Could the Cold War have been averted?

The Cold War was a real war.  I have read that by some estimates 30 million people died in wars and conflicts between 1945 and 1991, and most of these were linked to the global duel between the USA and the USSR.

The casualties included those in the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam Conflict, the anti-Communist uprisings in East Germany in 1953 and Hungary in 1956, the Cambodians murdered by Pol Pot, the U.S.-backed death squads in Latin America, the Indonesians massacred in the overthrow of Sukarno, the wars in Africa between US-backed and Soviet-backed proxies, the Afghan war between a Soviet-backed regime and US-backed rebels, and countless other struggles now forgotten by the world.

UntoldHistoryStoneKuznick00379519Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, in their book and TV documentary, The Untold History of the United States, said this tragedy for have been avoided but for one thing.

It was that the President of the United States in the years following World War Two happened to be Harry Truman, a warmonger, rather than Henry Wallace, a lover of peace.

This is not how it appeared to me at the time.   I came of age in the early 1950s, and I thought the United States and its allies were in peril, the same kind of peril as in the 1930s.

The Soviet Union was as much a totalitarian dictatorship as Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.   By “totalitarian,” I mean that the government sought to subordinate all human activity, including science, art, literature, sport, education and civic life, to the control of the ruling party, and to demand not only passive acquiescence, but enthusiastic support.

Hitler and Stalin also were alike in that they killed millions of people, not for anything they had done, but for what they were.  While historians now think that Stalin murdered fewer people as Hitler, this is not how things seemed at the time, and, in any case, Stalin’s body count was large enough.

But the most terrifying thing about totalitarianism was the idea that the ruling party could somehow get into the minds of its subjects, and experience slavery as a kind of freedom.  George Orwell’s 1984 was an all-too-plausible vision of a future in which there was no individual liberty, no concept of objective truth aside from a party line and a Winston Smith could be brainwashed into loving Big Brother.  These things seemed all too plausible.

Stalin not only ruled one-sixth of the earth’s surface, but commanded the loyalty of Communists worldwide.  Millions of people, many of them idealistic, intelligent and courageous, believed it was their duty to subordinate their personal convictions and code of morality to a Communist Party line that put the interests of the Soviet Union above all else.

A revolutionary Communist movement is one thing.  A worldwide Communist movement that subordinated all other goals to being an instrument of Soviet power was a very different thing.

In the late 1940s, the Red Army was the world’s most powerful military force, and Europe lay in ruins.   If Stalin had decided to advance to the Rhine or the Atlantic, the only thing that could have prevented it was the U.S. atomic deterrent.

The leaders of the United States, Great Britain and their allies remembered the appeasement of the 1930s as an example of what not to do.   The formation of a defensive alliance and the rejection of Soviet territorial demands was a rational reaction to circumstances.

ColdWar 1948-1975

That’s how things seemed from an American point of view.  Stone and Kuznick cite the facts that would have influenced Stalin’s point of view.

The United States and Great Britain sent troops to Russia following the Bolshevik revolution to overthrow the new Communist regime.  The USA, Britain and France spurned Stalin’s appeal for an anti-Nazi alliance.  Many looked favorably on a Nazi invasion of Russia.

During the war, the Red Army did most of the fighting against Germany.  Most of the Germany army fought on the Eastern Front.  The Soviets killed more Germans and suffered more casualties than any other nation fighting in Europe.  Yet the USA never delivered all the supplies it promised, nor opened a second front in Europe on the dates it promised.   D-Day took place when Soviet troops had turned the tide and were advancing into Europe.

At Yalta, Roosevelt and Churchill seemingly agreed to a partition of Europe.  Yet FDR after the fact kept raising questions about Soviet control of Poland.  Worse yet, after the war, the newly-created CIA conducted covert operations in eastern Europe against Soviet rule, including support for insurgents in Ukraine, which was part of the USSR itself.

But even if the USA had refrained from meddling in Stalin’s domain, and even if Stalin’s territorial demands (for example, control of the oil of northern Iran and a base in the straits between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean) had been met, I don’t think that true peace was possible.

Tension between the Communist and the Western nations was inherent in what they were.  To capitalist countries, the mere possibility of a successful socialist country, committed to world revolution even in theory, was destabilizing.  To Communist countries, the existence of a democratic capitalist country, especially one that provided a higher material standard of living to working people, was also destabilizing.

As for Harry Truman, he had his flaws and limitations, but he wasn’t the hack depicted by Stone and Kuznick.   He was deservedly praised for his work on the Truman Committee, a Senate committee to investigate waste and mismanagement in military contracts during World War Two.

As for Henry Wallace, he had his virtues, but, as he himself admitted later, he was naive about the Soviet Union.


I don’t think Cold War liberals, including myself as a teenager, were wrong about how we saw things in 1952.  Our failure was in not noticing how things changed later on.

Stalin’s terror, like Mao’s, was not something that could have been kept up indefinitely.  Eventually the Soviet Union and also the Chinese People’s Republic relapsed into being normal corrupt autocracies that, however deplorable, were not a threat to the world.  And when the terror eased up, it turned out that totalitarianism had not changed human nature.  People were pretty much the same as they always were.

Communists, other than the ones put in power by the Red Army, did not recognize the hegemony of Stalin or any other foreign ruler.  We should have understood back in 1952 from the example of Marshall Tito, the independent, anti-Stalin ruler of Yugoslavia.

After the Sino-Soviet split, no single Communist country could be the undisputed leader of the world Communist movement.  Communists had to make up their own minds who they would follow, and which model was the rest.  Some of them even started to question Leninism itself.   Starting in the 1960s, radicals increasing rejected the Soviet model

Eventually there was an armed truce in Europe between the Soviet Union and its satellites and the USA and its allies, a peace based not on trust and goodwill but a healthy mutual respect for each others’ power.

The real victims of the Cold War were the people of Latin America, Africa and Asia, the so-called Third World, whose lands became the battleground of a proxy war between the USA and USSR.

On the one hand, there were military dictatorships serving the interests of wealthy oligarchs, which were backed by the CIA.  On the other, there were “liberation” movements whose role model was to create a little junior Soviet Union, with a supposedly infallible leader, a single party with absolute power, and an unworkable centrally planned economy.

I don’t want to state which side I think was worst, because these kinds of judgments always imply that the second worst was excusable.

At the time, I was blind to how much anti-Communism had become a mask for old-fashioned American imperialism, and how American global power had become an end in itself rather than a response to Soviet action.

Friends of mine saw this, but I didn’t.  It became plain to me only after the Cold War ended and the United States continued its military buildup and foreign interventions.  Whatever the rights and wrongs of the real Cold War, it is both stupid and morally wrong to be continually looking for new enemies in order to remain on a Cold War footing.


Oliver Stone and the Curve of the Ball, an interview on the Real News Network.

The Roots of the Cold War, an interview of Peter Kuznick on the Real News Network.

Where I Was Wrong by Henry A. Wallace (1952)

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3 Responses to “Could the Cold War have been averted?”

  1. whungerford Says:

    Fear of Russia justified growth of the military-industrial complex and served as a proxy for fear that the working class in other countries would demand justice. American militarism likely delayed the collapse of the Soviet Union and, to the extent that dictatorship has been reestablished there today, may be partly responsible for that..


  2. prayerwarriorpsychicnot Says:

    Reblogged this on Citizens, not serfs.


  3. Nominay Says:


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