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W.R. Smyser, From Yalta to Berlin:
The Cold War Struggle over Germany

(New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999), 465 pages.
UCSB: DD257.4 .S59 1999.

book essay by Nilesh Maharaj
March 6, 2006

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany since 1945
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2006

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About Nilesh Maharaj (back to top)

I am a 4th year senior majoring in Cell and Developmental Biology with a minor in History. I have a very keen interest in post World War one international diplomatic relations among global powers. I have dealt with Germany though briefly in my inter war diplomacy and Cold War history classes. I chose to write about the Cold War in Germany because of what I saw as the centrality and importance of Germany in starting, maintaining, and finally ending the Cold War


At the end of WWII a defeated Germany sowed the seeds of what was to become a forty-five year Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. W.R. Smyser in his book goes through in great detail how the Cold War arose at the end of WWII, how it was sustained through the decades, and how the end came about. Smyser argues these events from a diplomatic and economic perspective. In my essay I focused on key events that epitomized the Cold War in Germany, such as US and Soviet security concerns in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Berlin airlift, the strategic alliances in the form of NATO and the Warsaw pact, tanks at Checkpoint Charlie, the Cuban missile crisis, the effects of Gorbachevís reform policies, and finally, German reunification. The economic, ideological, and military struggle between the two superpowers is explored in these events.

Essay (back to top)

The Cold War in Germany

Book Summary:

The book is a comprehensive diplomatic history of Germany from the planning stages of the Allied occupation in the 1940s, through the many crises facing Germany, to détente in the 1970s, and finally reunification in 1990. It chronicles the exploration of the German question as seen through the lens of cold war relations between the two Germanies, the US, the Soviet Union, France, and Britain. Smyser uses meeting and conference records kept by the participants to explore the positions taken. He also makes extensive use of personal interviews and personal contacts to analyze the US, Soviet, and German sides of an event or proposal. Memoirs of world leaders were used by Smyser to get an understanding of the role played by personal relations among world leaders in formulating and negotiating treaties and policies.

The book begins with the various conferences between the big three to decide post WWII European policy and structure. Particular attention is paid to the division of Germany into occupation zones at the Yalta conference, and the entry of Truman at the Potsdam conference. The first three years of occupation policy are explored together with the increasing tensions between the US and Soviets on the question of German unification and four power occupation rights in Germany and Berlin. Stalinís plans for Germany are explored, together with Ulbrichtís intentions. The author goes through the Berlin Airlift and the increasing political and economic divisions between East and West Germany.

The effects of increasing West German political sovereignty on relations with other nations are explored. The author also argues for the importance of Berlin to US-Soviet cold war relations. German détente during the 1970ís is looked at in detail, with special attention to Brandtís four part détente with the Eastern bloc. Smyser then goes through the development of inner German relations and German-Soviet relations until reunification. The economic reasons behind German diplomatic relations from 1970 onwards are also explored.

Book Essay: Introduction

At the end of World War Two Germany stood completely and utterly defeated at the hands of Allied forces. The majority of Allied forces came from the big three nations: Britain, United States, and the Soviet Union. These nations had come together in a marriage of convenience to defeat Hitlerís Nazi Third Reich. They had placed their differences and beliefs aside for the time being, to defeat what they saw as a common enemy. At the end of WWII, two superpowers emerged, with two very different political and economic systems. On one side was the US with its capitalist free market system and on the other side was the Soviet Union with its communist system and Marxist-Leninist ideology. Germany naturally became the focal point of US and Soviet economic and ideological interests. Each nation wanted to carve Germany in its own image and incorporate Germany into its respective economic and defense pacts. Thus began the Cold War struggle over Germany.

The Cold War in Germany was in a sense a diplomatic war that had the potential to go nuclear. It was a war that was fought with the diplomatic corps and leadership of the West and the Soviet block. Germany was where the US and Soviet Union faced off. It provided a unique venue for East-West competition that could not be duplicated elsewhere in the world. This was so because Germany and more specifically Berlin lay smack in the geopolitical center of Europe with NATO on the western side and the Warsaw pact on the Eastern side. Sweetening the deal was the fact that Berlin was a four power occupation city where US and Soviet forces were forced to interact with each other on a daily basis. As such the foreign policy successes of both the US and the Soviet Union were inherently tied to Germany and Berlin. From 1945 to 1990, the US and the Soviet Union were engaged in a visible and covert struggle in Germany that epitomized the Cold War between the two countries.

The Occupation

The Yalta conference in February, 1945 laid out the division of Germany between Great Britain, France, the US, and the Soviet Union. These divisions were supposed to be temporary occupation zones. Berlin was also divided into four zones of occupation. It was agreed that each zonal commander would have supreme authority in his zone while broad policy was to be made by unanimous agreement in an Allied Control Council (Smyser, 11). It was thought that the occupation would be a short one where the occupying powers would jointly rule and set future policy for a united, defeated Germany. For example, US President Roosevelt believed that the US occupation forces would not remain in Germany for more then two years (14). At the Yalta and Potsdam conferences decisions were made that led to 45 years of bitter debate and confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union.

At the Potsdam conference it was decided that a council of foreign ministers (CFM) of the occupying powers be established to meet regularly to prepare peace treaties for Germany and its wartime allies. The council after much debate was able to come up with peace treaties for Germanyís former allies. However, they could not agree on a German peace treaty. Points of contention were four power control of the Ruhr, Soviet reparations, and the nature of a future German government. CFM talks collapsed in December, 1948 (61). With the collapse of four-power diplomacy, each occupying power began to implement with a greater sense of urgency their various systems of economic and political governance. The failure of the CFM forced the Western allies to reevaluate Stalinís objectives in postwar Germany. Analysts on both sides came up with alarming reports about Soviet and American intentions in Europe and in particular Germany.

The Long Telegram

Winston Churchillís famous Iron Curtain speech on March 5th, 1946 is a testament to Western feelings about the Soviet Unionís behavior in Eastern Europe and Germany. It foresaw the conflicts of interests that were to ensue between the US and the Soviet Union. Another equally alarming report on Soviet intentions came from George Kennan, who was in charge of the US Embassy in Moscow. The February 22nd, 1946 cable that Kennan sent came to be known as the Long Telegram. Kennan warned of an impeding clash between the Soviet and Western systems. Kennan recommended that the Soviets could only be deterred by a show of sufficient force and the will to use it. Kennan later on proposed the idea of containment. Truman decided to investigate further and asked his counsel, Clark Clifford to analyze Soviet policy. Cliffordís September 24th, 1946 memorandum on the issue with respect to Germany said that Stalin wanted a united Germany only in order to control the whole country from the capital Berlin. Further military buildup and maintenance was recommended to restrain the Soviet Union (63). All these reports about the expansive nature of communism and the recommendations on how to deal with them ensured that Germany would occupy a crucial position in the global struggle against communism. With both superpowers occupying Germany, any foreign policy directed against the other would play out in Germany. In other words, Germany was to be on the official frontlines of the Cold War.

By 1947 the temporary occupation lines began to look more permanent. The Western allies had begun the process of joining their occupation zones. Eventually a divided Western and Eastern Germany emerged with two very different economic and political systems. Germany was not divided because the occupiers feared Germany, but rather because they feared each other in combination with Germany. They were afraid that Germany, with its economic and military might, and its proximity to them and their allies, could decide the winner in the global struggle that was to become the Cold War. They decided that, "they would rather have their own slices than risk letting their prospective opponents have the whole" (Smyser, 67). Division was seen as the only practical option if neither side was to dominate Germany. It could be said that the division of Germany was one of the first realities of the Cold War.

