Johnson's Russia List
19 April 2002
The Spectator (UK)
20 April 2002
The Soviet threat was bogus
Andrew Alexander argues that the Cold War was fraudulent - and jeopardised
Andrew Alexander is a Daily Mail columnist, and is writing a book about the
Like others of my generation, I hugely enjoyed the film Dr Strangelove when
it came out in 1963, despite my orthodox view of the Cold War and its
causes. But as I came to visit the United States and meet American
politicians and military men, it struck me that General Jack D. Ripper is
not such a total parody. This set me on a long and reluctant journey to
Damascus. As I researched, through the diaries and memoirs of the key
figures involved, it dawned on me that my view of the Cold War as a
struggle to the death between Good (Britain and America) and Evil (the
Soviet Union) was seriously mistaken. In fact, as history will almost
certainly judge, it was one of the most unnecessary conflicts of all time,
and certainly the most perilous.
The Cold War began within months of the end of the second world war, when
the Soviet Union was diagnosed as inherently aggressive. It had installed
or was installing Communist and fellow-travelling governments throughout
Central and Eastern Europe. The Red Army, intact and triumphant, was ready
and able to conquer Western Europe at any time it was unleashed by Stalin,
who was himself dedicated to the global triumph of communism. But 'we' -
principally the United States and Britain - had just learnt from painful
experience that it was not only futile but also counterproductive to seek
accommodation with brutal and 'expansionist' dictators. We had to stand up
to Stalin, in President Truman's phrase, 'with an iron fist'.
It was a Manichean doctrine, seductive in its simplicity. But the supposed
military threat was wholly implausible. Had the Russians, though themselves
devastated by the war, invaded the West, they would have had a desperate
battle to reach and occupy the Channel coast against the Allies, utilising
among other things a hastily rearmed Wehrmacht. But, in any case, what
then? With a negligible Russian navy, the means of invading Britain would
somehow have had to be created. Meanwhile Britain would have been supplied
with an endless stream of men and material from the United States, making
invasion virtually hopeless.
And even if the Soviets, ignoring the A-bomb, had conquered Europe from
Norway to Spain against all odds, they would have been left facing an
implacable United States across more than 2,000 miles of ocean - the
ultimate unwinnable war. In short, there was no Soviet military danger.
Stalin was not insane.
Nor was he a devout ideologue dedicated to world communism. He was far more
like a cruel oriental tyrant. He was committed, above all else, to
retaining power, murdering every rival, and ruling Russia by mass terror on
a breathtaking scale. Stalin had long been opposed to the idea that Russia
should pursue world revolution. He had broken with Trotsky, and proclaimed
the ideal of 'socialism in one country'. Of course he was content to have
Communist parties abroad believe that the eventual global triumph of the
creed was inevitable - Marxism made no sense otherwise - but for all
practical purposes foreign Communist parties were instruments of Russian
policy, encouraged to become significant enough to influence or interfere
with their own nations' actions where it helped Soviet purposes. But it was
never Stalin's idea - far from it - that they should establish potentially
rival Communist governments whose existence and independence would be
liable, indeed certain, to diminish the role of Russia as the dominant
global power on the Left, and Stalin's personal position. Yugoslavia and
China were to demonstrate the peril of rival Communist powers.
In Britain many of us saw the bitter conflict between the Trotskyite
Socialist Workers' party and Communists as an amusing sideshow, some sort
of absurd quarrel between two groups of fanatics on points of doctrinal
purity. But the Trotskyites had a point. They understood, if others did
not, that Moscow had betrayed the world revolution.
The Cold War began because of Russia's reluctance to allow independence or
freedom to the 'liberated' countries of Eastern and Central Europe, Poland
in particular. Stalin was held to have welshed on promises at Yalta.
Roosevelt and Churchill had demanded that Poland would be allowed a
government that would be 'free' and also 'friendly to Russia'.
It was a dishonest formula on both sides. The two countries had a long
record of enmity. As recently as 1920, they had been at war. There was also
the Soviet massacre of 11,000 Polish officers in the Katyn forest. No
freely elected Polish government would be friendly to the USSR.
Furthermore, as Stalin pointed out forcibly at Yalta, Russia had been twice
invaded through Poland by Germany in 26 years, both times with devastating
consequences. The invasion of 1941 had led to the deaths of as many as 20
million Russians. Any postwar Russian government - Communist, tsarist or
social democratic - would have insisted on effective control, at least of
Poland if not of larger areas of Eastern Europe, notably Romania, as a
buffer zone against future attacks. To Russia, it seemed a simple enough
question of minimum security to prevent another disaster.
Churchill himself had seemed mindful of the point, offering at his famous
meeting with Stalin in 1943 to divide Eastern Europe so as to leave a
powerful Russia the predominant 'influence'. The Americans recoiled from
the suggestion when they heard of it - from Stalin.
The communisation of Central and Eastern Europe was swift in the case of
Poland, slower elsewhere. Yugoslavia was wholly Communist, of course, but
was already showing signs of the sort of independence that Stalin feared.
