Within a period of four months in 1945 both Germany (in May) and Japan (in September) surrendered. At that time the Allies controlled most of the world, including Western Europe, while the Soviets controlled Eastern Europe.
The USSR had been our “ally” during the war only in the narrowest sense of the word. Stalin had cut a deal with Hitler, much to the disadvantage of the Allies, and he only switched sides when Hitler abrogated the pact and invaded the Soviet Union.
When the war ended the US withdrew from Western Europe (leaving a few troops behind as “tripwires”) and allowed those countries to govern themselves as they saw fit. All of them – even, eventually, Spain and Portugal – became democracies. Bizarrely, almost all of them also adopted socialist economic systems modeled not on the US but on Karl Marx. (Those systems mostly died natural deaths over the years.)
In Eastern Europe, however, the USSR slammed the bootheel of the Red Army firmly on the necks of the entire region, imposing totalitarianism across-the-board. No democracy, no free markets, and the Gulag or a bullet for anyone who objected.
Why did America tolerate such a situation? What were we thinking? In 1945 the US Army was by far the most powerful in the world on the ground, as was the US Navy on the seas. The US Army-Air Force controlled the skies, and the US was the world’s only nuclear power.
But we didn’t act. What should have happened is that the Red Army ought to have been pushed back behind Mother Russia’s borders. Not only was the Soviet military and economy no match for that of the US at the time, but we would have had terrific assistance from resistance forces inside the countries of Eastern Europe. And, of course, there were those nukes.
American inaction was a colossal and historic error, but it was also understandable. Western Europe lay either prostrate in defeat or devastated in ruins or both. Britain was utterly exhausted. And the US population was weary after five years of fighting a two-front war.
In addition, opposition to Stalin was by no means a universal phenomenon in America. In elite US circles – especially at the State Department, in the universities, and among the high profile world of Hollywood – very substantial numbers of people were, in the lingo of the day, “pink.”
Being “pink” meant that your views and sympathies fell along a scale from supporting the goals of Communism but abhorring the methods being used, to outright and unapologetic Stalinism. Dorothy Parker, for example, was a committed Stalinist to her dying day, despite her knowledge of the man’s crimes, and she was in very good company in America’s film and literary world.
In any event, America didn’t act and an Iron Curtain fell across Eastern Europe. In addition to the tragedy of the enslavement of hundreds of millions of people over the course of three long generations, control of East Europe vastly increased the economic and military clout of the Soviet Union. (The population of the US in 1950 was @ 150 million; the population of the USSR + Eastern Europe was @ 300 million.)
No one was willing to fight a hot war against the horrors of Stalin, and so we fell into a “cold” war instead. No one “invented” Cold War I, but its godfather was surely George Kennan, whose famous “long telegram” laid the groundwork for the conduct of the Cold War.
Unlike many US policymakers, Kennan had been observing the USSR for a very long time and from very close quarters. He was involved directly or indirectly in Soviet affairs beginning in 1931, working for the US State Department and the Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower Administrations. This gave Kennan a ringside seat to observe Stalin’s purges and show trials, among other abominations.
Kennan couldn’t have known at the time about the many other horrors perpetrated by Stalin, but by the late 1940s he had seen enough. Kennan sent his “long telegram” outlining the need to “contain” the Soviets on all fronts. He followed up the telegram with an influential article in Foreign Affairs entitled, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.”
What alarmed Kennan was what should have alarmed any citizen of a democratic republic: (a) Soviet Communism in general and Stalin in particular had created a monstrous version of civilization that could not under any circumstances be allowed to dominate the world; (b) absolute state control, brooking no opposition, had enabled the USSR to grow its economic might faster than any country in history, and it might soon rival the US in size; and (c) the Soviet military was becoming ever more aggressive in carrying out the USSR’s goal of world dominance.
The doctrine of “containment”, incorporated into the Truman Doctrine, meant that “the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” The Soviet threat needed to be, Kennan continued, “contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points.”
By “counterforce,” Kennan didn’t necessarily mean “military” force, although that was often how it was construed. For Kennan, the counterforce might be military, political, economic, diplomatic, or any other appropriate option the US had to contain the USSR. A successful deployment of the policy of containment would eventually result, Kennan believed, in “either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.”
Kennan turned out to be exactly correct. For five decades the US and the USSR faced each other as existentially hostile forces at every point on the globe. Because both countries had large stockpiles of nuclear weapons, the very existence of life on the planet was in constant danger and, once or twice, in urgent danger. Yet, except for a few dogfights over Korea in the early 1950s, the US and Soviet militaries never exchanged hostile fire.
And thus, in the end, it worked out. Beginning with Truman and continuing down through seven more Presidential Administrations, the US kept the pressure on the Soviets until, as Kennan had predicted, the Soviet Union broke up. Millions of lives had been stunted and millions of souls had been crushed over that half century, but eventually the West won Cold War I.
Unfortunately, what followed the collapse of the USSR was western “triumphalism.” We’ll look at that unfortunate event, and how it led directly to the rise of China, next week.
Next up: Cold War II, Part 3
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