The Berlin Airlift

The Berlin blockade was one of the first direct confrontations between the US and the Soviet Union. Stalin was going nowhere with his plans for German unification on his terms. The four power talks over Germany had collapsed and he needed a way to get the Western allies to negotiate with him on terms that where favorable to him. The solution to Stalinís problems came in the form of the Berlin blockade (76). Currency reform in the Western sectors was used as the pretext for the blockade of Western allied land and rail access to West Berlin on June 24, 1948. The Soviets and the East German leader Walter Ulbricht hoped that they would be able to force the allies to abandon Berlin with relative ease.

The Berlin blockade and the resulting airlift elevated the city to almost mythical status. It signified the importance of the city to the US and the Soviet Union. The commander of the US occupation forces, General Lucius Clay, decided to neutralize the Soviet blockade in a battle of wits between the US and the Soviet Union. Clay started a strategic airlift supplying West Berlin and bypassing the Soviet Blockade. Gradually the airlift made its point to the Soviets that the allies could supply Berlin as long as necessary (85). Eventually the Western counter blockade began to have its effect felt in the Soviet zone. The western zone prevented the Soviet zone from obtaining Ruhr steel, machinery and coking coal that it desperately needed. The airlift carried a powerful political message that the Western Allies would not abandon Berlin. As the blockade dragged on it was a public humiliation of the Soviet Union in the eyes of the West Germany and the world. To save face Stalin decided to end the blockade on May 12, 1949 (86). The ramifications of the blockade were many. Stalin lost face and the negotiating power that he had hoped to obtain by the blockade. Stalin experienced firsthand the resolve of the US in defending its interests against what it deemed a communist threat. Western prestige in West Berlin and West Germany also went up. The blockade showed to the allies that the German question would not resolved anytime soon. Rather, it demonstrated that the German question was inherently tied to the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. Resolution of either would result in the resolution of both.

In light of world events in 1949-50, with the Soviet test of the atomic bomb and the victory of communist forces in China, Truman ordered a review of US national security needs. The result was an April 14th, 1950 policy document numbered NSC 68 that was written under Paul Nitze. Nitze argued that the allies "risked losing their security to an orchestrated threat from the communist world." He proposed a "rapid buildup of political, economic, and military strength in the free world" (106). This policy document had major implications for the role that Germany was to play in the Western allied system. NSC 68 urged the rearming of Germany as part of the increase in military strength in the free world. NSC 68 was on the minds of all who dealt with West Germany. However, many including Truman opposed rearming Germany. A stable international alliance system had to be developed with German Armed forces placed firmly under its control before Germany could be rearmed.


The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was established on April 4th, 1949 to counter the growing Soviet threat as was seen in the February, 1948 coup against the Democratic Czechoslovakian government. The treaty did not explicitly protect the new Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). However, the FRG was indirectly protected via the presence of occupation forces in West Germany. The US occupation forces in West Germany became the guarantors of the American commitment to Western Europe (103). German territory held the key to the security of Western Europe, for it was here that the initial defense of Western Europe would be mounted against a possible communist attack. The strategic importance of Germany to the Cold War was immeasurable.

Germany finally entered NATO on October 20, 1954. The FRG became a military asset and was integrated into Western Europe in both military and economic terms (128). Western Germany was an ideal partner for the US as it provided space for US defense forces in Europe from 1945 onwards. The US also deployed nuclear weapons all over West Germany. This was done to counter the threat posed by the large numbers of Soviet and East European conventional forces. In May, 1955, the GDR joined the Warsaw pact, complementing the FRGís entry into NATO. Germany was the showground were the US and Soviets showed of their military might, epitomizing one of the central themes of the Cold War. With its participation in NATO West Germany held the balance of power in Cold War Europe, just as the GDR held the balance of power on behalf of the Warsaw pact.

Tanks at Checkpoint Charlie, Oct. 28, 1961

President Kennedyís presidency dealt with several key events in the Cold War. Kennedy came into office with a unique outlook on what US foreign policy should entail. He believed that only precision and restraint in matters relating to foreign policy could preserve peace. He outlined his three essentials on Berlin that were worth risking nuclear war for. First was the Allied presence in West Berlin. Second was Allied access to West Berlin on land and by air. And, third was the freedom and viability of West Berlin (151). These three essentials might have encouraged Khrushchev to permit the construction Berlin Wall. Kennedyís three essentials also clearly defined the rules of how the US would play the Cold War in West Berlin. These were tested by Khrushchev to the breaking point in the Checkpoint Charlie confrontation.

