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From World War to Cold War

Armed Truce: The Beginnings of the Cold War 1945–46

by Hugh Thomas
Atheneum, 667 pp., $27.50

British Policy Towards the Soviet Union During the Second World War

by Martin Kitchen
St. Martin’s, 309 pp., $35.00

1.

This volume, the first of several about the Cold War, is a picture of the world in early 1946 insofar as it was a battleground in an undeclared war between the two new great powers, the Soviet Union and the United States, and their allies.”

Thus the preface to Armed Truce. A lordly undertaking. Book One, entitled “Despotism and Ideology,” opens with Stalin’s February 1946 “election” speech to the Supreme Soviet and depicts the Soviet Union in early 1946. Book Two portrays “The West”—meaning the United States and the United Kingdom. Book Three, “Disputed Lands,” takes us magisterially across the whole European continent, country by country, from Poland to Spain and from Finland to Greece, then down through Turkey into Persia and so to “The East: China, Japan, Korea and Indo-China.” Book Four deals with the first steps in nuclear diplomacy.

The battleground having thus been painted, in some 480 pages, battle can commence, which it does with Western reaction to Stalin’s “election” speech, Kennan’s Long Telegram, Churchill’s Fulton speech, and the “dénouement in Persia.” After just two months and sixty pages the narrative abruptly stops. But the reader is assured in an italicized coda that “the future of the characters and subjects in this study will be treated in another volume, it is hoped, of this history.” This volume is thus to be seen as a heroic mise en scène, its scale and grandeur justified by the enormous narrative vistas ahead: the portico of some great public building which has, however, yet to be built.

There is much to admire in both the spirit and the execution of this grand design. We now have a superabundance of interesting recent specialist works on many aspects of the early history of the cold war (though still with a disproportionate concentration on the Western side). It was high time someone tried to put it all together again in a balanced, comprehensive, and readable narrative history. Lord Thomas makes the attempt with tremendous verve, breadth, and appetite. He has assembled a gargantuan banquet of sources, and, like a gourmet host, takes almost audible delight in proffering us the choicest morsels. He is neither reductionist nor determinist, and has no particular ax to grind (though there are a few rhetorical echoes of first-term “Iron Lady” Thatcherism). While he emphasizes the role of individuals, the contingent, and the unforeseen, he is far from dismissing the significance of underlying social and economic forces; nor does he underrate (as Roosevelt and Churchill did) the importance of ideology. He has some excellent biographical sketches: his account of Roosevelt seems to me particularly good. His prose is often vivid and arresting.

Unfortunately, the high standard is not always sustained, and the editing seems slapdash. Such stylistic solecisms as “I have naturally laid special attention on the personality of Stalin” should not have passed a first proofreading. The deployment of accents on Polish and Czech names approximates to a random scatter. Some of the minor vignettes of Soviet and American figures come close to being caricatures. Yet these are minor flaws of execution. What makes this book frustrating and ultimately unsatisfying to read is the design itself.

In his conclusion the author poses two familiar “if” questions. Might the Soviet Union have behaved differently in 1945–1946 if the Western allies had “been more friendly”? Or, alternatively, if “greater Western firmness” had been “embarked upon earlier”? Lord Thomas suggests that it would have been difficult for the American or British governments to be either much more or much less friendly than they were.

Churchill and Roosevelt might, it is true, have launched a second front in Western Europe in 1943. But it could easily have failed. The United States could in theory have earlier recognised the dominance of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe. But Americans, like many Englishmen, believed in Polish freedom.

Yet “the great nations of the West in 1945 or early 1946…took elaborate steps to remain on good terms with Russia.” They failed to grasp “the essential point…that Stalin, and Communism, needed an enemy; capitalism had to be ‘menacing’; imperialism had to be ‘on the march’; a ‘Cold War’ was in short not so much inevitable as essential.” Greater Western toughness during the war, however, would have risked “a Soviet volte-face with Germany,” much larger Western casualties, Soviet nonparticipation in the war in the Far East—and anyway a tougher policy would have been very difficult to sell to British and American public opinion “profoundly grateful for the work of the Red Army.” Nonetheless, in 1945 and 1946 a clearer and firmer policy, more closely coordinated between the United States and the United Kingdom, “would have been both more wise and more just.”

The reason why such Western plans were not even considered was the fault of the United States, both of whose presidents in the period concerned believed that they had a chance of achieving their ends by a conscious policy of distancing themselves from the British.

This analysis is interesting and arguable. But it takes the author irresistibly—and rightly—back into the Second World War. Here is the basic problem of design. The events of 1945–1946 were not, as implied in the subtitle of Armed Force, “the beginnings of the Cold War.” They were the end of the beginnings. It is impossible to understand the conflicts which then emerged without constant reference back to the military and political history of the earlier period. The author sees this, and therefore as he paints his still-life picture of the world in early 1946 he repeatedly sketches in the wartime background of each subject: Chapter 6 discusses Stalin’s wartime diplomacy, Chapter 10 considers Roosevelt’s role, Chapter 12 gives us something of the Czech and Polish experience, while for a sketch of Churchill’s part we have to wait until Chapter 23. But this is to treat separately what belongs together.

