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Constructing the Monolith: The United States, Great Britain and International Communism 1945-50 
by Marc Selverstone.
Harvard, 304 pp., £36.95, February 2009, 978 0 674 03179 1
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Long ago, when I was stumbling through the Malayan jungle in search of ‘Communist terrorists’ (or ‘bandits’, as the British colonial authorities quaintly called them), I heard a story from some other marines. One day, a young marine had left his patrol to wash in a forest stream. He suddenly found himself facing a group of Chinese guerrillas led by a slim woman with a pistol. The woman looked at the naked boy for a moment, and then lowered her gun. She said: ‘My name is Lee Meng. Go and tell your comrades that we do not murder helpless men.’ Then she and her companions vanished back into the trees.

Lee Meng

Lee Meng

A year later, when I was in my first term at Cambridge, I heard that Lee Meng had been caught and condemned to hang. All appeals had failed. Dingle Foot was leading a campaign in Britain to save her, so I caught a train to London and told him this tale. Could I prove it? I could not. Did I know the marine’s name? I didn’t. Although my attempt to help was futile, the campaign went on. Then, quite unexpectedly, the Hungarian Communist regime intervened and offered to exchange Lee Meng for a British businessman arrested for spying – Edgar Sanders, cousin of the suave film star George Sanders. Instantly, the British press proclaimed that ‘the Communist monolith’ was in action, as the Kremlin flashed orders from Moscow to Beijing, Budapest and the underground Malayan Communist Party. Clearly Lee Meng was an important cog in the gigantic world conspiracy of evil. Winston Churchill told the Commons that ‘there can be no question of bartering a human life.’ But a week or so later, Lee Meng’s sentence was quietly commuted (she served 11 years and was deported to China).

This story, it seems to me, illustrates two strands which run through Marc Selverstone’s study of Western policy in the formative years of the Cold War. One is the notion of the ‘Communist monolith’, a giant command structure through which the Soviet Union controlled the thoughts and actions of every Communist in the world. But the other is the reluctance of so many policymakers, in Britain and the United States, to take seriously the image they had created.

Some statesmen, especially in America, genuinely believed it all of the time, or some of the time. Others thought of ‘monolithism’ as an indispensable propaganda weapon, but among themselves suspected that ‘World Communism’ was seamed with cracks into which ‘wedges’ could be driven. The Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis wrote 20 years ago that American statesmen in the postwar period never ‘believed in the existence of an international Communist monolith’. After reading Selverstone’s work, it would be hard to accept that judgment. But at almost all times between 1945 and 1950, opinions were divided in the US administration, the State Department, the CIA and the Foreign Office about the nature of the ‘Communist threat’ and the extent of Kremlin control.

It’s a pity this book didn’t come out a few years earlier. It would have made useful ammunition against the neocons in Washington and the Blairites in London. The parallels between ‘Communist monolith’ thinking and the ‘axis of evil’ delusion which infected the United States after 9/11 are all too clear. But the contrasts are also sharp – and painful especially for this country, although Selverstone is too polite to spell them out. In the late 1940s, the Labour government’s solidarity with the United States in ‘standing up to Communism’ was never uncritical, and could seldom be taken for granted. Ernest Bevin, as foreign secretary, could match the Americans in apocalyptic language, warning after the 1948 Communist takeover in Prague of ‘the collapse of organised society over great stretches of the globe’. But neither he nor Clement Attlee would have contemplated grovelling like Blair before a primitive, demonising view of the world that ran counter to all British experience and practice. Although Britain in 1948 was broke and dependent on American assistance, it showed more confidence and independence in managing the ‘relationship’ than the prosperous Britain of 2003. If George W. Bush had been seriously prepared to use nuclear weapons against Iraq or Iran, as Truman threatened to use them against North Korea, would Blair have followed Attlee’s example and flown to Washington to stop him – and would the president have listened, as he did in 1950?

This is not a general history of the early Cold War, but rather a study of how the policymaking elites of Great Britain and the United States tried to develop ground rules and useful concepts in order to manage a perceived threat. It is not surprising that the concepts took five years to emerge and be accepted. The problem was not just that these officials disagreed and changed their own minds about how to handle the threat. It was that they disagreed about what the threat was – and what to call it. Was it ‘international Communism’? Or was it ‘Soviet imperialism’? Was it a military adversary competing for territory, or an internal conspiracy working through espionage, treachery and subversion, or both at once?