Its aid to Greek Communists earned a rebuke from him. It was nonsense, he
told the Yugoslav leaders, to think that the British and Americans would
allow a Communist country to dominate their supply lines through the
The great Cold War warrior Harry Truman came to office in April 1945. He
had little understanding of foreign affairs. The existing White House,
including the belligerent Admiral Leahy, quickly convinced him that he must
make an aggressive start. Within a fortnight, when Molotov, the Soviet
foreign minister, called to pay his respects to the new President, Truman
gave him an astonishing drubbing about Russia's failure to establish free
elections in Poland.
In May, Churchill told Anthony Eden, the foreign secretary, not only that
the Polish deadlock had to be resolved but also that the Americans ought
not to withdraw to the lines previously agreed in September. There had, he
said, to be a 'showdown' over Poland and the Russian occupation of East
Germany while the Allies were still strong militarily. Otherwise there was
'very little prospect' of preventing a third world war.
Churchill's 'Iron Curtain' speech at Fulton, Missouri, in March 1946 - the
phrase, by the way, originated with Dr Goebbels, warning of the same Red
peril - accurately reflects the Great Warrior's view of the Soviet menace.
Not surprisingly, however, it was seen by the Russians as a threat.
Referring to the new 'tyrannies', Churchill said, 'It is not our duty at
this time when difficulties are so numerous to interfere forcibly in the
internal affairs of countries.' The inevitable implication was that there
would be such a time when difficulties were not so numerous.
But Truman had already adopted an aggressive public attitude to Russia the
previous October. He produced 12 points which he said would govern American
policy, including the importance of opening up free markets. The programme
would be based on 'righteousness and justice'. There could be 'no
compromise with evil'. Since half of his points were aimed at Soviet rule
in Eastern Europe, the evil he had in mind was plain. He also added that no
one would be allowed to interfere with US policy in Latin America.
In short, Russian interference in countries essential to its safety was
evil. But exclusive US domination of its own sphere of influence was
righteous. The Russians must have thought that this was a fine piece of
humbug. In any case, a programme based on 'no compromise with evil' is a
preposterously naive basis for a foreign policy, destining a country to
permanent warfare. (Perhaps, as the war against terrorism suggests, this is
the capitalist world's version of Trotskyism.) It was at about this time
that General Patton, among other eminent figures, spoke of 'an inevitable
third world war'.
The Atlantic Charter of 1941 was another example of humbug, with its
declaration that countries should be free to elect their own governments.
Churchill had later to explain that this did not apply to the British
Empire. Russia added its name to the charter - no harm in supporting what
was obviously pious hypocrisy. Molotov inquired in this context what
Britain intended to do about Spain. Spain was different, Churchill insisted.
Churchill's hostility to the Soviet Union was very long-standing, despite
the wartime alliance and despite his erratic opinion of Stalin himself,
sometimes his 'friend', sometimes his enemy. Churchill had proposed in
December 1918 that the defeated Germans should be rearmed for a grand
alliance to march on Moscow. He supported the Allied intervention in the
Russian civil war.
More important was his wartime theme that the Germans should not be treated
too harshly or disarmed too extensively because they might be needed
against Russia. Soviet sympathisers in the Foreign Office would no doubt
have warned Stalin of this. Moscow also suspected, with reason, that some
British politicians hoped that appeasing Hitler would leave him free to
attack Russia. Moreover, the British government had seriously considered
attacking Russia when it invaded Finland in December 1939. One suggestion
was to bomb Russian oilfields.
Against this background, it is unsurprising that the Soviet attitude in the
immediate postwar years was nervous and suspicious. The West made virtually
no moves to allay these fears, but adopted a belligerent attitude to an
imaginary military and political threat from an economically devastated and
war-weary Russia. Based in no small part on our experience with Germany,
the great leap in assumptions was that a regime that was wicked and brutal
to its own people must also be a threat to us. It was an easy doctrine to
sell in the early postwar years.
The fact that the Cold War continued after Stalin's death and succession
does not, as some would claim, prove the Soviets' unchanging global
ambitions. The invasion of Hungary in 1956 and of Czechoslovakia in 1968
were brutal acts, but were aimed at protecting Moscow's buffer zone - much
as the United States had always protected her interests in Central and
South America. The same may be said of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan
in 1980 (as a result of which, with the help of the CIA, the Taleban came
into existence). In none of these cases was there a territorial threat to
At times even Eisenhower seemed ambivalent about the Cold War. In his
farewell address in 1960, he warned about the vested interests of the
American 'military-industrial complex'. Under his presidency US foreign
policy had fallen into the hands of crazed crusaders such as John Foster
Dulles. Of him, Anthony Eden complained that he was the only bull who
carried his own china shop with him. He also accused him of really wanting
a third world war. Followers of Dulles's crusading approach remained
prominent, especially under Reagan and until the collapse of the Soviet
Revisionist views of the Cold War regularly surface in the United States,
though the case is sometimes spoiled by the authors' socialist sympathies
(something of which I have never been accused). In Britain, the revisionist
view has not had much of a hearing.
One can, of course, understand why few anywhere in the West want the
orthodox view of the Cold War overturned. If that were to happen, the whole
edifice of postwar politics would begin to crumble.
Could it be that the heavy burden of postwar rearmament was unnecessary,
that the transatlantic alliance actually imperilled rather than saved us?
Could it be that the world teetered on the verge of annihilation because
the postwar Western leaders, particularly in Washington, lacked
imagination, intelligence and understanding?
The gloomy answer is yes.