After the wall went up Kennedy sent General Lucius Clay to West Berlin as his personal representative. Clay recognized that with the construction of the wall, the battle for West Berlin had begun, as Ulbricht wanted to neutralize West Berlin. He believed that Khrushchev would not risk war over Berlin. Therefore to force Khrushchev to clamp down on Ulbricht, Clay wanted the allies to become unpredictable. The stage was set for the confrontation at checkpoint Charlie. Harassment of allied travel into East Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie on October 25, 1961 by East German guards prompted Clay to bring out ten tanks as a show of force a short distance from the checkpoint. The Soviets complemented the move by bringing in tanks of their own. Clay then decided to bring the Soviet tanks out into the open, so he brought the tanks right up to the checkpoint when the East Germans blocked another allied car. The Soviets responded by doing the same. Clay was glad that the Soviets had bought their tanks up to the front instead of the East German tanks. The next day the Soviet tanks began withdrawing under orders from Khrushchev. The US tanks returned the favor, mimicking Soviet tank movements (176).

The Checkpoint Charlie confrontation turned out to be a key moment in the Cold War struggle over Berlin and Germany. It boosted the morale of the West Berliners. It showed that the Western Allies would not continue to yield to East German and Soviet pressure. It proved that Ulbricht was in no position to provoke a real crisis with dire Cold War consequences on his own. Finally, it showed that the US was willing to exercise brinkmanship to counter the Soviet threat and defend its interests and rights in Berlin and Germany. In essence, the US was not going to abandon Berlin under any circumstances, which was further demonstrated in the nuclear missile crisis that ensued in Cuba in the fall of 1962.

The Cuban missile crisis

Khrushchev, knowing that he could not get any concessions over Germany via direct confrontation in Berlin, decided to move the confrontation to Americaís backyard. Here he could apply direct pressure on the US. Khrushchev began to supply Cuba with nuclear weapons that could reach Washington. Kennedy recognized this and decided to act firmly in Cuba, in order to protect US national security and keep his credibility in Berlin. To Kennedy and his advisors the loss of Berlin was unacceptable. Kennedyís response to the Cuban Missile Crisis ensured a total victory for the US. Kennedy made a secret concession to Khrushchev where the US would remove nuclear missiles that were not that effective anyway from Turkey after Khrushchev withdrew all his nuclear weapons from Cuba. However, Kennedy insisted on secrecy so as to avoid agitating NATO. This insistence on secrecy made it look like as if Kennedy had managed total victory over Khrushchev (189). By provoking the Cuban Missile Crisis, Khrushchev had gambled almost every card he held against the US. Most of all he put his personal credibility and the credibility of the Soviet Union as a world power and the leader of the world wide communist movement on the line. Had Khrushchev won he might have been able to split the Western alliance, and won major concessions in the struggle over Germany. What Khrushchev lost in the Cuban missile crisis was most dear in the Cold War, namely the Soviet Unionís credibility. Khrushchev lost credibility in his claims and demands over West Berlin and Germany. West Berlin now no longer needed to fear neutralization and Western abandonment. The US had dealt a decisive blow to the Soviet Union in terms of the Cold War, ensuring that no future crisis ever reached the stage that the Cuban missile crisis had reached.

Enter Gorbachev

US-Soviet Union Cold War relations over the West Germany and West Berlin remained relatively low key with no major crisis from 1965 till 1985. In the late 1960s Willy Brandt, the West German chancellor, initiated a decade long policy of Ostpolitik with Eastern Bloc countries that lasted until the late 1970s. In March of 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union. He recognized that the Soviet Union was heading toward economic disaster and instituted reforms to avert such a disaster. His two main reforms were perestroika, the restructuring of the Soviet economy, and glasnost, which called for openness in government. He wanted to reduce the burden of the Soviet military on the Soviet economy and thus wanted to reduce Soviet troops internationally in Warsaw pact countries. He also reversed the Brezhnev doctrine, allowing Warsaw pact countries to do as they pleased economically and politically without fear of Soviet troop involvement.

