949 with the setting up of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as a unified military command to resist the Soviet presence in Europe. The political and military integration of the West was facilitated by the massive economic assistance provided to Western Europe under the Marshall Plan. It helped to integrate those countries’ economies with the United States’ economy, thus bringing Western Europe under American influence.



Moscow interpreted the American strategy of containment as part of a master plan to encircle and subjugate the Soviet Union and responded by measures designed to consolidate the alliance of the socialist bloc countries. In 1949 it set up the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon), charged with coordinating economic assistance to Communist regimes. In 1955 several Comecon countries established a military-political alliance—the Warsaw Pact—to counterbalance NATO.

However, the USSR did not possess economic muscle to enable it to compete on equal terms with its powerful trans-Atlantic antagonist. The world war had opposite effects on the economies of the two countries: the Soviet economy was exhausted, whereas the American economy was revitalized. Despite its relative economic weakness in comparison to the United States, the USSR scored some success in projecting its global influence through its support of foreign Communist parties, including those in Western countries. Moscow also backed national-liberation movements in the third world, where the collapse of European overseas colonies often led to the emergence of countries of “socialist orientation.” Finally, Moscow did not refrain from using armed force to suppress antisocialist risings in some of the Soviet bloc countries.

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