The Origins of the Cold War in Britain

By the end of 1945, six long years of war were finally over for Great Britain. The enemy was defeated and peace now reigned in Europe. Still, war had made strange bedfellows with the alliance of the UK and the Soviet Union (USSR). Nevertheless, despite the ideological and economic differences, the two countries were reveling in the peace that had been achieved at such a high price in blood and treasure. In order to celebrate their victory, it was decided that the UK would host a series of football (US: soccer) matches between various UK teams and Dynamo FC of Moscow. Widely popular, the tour saw tens of thousands of tickets sold to the Moscow Dynamos 1945British public for a chance to see a battle of the titans on the pitch. However, the brutal tactics of the Russian team at each match with their British counterparts had soured  public enthusiasm. By the end of the tour, Dynamo FC had negatively coloured British sentiments against their Red counterparts. In many ways, however, the Soviets came to make a statement rather than to usher in an era of goodwill; the statement they came with was “there is a new super power in town.” (source: Passovotchka: Moscow Dynamo in Britain 1945, by David Downing)

Although it’s one thing to have a negative view of a foreign country’s football team, it is another to have a negative opinion of that foreign country’s government. Indeed, on the great stage of history, George Orwell is largely credited with coining the term “cold war” in October 1945. The famous author of the book “1984” was not just an influential writer, he was also a vehement anti-communist activist. Indeed, in 1949, as he lay in hospital with Tuberculosis which would eventually kill him the following year, he wrote down a list of names he considered sympathetic to the USSR and a danger to the country. From his hospital bed, he gave the list to Celia Kirwan from the newly created Information Research Department (IRD) which had been created for the purpose of counter Soviet information and propaganda in the UK.

Like Orwell, Winston Churchill did not accidentally coin the phrase “Iron Curtain” either. In an attempt to busy himself and shake off his depression following his ouster from Downing Street soon after V-E day, Churchill visited America in March 1946 where he was to speak at a small liberal arts college in Fulton, Missouri. He even asked President Truman to help him with his speech so that he could make a stir and influence world politics (despite telling Clement Attlee there was nothing to worry about in his upcoming speech). Truman originally refused to even read what Churchill planned to say, telling him to write his own speeches. After a few cocktails, Truman relented and read a draft saying it could only do good even if it stirs things up in Europe. The Soviets and many in Eastern Europe, however, considered this speech to be the moment that the Cold War began.

Churchill Iron Curtain Speech“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe…and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow.” – Winston Churchill 1946

The Soviets had now been called out as the single greatest threat to world peace. However, British finances were in ruins after the war; the empire was collapsing. Churchill was adamant that the future of British might laid with stronger ties with the United States.

Taking a step back and adding a “wrinkle,” if you will, to this rather black and white narrative is the issue in the West of a potential fifth column of communist sympathizers. Beginning in the 1930s in particular, some within the British intellectual class had convinced themselves that Soviet pragmatism and economics were the future not only for economics, but also the future for equality amongst men. Men such as Hewlett Johnson (1874-1966) who was the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury and an ardent Soviet sympathizer were leading the campaign for Soviet communism in the western world. He was even called the “Red Dean of Canterbury” for his staunch support of the USSR. Where Churchill saw evil at work in Moscow, Johnson saw the work of God. Indeed, Johnson’s sermons attempting to reconcile Christianity and communism made him one of the most significant mouthpieces for Sovietism in the west.

Fear of a fifth column of Soviet subversives was in many ways justified amongst the British public. By 1951, a ring of spies had fled the UK to the USSR. Known as the Cambridge Five, after the university where they had been recruited during their studies in the 1930s, the British men included members of the Foreign Office and other government positions where they had passed secret information to the Soviets during and after the Second World War. In fact, the existence of the Cambridge Five was not even known until two of the men, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, made headlines by mysteriously disappearing despite being significant members of the Foreign Office and the IRD. Both MI5 and MI6 had theorized that they had defected to the Soviet Union; however, this was confirmed only in 1956 when the two men were at a press conference in Moscow.

On the home front, in an attempt to combat communist elements from arising in the general public, Prime Minister Clement Attlee (1945-1951) began the British welfare state. Communism, he said, finds opportunity wherever there is poverty. The welfare state was therefore meant to be a protection and safety net against a rainy day. In the National Insurance Act 1946, Attlee ushered in a policy of cradle to grave welfare which included pensions, housing, and health. Despite his success in creating the welfare state, he was hindered by the post-war economics of the late 1940s. By 1951, his Labour Party had lost the elections and he was succeeded by the man he himself succeeded, Winston Churchill.

When Churchill returned to power, he discovered that Attlee had spent £100 million on developing nuclear weapons. At a time of terrific austerity, gaining nuclear weapons had put the UK back at the top of the world powers list. Although Great Britain’s nuclear program began in 1940, Clement Attlee’s government significantly increased the speed of development largely independent from American aid. Indeed, had it not been for Soviet spies passing along American secrets to the USSR, the UK would possibly have been the second instead of the third country to develop nuclear weapons.

Nevertheless, the first few years after the end of the Second World War were filled with recovery,uncertain, fear, and reorientation to a new world order. The atomic age reshaped British life from literature and films to government policies. The Iron Curtain had fallen across half of Europe and threatened to fall on Western Europe as well. America also underwent its own red scare in the 1940s and 50s but in a different way from Britain. In a strictly conformist society, to be different was to be potentially dangerous and both the US and UK sought to uproot subversive groups in society.  The overbearing reality that atomic bombs might destroy one’s country and one’s way of life at any moment was a powerful justification for taking radical measures.




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