Was the Cold War a direct result of the breakdown of World War II alliances? Not really. In actuality, it took form in the late 19th century on the plains of Northern China and Manchuria. Conflict arose when the American emphasis on business, markets, and profits clashed with the czarist emphasis on expansion and empire.
The US believed that its prosperity required an open door to trade in Manchuria. Nevertheless, when the Russians occupied the rich, industrial Chinese province in 1901, the Americans were unwilling to fight for their interests. Later, when the Japanese colonized the province in 1931, the Soviets appealed to the Americans for assistance. Still, the US opted for a policy of balanced antagonism. Only when Nazi and Japanese aggression proved overwhelming did the US enter into a reluctant — and temporary — partnership with its longterm rival, the Soviet Union.
Memories of past contests reemerged when, in September 1945, Stalin honored a wartime agreement with the United States and invaded enemy strongholds in Manchuria, disarming the Japanese and confiscating arms and property worth between 800 and 900 million dollars.
Military and industrial equipment was dismantled and moved to the Soviet Union to aid in the rebirth of Soviet industry.
In return for early withdrawal from the territory, the Soviets demanded large-scale ownership of virtually every aspect of the Manchurian economy.
Stalin’s activities were rooted in the Soviet perception of reality. The United States and its allies were emerging from World War II with worldwide military superiority. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, was facing an urgent need to bolster national security and rebuild its wartorn economy. Since industrial capacity and manufacturing ability had been severely damaged, any and all resources that could be used in the reconstruction and restoration of the motherland were to be acquired and mobilized so as to facilitate a rapid economic recovery.
Along with the industrial buildup, Stalin was obsessed with guaranteeing his nation’s vulnerable borders. Since German armies had invaded the Soviets through Eastern Europe twice in 25 years, he decided that it was best to exert control over all countries bordering the Soviet Union — countries like Manchuria and Iran. The idea was to create a Soviet sphere of influence that would provide protection against incursions.
Stalin’s interpretation of Russian interests impelled him to intervene in China where civil war was raging between the Nationalist or KMT forces led by Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under the leadership of Mao-tse-tung.
Although Stalin had treaty obligations with the Nationalists, he feared a resurgent US presence in Manchuria if the Nationalists returned. So he stepped up support for the Communists, allowing 600,000 tons of light arms and ammunition to fall into the hands of the Chinese Communist Party. This facilitated the CCP’s movement into Manchuria and enabled them to establish administrative control over much of the province.
While the Kremlin was fixated on a need to retain control over Manchuria’s raw materials and industrial resources, the United States was intent on developing a proAmerican China which would serve as a counterbalance to the Soviet Union.
The West clearly saw the implementation of Soviet policy as a communist threat. Speaking in March 1946 in President Truman’s home state of Missouri, Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Great Britain said:
the Soviets covet the fruits of war and the indefinite expansion of their power and doctrines.
Churchill’s remarks set the stage for global confrontation, and were legitimated by Truman’s presence on the platform.
Russian Soldiers in Manchuria: Photograph courtesy of Ashley Van Haeften