Thursday 23 May 2013

The Origins of the Cold War

Daryl McCann

Part 1

I am dividing this presentation into three parts. In the first section I will state the traditionalist perspective on the origins of the Cold War, and then in the second part some of the problems with it will be addressed. I will also look at various attempts to go beyond the traditionalist explanation – examining the various revisionist views. I will also consider post-revisionist explanations for the origins of the Cold War, exploring the ideology-driven nature of both.  Lastly, an examination of the Cold War in a way that we might call a neo-traditionalist perspective, which does not put ideology as the unchallenged causal agent, but considers the often neglected aspect of geo-politics and realpolitik.

So, to begin with, an overview of the traditionalist view. By December 1945 President Truman, in power since April of that year, was at the end of his tether because the Soviet Union had turned down an official invitation to join the World Bank. Just one year before the Soviet had attended the Bretton-Woods Conference in America, the forerunner to the World Bank, but now Moscow seemed to be taking a belligerent line towards the old Grand Alliance that had seen off Nazi Germany.

Truman believed the USA had been more than respectful towards the Soviet Union during 1945. For instance, at the February 1945 Potsdam Conference the Americans and the British had given in to Stalin’s demands to radically redraw the Polish borders in favour of the Soviet Union, (on the proviso that democratic elections were held in the new Poland.) No such elections eventuated. Moreover, the USA had recognised the new communist governments in Bulgaria and Romania in 1945, but under Soviet instructions American journalists and diplomats were basically quarantined in those countries. The USA did not complain about eastern Romania, Moldova, being incorporated into the Soviet Union. There was also no objection to the German city-state of Königsberg being included as an external territory into the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic in the form of the Kaliningrad Obelisk. The Soviet Union had overridden the wishes of the Baltic peoples and incorporated Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as member states of the USSR, had troops occupying northern Iran, and was making ambit claims for Mussolini’s former possessions in the Mediterranean and for control over the Dardanelles Straits. The Soviet Union had agreed to be a foundation member of the United Nations, but from Truman’s perspective did not seem interested in a peaceable post-WW2 dispensation. Although the Soviets allowed the Western powers to relocate to West Berlin in July 1945 (through the Potsdam Agreement), the Soviet Occupied Zone, the SBZ or East Germany, was increasingly cut off from the other three zones, although full border control did not eventuate until 1950. The ACC, the Allied Control Council, had been established in early 1945 to co-ordinate a united Germany, but it was never functional. The Soviet formally left the ACC in 1947, and yet this was just political theatre. The Soviets had never allowed their war-time allies to play any role in East Germany.   

It is in this context, and in this spirit, that Truman read Keenan’s Telegram in early 1946. Here is a quote from that 8,000-word document: “In summary, we have here [in the Soviets] a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with the US there can be no permanent modus vivendi; that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of [American] society be disrupted, [American] traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of [the American] state be broken.” Truman read into this that America had to participate in another ideological battle. His understanding of what was now unfolding, and what many Cold Warriors went on to believe, was that as the USA had previously confronted the totalitarianism of Nazism, Japanese Imperialism and Italian Fascism, it now had to do battle with the threat and expansionist ideology of Marxist-Leninism.

We can sympathise with Truman’s attempt to make sense of Moscow’s aggressiveness throughout 1945 by finding a theory or rationale to explain the behaviour of the Soviets. However, there are serious problems with the argument that the ideology of Marxist-Leninism propelled the Soviet Union towards a new war, albeit a Cold War. For instance, in 1945 the Soviet Union recognized the Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists as the legitimate government in China, seemingly satisfied with the ambition of creating a Soviet-style regime in Manchuria. The Soviets also hastily removed their troops from Bornholm and northern Iran at the behest of the United States. Moreover, until 1949 the Soviet Union was not in possession of atomic weaponry; this raises the question of why the Soviet Union would want to go to war with America in the immediate post-war years. There is also the matter of the sharp decline in the Red Army between 1945 and 1946, although this trend was reversed from 1947 as the Cold War took hold.

There are various other indications that the Soviet Union was not looking to start a war of any kind against the USA in 1945. One small, but interesting example, was found after the Soviet archives were opened in 1991. Soviet chocolates in 1945 had the poster of wartime American propaganda, Rita Rivet and her slogan “We Can Do It!” as one of their wrappers. Furthermore, throughout 1945 there was hardly one official Soviet document seriously critical of the United States. The term “totalitarianism” is a description that applies to Stalin’s Soviet Union no less than it can serve to define Hitler’s Germany. And yet that is not to say the regimes were identical. In matters of foreign policy, Hitler was impulsive, ridiculously ambitious, and chanced his luck at every turn. Stalin’s foreign policy is much less easy to categorise. Stalin’s foreign police played a role in the origins of the Second World War, but the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939, for instance, counts as a contributing factor only. In other words, Stalin was not looking to start the Second World War, though he was not without some responsibility. The same can be said about Stalin and the Cold War.


Part 2

The Soviets always argued that the origins of the Cold War were, ideologically speaking, the very antithesis of the traditionalist point of view. In other words, the origin of the conflict was not communist expansionism and belligerency, but American imperialism. Thus, the Soviets depicted the new people’s and workers’ republics in the Eastern bloc as the victims of capitalist machinations. The Marshall Plan was not the well-meaning USA trying to help out war-ravaged Europe, but a dark plan to co-opt Europe into America’s plans for world domination.

The revisionist historians in the West were a lot more subtle in their denunciation of America, but there is a tremendous overlap between Soviet explanations for the Cold War and the American leftist historians – we might call them the historians of the New Left – who blamed the Cold War on American capitalist ideology. We shall touch on two of these historians today.

For example, in his 1959 opus, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, William Appleman Williams blamed the Roosevelt administration for insisting on an ‘Open Door Policy’ at the conclusion of the Second World War – that is, the demand that capitalism should be universal, instead of accepting the Soviet Zone and the Eastern Bloc as a ‘no go zone’. Moreover, the United States should have continued with its Lend-Lease grants to Moscow, even after Germany’s surrender. If this had been the case, Stalin would have remained more benevolent towards and less fearful of the United States. If America had helped with the post-war reconstruction of the socialist Soviet Union, perhaps out of gratitude for the Soviet Union’s massive contribution, including those 27 million war dead, for instance, then Stalin would have been thankful to the United States. But America, with its “imperialism of idealism” failed to take this option because Soviet communism represented a different economic system and a different ideology from America’s.
David Horowitz, in his 1967 From Yalta to Vietnam, also argues from a New Left or revisionist position that it was the USA that initiated the Cold War, although Horowitz finds President Truman rather than Roosevelt guilty. In fact, From Yalta to Vietnam suggests that it was the new American president (Roosevelt died in March 1945), along with Secretary of State Byrne, who turned against the Soviet Union, especially when Nazi Germany had been destroyed and the Soviet Union was no longer ‘useful’. He cites American belligerence about the Soviet Union’s postwar occupation of northern Iran as an example of America’s bad faith. Once Stalin agreed to remove his troops in 1946, the Americans swarmed into the place and soon the country was a part of an American alliance: Stalin, supposedly, decided never to allow America a way into the Soviet spheres of influence and this explains why the Eastern Bloc was sovietised: the harder American pushed (eg., the Marshall Plan) the harsher was Stalin’s response (e.g., the communist coup in Czechoslavakia in 1948 and the 1948-49 Berlin siege). The Cold War, then, was about Stalin responding to American aggression. Between 1945 and 1948/49, America was the powerful nation with atomic weapons and the Soviet Union was on its back foot. Truman’s containment project was based on false premises – Soviet aggression – but it turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy: it forced the Soviet Union to be aggressive, and thus the world was increasingly divided up into two warring camps.

What can be said about these revisionist explanations for the origins of the Cold War is that the Soviet Union was in no condition to launch any kind of military confrontation against the United States in the immediate aftermath of the Second World. As we have already touched on, great swathes of Soviet territory were laid waste by the Nazi invasion and occupation between 1941 and 1945, not to forget the 27 million or so dead Soviets. Also, the Soviet armed forces were significantly reduced between 1945 and 1946. We must also remember that from 1945 up until 1949, the USA was the only country that possessed atomic weaponry. There is a case to be made that the Soviet Union was not in a position to be the aggressor vis-à-vis the flourishing USA. Stalin might have been fatalistic about a Third World War, but that was closer to 1952 and 1953, and not right at the beginning of the Cold War.       

