The Two Sides of Guilt

When was the Cold War born, and who was the mother?

On Monday, Kathy wrote a post called “The Right’s Neurotic Addiction to War” that netted some reaction from rightwing bloggers, including the Boston Herald’s Jules Crittenden, who wrote a post in reply called “War Addict History To Laugh At“. To summarize both posts, Kathy implied that rightwing elements forming US foreign policy overestimated the Soviet threat during the Cold War, and this shows the willingness of rightwingers now to overestimate threats, like with Iran. Additionally, the overestimation of the USSR as a threat caused the Soviets to keep up the arms race because they thought we were nuts. In reply, Jules mentions the standard rightwing canard about the USSR…

But apparently Soviet global expansionist ambitions were OK as long as they did not entail first-strike nuclear plans. Millions of eastern Europeans, Koreans, Vietnamese, Afghans, Cubans, Angolans, Nicaraguans, etc., will be glad to hear it wasn’t a problem after all.

…then quickly relates it to the right’s current beliefs on Iran:

It’s a relevant history lesson, because much like Ahmadinejad doesn’t really intend to get a bomb and blow up Israel and control the Middle East, neither was the Cold War about the advance of international socialism of the most vile, degrading and murderous variety. Like this Bush Iran thing, it was about the scourge of American paranoia.

Now I may be too young to remember the brunt of the Cold War, but I certainly don’t think that the USSR wasn’t a serious threat. The Cuban Missile Crisis reminds us of how the threat posed by the Soviet Union brought the world to the brink of destruction in 1962. But as Americans, if we want to be honest, we have to ask ourselves how much of a role did we play in creating this threat?

The posts from Kathy and Jules reminded me of a passage I read, concerning diplomatic affairs between the US and USSR in 1945, from The Warfare State, a book by Fred J. Cook published in 1962 which documents the then (and still now) growing militancy of the American government — this being egged on, of course, by rightwingers. To setup the scene: FDR had just died two weeks ago, the USSR is still our ally and we’re still fighting the Pacific war against Japan. The Soviets have been itching to get their hands on Japan since their loss in the Russo-Japanese War of 1915. But more importantly, the San Francisco Conference that would found the United Nations was able to be held, and paying a good will homage to FDR, Stalin goes against his own interests and honors FDR’s last request of him: send a representative to the conference. Stalin chooses Foreign Secretary Molotov, who’s first stop before SanFran is Washington DC and the White House, where newly minted President Truman was beginning his administration. But what kind of president was Truman becoming? Turns out that the rightwing military men advising him (and these are men of Joseph Lieberman’s ilk) had something of a “neurotic addiction to war,” which gave them the tendency to see threats that might not exist yet. The following passage explains the run up to President Truman’s meeting with Foreign Secretary Molotov, how that meeting was a disaster, and how it could have planted the seeds of the Cold War. I’ve quoted it at length:

As Frank Gervasi later wrote in his perceptive Collier’s article, “Watchdog in the White House,” Admiral Leahy “coached Roosevelt’s inexperienced successor on the significance of Russia’s emergence as a major power at the end of World War II.” The result was that, before many years had passed, Leahy was “credited with being one of the principal architects of the ‘tough policy’ toward Russia and an advocate of the arms-and-money- Truman doctrine to halt Soviet imperialism in strategically important Greece and Turkey.” He “did not singlehandedly bring the United States about in a full 180-degree turn on the course toward Russia. Other helmsmen had a hand on the wheel from time to time. But only Leahy was always near enough to the wheel to make his influence felt consistently.”

Leahy’s thorough indoctrination was to lead with dramatic swiftness to an abrupt about-face in attitude — a change of direction that, though it has gone virtually unrecognized, marked the virtual birth of the Cold War only eleven days after Roosevelt’s death. [Emphasis made by the author.]

The significance of this event can be understood only against a bit of background. Before Roosevelt died, Stalin had demurred about sending [Soviet Foreign Minister] Molotov to the San Francisco Conference at which the United Nations was to be born. Roosevelt had remonstrated with him, arguing that for Russia to refuse to send her top diplomat, when all other nations were sending theirs, would seem to indicate that the Soviet attached little importance to the new international organization for peace. Stalin had not given a final answer to this plea when Roosevelt died. As soon as he learned of the President’s death, Stalin sent for Ambassador Harriman. He said he wanted to give some immediate assurance to the American people of his desire for continued cooperation. What could he do? Harriman told him “that the thing the American people would appreciate most would be to send Molotov to the San Francisco conference,” and Stalin promptly told Molotov, who was present and “indicated his reluctance,” that he should go.

