The US and USSR – Anatomy of a “Cold” War – A Debate


Jacek Popiel

Today we introduce a new feature: an original article by Jacek Popiel on U.S./Soviet relations, followed by a counterpoint by the editors, and then a coda by Jacek.  The goal is to stimulate discussion among our readers.  We’d like to thank Jacek for agreeing to this format, and our readers for contributing to the discussion.

Jacek Popiel on the Cold War and its impact

From the early 1600s to World War I the United States and Russia pursued their national interests in amity. This changed after the Russian Revolution of 1917, which gave rise to the Soviet Union (USSR, or Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). The result was the Cold War.

The change was not instantaneous. After 1918 the U.S. withdrew from international ventures, while the USSR was fully occupied with internal organization. Many American companies did excellent business in providing the USSR with heavy industrial equipment for the “Building of Socialism.”

With the coming of the Great Depression and the start of the New Deal, the Soviet Union even acquired somewhat of an inspirational status in the Roosevelt administration. Not much was known of Stalin’s murderous policies as he shrouded the country in secrecy, so U.S. supporters of socialism could look with envy on the “red comrades” on the other side of the Atlantic. This made the alliance with the Soviets against Nazi Germany more palatable once U.S. participation in World War II became inevitable.

The Soviet Union did the bulk of the land fighting against Hitler at enormous cost. Americans fought hard in other theatres, but also were the primary providers of arms and supplies to the Allied effort. Ironically, their respective contributions to victory laid the ground work for the coming Cold War.

Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe was a natural consequence of Nazi aggression. Having experienced German invasion in both World Wars it was a strategic necessity for the USSR to set up a chain of friendly buffer states between Germany and its own territory. This was recognized by allied leaders at the Yalta conference where future “zones of influence” of the victors were set.

The United States ended the war as the first and greatest industrial power of the planet. Victory had opened huge potential markets for American goods and investments, and the U.S. government intended to keep it this way. Both the Soviet Union and the U.S. needed zones of influence – one for strategic defense, the other for market access.

Neither country wanted to expand its national territory. The U.S. had acquired Cuba and Philippines earlier in the century, and had given them back. Similarly the Soviets had returned large chunks of Manchuria to the Chinese. There was no casus belli on that count.

The spoiler was ideology. The USSR was a communist power dedicated to world revolution – which meant the elimination of the very capitalism which America was extending over the globe. The U.S. did not question the Soviet right to exist, but it did challenge its right to expand. Their rivalry was in which way – communist or capitalist – any other country, in Europe, Asia or Africa, would go. That was a zero sum game, because what one won the other lost. The battle was about peripherals, not mutual destruction. But peripherals were the prize, so both sides played hard.

The above explains why the Cold War never became “hot” – in the sense that World War II was hot. Winning over some small country to capitalism or communism was important, but not important enough to risk New York or Leningrad being nuked. It was, nevertheless, a nasty and expensive rivalry, and the only way to resolve it is for ideology to go away. America would not abandon free enterprise. Were the Soviets willing to give up communism?

The question could be phrased differently: did the USSR choose Communism freely because their peoples wanted it? Or had they accepted it under duress, because there was no other choice?

Two facts stand out:

The first is that Lenin, founder of the USSR, had lived outside Russia since 1900 (save for two short years after 1905). During that time his preoccupation was not with Russia per se, but with Russia as the object of Marxist revolution. The theory and practice of revolution, not the fate of the people subject to it, were his main concern. Russia just happened to be the proving ground.

The second is that once revolution was initiated, Lenin almost immediately installed state terror as the main guarantor of popular obedience. After him Stalin expanded it almost without limit, until every Soviet citizen lived in constant fear of arrest, imprisonment or summary execution. No one knows how many lives were snuffed out to support Stalinism, but a rough estimate is 20 million. That number alone invalidates the notion that the Soviet people chose communism (or Stalin’s version of it).

In the late 1980s the Soviet people were, belatedly, given that choice. Military failures and a collapsing economy forced the government to ask the people where the country should be going. The answer was clear. In 1991 the activities of the Communist Party were suspended and a few months later the USSR ceased to exist. The people had put an end to Marxist Russia. The Cold War was over. America and Russia were no longer bitter ideological enemies.

