If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Strobe Talbott on the beginning of the Cold War

How the Cold War developed after post WWII peace summits and the strategic patience that stopped the expansion of Soviet communism: Stalin, Truman, Churchill Potsdam Agreement, Warsaw Pact, Yalta Summit, Potsdam Summit. Fmr. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott in conversation with Walter Isaacson, President & CEO of The Aspen Institute.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

I'm Walter Isaacson of the Aspen Institute i'm here with strobe Talbott who was Deputy Secretary of State and a colleague at Time magazine let's start as we look at the toolbox of American diplomacy with the beginning of the Cold War how did the Cold War suddenly happen when the Soviet Union was our ally during World War two well the Soviet Union was not just our ally in some ways it was an indispensable al I had adolf hitler and the vermont been able to concentrate on the Western Front it's a counterfactual history but there is a decent chance that the war would have gone another way at least in Europe some people say the fact that we didn't open a Western Front soon enough cause Stalin to be resentful to Britain in the United States and help lay the ground for the cult for the split well Stalin wasn't on the moral high ground on that or any other issue because he of course had made a separate peace with Hitler which involved among other things slicing up Central Europe and annexing the Baltic States he was perfectly prepared to not only sit out the war but wish Hitler all the luck in destroying the capitalist world and so at the end of World War two or as its ending we have the Yalta summit and the Potsdam assignment both of which involve Britain the United States and Russia and there is sort of a carving up of the world at least Churchill tries to carve up Sears of influence a very realistic to diplomacy explain that to us well I think it's significant that there were two different American presidents involved another speculative point what if Roosevelt's health had allowed him to remain in office for a long time afterwards he Roosevelt might have been less inclined than Truman was to see Stalin and the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc as a new and immediate enemy but you're right of course when Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill and Stalin met at Yalta there was an agreement that the great powers would have their own spheres of influence and that is a issue and a point of grievance in the countries that were put into the Soviet sphere of influence right down to this day in other words Eastern European countries like Czechoslovakia Poland and others were assigned to the Russian or Soviet sphere over their heads without their permission right and then of course as you move to the Potsdam agreement with Harry Truman now in the presidency of the United States the division of Germany itself I came about producing yet another state namely the German Democratic Republic which of course now no longer exists because of the end of the Cold War but there was something else very important about Potsdam of course and that is that Harry Truman came to Potsdam knowing that the United States now had a usable atomic bomb and he was careful to keep that as a secret but we now know that Stalin almost certainly knew that the United States I had the atomic bomb and therefore even though they were putting on the finishing touches of the piece that would end world war two both of those men and Churchill were thinking in terms of the next crisis and the war that would last even longer much longer than the world war two itself and that's the cold and that's the Cold War which is the West versus the Russian Communist dreams when did Harry Truman realize that we were going to be in a long cold war with Russia towards the end of 46 and 47 when it was clear that Stalin was going to waste no time in doing two things one was using the fact that the Soviet Army the Red Army had moved into Central Europe to defeat the Germans and then immediately set up essentially occupation regimes in those countries and he Stalin was also probing the way and its allies further east here I'm thinking particularly of Greece in Turkey and Iran I think at that point Truman understood exactly what the stakes were and gathered around him his immediate advisers to come up with a strategy that would basically be the strategy of containment for decades to come explain what the containment strategy was and George cannons role in it well the important thing about the word containment is that it says what we the United States were going to do but also what we the United States were going to do everything we could to avoid having to do the latter being have an all-out war with the Soviet Union it was a matter of creating a circle of allies around the Soviet Union that would keep them from expanding beyond where they already were it was essentially an agreed stalemate and it almost certainly would not have been possible were it not for what George Kennan called the cloud of nuclear danger hanging over the world George Kennan understood very early on the malignancy of Soviet Communism its malignant in an almost medically literal sense that it metastasizes unless it is stopped and so that was where he came up with the word in the concept out of the policy of containment and he believed that if you contain the Soviet Union that eventually it would collapse of its own internal contradictions he had a great phrase what might be called strategic patience hanging in there contained contained contained in due course there would be an organic process within the Soviet Union that would because of human nature people wanting to live normal lives people wanting to interact with the rest of the world soviet communism would mellow that was the verb and it's one of the most extraordinarily prophetic observations that i can think of and in the course of diplomatic history thanks