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History

Blockades, coups, and deteriorating relations: the beginning of the Cold War was a time of rising tensions between the world superpowers whilst the West and East attempted to assert their power.

The Cold War is considered to have started in 1947, whilst the time between 1945–49 is referred to as the Origins of the Cold War period. In this article, we’ll look at the first events of the Cold War.

Timeline of the beginning of the Cold War

1947

12 March: The Truman Doctrine

5 June: The Marshall Plan is proposed

5 October: Cominform is established

Molotov Plan is introduced

1948

Czechoslovakia Crisis

1 January: Bizonia is created

3 April: The Marshall Plan begins

24 June: The Berlin Blockade begins

1 August: France’s zone in Germany is incorporated into Bizonia to create Trizonia

1949

25 January: Comecon is founded

4 April: NATO is formed

12 May: Berlin Blockade ends

23 May: Formation of Federal Republic of Germany

29 August: First USSR atomic bomb test

7 October: The German Democratic Republic is formed

1955

14 May: Warsaw Pact is formed

The end of the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War

Throughout the Second World War, the leaders of the Soviet Union, the US, and Britain had worked together to defeat Nazi Germany and Japan in a wartime alliance called The Grand Alliance. However, the lack of a common enemy at the end of the war heightened tensions between the powers, as the post-war world began. The incompatibility of the capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union soon led to the Cold War.

To find out more about why the Cold War began, see The Origins of the Cold War explanation.

The US post-war foreign policy

One of the first responses of the US to the rising Cold War tensions was its policy of containment. This focus on containment as a foreign policy was largely due to George Kennan's long telegram of 1946. This telegram stated that the USSR was ‘fanatically and implacably’ hostile to the West and only listened to the ‘logic of force’.

Containment can be defined as a US foreign policy strategy of ‘containing’ or isolating communism to prevent it from spreading to neighbouring countries.

The first manifestation of containment was the Truman Doctrine. On 12 March 1947, President Harry S Truman declared that the US would ‘support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.’ This came from a particular concern about Greece and Turkey. After the Second World War, Greece and Turkey were highly unstable and involved in nationalist and pro-communist rebellions. Britain could no longer afford to offer aid to these countries, so, in line with the goal of containment, the US offered $400 million in aid to Greece and Turkey.

The Marshall Plan

Start Cold War Marshall Plan Poster StudySmarterOne of many posters created to promote the Marshall Plan in Europe, Wikimedia Commons.

Economic support to Europe did not stop there. An initiative put forward by US Secretary of State George C. Marshall on 5 June 1947 aimed to aid the economic recovery in Western Europe. The initiative was called the Marshall Plan or the European Recovery Plan.

It aimed to alleviate the economic struggles of European countries by providing the assistance required to recover their economies and industrial production. This would also benefit the United States as many of the resources purchased with the allocated funds came from the US. As well as rebuilding Europe, the Marshall Plan would also promote world trade to the US advantage.

Additionally, the US saw economic recovery as vital to the protection of democracy and peace. The Marshall Plan was therefore compatible with the US foreign policy aim of containment.

The Marshall Plan operated for four years: from its introduction until 3 April 1948, and gave approximately $13 billion in foreign aid.

How did the USSR react to the Marshall Plan?

The Soviet Union rejected the Marshall Plan completely and prevented countries in its sphere of influence from accepting aid. This strained Soviet-US relations. The Marshall Plan was referred to by the Soviet press as ‘a plan for interference in the domestic affairs of other countries.’

The Soviet Union rejected the plan with three main strategies: the Cominform, the Molotov Plan, and the Comecon.

In October 1947, the Soviet Union set up the Cominform, formally the Communist Information Bureau. It was an organisation designed to consolidate control in Eastern Europe and support trade and collective industry between the Cominform countries.

This can be considered the Soviet version of the Marshall Plan. In 1947, after Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov rejected the Marshall Plan, he proposed this alternative which provided aid to rebuild Eastern Europe. The beneficiaries were Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Romania.

