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The Cold War Revisited

ISSUE:  Spring 1978
Shattered Peace: The Origins of the Cold War and the National Security State, By Daniel Yergin. Houghton Mifflin. $15.00.

No less than the Second Hundred Years’ War between England and France in the 18th century, the Cold War comprises a major divide in the history of the modern world. In large measure, the Soviet-American rivalry, like that between England and France, has responded to long-term historic trends. Even some 19th-century observers foresaw that the two landed empires would one day submerge Western Europe to a secondary status in international life, “Between the autocracy of Russia on the East, and the democracy of America, aggrandized by the conquest of Mexico, on the West,” predicted the Journal des Débats of Paris in 1845, “Europe may find herself more compressed than she may one day think consistent with her independence and dignity.” A decade earlier, Alexis de Tocqueville, the brilliant French critic of American society, had pointed to the United States and Russia as the two great nations of the future and observed that “each of these seems to be marked out by the will of heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.” That two nations could arrive at such predictable superpower status except as rivals for power and prestige was unthinkable. Still rivalry and cold war are not synonymous. The Soviet-American conflict, especially after 1945, required both the issues and the leadership that would aggravate the spirit of competition. Thus what attracts scholars to the question of Cold War origins is the supposition that different national policies might have lessened, if not avoided, the enormous price which that phenomenon has exacted of the Republic.

Historians disagree on the date when the Cold War began, but they agree generally that the issue which gave it life and sustained it was Eastern Europe. Still, for Daniel Yergin, the open rift which occurred in 1945 rested, in large measure, on a body of theory about the U.S.S.R. which had dominated the thought of Soviet experts in the American government for a full generation. Yergin defines this official anti-Soviet dogma as the Riga axioms, named after the Baltic port of Latvia, where United States diplomats gathered information on Bolshevik Russia during the years of non-recognition (1920-1933).

The Riga alumni, who included George F. Kennan, Charles E. Bohlen, Elbridge Durbrow, and Loy W. Henderson, shared the conviction that Soviet foreign policy flowed directly from Marxist-Leninist ideology, that the horrors of Stalinist rule within Russia would produce external policies equally totalitarian in purpose. The USSR, in short, was a revolutionary state, committed to unrelenting ideological warfare in its drive for world mastery. With such a country, the Riga alumni agreed, the West could never coexist with any success. What broke this group’s influence, at least momentarily, was the Nazi invasion of Russia in June 1941, for this prompted President Franklin D. Roosevelt, much to the dismay of some Soviet experts, to support the Russian military cause.

No event could have brought the latent distrust in Soviet-American relations to the forefront of international life more effectively than did the Second World War. The combined effort of the two countries assured the destruction of both Germany and the historic European balance of power. As early as 1941, Stalin made it clear that he would never again permit a cordon of anti-Soviet states along Russia’s western periphery. When Soviet armies, in 1944, began to occupy areas of Slavic Europe on the heels of the retreating Germans, he gave the West the choice of recognizing Soviet economic and political interests in Eastern Europe or of courting the destruction of Big Three unity. Roosevelt responded to the Soviet challenge with what Yergin terms the Yalta axioms.

Privately the President discarded the Wilsonian quest for an ordered world, for he recognized the need of Soviet cooperation in Europe’s postwar reconstruction. He understood, moreover, that Russia would be in absolute possession of East-Central Europe when the war ended. Roosevelt regarded Stalin as a realist who would exert every advantage to protect his country’s interests. Yet at the heart of the Yalta axioms was Roosevelt’s conviction that he could negotiate with Stalin successfully. Unfortunately, few in the State Department hierarchy shared the President’s optimism or admitted the necessity of accepting any Soviet gains. Bohlen warned Roosevelt that such a policy would either produce a “first class British-Soviet row over European problems or . . .the division of Europe into spheres of influence on a power politics basis.” Either, he said, would be disastrous. Against such advice the Yalta axioms had no chance.

Russia’s dominance of Eastern Europe in 1945 propelled the United States and the U.S.S.R. into an inescapable confrontation across a weakened and disorganized Western Europe. No longer could the common enemy sustain the Grand Alliance.”That tie,” admitted Stalin, “no longer exists, and we shall have to find a new basis for our close relations in the future. And that will not be easy,” It proved to be impossible. The task of disengaging massive armies from the heart of Europe, where they had met under conditions that engaged the long-term interests of the major powers, was more than traditional diplomacy could accomplish. For the United States and Britain, the best of all worlds still conformed overwhelmingly to that fashioned at Versailles. For the Soviets, the postwar era required, if it would satisfy Russia’s historic purposes, the elimination of the Versailles Treaty’s essential provisions, especially its Eastern European settlements and its reaffirmation of Western predominance in Europe. This massive divergence of purpose, rendered inflexible by a profound conflict over the ultimate intentions implied by competing ideological imperatives, gradually disintegrated into a Cold War.

