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.
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.
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.