Their relationship since has been up-and-down, which was to be expected. Russia might have abjured Communism, but it was still run by the (former) red Comrades. The U.S. had a parallel share of “unredeemed” cold warriors. But both generations are now passing away.

This is timely, for the world also has changed, and the new challenges will require both powers to cooperate. This will be the subject of our third article.

Counterpoint by the Editors

Jacek’s summary is biased toward the United States.  He elides American intervention in the 1917 Russian Revolution on the side of the anti-Bolshevik forces, and America’s failure to recognize the new communist government until the administration of Franklin Roosevelt.  American business interests both feared and exaggerated the perils of communism in the aftermath of World War I, recognizing that its ideology empowered workers at the expense of owners.

Communism as installed by Lenin and inherited by Stalin was brutal, but their paranoia was driven in part by continual Western efforts to overthrow the regime. It was “tit for tat” since the Communist Comintern had an extensive international program to “socialize” the Western capitalist states.

While the West presented itself as the “free” world, there was nothing “free” about the brutalities of capitalism, a fact captured by critics as diverse as Karl Marx and Charles Dickens.  Stalin’s brutal policies (e.g. the Ukrainian famine) were inexcusable, but the “free” world was guilty of its own exploitative acts.  Read, for example, the critique of American imperialism by General Smedley Butler.

In World War II, the West willingly fought Hitler and Nazi Germany to the last drop of blood of the Soviet soldier.  In beating Hitler, the Soviet Union lost 25 million people; the USA and UK lost under a million.  Utterly devastated by World War II, the Soviets expected both more credit and greater leeway from its erstwhile Western allies.  What they received from their perspective was Western hostility, notably from Winston Churchill, who saw a “cold war” as inevitable.

The Soviet Union was undoubtedly an empire bent on its own security, but so too were the U.S. and its allies.  They didn’t fight just over “peripherals”: they fought for control over the world’s economic, financial, and resource markets as well as for ideological dominance.  Considering the stakes, small wonder that the “cold” war often did grow very hot, with each side planning the obliteration of the other (plans that nearly came to pass during the Cuban Missile Crisis).

By the 1980s, the USSR was teetering, done in by their own mismanagement and foreign military ventures (Afghanistan) and the superior economic and military advantage of the U.S. and its allies, as well as by flaws within a Soviet system that had persecuted and estranged its own people.

The United States had won the Cold War, but it changed America in fundamental ways.  After World War II, the U.S. exaggerated the Soviet menace, leading to McCarthyism with its reactionary politics and the expansion of a military-industrial complex that in its collectivism, secrecy, and self-interest rivaled that of its Soviet equivalent.

Thus, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the USA was left with a national security state that, in its militarized structures and mentalities mirrored that of the Soviet Union.  What is remarkable since 1989 is the expansion of America’s militarized collective even as the former Soviet republics downsized their collective militaries.

Since 1990, in the absence of the Soviet threat, the USA has expanded its hegemony even as it kept its cold war military largely intact.

The growth of America’s national security state, in the absence of a peer threat such as the former USSR, suggests that the USA is less the leader of the “free” world and more the enforcer of a particular system of exploitative capitalism.

Even as US leaders deny the long-term peril of resource exploitation and wanton consumption, they exaggerate the short-term peril of a more assertive Russia.  Elites of both countries find political utility in threat inflation.  What they need to do instead is to focus on common threats, to include terrorism, global warming, and nuclear weapons and their proliferation.

Terrorism, especially in the wake of recent attacks by ISIS, offers chances for cooperation.  Vladimir Putin has called for a cooperative effort against terrorism based on shared moral values.  His “Christian”* appeal is more nuanced than the typical black-and-white rhetoric (the good guys against the bad) that’s heard in America.  It could form the basis for rapprochement between the West and Russia, setting the stage for further cooperation in the future on issues like nuclear proliferation and global warming.

*  According to NICHOLAI PETRO, an expert on Soviet and Russian affairs, Putin has suggested that the values associated with “traditional Christianity” may serve as an ethical framework for cooperation, together with the broad values of other major religions (to include Islam and Judaism), working to prevent competition among nation-states from running amok.  Whether such an idea is feasible or gains traction remains to be seen.

