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The Cold War Revisited


In Stalin Embattled, 1943-1948 W.O. McCagg, Jr., makes a rather different attempt to reconstruct Soviet aims. This is a bizarre book, often fascinating in detail but reckless and unsubstantiated in speculation. McCagg sees. Stalin as a “statist,” more interested, that is, in building the Soviet state than in the Communist Party. At the end of the war he found his absolute control challenged on two fronts: abroad, by foreign insurrectionaries like Tito, whose revolutionary ardor threatened to cause trouble between the Soviet Union and the West; and at home, where he faced the rise to autonomous power during the war of pushy new groups—generals, industrial managers, the secret police. To recover his authority, according to McCagg’s hypermachiavellian scenario, Stalin turned back to the Communist Party, and to revive party militancy he had to permit a more aggressive foreign policy. Since the Western powers were “divided and gullible,” why not offend them for the moment? In the longer run, the inevitable hardening of the Western response, McCagg’s Stalin supposes, would discredit further adventurism. “If in the process he risked war abroad, one must suppose that his fear of war was less than his fear of losing control at home.”

McCagg’s attempt is evidently to reconcile the sober wartime Stalin—the man Harriman found “better informed than Roosevelt, more realistic than Churchill, in some ways the most effective of the war leaders”18—with the postwar risk-taker. His solution has Stalin “wrestling with the Politburo” until December 1946, pretending to be a revolutionary in order to deceive the CPSU “and for that reason unable to extend a friendly hand to the West.” By the time he had restored his authority at home, however, he had deceived Truman as well, who now took the hard line he had declined to take in 1945. “Though [Stalin] wanted peace, he did not explain to outsiders the methods he would use to attain it,” and his policies failed.

This is deductive ingenuity run riot. Still, McCagg has read widely, and his footnotes offer a useful guide to a broad range of East European sources. The effort to unravel “the antagonistic political relationships which existed behind the monolithic face” is essential now that we see that the theory of absolute totalitarian power expounded so memorably by George Orwell in 1984 (1949) and Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) was, after all, an illusion. Nor can the idea that Stalin was “playing domestic politics with his foreign policy” be dismissed.

This indeed was the alternative to the Riga and Yalta axioms favored by Kennan and Bohlen. For Soviet policy may have sprung neither from revolutionary ideology nor from traditional Realpolitik but rather from the requirements of a ruling class determined to maintain itself in power. That thesis receives a Marxist elaboration in the long book by Fernando Claudin, The Communist Movement from Comintern to Cominform. Claudin joined the Spanish Communist Party in the 1930s. Santiago Carrillo purged him in 1965, along with Jorge Semprun, who wrote the screenplays for La Guerre est finie and Z. Semprun has given his own highly personal account of these matters in The Autobiography of Frederico Sanchez. Claudin’s book supplies the theoretical and historical underpinnings.

In Claudin’s view Stalin’s dissolution of the Comintern in 1943, far from being a trick to gull the West, or even to expedite victory over Hitler, was “the necessary condition for the division of the world between the Stalinist state and its capitalist allies.” Stalin’s objective was “a durable compromise with American imperialism which would allow joint control of the world.” His foreign policy, after all, “could be no more than the reflection of his domestic policy,” and he was “pursuing the aims of the bureaucratic class which had replaced the revolutionary October proletariat in the leadership of the Soviet state.” He could not afford a revolutionary policy because he dared “not encourage in other countries the freedom and democracy…denied to the workers of the USSR.” His goal was to build power on the prostrate body of Lenin’s world revolution.

Like the revisionists Claudin sees the American goal as the removal of barriers to the expansion of world capitalism. Unlike them, he does not contend that this goal made the cold war inevitable.

Roosevelt and his colleagues included in this vision collaboration with the Soviet Union; in their view American industry’s contribution to the reconstruction of the USSR would have advantages for both countries and would be reflected in the political education of the Soviet regime. As a result of this beneficial support, “socialism in one country” would become able to fit smoothly into the Roosevelt world.

The Americans, moreover, counted on Stalin to save Western Europe and China from proletarian revolution. Stalin “faithfully” cooperated with that objective. These factors “forced Washington into a policy of conciliation towards Moscow, in spite of the instinctive anti-Communism of Truman and his team.”