The new ideas promoted by Gorbachev encouraged dissent in East Germany where the populace knew that the Soviet Union would not intervene as it had done in East Berlin in 1953. The growing East German dissent led to changes in East German leadership and the passing of legislation that freed travel among the two Germanies. This led to the collapse of the Berlin Wall and put on the pressure for German Unification as the East German government was no longer functional. Helmut Kohl was chancellor of West Germany when the wall came down. Kohl was instrumental in settling whatever differences the US and the Soviets still had on the German question and reunification.


Both the US under President Bush and the Soviet Union under Gorbachev believed that Germany should be united. A two-plus-four negotiating formula was hammered out with the two Germanies settling inner-German problems of reunification and the four former occupying powers settling the external questions and problems. The main point of contention was which allied security system a reunified Germany would join. It was decided by Khrushchev that a united Germany would choose its alliance system. However, NATO had to be changed to assure the Soviet Union that it would no longer be a threat to the Warsaw pact. The changes to NATO included a non-aggression pact with the Warsaw pact, Warsaw pact permanent liaisons in NATO, and making nuclear weapons the weapons of last resort. With those key revisions to NATO, the four former occupying powers and the two Germanies signed the treaty governing the unification of Germany on September 12, 1990. Three weeks after the treaty had been signed the four occupying powers gave up their residual rights in Berlin and Germany on October 1 and 2, 1990. The next day ceremonies were carried out in Berlin to mark the unification of Germany. The Berlin ceremonies ended the Cold War (396). What had started in 1945 ended forty-five years later on October 3, 1990.

The Cold War drew to a close as the Soviet Union no longer posed a serious and imminent threat to the US and vice-versa with the changes in NATO protecting the Soviet Union against Western aggression.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)

Book Reviews:

  1. Hoffmann, Stanley. "RECENT BOOKS ON INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS: WESTERN EUROPE. (Review)." Foreign Affairs 78.6 (Nov-Dec 1999): 139.
  2. LEMMONS, RUSSEL. "From Yalta to Berlin: The Cold War Struggle over Germany. (Review)(Brief Article)." History: Review of New Books 28.1 (Fall 1999): 19.
  3. Mayer, Frank A. "From Yalta to Berlin: The Cold War Struggle over Germany. (Review)." German Studies Review 23.2 (May 2000): 384(2).

Additional Readings:

  1. Lafeber, Walter, America, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945-2002 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002), 487 pages.
  2. Hanhimaki, Jussi M., and Odd Arne Westad, The Cold War: A History in Documents and Eyewitness Accounts (New York: Oxford University Press Inc, 2004), 694 pages.


  1. Yalta Conference: Complete texts of the Yalta conference agreements from Yale School of Lawís Avalon Project. (http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/wwii/yalta.htm)
  2. The Long Telegram: Complete text of Kennanís Telegram at the National Security Archive. (http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/coldwar/documents/episode-1/kennan.htm)
  3. The Berlin Airlift:
  4. NATO: Frequently asked questions at the NATO website. (http://www.nato.int/issues/faq/index.html#)
  5. Tanks at Checkpoint Charlie: Brief summary of the confrontation on Western-Allies-Berlin.com. ( http://www.western-allies-berlin.com/historic-events/detail/standoff-checkpoint-charlie)
  6. The Cuban Missile Crisis: Summary of the crisis at Wikipedia. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuban_Missile_Crisis)
  7. Mikhail Gorbachev: A fairly detailed biography at Wikipedia. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mikhail_Gorbachev).
  8. Unification: Background and results of unification at Wikipedia. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_reunification).

Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

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