2.

What we really need is a narrative history of the kind that Lord Thomas begins in early 1946, but commencing rather in 1941. Such a narrative, to be convincing, would have to interweave not merely three different wools, but three different kinds of wool, each containing a hundred individual skeins. First, there is the actual and so to speak “objective” military history of the war: the basic dispositions of men and arms on land and sea, without which none of the political decisions is comprehensible.

Secondly, there are the political maneuvers, aims, and attitudes of the “Big Three,” Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill. Here it is essential to keep in view the whole range of interests and considerations present in the great actors’ minds at any one time, and particularly their domestic political concerns. Thirdly, there are the “lesser” actors, and social and political conditions “on the ground” in the disputed lands. This last element is important in two ways. On the one hand the real intentions and interests of the Big Three are often more clearly revealed in what they said and did to “lesser” parties than in what they said and did to each other. On the other hand, local conditions were important in determining the choices open to them. The history of this subject is still too often discussed as if the Big Three were omnipotent, Olympian gods, capable of creating whatever order they desired in their allotted spheres, limited only by the interference of the other gods.

A convincing historical explanation must take into account all three levels, and the dynamic interplay between them. Consider, for example, the beginnings of communist rule in Poland and Hungary. First, the military background is essential. As Vojtech Mastny convincingly demonstrates in his excellent narrative history, Russia’s Road to the Cold War, Stalin’s decisive moves forward in Poland west of the 1939 Hitler–Stalin line of partition followed closely on the successful Allied opening of the second front in France in June 1944. Before D-day the Red Army occupied the eastern territories of prewar Poland roughly up to the Hitler–Stalin partition line, but they had not gone far beyond it. Politically, Stalin seems still to have been looking for a Polish Benes. But with the Western Allies finally committed in France, the Red Army surged forward again, and just six weeks after D-day Stalin organized in Moscow the “Polish Committee of National Liberation” (PKWN), whose official birthday—July 22—is now Communist Poland’s “national day.”

In October there was a sharp hardening of the line taken by this de facto provisional government.1 The Polish communists now effectively declared war on the noncommunist majority of the Polish resistance, organized in the “Home Army” (AK). From this period comes an unforgotten poster describing the AK as the “accursed offspring of reaction.” The Polish communists also hurriedly pressed ahead with the expropriation and redistribution of agricultural land in tiny parcels of one or two acres—a fragmentation which plagues Polish agriculture to this day.

What lay behind this fateful “October policy turn”? Here the essential causes are to be found in local conditions “on the ground.” Despite the promise of land reform, the peasants, still an absolute majority of the population, were sullen or openly hostile to the new puppet government. Despite the shattering defeat of the Warsaw rising, despite the fact that the SS had done much of Stalin’s work for him, the noncommunist resistance yet seemed—to the Polish communists and to Stalin—to be recovering to an alarming degree. Its patriotic legitimacy and popular support were overwhelming. It still had arms and men and spirit enough to harry the Soviet–Polish security forces. The Red Army’s failure to bring relief to the Warsaw insurgents had hardly made Soviet liberation more attractive in Polish eyes. Stalin and Poland’s new communist rulers were even afraid that the Polish army they themselves had created might turn against them—“become an instrument of the reactionaries,” as Gomulka put it at the time—despite the fact that more than 11,500 Soviet officers had been sent by the Soviet high command to serve in it. The communist leaders knew themselves to be a tiny minority sitting on bayonets. If they were to achieve political control, indeed if they were to be sure of preserving their own skins, there appeared to be only one answer: terror.

Terror may not have seemed to some Polish communists, as it seemed to Stalin, a generally desirable form of human activity. There were differences of sensibility on this point. But at that moment, in those circumstances, almost all of them agreed that terror was essential. If the circumstances had been different—if Stalin had found a Polish Benes, with a plausible cabinet behind him, or if the old ruling class had really been compromised by collaboration with Nazi Germany, if there had been no Home Army, or if historical experience had inclined more of the population to smile on their liberators—then, indeed, there might have been other options. Soviet vital interests—even as that concept was understood by Stalin—might just possibly have been secured in other ways. But in the autumn of 1944 no such options were visible. Local conditions were therefore of the first importance in determining the timing and the methods of the establishment of Soviet domination over Poland. The timing and the methods were then an important factor in changing Western leaders’ attitudes to Stalin and the Soviet Union, and precipitating the cold war.

  1. 1

    This account is closely based on Antony Polonsky and Boleslaw Drukier, eds., The Beginnings of Communist Rule in Poland (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980).

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