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Hot, Cold and Imperial

The question of how the world should be run, and America’s part in its running, is the subject of much academic and political discussion in Washington these days. The factual questions are: Is the United States on the road to becoming an empire like the Roman and British Empires before it? What are the prospects for such an enterprise in today’s world? More speculatively, does globalization require an imperial underpinning? There are also questions of value: Is imperialism a good or bad thing? Should the United States sacrifice its republican institutions in order to fulfil an imperial vocation?1 Gregor Dallas’s 1945: The War That Never Ended can be read as setting the scene for this discussion. The Second World War cleared away the European empires, actual and aspiring, leaving the United States and the Soviet Union as the two contending superpowers. The collapse of the Soviet Union concluded the “unfinished business” of the war, by leaving the United States the sole superpower and simultaneously creating a single world economy. The dynamics of postwar US supremacy and the question of whether they are pushing the United States toward formal empire are the subject matter of Charles Maier’s Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors.


World War II, according to Gregor Dallas, never ended: it just stopped where the armies of East and West met, and almost immediately morphed into the cold war. This was because although the Soviet Union had achieved its war aim—an empire stretching from the Baltic to the Balkans—America had not achieved its aim, which, it will come as no surprise, was to convert the whole of Europe to democracy and free enterprise. The cold war started when Truman realized that “democracy” did not mean quite the same to Stalin as it did to the Americans.

That, in a nutshell, is the main argument of Dallas’s discursive but fascinating book, made up of myriad fragments like a collage. Dallas justifies his method by quoting the Polish poet Czesl/aw Milosz: “You can only express things properly by details. When you’ve observed a detail, you must discover the detail of the detail.” Nevertheless, underlying the book is an eminently sound proposition: that the war against Germany (Japan is scarcely mentioned) was simultaneously a struggle to control the post-Nazi future. Behind every military decision lay a political calculation. Indeed, Dallas’s book is so much taken up with the jostling for postwar position that it sometimes loses sight of the fact that till 1945 a war was still being fought against Nazi Germany. But even in defeat, Hitler, too, influenced the shape of post-Nazi Europe, by his choice of where to fight, how hard to fight, whom to surrender to—and whom to kill. By the end, he preferred to have Germany conquered by Slavic communism than by the decadent democracies.

Dallas dates the turning point of the war to July 1943, with the German failure to push back the Russian salient at Kursk and with the Allied landings in Sicily. But Hitler may have realized that the war was lost—in the sense that he would not be able to impose his will on events by military force alone—as early as December 1941, following the disastrous German defeat before Moscow, one of the forgotten but decisive battles of the war.2 Thereafter the most he expected from his armies was to achieve “temporary” victories to put him into a better bargaining position. He thought that the alliance between the West and the USSR would soon be torn asunder by conflicting interests, leaving him with room for a “political” solution. He was right to believe the Grand Alliance would break up, wrong to think it would happen before his own empire had been swept away. His aims, methods, and crimes had put him beyond the pale for the Western Allies.

Dallas suggests that Hitler would have had a better chance with Stalin. The main evidence for this is the Ribbentrop–Molotov, or Nazi–Soviet, Pact of August 23, 1939. By the terms of this pact, Hitler recognized half of Poland, the Baltic States, Finland, and Bessarabia as being in the Russian “sphere.” Most historians have regarded the pact as a marriage of convenience: Hitler avoided the danger of a two-front war; Stalin bought time. Dallas accepts the argument for Hitler—Hitler’s sights were always set on the conquest and settlement of European Russia—but not for Stalin. Stalin looked on the pact as a long-term arrangement because, to put it brutally, Hitler could give him what the Western democracies could not: reconstitution of the tsarist empire and further gains for the future. In November 1940, he and Hitler toyed with the idea of carving up the British Empire between them. But this was not Hitler’s dream, and he was probably leading Stalin on in order to keep supplies flowing from Russia till he was ready to strike.3

Dallas claims that even after the Germans invaded Russia, Stalin never abandoned the “fantastic perspectives” opened up by the Nazi–Soviet Pact. “In the spring and early summer of 1943, Stalin’s representatives in Stockholm attempted to negotiate a revived Pact; it failed because Hitler insisted on holding on to the Ukraine.” It was the Soviet victory at Kursk in July 1943, not at Stalingrad in December 1942 (which was followed by a successful German counterattack), that finally convinced him that Hitler had no more to offer. “As the Soviet armies rolled forward, Stalin could nourish the dream of imposing on Europe a novel kind of Nazi–Soviet Pact—one minus the Nazis.”

The strength of Dallas’s hypothesis is that it helps explain the movement of Stalin’s armies, and thus links the Nazi– Soviet Pact to the origins of the cold war. Stalin’s postwar annexations, including Poland up to the “Curzon Line,” closely followed the contours of the Nazi–Soviet Pact. His designs on the Balkans, and even on the Middle East (where Israel was originally conceived as a Soviet satellite), were foreshadowed in the November 1940 conversations between Molotov and Ribbentrop in Berlin. Stalin’s ambitions were bound to break up the Grand Alliance. What Britain and France were not prepared to concede to Russia in 1939 as the price for an anti-Nazi pact, America and Britain were not prepared to concede as the price for continuing the Grand Alliance. The seeds of the cold war, in Dallas’s view, were laid when Stalin insisted at Tehran in November 1943 that the terms of the Nazi–Soviet Pact still applied to Poland.

