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 have an effect. They prevented any effective alliance between the Western Powers and Soviet Russia. They led Hitler to believe that he would have the united backing of the Western world if he led an anti-Bolshevik crusade. And, when Germany was defeated, both Communists and their opponents mistakenly imagined that they were back where they started in 1917.

THE ABORTIVE WAR between Soviet Russia and the rest came nearest to reality in 1919, just when the victorious Allies and the United States were making peace with Germany. The overlap between the German war which had ended and the Russian war which was expected to begin is the theme of Professor Mayer’s mighty book. It is not the only theme, perhaps not even the central one. In a previous book, Political Origins of the New Diplomacy 1917-1918, Professor Mayer posed two heroes. One was Lenin, the other Woodrow Wilson. Though rivals, both were Utopians, who challenged the conventional habits of political thought and offered to mankind the prospect of a better world. In 1917 it appeared that the Left was winning everywhere and that it was only a question whether it would win under the banner of the Communist Manifesto or the Fourteen Points. By 1919 the Left was in retreat. The Right carried the day in one country after another. Though Lenin was defeated outside Russia and, in a sense, within Russia, Wilson was defeated also. The Treaty of Versailles did not enshrine the Fourteen Points.

This is a disputable assertion. The Treaty did not stray far from the Fourteen Points in its concrete clauses, however much it may have done in its accompanying phrases. Germany did not lose any territory except on clear ethnic principles fairly applied. On the one point where she complained—the omission of a plebiscite in Silesia—she got redress. Nor, despite the hot air about squeezing the German lemon, did the reparation clauses go beyond the principle, which the Germans themselves admitted, that they should pay for war damage up to the limit of their capacity. However, it is necessary for Mr. Mayer’s argument that the Treaty be a monument of Wilson’s failure. In one sense, this is historically true. However fair the Treaty may have been, it did not appear fair to Wilson’s admirers at the time. Belief in Wilson was destroyed. In Europe the Left wandered in the void, reluctantly drawn to Lenin as an alternative savior. In America the Left lapsed into isolationism.


This is by no means a new idea. Wilson’s failure and its results have been the commonplace of historical writing for more than a generation. Mr. Mayer has given the story a fresh twist. Whereas previous writers have explained Wilson’s failure by his weakness or lack of understanding, Mr. Mayer has linked it to his other, Russian, theme. Anti-Bolshevism, he argues, was Wilson’s undoing. Obsession with the Communist peril eclipsed the idealism which had welcomed the Fourteen Points, and Wilson was taken prisoner by the reactionary forces throughout Europe. Mr. Mayer is himself a committed party in this struggle. He admired the earlier Wilson of 1917. Now he admires those Europeans who persisted in remaining Wilsonians even when Wilson deserted them. His special admiration is for the idealistic Socialists of the non-Communist Left: men who had opposed the war and who now hoped for a peace which would obliterate all war’s traces. His final sentences are a tribute to two of these men, Rolland and Barbusse. Mr. Mayer writes:

It was faith in rational progress that attracted Rolland and Barbusse first to Wilson and then to Lenin. Whatever disillusionments and betrayals they experienced along the way were the price they paid for the courage of believing in rational man in history.

These men and their like deserve this tribute. It is less certain that their failure was the decisive event of 1919.

THE MERIT of Mr. Mayer’s book is to have a thesis. This provides the shape and inspiration, even though the demonstration is conducted at excessive length. Nine hundred pages are too much for any book except the Bible, and the length becomes even more burdensome when much of it is due to repetition, including on occasion printing the same wordy document twice. The demerit of Mr. Mayer’s book is also to be found in the thesis, for the simple reason that the thesis fails to work. The evidence has to be forced into a preordained frame or, when this proves inadequate, be ignored altogether. The rational course, to use Mr. Mayer’s favorite word, for advocates of the old order to follow in 1919 was surely this: once Germany was defeated, they should have switched from the German to the Bolshevik peril and so made a soft peace, or even an alliance, with Germany. This, or something like it, happened in the years after the Second World War. It did not happen in 1919. The anti-Bolsheviks were, by and large, also the advocates of a hard peace. The critics of Versailles, by and large, also opposed intervention in Soviet Russia.

Men ought perhaps to have seen that the German and Russian questions were mixed up. On the whole, they did not. The terms of the peace treaty with Germany were discussed on one level, and attempts to deal with Soviet Russia on another. Of course some men made the connection. Churchill, for instance, wanted an early and even a soft peace with Germany so as to pursue the war of intervention more wholeheartedly. The Germans themselves sometimes used the argument that harsh terms would force them into alliance with the Bolsheviks, but they made no serious attempt to apply this policy. Mr. Mayer virtually ignores the process of peace-making with Germany except in reference to the Soviet problem. Historians who have done the precise opposite and described the peace-making without any reference to the Soviet problem may be nearer to the truth. Discussions about Russia often took up the time of the Big Four, but these discussions were distractions which were then laid aside.

