When the World Went Cold

Just two years after victory in the most murderous war in history, the divisions between the Soviet Union and the Western powers became unbridgeable. 

Berliners on the outskirts of Tempelhof Airfield during the airlift, July 1948.

By the time the foreign ministers of the four victorious powers met in Moscow in March 1947, there was no doubt about the fragile state of the wartime alliance. That month President Truman proclaimed the doctrine, which bore his name, of a global US anti-Communist ideology. How the world had changed since his predecessor massaged hopes of using Rooseveltian charm and wiles to reach a postwar modus vivendi with Stalin. If enmity was inevitable, the final transition from the alliance against the Axis powers to the Cold War was a slow process in which each side advanced step by step towards a reality that would define East-West relations for four decades.

A postwar collaboration was always unlikely, given the differences, apparent since the Tehran summit of 1943, between the Soviet Union and the West. Still, the allies continued their discussions even as they went round and round the same set of disagreements on the future of Germany and the reparations demanded by the Kremlin.

By the time the Moscow conference ended in late April, the British Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, was so relieved that he danced a jig on the station platform before boarding his train home. Seven months later, he was back at the table, as host for the sixth conference of the Soviet Union, the US, UK and France, convened in ‘an atmosphere of unrelieved gloom’ in London’s Lancaster House. In keeping with the winter weather, the proceedings went from bad to worse, with a dialogue of the deaf between, on the one side, US Secretary of State George Marshall, Bevin and the French Foreign Minister, Georges Bidault and, on the other, Vyacheslav Molotov – known as ‘iron arse’ for his endurance at meetings. After yet another fruitless exchange on 16 December, the Western delegations proposed a suspension of discussions. ‘Any suggestions as to time or place of the next meeting?’ Bevin asked. There was silence.

‘The breakdown of the conference has exposed in all its grimness, the cleavage in Europe,’ The Times commented. From Moscow, the TASS news agency warned of the ‘provocative intention’ of the Western powers to saddle the Soviet Union with blame. Fears of Soviet expansion were overdone: Stalin was essentially content with the deep security zone he had achieved in Central and Eastern Europe at the end of the war. He was ready to respect Western interests, in Greece, for example. But he was intent on keeping his sphere of influence under firm control, establishing the Cominform to impose discipline and ordering a boycott of the Marshall Plan, forcing Czechoslovakia to reverse its original decision to accept US aid.

At Stalin’s behest, the main Romanian opposition group, the National Peasants Party, was banned and its two leaders sentenced to hard labour. In Bulgaria, 39 military officers, including a general known as the ‘liberator of Sofia’, were jailed after being accused of seeking to overthrow the state. The Polish parliament declared Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, who had led the largest party and been wartime premier-in-exile, a traitor; he had fled the country earlier in the year and was now banished for life. Hungarian Communists attacked independent political movements and increased pressure on the Catholic Cardinal Mindszenty. In Czechoslovakia, which retained democratic institutions, the Communists, who had topped the poll in the 1946 general election with 38 per cent of the vote, used their control of the internal security services against other parties and launched a series of spy trials.

Making plans

Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Albania, Hungary and Romania signed treaties of friendship and mutual aid and joined the Council for Economic Mutual Assistance, known as the ‘Molotov Plan’, which was designed to counter the $17 billion initiative for the revival of Western Europe launched by Marshall and Truman that, at the president’s insistence, bore the Secretary of State’s name. French Communists staged a wave of strikes while their comrades in Italy geared up for a general election showdown with the ruling Christian Democrats. In Europe’s one ‘hot war’, in Greece, the Communist-led Democratic Army staged attacks in the mountains near the Albanian border.

After the failure of the London conference, Bevin saw the need for an association of the US, UK, France, Italy, the Benelux countries and the British Dominions, which, he told Marshall, should form ‘a sort of spiritual federation of the West, backed by power, money and resolute action’. More immediately, after the breakdown of the ministerial conference, the two men discussed schemes for German political and economic reform, to which the Soviets were not invited. On his return from the London conference, the US military governor of occupied Germany, Lucius Clay, halted reparations deliveries to the Soviets from the American occupation zone.