This prompt gesture of good will, taken upon Stalin’s direct initiative, unfortunately was to result in the very reverse of the good will it seems it should have generated. Truman, apprised of Molotov’s coming, held a conference in the White House on April 23, 1945, to decide how the Russian Foreign Minister should be received. A mere listing of those present shows that the military influence heavily predominated. Called in by Truman for advice were: Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius, Jr., Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, Navy Secretary Forrestal, Admiral Ernest J. King, General Marshall, Assistant Secretary of State James Dunn, Sharles Bohlen, Harriman and Major General John R. Deane, Chief of the U.S. Military Mission to Moscow.

Of them all only Stimson had had long experience in statecraft, and only he, now and later, was to exhibit the kind of vision and understanding that might have averted the Cold War. Bohen, the State Department’s Russian language specialist and rising expert on Russian affairs, kept notes of what was said at the meeting, and his account of it is to be found in the Forrestal Diaries. Secretary of State Stettinius opened the discussion by reporting that our debate with Moscow about the Lubin government, which the Russians wanted seated at the San Francisco conference, had taken a most unfortunate turn. He had, he said, “completely reliable information” that the Lublin government “did not in any way represent the Polish people.” [Forrestal italicized the statement.]

Stimson, asked for his views, spoke temperately. He reminded the gathering that the Russians’ conception of freedom and democracy was often quite different from ours, and he understood perfectly how important Poland was to Russia from a security stand-point. He “thought that the Russians perhaps were being more realistic that we were in regard to their own security.” He recalled, too, that “the Russians had carried out their military engagements and he would be sorry to see this one incident [the Polish issue] project a breach between the two countries.” As Professor Fleming as commented: “Stimson almost seemed to say that after all Poland was a matter of desperate concern to Russia and far away from our borders.”

The Military’s views were much stronger, but they were tempered by the frank recognition of one important fact: we still wanted Russia’s help in the Pacific War. Admiral Leahy recalled that “he had left Yalta with the impression that the Soviet government had no intention of permitting a free Poland, and that he would have been surprised had the Soviet government behaved any differently than it had.” But he hoped “the matter could be put to the Russians in such a way as not to close the door to accommodation.” General Marshall was “even more cautious.” He warned that the Soviets, if offended, could delay going to war with Japan “until we had done all the dirty work” and that it would be important to get their help “at a time when it would still be useful to us.”

So far, the conference had produced no extreme sentiments. But now Forrestal spoke. He was for an uncompromisingly hard line with Russia. He thought we should have a “showdown with them now rather than later.” This statement sparked a kindred fire in Harry Truman. He declared that he felt “our argeements with the Soviet Union so far had been a one-way street,” and that he could not continue; it was now or never. He intended “to go on with the plans for San Francisco and if the Russians did not wish to join us they could go to hell.”

It was perfectly conceivable, of course, that the Russians might not prefer to travel in that direction, but the cocky and arrogant Truman has the bit in his teeth. He was going to tell those Russians off and to hell with the consequences. In this belligerent mood, he had Molotov ushered into the White House office.

Leahy and Bohlen were witnesses to that reception, a confrontation in which, by all accounts, Truman bawled out Molotov unmercifully. Leahy later wrote that Truman’s “blunt language was unadorned by the polite verbiage of diplomacy” was “more than pleasing to me.” According to Drew Pearson, Bohlen later told James F. Brynes, who was about to become Secretary of State, that “he had never heard a top official get such a scolding.” Molotov, Pearson wrote, “heard Missouri mule-driver’s language.” Brynes himself, in his own memior of these time, later reported, with obvious and wry understatement, that he learned “it was not a very harmonious meeting and ended rather abruptly.”

The Russians gesture of good will had met with a boorish rebuff. This was hardly a foundation for future amity. If any one date can be assigned for the beginning of the Cold War, it would seem that it would have to be this date — April 23, 1945, just eleven days after the death of Roosevelt. [Emphasis mine.]

Yes, the Russians were a threat, but how much of a role did our government play in creating that threat? When some members of the military wanted to goto war with the USSR while we were still on the same side in World War II, and if our new president was willing to listen to them and very undiplomatically chew out their Foreign Secretary who was only here as a gesture of good will, what kind of threat would the Russians see us as?

There are many unanswered questions that could be asked after reading this story.

But one thing is certain, I think: when you’re addicted to war, you get war. Or something very, very close to it. When you assume the worst of the other side it shows in the way you treat them, and they might respond in kind. So when people like Jules Crittenden accuse us of not knowing history while claiming that Iran wants to develop nuclear weapons to bomb Israel and take over the whole Middle East, it’s best for him to think about our country’s role in stopping this — and the solution can’t involve war.

If the rightwingers did this, then and now, it might lead to different diplomatic reactions. And it might even have changed the course of history.

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