- Historic Sites
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
Most of the countries in question were new ones—children, so to speak, of the peace settlements after World War I. Lacking any well-established traditions of democracy, they practiced, for the most part, little of what the term was taken to mean in Western countries. In some instances the leadership was conservative or right wing—a circumstance that heightened in many Western liberal and left-wing eyes the plausibility of the Soviet claim that these governments were bad and reactionary and ought of course to be replaced by ones more “friendly” to the great socialist republic to the east, now fighting so bravely against the Germans.
Actually, most of these Eastern European regimes had many reasons, beyond just the ideological ones, for apprehension about their eastern neighbor. The situations of these countries during the war, with Nazi Germany on the one side and Soviet Russia on the other, had obviously been ones of great delicacy and danger. So searing had been their wartime experience that by the time the Soviet armies overran their territories all of them would have been happy enough to treat with courtesy and respect any Moscow policy that would recognize their professed friendship, accept their independence, and withdraw its occupation forces as soon as possible after the war.
But Stalin was not the man to accept such a relationship. Himself devoid of the capacity for loyalty, he had no confidence in the loyalty of others. He could believe only in the cynically professed “friendship” of persons and regimes wholly and abjectly under his authority. What this meant for the Eastern European peoples, when the war was over, was something that probably surpassed the imaginations of many people in the West. For what was at stake here was not just a prolonged and relatively benign military occupation, designed to assure that the subject country, while enjoying autonomy in purely domestic affairs, would not handle its foreign relations in a way that would jeopardize Soviet interests. There were, as most of the Soviet leaders knew, terrible skeletons in these particular closets; many tens of thousands of them in fact. When, for example, in the final months of the war, the Soviet forces reconquered Polish territory, the Soviet secret police, and Stalin personally, had a great deal to conceal. It is not surprising they were determined that there should never be a regime in power in Warsaw that would reveal these crimes. Nor is it surprising that Stalin should then have assigned to his police apparatus, as he appears to have done, the power to control not only all Polish affairs, internal as well as external, but those of the remaining Soviet-occupied countries as well—and this for years to come.
This, in effect, was what Franklin Roosevelt was up against, all unbeknownst to himself, in his futile effort at the Yalta Conference in 1945 to assure democratic independence for the Eastern European peoples by accepting, and trying in good faith to meet, what he took to be Stalin’s demand for “friendly governments” in that part of the world. To this must be added the insistence of the military leaders in both the United States and Britain that everything possible be done to conciliate Stalin and to persuade him that the major Western powers were still his loyal allies and political supporters. It was the naive hope that this sense of camaraderie in a great common military endeavor would produce a fundamental change in Soviet attitudes and that collaboration with Russia would thus continue even into the postwar period. The Yalta Conference of February 1945 was the last of the summit meetings still outwardly dominated, at least on the American side, by the cultivation of this essentially fictitious and misleading scenario.
But while all this was happening, there was in progress a steady growth of disillusionment at lower levels of government in both Washington and London over the prospects for the future of Soviet-American relations. A number of things were happening in those final months of the war that were decidedly at odds with the thesis of a continuing Soviet-American collaboration. The experiences and observations of the American and British members of the tripartite commissions set up to assure the observance of the armistice terms in the former enemy countries of Eastern Europe were not only unfavorable but alarming. Stalin’s initial reluctance to send Molotov as the Soviet representative to the ceremonies and negotiations attending the founding of the United Nations came as a severe shock, particularly to senior people in the State Department who had placed high hopes in Soviet support for the organization as an agency for stability in international life. And then of course, above all, there was the bitter question of Poland. In the immediate aftermath of the Yalta Conference it became abundantly clear that the Soviet leadership had no intention whatsoever to permit free elections or, indeed, democratic processes of any sort to prevail there.