Dallas’s thesis is not without its problems, though. Does one need the pact to explain the “movement” of Stalin’s armies? Was Stalin not just helping himself to the spoils of war that fell into his lap? For in fact Stalin got much more than Hitler offered. The cold war may have started with the Soviet takeover of Poland, but it got going seriously only in 1948 with the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia, which had nothing to do with the pact. (It was Czechoslovakia rather than Poland that was regarded as the litmus test of Soviet intentions in 1948, as it had been of German intentions ten years earlier.)

One could argue that the “fantastic perspectives” that opened up to the Soviet Union between 1945 and 1948 had less to do with the pact than with the power vacuum across Western and Central Europe. The claim that Stalin had a preference for Hitler also seems overdone, in view of his earlier efforts to negotiate an anti-German alliance with Britain and France. Then again, if Stalin was so keen to have Hitler as a companion in world conquest, why did he send such a spectacularly sour envoy as Molotov to Berlin in November 1940? Furthermore, Dallas offers no evidence for his contention that Stalin’s representatives tried to renegotiate the Ribbentrop–Molotov Pact in Stockholm in 1943. The truth is we will never know for sure what went on in Stalin’s mind. Dallas offers a powerful provocation to thought rather than conclusions from evidence.

Roosevelt was never concerned about who should liberate whom, because he dreamed of a post-territorial condominium with “Uncle Joe,” exercised through multilateral institutions like the IMF, the World Bank, and the UN. This can be counted as the most spectacular misjudgment in American history, aided and abetted by a network of Soviet spies in the Treasury and State Departments. Churchill, who was defending a territorial empire, evinced a much greater interest in frontiers: hence his attempt to limit Soviet expansionism by means of the “percentages” agreement with Stalin in October 1944. For the same reason, Roosevelt showed no interest in getting the British and American armies into Eastern Europe through Germany ahead of the Russians. This would have been quite feasible in the autumn of 1944, when Germany lay defenseless against Western assault. Nor did he back Churchill’s plan of seizing Hungary and Austria by forcing the attack on the German lines in northern Italy. “A break through the Ljubljana Gap and a march into Austria,” argued Harold Macmillan, Churchill’s envoy in the Mediterranean, in his memoirs, “might have altered the whole political destinies of the Balkans and Eastern Europe.”4 But implementing such strategies would have required the Churchillian concept of the “balance of power,” which had no place in Roosevelt’s brave post-territorial world. And Churchill, the weakest of the Big Three, did not control Western policy.

Of the three victors, Britain’s victory was the most equivocal. The Soviet Union gained an empire in Eastern Europe, the United States became the world’s leading power, but Britain emerged too weak to hold on to the empire which it had been Churchill’s object to preserve. Dallas emphasizes a point with which I am bound to agree since I have made the argument myself5—that Roosevelt’s persistent war aim was “the ejection of the British Empire as a Great Power.” Churchill in his geopolitics and Keynes in his economic policy fought as hard as they could to maintain independence from the Americans, but the shrunken assets Britain controlled by the end of the war were inadequate for the job.

Was there an alternative? Dallas reminds us that De Gaulle proposed an Anglo-French alliance on November 12, 1944. “Should England and France agree to act together…” he told Churchill, “they will wield enough power to prevent anything being done which they themselves have not accepted or decided. Our two countries will follow us. America and Russia, hampered by their rivalry, will be unable to counter it.” Others would join the Anglo-French camp because of their “instinctive fear of giants.” Church-

ill refused. “It is better to persuade the stronger than to go against them.” Dallas tends to ascribe Churchill’s choice of America over Europe to his rootlessness (abetted by his American mother, and his free trade perspective), but who was the fantasist: Churchill with his hopes of encouraging the Americans into the paths of realism or De Gaulle with his dream of a bankrupt Europe as a third force?

  1. 1

    The latest offering is Harold James’s brilliant essay, The Roman Predicament: How the Rules of International Order Create the Politics of Empire(Princeton University Press, 2006). James, whose translation from Cambridge, England, to Princeton, USA, may be viewed as an example of the imperial job market in action, quotes the bon mot once applied to the British Empire: “Britannia waives the rules in order to rule the waves.”

  2. 2

    On this see Rodric Braithwaite’s excellent Moscow 1941: A City and Its People at War (Knopf, 2006).

  3. 3

    This interpretation has been challenged by John Lukacs, in June 1941: Hitler and Stalin (Yale University Press, 2006), pp. 23–24. Lukacs depicts Hitler as wavering in the autumn of 1940 between the attractions of a “peripheral” (German, Italian, French, Spanish) anti-British coalition which would include the Soviet Union and attacking the Soviet Union. It was Molotov’s demand for military bases in Finland and Bulgaria when he came to Berlin in November 1940 which convinced Hitler to give the go-ahead to “Barbarossa.”

  4. 4

    H. Macmillan, The Blast of War 1939– 1945 (Macmillan, 1967), pp. 510–511, quoted in Dallas, Among Empires, p. 442. For a different view, see Theodore Draper, “Eisenhower’s War—II,” The New York Review, October 9, 1986.

  5. 5

    In John Maynard Keynes: Fighting for Freedom 1937–1946 (Viking, 2001), pp. xiii–xv.

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