However, since that time the Soviet archives have been opened up. And the information garnered there leaves us with a picture of the structure of political power in Moscow that is at odds with the revisionist perspectives. For instance, in The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, published back in 1959, Stalin had been described as a member of a moderate wing of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union that was interested in achieving a postwar “economic and political understanding with America that would allow Russia to handle the problems of recovery and at the same time relax certain controls and pressures inside the country.” The archives show a very different analysis of Stalin and the Soviet hierarchy. There was no moderate wing of the CPSU. By the end of the 1936-39 Great Purges there was no question of any group or anyone challenging Stalin’s authority. Moreover, there was never going to be a more liberal Soviet Union at the completion of the Second World. Terror was the theme of Stalin’s rule and remained like that through the demotion of Marshall Zhukhov, the 1948 Leningrad Affair, and the so-called Doctor’s Plot of 1952-53. This is not to say that Stalin was looking for a Cold War in 1945, but the kind of alliance that existed between America and the Soviet Union from 1942-45 was never on the cards in the post-war era. In short, the origins of the Cold War could not be entirely blamed on the United States.
Post-Revisionism Mark I, then, is an attempt to explain the origins of the Cold War in terms of two aggressive and clashing ideologies. Expressions such as “mutual suspicion and fear” are the hallmark of this explanation for the origins of the Cold War. Thus, America offered membership of the World Bank to the Soviet Union in good faith but also in ignorance the nature of the requirements of Gosplan and a command economy. Similarly, the Soviet Union declined to join the World Bank in December 1945 without realising the alarm bells this would set off in Truman’s White House.

Mutual suspicion and fear, furthermore, had been building even while the Grand Alliance was in active operation. Two examples: the Americans all along knew about the 1940 Katyn Massacre of Polish officers in the Soviet-occupied zone of Poland; it was, of course, the August 1939 Nazi-Soviet Agreement that saw Soviet troops in eastern Poland in the first place: the same stretch of territory, basically, that Stalin insisted be officially incorporated into the Soviet Union at the February 1945 Potsdam Conference. Likewise, Stalin had assumed that D-Day would happen as early as 1942 and at the latest in 1943, and was furious that the Soviets had to carry the burden of fighting the Nazis on its own for so long. He was always suspicious that the Americans and the British would not mind if the Soviet Union failed to recover from the Second World War.           

What we might call Post-Revisionism Mark II is often associated with the work of the American historian John Lewis Gaddis. The culmination of his thinking is to be found Now We Know (2005) and The Cold War (2007). His work fits in the general framework of post-revisionism in that he talks about two competing ideologies, “democracy” and “authoritarianism”, necessarily coming into conflict with each other on a global scale. He also factors in the Second World War as a catalyst to the Cold War, in that Roosevelt never committed enough forces to the European theatre, and thus allowed to be in a dominant position come May 1945, forcing the US to play catch up as a consequence.    

America had a certain vision of the future, and thus we have the establishment of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949. The Soviet Union had an entirely different vision, and we can see the outcome of that vision in the form of the German Democratic Republic. The Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, the creation of NATO, and the formal of the two Germanys were all as a consequence of two competing ideologies. When the Berlin Wall came down we saw the victory of “democracy” over “authoritarianism”. It sound plausible enough, and yet “revisionist” historians would not be the only ones to argue that “democracy" versus “authoritarianism” does not adequately characterise all the treacherous and unscrupulous nature of much of the Cold War.           

 Part 3

There is another way to explain the origins of the Cold War and I will call it neo-traditionalist in the sense it puts the blame more on the Soviet Union than America, although it is not traditionalist, or revisionist or post-revisionist, because it is characterised by geo-political considerations and realpolitik, which relegates the role of ideology in international affairs to a secondary function. In this part of the presentation we will focus on the situation in Germany between May 1945 and January 1946. I am going to argue that it was in these months and in this location that powerful reasons for the Cold War can be found, and that ideological conflict was mostly subsequent to that.