Comecon refers to the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance, which was founded in January 1949 to administer the Molotov Plan. It was an economic union to deliver aid whilst also tying countries to the Soviet Union’s command economy.

The events that further heightened tensions between the US and the USSR

Two key events in 1948, consolidated Cold War tensions: the Czechoslovakia Crisis and the beginning of the Berlin Blockade.

The Czechoslovakia Crisis

At the beginning of 1948, Czechoslovakia was the only democratic country left in Eastern Europe. The country failed to receive Marshall aid, however, and this was blamed on the communists in the coalition government.

1948 saw a communist coup d'état, with the police force taken over and purged of non-communists. Non-communists were removed from the government, and foreign minister Jan Masaryk was famously defenestrated (thrown from a window).

These events increased the US’ fears of communism.

Coup d'état

The sudden overthrow of a government by a small group.

The Berlin Blockade

The Berlin Blockade was the first major Cold War crisis. The separation of Germany into zones led to a stark division in the lives of Germans. In January 1948, the US and Britain joined their zones to create Bizonia and France’s zone was incorporated in August. Western Germany benefitted from Marshall Aid whilst East Germany was denied this option and was subject to reparations from the Soviet Union.

Berlin was situated in the Soviet zone but was also divided: West Berlin became an island of capitalism in a sea of communism. In order to support the economic recovery, the Western powers decided to introduce a new currency in 1948: the Deutsche Mark.

In response, Stalin blockaded West Berlin to prevent the access of the Allies. This led to the Berlin Airlift, during which the US delivered food and supplies for around two million Berliners. In May 1949, Stalin was forced to lift the blockade.

The Beginning of the Cold War Berliners during Berlin Blockade StudySmarter Berliners watching an aeroplane land at Tempelhof Airport in 1948, Wikimedia Commons.

How did the Berlin Airlift impact the relations?

By 1949, the Cold War had well and truly begun. In May 1949, the three western zones of Germany formed the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the East became the German Democratic Republic in October. The division of Europe was clearer than ever before, and hostility between the US and the USSR was high.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was formed in 1949 in order to provide collective security against attacks by the USSR. The US and Western European nations agreed that an armed attack on any of them was considered an attack on them all. This was seen as provocative by Stalin who formed an opposing organisation, the Warsaw Pact, in 1955.

In August 1949, the USSR also exploded its first atomic bomb. At a point of hostility after the Berlin Blockade, and sooner than the US expected, this significantly heightened tensions and kickstarted the Arms Race.

The Beginning of the Cold War - Key takeaways

  • The US policy of containment was inherently against communism. The actions taken in line with it were naturally unpleasing to the Soviet Union.

  • The Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan were examples of the US containment policy and demonstrated the US commitment against communism.

  • The USSR reacted severely to the Marshall Plan, attempting to formalise its sphere of influence through Cominform, the Molotov Plan, and Comecon.

  • The Berlin Blockade was the first major crisis of the Cold War and made the division of Europe more evident. With it, the Cold War was brought to the forefront of international politics.

  • The two opposing powers formed collective security organisations: NATO and the Warsaw Pact. The formation of the Warsaw Pact was another example of the USSR seeing US policies as combative and reacting with its own version.

Start Cold War

Reasons for the start of the Cold War include:

  • Tensions at the end of the Second World War.
  • Ideological conflict.
  • US fear of communism.
  • Nuclear weapons.

The Cold War started in 1947, but its origins go back much further.

The early Cold War saw the introduction of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, which were met with hostility by the Soviet Union. It, in turn, reacted with the introduction of Coninform, Comecon, and the Molotov Plan. The early Cold War also involved the Czechoslovakia Crisis and the Berlin Blockade and Airlift.

This is a complex historical question, and historians do not agree on the answer. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but this does not necessarily mean the United States won. Some historians argue that the Soviet Union had simply reached its natural lifespan. 

