The Great Schism of Our Age

Politics and Diplomacy of Peacemaking Containment and Counterrevolution at Versailles 1918-1919

by Arno J. Mayer
Knopf, 918 pp., $15.00

It is generally supposed that the cold war started in 1945 or soon afterwards. Innumerable lectures, articles, and books have been devoted to its origins. By now it has become a stock question in examination papers at Universities, and students labor over the theme: “Assess the origins of the Cold War.” There is no agreement about the answer. The orthodox hold that it was due to something which the Soviet government did in Poland, or maybe in Rumania. The heretics claim that it was provoked by President Truman’s enthusiasm for the atom bomb. The skeptics insinuate that, like most public matters, it was a mutual muddle of misunderstanding. Despite these wide differences of interpretation, all the pundits have accepted without argument the belief that it is in the years immediately after the end of the Second World War that they must look for the explanation.

A larger historical perspective suggests that the pundits have been wrong. The cold war did not originate at Potsdam or soon after it. The cold war, as we have known it for the last twenty-odd years, has been merely a repeat performance and, like most repeat performances, a matter of acting, not of reality. The political leaders, whether Soviet or American, took up half-remembered attitudes, left over from long ago. They mouthed dead phrases and attributed to their opponents policies from which the life had long departed. Stalin never really imagined that he would preside over the triumph of international Communism, and when Khrushchev announced that he would bury us, this was no more than a joke, like most of his remarks. Similarly, in the United States, a man had to be plain certifiable, as Forrestal was, to fear that the Red Flag would soon be flying over the Capitol, and there were few even among American generals who really saw themselves riding into the Red Square on a white horse. In fact the cold war was a dead war all along. It was like speculating in the shares of a company which had been wound up a generation before.

The cold war was an echo from the past. This alone gave it a plausible appearance. The real cold war—and not so cold at that—started with the Bolshevik revolution in November 1917. That revolution was intended as the signal for Communist revolution all over the world. The old order, thus threatened, retaliated with military intervention, which grew near to being large-scale war. This conflict reached its climax in 1919. Then, to general bewilderment, it faded away. Lloyd George tried to bring it to a formal end at the Genoa Congress in 1922. He failed. Instead, each side gradually gave up the conflict without admitting that it was doing so. The Bolsheviks preached international revolution and practiced Socialism in a single country. The capitalist countries, and especially the United States, refused to recognize Soviet Russia and sought profitable trade with her at the same time. Memories of the terrible time between 1917 and 1921 continue to…

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