Most importantly, there is an argument that the Soviet Union did not want Germany to be permanently partitioned; that the entity known as the German Democratic Republic was not a part of Stalin’s Plan A. In the book Conversations with Stalin, published as early as 1946, Milan Djilas, a Yugoslavian, recounts that Stalin made it clear in private discussions that he wanted Moscow to have influence over all of Germany and not just one small sector of it. Another excellent book on this subject is Stalin’s Unwanted Child, written by Wilfried Loth and published in 1998. Loth contends that if Stalin was so keen on an East German communist state from the get-go, why did he transfer East Prussia to the Poles in 1945? In addition, why further truncate what was to become East Germany by transforming the old German city of Königsberg into a detached outpost of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic, usually referred to at the Kalingrad Obelisk. All this occurred at the Yalta Conference in February 1945 before the war had ended. Again, why cut off a future communist East Germany at the knees?

The hypothesis here, then, is that Stalin genuinely wanted Germany to remain a united entity after the war. And why wouldn’t he? The real industrial and energy resources existed in the Ruhr, in the western zones of occupation, and why would Stalin want to pass up on that? In fact, significant amounts of coal and industrial infrastructure from the western zones were transferred to the Soviet Union throughout 1945. The growing tension between the western zones and the Soviet-administered East Germany, originally called the SBZ, brought this to an end in 1946. That could hardly have been a strategic result wished for by Stalin.

There is evidence that the Soviet Union was not always viewed by Germans in an entirely bad light in comparison with the USA and Britain. A reliable and well-positioned eyewitness to all this was a man called Wolfgang Leonhard. He was a member of the Walter Ulbricht Group, a small leadership team within the KPD formed by the Soviet Union in 1944 and spirited into Berlin in early May 1945. Leonhard defected from the SBZ or East Germany in 1946 but his record of events in 1945 is valuable. Amongst other things, he claimed that the Americans and the British had a poor reputation in Berlin in early May 1945, mostly because of the allied air campaign against Berlin which had continued for a number of years. The Red Army, in contrast, had at least come and fought in the open. The KPD, under Ulbricht, went to work setting up so-called “united front organizations” in both West and East Berlin – the Americans did not arrive until July – with the intention of turning every new administrative or social institution in the city into a communist front. We have Leonard’s record of Ulbricht saying this in May 1945: “It must look democratic but everything must be in our hands”. At first the Berliners played along with this, at least in a passive way, with most of them dazed and traumatised by the rapid and violent destruction of the Third Reich.

But then the Soviet authorities completely misplayed the situation, unofficially condoning the large-scale rape of the women of Berlin by the victorious Red Army, which you can read about in Antony Beevor’s Berlin – The Downfall (2008). Secondly, the Soviet authorities carried out what has been called “demontage”, the looting of everything not bolted down, all of it relocated to the Soviet Union. By June 1945, the Soviet Union had largely forfeited whatever positive reputation it had previously held. The only indigenous German institution that remained under the sway of Moscow happened to be the KPD and its popularity in the SBZ or East Germany, let alone the three western zones, was minimal. To broaden the appeal of the KPD, Stalin ordered it to form an alliance with the SPD, not just in East Germany but throughout the whole of Germany.

Once more, Stalin’s original intention seems to have been the retention of a united Germany, albeit a Germany that was friendly towards the Soviet Union. He wanted a “Finlandized Germany” in other words. Finland, you might remember, had fought a plucky defensive war against the Soviet Union in 1940, and then, both surprisingly and not surprisingly, cheered on Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa in June 1941. Moreover, up to 1,200 Finns joined the Waffen-SS and fought against the Soviet Union everywhere, from north of Leningrad to the oilfields of Chechnya. At the conclusion of the Second World War, the Soviet Union towered threateningly over Finland, and although private enterprise and a bourgeois republic continued in the post-War years, Finland was studiously neutral during the Cold War, neither a member of NATO nor the Warsaw Pact. Finland also made no moves to join the Common Market. Finland was neutralized. Finland was neutered. But at the same time Finland remained a “bourgeois republic”, its economy mostly run along capitalist or free market lines. Interestingly, Austria was “Finlandized” after Khrushchev order the Red Army out of an occupied eastern sector in 1956. The Republic of Austria, as part of the deal, never joined the EEC or NATO during the time of the Cold War, although it retained its capitalist economy.  