Heightened concerns

The Communist putsch in Czechoslovakia in February 1948, which used the party’s muscle and the disarray of its opponents to impose one-party dictatorship, heightened concern in Washington about Europe, dramatised further by the mysterious death the following month of the non-Communist Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk. Under-Secretary of State Robert Lovett warned that the coup was ‘only one more guidepost on the road to war’. ‘Where next?’ asked the headline to a map of Europe published on the front page of the Washington Post, with arrows pointing at France, Italy, Austria and Finland. Watching messages flowing into the State Department on the situation in Berlin, with its four Allied zones inside Soviet-controlled territory, Lovett noted that the city was becoming ‘hotter than a firecracker’, as the Red Army asserted its authority by interfering with transport links.

The administration proposed a $3 billion increase in the military budget and decided on a rapid build-up of the atomic arsenal; a report was commissioned on how long it would take to transport atom bombs to the Mediterranean. Senior State Department officials and West European diplomats discussed a joint defence structure to build on the five-nation agreement. (Moscow was kept informed by a participant from the British embassy, the spy Donald Maclean.) A Foreign Office memorandum recorded Bevin’s feeling that the Soviets intended to do all they could to wreck the European Recovery Program, as the Marshall Plan was formally known, ‘but without pushing things to the extreme of war. The danger, of course, is that they may miscalculate and involve themselves in a situation from which they cannot retreat’.

While the West worried about Soviet intentions, Stalin had troubles of his own. Yugoslavia had been regarded as a model Soviet partner, but its leader, Josip Broz Tito, had always been an exception in the ranks of East European leaders. He had led the partisans to victory in the war without the aid of the Red Army and had a strong nationalist base, with half a million party members. Tito was unlike other Communist leaders, who had spent the war years in Moscow and lacked wide or deep backing when liberation from the Nazis came. There had been signs of strain in relations with the Kremlin during the war; Tito remembered that the atmosphere had been ‘very cool’ at his first meeting with Stalin in Moscow in 1945.

The Soviet state system was the opposite of the bottom-up ‘People’s Front’, which the Yugoslavs favoured (even if it was, in practice, also based on a strong central authority with an active police presence). The leadership in Belgrade disliked the way economic agreements were tilted to benefit the Soviets and resented attempts by their agents to recruit associates in the government, the Communist Party and the political police. Stalin was irked by Tito’s efforts to assert regional leadership in the Balkans, his aid to the Greek rebels and, most of all, by the stature the Yugoslav leader enjoyed in what was meant to be a unified camp subservient to Moscow.

Stalin exerts authority

In early 1948 Stalin decided it was time to exert his authority. A Yugoslav delegation was summoned to Moscow for a meeting also attended by the Bulgarian leader, Georgi Dimitrov, who had suggested the formation of a federation of Balkan and Danubian states. Stalin crushed any such idea and forced the Yugoslavs to sign an agreement to consult with Moscow on foreign policy matters. He had decided, Molotov recalled, that Tito was ‘a nationalist … infected with the bourgeois spirit … an opponent of Socialism’: a man who had to be brought to heel. The Soviet aim was to force the Yugoslavs ‘down to the level of the occupied East European countries’, concluded Milovan Djilas, a member of the Yugoslav delegation.

The two countries engaged in a series of tit-for-tat measures as Stalin criticised Yugoslavia’s behaviour and repeated his call for an end to the rebellion in Greece. Belgrade recalled its ambassadors to the Soviet Union and its allies, and closed frontier zones. Military spending was increased. Moscow suspended trade negotiations and withdrew military and civilian advisers. ‘We are amazed, we cannot understand, and we are deeply hurt’, Tito responded in a message to the Kremlin, insisting that he and other members of the leadership had always been cooperative. An eight-page reply from Moscow delivered to Tito in Zagreb was uncompromising. ‘We regard your answer as incorrect and therefore completely unsatisfactory’, it began, before accusing the Yugoslavs of having been ‘hoodwinked by the degenerate and opportunist theory of the peaceful absorption of capitalist elements’ associated with Trotsky and other ideological renegades. Tito recalled that, reading its opening lines, he felt ‘as if a thunderbolt had struck me’. His rebuttal brought a 10,000-word message from Moscow in early May, dismissing the Yugoslavs as ‘childish, bourgeois, groundless, laughable and lacking honest intent’. When the Yugoslavs insisted that they intended to ‘resolutely construct socialism and remain loyal to the Soviet Union, loyal to the doctrines of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin’, they were told they had ‘gone a step further in aggravating their crude mistakes of principle [and] cut themselves off from the united Socialist peoples’ front’. On 27 May, Tito’s 56th birthday, Stalin sent no greeting.

