Why did the USA and USSR become rivals in the period 1945-1949?

AQA Modern World History GCSE revision notes based on the syllabus.

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The East-West ideological gap

  • The main difference between the East and West were their ideals.
  • The East was Communist, whereas the West was capitalist.
  • The Communist idea was that, in theory, everyone should be equal, whereas, the Capitalist states wanted people to work for their own wealth and 'dig themselves out of their own hole'.
  • These two extremes were divided by government, human rights, social, economic and cultural differences. An example of this was that media was censored in Communist states - no other parties were welcomed. However, the West believed in freedom of speech for all its people.
  • The Iron Curtain was a term coined by Winston Churchill to describe the division which had fallen by 1946 between the Communist East and the West.
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The Yalta Conference (February 1945)

  • The three leaders at Yalta (Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin), agreed that Germany should be disarmed and split into four zones (American, British, French and Russian). Berlin was to be divided in the same way.
  • Germany would have to pay reparations mainly to Russia.
  • At Yalta, there was a feeling that there was a mutual disliking between Churchill and Stalin, but they held the conference in order to attain both European and World peace.
  • The leaders also put their political differences aside, because they wanted to better the world, although there may have been ulterior motives, e.g. Stalin on Greece.
  • Stalin wanted to increase Russian land and he wanted to stop any more anti-Russian zones from being set-up.
  • Roosevelt wanted to make peace and split-up Germany.
  • Churchill's main concern was Communism, especially the rise in Russian power.
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The Potsdam Conference (August 1945)

  • The first problem faced by the Big Three at Potsdam was that Stalin's armies were occupying most of eastern Europe. Stalin's troops controlled the Baltic states, and he set up a Communist government in Poland. Stalin defended himself by insisting that his control of eastern Europe was merely defensive.
  • The second problem was that America had a new president, which meant that negotiations would be harder because of Truman's radical anti-Communist views.
  • The last problem was that the USA had tested an atomic bomb on 16th July 1945.
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Soviet expansion into Central and Eastern Europe

East Germany

The Allies had given the USSR control of the Eastern sector of Germany. It was run by the USSR effectively under Red Army control until the creation of the German Democratic Republic in 1949.

The rest of Eastern Europe

  • By 1948, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Albania and Bulgaria all had pro-Soviet Communist governments in control – effectively, Stalin ruled Eastern Europe too.
  • Yugoslavia also had a Communist government, led by Josip Tito - but it wasn’t pro-soviet, so Stalin opposed Tito’s power.
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The Truman Doctrine and Marshall Aid

  • The Truman Doctrine said that the USA would send aid to any country they felt was in danger from Communism - Communism would not be allowed to spread any further; this became known as containment.
  • Truman also believed that people were more likely to turn to Communism if they were poor and hungry. So he sent General George Marshall to investigate the state of the European economies. On his advice, Truman planned to donate $17 billion of Marshall Aid to rebuilding Europe.
  • Stalin, feeling that Marshall aid was an American attempt to dominate Europe, refused to allow eastern European states to benefit from it.
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The Berlin Blockade and Airlift

  • Stalin feared the possible economic recovery of Germany and wanted to keep it crippled.
  • In 1946, the Allied powers combined their zones to form one zone known as West Germany. In 1948, currency was reformed and there were signs of economic recovery in Germany.
  • In 1948, Stalin blocked all supply lines, cutting off the two million people in West Germany. He believed that this would force the Allies from Berlin and then he could make Berlin totally dependant on the USSR.
  • This put the USA in an awkward position because if they tried to ram the road or railway blocks, Stalin could see this as an ast of war.
  • The Allies got around the blockade by air-lifting supplies into Berlin. The USSR could have shot down these planes, but they chose not to because it could have been seen as an act of war.
  • Stalin reopened communications in May 1949 because he knew that the Allies would not give up.
  • The Berlin blockade set up hostile relations between the East and the West. They became even more suspicious of each other. On the other hand, the Berlin blockade showed that the two were not ready to go to war with each other.
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