In certain ways, Finland, with its small population, sparse landscape, geographic location, and past history as a territory within the Tsarist Russian Empire, was different from Germany. Stalin’s plan for a united, bourgeois and neutral Germany required some form of leverage on the part of the Soviets. Ultimately, it depended on a successful amalgamation of the SPD and the KPD in all the occupied zones, not just in East Germany. This kind of merger between Soviet-style communist parties and social democratic parties and agrarian socialist parties or peasant parties was occurring all over Eastern Europe. The difference between, say, Poland or Rumania or Hungary and Germany, is that the United States Armed Forces were not stationed in those other territories. In January 1946 the SPD was ordered to be absorbed into a coalition with the KPD by the Soviet occupation authorities combined, creating the Socialist Unity Party, or the SED. The SPD in the SBZ did not really have much choice – dissenters found themselves promptly imprisoned in Hoehenschönhausen, 25,000 of them according to a public lecture given by Huburtus Knabe at the Adelaide Migration Museum, July 7, 2009. Notoriously, dissenters in the SBZ or East Germany were not only incarcerated in Hoenschönhausen, but in one of a number of the former Nazi concentration camps the Soviet authorities were utilizing. Nazi criminals and opponents of Soviet authority in the SBZ could find themselves in the same prison: this might have suppressed dissent in the Soviet zone, but had a very different effect in the western zones.                                 

Not surprisingly, in this context, the SPD in the western zones refused to join forces with the KPD, and instead made common cause with the CDU, which had risen phoenix-like from the ashes of the pre-Third Reich Centre Party. This development, I should like to argue, started a chain of events that turned into the Cold War. It is, in retrospect, easy to say that America created a West German state in its own image because of ideological considerations, but it also true that Americans responded to the demands and fears of the West German people. The establishment of administration reforms in the British and American zones throughout 1946, the formation of Bizonia in January 1947, the commencement of currency reform in 1948, the Berlin Airlift, 1948-49, the official formation of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949, and the establishment of NATO in 1949 were in their essence reactive.

I need to mention the detailed research that Carolyn Eisenberg carried out for her revisionist explanation for the origins of the Cold War, Drawing the Line: The American Decision to Divide Germany, 1944-1949 (1997). I should add here that, though a revisionist, Eisenberg would agree with me that it is events in post-War Germany that serve as the genesis for the Cold War. She makes a very good case that Americans at the highest levels secretly welcomed Stalin’s 1948-49 siege of West Berlin because it enhanced the legitimacy of an approaching West German state. In other words, the whole episode was a bit more complex than the newsreel accounts of a shocked America sadly but resolutely coming to the defense of freedom.  For the major part of 1946, 1947, 1948 and 1949, documentation shows the Americans rejecting overtures from the Soviets and pushing Stalin into a corner. Thus, the Americans privately welcomed the siege of Berlin. This is quite likely all true, but I would argue that America came to a decision to – as Eisenberg says – “divide Germany” post-January 1946. If we get the sequence right, then we might conclude that the American decision came in reaction to Soviet and KPD actions on the ground. A little PS on this is the infamous “Stalin Letter” of 1953 when Stalin still seems to be holding out for one last chance to see Germany united. Of course he might have been hoping for that, and of course America would have rejected it at this point in time, but just because America in the end championed division, and preferred to maintain it rather than explore any possible alternative, does not mean the US was responsible for the division in the first place.  

To summarise. The Soviet Union wanted a Finlandized Germany at the heart of Europe. That is to say, Moscow wanted to project its influence the length and breadth of Germany. Germany could be a bourgeois republic, but one without any military strength or negative intentions towards the Soviet Union. In other words, Stalin’s ambitions were geo-political rather than strictly speaking ideological, although he soon found that the only institution at his disposal in the western zones was the increasingly unpopular KPD. Whatever Moscow actually desired, it certainly did not want what it ended up with – a powerful pro-American West German state that joined NATO in 1955. By the way, it is interesting note that Stalin did not give the authorization to Ulbricht to initiate a Soviet-style command economy until 1950.

