Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Start of the Cold War

Given Oliver Stone's recent re-popularization of left-revisionist history of the beginnings of the Cold War, I was interested to see the essay by István Deák, Could Stalin Have Been Stopped? New York Review of Books (dated 03/26/2013; accessed 03/12/2013), a review of Frank Costigliola's Roosevelt’s Lost Alliances: How Personal Politics Helped Start the Cold War (2013).

Like any major question of history, there is always something new to learn about it, and the beginning of the Cold War is a complelx topic involving many countries, high stakes and numerous players, from British imperialists to US New Deals to Soviet bureaucrats and ideologues to Communist guerrilla fighters in Greece and Indochina.

My general view is that the US Administrations of FDR and Truman expected the Soviet Union to continue its wartime policies of cooperation with the USA and Britain, probably with the former more than the latter, since FDR was dead serious about seeing the European colonial empires including Britain's dismantled. Stalin and the Soviets proved more intransigent than FDR expected over the postwar arrangements for free elections and national independence among the eastern European nations. The Truman Administration adopted the policy of containment, famously elaborated by George Kennan in his "Mr. X article." But in practice, what Kennan understood as a broad-based political, economic and military process became heavily focused on the military aspects.

I don't buy the standard American triumphalist narrative of that period, either in its conservative chest-beating version on in the Cold War liberal version, both of which hold that Soviet expansionism was the overwhelming or even exclusive cause of the Cold War to which America responded with a selfless concern for the freedom of oppressed peoples. Whatever ideological conclusions one chooses to draw from the facts, it's simply not the morality play that is the default version of the story for most Americans, our press corps especially.

But I'm also not entirely comfortable with what conventional Cold War historiography regards as the left-revisionist perspective, of which William Appleman Williams and his The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959) are prime examples. For here, I'll just say that while the left revisionists are right to take account of the strong internal pressures in the US toward an expansionist foreign policy, the Cold War was spawned from a complex set of events and relationships, especially among the US, the USSR and Great Britain. Powerful as the US was in the postwar world, both in relative and absolute terms, it couldn't simply decide and impose a new order on the world and on US-Soviet relations by its own choice.

Frank Costigliola, who teaches history at the University of Connecticut and is the author of other important monographs on the history of US foreign policy, ... hopes to show that, popular perceptions to the contrary, FDR did as much as anyone could to mitigate the effects of the inevitable Soviet imperial presence in Eastern Europe. The president did this not by pressuring and threatening but by preserving a working relationship with Stalin. Pressure and threats, Costigliola argues, could achieve nothing against the Soviets, whose forces were not only in physical control of most of Eastern Europe but who were wildly suspicious in any case.

Unfortunately, during the last year of the war and in the immediate postwar era, Costigliola states, more and more Western statesmen, including Harry Truman and Winston Churchill, saw the policy of pressure as the only way to deal with the Russian barbarians. Churchill said in one of his postwar speeches: “There is nothing they [the Soviets] admire so much as strength and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness, especially military weakness.” Yet when he was prime minister, Churchill himself repeatedly accepted the primary Soviet interests in Eastern Europe.

As Costigliola sees it, Roosevelt hoped that, at least during the early postwar years, Great Britain, the US, and the Soviet Union would act together as the policemen of world peace. He never subscribed to the Churchillian and Stalinist notion of dividing the world into areas of great power interest; yet, somewhat illogically, he accepted the fact that wherever American, British, or Soviet armies went during the war, their respective power would prevail. But this would only be temporary, Roosevelt argued. Once the Soviets convinced themselves of the West’s readiness to play a fair game, a peaceful world would become a genuine possibility, and the Soviet Union—or so Costigliola speculates—might well abandon its idée fixe regarding the need for tightly controlled buffer states along its borders.
Deák goes on to register his reservations about Costigliola's conclusion, noting that he had to rely heavily on translations of some of the key material he uses. A criticism that would carry more weight among academics than among most readers. Deák reminds us of some of the major issues over which Roosevelt would later being criticized, often very unfairly and dishonestly so:

The problem was that, in his reluctance to make allowances for what he perceived as the colonial ambitions of Great Britain and the Soviet Union, Roosevelt avoided any binding agreement with regard to the Eastern European countries. His silence amounted to an informal acceptance of the settlement reached at the Moscow meetings between Churchill and Stalin in October 1944, which left Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria in the hands of Stalin. The question was not settled whether these countries would merely be forced to pursue foreign policies friendly to the USSR or have to accept Soviet-controlled Bolshevist regimes. The Soviets did not try to contest British predominance in Greece or the later suppression of the Communist revolt there.

Regarding Yugoslavia, the rather vague fifty-fifty agreement between foreign ministers Vyacheslav Molotov and Anthony Eden in Moscow became meaningless when it turned out that the Communist President Tito and not the great powers that had backed him would decide the country’s future. Britain and the US only formally disputed the Soviet reannexation and brutal control of the three Baltic countries, while the USSR imposed punitive but not intolerable treaties on Finland, which both sides subsequently respected.
He also argues that by 1944 "the Czechoslovak government in exile [in Britain] had voluntarily subordinated its foreign political interests to those of the Soviet Union; this in exchange for Stalin’s permission to expel several million Germans from Czechoslovakia after the Allied victory." The postwar expulsion of German civilians from eastern Europe was a major event, little known in the US. The establishment of Soviet dominance in eastern Europe received a lot of attention in the US, some other critical aspects of postwar events not so much:

At the Potsdam Conference in July–August 1945, both President Truman and the new British prime minister, Clement Attlee, agreed to the expulsion—by then partly accomplished—of over ten million ethnic Germans from the Baltic countries, and from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary as well as Yugoslavia. This would become one of the greatest and cruelest ethnic cleansings in modern European history. Meanwhile, in Eastern Europe, Poles and Ukrainians continued their informal war that had begun under German occupation. In the forests in many parts of Eastern Europe, anti-Soviet partisans clashed with Soviet and other security forces; the sudden rise of anti-Semitism and the desire to hold on to appropriated Jewish property led to some horrible pogroms.
He also discusses the Polish problem, which was and continued to be one of the most volatile in the US-Soviet relationship. Deák writes:

Still, it is characteristic of the general mood created by the terrible Polish crisis that in April 1945, while the Red Army was marshaling two and a half million soldiers, forty thousand guns, and six thousand tanks into the battle for Berlin, sustaining horrendous losses, and while the Western powers were greatly counting on extensive and timely Soviet military intervention against Japan, the British Foreign Office and War Office already viewed Russia as an enemy. In April 1945, the British high command produced a contingency plan, at Churchill’s orders, for an attack on Russia on July 1 of the same year—a plan, however, that made it clear how hopeless such a campaign would be.
Deák also makes an important and much under-appreciated point about the 1989 eastern European revolutions, or "revolutions by implosion" as Joschka Fischer has called them. They resulted in realizing major aspects of the Rooseveltian vision of the immediate postwar world:

So the cold war developed and flourished for many decades. But even though some devastating proxy wars were fought, no armed conflict arose between the great powers. Soviet–Western cooperation in preserving world peace continued until 1991, when the former Soviet Union more or less accepted the economic, social, and political model that General Marshall had offered and President Roosevelt had originally envisioned. [my emphasis]

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