The following day, a 15-hour meeting between Soviet and Western military delegates in Berlin dragged on until 1am. It underlined the growing tension in the former German capital. The senior British general accused the Russians of ‘sheer effrontery’ and added that he ‘would like to warn the Soviet commander that he is not the dictator of Berlin’. Pravda sounded off against ‘the aggressive plans of the instigators of a new war’. The Russians put off one four-power meeting and stormed out of another. The previous month, 15 people had died in a collision between a British Viking airliner and a Soviet Yak-3 fighter that flew dangerously close to it as it came into land at Berlin’s Gatow airfield. Red Army troops blocked road and railways links. Soviet representatives walked out of the Allied Control Commission in protest at plans by the US and UK to set up a devolved political authority in their occupation zones without consulting Moscow. Western plans to introduce a new currency and an economic reform programme raised the temperature further.

In Washington, Chief of Staff Omar Bradley warned of ‘an alarming menace to the security of the United States’ in the form of four million Soviet troops and 14,000 military aircraft ‘capable of quickly over-running most of Europe, the Near and Middle East, Korea and even China’. At the Labour Party’s annual conference, Bevin said Britain was ‘not prepared to sit idly by and see a … process of communisation carried on over a weakened, distracted and disunited Europe’. But he was also frank about the inability of the West to influence the Soviet Union: ‘We cannot pursue, and we have no intention of pursuing a policy in Eastern Europe of trying to change by force many of the things done in those states with which we do not agree. Those things will have to be worked out in the process of time.’

Losing patience at a late-night meeting of the four-power Kommandatura in Berlin on 17 June, the chief US delegate jumped to his feet and said he was going home to bed, prompting the head of the Soviet team to announce that, in that case, the joint body was at an end. The French general chairing the meeting pointed out that no date had been agreed for the next session. ‘As far as I am concerned, there won’t be a next meeting’, the Russian said over his shoulder on his way to the door.

New money

The next day, the Americans, British and French announced the implementation, for the following weekend, of currency reform in their occupied zones; one new deutschmark would be issued for ten old reichsmarks. The notes had been flown in secretly in boxes labelled ‘doorknobs’ and kept in storage in the old Reichsbank building in Frankfurt. Denouncing the move, the Soviets declared the new currency invalid in Greater Berlin, implying that the city belonged to them. Possession of deutschmarks would be a criminal offence, they added, as they enforced new transport restrictions and printed their own currency.

Clay was called to Washington to meet Truman, Marshall and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The US commander expressed confidence that the Western powers could stay in Berlin indefinitely without war. To meet the threat of a Soviet blockade, the meeting agreed to his request for 160 C-54 transport planes. There were food stocks for 36 days and coal for 45 for the 2.25 million Germans in the US, British and French zones of the city. Though these had been built up in anticipation of a crisis, they would be insufficient if the city was isolated for any considerable period. The price of coffee, bread and cigarettes rose as provisions dwindled and the Soviets cut coal supplies. The American reporter John Gunther found Berlin ‘like a horrible dream after the world has stopped’. The city, he wrote:

looks like death warmed over … old men in grimy overcoats worn to the stump peering enviously into cheap jewelry shops … withered and brutalised old women walking the streets and surreptitiously trying to sell chocolate bars which they sometimes get in lieu of wages; bleak auction stalls at street corners … in a food shop, salted meat from Mexico sold by the gramme out of a dirty open can.

Challenge of the Red Army

Behind the immediate supply challenge loomed the issue of whether the West could sustain a stand if its 6,500 troops in the city were attacked by the far superior forces of the Red Army. The calculation in Washington, London and Paris was that Stalin was testing the willpower of his former allies and would not let confrontation spill over into war. The people of the Western Sectors showed their determination by voting to accept the new currency and reject that introduced by the Soviets to their part of the city.

The Soviet commander rang Molotov to ask if he should take military action; he was told no, for fear of provoking an armed response. Instead, the decision was to enforce a complete blockade. All rail, road and water links between Berlin and West Germany were cut on 24 June, together with electricity from power stations in the east of the city. Around 80,000 people demonstrated in the Western section in support of the vote taken the previous night.