Returning to Eisenberg’s Drawing the Line for a minute, it is interesting to note that Eisenberg makes some play of the fact that throughout the second half of 1945 the socialist SDP was to the left of the Moscow-aligned KDP. The SDP, for instance, wanted more nationalisation of the economy, including the banks, while the KPD maintained Stalin’s line that the future of a united Germany should be predominately “bourgeois” in character. Stalin and the KPD wanted the entirety of Germany to be under their auspices and economic arrangements could be accompanied in that context. In a sense, this just further demonstrates that Stalin’s intentions towards post-War Germany were about geo-political reach rather than ideological purity.

“United Fronts” throughout Soviet-occupied Europe flourished but they were simply a means to an end. Stalin only gave a green light to Ulbricht to begin building a genuine command economy in 1950 – what was important was not whether this or that company remained private, but that Moscow and Moscow’s henchmen, including Ulbricht, had the ultimate say. As Ulbricht was wont to say: “It must look democratic but everything must be in our hands.” As is now accepted, the Americans allowed their Marshall Plan money to be invested by the British Labour Government in all manner of socialist enterprises without any strings attached. Why? Because the Atlee government was pro-Washington all of its economic socialist ideology per se was a secondary matter. The same holds true for Tito and Yugoslavia. He might have remained a communist of sorts, but Tito denied Moscow geopolitical reach over Yugoslavia, and so Stalin expelled Marxist-Leninist Yugoslavia from the Marxist-Leninist Comecon in 1948.              

 From the American point of view, a united Germany became impossible because (a) the West Germans themselves rejected it knowing what it would mean if achieved under Soviet patronage (b) for geopolitical reasons, a Moscow-controlled united Germany would extinguish the chance of a substantial section of Europe being independent of Moscow’s influence.

The Cold War, then, was in the first instance a conflict between Russian imperialism and American fears of Russian hegemony in Europe. America often claimed it supported governments and movements that were democratic and anti-communist, but the real prerequisite for American sponsorship was an anti-Moscow point of view rather than an affinity for democracy. Nixon’s rapprochement with Mao’s communist China in 1971 is a perfect illustration of this. Likewise, Moscow was happy to deal with Nasser’s Egypt, even at a time when Nasser was throwing Egyptian communists into jail. Moscow also had tremendous influence over India during the Cold War; America over the not-so-democratic Pakistan.

It is worth noting that countries or at least political movements and politicians throughout the whole world played off the Soviet Union and the USA in their own games of realpolitik, often at the expense of their own countries. The story of the Congo, aka Zaire, comes to mind. Odd Arne Westad discusses the fall-out of the Moscow-Washington rivalry in his 2005 book The Global Cold War (2005).  

We might call this final view neo-traditionalist, because it shares with the traditionalist perspective, as against standard revisionism, the opinion that the USA was least at fault in the origins of the Cold War. On the other hand, it is not “traditionalist” because this last view does not seek to understand either the origins or the course of the Cold War primarily in ideological terms. Finally, a geo-political or neo-traditionalist account shares with post-revisionism the idea that the framework of the Cold War had its origins in the fallout from the Second World War. And yet, unlike the post-revisionist accounts, the neo-traditionalist perspective does not see ideological conflict as pivotal in the origins of the Cold War.    

Let us finish on this note. The Cold War between Washington DC and Moscow officially ended twenty years ago. Putin’s FSB-controlled state, which, for all its faults, is not Marxist-Leninist or at war with capitalism as such, remains in conflict with Washington in ways that are almost too numerous to mention; but Iran, Georgia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Serbia, Bosnia, Syria, Iraq, Venezuela, China, the Ukraine, technology and military espionage, the Satellite Defence Initiative, is not a bad start. The British historian Max Hastings suggests that a Second Cold War is unlikely, and yet “the notion of friendship between the West and Russia is a dead letter”. Apparently, Washington and Moscow are quite capable of a fierce rivalry without ideology defining their differences.