Summary: Diplomacy by Kissinger – Chapter 17 – The Beginning of the Cold War

Diplomacy by Henry Kissinger. Book cover detail.

In 1994, Henry Kissinger published the book Diplomacy. He was a renowned scholar and diplomat who served as the United States National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. His book provides an extensive sweep of the history of foreign affairs and the art of diplomacy, with a particular focus on the 20th century and the Western World. Kissinger, known for his alignment with the realist school of international relations, inquires into the concepts of the balance of power, raison d’État, and Realpolitik across different eras.

His work has been widely praised for its scope and intricate detail. Yet, it has also faced criticism for its focus on individuals over structural forces, and for presenting a reductive view of history. Also, critics have also pointed out that the book focuses excessively on Kissinger’s individual role in events, potentially overstating his impact. In any case, his ideas are worthy of consideration.

This article presents a summary of Kissinger’s ideas in the seventeenth chapter of his book, called “The Beginning of the Cold War”.

You can find all available summaries of this book, or you can read the summary from the previous chapter of the book, by clicking these links.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, similar to the biblical Moses, had seen a vision of a brighter future he would not live to experience. At his death in 1945, the Allies were deeply engaged in Europe and about to intensify their efforts in the Pacific. Although Roosevelt’s demise was anticipated due to his declining health, it marked a pivotal moment in World War II. His doctors had warned him of the grave risk posed by his role’s inherent stress, effectively sealing his fate.

Roosevelt’s passing stirred brief, unrealistic hopes among Hitler and Goebbels for a miraculous turnaround similar to an 18th-century event where Russia’s sudden leadership change saved Prussia. Yet, 1945 was different; the Allies were united firmly against the atrocities of Nazism, pushing towards the total defeat of Nazi Germany. This unity, however, began to fray post-war as conflicting national interests emerged. Churchill, Stalin, and Truman, Roosevelt’s successor, each had different visions for post-war Europe, straining the alliance.

Harry S. Truman, a stark contrast to Roosevelt in background and temperament, assumed the presidency. Coming from a modest upbringing in the Midwest and lacking Roosevelt’s elite education and preparation for office, Truman was an unlikely candidate for the presidency, thrust into leadership at a critical time. He inherited complex international challenges and diverging wartime alliances. Truman’s administration marked the onset of the Cold War, and his foreign policies, including the Marshall Plan and the Point Four Program, shaped American international engagement for decades.

In a personal anecdote from 1961, the author recalls meeting Truman, whose simple yet profound views on presidential power and foreign policy left a lasting impression. Truman’s forthright demeanor and unwavering belief in America’s role as a beacon of democracy underscored his legacy. He believed fervently in America’s unique ability to help nations transition to democratic governance post-war.

Truman’s presidency was shadowed by Roosevelt’s larger-than-life image and the deep-seated ideologies of the era. His approach to Soviet relations was pragmatic, yet strained by ideological and strategic differences. Truman’s initial attempts to maintain Allied unity soon gave way to a more confrontational stance towards the Soviet Union, laying the groundwork for the enduring geopolitical conflict of the Cold War. His administration navigated the transformation of global power structures, striving to establish a new world order based on collective security and mutual respect among nations, a vision he articulated with conviction in his early speeches as president.

Despite the idealistic language often used in diplomatic discourse, the reality of geopolitics heavily influenced the actions on the ground during this period. Stalin reverted to his traditional approach of foreign policy, prioritizing territorial gains as essential compensation for Soviet sacrifices during the war. He was open to negotiations, but only under conditions that would guarantee tangible benefits for the Soviet Union. The concept of international cooperation based on goodwill was alien to Stalin, who viewed international relations through a pragmatic and often cynical lens.

The West, particularly the United States, found it challenging to understand Stalin’s indifference to the principles of freedom and democracy, especially in Eastern Europe. American leaders, influenced by a moral and legalistic approach to foreign policy, struggled to grasp why Stalin was so dismissive of these values, assuming instead that his actions were driven by hidden agendas. Stalin, for his part, saw the American stance as naive and possibly deceptive, focusing on the strategic importance of countries like Poland for Soviet security rather than any ideological commitment.

