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We waited for them to come ashore. We could see their faces. They looked like ordinary people. We had imagined something different. Well, they were Americans!


Red Army, 58th Guards Division

I guess we didn’t know what to expect from the Russians, but when you looked at them and examined them, you couldn’t tell whether, you know? If you put an American uniform on them, they could have been American!


U.S. Army, 69th Infantry Division1

THIS WAS THE WAY the war was supposed to end: with cheers, handshakes, dancing, drinking, and hope. The date was April 25, 1945, the place the eastern German city of Torgau on the Elbe, the event the first meeting of the armies, converging from opposite ends of the earth, that had cut Nazi Germany in two. Five days later Adolf Hitler blew his brains out beneath the rubble that was all that was left of Berlin. Just over a week after that, the Germans surrendered unconditionally. The leaders of the victorious Grand Alliance, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Josef Stalin, had already exchanged their own handshakes, toasts, and hopes for a better world at two wartime summits—Teheran in November, 1943, and Yalta in February, 1945. These gestures would have meant little, though, had the troops they commanded not been able to stage their own more boisterous celebration where it really counted: on the front lines of a battlefield from which the enemy was now disappearing.

Why, then, did the armies at Torgau approach one another warily, as if they’d been expecting interplanetary visitors? Why did the resemblances they saw seem so surprising—and so reassuring? Why, despite these, did their commanders insist on separate surrender ceremonies, one for the western front at Reims, in France, on May 7th, another for the eastern front in Berlin on May 8th? Why did the Soviet authorities try to break up spontaneous pro-American demonstrations that erupted in Moscow following the official announcement of the German capitulation? Why did the American authorities, during the week that followed, abruptly suspend critical shipments of Lend-Lease aid to the U.S.S.R., and then resume them? Why did Roosevelt’s key aide Harry Hopkins, who had played a decisive role in crafting the Grand Alliance in 1941, have to rush to Moscow six weeks after his boss’s death to try to save it? Why for that matter, years later, would Churchill title his memoir of these events Triumph and Tragedy?

The answer to all of these questions is much the same: that the war had been won by a coalition whose principal members were already at war—ideologically and geopolitically if not militarily—with one another. Whatever the Grand Alliance’s triumphs in the spring of 1945, its success had always depended upon the pursuit of compatible objectives by incompatible systems. The tragedy was this: that victory would require the victors either to cease to be who they were, or to give up much of what they had hoped, by fighting the war, to attain.


HAD THERE really been an alien visitor on the banks of the Elbe in April, 1945, he, she, or it might indeed have detected superficial resemblances in the Russian and American armies that met there, as well as in the societies from which they had come. Both the United States and the Soviet Union had been born in revolution. Both embraced ideologies with global aspirations: what worked at home, their leaders assumed, would also do so for the rest of the world. Both, as continental states, had advanced across vast frontiers: they were at the time the first and third largest countries in the world. And both had entered the war as the result of surprise attack: the German invasion of the Soviet Union, which began on June 22, 1941, and the Japanese strike against Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which Hitler used as an excuse to declare war on the United States four days later. That would have been the extent of the similarities, though. The differences, as any terrestrial observer could have quickly pointed out, were much greater.

The American Revolution, which had happened over a century and a half earlier, reflected a deep distrust of concentrated authority. Liberty and justice, the Founding Fathers had insisted, could come only through constraining power. Thanks to an ingenious constitution, their geographical isolation from potential rivals, and a magnificent endowment of natural resources, the Americans managed to build an extraordinarily powerful state, a fact that became obvious during World War II. They accomplished this, however, by severely restricting their government’s capacity to control everyday life, whether through the dissemination of ideas, the organization of the economy, or the conduct of politics. Despite the legacy of slavery, the near extermination of native Americans, and persistent racial, sexual, and social discrimination, the citizens of the United States could plausibly claim, in 1945, to live in the freest society on the face of the earth.

The Bolshevik Revolution, which had happened only a quarter century earlier, had in contrast involved the embrace of concentrated authority as a means of overthrowing class enemies and consolidating a base from which a proletarian revolution would spread throughout the world. Karl Marx claimed, in the Communist Manifesto of 1848, that the industrialization capitalists had set in motion was simultaneously expanding and exploiting the working class, which would sooner or later liberate itself. Not content to wait for this to happen, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin sought to accelerate history in 1917 by seizing control of Russia and imposing Marxism on it, even though that state failed to fit Marx’s prediction that the revolution could only occur in an advanced industrial society. Stalin in turn fixed that problem by redesigning Russia to fit Marxist-Leninist ideology: he forced a largely agrarian nation with few traditions of liberty to become a heavily industrialized nation with no liberty at all. As a consequence, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was, at the end of World War II, the most authoritarian society anywhere on the face of the earth.

If the victorious nations could hardly have been more different, the same was true of the wars they had fought from 1941 to 1945. The United States waged separate wars simultaneously—against the Japanese in the Pacific and the Germans in Europe—but suffered remarkably few casualties: just under 300,000 Americans died in all combat theaters. Geographically distant from where the fighting was taking place, their country experienced no significant attacks apart from the initial one at Pearl Harbor. With its ally Great Britain (which suffered about 357,000 war deaths), the United States was able to choose where, when, and in what circumstances it would fight, a fact that greatly minimized the costs and risks of fighting. But unlike the British, the Americans emerged from the war with their economy thriving: wartime spending had caused their gross domestic product almost to double in less than four years. If there could ever be such a thing as a “good” war, then this one, for the United States, came close.

The Soviet Union enjoyed no such advantages. It waged only one war, but it was arguably the most terrible one in all of history. With its cities, towns, and countryside ravaged, its industries ruined or hurriedly relocated beyond the Urals, the only option apart from surrender was desperate resistance, on terrain and in circumstances chosen by its enemy. Estimates of casualties, civilian and military, are notoriously inexact, but it is likely that some 27 million Soviet citizens died as a direct result of the war—roughly 90 times the number of Americans who died. Victory could hardly have been purchased at greater cost: the U.S.S.R. in 1945 was a shattered state, fortunate to have survived. The war, a contemporary observer recalled, was “both the most fearful and the proudest memory of the Russian people.”2 When it came to shaping the postwar settlement, however, the victors were more evenly matched than these asymmetries might suggest. The United States had made no commitment to reverse its long-standing tradition of remaining aloof from European affairs—Roosevelt had even assured Stalin, at Teheran, that American troops would return home within two years after the end of the war.3 Nor, given the depressing record of the 1930s, could there be any assurance that the wartime economic boom would continue, or that democracy would again take root beyond the relatively few countries in which it still existed. The stark fact that the Americans and the British could not have defeated Hitler without Stalin’s help meant that World War II was a victory over fascism only—not over authoritarianism and its prospects for the future.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union had significant assets, despite the immense losses it had suffered. Because it was part of Europe, its military forces would not be withdrawing from Europe. Its command economy had shown itself capable of sustaining full employment when the capitalist democracies had failed, during the prewar years, to do so. Its ideology enjoyed widespread respect in Europe because communists there had largely led the resistance against the Germans. Finally, the disproportionate burden the Red Army had borne in defeating Hitler gave the U.S.S.R. a moral claim to substantial, perhaps even preponderant, influence in shaping the postwar settlement. It was at least as easy to believe, in 1945, that authoritarian communism was the wave of the future as that democratic capitalism was.

The Soviet Union had one other advantage as well, which was that it alone among the victors emerged from the war with tested leadership. Roosevelt’s death on April 12, 1945, had catapulted his inexperienced and ill-informed vice president, Harry S. Truman, into the White House. Three months later, Churchill’s unexpected defeat in the British general election made the far less formidable Labour Party leader, Clement Attlee, prime minister. The Soviet Union, in contrast, had Stalin, its unchallenged ruler since 1929, the man who remade his country and then led it to victory in World War II. Crafty, formidable, and to all appearances calmly purposeful, the Kremlin dictator knew what he wanted in the postwar era. Truman, Attlee, and the nations they led seemed much less certain.


