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Who Started the Cold War?

In response to:

Did Anyone Start the Cold War? from the September 2, 1971 issue

To the Editors:

Ronald Steel’s review of some books on the origins of the cold war (NYR, September 2) was evenhanded on the whole. He really ought to consult some primary sources himself, however, for he seems to have accepted as fact some of the grosser revisionist fictions. Three examples must suffice:

  1. In January, 1945, he writes, the American Ambassador to the Soviet Union, W. Averell Harriman, “discouraged Stalin’s request for a reconstruction loan.” Harri man did nothing of the sort; commenting on the request, he stated that “it is my basic conviction that we should do everything we can to assist the Soviet Union through credits in developing a sound economy.” See Harriman’s cable to Washington in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1945, Europe (Washington, 1967), V, 946.

  2. That the Big Three at Yalta agreed that Poland should receive territorial compensation in the west “by the incorporation of former German territories up to the line formed by the Oder and Neisse rivers.” No such agreement was made. Because both Roosevelt and Churchill refused to accept this Russian proposal, the phrase “substantial accessions of territory” was used in place of specific definitions. See Conferences at Malta and Yalta (Washington, 1955), 974.

  3. That the United States demanded “the admission, over Stalin’s vigorous protest, of Argentina to the UN in spite of its pro-Nazi wartime position.” In fact, as Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius reported to the American delegation at the founding conference of the UN, Truman was “dead set against Argentina’s being admitted to the United Nations.” Truman reversed himself only reluctantly when the American delegation learned that the Latin American states would support the admission of the Ukraine and White Russia (which Roosevelt at Yalta had pledged to sponsor) only if Argentina got in as well. Truman went along to carry out commitments made at Yalta, not to violate them. See Foreign Relations of the United States, 1945, (Washington, 1967), I, 411.

Robert James Maddox

Department of History

Pennsylvania State University

University Park, Pennsylvania

Ronald Steel replies:

I extend my friendly apologies to William Appleman Williams and the members of his community and promise to refrain from using the word “disciples,” although no slight was intended. In fact, it was my intention to recognize and praise their contribution to the necessary reassessment of American history and American foreign policy.

Regarding Mr. Maddox’s three objections:

  1. He cites Harriman’s January 6, 1945, cable to the State Department (which I also cite in the passage he objects to) to demonstrate that Harriman had not, in my phrase, “discouraged Stalin’s request for a reconstruction loan.” His objection is technically correct. However, the clear implication of the paragraph was that Harriman discouraged the no-strings kind of loan which the Russians requested. In regard to the loan, I stated that “Harriman discouraged Stalin’s request for a reconstruction loan and cabled Washington that ‘postwar credits can serve as a useful instrument in our overall relations with the USSR.’ ” Perhaps I was unclear, but what I intended to point out was that in discouraging the kind of loan the Russians wanted, Harriman sought to use the possibility of American aid to win political concessions, particularly in Eastern Europe.

If Mr. Maddox had continued his quotation from the Harriman cable, he would have mentioned that Harriman also said: “It is of course my strong and earnest opinion that the question of the credit should be tied into our overall diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, and at the appropriate time the Russians should be given to understand that our willingness to cooperate wholeheartedly with them in their vast reconstruction problems will depend upon their behavior in international matters.”

While Harriman was trying to use Russia’s economic needs to gain political advantage, Henry Morgenthau was urging an even larger credit than Molotov suggested—$10 billion instead of $6 billion—with fewer obligations attached. “If we were to come forward now and present to the Russians a concrete plan to aid them in the reconstruction period,” he wrote Roosevelt on January 1, 1945, “it would contribute a great deal towards ironing out many of the difficulties we have been having with respect to their problems and policies.”

But Harriman and others in the State Department discouraged the idea of aid without concessions, as was confirmed by Harriman’s cable of April 11, 1945, the day before Roosevelt’s death, when he stated: “Our experience has incontrovertibly proved that it is not possible to bank on general good will in Moscow, and I agree with the Department that we should retain current control of these credits in order to be in a position to protect American vital interests in the formulative period immediately following the war” (Forrestal Diaries, p. 41).

  1. Mr. Maddox notes, quite correctly, that the final agreement at Yalta did not specifically mention the Oder-Neisse line as Poland’s western boundary, but stated merely that she should receive “substantial accessions of territory” from Germany to compensate for the eastern territories incorporated by the Soviet Union.

The Oder-Neisse line did, of course, become the frontier between Poland and Germany, and as early as July 22, 1944, the Russians and their clients, the Lublin Poles, issued a statement declaring the Curzon and Oder-Neisse lines as Poland’s postwar boundaries. Stalin fought hard for official approval of these frontiers at Yalta, but won a firm Allied concession only on the Curzon line. There was general agreement that Poland’s western frontiers should extend to the Oder, but no accord on the river Neisse, and particularly on whether the eastern or western branch should mark the frontier. This was to be settled at the final peace conference which, of course, has never taken place. The Russians, for their part, turned over to Poland all the territory up to the western Neisse, and the Poles expelled the German population.

Mr. Maddox is quite right in correcting the impression I gave that the Oder-Neisse line was agreed upon officially at the conference, when in fact it was only implied—implied by the fact that the Russians controlled the territory involved and had already expressed their firm will on the matter, by the fact that the Allies realized they could do little about the matter other than express their reservations, and by the fact that Churchill and Roosevelt were more interested in the composition of the future Polish government than in the boundaries of the new Polish state.

  1. The fact that Stettinius, as Mr. Maddox notes, reported that Truman was “dead set against Argentina’s being admitted to the United Nations” does not in any way alter the fact, as I wrote, that the United States did indeed demand “the admission, over Stalin’s vigorous protest, of Argentina to the UN in spite of its pro-Nazi wartime position.” Truman, despite his hostility to the Argentine regime, did finally agree to its admission to the UN, though not precisely for the reasons Mr. Maddox states.

In brief, it had been agreed upon at Yalta that only states which had declared war on Germany before March 1, 1945, would be invited to join the UN. Argentina did not declare war until March 27, but at San Francisco this agreement was overturned. In his conversation with Harry Hopkins, Stalin said he did not understand why Argentina could not have been made to wait three months or so before joining the UN, and stated that the US action raised the question of the value of agreements among the three major powers (Bohlen minutes, quoted in Herz, Beginnings of the Cold War, p. 24).

The official reason for reneging on the agreement over Argentina was not to gain Latin American support for the admission of the Ukraine and White Russia and thereby “to carry out commitments made at Yalta, not to violate them,” for this matter had been resolved before the United States had abrogated the agreement on Argentina. It was the raising of the Polish issue that led the United States to favor Argentina’s membership. As Bohlen reports on the Stalin-Hopkins talks of May, 1945:

Ambassador Harriman explained that the US had obtained Latin American support for the admission of the Ukraine and White Russia as separate members of the new world organization, as had been agreed at Yalta. However, the Latin American countries had immediately tried to connect this question with that of the admission of the Argentine. Mr. Stettinius had made it plain that he would not make any such connection and in the end the Latin American countries did vote solidly in support of the Yalta decision regarding Ukraine and White Russia. Mr. Harriman said that if Mr. Molotov had not then introduced the question of an invitation to the Warsaw government, we might have been successful in persuading the Latin American countries to postpone the question of Argentina.

Thus, it was the Polish issue, not the question of the Ukraine and White Russia, that persuaded Truman to allow Stettinius a free hand at San Francisco and abrogate the agreement over Argentina. Further, Stalin considered the American vote as a renunciation of the Yalta agreement and hardly an effort by Truman “to carry out commitments made at Yalta, not to violate them.”

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