In his interactions with the Allies, Stalin exhibited the same defiant attitude he had shown towards Hitler before the war. Despite the Soviet Union’s severe losses during the war, Stalin did not feel compelled to make concessions, instead opting to solidify his gains and challenge the Allies to respond. This stance eventually contributed to the deterioration of relations with the United States and the onset of the Cold War.

Churchill was acutely aware of Stalin’s tactics and attempted to counteract them by proposing a summit and suggesting that the Allies consolidate their positions in Europe as leverage in negotiations. He believed that by controlling significant territories, particularly in Germany, the Allies could influence Soviet actions in Eastern Europe. However, the American approach under Truman was less receptive to such strategies of power politics, favoring a more principled stance that echoed Roosevelt’s policies.

The Truman administration’s decision to adhere to prearranged boundaries in Germany, withdrawing to the agreed lines despite Churchill’s protests, exemplified a continued American commitment to a diplomatic approach over Realpolitik. This decision underscored a fundamental shift in American foreign policy from the balance-of-power tactics of the past to a focus on establishing a stable post-war order through cooperation and negotiation, even as it frustrated British attempts to exert more direct pressure on the Soviet Union.

As the Potsdam Conference approached, the dynamics within the Allied leadership became even more complicated. Truman was willing to meet Stalin without Churchill, striving to establish a direct dialogue and possibly mediate between the conflicting interests of Britain and the Soviet Union. This move, however, was met with resistance from Churchill, who was keen on maintaining a unified Allied front in negotiations with Stalin. The inter-Allied negotiations and strategies during this period reflected the shifting power dynamics and the emerging new order in post-war Europe.

Harry Hopkins, a trusted advisor to Roosevelt, was sent to Moscow, while Joseph E. Davies, known for his sympathetic views towards the Soviet Union, was dispatched to London to meet Churchill. Davies, despite being an investment banker, had written a book that echoed Soviet perspectives, and his diplomatic style was more about conveying Soviet viewpoints than understanding British concerns. During his meeting with Churchill, Davies downplayed the fears about Soviet intentions in Central Europe, suggesting instead that Churchill’s concerns mirrored Nazi propaganda.

Davies’ report to Truman reflected his belief that Churchill was primarily focused on preserving Britain’s European influence rather than global peace. This view was shared by other American officials, reinforcing a critical stance towards British diplomacy which they saw as outdated and self-serving. Churchill’s strategy was seen as an anachronism by the Americans, who were moving away from the balance-of-power politics towards a more principled diplomatic approach, focusing on peace rather than strategic advantage.

Meanwhile, Hopkins’ mission to Moscow attempted to foster a friendly dialogue, but his style of diplomacy, emphasizing understanding and goodwill, was ill-suited for dealing with Stalin. Stalin’s conversations with Hopkins were marked by complaints about the cessation of Lend-Lease aid and other grievances, showcasing his skill in diplomatic manipulation. Stalin’s inability to grasp the importance of free elections in Eastern Europe to the Americans led to inconclusive discussions, with neither side able to shift the other’s position significantly.

The negotiations underscored the differing diplomatic approaches: the American inclination towards compromise and the Soviet strategy of staking out strong positions. Hopkins struggled to convey the seriousness of American concerns about self-determination in Eastern Europe, while Stalin seemed open to minor adjustments but remained unyielding on substantive issues. This failure to reach a mutual understanding highlighted the limitations of Hopkins’ negotiation tactics, which were overly reliant on the wartime alliance’s residual goodwill.

As discussions continued, Stalin remained steadfast in his traditional approach of handling neighbor relations bilaterally, dismissing the need for international consensus or intervention. This stance was rooted deeply in Russian historical practices of resolving disputes through bilateral negotiations or, if necessary, by force. The overall outcome of the missions by Truman’s emissaries showed a presidency still caught between Roosevelt’s idealistic framework of international relations and the harsher realities of post-war geopolitics, reflecting a reluctance to fully accept the strategic necessities imposed by the emerging Cold War.

Roosevelt’s vision of a global peacekeeping quartet, known as the “Four Policemen,” effectively ended at the Potsdam Conference, held from July 17 to August 2, 1945. This gathering took place at the Cecilienhof in Potsdam, chosen for its location within the Soviet zone and its accessibility by train, accommodating Stalin’s aversion to flying. The conference venue, once a residence for German royalty, underscored the significant shift in power dynamics taking place.