SO WHAT did Stalin want? It makes sense to start with him, because only he of the three postwar leaders had had the time, while retaining the authority, to consider and rank his priorities. Sixty-five at the end of the war, the man who ran the Soviet Union was physically exhausted, surrounded by sycophants, personally lonely—but still firmly, even terrifyingly, in control. His scrawny mustache, discolored teeth, pock-marked face, and yellow eyes, an American diplomat recalled, “gave him the aspect of an old battle-scarred tiger. . . . An unforewarned visitor would never have guessed what depths of calculation, ambition, love of power, jealousy, cruelty, and sly vindictiveness lurked behind this unpretentious façade.”4 Through a series of purges during the 1930s, Stalin had long since eliminated all his rivals. The raising of an eyebrow or the flick of a finger, subordinates knew, could mean the difference between life and death. Strikingly short—only five feet four inches—this paunchy little old man was nonetheless a colossus, bestriding a colossal state.

Stalin’s postwar goals were security for himself, his regime, his country, and his ideology, in precisely that order. He sought to make sure that no internal challenges could ever again endanger his personal rule, and that no external threats would ever again place his country at risk. The interests of communists elsewhere in the world, admirable though those might be, would never outweigh the priorities of the Soviet state as he had determined them. Narcissism, paranoia, and absolute power came together in Stalin:5 he was, within the Soviet Union and the international communist movement, enormously feared—but also widely worshipped.

Wartime expenditures in blood and treasure, Stalin believed, should largely determine who got what after the war: the Soviet Union, therefore, would get a lot.6 Not only would it regain the territories it had lost to the Germans during World War II; it would also retain the territories it had taken as a result of the opportunistic but shortsighted “nonaggression” pact Stalin had concluded with Hitler in August, 1939—portions of Finland, Poland, and Romania, all of the Baltic States. It would require that states beyond these expanded borders remain within Moscow’s sphere of influence. It would seek territorial concessions at the expense of Iran and Turkey (including control of the Turkish Straits), as well as naval bases in the Mediterranean. Finally, it would punish a defeated and devastated Germany through military occupation, property expropriations, reparations payments, and ideological transformation.

Herein there lay, however, a painful dilemma for Stalin. Disproportionate losses during the war may well have entitled the Soviet Union to disproportionate postwar gains, but they had also robbed that country of the power required to secure those benefits unilaterally. The U.S.S.R. needed peace, economic assistance, and the diplomatic acquiescence of its former allies. There was no choice for the moment, then, but to continue to seek the cooperation of the Americans and the British: just as they had depended on Stalin to defeat Hitler, so Stalin now depended on continued Anglo-American goodwill if he was to obtain his postwar objectives at a reasonable cost. He therefore wanted neither a hot war nor a cold war.7 Whether he would be skillful enough to avoid these alternatives, however, was quite a different matter.

For Stalin’s understanding of his wartime allies and their postwar objectives was based more on wishful thinking than on an accurate assessment of priorities as seen from Washington and London. It was here that Marxist-Leninist ideology influenced Stalin, because his illusions arose from it. The most important one was the belief, which went back to Lenin, that capitalists would never be able to cooperate with one another for very long. Their inherent greediness—the irresistible urge to place profits above politics—would sooner or later prevail, leaving communists with the need only for patience as they awaited their adversaries’ self-destruction. “The alliance between ourselves and the democratic faction of the capitalists succeeds because the latter had an interest in preventing Hitler’s domination,” Stalin commented as the war was coming to a close. “[I]n the future we shall be against this faction of the capitalists as well.”8 This idea of a crisis within capitalism did have some plausibility. World War I, after all, had been a war among capitalists; it thereby provided the opportunity for the world’s first communist state to emerge. The Great Depression left the remaining capitalist states scrambling to save themselves rather than cooperating to rescue the global economy or to maintain the postwar settlement: Nazi Germany arose as a result. With the end of World War II, Stalin believed, the economic crisis was bound to return. Capitalists would then need the Soviet Union, rather than the other way around. That is why he fully expected the United States to lend the Soviet Union several billion dollars for re-construction: because the Americans would otherwise be unable to find markets for their products during the coming global crash.9 EUROPEAN



It followed as well that the other capitalist superpower, Great Britain—whose weakness Stalin consistently underestimated—would sooner or later break with its American ally over economic rivalries: “[T]he inevitability of wars between capitalist countries remains in force,” he insisted, as late as 1952.10 From Stalin’s perspective, then, the long-term forces of history would compensate for the catastrophe World War II had inflicted upon the Soviet Union. It would not be necessary to confront the Americans and British directly in order to achieve his objectives. He could simply wait for the capitalists to begin quarreling with one another, and for the disgusted Europeans to embrace communism as an alternative.

Stalin’s goal, therefore, was not to restore a balance of power in Europe, but rather to dominate that continent as thoroughly as Hitler had sought to do. He acknowledged, in a wistful but revealing comment in 1947, that “[h]ad Churchill delayed opening the second front in northern France by a year, the Red Army would have come to France. . . . [W]e toyed with the idea of reaching Paris.”11 Unlike Hitler, however, Stalin followed no fixed timetable. He had welcomed the D-Day landings, despite the fact that they would preclude the Red Army from reaching western Europe anytime soon: Germany’s defeat was the first priority. Nor would he write off diplomacy in securing his objective, not least because he expected—for a time at least—American cooperation in achieving it. Had not Roosevelt indicated that the United States would refrain from seeking its own sphere of influence in Europe? Stalin’s was, therefore, a grand vision: the peacefully accomplished but historically determined domination of Europe. It was also a flawed vision, for it failed to take into account the evolving postwar objectives of the United States.


WHAT DID the Americans want after the war? Unquestionably also security, but in contrast to Stalin, they were much less certain of what they would have to do to obtain it. The reason had to do with the dilemma World War II had posed for them: that the United States could not continue to serve as a model for the rest of the world while remaining apart from the rest of the world.

Throughout most of their history Americans had tried to do just this. They had not had to worry much about security because oceans separated them from all other states that might conceivably do them harm. Their very independence from Great Britain resulted, as Thomas Paine had predicted it would in 1776, from the implausibility that “a Continent [could] be perpetually governed by an island.”12 Despite their naval superiority, the British were never able to project sufficient military power across some 3,000 miles of water to keep the Americans within the empire, or to prevent them from dominating the North American continent. The prospect that other Europeans might do so was even more remote, because successive governments in London came to agree with the Americans that there should be no further colonization in the western hemisphere. The United States enjoyed the luxury, therefore, of maintaining a vast sphere of influence without the risk that by doing so it would challenge the interests of any other great power.

The Americans did seek global influence in the realm of ideas: their Declaration of Independence had, after all, advanced the radical claim that all men are created equal. But they made no effort, during their first fourteen decades of independence, to make good on that assertion. The United States would serve as an example; the rest of the world would have to decide how and under what circumstances to embrace it. “She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all,” Secretary of State John Quincy Adams proclaimed in 1821, but “[s]he is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”13 Despite an international ideology, therefore, American practices were isolationist: the nation had not yet concluded that its security required transplanting its principles. Its foreign and military policy was much less ambitious than one might have expected from a nation of such size and strength.

Only with World War I did the United States break out of this pattern. Worried that Imperial Germany might defeat Great Britain and France, Woodrow Wilson persuaded his countrymen that American military might was needed to restore the European balance of power—but even he justified this geopolitical objective in ideological terms. The world, he insisted, had to be made “safe for democracy.”14 Wilson went on to propose, as the basis for a peace settlement, a League of Nations that would impose on states something like the rule of law that states—at least enlightened ones—imposed on individuals. The idea that might alone makes right would, he hoped, disappear.

Both the vision and the restored balance, however, proved premature. Victory in World War I did not make the United States a global power; instead it confirmed, for most Americans, the dangers of overcommitment. Wilson’s plans for a postwar collective security organization went well beyond where his countrymen were ready to go. Meanwhile, disillusionment with allies—together with Wilson’s ill-conceived and half-hearted military intervention against the Bolsheviks in Siberia and North Russia in 1918–20—turned the fruits of victory sour. Conditions abroad encouraged a return to isolationism: the perceived inequities of the Versailles peace treaty, the onset of a global depression, and then the rise of aggressor states in Europe and East Asia all had the effect of convincing Americans that they would be better off avoiding international involvements altogether. It was a rare withdrawal of a powerful state from responsibilities beyond its borders.

After entering the White House in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt worked persistently—if often circuitously—to bring the United States into a more active role in world politics. It was not easy: “I feel very much as if I were groping for a door in a blank wall.”15 Even after Japan had gone to war with China in 1937 and World War II had broken out in Europe in 1939, F.D.R. had made only minimal progress in persuading the nation that Wilson had been right: that its security could be threatened by what happened halfway around the world. It would take the shattering events of 1940–41—the fall of France, the battle of Britain, and ultimately the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—to bring about an American recommitment to the task of restoring a balance of power beyond the western hemisphere. “We have profited by our past mistakes,” the president promised in 1942. “This time we shall know how to make full use of victory.”16 Roosevelt had four great wartime priorities. The first was to sustain allies—chiefly Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and (less successfully) Nationalist China—because there was no other way to achieve victory: the United States could not fight Germany and Japan alone. The second was to secure allied cooperation in shaping the postwar settlement, for without it there would be little prospect for lasting peace. The third had to do with the nature of that settlement. Roosevelt expected his allies to endorse one that would remove the most probable causes of future wars. That meant a new collective security organization with the power to deter and if necessary punish aggression, as well as a revived global economic system equipped to prevent a new global depression. Finally, the settlement would have to be “sellable” to the American people: F.D.R. was not about to repeat Wilson’s mistake of taking the nation beyond where it was prepared to go. There would be no reversion to isolationism, then, after World War II. But the United States would not be prepared either—any more than the Soviet Union would be—to accept a postwar world that resembled its prewar predecessor.

Finally, a word about British objectives. They were, as Churchill defined them, much simpler: to survive at all costs, even if this meant relinquishing leadership of the Anglo-American coalition to Washington, even if it meant weakening the British empire, even if it also meant collaborating with the Soviet Union, a regime the younger Churchill had hoped, in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, to crush.17 The British would attempt to influence the Americans as much as possible—they aspired to the role of Greeks, tutoring the new Romans—but under no circumstances would they get at odds with the Americans. Stalin’s expectation of an independent Britain, capable of resisting the United States and even going to war with it, would have seemed strange indeed to those who actually shaped British wartime and postwar grand strategy.


WITH THESE PRIORITIES, what prospects were there for a World War II settlement that would preserve the Grand Alliance? Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin no doubt hoped for such an outcome: nobody wanted new enemies so soon after having overcome their old ones. But their coalition had been, from the start, both a means of cooperating to defeat the Axis and an instrument through which each of the victors sought to position itself for maximum influence in the postwar world. It could hardly be otherwise: despite public claims by the Big Three that politics were adjourned while the war was going on, none of them believed in or sought to practice this principle. What they did do—in communications and conferences mostly shrouded from public view—was to try to reconcile divergent political objectives even as they pursued a common military task. For the most part, they failed, and it was in that failure that the roots of the Cold War lay. The major issues were as follows: THE SECOND FRONT AND A SEPARATE PEACE. Apart from defeat itself, the greatest Anglo-American fear had been that the Soviet Union might again cut a deal with Nazi Germany, as it had in 1939, which would leave large portions of Europe in authoritarian hands—hence the importance Roosevelt and Churchill attached to keeping the Soviet Union in the war. This meant providing all possible assistance in food, clothing, and armaments, even if by desperate means and at great cost: running convoys to Murmansk and Archangel while avoiding German submarines was no easy thing to do. It also meant not contesting Stalin’s demands for the restoration of lost territories, despite the awkward fact that some of these—the Baltic States, eastern Poland, parts of Finland and Romania—had fallen under Soviet control only as a result of his pact with Hitler. Finally, forestalling a separate peace meant creating a second front on the European continent as soon as was militarily feasible, although in London and Washington that was understood to require postponement until success seemed likely at an acceptable cost.

As a consequence, the second front—more accurately second fronts—materialized slowly, a fact which angered the embattled Russians, who lacked the luxury of minimizing casualties. The first came in Vichy-occupied North Africa, where American and British forces landed in November, 1942; invasions of Sicily and southern Italy followed in the summer of 1943. Not until the June, 1944, landings in Normandy, however, did Anglo-American military operations begin to take significant pressure off the Red Army, which had long since turned the tide of battle on the eastern front and was now pushing the Germans out of the Soviet Union altogether. Stalin congratulated his allies on the success of D-Day, but suspicions remained that the delay had been deliberate, with a view to leaving the burden of fighting disproportionately to the U.S.S.R.18 The plan, as one Soviet analyst later put it, had been for the United States to participate “only at the last minute, when it could easily affect the outcome of the war, completely ensuring its interests.”19 The political importance of second fronts was at least as great as their military significance, for they meant that the Americans and the British would participate, along with the Soviet Union, in the surrender and occupation of Germany and its satellites. More for reasons of convenience than anything else, the Anglo-American military command excluded the Russians from this process when Italy capitulated in September, 1943. This provided Stalin with an excuse for something he probably would have done in any event, which was to deny the Americans and British any meaningful role in the occupation of Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary when the Red Army moved into those territories in 1944–45.

Stalin and Churchill had agreed easily enough in October, 1944, that the Soviet Union should have a predominant influence in those countries, in return for an acknowledgment of British preponderance in Greece. Beneath the surface, though, concerns persisted. Roosevelt protested not having been consulted on the Stalin-Churchill deal, and when the British and Americans began negotiating for the surrender of German armies in northern Italy in the spring of 1945, Stalin’s own reaction came close to panic: there might be an arrangement, he warned his military commanders, by which the Germans would stop fighting in the west while continuing to resist in the east.20 He thereby revealed the depths of his own fears about a separate peace. That he thought his allies capable of making one at this late date showed how little reassurance the second fronts had provided him—and how little trust he was prepared to extend.

SPHERES OF INFLUENCE. A division of Europe into spheres of influence—as implied by the Churchill-Stalin agreement—would leave little room for the Europeans to determine their future: that is why Roosevelt worried about it. However much he might have justified the war to himself in balance of power terms, he had explained it to the American people as Wilson might have done—as a fight for self-determination. Churchill had gone along with this in 1941 by accepting the Atlantic Charter, F.D.R.’s restatement of Wilsonian principles. A major Anglo-American objective, therefore, was to reconcile these ideals with Stalin’s territorial demands, as well as his insistence on a sphere of influence that would ensure the presence of “friendly” nations along the Soviet Union’s postwar borders. Roosevelt and Churchill repeatedly pressed Stalin to allow free elections in the Baltic States, Poland, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. At the Yalta Conference he agreed to do so, but without the slightest intention of honoring his commitment. “Do not worry,” he reassured his foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov. “We can implement it in our own way later. The heart of the matter is the correlation of forces.”21 So Stalin got the territorial acquisitions and the sphere of influence he wanted: the Soviet Union’s borders were moved several hundred miles to the west, and the Red Army installed subservient regimes throughout the rest of Eastern Europe. Not all of them were as yet communist—the Kremlin leader was, for the moment, flexible on that point—but none would challenge the projection of Soviet influence into the center of Europe. The Americans and British had hoped for a different outcome: one in which the Eastern Europeans, especially the Poles—Germany’s first victim in World War II—would choose their own governments. The two positions might have been reconciled had all the Eastern Europeans been prepared to elect leaders who would meet Moscow’s requirements, something Finland and Czechoslovakia did indeed do. Poland, however, could hardly follow this path, because Stalin’s own actions had long since eliminated any possibility that a Polish government subservient to the Soviet Union could sustain popular support.

