By Charles Matthews

Saturday, June 26, 2010

4. A Fiery Peace in a Cold War, by Neil Sheehan, pp. 77-94

Book II: Inheriting a Different World: 15. A Confrontation and a Misreading; 16. Containing the Menace
The turning point in the war in Europe, Sheehan points out, was the defeat of the Germans at Stalingrad, which weakened them and made the invasion on D-Day less difficult to accomplish. But Truman "viewed the Red Army as a potential threat rather than as a savior of American lives." And the opening of the Soviet archives and the subsequent work of Russian historians has tended to show that Stalin's "imperial ambitions were limited." He was not interested in invading Europe. But American specialists in Soviet policy misinterpreted Stalin's reindustrialization plans, with their emphasis on heavy industry, "as an ominous sign of military preparations."

When Stalin gave a speech on February 9, 1946, announcing these plans, George Kennan, who was chargé d'affaires in the U.S. embassy in Moscow, was asked for an interpretation of the speech. Kennan wrote a 5,500-word analysis that became known as the Long Telegram, which presented Stalin as "a fanatical revolutionary, not the complex mixture of genuine Marxist faith, cynicism, Realpolitik calculation, and suspicion and cruelty that history has shown him to be." Kennan believed Stalin to be bent on world conquest and argued that Western nations should unite to block Soviet expansion. This was what many in Washington wanted to hear:
Having just triumphed over the expansionist monster Hitler and the forces of Imperial Japan, they seemed, unconsciously, to be seeking a new monster with whom to do mortal combat.... If Russia was a society with a profound sense of insecurity, as Kennan maintained, America was equally so.
Stalin himself, being a paranoid bully, played into this image of Soviet expansionism. Britain and the Soviet Union had invaded Iran in 1941 to keep it from falling into German hands. The agreement was that both countries would withdraw in March 1946 and turn the country over to a new Iranian government, but Stalin decided to keep his troops there and support the separatist Azerbaijanis in the north, which was also where the Iranian oilfields were. Truman feared that the Soviets would take over the whole country with an eye to further expansion into Saudi Arabia. Threatened with war, Stalin withdrew in the spring of 1946.

The next crisis was in the Turkish Straits, the Dardanelles and the Bosporus, which provided vital access to the Black Sea. Turkey had been neutral in World War II, but had allowed the Germans to use the Straits for raids on the Soviet Union. In March 1946, Stalin demanded joint Soviet and Turkish control of the Straits and mobilized a tank force to intimidate the Turks. Truman commissioned a study group led by Dean Acheson; their report, presented to Truman on August 15, "was the first statement of the domino theory that was to so govern and oversimplify and distort American thinking during the Cold War." If the domino that was Turkey were to fall to the Soviets, the next domino would be Greece. So Truman sent a naval task force led by the Missouri to the Dardanelles. Again Stalin backed down.

The next crisis was Greece, where the British had been supporting a right-wing government against Communist rebels. But Britain was nearly bankrupt and in February 1947 informed Truman that it could no longer maintain its force there. Truman went to Congress with a request for funding economic and military aid to Greece and Turkey. Dean Acheson, then assistant secretary of state for economic affairs, was in charge of scaring Congress into voting the money, arguing that "Soviet pressure on Iran, the Turkish Straits, and now northern Greece, where the guerrillas were strongest, had brought Moscow to the point where it might break through and penetrate three continents."

In fact, Stalin was not supporting the Communist guerrillas in Greece: He and Winston Churchill had come to an agreement in 1944 that Greece would remain under British purview in exchange for the Soviet Union's maintaining its interests elsewhere in Eastern Europe. It was Tito of Yugoslavia who was backing the guerrillas, which was one of the reasons why Stalin and Tito would openly break with each other in 1948.

Truman got the $300 million he wanted for Greece, and in announcing it, he proclaimed what became known as the Truman Doctrine: that it was "the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." This was an explicit proclamation that the United States would support any nation, anywhere, that was being threatened by the communists. It was partly a reaction -- as so much American foreign policy has been since then -- to the "appeasement" of Hitler by Neville Chamberlain in 1938 that had been so disastrous. Acheson, who was an anglophile, also modeled it on the "Pax Britannica" in which the Royal Navy had ruled the seas after the defeat of Napoleon. "The 'Pax Americana' that he and Truman and their associates intended to create was not, however, going to be an exploitative system akin to British and European colonialism."

Mistrust of the Soviet Union also led to a change of American attitude toward the reparations that Roosevelt had agreed to at Yalta: The Germans were to pay $10 billion for the destruction they had wrought in Russia. The British were opposed to the reparations because Germany itself was devastated and obviously unable to pay such a sum. (With reason: The harshness of the Treaty of Versailles had contributed to the rise of Hitler.) And the Americans came round to that point of view:  "By 1947, no matter how persistently Molotov might read off the list of devastated Russian towns and cities, no one in Washington or London wanted to do anything to strengthen the Soviet Union."

But the devastation of Western Europe remained, and George C. Marshall, the secretary of state, argued that the condition of these countries might lead to electoral victories by the local Communist parties, especially in France and Italy. So Marshall proposed what became known as the Marshall Plan: billions of dollars in aid to European countries to help them rebuild "and created an environment in which capitalism would thrive." Stalin recognized the Marshall Plan for what it was: "a declaration of economic warfare." And his fears increased when Czechoslovakia and Poland showed interest in participating in the Marshall Plan. So although the plan was a huge success -- "an act of generosity, if also self-interest, that was without precedent in history" -- it also led to a divided Europe, the one split by the "Iron Curtain" that Churchill had described in a speech in 1946. Stalin began, with the help of Beria's secret police, to purge the coalition governments he had permitted in Eastern Europe of non-communists and anyone who deviated from Stalin's policies. Wladyslaw Gomulka in Poland had backed down from his interest in the Marshall Plan, so he managed to save his life. Jan Masaryk in Czechoslovakia, however, was reported to have committed suicide, but was very likely murdered. And in 1952, Moscow staged show trials in Czechoslovakia that led to the execution of eleven members of the Communist Party. 

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