At Potsdam, the American delegation, still rooted in their wartime perspectives, aimed to discourage the formation of spheres of influence, which they viewed as a regression into power politics. The prevalent American belief was that fostering security without resorting to power blocs would lead to a more stable and peaceful world order. Despite these ideals, there was a sense of indulgence towards Stalin, advised by Joseph Davies, who urged President Truman to handle Stalin with a delicate touch to avoid hurting his feelings.

Truman, although naturally disinclined to coddle communists, made efforts to reassure Stalin of America’s peaceful intentions and disinterest in territorial gains. This approach reflected a stark contrast to the straightforward and often blunt diplomatic style preferred by Stalin, who was unaccustomed to such assurances of altruism.

The leaders aimed to simplify the Potsdam proceedings, avoiding the detailed entanglements that had complicated the Versailles Conference. They decided that only broad principles would be discussed by the heads of state, leaving the minutiae to their foreign ministers. However, despite these intentions, the conference agenda was extensive, covering issues from reparations to the futures of Germany and its former allies, with Stalin introducing demands reminiscent of earlier Soviet proposals to Hitler and Eden.

The conference quickly became a strained negotiation, with Stalin pushing for Western recognition of Soviet-controlled governments in Eastern Europe and the Allies demanding free elections. The discussions showcased the deep divides, with each side exercising vetoes over proposals they found unacceptable. The U.S. and U.K. notably refused Stalin’s hefty reparations demands from Germany, while Stalin continued to bolster Communist influence in Eastern Europe.

Significantly, Stalin manipulated ambiguities from the Yalta Conference regarding Poland’s borders, which led to Poland gaining territory at Germany’s expense, deepening German-Polish enmity and solidifying Poland’s reliance on the Soviet Union. The ambiguous stance taken by the American and British leaders on this border adjustment exemplified the challenges of negotiating with Stalin.

The conference was also marked by domestic political changes; Churchill was replaced by Clement Attlee as Britain’s Prime Minister after an electoral defeat, which disrupted the conference’s continuity. The outcomes of Potsdam were mixed, with some agreements on German administration and reparations but many crucial issues left unresolved, reflecting the complexities of three differing national agendas.

One of the more secretive moments of the conference involved Truman informing Stalin about the atomic bomb, a revelation Stalin already knew due to espionage. Stalin’s understated reaction highlighted his strategic restraint and foresight regarding nuclear capabilities.

Potsdam, therefore, set the stage for the division of Europe into two opposing blocs, a development contrary to American objectives. The unresolved issues were passed to the foreign ministers, who lacked the authority to deviate from the rigid positions set by their leaders, particularly Molotov, whose adherence to Stalin’s directives was critical for his political survival. This outcome underscored the deep-seated challenges of post-war diplomacy and the beginning of the long-standing East-West divide that would shape international relations for decades.

In September and early October of 1945, the first meeting of the foreign ministers convened in London, tasked with drafting peace treaties for Finland, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, all former allies of Germany. Despite recent events, the U.S. and Soviet positions remained stagnant, with Secretary of State James Byrnes advocating for free elections and Molotov resisting any such proposals. Byrnes had hoped that the display of the atom bomb’s power in Japan would have bolstered the American position, but found that it did little to sway Soviet resolve, leading to a realization that the relationship dynamics with Russia had fundamentally changed post-war.

In the wake of this conference, President Truman attempted to rekindle Soviet-American cooperation through a speech that underscored American foreign policy’s moral underpinnings. He reiterated America’s disinterest in territorial gains and emphasized a commitment to global righteousness and justice, hopeful that there were no insurmountable differences between the wartime allies that could not be resolved through dialogue.

However, this optimism proved short-lived. At the next Foreign Ministers’ Conference in December 1945, a nominal Soviet “concession” was seen when Stalin suggested the Western democracies help advise Romania and Bulgaria on including democratic elements in their governments. This offer, though, was largely seen as a cynical maneuver to maintain communist control under a veneer of democracy, a perspective shared by diplomat George Kennan.

The relationship between Truman and Byrnes became strained when Byrnes prematurely recognized the governments of Bulgaria and Romania without consulting the President, interpreting Stalin’s suggestion as a compliance with the Yalta agreements. This incident marked the beginning of a rift that would eventually lead to Byrnes’ resignation.