The offenses included the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact, which had extinguished Polish independence, together with the subsequent discovery that the Russians had massacred some 4,000 Polish officers at Katyn Wood in 1940–another 11,000 remained unaccounted for. Stalin broke with the Polish government-in-exile in London over this issue in 1943, shifting his support to a group of Polish communists based in Lublin. He then did nothing when the Nazis brutally suppressed the 1944 Warsaw uprising, organized by the London Poles, despite the fact that the Red Army was on the outskirts of the Polish capital at the time. Stalin’s insistence on taking a third of Poland’s territory after the war further embittered the nation; his promise of compensation at the expense of Germany did little to repair the damage.

Because Poles would never elect a pro-Soviet government, Stalin imposed one—the cost, though, was a permanently resentful Poland, as well as a growing sense among his American and British allies that they could no longer trust him. As a disillusioned Roosevelt put it two weeks before his death: “[Stalin] has broken every one of the promises he made at Yalta.”22

DEFEATED ENEMIES. In contrast to unilateral Soviet control in Eastern Europe, there was never any doubt—at least not after D-Day—that Germany would be jointly occupied. The way in which this happened, however, left the Russians with a sense of having been cheated. The United States, Great Britain, and (through Anglo-American generosity) France wound up controlling two-thirds of Germany, not as a result of the amount of blood they had shed during the war, but because of geographical proximity to their advancing armies, along with the fact that Stalin had given a substantial part of eastern Germany to the Poles. Although the Soviet zone of occupation surrounded the jointly occupied capital, Berlin, it contained only about a third of Germany’s population and an even smaller percentage of its industrial facilities.

Why did Stalin accept this arrangement? Probably because of his belief that the Marxist-Leninist government he planned to install in eastern Germany would become a “magnet” for Germans in the western occupation zones, causing them to choose leaders who would eventually unify the entire country under Soviet control. The long-delayed proletarian revolution that Marx had foreseen in Germany would then take place. “All of Germany must be ours, that is, Soviet, communist,” Stalin commented in 1946.23 There were, however, two big problems with this strategy.

The first had to do with the brutality with which the Red Army occupied eastern Germany. Not only did Soviet troops expropriate property and extract reparations on an indiscriminate scale, but they also indulged in mass rape—some 2 million German women suffered this fate between 1945 and 1947.24 The effect was to alienate almost all Germans, and thus to set up an asymmetry that would persist throughout the Cold War: the regime Stalin installed in the east lacked the legitimacy its counterpart in the west would quickly gain.


The second problem had to do with allies. The unilateralism with which the Soviets had handled their affairs in Germany and Eastern Europe made the British and Americans wary of relying on cooperation with Moscow in occupying the rest of Germany. Accordingly, they seized such opportunities as arose to consolidate their own zones, along with that of the French, with a view to accepting the division of the country. The idea was to preserve as much of Germany as possible under western rule rather than to risk the danger that all of it might come under Soviet control. Most Germans, as they became aware of what Stalin’s rule would mean, reluctantly supported this Anglo-American policy.

What had happened in Germany and Eastern Europe, in turn, left the United States with little incentive to include the Soviet Union in the occupation of Japan. The U.S.S.R. had not declared war on that country after Pearl Harbor, nor had its allies expected it to at a time when the German army was on the outskirts of Moscow. Stalin had, however, promised to enter the Pacific war three months after Germany’s surrender, in return for which Roosevelt and Churchill had agreed to transfer the Japanese-owned Kurile Islands to Soviet control, as well as to restore the southern half of Sakhalin Island along with territorial rights and naval bases in Manchuria, all of which Russia had lost as a result of its defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5.

The prevailing view in Washington and London had been that the Red Army’s assistance—especially an invasion of Japanese-occupied Manchuria—would be vital in hastening victory. But that was before the United States successfully tested its first atomic bomb in July, 1945. Once it became clear that the Americans possessed such a weapon, the need for Soviet military assistance vanished.25 With the precedents of Soviet unilateralism in Europe all too clearly in mind, there was no desire within the new Truman administration to see something similar repeated in Northeast Asia. Here, then, the Americans embraced Stalin’s own equation of blood with influence. They had done most of the fighting in the Pacific War. They alone, therefore, would occupy the nation that had started it.

THE ATOMIC BOMB. Meanwhile, the bomb itself was intensifying Soviet-American distrust. The Americans and the British had secretly developed the weapon for use against Germany, but the Nazis surrendered before it was ready. The Manhattan Project had not been secret enough, though, to keep Soviet intelligence from discovering a lot about it through espionage: there were at least three separate and successful Soviet efforts to penetrate security at Los Alamos, where the bomb was being built.26 The fact that Stalin mounted a major operation to spy on his allies in the middle of a war he and they were waging together is another strong indication of his lack of trust in them—although it has to be acknowledged, as well, that the Anglo-Americans themselves did not choose to tell Stalin about the bomb until after the first successful test in the New Mexico desert.

The Soviet leader showed little surprise, therefore, when Truman gave him the news at the Potsdam Conference—he had learned about the bomb long before the new American president had done so. But Stalin reacted strongly when the United States went ahead and used the weapon against the Japanese three weeks later. A test in the desert was one thing. An actual weapon actually employed was something else again. “War is barbaric, but using the A-bomb is a superbarbarity,” Stalin complained after learning how Hiroshima had been destroyed. The American breakthrough was yet another challenge to his insistence that blood expended should equal influence gained: all at once, the United States had obtained a military capability that did not depend upon the deployment of armies on a battlefield. Brains—and the military technology they could produce—now counted for just as much. “Hiroshima has shaken the whole world,” Stalin told his scientists, in authorizing a crash Soviet program to catch up. “The balance has been destroyed. . . . That cannot be.”27 In addition to seeing the bomb as shortening the war and thus denying the Russians any significant role in defeating and occupying Japan, Stalin also saw the bomb as a means by which the United States would seek to extract postwar concessions from the Soviet Union: “A-bomb blackmail is American policy.”28 There was something in this. Truman had used the bomb chiefly to end the war, but he and his advisers did indeed expect their new weapon to induce a more conciliatory attitude on the part of the U.S.S.R. They devised no strategy to produce this result, however, while Stalin quickly devised a strategy to deny it to them. He took an even harder line than before in pushing Soviet objectives, if only to demonstrate that he could not be intimidated. “It is obvious,” he told his top advisers late in 1945, “that . . . we cannot achieve anything serious if we begin to give in to intimidation or betray uncertainty.”29 The Cold War’s roots in the world war, therefore, help to explain why this new conflict emerged so quickly after the old one had come to an end. But great power rivalries had long been at least as normal a pattern in the behavior of nations as had great power alliances. An interplanetary visitor, aware of this, might well have expected exactly what took place. Certainly a theorist of international relations would have. The interesting question is why the wartime leaders themselves were surprised, even alarmed, by the breakdown of the Grand Alliance. Their hopes for a different outcome were real enough; otherwise they would hardly have made the efforts they did while the fighting was going on to agree on what was to happen when it stopped. Their hopes were parallel—but their visions were not.

To frame the issue in its most basic terms, Roosevelt and Churchill envisaged a postwar settlement which would balance power while embracing principles. The idea was to prevent any new war by avoiding the mistakes that had led to World War II: they would ensure cooperation among the great powers, revive Wilson’s League in the form of a new United Nations collective security organization, and encourage the maximum possible political self-determination and economic integration, so that the causes of war as they understood them would in time disappear. Stalin’s was a very different vision: a settlement that would secure his own and his country’s security while simultaneously encouraging the rivalries among capitalists that he believed would bring about a new war. Capitalist fratricide, in turn, would ensure the eventual Soviet domination of Europe. The first was a multilateral vision that assumed the possibility of compatible interests, even among incompatible systems. The second assumed no such thing.