If we ask, without preconception, why Wilsonian principles did not triumph at Paris, the answer seems clear even from Mr. Mayer’s own evidence. The end of the war was followed, not surprisingly, by a blaze of nationalism in every country. Men had been fighting a patriotic war, and they naturally expected it to be followed by a patriotic peace. The nationalism was just as strong in the defeated countries, such as Germany and Hungary. Only here the political leaders, brought to power by a sort of revolution, hoped that national aims would be served by professing Wilsonian principles. Maybe conservatives thought that they could best overcome the social peril by beating the nationalistic drum. But this was an extra inducement: they would have beaten the nationalistic drum in any case, as indeed many did who were far from conservative. In such circumstances, the peace-makers did pretty well: Wilson, with his insistence on the League of Nations, not badly; Lloyd George, with his repeated advocacy of moderation, best of all. In retrospect, Lloyd George seems the hero of Paris, if a statesman be judged by the breadth and wisdom of his vision. But whatever the statesmen did at Paris, right or wrong, was done in the German context. The Soviet part of the story was almost an irrelevance.


The story has of course importance for its own sake, and Mr. Mayer’s book has great value in telling this story, even if his emphasis is too strong. There is however one inevitable flaw in his narrative. It is told only from the Western side. The Russians have never revealed their confidential material, and we cannot describe from evidence what policy they were pursuing. Mr. Mayer sees them as victims. He says flatly in his Epilogue: “Russia did not withdraw from the European system: she was excluded from it…. In the last resort, Russia was ostracized and quarantined because of her revolutionary transgression, and this transgression became both cause and effect for treating Russia as if she were a decaying empire.” Can this view be seriously maintained even with the scraps of evidence we have? Surely Lenin was just as eager to destroy the capitalists as they were to destroy him and was even more confident that he could do so. Bolshevik foreign policy from the Decree on Peace onward was a deliberate withdrawal from the European system, and any attempt at negotiation was, as Lenin repeatedly insisted, a purely tactical move in order to buy time until the next revolutionary wave. The argument for compromise with the Bolsheviks was not that they also were anxious to compromise. It was, as it still is, that their revolutionary talk was so much nonsense which no one except themselves need take seriously. This was a difficult argument to justify in 1919, even though it happened to be true.

THE ARGUMENTS which Mr. Mayer analyzes with clarity and competence were of a different kind. They were arguments over the way in which Bolshevism could be thwarted outside Russia and then overthrown inside Russia. The “softs” believed in supplying food and holding peace talks. The “hards” wanted blockade and intervention. These were differences over method. All agreed over aim. Mr. Mayer makes one extremely important point, though again with some labor, in stressing the link between the Soviet questions in Russia and Hungary. The short-lived victory of Bela Kun tempted the statesmen of Paris toward compromise in order to ensure that Communism did not spread further. The fall of Bela Kun led them to believe that they could defeat Communism by strong action after all, and they rushed into the folly of recognizing Kolchak as supreme ruler of Russia. But no statesman of 1919 could have brought himself to say: “Let us treat Lenin as an ordinary prime minister just like ourselves,” and Lenin would have been extremely indignant if any statesman had said this. Lenin wanted to be a peril and could hardly complain when others said he was.

Of course men were hard put to it to explain why they were so angry with politicians who refused to play according to the accepted rules, and this bewilderment reverberates to the present time. Some of the early crusaders get top marks for ranting which has never been surpassed. Thus Lieutenant-Colonel Guinness MP declared that he would “far rather have a German Emperor ruling in England than international Socialism under the auspices of Bronstein, alias Trotsky.” This is an early edition of the cry once popular in French conservative circles: “Better Hitler than Blum.” Colonel Guinness also alleged that the Bolsheviks called on “Chinese executioners to saw asunder their victims and to gouge out their eyes before they finally put them out of their misery.”

The most remarkable document, or at any rate the most delightful, in this book is seemingly more rational. It is a demonstration by one of Wilson’s advisers that Bolshevik economics were mistaken. He wrote:

It is not necessary for any American to debate the utter foolishness of these economic tenets. We must all agree that our processes of production and distribution, the outgrowth of a hundred generations, in the stimulation to individual initiative, the large equality of opportunity and infinite development of mind and body, while not perfect, come about as near perfection as is possible from the mixture of avarice, ambition, altruism, intelligence, ignorance and education, of which the human animal is today composed.

The writer of this moving tribute to the American economic system learned from later experience how near it was to perfection. For he was none other than Herbert Hoover, whose mastery of economics was fully displayed as President during the Great Depression.

Mention of Hoover provokes a final, if not strictly relevant, reflection. Reading the massed follies of all Western statesmen of 1919, except perhaps Lloyd George, in regard to the Soviet problem brings increasing admiration for the wisdom with which F. D. Roosevelt approached the same problem during the Second World War and increasing regret that he was not spared to show the same wisdom in the postwar years. One American at least did not become a victim of the cold-war illusion.

This Issue

February 1, 1968