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  • The United States and Eastern Europe in 1945A Reassessment
  • Marc Trachtenberg

There was a time when it all seemed so simple. The Soviet Union, it was said, sought to Communize Eastern Europe at the end of World War II; the Western powers, and especially the United States, were deeply opposed to that policy; and the ensuing clash played a decisive role in triggering the Cold War. But historians in recent years have been moving away from that sort of interpretation. This is not because there has been a fundamental shift in our understanding of Soviet policy. Some scholars, to be sure, claim that the USSR, even in the latter part of the war, did not plan to Communize any of the countries in Eastern Europe—that "nowhere beyond what Moscow considered the Soviet borders did its policies foresee the establishment of communist regimes."1 But the prevailing view today is rather different. Soviet leaders might not have had a "master plan" or a "detailed blueprint" for the Communization of Eastern Europe, but by the end of the war, it is now commonly argued, they did have certain general goals and a certain general strategy for achieving those goals. The USSR, according to this view, would initially take a relatively moderate line and Sovietization would not be on the agenda. But the Communists would "proceed step by step" and would gradually tighten their grip on power. Eventually the "appropriate moment" would come, and at that point, as the Soviet leader Josif Stalin himself put it, the "mask" would come off and the "maximal program" would be put into effect.2 [End Page 94]

That view is by no means universally shared, but most major scholars have indeed come to interpret Soviet policy in those terms. Vladislav Zubok, for example, argues in his most recent book that Stalin was determined by early 1945 "to keep Eastern Europe in the Soviet Union's grip at any cost" and that this point "has now been established beyond a doubt." The Soviet leader, according to Zubok, "assumed that the Soviet sphere of influence must and would be secured in the countries of Eastern Europe by imposing on them new political and social orders, modeled after the Soviet Union."3 Odd Arne Westad seems to agree. "As we learn more about Stalin's post-war foreign policy," he writes, "it seems unlikely that the Soviets would have tolerated even restricted participatory political systems in any of the countries their armies controlled in Eastern Europe."4 This of course is not a new interpretation. [End Page 95] Years ago, traditionalist scholars like Hugh Seton-Watson and Zbigniew Brzezinski argued that the "Communist 'takeover' in Eastern Europe was ultimately designed and executed by Moscow for the purpose of extending its sphere of influence in Europe and the world."5 But what is striking today is that most scholars seem to have concluded that this earlier interpretation was essentially correct. As Norman Naimark and Leonid Gibianskii put it in their introduction to an important collection of essays on the subject: "Brzezinski and Seton-Watson had it right the first time."6

It is American policy that is now seen in a new light, at least by many historians. Increasingly the argument seems to be that U.S. leaders in 1945 did not really care much about Eastern Europe—that their commitment to representative government in that region was surprisingly thin and that by the end of 1945 they had more or less concluded that the sort of political system the Soviet Union was setting up in that part of the world was something the United States could live with. The president and his top advisers, the argument runs, were not deeply concerned about East European issues. To the extent that they had any policy at all, their basic goal was to maintain a certain cooperative relationship with the Soviet Union as a kind of end in itself.7 But again that view is by no means universally shared, and even today some scholars find it almost inconceivable that the U.S. government could have "written off" Eastern Europe in that way.8 Students of Soviet foreign policy, in...


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