POLITICAL SCIENTISTS like to speak of “security dilemmas”: situations in which one state acts to make itself safer, but in doing so diminishes the security of one or more other states, which in turn try to repair the damage through measures that diminish the security of the first state. The result is an ever-deepening whirlpool of distrust from which even the best-intentioned and most far-sighted leaders find it difficult to extricate themselves: their suspicions become self-reinforcing.30 Because the Anglo-American relationship with the Soviet Union had fallen into this pattern well before World War II ended, it is difficult to say precisely when the Cold War began. There were no surprise attacks, no declarations of war, no severing even of diplomatic ties. There was, however, a growing sense of insecurity at the highest levels in Washington, London, and Moscow, generated by the efforts the wartime allies were making to ensure their own postwar security. With their enemies defeated, there was less of an incentive for these former allies, as they were coming to think of themselves, to keep their anxieties under control. Each crisis that arose fed the next one, with the result that a divided Europe became a reality.

IRAN, TURKEY, THE MEDITERRANEAN—AND CONTAINMENT. Having already obtained the territorial concessions he wanted in Eastern Europe and Northeast Asia, Stalin’s first priority after the war was to remove what he regarded as vulnerabilities in the south. One account describes him expressing satisfaction with a map showing the Soviet Union’s new boundaries, but pointing to the Caucasus and complaining: “I don’t like our border right here!”31 Three initiatives followed: Stalin delayed the withdrawal of Soviet troops from northern Iran, where they had been stationed since 1942 as part of an Anglo-Soviet arrangement to keep that country’s oil supplies out of German hands. He demanded territorial concessions from Turkey as well as bases that would have given the U.S.S.R. effective control of the Turkish Straits. And he requested a role in the administration of former Italian colonies in North Africa with a view to securing one or more additional naval bases in the eastern Mediterranean.

It became clear almost at once, though, that Stalin had gone too far. “They won’t allow it,” his normally complaisant foreign minister Molotov warned, regarding the Straits. “Go ahead, press them for joint possession!” his irritated boss replied. “Demand it!”32 Molotov did, but he got nowhere. Truman and Attlee flatly rejected the Soviet bid for boundary adjustments at Turkey’s expense, as well as for Turkish and Mediterranean naval bases. They surprised Stalin by taking the continued Soviet occupation of northern Iran to the United Nations Security Council early in 1946, in the first significant use of the new world organization to deal with an international crisis. Finding his military overstretched and his ambitions exposed, Stalin ordered a quiet withdrawal from Iran several months later. By that time, though, Truman had reinforced his own position by deploying the American Sixth Fleet—indefinitely—in the eastern Mediterranean. It was an unmistakable signal that Stalin had reached the limit of what he could expect to achieve by invoking the tradition of wartime cooperation.33 This new firmness in Washington coincided with a search for explanations of Soviet behavior: why had the Grand Alliance broken apart? What else did Stalin want? The best answer came from George F. Kennan, a respected but still junior Foreign Service officer serving in the American embassy in Moscow. In what he subsequently acknowledged was an “outrageous encumberment of the telegraphic process,” Kennan responded to the latest in a long series of State Department queries with a hastily composed 8,000-word cable, dispatched on February 22, 1946. To say that it made an impact in Washington would be to put it mildly: Kennan’s “long telegram” became the basis for United States strategy toward the Soviet Union throughout the rest of the Cold War.34 Moscow’s intransigence, Kennan insisted, resulted from nothing the West had done: instead it reflected the internal necessities of the Stalinist regime, and nothing the West could do within the foreseeable future would alter that fact. Soviet leaders had to treat the outside world as hostile because this provided the only excuse “for the dictatorship without which they did not know how to rule, for cruelties they did not dare not to inflict, for sacrifices they felt bound to demand.” To expect concessions to be reciprocated was to be naïve: there would be no change in the Soviet Union’s strategy until it encountered a sufficiently long string of failures to convince some future Kremlin leader—Kennan held out little hope that Stalin would ever see this—that his nation’s behavior was not advancing its interests. War would not be necessary to produce this result. What would be needed, as Kennan put it in a published version of his argument the following year, was a “long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.”35 Kennan could not have known at the time that one of his most careful readers was Stalin himself. Soviet intelligence quickly got access to the “long telegram”—a relatively easy task because the document, though classified, was widely circulated.36 Not to be outdone, Stalin ordered his ambassador in Washington, Nikolai Novikov, to prepare a “telegram” of his own, which he sent to Moscow on September 27, 1946. “The foreign policy of the United States,” Novikov claimed, “reflects the imperialistic tendencies of American monopolistic capitalism, [and] is characterized . . . by a striving for world supremacy.” As a consequence, the United States was increasing its military spending “colossally,” establishing bases far beyond its borders, and had reached an agreement with Great Britain to divide the world into spheres of influence. But Anglo-American cooperation was “plagued with great internal contradictions and cannot be lasting. . . . It is quite possible that the Near East will become a center of Anglo-American contradictions that will explode the agreements now reached between the United States and England.”37 Novikov’s assessment—which reflected Stalin’s thinking and which Molotov himself ghost-authored38—may well account for the relaxed self-confidence with which the Kremlin leader received Truman’s recently appointed secretary of state, George C. Marshall, when the American, British, French, and Soviet foreign ministers met in Moscow in April, 1947. It had long been Stalin’s habit, while hosting important visitors, to doodle wolves’ heads on a pad in red pencil, and this he did as he assured Marshall that the failure to settle the future of postwar Europe was no great problem: there was no urgency. Marshall, the quiet, laconic, but shrewd former general who more than anyone else had shaped American military strategy during World War II, was not reassured. “All the way back to Washington,” an aide later recalled, he talked “of the importance of finding some initiative to prevent the complete breakdown of Western Europe.”39 THE TRUMAN DOCTRINE AND THE MARSHALL PLAN. Had Stalin been as attentive to intelligence reports on the foreign ministers’ conference as he was to those on the atomic bomb and the Kennan “long telegram,” he might have anticipated what was about to happen. Marshall and his British and French counterparts spent many hours in Moscow—when not in fruitless meetings with Molotov—discussing the need for cooperation in the reconstruction of Europe. The rooms in which they did so were no doubt bugged. And yet, ideology overrode eavesdropping in Stalin’s mind. Had not Lenin shown that capitalists could never cooperate for very long? Had not Novikov’s “telegram” confirmed this? The Kremlin boss had his reasons to be self-confident.

They were not, however, good ones. Truman had already announced, on March 12, 1947, a program of military and economic assistance to Greece and Turkey, occasioned by the British government’s unexpected announcement, just two weeks earlier, that it could no longer bear the costs of supporting those countries. He had done so in strikingly broad terms, insisting that it now “must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures. . . . [W]e must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way.”40 Stalin paid little attention to Truman’s speech, although he did take time that spring to insist that a recently published history of philosophy be rewritten to minimize the deference it had shown to the West.41 While Stalin was undertaking that task, Marshall—following Truman’s lead—was constructing a Cold War grand strategy. Kennan’s “long telegram” had identified the problem: the Soviet Union’s internally driven hostility toward the outside world. It had, however, suggested no solution. Now Marshall told Kennan to come up with one: the only guideline was “avoid trivia.”42 The instruction, it is fair to say, was met. The European Recovery Program, which Marshall announced in June, 1947, committed the United States to nothing less than the reconstruction of Europe. The Marshall Plan, as it instantly came to be known, did not at that point distinguish between those parts of the continent that were under Soviet control and those that were not—but the thinking that lay behind it certainly did.

Several premises shaped the Marshall Plan: that the gravest threat to western interests in Europe was not the prospect of Soviet military intervention, but rather the risk that hunger, poverty, and despair might cause Europeans to vote their own communists into office, who would then obediently serve Moscow’s wishes; that American economic assistance would produce immediate psychological benefits and later material ones that would reverse this trend; that the Soviet Union would not itself accept such aid or allow its satellites to, thereby straining its relationship with them; and that the United States could then seize both the geopolitical and the moral initiative in the emerging Cold War.

