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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
We come now to the reactions of the American public. Here I am probably one of the worst persons to be consulted. Until the late spring of 1946 I was out of the country, serving in Moscow, and I had only remote impressions of the various states of opinion on Soviet-American relations.
Shortly after returning to the United States in the late spring of 1946, I was sent by the State Department on a speaking tour to places in the Middle and the Far West, where I was to explain American policies toward Russia to presumably less-well-informed people in these provinces. This assignment was the result of a curious choice on the State Department’s part, because I had been for years, as the department should have known, in marked disagreement with our official attitudes and policies. But the journey was instructive. I found audiences in the Middle West (I think particularly of one in my native city of Milwaukee) to be troubled, thoughtful, and patient listeners, but sharp ones. On the West Coast it was quite different. On the campuses and among the members of the various organizations that had been set up to “help Russia” during the war, people were taken aback and sometimes felt themselves unpleasantly challenged by the things I had to say. Particularly was this the case at the University of California in Berkeley. In Los Angeles, on the other hand, where I addressed a meeting that I recall consisted primarily of prominent businessmen, what I had to say about the Soviet leadership was received with such loud enthusiasm that I was myself slightly alarmed by the chords I had touched. Some of these chords, I now suspect, were ones that were soon to be played, and to no good effect, in the period of the McCarthyist hysterias.
My impression, gained by this experience, was that much of American opinion, at least in educated circles, was at that time bewildered and uncertain. People had been persuaded for years by our government that the peoples and government of the Soviet Union were our great and noble allies. Now, contrary reports and opinions were beginning to be heard. Some of the difficulties that had occurred during the San Francisco Conference on the establishment of the United Nations had already begun to make people wonder whether the Soviet regime was quite what they had been encouraged to believe it to be during wartime.
Yalta and Potsdam only confirmed Stalin’ view that while Americans might not say so, what was happening was a division of Europe.
I have several times had occasion to say that it never pays for our government to give false impressions to the American public with the view to enlisting its support for short-term purposes, because this always revenges itself later when it becomes necessary to overcome the wrong impressions one has created. I see the governmental attitudes of the period resulting in claims about our Russian allies that were at the best serious oversimplifications and for the most part something far worse than that: an instance of the abuse and distortion of American opinion by a political administration that thought at the time it was doing a worthy and useful thing.
Actually, my retrospective impression is that most of the American public of that day—so long as Americans were fighting the Germans—were prepared to go along loyally and patiently with the Roosevelt administration’s efforts to enlist enthusiasm for the war in Europe. But for some reason, which warrants more attention on the part of the scholars than it has received, the war in Europe never enlisted the same sort of hysterical-chauvinistic reaction and support that had characterized the American participation in the First World War. The more general American reaction was one of: “Well, we are told that it has to be done. All right, but let’s get it over with.” It is my impression that this attitude also prevailed extensively among the American fighting forces at that time.
All of this is important, because it meant that although American governmental wartime propaganda was for the most part unprotestingly accepted while the fighting was going on, there were always some reservations about it among common people. Thus the transition to a more sober and realistic view of the Soviet dictatorship and of world affairs generally was not as difficult as it would have been had public emotional involvement in the European war been far more intense than it actually was. It must be remembered, in this respect, that it was only toward the end of the war that information about the Nazi Holocaust was beginning to seep through to wide elements of the American population. And even where it did begin to penetrate people’s consciousness, there was a tendency to doubt (and this was perhaps greatest on the part of the troops fighting in Germany) that the Holocaust had any great awareness or support among the German civilian population, as distinct from the Nazi regime itself.
Well, what you have now written to me is very interesting and important. It should impress those who think (and teach and write) that the American reaction to oppose the Soviet Union in 1947 was premature, or aggressive, or impulsive, or hasty. But this correspondence is about 1945 and 1946, not 1947—though I will have to return to 1947 in one single instance. And now there are two or three passages in your letter that perhaps we could discuss further.