Yergin holds to the unspoken assumption, one shared by historians generally, that the U. S. S. R. in 1945 posed no immediate threat to the West, that Stalin was interested more in consolidating his sphere of influence than in preparing the takeover of Western Europe or promoting worldwide revolution. Thus Yergin views Soviet policies toward Germany, Poland, the Balkans, Iran, and the eastern Mediterranean in part as the defensive maneuvers of an insecure, devastated country; in part, the expression of historic Russian fears and ambitions. Unfortunately, all such analyses of Cold War causation lack an essential symmetry, for no historian can balance what is known about official American attitudes and behavior with an equal knowledge of Soviet fears and intentions. Whether time will markedly alter the existing perceptions of Soviet purpose as reflected in Soviet action is, at least to this reviewer, doubtful. At the Paris Conference of Foreign Ministers in July 1946, Secretary of State James F. Byrnes asked V. M. Molotov what Russia really wanted. What his nation had requested at Yalta, the Foreign Minister replied—$10 billion in reparations and four-power control of the Ruhr, Byrnes admitted later that Molotov might well have said it all. Actually, few if any United States officials after Yalta would have accepted such a limited view of Soviet ambition. Russia’s postwar behavior had permitted the Riga alumni to stage a massive counterattack on the wartime perceptions of the U.S.S.R., to reassert their convictions of Soviet expansionism, and to build an overpowering anti-Soviet consensus within the foreign policy bureaucracy. Their easy intellectual triumphs reflected their own high professional standing in the government as well as an international environment which encouraged distrust of the Kremlin. The pressures on President Harry S. Truman to adopt a hard line toward the Kremlin were profound, and Yergin records them with fascinating detail. With the exception of Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, who favored recognition of the Soviet sphere, all of Truman’s advisers agreed that the Russians, if treated firmly, could be brought to an acceptance of American objectives for postwar Europe.

Ironically, the Truman administration chose to argue with the Soviets over a region which was, in the words of Arthur Bliss Lane, when he was minister to Riga in 1937, “perhaps the least important of all the areas in the world with which the United States had to deal.” Poland became the test case. Stimson argued that geographical propinquity outweighed principle in international affairs, but key adviser W. Averell Harriman declared, “I don’t see how we can afford to stand aside without registering the strongest objections.” Such statements determined the American response. Washington attempted through postponement, vocal protest, outrage, references to principle, and diplomatic inflexibility to create the impression that it could exert effective pressure on the U.S.S.R. even in the absence of military threats. Unfortunately, the Riga axioms could determine attitudes far easier than policies. Whatever the nature of its diplomacy, the United States would accept the Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe as a political and strategic necessity, for the only alternative was war.

By 1946, Soviet intransigence had begun to tell on American emotions. Early in November, Elbridge Durbrow reported from Moscow on the dangers of conducting diplomacy with the Soviets: “Their continuing diplomatic offensive coupled with a seemingly contradictory attitude are designed to confuse and disrupt the West and prevent the rest of the world forming a solid front which would oppose consolidation of their present gains and future Soviet expansion.” When the British announced in February 1947, that they would shortly withdraw from Greece and the eastern Mediterranean, American officials were primed for crisis. Secretary of State George C. Marshall informed congressional leaders: “It is not alarmist to say that we are faced with the first crisis of a series which might extend Soviet domination to Europe, the Middle East and Asia.” More dramatically, Under Secretary Dean Acheson declared that “a highly possible Soviet breakthrough [in the Near East] might open three continents to Soviet penetration. Like apples in a barrel infected by the corruption of one rotten one, the corruption of Greece would infect Iran and all to the East. . . . Not since Rome and Carthage has there been such a polarization of power on this earth.”

Until Truman’s speech of March 12, 1947, the anti-Soviet consensus had been limited largely to the executive branch of government. The purpose of that speech was to extend that consensus to Congress and the American public. The Truman Doctrine speech, which defined the enemy as communism everywhere, shifted the emphasis of American perceptions of danger from anti-Sovietism to anti-communism, with its far more pervading visions of subversion. Thereafter reactions became increasingly hysterical, encouraging even the nation’s conservative elite to embrace goals which had no relation to American power or genuine national intent. The suppositions which now guided American policy Bohlen made clear in a letter to Edward R. Stettinius on March 26, 1949: “I am quite convinced myself, and I think all of those who have been working specifically on the problems of relations with the Soviet Union are in agreement, that the reasons for the state of tension that exists in the world today between the Soviet Union and the non-Soviet world are to be found in the character and nature of the Soviet state, the doctrines to which it faithfully adheres, and not in such matters as the shutting off of Lend-Lease and the question of a loan.”

Daniel Yergin’s Shattered Peace is at present merely the last in a long series of volumes on the origins of the Cold War which have asked the same basic questions regarding Soviet and American behavior. Among the earlier studies which have emphasized the American illusions of ultimate success and the refusal of national leaders to exercise the choices available are William Hardy McNeill’s America, Britain, and Russia: Their Cooperation and Conflict, 1941—1946 (1953), Martin F. Herz’s Beginnings of the Cold War (1966), John Lewis Gaddis’s The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941—1947 (1972), and Norman A. Graebner’s Cold War Diplomacy, 1945—1975 (1977). What separates Yergin’s book from most of its predecessors is not its fundamental assumptions or conclusions, but its fine detail, based on a Cambridge University doctoral dissertation, and its highly professional style. The volume presents much that is new; it is replete with sparkling vignettes of men and events. Always balanced in its judgments, Shattered Peace is narrative history at its best.


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