The narrative falls into two parts. The first begins in about 1946 and ends in 1948 with the quarrel between Stalin and Tito, and the expulsion of Yugoslavia from the Cominform. The second carries on through the victory of Mao Zedong and the installation of the Communist regime in Beijing, and concludes with the North Korean invasion of South Korea in June 1950. Korea was interpreted as plain evidence that world Communism was indeed monolithic, and it was assumed that the invasion was launched with the approval of the Kremlin (which has turned out to be true). From then on, as Selverstone says, the monolith image dominated the West. But its triumph did not last long. Three years later (and beyond the span of this book), upheavals in Poland and Hungary, led by local Communists, showed that the bloc was riven by national fissures. The Sino-Soviet split broke open in 1960. A few years after that, Nicolae Ceausescu’s abominable regime in Romania distanced itself from Soviet foreign and defence policy, and was richly rewarded by the West with hard currency loans and technology.

The monolith image was as old as Bolshevism, which was almost immediately identified as a global conspiracy. But in the 1930s the rise of Stalin and the ‘socialism in one country’ line suggested to Western governments that the USSR might have abandoned the cause of world revolution. Stalin’s national-patriotic style during the Second World War was taken as confirmation. George Kennan was one of the few to see that the Soviet Union, even in a conservative and defensive mood, would seek to extend its zone of control after the war. Attlee, too, realised that the Soviet Union harboured ‘old imperial ambitions’ in Europe.

By 1946, the scene was rapidly changing. Stalin had occupied East-Central Europe (as Britain and America had agreed that he should), and obviously intended to stay in charge there. His February 1946 speech revived the idea of a struggle to the death between capitalism and socialism, and both American and British statements began to revert to monolith rhetoric. Kennan’s celebrated ‘Long Telegram’ from Moscow spoke of the ‘underground operating directorate of world Communism’ which intended to engulf the globe, while Churchill’s Fulton speech pictured, in Selverstone’s words, ‘comrades around the world … poised to strike’. At the same time – and this is a central theme for Selverstone – Washington and London turned up the amplifiers for a chorus of historicising slogans intended to equate Nazis with Communists, and the menace of Hitler’s Germany with that of Stalin’s Russia. The phrase ‘Red Fascism’ was accompanied by warnings of ‘new Munichs’ and ‘new appeasers’, of ‘fifth columns’ and ‘quislings’.

The 1947 speech in which Truman put forward his ‘doctrine’ (‘support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation’) invested heavily in these comparisons. Totalitarian regimes, Truman later remarked, ‘are all alike … I don’t care what you call them: Nazi, Communist or Fascist or Franco or anything else.’ Life magazine wrote that ‘to argue that Communism is not so bad as Nazism, as some “liberals” still like to do, is a complete waste of time.’ Look offered its readers a guide to identifying traitors: ‘How to Spot a Communist’. The British, under the Labour government, were more careful. Gladwyn Jebb, in the Foreign Office, minuted his dislike of Truman’s ‘flat-footed Red Bogey approach’, and the FO began to ask embassies whether their local Communist Party could be called ‘national’ or was controlled by Moscow. But the answers were not encouraging. The skies were darkening. In late 1947, Moscow had founded the Cominform, seen in the West as a resurrected Comintern. The confrontation over Germany and Berlin became a dangerous trial of strength in 1948. In Prague, a democratic government was overthrown by a Communist putsch.

Then, in June 1948, Yugoslavia was expelled from the Cominform, and the monolith was suddenly not a monolith any more. Perhaps other splits were impending, or could even be precipitated by inserting the right ‘wedge’. In America, Kennan and Charles Bohlen were among those who thought that this was the most important development in Communist affairs since 1945. Optimists, including Kennan, hoped that the Chinese Communists (still fighting the Nationalists) might go the Tito way. Others were cautious, correctly foreseeing that Yugoslavia’s defiance would lead to a fierce increase of repression in the remaining ‘satellites’.

In the State Department, optimism for a time prevailed. The new consensus – as Selverstone puts it – was that ‘Communism was a threat only if it became the handmaiden of Soviet foreign policy.’ Two diplomats, Ware Adams and John Paton Davies, produced a working paper in 1949 which criticised past policies and the monolith doctrine for deterring schisms rather than promoting them. The monolith, they said, did not yet exist, although the Soviet Union certainly hoped to create it. Communism as such must be clearly distinguished from Russian imperialism.