Why then the Cold War? The answer, Claudin suggests, lay in the obscurity and instability of the power balance. The first upsetting factor was the American monopoly of the atomic bomb. Having gained the bomb, Claudin says, “American imperialism finally turned the corner toward world dominion,” not, however, in order to destroy the Soviet Union but in order to facilitate “the policy of ‘containment’ under the protection of the atomic umbrella.” American policy, while pursuing consolidation in its own sphere, was nonetheless “dominated by the need to avoid at all costs a direct armed confrontation with the military power of the Soviet bloc.” Stalin responded with a consolidationist policy of his own, expecting that his hard line would “impose on the White House a world-wide arrangement on the basis of an allocation of ‘spheres of influence’ which would satisfy Soviet interests.” But “no compromise was possible as long as the two parties had not reached a realistic, and therefore similar, appraisal of the relation of forces.”

According to Claudin the cold war

was a sort of exploration or sounding carried out to gain a more exact knowledge of the forces and dispositions of the enemy…. The two most serious “soundings” carried out during the “cold war,” those which gave the world the impression of being on the brink of a major conflict, were the Berlin crisis and the Korean war. In fact, both cases showed the firm determination of the two super-powers to maintain the positions they had won during the Second World War and to make no attempt to modify them by war against each other.

In 1949 the Soviet Union achieved its own bomb, and by 1951-1952 “the two super-powers began to get a clear idea of each other’s strength and intentions and of the new balance which had been established in the world.” The cold war thereafter began to give way to “peaceful coexistence.” Though Claudin’s argument bristles with Marxist trimmings, it turns in essence on the old question of the balance of power. Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill, he writes, “had only one true God between them—raison d’état.” In the end, this is Claudin’s true God too, and Realpolitik rather than Marxism accounts for the force of his analysis.


Because the cold war broke out first in Eastern Europe, this region has been a natural focus of historiographical concern. In the fantasies of William Appleman Williams, American business had long since “penetrated the economies” of Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia, and Albania, acquiring “significant interests in eastern Europe throughout the 1920s.”19 Actually Eastern Europe before the Second World War received only about 2 percent of American exports and held about 5.5 percent of American direct investment.20 American economic interests were so insignificant that American business watched the Nazi takeover of Eastern Europe with total indifference. Nevertheless, Williams contends that United States policy after the war was one of “reasserting American influence in eastern Europe while pushing the Russians back to their traditional borders,” a policy prescribed by “the traditional outlook of the open door and the specific desire to keep the Soviets from establishing any long-range influence in eastern Europe…. It was the decision of the United States to employ its new and awesome power in keeping with the traditional Open Door Policy which crystallized the cold war.”21

More serious scholars have questioned whether the United States pursued a coherent anti-Soviet policy in Eastern Europe and whether indeed the United States had an East European policy at all. Lynn Etheridge Davis discussed the period 1941-1945 in The Cold War Begins: Soviet-American Conflict over Eastern Europe (1974). The American government, she contends, saw no specific or local American interests in Eastern Europe but was unwilling for global as well as domestic reasons to acknowledge a breach in the Atlantic Charter. So while loudly proclaiming its lofty principles, Washington systematically rejected anti-Soviet initiatives proposed by its men in the field and took “minimal action” to discourage Soviet violations of inter-Allied understandings.

The State Department rejected pleas from General Cortland Schuyler, the American representative on the Romanian Control Commission, that the United States withdraw economic assistance from Russia in order to bring about Soviet compliance with the Yalta agreement on Eastern Europe. It ignored urgent requests from Maynard Barnes, the American representative in Bulgaria, that Washington take action to obtain international supervision of the Bulgarian elections. When Harriman said that, if America and Britain were unwilling to intervene in favor of such elections, then Washington should inform the American people of the character of the Communist dictatorship in Bulgaria, the State Department declined even to do that. When Barnes instructed the American representative on the Control Commission to ask for the postponement of the elections until assurances could be given that they would be free, the Department countermanded his action. And when Barnes’s unauthorized initiative succeeded and the elections were postponed, Washington rejected recommendations by Barnes and the British government that the Western allies should follow up this success with firm action to achieve a revision of the electoral law. “No one in the State Department argued that the United States should learn from the success of Barnes’s initiatives in Bulgaria and undertake more active protests against Soviet actions throughout Eastern Europe.”

The result of maximalist rhetoric and minimalist action was the worst of both worlds: Soviet suspicions inflamed and Soviet ambitions unchecked.22 Davis’s incisive critique of American non-planning in Eastern Europe—left in the hands of the European Division of the State Department since no one higher up considered Eastern Europe sufficiently important—is generally persuasive. But each of the choices Washington failed to make—on the one hand, explicit abandonment of Eastern Europe; on the other, concrete opposition to Soviet actions—had weighty disadvantages. Was it after all a real choice?