Coda by Jacek Popiel

The counterpoint helps to complete the picture by providing information on the “other side” of the Cold War.

I stuck to Russia and avoided commenting on US policy so as to focus on one key question: Did the Russians freely and voluntarily invite Communism in, or was it forced down their throats? I believe that the extent of state terror and the voluntary dissolution of the USSR support the conclusion that communism was not the population’s preferred choice. There was pride in the achievements, but the cost was too high.

Full disclosure: I spent much time (on business) in the Soviet Union in the late 1970s and my own experience, however limited, leads to the same conclusion.

If correct, this would open up a potential new future of cooperation. The U.S. romp through the Middle East in its “sole superpower” days has had some very negative consequences and a moment of truth may well be at hand — which is the subject of my third article (forthcoming at TCP) on the future of U.S./Russia relations.

6 thoughts on “The US and USSR – Anatomy of a “Cold” War – A Debate

  1. I like this article and its approach. I personally need big picture views of the context that can then fit in the details for understanding and making connections.

    Admittedly not a scholar on this subject, there are some recollections of history. One factor not spoken of here is that Russia was a feudal state until the Revolution. The people had no living concept/experience of living with democratic or socialistic ideals or laws. Given the size of the country, it was a daunting challenge to change thefeudal population and resocialize it into a participatory one. It is also significant that Russia was the first modern effort to create a socialist/communist nation. The very core ideas were antithetical to the world view of the people who lived under the thumbs of the ruling elite and the church. Creating an independent thinking public was a unique political experience.

    The US industrialists of course felt threatened as the very concept was antithetical to the fascistic ideology of the wealthy. The concept of a working class with power and control over their destinies was totally antagonistic to the developing capitlaist class which needed heavy handed control over their workers.
    The US not only railed against communisim here, but actively tried to disrupt the internal workings of Russia. History of the US always shows it supports dictatorships over democracies as it has destroyed many secular democracties in many countries while installing pro-capitalist totalitarian leaders.

    The biggest fear of the ruling elite is the coalescing of the masses which would/could rise up against their tyrants. Thus, here at home, Malcom X and Martin Luther King were both assassinated for the same reason. They had each evolved their poltical thinking to see that race, as central as it was to US corruptions, was not enough of a battle cry for democracy. They both came to see the necessity of creating coalitions of all workers, both Black and white. That made them very dangerous and they were simply offed!

    So with Russia, the same prevailed and the Communist leadership became very paranoid trying to re-train the public’s thinking while also becoming paranoid about US infiltration and attacks from abroad.

    It is instructive to look at China and Cuba as 2 other efforts to create socialist revolutions. Each one moved the process forward with Cuba, of all places, having the greatest survival rate and successes. Venezuela has now built on all those experiences and is, like them, struggling to withstand the illegal infiltrations of the US seeking to destroy a popular populace movement for economic and social change.

    Here in the US all movements for popular change have been socialistic. I do not consider the reactionary Tea Party a populace movement as it was designed and implemented by the ruling class moghuls, using lies and racism as their battle cries. FDR new he was in trouble with the rising socialist and communist movements and instituted the New Deal as one leg in his efforts to maintain capitalist control; the other was to allow Pearl Harbor to occur to frighten the public into supporting American entry into the war. But even then he had the American fascits biting hat his heals. Let us not forget the coup attempt against him with people such the Bushes. And they and the Rockefellers, were very instrumental in keeping Hitler affloat during the war with illegal fuel trading and economic help in various ways.

    So this article is very good in many ways but it ignores some very important influences along the way..

  2. Tamarque. Your comments are ‘right on’. Thanks

    As an editor I must say that our reply to Jacek’s article is a combination of our responses. In general we are in agreement that we are “contrarians” but in specifics we sometimes are not. Lets take this statement for example:

    “Communism as installed by Lenin and inherited by Stalin was brutal, but their paranoia was driven in part by continual Western efforts to overthrow the regime. ”

    Not my words since it tends to go along with the prevailing propaganda that everything in the Soviet Union was “brutal” in relation to our ‘benign’ democracy. Just saying we were brutal too doesn’t cover it! Was our genocide and suppression of the Native Americans and our importation of slaves not as brutal as anything the Soviets did?

