Tuesday, April 23, 2002

Some comment on the Andrew Alexander piece from the forum. The writer is anonymous for now, but if he wishes to put his name to it I'm sure he'll ask:

I worked for Andrew Alexander, on and off, for ten years and like to think that my isolationist scepticism about the Cold War influenced his. He was always an ultra-hard-line free trader (unlike me) and America-disliker, but he had few positive enthusiasms or loyalties and a sketchy knowledge of history and political doctrine. This rendered uneasy his efforts to meld his unoriginal, sub-Powellite view of British foreign policy with an un-Enochian hostility to any government economic intervention whatever. (Even in the first paragraph of this screed he betrays ignorance or carelessness by implying that Saul of Tarsus set out to Damascus on a truth-seeking pilgrimage, rather than being confounded while on his way to persecute believers.)

This is an example of over-confident retro-history. It was not obvious in 1945 that Stalin's Soviet Union would remain placatory towards the western allies, even if he had hesitated to tread on Hitler's toes when he was trying to industrialise the country and reform its agriculture in the 1930s. Even so, by 1940 Stalin had gobbled up half Poland and the Baltic republics and tried to recover Finland for Russia. These might be seen as corrective reversions to a Tsarist idea of natural frontiers, but Stalin had also been very active behind the scenes on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War, and had squared up to the Japanese Emperor over Manchuria. After VE Day he went beyond what had been allotted to him in Greece and pawed the ground over Berlin. The creeping takeovers of eastern European countries were not vigorously opposed by Britain and the USA, while Stalin had strong local communist support in France and Italy (and, potentially, in the Allied occupation zones in Germany).

Alexander maintains that it was palpably foolish to envisage the Red Army sweeping into the Channel ports and menacing Britain, but dictators do toy with follies. Besides, such overstretch was not Stalin's sole option. He could have imagined an Austrianised or Finlandised western Europe, formally capitalist but refusing to perpetuate the wartime alliance with the USA and maybe forming a collective security apparatus and customs union which would freeze out both superpowers. This would have constituted a more convincing buffer zone than a clutch of communised Balkan and Slavic nations.

"Nor was he [Stalin] a devout ideologue dedicated to world communism. He was far more like a cruel oriental tyrant."

Like, say, Genghis Khan?

Truman, Eisenhower and the seasoned diplomatic advisers they employed (not just Dulles but Marshall, Kennan, Acheson and Rusk) therefore adopted a sensible policy of testing Stalin's resolve without goading him. He let Yugoslavia become semi-detached (perhaps seeing Tito as setting an encouraging example to communisant France and Italy) and he allowed the airlift to beat the Berlin blockade. Having in his own mind attained nuclear parity, allowed a free hand with Comecon and the Warsaw Pact, Stalin rested on his laurels, as did his successors. Containment worked: it kept the West alert, chiefly through immense nuclear superiority, but without beggaring itself in a conventional arms race. Gradually the ground of competition shifted from military to economic turf. Khruschev boasted during his 1959 visit to the USA that the USSR would surpass it in prosperity by 2000, and the Pentagon found this credible. But Khruschev also liberalised the Soviet Union, and despite some unease about the treatment of Jews and dissidents it no longer seemed worth confronting in arms in the name of freedom- not when the USA, after Eisenhower, was itself growing more and more overtly aggressive overseas in pursuit of profit.

The Cold War was global, but Alexander only discusses the windswept plains of Poland and northern Germany in detail. Under Kennedy America resumed in earnest the western Pacific policy of the Roosevelts. Kennedy was encouraged by the Sino-Soviet split and the possession of docile strategic assets- Taiwan, Japan and South Korea- to take up the threads of America's drive for predominant influence over South East Asia- from its aircraft carrier, the Philippines, with Australia as a gung-ho junior partner. The "domino theory" was the pretext for this. Khruschev and Brezhnev were remarkably tolerant of US meddling in the region, probably because they hoped Mao would be discredited. By now the America of Warfare/Welfare was the provocateur in the Cold War, but apart from the fortuitous and overblown missile crisis of 1962, the Russians were becoming too exhausted to gird up their loins against the Asian neo-imperialist. Alexander's perception of the showdown as a sham is indisputably true only from about 1963 onward.

There's also an interesting discussion on the Second World War within the comments section.


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