A new book by a young Norwegian historian carries the story forward to 1947, though without adequate recognition of Davis’s earlier work. Geir Lundestad writes about the cold war with the happy detachment of a Scandinavian born in 1945. The American Non-Policy Towards Eastern Europe, 1943-1947: Universalism in an Area Not of Essential Interest to the United States is solidly researched, well organized, and clearly if repetitiously written.

Lundestad’s findings parallel those of Davis. Washington, he writes, approached Eastern Europe in its general postwar mood of “universalism,”23 but made no serious attempt to apply universalist policies to Eastern Europe—because Soviet interests in the area were primary and self-evident, because American interests were meager and vague, because Washington’s means of enforcement were limited almost to the point of nonexistence, and, most important, because Washington found it useful to make a practical retreat in Eastern Europe in order to limit Soviet influence in areas of greater consequence to the United States, above all in Asia.

The problem was more difficult because a democratic Eastern Europe, while no doubt to the American advantage, had other justifications. The last free elections in the area, Lundestad writes, show that “even if universalism with its democratic-multilateralist elements may be seen as expansionist ideology, this did not necessarily mean that it conflicted with the wishes of the Eastern European people. Usually it did not.”

In the election in Hungary in November 1945, for example, the Communists polled 17 percent of the vote as against 57 percent for the Smallholders. “There is little reason to doubt,” Lundestad writes, “that Mikolajczyk in Poland, Maniu in Rumania, and probably also Petkov in Bulgaria would have piled up percentages in any free elections on a scale comparable to what the Smallholders achieved in Hungary.”

Nevertheless the idea of putting first things first led to American concessions that, like the peace treaties, “actively furthered the Soviet domination over Eastern Europe.” Truman, for all his “outward bluster,” consented to actions that granted the Soviet Union a favored position. One of his first decisions indeed was to increase the admissible percentage of Stalin’s Poles in the new Polish Provisional government and thereby “to reduce US demands as to what constituted an acceptable government in Poland, the crucial country in the region.” Lundestad also agrees with Davis that Washington’s refusal to renounce the universalist creed only increased Soviet-American tension. “The United States never resolved the basic dilemma between universalism and the many modifying elements” and “never developed a clear-cut policy towards Eastern Europe”—a point Lundestad demonstrates by a detailed country-by-country analysis of what the United States actually did.

Lundestad seeks to place himself above the American cold war debate. “American policy probably represented a combination of both traditional security considerations and a desire for expansion of American political and economic interests. Instead of seeing the security and expansionist aspects as complementary, traditionalists emphasize only the first and revisionists only the second.”24 All the same, Lundestad gives most weight to strategic considerations, citing Harriman’s 1944 cable:

When a country begins to extend its influence by strong arm methods beyond its borders under the guise of security it is difficult to see how a line can be drawn. If the policy is accepted that the Soviet Union has a right to penetrate her immediate neighbors for security, penetration of the next immediate neighbor becomes at a certain time equally logical.

The one crucial factor in the Eastern European power system,” Lundestad concludes, was “the Red Army.” As for the alleged American obsession with the open door, Lundestad’s country-by-country examination demonstrates that the American objection was not to “domestic economic radicalism”—planning, nationalization, expropriation—but to “Soviet economic domination” and hence was political rather than commercial in its motive. And though Lundestad feels that the revisionists have usefully “pierced the screen of official and self-serving proclamations,” he rejects their “two major assumptions”—that the United States was definitely superior in strength to the Soviet Union and that the Truman administration was strongly bent on removing Soviet domination over Eastern Europe. The trouble with these assumptions, Lundestad sensibly remarks, is that

they are not consistent with one of the few absolutely certain facts we have on this controversial period, viz. final Soviet control over Eastern Europe. How could the Soviet Union have come to exert complete domination there if the United States, clearly the strongest power in the world, was “aggressively” intent on playing the predominant role in the region?


This important work suffers from its use of the American cold war debate as a frame for analysis. The cold war is thereby cast mostly in Soviet-American terms. Yet, as Lundestad acknowledges at one point, Western Europe had its entirely independent concern about the Stalinization of Europe. This fact is another powerful blow against open-door simplicities. For most West European states after the war had Socialist governments and even West Germany had a strong Socialist party. Men like Attlee and Bevin in England, Blum, Ramadier, and Moch in France, Schumacher and Reuter in West Germany could not care less about finding outlets for American trade and investments. But they cared passionately about the future of democratic socialism, and they had noted well the terrible fate of the noncommunist left (and soon of the independent Communist left) in Eastern Europe. The revisionist explanation of the cold war cannot account for the European Socialist reaction to Stalin’s postwar course.