    It took over eighty years and a bloody war before slavery was outlawed and still today we have one of our two poltical parties still trying to take the vote away from the progeny of the slave trade.

    I would suggest to all readers. including Jacek, to obtain the 800 page book “Stalin” which recently came out and is really a comendium of Russian archives on actual records showing how decisions were reached and how Stalin slowly transitioned from a revolutionary apposed to a repressive Tsar into tyrant himself.

    The world is not black or white, it’s sort of a dirty grey. Whether our country or other left or right regimes, the ordinary citizen must remember this when you give up a freedom

  3. “The U.S. romp through the Middle East in its “sole superpower” days has had some very negative consequences and a moment of truth may well be at hand — ” Jacek Popiel above

    To describe the US interventions in Iraq and Syria (include Afghanistan) as a “romp’ shows the author of the main article as incomparably insensitive and oblivious to the devastation and chaos that has decimated the civil life of this area. Does he not see the deaths of tens, if not hundreds of thousands of innocent men,women, and children throughout this vast area as a result of American military action? Is that a”romp” The destruction of a civil society and its infrastructure resulting in the current chaos throughout the region while we remain friendly with the 8th century brutal monarchs in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states who continue to behead their citizens and fund the very jihadist criminals we now supposedly condemn. Is it a “romp” that has sent half the population of Syria seeking asylum in Europe when we elected to go along with the Saudis and Israel to support the overthrow of the government of Syria mainly because they where aligned with Iran?

  4. I must be as brief as possible, as I am getting ready to travel and may be without easy Internet access. My points: 1.) if the Editors felt this post needed an official “counterpoint,” why bother publishing it in the first place? This topic simply cannot be covered in a few TCP-manageable bites, anyway!; 2.) the term “communism” is not applicable to any regime on Earth, past or present. Classical Communism is the final stage of Socialism. Genuine Socialism has never been allowed to blossom by the Capitalists who rule the globe. Just look at the ongoing effort to economically suffocate little Cuba, and derail Chavez’s legacy in Venezuela, etc. Any attempt at rule in the interest of the masses will be met with economic and “hot” warfare; 3.) in reply to “RangeRover”: I was not offended by the use of the word “romp” for the Cheney-Bush-Rumsfeld activities in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. From THEIR perspective, it WAS a “romp”: they got to show off their military prowess, inflicting vast damage on civilian populations, routing a military that barely existed (Saddam’s), in exchange for absolutely minimal casualties on the side of the US and its Coalition of the Lickspittles. Just the kind of Kill Ratio these pathetic excuses for human beings have wet dreams over!! And here on the homefront? Millions of misguided citizens waved the flag and put Support Our Troops/God Bless Our Troops stickers on their vehicles! Another triumph for jingoism. Don’t get me started on NFL coaching staffs being dressed in pseudo-military garb on the sidelines, the escalating restriction of civil liberties here, etc. One hell of a “romp” is what it was/is!! Heck, poor ol’ Uncle Joe Stalin didn’t have assassin drones with which to threaten dissidents within the USSR. My, my, look at the “progress” we’ve made!

  5. Did the Americans freely and voluntarily invite the banksters and warmongers in, or have they been forced down their throats? Did the Americans freely and voluntarily accept the maximization of profits and dividends for the “ownership” class at the expense of labor? Did the Americans accept skyrocketing tuition and a pathetic healthcare system, or was it forced down their throats? We could go on and on…

    I suppose it’s simple to demonize “communism” when focusing upon the political arrangement and economics of the Soviet Union. It’s a pretty broad sweep, however, to conflate all “socialist” thought and practice with the Soviet example.

    I reject the notion that now, finally, the potential for cooperation can be realized because America and Russia are “no longer bitter ideological enemies.” The Soviet “threat” was indeed blown completely out of proportion (and insofar as there was a “threat,” it was one that was egged on, so to speak). I also reject the idea that the “peripherals” should have been looked upon as competitive “prizes”. Not the way it was done. It has never been about “democracy” or any kind of fair value or development. It’s been about exploitation, here and abroad, for the benefit of elites only, here and abroad. We could go on and on…

  6. Pingback: U.S. and Russia – Cooperation Now – Part III | The Contrary Perspective

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s