- Historic Sites
1. A Good Way To Pick A Fight
August 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 5
On April 12, 1945, Franklin Roosevelt died, and soon afterward Vyascheslav M. Molotov, the Russian foreign minister, stopped by in Washington to pay his respects to Harry Truman, the new President. Truman received Molotov in the Oval Office and, as Truman recalled it, chewed him out “bluntly” for the way the Russians were behaving in Poland. Molotov was stunned. He had never, he told Truman, “been talked to like that in my life.”
“Carry out your agreements,” Truman responded, “and you won’t get talked to like that.”
That’s a good way to talk, if you want to start an argument…
In Europe, Germany surrendered to the Allies on May 8. On May 12, Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent Truman an ominous cable about the Russians: “An iron curtain is drawn down upon their front,” Churchill said, and, moreover, “it would be open to the Russians in a very short time to advance if they chose to the waters of the North Sea and the Atlantic.” On May 17, Churchill ordered his officers not to destroy any German planes. In fact, Churchill kept 700,000 captured German troops in military readiness, prepared to be turned against the Russians.
That, too, is a good way to behave, if you are looking for trouble…
Joseph Stalin said little: he did not advance his troops to the Atlantic, but he planted them firmly throughout eastern Europe and, in violation of previous agreements with the British and Americans, systematically crushed all vestiges of democratic government in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Rumania, Yugoslavia, and Finland. In truth, not quite: the Finns had managed to salvage a few bits and scraps of democratic usage for themselves. At dinner one night in the Kremlin, Andrei Zhdanov, one of Stalin’s propagandists, complained that the Russians should have occupied Finland. “Akh, Finland,” said Molotov, “that is a peanut.”
And that, too, is a nice way to behave, if you are trying to stir up a fight…
Most people, most of the time, want peace in the world, and they imagine that most politicians, being human, share the same wishes. At the end of a war, presumably, the desire for peace is most intense and most widely shared. Lamentably, that is not always the case. At the end of World War II the Russians, as Churchill remarked, feared “our friendship more than our enmity.”
The Russians had both immediate cause and long-standing historical reasons for anxiety.
“From the beginning of the ninth century,” as Louis Halle, a former State Department historian, has written, “and even today, the prime driving force in Russia has been fear.… The Russians as we know them today have experienced ten centuries of constant, mortal fear. This has not been a disarming experience. It has not been an experience calculated to produce a simple, open, innocent, and guileless society.” Scattered over a vast land with no natural frontiers for protection, as Halle remarks, the Russians have been overrun “generation after generation, by fresh waves of invaders.… Lying defenseless on the plain, they were slaughtered and subjugated and humiliated by the invaders time and again.”
Thus the Russians sought to secure their borders along eastern Europe. The czars attempted this, time and again: to secure a buffer zone, on their European frontier, a zone that would run down along a line that would later be called the Iron Curtain.
Yet, at the end of World War II, Stalin’s fears were not just fears of outsiders. World War II had shown that his dictatorship was not only brutal but also brutally inept; he was neither a great military leader nor a good administrator; and the Russian soldiers returning from the Western Front had seen much evidence of Western prosperity. Stalin needed the Cold War, not to venture out into the world again after an exhausting war, but to discipline his restless people at home. He had need of that ancient stratagem of monarchs—the threat of an implacable external enemy to be used to unite his own people in Russia.
Churchill, on the other hand, emerged from World War II with a ruined empire irretrievably in debt, an empire losing its colonies and headed inevitably toward bankruptcy. Churchill’s scheme for saving Great Britain was suitably inspired and grand: he would, in effect, reinvent the British Empire; he would establish an economic union of Europe (much like what the Common Market actually became); this union would certainly not be led by vanquished Germany or Italy, not by so small a power as the Netherlands, not by devastated France, but by Great Britain. To accomplish this aim, unfortunately, Churchill had almost nothing in the way of genuine economic or military power left; he had only his own force of persuasion and rhetoric. He would try to parlay those gifts into American backing for England’s move into Europe. The way to bring about American backing was for Churchill to arrange to have America and Russia quarrel; while America and Russia quarreled, England would—as American diplomats delicately put it—“lead” Europe.
Truman, for his part, led a nation that was strong and getting stronger. Henry Luce, the publisher of the influential Time and Life magazines, declared that this was to be the beginning of “the American Century”—and such a moment is rarely one in which a national leader wants to maintain a status quo. The United States was securing the Western Hemisphere, moving forcefully into England’s collapsing “sterling bloc,” acquiring military and economic positions over an area of the planet so extensive that the sun could never set on it.