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From World War To Cold War
In an exchange of letters, a man who had an immeasurable impact on how the great struggle of our times was waged looks back on how it began
December 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 8
The reality was, of course, that already before the outbreak of world war in 1939 the Western powers had simply not developed their own military strength to a point, or even to anything resembling the point, at which they could hope to defeat Hitler by their own efforts alone. The Soviet struggle against Hitler was not conducted by Moscow for the purpose of rescuing the Western powers from the situation into which their weakness had placed them, but it had this effect. And what has to be recognized was that there was, very naturally and inevitably, a price to be paid for this great Soviet contribution to the armed struggle, and this price took the form of the postwar domination of a large part of Europe, and this for years to come, by the Soviet Union. We and our Western European allies had only ourselves to blame for this tragic necessity.
Had these realities been explained betimes to the American people, the distortions in the official American view of the Soviet-American relationship during the wartime years and just thereafter might have been largely avoided, and the jolt of the transition to more realistic concepts in the immediate post-hostilities period might have been smaller and easier for the American political system to accept.
It is unfortunately a characteristic of democracies that their political establishments are incapable of looking far into the future, of recognizing long-term dangers, and of anticipating those dangers at early stages. To point this out is not to question their many other advantages or to suggest that there is any easy way by which these deficiencies could be overcome. But it is to argue that if these weaknesses cannot be remedied, then the peoples and governments of the Western democracies must learn to recognize that heavy prices have sometimes to be paid for their continued endurance.
I think that your summary discussion, in these letters, of the misconceptions by the American government, including FDR, about Stalin and the Soviet Union is a great contribution to historical knowledge. Many of its materials are there, of course, in your papers and in your Memoirs ; but there, by necessity, they are only parts of a larger story, whereas here they are brought together. Equally important is how these misconceptions during the Second World War led to the development of the cold war, or rather to the conditions along which it developed— not that the United States was the principal perpetrator of those conditions. I still do not entirely agree with you that the de facto alliance among the United States, Britain, and Russia during the war could have been avoided, or restricted to some kind of military cooperation, with America announcing not only to Stalin but to the world that (unlike Churchill’s Britain) the United States would be loath to associate or coordinate its wartime efforts with Russia except in a circumscribed sense of military aid. The power of Germany was too large for that, and so were the consequent prospects of German policy to bring about a rift between its disparate opponents. But that is about the war itself and not about the 1945-47 period with which this correspondence of ours is primarily concerned.
And on that we fully agree: What you have now written should make it definitely clear that contrary to what so many critics of the Cold War have assumed, the American government’s response to Stalin, at least in 1945 and early 1946, was belated rather than premature. What happened in 1946 was that finally those in charge of this country’s world policy were catching up with you, and then, by and large, political and public opinion followed in 1947. When in July of that year, your now world-famous “X” article was published in Foreign Affairs , that was not the beginning but the end of a process, not only because the essence of the article was already latent in your Long Telegram in early 1946, and the “X” version actually delivered in your talk to the Council of Foreign Relations in early 1947, but because by July 1947 the change in the course of the giant American ship of state had been generally completed, largely in accord with your advocacies. Nearly a half-century later all kinds of people have recognized its merits: that the policy of containment has worked and that all honor is due its architect.