AP U.S. History Notes


U.S.-Soviet Relations

Throughout much of World War II, the U.S. and the USSR were reluctant allies. Germany posed a significant threat to both countries and necessity dictated that they cooperate militarily. Germany had launched a brutal invasion into the Soviet Union that eventually caused the deaths of 20 million Soviets. The USSR begged the western Allies to attack the German army on its western front. The U.S. and England were under-resourced and unwilling to launch a costly attack on the Germans. Instead, the western Allies engaged the Germans on other fronts, allowing the Soviets to regain lost territory and push the Nazis back. The U.S. and the Soviet Union had vastly differing political philosophies and their relationship was strained until it finally began to break apart during the later part of the war.

When a victorious conclusion to the war with Germany seemed inevitable, Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill met at the Yalta Conference in February 1945. They made strategic plans to defeat Germany and began discussing crucial postwar issues. Stalin agreed that the Soviet Union would allow Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania to have free democratic elections after the war. Upon the conclusion of the war, Stalin quickly broke his promise and installed communist governments in these countries without even the pretense of an election. The U.S. and its allies were stunned at Stalin's betrayal and feared that the Soviets would attempt to expand communism throughout Europe. Stalin claimed that he was doing nothing wrong and that securing the loyalty of the Soviet Union's western neighbors would help insulate the Soviet Union against future hostilities. Resentment continued to grow as both the U.S. and the USSR viewed the other as treacherous and dangerous.

Another of Stalin's broken promises was to remove troops from Iran after the war. Iran was rich in oil and was an important ally for both the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The Soviets stationed troops in Iran during the war to secure the Middle East and prevent German attacks. At the Tehran Conference in 1943, all of the major Allies agreed to remove troops from Iran. However, the Soviets still had troops stationed there in 1946, a full year after the war. Stalin went so far as to use his military to support and aid a rebellion in Iran in 1946. Truman was furious about Stalin's betrayal. Americans grew distrustful of the Soviets and began to worry that the USSR intended to spread communism to the Middle East.

Despite his recent electoral defeat in England, Winston Churchill remained popular in the United States. Churchill delivered a powerful and controversial speech at Fulton, Missouri in March 1946. He condemned Stalin and the Soviet Union as opportunistic and dangerous to western nations, and he coined the phrase "the Iron Curtain" in reference to the vast divide between the Soviets and the West. American opinion was sharply at odds over Churchill's speech. Many U.S. leaders desired cooperation with the Soviet Union, and they were upset by Churchill's remarks. A majority of Americans feared the expansion of the USSR, and Churchill's comments increased the seriousness of the Soviet threat in many American minds.

WWII put the U.S. in a new and unfamiliar role. Having previously chosen to remain relatively isolated, America was now cast as a world leader. American leaders quickly realized that a plan was required to address the Soviet Union. George F. Kennan was a brilliant U.S. diplomat and an expert on the Soviet Union. In 1946, he was stationed in Moscow, and the State Department asked him to clarify recent Soviet conduct. The world had never seen a threat like communism or a nation that behaved as the Soviet Union did, and the West was confused about how to address these issues. Kennan was one of the few western experts on the Soviet Union, and he was essentially tasked with creating a policy that would be used to deal with the Soviet threat.

Kennan drafted his response to the State Department in a telegram in February 1946. His reply was 8,000 words and contained significant coverage of the issue. The length and breadth of his reply earned it the nickname the "Long Telegram." He painstakingly covered the history of the USSR and how it had shaped current policies. He provided information that helped American leaders gain a greater insight into the background and mentality of Soviets like Stalin. He advised that the USSR was "ruthlessly expansionary" but also cautious. Kennan stated that if left unchecked the Soviets would expand their regime whenever and wherever possible. He also believed that the Soviet Union's cautious nature allowed the U.S. to avoid actively engaging the Soviets militarily to keep them in check. It was his belief that a policy of "firm and vigilant containment" could control the Soviet threat. Kennan's telegram helped form the basis of America's containment policy toward the Soviet Union.

Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan

As the perceived threat from the Soviet Union continued to grow, the West became desperate to stop the spread of communism. After WWII, the communist community grew quickly in many parts of war-ravaged Europe. England was desperately trying to stop the spread of European communism in key countries, one of which was Greece. A fear shared by the U.S. and Britain was that if Greece became communist, so would Turkey, and the Soviets would control the eastern Mediterranean. The British economy had not recovered from the expenses of WWII, and England was financially unable to continue to prevent the spread of communism to Greece. They turned to the U.S. for assistance.

Truman appeared before Congress on March 12, 1947, asking for support of a new policy that would become known as the Truman Doctrine. He detailed the threat of communism, and Congress quickly agreed to allocate the requested $400 million to prevent the fall of Greece and Turkey to the communists. Truman also stated, "it must be the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures."

This very controversial statement greatly impacted U.S. foreign policy. Critics argued that this policy would cause other nations to exploit the U.S. in order to "fight communism." They feared that this doctrine would allow any nation to elicit money from the United States. Several opponents of the Truman Doctrine also claimed that Truman was exaggerating the Soviet threat in order to win support domestically and expand America's influence abroad. Despite much vocal criticism, the Truman Doctrine became the official policy of the United States, and it had far-reaching repercussions. It drove the wedge between the U.S. and the USSR much deeper, thus polarizing the world. Other nations and regions essentially had to choose between supporting the United States or the Soviet Union.

The Truman Administration made further attempts to contain the Soviet threat with the Marshall Plan. Much of Western Europe was economically crippled by WWII and showed little hope of recovery; the infrastructures of countries such as France, Italy, and Belgium were decimated by the war. The widespread poverty, soaring unemployment, and limited potential for improvement created an environment ripe for communist influences.

In June of 1947, Secretary of State George C. Marshall proposed a joint economic recovery program between the U.S. and its Western European allies. If the Europeans agreed to the plan, the U.S. would offer significant financial support. Marshall later met in Paris with leaders of key western democracies and discussed the details of the plan. Many of these nations were desperate, and 16 countries quickly agreed to Marshall's proposal. Marshall also offered his plan to the cash-poor Soviet Union but was immediately rejected.

Marshall returned home, and Truman presented the plan to Congress. The plan required $12.5 billion that would be distributed among 16 countries over a four-year period. Congress was skeptical of the Marshall Plan and the huge amount of money being promised, since the U.S. had already spent over $2 billion in rebuilding Europe. Then in February 1948, a Soviet-backed coup successfully installed a communist government in Czechoslovakia. The continued spread of communism prompted Congress to pass the Marshall Plan in April 1948.

The Marshall Plan was incredibly successful for both Europe and America. The introduction of large amounts of American capital helped strengthen local economies in the affected countries, and most were exceeding prewar economic levels in just a few years. These booming Western European economies successfully halted the westward spread of communism in Europe. American industry also benefited by exporting large quantities of goods and equipment to Western Europe. This newfound economic cooperation would eventually help form the European Community (EC), a collective agreement between Western European nations that still exists today.

Berlin Airlift

Twenty years after World War I, Germany was able to rebuild its economic and military might and target its weaker neighbors. Following World War II, America and its Western European allies were determined to prevent Germany from regaining its power. With the blessing of their allies, Britain, France, and America controlled their West German sectors in a way intended to keep Germany impoverished, economically weak, and unable to pose a threat.

By March 1948, the Allies realized that their strategy was self-defeating. In Germany, widespread poverty and oppressed citizens allowed communism to grow. Great Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg signed an alliance to work together to improve Germany economically, socially, and culturally. With the cooperation of the United States, these countries hoped to create an economically stable West Germany that would be largely autonomous, although Germany would continue to be demilitarized.

The Soviet Union viewed this act as contrary to the agreement signed at the Potsdam Conference. They were also skeptical of the Allies' motivation and believed that their actions were intended to undermine Soviet Rule in East Germany and Berlin. In June 1948, the Soviets blockaded all surface access to Berlin from the west. This retaliatory move was intended to send a clear sign to the U.S. and its Allies that the Soviet Union did not tolerate western meddling in its territories.

