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.