The trouble with all this liberal thinking was that the policymakers dared not share it with the American public, already hysterical with anti-Communist paranoia well before Joseph McCarthy’s hunt for spies and ‘traitors’ had been properly launched. In such a climate, the diplomats guessed that their ideas would be treated as ‘poison ivy’. So they kept them mainly private, and never tried to sell the ‘wedge’ strategy to American mass opinion.

Wedgism, in any case, achieved little. Tito’s Yugoslavia was saved from economic ruin by American aid, but schemes for luring other Communist states away from Moscow by dangling economic carrots came to nothing. The real test and target of the wedgists was China. But when Mao finally won full control in 1949, he became even more belligerent towards Western capitalism and expressed loud loyalty towards the Soviet Union on his first visit to Moscow. At this point, Anglo-American reactions began to diverge. The British, shrewdly, never lost their instinct that sooner or later Mao would reject Soviet leadership and seek to set China on a more independent track; they recognised the new Chinese regime and kept up diplomatic relations even after China had entered the Korean War. The Truman administration, egged on by the vengeful China lobby, which had never forgiven policymakers for ‘betraying’ Chiang Kai-shek, took an increasingly hard line towards China, which would bring the two nations to the brink of war over Taiwan and the islands in the Taiwan Strait.

Until the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, British and American wedgists still defended their position. Britain’s Information Research Department completed a weighty but platitudinous document on ‘Anti-Stalinist Communism’ which distinguished two species of the genus: ‘International Communism’ which had to be fought as a threat to peace, and ‘National Communism’ which should be fostered and exploited. (However, the paper wisely admitted that National Communism ‘might well present an even more serious threat to our interests in the Far East than would a Chinese regime openly subservient to Moscow’.) The Americans were by this time more sceptical about the importance of Tito’s breach with Stalin, although State Department officials continued to speculate – among themselves – about future opportunities for the wedge strategy. But the window was closing – if it had ever been open. Selverstone writes: ‘Both sets of statesmen were skating on thin methodological ice, positing the existence of a new form of international behaviour on the basis of a single example.’

By now, anti-Communist passion was reaching new depths in the United States. Senator McCarthy’s power was at its noxious zenith. The citizens of Mosinee, Wisconsin used May Day 1950 to stage an ‘Iron Curtain’ fantasia in which schoolchildren paraded with posters of Stalin and ‘secret police’ carried out mock arrests and purges. It was in this atmosphere that Arthur Schlesinger Jr published his influential book The Vital Center. He denounced extremism on both right and left and pushed his vision of a ‘liberal anti-Communism’ and a ‘non-Communist left’, but – as Selverstone points out – the book took a stiffly monolithic, even Manichean attitude. ‘It is we or they; the United States or the Soviet Union; capitalism or Communism.’ This ‘with us or against us’ line, denying the existence of a morally tenable middle ground, was to be the tactical doctrine of the CIA-sponsored Congress for Cultural Freedom, which held its inaugural meeting in West Berlin in the week the Korean War broke out. ‘Indifference or neutrality in the face of such a challenge,’ Congress delegates agreed, ‘amounts to a betrayal of mankind and to the abdication of the free mind.’ For the Truman administration, diplomatic neutrality, whether in Scandinavia or in Nehru’s India, also came close to such betrayal.

There followed a period of what Selverstone neatly calls ‘total diplomacy’. Secretary of State Dean Acheson announced that foreign and home policies had merged into a single cause: ‘All the problems of the United States are related to the problem of preserving its existence as the kind of country which we know and love.’ Truman told audiences that the American Way itself was in danger: ‘our houses, our nation, all that we believe in’. As Selverstone puts it, Truman ‘depicted the Cold War as an allegory for the national saga’, a supreme challenge to the providential American mission to spread ‘the idea of human freedom and political equality’. Speeches, newspaper articles and broadcasting were littered with allusions to ‘Red Fascism’, Munich and fifth columns. A Congressman called ‘Communist imperialism’ an ‘organism of evil’ which was ‘attacking the international body at many vital points’. A new ‘Masque of the Red Death’?

Selverstone almost understates things when he writes that the merging of Communism and Soviet imperialism as identical evils meant that ‘interest in disentangling those two forces, which had begun to ebb prior to the Korean War, had all but disappeared after June 1950.’ And yet traces of wedgist thinking about China apparently lingered on. Selverstone describes a weird theory that he calls ‘the Hard Wedge policy’. This was the notion that if America took a relentlessly hostile line towards China, Mao would be squeezed even more tightly in Stalin’s grasp, creating a sort of critical mass, leading to an explosion and a Sino-Soviet split. But could such a contorted wheeze ever have gained credence in Washington? Selverstone shows no documentary evidence for it.