Stalin fell into the trap the Marshall Plan laid for him, which was to get him to build the wall that would divide Europe. Caught off guard by Marshall’s proposal, he sent a large delegation to Paris to discuss Soviet participation, then withdrew it while allowing the East Europeans to stay, then forbade them—most dramatically the Czechs, whose leaders were flown to Moscow to get the word—from receiving such assistance.43 It was an unusually uneven performance from the normally self-confident Kremlin dictator, and it suggested the extent to which the strategy of containment, with the Marshall Plan at its center, was already disrupting his own set of priorities. Further revisions of philosophy texts would have to wait.

CZECHOSLOVAKIA, YUGOSLAVIA, AND THE BERLIN BLOCKADE. Stalin responded to the Marshall Plan just as Kennan had predicted he would: by tightening his grip wherever he could. In September, 1947, he announced the formation of the Cominform, a latter-day version of the old prewar Comintern, whose task had been to enforce orthodoxy within the international communist movement. “Don’t start throwing your weight around,” Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin’s spokesman within the new organization, told a protesting Pole. “In Moscow we know better how to apply Marxism-Leninism.”44 What that meant became clear in February, 1948, when Stalin approved a plan by Czechoslovak communists to seize power in the only Eastern European state that had retained a democratic government. Shortly after the coup, the broken body of Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk—the son of Thomas Masaryk, the founder of the country after World War I—was discovered in a Prague courtyard: whether he jumped or was pushed has never been established.45 It made little difference, though, because the prospects for any independence within Stalin’s sphere of influence, it appeared, had perished with Masaryk.

Not all communists, however, fell within that sphere. Yugoslavia had been one of the Soviet Union’s most reliable allies since the end of World War II, but its leader, Josip Broz Tito, had come to power on his own. He and his partisans, not the Red Army, had driven the Nazis out; unlike any of his other East European counterparts, Tito did not depend upon Stalin’s support to remain in power. Efforts to subject him to Cominform orthodoxy caused Tito to bristle, and by the end of June, 1948, he had openly broken with Moscow. Stalin professed not to be worried. “I will shake my little finger, and there will be no more Tito.”46 Much more than a finger shook within the Soviet Union and the international communist movement over this first act of defiance by a communist against the Kremlin, but Tito survived—and was soon receiving economic assistance from the United States. The Yugoslav dictator might be a “son-of-a-bitch,” the new American secretary of state, Dean Acheson, acknowledged astringently in 1949, but he was now “our son-of-a-bitch.”47 Meanwhile, Stalin had undertaken an even less promising venture: a blockade of Berlin. His reasons, even now, are not clear. He may have hoped to force the Americans, British, and French out of their respective sectors of the divided city, taking advantage of their dependence on supply lines running through the Soviet occupation zone. Or he may have sought to slow their efforts to consolidate their own zones, which seemed likely to produce a powerful west German state within which Moscow would have no influence. Whatever its purposes, Stalin’s blockade backfired as badly as his attempt to discipline Tito. The western allies improvised an airlift for the beleaguered city, thereby winning the emphatic gratitude of the Berliners, the respect of most Germans, and a global public relations triumph that made Stalin look both brutal and incompetent. “Scoundrels,” the old man noted defensively, on a diplomatic dispatch reporting these developments. “It is all lies. . . . It is not a blockade, but a defensive measure.”48 Defensive it may have been, but the offensive character of this and the other measures Stalin took in response to the Marshall Plan wound up increasing, not decreasing, the Soviet Union’s security problems. The Czech coup persuaded the Congress of the United States—which had not yet approved Truman’s program for European recovery—to do so quickly. The events in Prague, together with the Berlin blockade, convinced the European recipients of American economic assistance that they needed military protection as well: that led them to request the creation of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which committed the United States for the first time ever to the peacetime defense of Western Europe. By the time Stalin grudgingly lifted the Berlin blockade in May, 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty had been signed in Washington and the Federal Republic of Germany had been proclaimed in Bonn—another result that Stalin had not wanted. Tito’s heresy remained unpunished, thereby demonstrating that it was possible for communists themselves to achieve a degree of independence from Moscow. And there were no signs whatever of the disagreements among capitalists—or of the Anglo-American war—that Stalin’s ideological illusions had led him to expect. His strategy for gaining control of postwar Europe lay in ruins, and he had largely himself to blame.


OR SO IT appears in retrospect. It did not seem so, however, at the time. Instead the years 1949–50 saw a series of apparent setbacks to the West, none of which was substantial enough to reverse the process by which the United States and its allies had seized the initiative in Europe, where it really counted. Those who lived through these events, however, had no way of knowing this: to them, it looked as though the European victories the West had won had been outweighed by an unexpected expansion of the Cold War, almost simultaneously, onto several broader fronts—in none of which the prospects seemed favorable.

The first of these lay within the realm of military technology. The Americans had expected their monopoly over the atomic bomb to last for some six to eight years: hence, the Red Army’s disproportionate conventional force advantage in Europe had not greatly worried them. “As long as we can outproduce the world, can control the sea and can strike inland with the atomic bomb,” Secretary of Defense James Forrestal observed late in 1947, “we can assume certain risks otherwise unacceptable.” 49 The fundamental premise of the Marshall Plan had been that the United States could safely concentrate on European economic reconstruction, while deferring any significant military buildup that would match Soviet capabilities. The bomb would deter the Russians while the Americans revived—and reassured—the Europeans.

But on August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union got its own bomb. Stalin authorized no public announcement of the successful test, which took place in the Kazakhstan desert, but within days airborne sampling flights the Americans had only recently begun flying began detecting radioactive fallout—an unmistakable indicator that an atomic bomb had exploded in Soviet territory. Surprised that this had happened so soon but fearing leaks if he tried to suppress the evidence, Truman himself revealed the existence of the first Soviet nuclear weapon on September 23rd. The Kremlin then confirmed it.

The implications, for the Americans, were daunting. Without its atomic monopoly, the Truman administration would have to consider upgrading conventional forces, possibly even stationing some of them permanently in Europe, a contingency not provided for in the North Atlantic Treaty. It would have to build more atomic bombs if it was to maintain a quantitative and qualitative lead over the U.S.S.R. And it found itself pondering a third and more draconian option, the existence of which American scientists revealed to Truman only at this moment: attempting to build what was then called a “super-bomb”—a thermonuclear or “hydrogen” bomb, in today’s terminology—that would be at least a thousand times more powerful than the weapons that had devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In the end, Truman approved all three alternatives. He quietly authorized an accelerated production of atomic bombs: at the time of the Soviet test, the United States had fewer than 200 in its arsenal, not enough, a Pentagon study had pointed out, to be sure of defeating the Soviet Union if a real war came.50 He then announced, on January 31, 1950, that the United States would go ahead with the “super-bomb” project. The option Truman resisted the longest was a buildup in American conventional forces, chiefly because of its cost. Producing more atomic bombs, even hydrogen bombs, would still be cheaper than what it would take to bring the army, navy, and air force back to anything approximating World War II levels. Truman, who had hoped for a “peace dividend” that would allow him to balance the federal budget after years of deficits, had taken a major risk with the Marshall Plan, which committed the United States to invest almost 10 percent of annual government expenditures in the reconstruction of Europe. Clearly something—fiscal solvency, an upgraded military, the revival of Europe—was going to have to give: it would not be possible to meet all of those priorities and still cope with the new insecurities created by the Soviet atomic breakthrough.