Nor were these Socialists pushed or bribed by Washington into anti-Soviet policies. On the contrary: they regarded Washington’s response to the Soviet challenge as disquietingly tentative and slow. “We have heard of American ‘aggression,”’ Sir Herbert Butterfield himself wrote in 1969, “and a new generation often does not know (and does not credit the fact when informed) that Western Europe once wondered whether the United States could ever be awakened to the danger from Russia.”25 British Foreign Office papers recently opened under the thirty-year rule verify Butterfield’s point.

Peter Boyle of the University of Nottingham has assembled the evidence in a paper published in the summer 1979 issue of Diplomatic History. The reports of British diplomats in Washington to the Labour government in London in the year and a half after the end of the European war undermine the revisionist theory of an American government hell-bent on saving the world for capitalism. The British representatives, far from having been hauled into the cold war by American open-doorsmen, saw Truman as a wobbly and irresolute leader. Six months into Truman’s presidency, Ambassador Halifax told the Foreign Office, “To serious observers it seems pitifully obvious that the man at the helm is no longer the master of the ship.” In the midst of the early Iranian crisis, Halifax complained that the American government was persisting in its “stubborn determination to rationalise Soviet actions whenever possible and thereby to reduce the prevailing fear of the Russians in the hope of realising the American dream of one world.” Even after Churchill went to Fulton: “Profound as the uneasiness is about Soviet policies, there is still [in the American government]…a strong underlying anxiety if possible to find a way of cooperation with the Russians.”

According to the revisionists, the American government invented a phony Soviet threat in order to frighten war-weary Americans into an anti-Soviet crusade. This was hardly the way it seemed to British diplomats in Washington at the time. It was not the American government, Ambassador Inverchapel told London in 1946, but the mass of ordinary people who first became angry over Soviet actions and then turned the Truman administration around. “The driving force,” a colleague reported,

has come not from the top but from below. Events and public opinion have forced the obviously uncertain and reluctant administration into affording to the world at least some measure of the leadership which the United States ought to be providing.26

The European perspective throws new light on America’s part in the cold war. Indeed, the more one broods about the cold war, the more irrelevant the assessment of blame seems. The Second World War had left the international order in acute derangement. With the Axis states vanquished, the European allies exhausted, the colonial empires in tumult and dissolution, great gaping holes appeared in the structure of world power. The war had also left two states—America and Soviet Russia—with the political, ideological, and military dynamism to flow into these vacuums. The two states were constructed, moreover, on opposite and antagonistic ideas. Neither knew with any precision what the other was up to. Decisions were made in darkness. “It is very difficult to remember,” as Maitland once said, “that events now in the past were once far in the future.” No one should be surprised at what ensued. The real surprise would have been if there had been no cold war.


Kennan vs. Bohlen? January 24, 1980

Bizarre Behavior December 20, 1979

Dubious Battles December 6, 1979

  1. 18

    Harriman and Abel, Special Envoy to Churchill and Stalin, p. 536.

  2. 19

    Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, p. 159.

  3. 20

    Geir Lundestad, The American Non-Policy Towards Eastern Europe, 1943-1947, p. 61.

  4. 21

    Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, pp. 206, 231.

  5. 22

    Lynn E. Davis, The Cold War Begins: Soviet-American Conflict Over Eastern Europe (Princeton University Press, 1974). Davis could find no evidence for the open-door thesis. “The United States failed to take any action in response to Soviet efforts to monopolize trade with the former German satellite states in the spring of 1945…. The United States never sought to prevent the establishment of Soviet economic predominance in Eastern Europe and defined no vital economic interests in this part of the world” (pp. 281, 389).

  6. 23

    A term he intelligently redefines to mean the effort by the United States, having secured its own sphere of influence in the Western hemisphere, to discourage the establishment of equivalent spheres of influence by other powers.

  7. 24

    How unsatisfactory terms like “traditionalist” and “revisionist” have become! Lundestad, for example, places Herbert Feis, Martin F. Herz, and this writer in the traditionalist group. Hugh B. Hammett in his article “America’s Non-Policy in Eastern Europe and the Origins of the Cold War,” Survey, Autumn 1973, finds three groups and lists Feis as a traditionalist, Herz as a realist, and Schlesinger as a revisionist. (As the similarity in titles suggests, Lundestad and Hammett are in general agreement in their analyses.)

  8. 25

    Herbert Butterfield, “Morality and an International Order” in The Aberyst-with Papers: International Politics, 1919-1969, edited by Brian Porter (Oxford University Press, 1972), pp. 353-354.

  9. 26

    All quotations from Peter G. Boyle, “The British Foreign Office View of US-Soviet Relations, 1945-1946,” Diplomatic History, Summer 1979.

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