Hereabouts, in the aftermath of Korea, his book ends. ‘Total diplomacy’ did not last long. In 1956, the Hungarian uprising and Poland’s defiance of the Soviet Union began to discredit monolith theory, while revealing even more plainly the brutality of Soviet foreign policy. By 1960, when the Soviet-Chinese quarrel had become public, the supple Schlesinger was writing that Communism was ‘not a monolith’ but a ‘spectrum’ and even suggesting that a ‘liberal Communism’ was possible. Strategic thinking and interpretation of the Cold War and Soviet intentions had changed; the language of the late 1940s was left to historians.

So how had the monolith image been able to gain such a grip? Selverstone’s favoured explanation is unexpected: Whiggism. His argument is that both Britain and the United States shared a ‘providential’ vision of their national destinies, an ‘Anglo-American historical consciousness’ of mission.

While the American expression of that spirit carried more evangelical overtones, the Whig tradition exerted an equally powerful hold on Britons. With its vision of unending progress and its faith in the redemptive power of the state, Whiggism encouraged both populations to regard their destinies as biblically ordained … Yet that projection of national purpose assumed the existence of an opposite force that blocked the path toward global enlightenment. The Whig tradition thereby reinforced the habit – one that is perhaps hard-wired into the human condition – of dividing reality into two distinct spheres. In its most exaggerated formulation, that dualistic vision is predicated on the coming of an apocalyptic struggle against devious and treacherous foes … actively working to subdue the ‘elect’, conspiring to weaken the forces of redemption.

While Selverstone does not claim that ‘dualistic vision’ directly caused Americans and Britons to treat Communism as a monolithic, even satanic movement, he insists it provided the ‘backdrop against which Britons and Americans interpreted the Communist threat’.

Here, Selverstone is lurching off the rails. Whether the Whig interpretation of history leads naturally to the construction of a nightmare adversary is one question. Another is whether American attitudes can be projected onto Britain so easily. This isn’t a picture of British opinion in the mid-20th century that I recognise. The messianic vision of British destiny sold by imperialists like J.R. Seeley in the 1880s was long dead, leaving only tattered gold-braid fragments (for instance, the pretence that Britain after 1945 was still a ‘world power’, one of the ‘Big Four’). The Foreign Office already understood that its duty had become a rearguard action: to cover Britain’s long retreat from greatness, and to prevent that retreat from turning into a rout.

Did we believe in the monolith? In the aftermath of the war, my elders would assume a resigned expression when they observed: ‘I suppose we will all come to live under one sort of Communism or another.’ Later, especially after the Berlin blockade in 1948, it was accepted that ‘the Russians’ were on the march, probably heading for the Atlantic, and that only military force could deter them. Then came Korea. That seemed to prove, after all, that world Communism really was a monolithic force directed from the Kremlin. Blundering about the Malayan jungle, I knew that I was luckier than my National Service friends who had been sent to Korea, many of whom did not return. But almost all of us, as I remember, accepted that if we did not stop ‘them’ in Korea, Germany or even France would be next. At that moment, calls to remember Munich and appeasement were convincing.

But that was the high-water mark of monolithism. For myself, I soon found that the Malayan Communists, for all their hammers and sickles, had their own agenda: independence from colonialism; justice for the Chinese population of Malaya who were denied civic rights; public ownership of the country’s enormous resources of rubber and tin. For inspiration, they looked to China, not the Soviet Union. A surge of patriotic exultation had swept through the Malayan Chinese community, even the middle class, when the People’s Liberation Army stormed across the Yalu River and drove the defeated American and British armies before them. The faith of my enemies in the jungle wasn’t the ‘world Communist conspiracy’, but nationalism under the Red Star.

Neither do I recognise Selverstone’s account of how the British as well as the American public swallowed the propaganda packets offered to them. ‘Red Fascism’, which Selverstone suggests was universally convincing, was a slogan I came across only in a few Tory newspapers. The equation of Nazism with Communism was generally regarded as daft and tasteless. While both systems were considered brutal and totalitarian and worth resisting, there remained an underlying belief that Nazi Germany had been absolutely evil, whereas Soviet Communism was a hopeful experiment which had gone badly wrong, but might one day find its way back to its old ideals. Some of the truth about Stalinist terror and the gulag was available, but it was not a truth many people then wanted to know. As for fifth columns, the persecution and blacklisting of known Communists in Britain was sporadic and never popular.