This bold move by the Soviets sent shockwaves throughout the West. The blockade cut off over two million West German citizens from vital food and supplies. Without these supplies, impoverished Berlin would quickly fall into a crisis. America and its Allies were unsure how to react—it initially seemed that the only courses of action would be to fight Soviet troops or abandon Berlin completely. Engaging the Soviets in combat was an unthinkable move since the USSR had the largest army in the world, and no one was willing to actively engage it. Abandoning Berlin to the Soviets was also impossible because it was the key city in Germany and the region.

President Truman made a decision that would allow the U.S. to deliver supplies to the beleaguered German people without fighting the Soviets. His proposal called for American warplanes to airlift supplies to West Berlin. This plan was immediately accepted, and the "Berlin Airlift" began flying thousands of tons of food and supplies daily. Over 1.5 million tons of food and supplies were airlifted into Germany over the 11 months of the blockade.

The Soviet Union was unprepared for Truman's actions and now faced a difficult decision—to start a war with the West or lift the blockade. In May 1949, the Soviets lifted the blockade and allowed the free flow of supplies into West Berlin. Doing so caused the Soviet Union to lose face in what was essentially a public relations war. This dispute further polarized and increased tensions between the U.S. and the USSR.

The U.S. benefited greatly from overcoming the blockade of Berlin. Hundreds of thousands of West Germans were grateful for the food and supplies, and their respect for America grew. Conversely, German distrust and fear of the Soviets grew. Other Western Europeans looked favorably on America's actions and viewed them as a continued sign of U.S. commitment to Europe. Over 1.5 million tons of food and supplies were airlifted into Germany over the 11 months of the blockade. This dispute widened the divide between the U.S. and the USSR.


Historically, relations among Western European nations had been strained. The destruction of both World Wars clearly illustrated the need for defense and security. The aftermath of these wars and the rapidly increasing Soviet threat helped bring The Western Europeans together. Several nations began discussing the idea of a mutual defense organization, and some European leaders met in a series of meetings. Ideas soon began to take shape. Representatives from Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Belgium eventually met in Brussels, Belgium and signed a mutual defense pact in 1948. This was an historic agreement as it was the first large-scale defense pact among Western European nations.

The alliance invited the United States to join the pact. The invitation raised a number of questions in America. The U.S. had traditionally viewed peacetime alliances as costly, ineffective, and cumbersome. Many Americans pointed out that while the other member nations gained benefits due to their close geographic proximity, America's location excluded it from enjoying these benefits.

Supporters of the pact claimed that America's involvement in the alliance would bring a number of significant benefits. Signing the pact would help strengthen defenses against the Soviet Union in Europe and North America, and extend the U.S. policy of containment. Some Americans also felt that joining the alliance would eventually help bring West Germany into the U.S. camp, as well as reassure Europe that the U.S. would not resume its isolationism.

Congress was deeply divided on the issue. Truman personally appeared before Congress and urged them to join the alliance. Congress finally accepted the invitation, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) charter was signed on April 4, 1949. The original European signers included Great Britain, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Portugal; the United States and Canada represented North America in the original NATO Pact. Greece and Turkey were added to the NATO charter in 1952, and West Germany was admitted to the alliance in 1955. Since then, NATO has continued to expand to include 19 nations.

The formation of NATO had a huge impact on world politics and defense. NATO has brought more peace and security to the world, dramatically improved European unity, and helped Europe emerge as a collective power. NATO has helped grow internationalism and has encouraged many countries to think outside their borders. Additionally, the organization has intervened diplomatically and militarily a number of times and prevented or minimized a number of conflicts throughout the world.

Congress' decision to join NATO significantly changed U.S. foreign policy. The United States became a part of the world community, and it could not revert to the isolationist attitude it had prior to WWII. The U.S. emerged as a leader of NATO and was sometimes required to intervene in international disputes. Similarly, NATO helped strengthen U.S. security, especially during the long Cold War era. As part of NATO, the U.S. and other members now spoke with a collective voice that required the Soviets and rogue nations to take notice.

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How to cite this note (MLA)

Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "Containment" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 17 Nov. 2012. Web. 13 Jul. 2024. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/us-history/topics/containment/>.