The Magazine

Stalin’s Cold War

The Soviet dictator, all by himself, was the cause.

Oct 7, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 05 • By RONALD RADOSH
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One of Gellately’s signal contributions is an explanation of why Stalin did not accept the American offer to extend Marshall Plan aid to the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites. Stalin did not reject the offer because he was afraid of Western control of his economy; rather, he believed that any aid would lead to rapid economic health, thus undermining his determination to communize the entire region. 

General Marshall, Gellately notes, was serious about including Eastern Europe in his plan for European recovery. Indeed, Marshall “deplored the emotional anti-Russian attitude” in the United States and hoped that even Stalin could talk about economics and reality, with both sides ignoring ideology. It was Stalin who saw things differently: He believed that the United States wanted to defeat its main competitors in Italy, Germany, and Japan, and he wanted to both control prices and dominate the world. He thought America would fail and would collapse trying to manage the world market. 

When given the choice to allow his Eastern European satellites to accept or reject European reconstruction aid, Stalin gave the order: All in the Soviet bloc had to reject participation. He believed, as did his aides in the West, that the Marshall Plan was meant to stop communism in the West, and such aid would reduce potential sources of Communist support. 

Stalin had it in his power to stop the drift toward Cold War then and there. Contrary to what some historians have suggested, he had choices. All he had to do was be prepared to say how the money would be spent. The all-powerful Stalin had no worries about political objections back home. The hindrances stopping him were entirely of his own creation. He was unable to imagine revealing economic “secrets” that, incidentally, democracies routinely publish. .  .  . By rejecting the Marshall Plan, the Soviets in effect flung open the doors to the Cold War.

Stalin’s goal was clear from the start: “A Communist transformation of Europe that would eventually extend to other lands.” The opposition to Stalinization of ordinary citizens in Western Europe was shattering this dream. Hence, Stalin opted for the one chance he had: tightening his grip on the areas his forces controlled and hoping that Western Europe would stagnate and fester while the Soviet Union would pick up the pieces in a successful Cold War.

The price paid by ordinary Soviet citizens was the opposite of those fortunate enough to live in Western Europe: a lower standard of living, a shorter life expectancy, and political regimentation by the Communist party machinery. When the Czech leadership wanted to join the Marshall Plan and accept aid—knowing that their nation’s ability to thrive depended on trade with the West—Stalin forbade their delegation to even attend the meetings of implementation. “I went to Moscow as the Foreign Minister of an independent sovereign state,” said Jan Masaryk. “I returned as a lackey of the Soviet Government.”

We all know, as Gellately concludes, that Russians have an ambivalent view of their Stalinist past: “The struggle between the anti-Stalinists and the Stalinists is still going on in Russia.” In our own land, the historical struggle is about comprehending the Cold War and understanding why it took place. The large group of revisionists still believes and argues that the responsibility for the Cold War’s emergence lies with the United States. It is Robert Gellately’s great accomplishment to put an end to this claim, to prove (as he writes) that such “arguments do not hold up under examination,” and that, if anything, the West was initially indecisive in its leaders’ response to Stalin’s “Communist ideological offensive.” 

Ronald Radosh is coauthor, with Allis Radosh, of A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel