It's often cited as one of the great ironies of history - that the United States and the Soviet Union were allies during World War II, and then enemies during the Cold War. Why is this?
We were fighting against a greater enemy during World War II, which was Nazi Germany
The answer is long and a bit complicated, but essentially it boils down to this: We in America allied with Soviet Russia during World War II to fight against a greater enemy (Nazi Germany) that had actually declared war on us, when Soviet Russia had not. Later on, we watched with horror as the poor countries of Eastern Europe were passed from one dictator (Hitler) to another (Joseph Stalin), and reluctantly realized that the Soviet Union could be every bit as threatening as Nazi Germany had been; and fought hard to prevent its expansion into any further territory.
The common theme in our dealings with the Russians was America's national interest
These ideas might seem incompatible: Allying with the Russians during one five-year period, and being enemies with them for more than forty years after that. Yet the alliance and the later conflict both had a common theme in them, which was America's national interest. It was served by an alliance of necessity during World War II, and an opposition of equal necessity during the Cold War period.
Russian Revolution of 1917
The arguments against allying with the Russians during World War II
On the one side of the debate, there are some who say we should not have allied with Soviet Russia during World War II. This side has plenty of ammunition for its arguments, in the many war crimes committed by the Soviet Union during this period (murders, rapes, and everything else); as well as a catalog of atrocious crimes against its own people during the 1920's and 30's (including the Red Terror, the Great Purges, and other mass murders). From the beginning of the Russian Revolution of 1917, the dictatorial tendencies of communism were well-documented; and we had reason to shudder at the prospect of an alliance with them.
Victims from the Great Purge, Moscow 1930's
The arguments for allying with the Russians in World War II
Why, then, did we ally with them? Some American communists say it is because we were friends with Soviet communism, but this is just not true - we were horrified at their system of government, and especially horrified at Joseph Stalin - one of the most cold-hearted dictators of the twentieth century. No, the alliance with Soviet communism was born of necessity, because there was an equally dangerous enemy in the expansionist nation of Nazi Germany. The many war crimes of Nazi Germany are well-known and well-documented, as was their declaration of war against us; and so I need not spend much time on the necessity of resisting them. The Nazis declared war on us, and the Russians didn't - making the decision at that time crystal-clear, about which side to ally with.
German troops marching in Paris, 1940
Why did we give the Russians weapons during World War II?
But some on this side of the debate point out that we supported Soviet Russia with weapons, and allowed them to have a significant portion of territory in Eastern Europe after the war was over. They controlled and oppressed that territory for more than forty years, using it as a base of operations against us; and the weapons we had given them during the war were often used to threaten and menace us during the early part of the Cold War. If the goal of this time was to serve American interest (this side asks), why was it that we allowed them to get so much land and weapons?
Battle of Stalingrad, 1942
For starters, we'd rather the Russians be doing the brunt of the fighting and the dying here ...
On the weapons part of the question, partly because we would rather see the Russian communists spilling their blood against Nazism than our own boys; and partly because we were producing more weapons than we knew what to do with - they might as well be used against the Nazis somewhere in the world; and why not on the other front - pushing the Germans from both sides, and not just one?
Red Army raises Soviet flag in Berlin after taking the city, 1945
... and the Soviet troops were a battlefield reality that diplomacy couldn't alter at this time
And on the land part of the question, there wasn't much we could do about that part - the Soviet troops occupying Eastern Europe were a battlefield reality that diplomacy couldn't alter. As horrible as their occupation of Eastern Europe was, there wasn't much we could do about it. All we could do was rebuild Western Europe and go home, leaving just enough troops there to prevent the Soviets from expanding further. It was a sad time, and doing anything more than that would have meant another shooting war - hardly what a war-weary America needed (or wanted) at that time.
Potsdam Conference between America, Britain, and the Soviet Union (1945)
The arguments against opposing communism during the Cold War
On the other side of the debate, there are those who take no issue with our alliance with communism; and say that it was our opposition to it during the Cold War that was the mistake. The ones making this argument range from genuine pacifists to communist sympathizers (with occasional overlap), and they are a diverse group of people with equally diverse opinions. What I have to say may not change many minds, but it may be helpful to say it anyway; that I might convince the people that are sitting on the fence, about how these two policies are more consistent than it might at first appear.
Soviets' first atomic bomb test, 1949
The arguments for opposing communism during the Cold War
Communism was a terrible system, and caused everything from poverty and oppression to forced labor and mass murders, in those countries that fell victim to it. We couldn't do anything about it where it already existed, not without getting into another shooting war - which after 1949, could have become a nuclear war (as that was the year the Soviets got the bomb) - but we could prevent it from expanding further, into more and more innocent victim nations. Our struggle with communism had many diverse aspects, ranging from building up nuclear weapons as a deterrent, to dangerous spy missions in the Soviet Union, to actual shooting wars in Korea and Vietnam. But all aspects of the struggle had one thing in common: to keep communism from expanding further, and to keep it from making helpless victims out of ever larger portions of the world's population. We lost in some of those areas (notably Vietnam), but we were ultimately successful in others; and prevented communism from spreading to Greece, South Korea, and Afghanistan (among others).
Battle of Seoul, 1950 (during Korean War)
We actually supported other corrupt and brutal regimes during the Cold War ...
Which brings us to another part of the debate: Was the United States really justified in supporting corrupt and brutal regimes from Latin America to Afghanistan, just to stop the spread of communism? It might sound insensitive to say it, but the answer is a resounding "yes," because having the un-free portion of the globe divided into different pieces called "nations" is better than having them all as bases of operation, unified by brutal force, under the expansionist government of one regime. If you think the Afghanistan of the Taliban was bad, just imagine an Afghanistan controlled by the Soviet Union, with the country being nothing more than a base from which a communist superpower could operate; and ask yourself if that really would have been the best thing for us to face in the 21st century. (The Taliban was bad enough; why face a communist Afghanistan?)
Soviet troops interrogate captured mujihadeen - Afghanistan, 1986
... for the same reasons that we supported the Soviet Union itself during World War II
We supported the Taliban in Afghanistan (and corrupt regimes from Latin America to Africa) for the same reasons we supported the Soviet Union itself during World War II - we wanted to keep a greater and more menacing enemy from gaining control over ever larger portions of the globe. These regimes were bad, but the prospect of more communist geopolitical power was worse; and we were right to keep the Soviet Union from expanding into these territories, and imposing their system of government therein.
Fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989
Conclusion: All of these policies protected American national interest, and were consistent
We may live in a far-from-perfect world, but I would argue that it's a better world than it might have been, had communism been unopposed.
Brandenburg Gate 1989, day after Berlin Wall fell
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Part of a series about
Communism in theory: Why Marxism can never work
The "Communist Manifesto" (and how Marxism got started)
Marx's "labor theory of value" (and why it doesn't work)
Problems with equalizing income (even in theory)
Problems with rewarding good behavior (under communism)
In defense of John Locke: The need for private property
Communism in practice: The results of the experiments
Revolution in Russia: How the madness got started
History's horror stories: The "grand experiments" with communism
Germany and Korea: The experiments that neither side wanted
Civil war in China: How China was divided
Actually, communism has been tried (and it doesn't work)