Through 1946, tensions escalated as the foreign ministers met in Paris and New York, finalizing subsidiary treaties but witnessing an intensification of Stalin’s control over Eastern Europe, converting it into a political and economic extension of the Soviet Union. The cultural and ideological gap between the American and Soviet negotiators exacerbated these tensions. American appeals to legal and moral principles contrasted sharply with Stalin’s pragmatism and strategic posturing, reflecting his perception of Truman’s calls for fairness as mere rhetorical tactics rather than genuine proposals.

Stalin’s internal and external policies were influenced by his recognition of the Soviet Union’s vulnerability post-war, despite outward shows of strength. The devastation wrought by war and oppressive policies had significantly weakened the country, yet Stalin projected an image of unyielding power, refusing to make concessions that could be perceived as signs of weakness. This approach included maintaining a heavy military presence in Central Europe and dismissing the strategic impact of nuclear weapons, which he portrayed as ineffective in deciding wars.

Stalin’s refusal to offer respite to his war-weary country was calculated; he believed that easing the harsh conditions could lead to domestic instability and challenge the communist regime. In a 1946 speech, Stalin laid out a vision of continued industrial and military strengthening, framing the war’s causes in Marxist terms and preparing the Soviet people for prolonged hardship and vigilance against perceived capitalist threats.

This backdrop of mutual distrust and ideological divergence set the stage for the Cold War, with Stalin using his control over Eastern Europe both as a buffer against potential threats and as leverage in his diplomatic engagements with the West. The unyielding posture of the Soviet Union under Stalin’s leadership turned what might have been temporary military occupations into a complex network of satellite states, fundamentally reshaping European geopolitics and cementing the division between East and West.

The post-war dynamic between the West and the Soviet Union was significantly influenced by differing interpretations and approaches to nuclear weapons. Western military strategists, driven by bureaucratic tendencies within their own services, treated nuclear weapons as merely advanced conventional explosives rather than transformative strategic assets. This perspective contributed to a misperception of Soviet military strength, owing to the USSR’s sizable conventional forces.

Winston Churchill, then the leader of the Opposition, played a crucial role in shaping the Western response to Soviet expansionism. His famous speech in Fulton, Missouri, on March 5, 1946, underscored the imminent threat posed by the Soviet Union, illustrating the divide with the metaphor of an “Iron Curtain” extending across Europe. He advocated for a strong alliance between the United States and the British Commonwealth to counter this threat, while also calling for European unity and reconciliation with Germany.

Churchill emphasized that the democracies needed to address the Soviet challenge proactively, advocating for a settlement to prevent war and promote democratic conditions across Europe. His historical role shifted from opposing German aggression in the 1930s to promoting diplomatic strategies against Soviet expansion in the post-war era. His foresight was often underappreciated until the situations he predicted became reality.

In the ensuing years, the Soviet grip on Eastern Europe tightened incrementally. Initially, only Yugoslavia and Albania firmly established communist regimes, while other nations had coalition governments with strong communist participation but maintained some multiparty elements. This relative restraint showed Stalin’s cautious approach to consolidating power in these countries.

By September 1947, the distinction between Soviet satellite states and more independent but friendly nations like Finland suggested that Stalin might have been open to a variety of relationships within Eastern Europe, based on the level of control or influence he deemed necessary.

This nuanced approach was evident when Stalin, in a 1947 meeting with Secretary of State George Marshall, hinted at the possibility of compromise on major issues, suggesting that early confrontations were merely preliminary skirmishes. However, by this time, American trust in Soviet intentions had eroded significantly, leading to a hardened U.S. stance that culminated in the Marshall Plan and the formation of NATO.

The decline in the West’s bargaining power was somewhat reversed by these initiatives, which sought to solidify Western unity rather than pursue uncertain negotiations with the East. The establishment of the Federal Republic of Germany, the strength of communist parties in Western Europe, and vocal peace movements underscored the fragility of Western cohesion, necessitating a clear and decisive policy of containment.

By April 1947, as Secretary of State Marshall articulated in a radio address, the urgency of European recovery and the pressing need for Western solidarity had reached a point where waiting for Soviet compromise was seen as too great a risk. The West thus chose to prioritize internal unity and the containment of Soviet influence over continued negotiations, setting the stage for the Cold War policies that would dominate the next four decades.

You can read the summary of the next chapter of the book by clicking this link.




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