The beginning of the Cold War is not easy to pinpoint, but it was marked by events such as the end of WWII, and the US policy of containment.

Final Start Cold War Quiz

Question

What were the Western powers concerned might happen to their states in the aftermath of the Second World War? (Choose two answers)

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Answer

They would turn to communism

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Question

What two of these circumstances made the Western states vulnerable to the USSR? (Choose two answers)

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Answer

Stalin’s great economic power

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Question

Explain how the US could prevent European countries from turning to communism.


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Answer

Economic aid to European countries with a focus on recovery and rebuilding would make communism look less favourable. They did this in the form of the Marshall Plan.

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Question

Which of these countries were original members of NATO? (Choose three)


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Answer

Greece

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Which of these belong among the purposes for the formation of NATO? (Choose two)

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Answer

 Encourage European cooperation

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Explain why article 5 is so important in the NATO treaty.

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Answer

Article 5 is so important because it enshrined collective defence. The statement ‘an armed attack against one Ally is considered an attack against all Allies’ means that if one NATO member is attacked, then all NATO nations will retaliate.

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Question

What did the Truman Doctrine have to do with the formation of NATO?


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Answer

The Truman Doctrine promoted a US Policy of Containment towards the USSR. This policy meant that the US would try to prevent the USSR from gaining control of any more countries. The threat of Soviet expansionism was one of the causes of the formation of NATO, which would ultimately support the US in not allowing communism to spread.

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Why were Czechoslovakia and West Berlin factors in the formation of NATO?


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In 1948 a coup d’état gave the USSR power over Czechoslovakia, removing the final Eastern European democracy. The Allies became worried about increasing Soviet influence. West Berlin was important due to the Berlin Blockade of 1948, where the USSR cut off trade corridors to West Berlin. This demonstrated the volatility of the USSR, its power, and threatened war. NATO was introduced to prepare the Western countries for this eventuality.

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Why was it important for the US to have a presence in Europe? (Choose three options)


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Answer

To free Eastern European countries from communism

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Question

How did China and North Korea influence the formation of NATO?


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Answer

A reason for the formation of NATO was that the USA was becoming increasingly worried about the spread of communism. China’s Communist Revolution in 1949 and North Korea’s turn to communism in 1950 compounded this, making NATO more urgent and encouraging them to focus on creating a real military power.

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Question

Which of these countries were members of the Warsaw Pact? (Choose two)


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Answer

China

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Question

What event in 1955 compelled the USSR to create the Warsaw Pact and why?


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In 1955 West Germany was allowed to join NATO and permitted an army and air force. This concerned the USSR as they worried about Germany regaining their power.

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What does the term ‘Massive Retaliation’ mean and how did it affect relations?


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The US adopted this doctrine, meaning that they would respond with nuclear weapons if the USSR attacked in any way. This threat prevented either side from taking risks and meant that countries could focus on economic development and other avenues rather than building up their military.

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Question

How was the Warsaw Pact utilised to exert Soviet control over Czechoslovakia in 1968?


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Answer

During the Prague Spring, where a relaxation of restrictions threatened the Soviet Union’s control, the Soviet Union ordered the Warsaw Pact countries to invade. The use of these countries tightened the USSR’s control over its states by deterring any future rebellions.

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Did the Warsaw Pact and NATO ever directly confront each other?


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No, they remained in a long standoff during the Cold War until the end, mainly due to the threat of nuclear weapons.

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What vital supplies were cut off to West Berlin during the Berlin Blockade? (Choose two answers)

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Answer

Candy

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How was the USSR able to blockade West Berlin?

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Answer

Berlin was split between the four allies but was situated 100 miles into the Soviet zone of Germany. The West relied on two main trade corridors, which were easy for the Soviet military to block off.

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Question

Which of these factors incited paranoia in Stalin in 1948? (Choose three answers)


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Answer

The currency reforms

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What was Stalin paranoid about?


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Answer

Stalin was paranoid that the Western Allies’ consolidation of force might result in them overpowering the USSR and taking control of Germany. Stalin wanted Germany as a buffer zone between it and the West, losing it might make the USSR vulnerable to attacks from the West.

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Question

What was the currency reform of 1948?


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Answer

The Western zones introduced a currency reform in 1948 to facilitate the Marshall Plan, replacing the Reichsmark with the Deutschmark. East Germany retaliated by introducing the Ostmark and starting the Berlin Blockade.

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Which of these was an effect of the Marshall Plan? (Choose three answers)


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The currency reforms

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Question

What were the potential consequences of the Allied Powers surrendering West Berlin to the Soviets?


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Answer

The Allied Forces would look weak against the USSR
The USSR would gain power over Berlin and potentially the whole of Germany

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What was the potential consequence of the Allied Powers sending in troops to try and get supplies in through the blocked routes?


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Answer

It could be dangerous and potentially be seen as an act of war, where the Western side was the aggressor.

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Which of these were not potential consequences of airlifting in supplies? (Choose two answers)


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The Soviets could shoot down the planes

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Why did the Truman Doctrine of 1947 prevent the Allied Powers from doing nothing?

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Answer

The Truman Doctrine stated that the US would provide aid to any state standing up against communism, committing themselves to a policy of containment. They had to intervene and prevent the potential Soviet expansionism that might take over Berlin and Germany.

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How long did the Berlin Blockade last?


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The Berlin Blockade lasted for 11 months until Stalin lifted it on 12 May 1949.

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Which of these factors caused Stalin to lift the Berlin Blockade? (Choose two)

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America declared war on the USSR

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Question

What significance does the term Candy Bomber have for PR?


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Answer

The Candy Bomber referred to a pilot that dropped candy for the children of West Berlin. This story was a huge PR success and contributed towards the positive image of the West during the Cold War.

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How did Germany change after the Berlin Blockade?


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Answer

Germany was divided into two official states, the German Federal Republic, and the German Democratic Republic. The West refused, however, to recognise the German Democratic Republic.

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Which of these were formed shortly after, and as a result of, the Berlin Blockade? (Choose two answers)


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The Allied Control Council (ACC)

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Which of these was not a Soviet reaction to the Marshall Plan?

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Comintern

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When was the Berlin Blockade?


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June 1948-May 1949

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When did the USSR successfully test their first atomic bomb?


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Answer

August 1949

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How did the US deal with the Berlin Blockade?


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Through the Berlin Airlift.

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Name the two opposing treaty organisations formed after the Berlin Blockade.


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The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the Warsaw Pact.

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When was the Czechoslovakia Crisis?


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Answer

1948

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Give two examples of containment in US post-war foreign policy.


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Answer

The Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan.

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What was East Germany officially called and when was it formed?


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The Federal Republic of Germany, May 1949

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What particularly influenced the US policy of containment?

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George Kennan's long telegram.

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Concern about which countries, in particular, influenced the Truman Doctrine?

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Answer

Greece and Turkey

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What was Cominform?


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It was an organisation designed to consolidate control in Eastern Europe and support trade and collective industry between the Eastern bloc countries.

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What does Comecon refer to?

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Council of Mutual Economic Assistance.

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Who was thrown out a window in the Czechoslovakia Crisis?

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Answer

Foreign minister Jan Masaryk 

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What was the new currency the Western powers introduced in West Germany in 1948?

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The Deutsche Mark

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Why was the Truman Doctrine introduced?

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To help poorer countries rebuild after WWII

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Which international organisation was created as an indirect result of the Truman Doctrine?

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Answer

The United Nations (UN)

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What did Truman do in order to ensure Congress would pass the Truman Doctrine?

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He played up the threat of communism

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Why did the British-aided coalition government in Greece fail?

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Answer

The communists and royalists did not want to work together

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Why did the US get involved in Greece?

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Answer

Britain asked for their help

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Why were the USSR unhappy with Turkey?

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Answer

They refused to allow them to use the Turkish Straits and took financial aid from the US

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