Clay had thought of sending in armed supply convoys, but the idea was rejected as too dangerous. He telephoned Curtis LeMay, the cigar-chomping commander of the US Air Force in Europe, to ask if he had planes that could carry coal.

‘Carry what?’ a surprised LeMay asked.

‘Coal,’ Clay repeated.

‘General, the air force can carry anything,’ LeMay replied. ‘How much coal do you want us to haul?’

Clay outlined the need for a supply bridge to Berlin and LeMay agreed to make transport planes available. The first arrived the following day. In a teleconference with Washington, Clay said he did not expect war. ‘Principal danger is from Russian-planned German Communist groups’, he added. ‘Conditions are tense … our troops and the British are in hand and can be trusted. We both realise the desire of our governments to avoid armed conflict. Nevertheless … a firm position always induces some risk.’ He stressed the need to maintain the confidence of West Berliners, concluding: ‘If the Soviets want war, it will not be because of [the] Berlin currency issue but because they believe this is the right time. I regard the probability as remote, though it cannot be disregarded entirely. Certainly we are not trying to provoke war. We are taking a lot of punches on the chin without striking back.’

Europe freezes over

As the Berlin crisis grew, the Cominform met in Bucharest: Yugoslavia was not represented. ‘We possess information that Tito is an imperialist spy’, the Soviet enforcer Andrei Zhdanov announced. From Moscow, Stalin decreed that the Yugoslav leader had flouted the ‘unified communist front’ and embraced nationalism. A resolution was adopted expelling the Yugoslav party. Parties in Eastern Europe further tightened their grip as ‘Titoism’ joined ‘Trotskyism’ among the heresies to be tracked down and purged in a rash of show trials in the following years.

Unbowed, the Yugoslav Central Committee published the Cominform resolution and its reply rejecting the charges against it. Mass arrests were staged of people suspected of sympathising with Moscow, many of them innocent. Speaking to a Party Congress that gave him overwhelming backing, Tito promised to accelerate the implementation of socialism. ‘Comrades, I warn you we are in a difficult situation, in a trying time’, he declared. ‘Our party is faced with a hard test; if only we maintain profound vigilance, unity and firmness, if only we do not lose our nerve, our victory will be certain.’ Then, reflecting the faith in the Man of Steel in Moscow felt by Communists of the era, he ended by calling out, ‘Long live the Soviet Union! Long live Stalin!’

As the Berlin crisis escalated, Bevin was on a friend’s yacht in the Solent. Returning to London, he reacted to a pessimistic report about the supply outlook by setting up a special committee under his leadership to deal with the problem, coordinating closely with the US. For Bevin, the confrontation was an ideal opportunity to reinforce transatlantic cooperation. He could only be reassured by Truman’s reaction; the president directed the airlift to resist what he saw as ‘international Communism’s counter-attack’ after reverses such as the victory of the Christian Democrat-Socialist coalition over the French strikes and the defeat of the Communists and their allies in the general election in Italy in April.

‘We are going to stay. Period’, Truman told a White House meeting. ‘The Russians have no right to get us out by either direct or indirect pressure.’

The blockade served to reinforce the unity of the Western allies. ‘If the intention is to make trouble for us in Berlin, H.M. Government cannot submit to that’, Bevin told the House of Commons. ‘We recognise that as a result of these decisions a grave situation might arise … H.M. Government and our Western allies can see no alternative between that and surrender – and none of us can accept surrender.’

‘The sound of aircraft can be heard day and night and the orderly unending procession of Dakotas and Skymasters is visible and audible proof of the Western allies’ determination to do their best,’ a British correspondent reported. ‘Today and yesterday the sight has done more to raise Berliners’ morale than the most rousing proclamation could ever have done.’

The airlift would last until 12 May 1949, the day after the Soviet blockade was lifted. By then, the Marshall Plan was pouring resources into the rebuilding of Western Europe. Stalin had suffered a major reversal and the Cold War was set in the shape it would assume for the following four decades, complete with the heretic in Belgrade.

Jonathan Fenby’s Crucible: Thirteen Months that Forged Our World will be published in paperback by Simon & Schuster in July.