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 the most successful endeavors of the academic left in the field of American history and foreign policy has been convincing many colleagues, and thousands of students throughout the country, that the traditional understanding of the Cold War is wrong. 

At the Livadia Palace, Yalta, 1945

At the Livadia Palace, Yalta, 1945

Older scholars believed (as did George F. Kennan, for example) that Soviet behavior was best understood as a continuation of czarist policies meant to spread the Russian empire, which explained Russia’s posture in international power politics. The weaknesses of this analysis forged an opening for a new group of Cold War revisionists, historians of the left who argued that the Soviet Union was weakened at the end of World War II and, seeking only secure borders and peace with the West, was forced into the Cold War by the necessity of defending itself against American aggression.

Political leaders in the United States, such as Henry Wallace, favored giving Stalin what they thought he rightfully desired. Many historians are still sympathetic to his claims—and so portray Wallace and others, such as Franklin Roosevelt’s aide Harry Hopkins, as unsung heroes. It is argued that their wisdom, had the policy they advocated been followed, would have created decades of peace and avoided the Cold War and the growth of a military-industrial complex both here and in the Soviet Union. 

The Cold War is long over. But the battle over understanding its causes continues. Each year, new revisionist works appear, and adherents of Cold War revisionism in academia continue to produce tomes meant to reveal the perfidy of the United States and the peaceful intentions of the Soviets that were dashed by needlessly tough American measures. 

It is in this context that readers must approach this masterful and brilliant new book by Robert Gellately, a scholar well known for his acclaimed books on Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler, as well as for his study of how Hitler ruled through a combination of coercion and consent. Turning his attention to how Stalin forged Russia’s foreign policy, Gellately has mined the newly available archives in the former Soviet Union. The result is a definitive account that shows readers precisely how Stalin started, and tried to manage, the Cold War in an attempt to reach his never-abandoned goal of spreading communism throughout the world, with an aim to final victory.

Gellately shows that Stalin, rather than being passively reactive to American measures, was a leader whose every move was based on his sustained belief in Marxist-Leninist ideology, which he saw as a guideline for spreading the Soviet system elsewhere. Moscow, Gellately writes, “made all the first moves and [the West] if anything .  .  . was woefully complacent until 1947 or 1948, when the die was already cast.” Never did Stalin want only secure borders to prevent another German invasion of Russia; his goal was to bide his time by doing whatever was necessary until the final showdown between the capitalist West and the Communist East. 

One of Gellately’s accomplishments here is showing that FDR and Winston Churchill both had naïve and misplaced impressions of Stalin as someone with whom they could work and reach sound compromises. Roosevelt, he writes, was not a cold warrior, out to save the American system and counter any Soviet advances: He believed he could secure peace by working with Stalin, who only wanted appreciation and payback for the great sacrifices made by the Soviet Union during the war. FDR “consistently sought to understand and sympathize with the Soviet position and he bent over backwards to ignore or downplay Stalin’s horrendous methods of rule and obvious ambitions.” 

As for Churchill, he actually wrote his wife about Stalin: “I like him the more I see him.” Stalin proved to be a wily manipulator who always told his opponents what they wanted to hear—and so dearly hoped was true.

Of course, Stalin’s takeover of Eastern Europe was motivated not by security concerns, but by his desire to spread the revolution in incremental steps: first in the areas he was able to control as a result of the war, and later (he hoped), throughout Western Europe, and, eventually, to the rest of the world. Triumph for communism, he thought, was inevitable; the only question was how long it would take to attain victory.

To reach his goal, Stalin used extreme brutality. In some cases, NKVD squads came to villages, giving residents 15 minutes to gather their belongings and appear at trains to be taken elsewhere. Many of them found themselves going not to new homes, but to the infamous Gulag system.