A second but simultaneous expansion of the Cold War occurred in East Asia, where on October 1, 1949—a week after Truman’s announcement of the Soviet atomic bomb—a victorious Mao Zedong proclaimed the formation of the People’s Republic of China. The celebration he staged in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square marked the end of a civil war between the Chinese nationalists and the Chinese communists that had been going on for almost a quarter of a century. Mao’s triumph surprised both Truman and Stalin: they had assumed that the nationalists, under their long-time leader Chiang Kai-shek, would continue to run China after World War II. Neither had anticipated the possibility that, within four years of Japan’s surrender, the nationalists would be fleeing to the island of Taiwan, and the communists would be preparing to govern the most populous nation in the world.

Did this mean that China would now become a Soviet satellite? Impressed by what had happened in Yugoslavia, Truman and his advisers thought not. “Moscow faces a considerable task in seeking to bring the Chinese Communists under its complete control,” a State Department analysis concluded late in 1948, “if for no other reason than that Mao Tse-tung has been entrenched in power for nearly ten times the length of time that Tito has.”51 Both Mao and Tito had long dominated their respective communist parties, both had led them to victory in civil wars that had overlapped a world war, both had achieved their victories without the Soviet Union’s help. Mindful of the unexpected advantages Tito’s break with Stalin had provided, American officials consoled themselves with the argument that the “loss” of China to communism would not amount to a “gain” for the Soviet Union. Mao, they thought, might well turn out to be the “Asian Tito”: hence, the administration made no commitment to the defense of Taiwan, despite the fact that the powerful pro-Chiang “China Lobby” in Congress was demanding that it do so. The United States, as Secretary of State Acheson put it, would simply “wait until the dust settles.”52 The comment was unwise because Mao had no intention of following Tito’s example. Despite having built his own movement with little help from Moscow, the new Chinese leader was a dedicated Marxist-Leninist who was more than ready to defer to Stalin as the head of the international communist movement. The new China, he announced in June, 1949, must ally “with the Soviet Union, . . . and with the proletariat and broad masses of the people in all other countries, and form an international united front. . . . We must lean to one side.”53

Mao’s reasons had to do first with ideology: Marxism-Leninism gave him a way to link his revolution with the one he regarded as the most successful in all of history—the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Stalin’s dictatorship provided another useful precedent, for that was how Mao intended to run China. Mao also felt betrayed by the Americans. He had welcomed wartime contacts with them, but soon decided that they themselves were “leaning” to the side of Chiang Kai-shek by continuing to provide him with military and economic assistance—Mao failed to understand that the Truman administration was doing this reluctantly, under pressure from the China Lobby, long after it had convinced itself that Chiang could not prevail. The new Chinese communist leader concluded that Truman was preparing an invasion of the mainland to place the nationalists back in power. Preoccupied with European reconstruction, beset with anxieties over their own conventional military weakness, the overstretched Americans were planning no such thing. But Mao’s fears that they might be—together with his determination to prove his revolutionary credentials and to emulate Stalin’s dictatorship—were enough to bring him down firmly on the Soviet side.54 The “lean to one side” announcement in turn fed fears within the United States that—Tito to the contrary notwithstanding—international communism really was a monolithic movement directed from Moscow. Perhaps Stalin had intended the Chinese communist victory all along as his own “second front” in the Cold War, in the event that his strategy in Europe did not work out. “[T]his Chinese government is really a tool of Russian Imperialism,” Acheson admitted shortly after Mao took power.55 There is no evidence that Stalin had such a long-term grand strategy in Asia, but he was quick to see opportunities in Mao’s success and to seek ways in which he might exploit them.

Stalin’s first move, uncharacteristically, was to apologize to the Chinese comrades for having underestimated them: “Our opinions are not always correct,” he told a visiting delegation from Beijing in July, 1949. He then went on, however, to propose the “second front” the Americans had feared:

[T]here should be some division of labor between us. . . . The Soviet Union cannot . . . have the same influence [in Asia] as China is in a position to do. . . . By the same token, China cannot have the same influence as the Soviet Union has in Europe. So, for the interests of the international revolution, . . . you may take more responsibility in working in the East, . . . and we will take more responsibility in the West. . . . In a word, this is our unshirkable duty.56

Mao was amenable, and so in December, 1949, he made the long trip to Moscow—his first ever outside of China—to meet the leader of the world communist movement, and to work out a common strategy. The visit lasted for two months, and in the end produced a Sino-Soviet Treaty—roughly analogous to the North Atlantic Treaty signed almost a year earlier—in which the two communist states pledged to come to the assistance of the other in case of attack.

It was just at this point—while Mao was in Moscow and Truman was making his decision to build a hydrogen bomb—that two major espionage cases broke, one in the United States and the other in Great Britain. On January 21st, former State Department official Alger Hiss was convicted of perjury for having denied under oath that he had been a Soviet agent during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Three days later, the British government revealed that an émigré German scientist, Klaus Fuchs, had confessed to having spied for the Russians while working on the wartime Manhattan Project.

Worries about espionage were nothing new: allegations of Soviet spying had surfaced throughout the war, and by 1947 Truman had become sufficiently concerned to begin a program of “loyalty” checks within his administration. There had been no clear confirmation of espionage, though, until the almost simultaneous announcements of the Hiss conviction and the Fuchs confession. It required no great leap to conclude—accurately enough, as it turned out—that the spies had made it possible for the Soviet Union to succeed so quickly in building its own atomic bomb.57 Had they also facilitated Mao’s victory in China? The course of events seemed too disastrous to have taken place simply by coincidence. A disturbing number of dots, in the minds of administration critics, were beginning to connect.

The most visible dot connector was Senator Joseph McCarthy, a hitherto-obscure Wisconsin Republican, who in February, 1950, began raising the question of how the Soviet Union could have gotten the atomic bomb so quickly at a time when the communists were equally quickly taking over China. The answer, he charged—before the improbable forum of the Women’s Republican Club of Wheeling, West Virginia—was “not because the enemy has sent men to invade our shores, but rather because of the traitorous actions of those . . . who have had all the benefits that the wealthiest nation on earth has had to offer—the finest homes, the finest college educations, and the finest jobs in Government [that] we can give.”58 The Truman administration spent the next several months fending off McCarthy’s charges, which were themselves beginning to strain credulity as the senator scrambled desperately to substantiate them. However bad things were, an explanation alleging treason in high places seemed beyond the realm of plausibility—until, on June 25, 1950, North Korea launched an invasion of South Korea.


KOREA, like Germany, had been jointly occupied by Soviet and American forces at the end of World War II. The nation had been part of the Japanese empire since 1910, and when Japanese resistance suddenly collapsed in the summer of 1945, the Red Army, which had been planning to invade Manchuria, found the way open into northern Korea as well. The way was also open, in southern Korea, for some of the American troops whose original mission had been to invade the Japanese home islands. The peninsula was occupied, therefore, more by accident than by design: that probably accounts for the fact that Moscow and Washington were able to agree without difficulty that the 38th parallel, which split the peninsula in half, would serve as a line of demarcation pending the creation of a single Korean government and the subsequent withdrawal of occupation forces.

Those withdrawals did take place, in 1948–49, but there was no agreement on who would run the country. Instead it remained divided, with the American-supported Republic of Korea in control of the south by virtue of an election sanctioned by the United Nations, while the Soviet-supported Democratic Republic of Korea ruled the north, where elections were not held. The only thing unifying the country by then was a civil war, with each side claiming to be the legitimate government and threatening to invade the other.

Neither could do so, however, without superpower support. This the Americans denied to their South Korean allies, chiefly because the Truman administration had decided to liquidate all positions on the Asian mainland and concentrate on the defense of island strongpoints like Japan, Okinawa, and the Philippines—though not Taiwan. The South Korean president, Syngman Rhee, repeatedly sought support for his ambitions to liberate the north from officials in Washington, as well as from General Douglas MacArthur, the commander of United States occupation forces in Japan, but he never got it. One of the reasons the Americans withdrew their troops from South Korea, indeed, was their fear that the unpredictable Rhee might “march north,” and thus drag them into a war they did not want.59 Rhee’s North Korean counterpart, Kim Il-sung, had similar designs on the south, and for a time a similar experience with his superpower sponsor. He had repeatedly sought support in Moscow for a military campaign to unify Korea, and had been repeatedly turned down—until January, 1950, when yet another request got a more encouraging response. What made the difference, it appears, was Stalin’s conviction that a “second front” was now feasible in East Asia, that it could be created by proxies, thus minimizing the risk to the U.S.S.R., and that the Americans would not respond. They had done nothing, after all, to save the Chinese nationalists, and on January 12, 1950, Secretary of State Acheson had even announced publicly that the American “defensive perimeter” did not extend to South Korea. Stalin read the speech carefully—as well as (courtesy of British spies) the top-secret National Security Council study upon which it was based—and authorized his foreign minister, Molotov, to discuss it with Mao Zedong. The Soviet leader then informed Kim Il-sung that “[a]ccording to information coming from the United States, . . . [t]he prevailing mood is not to interfere.” Kim in turn assured Stalin that “[t]he attack will be swift and the war will be won in three days.”60 Stalin’s “green light” to Kim Il-sung was part of the larger strategy for seizing opportunities in East Asia that he had discussed with the Chinese: shortly after endorsing the invasion of South Korea, he also encouraged Ho Chi Minh to intensify the Viet Minh offensive against the French in Indochina. Victories in both locations would maintain the momentum generated by Mao’s victory the previous year. They would compensate for the setbacks the Soviet Union had encountered in Europe, and they would counter increasingly obvious American efforts to bring Japan within its system of postwar military alliances. A particular advantage of this strategy was that it would not require direct Soviet involvement: the North Koreans and the Viet Minh would take the initiative, operating under the pretext of unifying their respective countries. And the Chinese, still eager to legitimize their revolution by winning Stalin’s approval, were more than willing to provide backup support, if and when needed.61 These were the events, then, that led to the North Korean invasion of South Korea. What Stalin had not anticipated was the effect it would have on the Americans: this unexpected attack was almost as great a shock as the one on Pearl Harbor nine years earlier, and its consequences for Washington’s strategy were at least as profound. South Korea in and of itself was of little importance to the global balance of power, but the fact that it had been invaded so blatantly—across the 38th parallel, a boundary sanctioned by the United Nations—appeared to challenge the entire structure of postwar collective security. It had been just this sort of thing that had led to the collapse of international order during the 1930s, and to the subsequent outbreak of World War II. Truman hardly needed to think about what to do: “We can’t let the UN down,” he repeatedly told his advisers.62 It took his administration only hours to decide that the United States would come to the defense of South Korea, and that it would do so not just on its own authority, but under that of the United Nations as well.

It was able to do so quickly for two reasons. The first was that an American army was conveniently stationed nearby, occupying Japan—a fact Stalin seems to have overlooked. The second—another oversight on Stalin’s part—was that there was no Soviet representative present in the Security Council to veto United Nations action: he had been withdrawn, some months earlier, as a protest against the organization’s refusal to seat the Chinese communists. With U.N. approval, then, the international community mobilized within days to counter this new threat to international security, yet another response that Moscow had not anticipated.

The response, to be sure, almost failed: American and South Korean troops were forced to retreat to the southeastern tip of the Korean peninsula and might have had to evacuate it altogether had it not been for a brilliant military maneuver by the United Nations commander, General MacArthur, who surprised the North Koreans with a daring amphibious landing at Inchon, near Seoul, in mid-September. Soon he had trapped the North Korean army below the 38th parallel, and his forces were advancing almost unopposed into North Korea. Shocked by this sequence of events, Stalin was on the verge of accepting a lost war, even the prospect of the Americans occupying North Korea itself, which directly bordered on China and the Soviet Union: “So what,” he commented wearily. “Let it be. Let the Americans be our neighbors.”63 THE KOREAN WAR


There remained, though, the question of what the Chinese would do. Mao had supported the invasion of South Korea, and even before the Inchon landing—which he anticipated and warned Kim Il-sung to be ready for—he had begun moving troops from the China coast opposite Taiwan up to the North Korean border. “We should not fail to assist the Koreans,” he told his advisers early in August. “We must lend them our hands in the form of sending our military volunteers there.”64 There was concern in Washington about the possibility of Chinese intervention, and for that reason Truman ordered MacArthur not to advance all the way to the Yalu River, which formed the Sino-Korean border. Meanwhile the State Department, through various intermediaries, was seeking to deter the Chinese by raising the prospect of horrendous casualties. Mao for a time had difficulty convincing his own advisers that it would be necessary to intervene, a fact that led Stalin, early in October, to tell Kim Il-sung that he would have to evacuate North Korea altogether. Shortly thereafter, though, Mao prevailed, and so was able to inform the Russians and the North Koreans that the Chinese would be soon coming to the rescue.65 Thus it happened that, at the end of November, 1950, two armies once again confronted one another across a river—with a wariness that this time failed to dissolve into cheers, handshakes, drinking, dancing, and hope. “I thought we’d won the war!” an American army officer recalled. “Thanksgiving Day came and we had all of the food . . . that Thanksgiving had meant when we were at home. . . . [A]t that time [we] were nearing the Yalu River and that meant going home.”66 In this case, though, the army on the other side of the river had other ideas. “[W]e shall aim,” its commander, Mao Zedong, had explained to Stalin, “at resolving the [Korean] conflict, that is, to eliminate the U.S. troops within Korea or to drive them and other countries’ aggressive forces out.”67 On November 26th, some 300,000 Chinese began to make good on this pledge with bugles blowing, human wave attacks, and all the advantages of surprise. Two days later MacArthur informed the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “We face an entirely new war.”68 VIII.

VICTORY IN World War II brought no sense of security, therefore, to the victors. Neither the United States, nor Great Britain, nor the Soviet Union at the end of 1950 could regard the lives and treasure they had expended in defeating Germany and Japan as having made them safer: the members of the Grand Alliance were now Cold War adversaries. Interests had turned out not to be compatible; ideologies remained at least as polarizing as they had been before the war; fears of surprise attack continued to haunt military establishments in Washington, London, and Moscow. A contest that began over the fate of postwar Europe had now spread to Asia. Stalin’s dictatorship remained as harsh—and as reliant on purges—as it had always been; but with the onset of McCarthyism in the United States and with irrefutable evidence that espionage had taken place on both sides of the Atlantic, it was not at all clear that the western democracies themselves could retain the tolerance for dissent and the respect for civil liberties that distinguished them from the dictators, whether of the fascist or the communist variety.

“The fact of the matter is that there is a little bit of the totalitarian buried somewhere, way down deep, in each and every one of us,” Kennan told students at the National War College in 1947. “It is only the cheerful light of confidence and security which keeps this evil genius down. . . . If confidence and security were to disappear, don’t think that he would not be waiting to take their place.”69 This warning from the founder of containment—that the enemy to be contained might as easily lie within the beneficiaries of freedom as among its enemies—showed how pervasive fear had become in a postwar international order for which there had been so much hope. It helps to explain why Orwell’s 1984, when it appeared in 1949, became an instant literary triumph.70 Orwell’s vision, however, did at least assume a future, however bleak it might be. Kennan, by early 1950, was worrying that there might not be a future. In a top-secret memorandum prepared for, but ignored by, the Truman administration, he pointed out that the use of force had historically been “a means to an end other than warfare, . . . an end which at least did not negate the principle of life itself.” Atomic and hydrogen bombs, however, did not have this quality:

They reach backward beyond the frontiers of western civilization, to the concepts of warfare which were once familiar to the Asiatic hordes. They cannot really be reconciled with a political purpose directed to shaping, rather than destroying, the lives of the adversary. They fail to take into account the ultimate responsibility of men for one another, and even for each other’s errors and mistakes. They imply the admission that man not only can be but is his own worst and most terrible enemy.

The lesson, Kennan insisted, was a Shakespearean one:

Power into will, will into appetite

And appetite, a universal wolf, so doubly seconded with will and power must make perforce a universal prey and last eat himself up.

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