But if Selverstone is weak on British attitudes, he is interesting about the American and British policymaking elites who are his real subject. The State Department thinkers were constrained by fear of public opinion, in this period more panicky than they were. British diplomats faced the opposite problem: the need to galvanise the public into a state of alarm that would make a hard anti-Communist line more palatable. Two groups played significant roles in London. One was the Russia Committee in the Foreign Office, whose propaganda advice was often cautious. Direct attacks on Communism should be avoided, according to the committee, because the term had a ‘vague attraction for many waverers’. Personal abuse of Stalin was unwise, because of the benevolent image he had acquired in wartime. But the Russia Committee was baffled by the Soviet-Yugoslav breach, and could only mumble that Britain should ‘publicise the existence of nationalist splinter parties’ while condemning all Communists as ‘tools of Moscow’. Much more belligerent was the Information Research Department which – although Selverstone fails to say so – was not really a Foreign Office body at all but a disguised creation of the intelligence services. The IRD tried to peddle hopeless slogans like ‘Communo-Fascism’ or ‘Kremlin Columns’. Its notorious unattributable bulletins for the media, which I remember well, wasted the time of journalists with heavily slanted rewrites of old stories.

Was there ever a monolith? Monolithic unity was always a Soviet aim, from the days of the prewar Comintern. The Kremlin’s efforts to enforce it on the global Communist movement included individual assassination, the murder of entire Communist leaderships and eventually the invasion of other Warsaw Pact states with tanks. There were times when the penetration of ‘fraternal parties’ by Moscow loyalists and agents seemed to have imposed uniformity and discipline. Yet the centrifugal forces, of nationalism above all, were always present, and monolithic appearances were often a matter of opportunism. Thus the Cubans aped monolithic agreement because they needed Soviet protection against the United States, while the Polish Communists (mutinous as they often were) affected loyalty to Moscow because they needed the Soviet alliance to protect them against West German revanchist claims to Polish territory.

The monolith, in the end, mattered more as an imagined Other than as an actual description of World Communism. The first great revisionist historian of the Cold War, Louis J. Halle, wrote as early as 1967 that the whole confrontation was based on mutual misperception. The West was wrongly convinced that the Soviet Union intended world conquest by aggression and subversion. The Soviet leaders were wrongly certain that America was plotting atomic war to destroy the heritage of the Great Bolshevik Revolution.

The Cold War epoch, seen in the rear-view mirror, can now look to Westerners like a lost Eden of stability, peace and almost unbroken prosperity. Correspondingly, we prefer to forget the real danger then: that some idiot would press the red button and incinerate half the world. But time is dispelling some myths as well as creating them. Twenty years after the democratic upheavals of 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the idea that Communism was ever a serious threat to the American way now seems ridiculous – as ridiculous as the idea that al-Qaida could destroy liberal democracy. And to the outcome of this Cold War or ‘Long Peace’, theological arguments in Washington and London about monoliths and wedges made no difference at all.

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Vol. 31 No. 15 · 6 August 2009

Neal Ascherson is unduly modest about his own service, both in the Malayan Emergency – a term which he oddly declines to use – and in attempting to save the life of the convicted terrorist Lee Meng (LRB, 23 July). Ascherson served in a crack unit and commanded a successful ambush. His intervention on Lee’s behalf was extraordinarily courageous, given his conditioning and youth. He implies that he accepted the need to contain Communism uncritically at the time, as ‘almost all of us’ did (myself included). But in fact, after his National Service, and while still a Cambridge undergraduate, he published a semi-autobiographical story in Granta which questioned the right of the state to send out young men to kill. Here again, considering the period, his age and his class, he showed exceptional insight and moral courage.

Ascherson’s analysis of the Malayan Communists is too black and white. In ideological terms, their inspiration was the October Revolution: Marx, Lenin and Stalin were their icons, not the Chinese leadership. The enormous pride in China as a nation was real but by no means universal. Not only was the Chinese community itself deeply divided; long experience of Communist tactics in the labour movement had raised many doubts in Chinese minds. Ascherson makes no mention of the greatest blow suffered by the insurgents: the prompt recognition of the new independent Malaya by mainland China. This happened when I was ‘blundering about in the Malayan jungle’ myself. Massive defection followed, including, within two years, the whole of Johore.

Ascherson’s analysis of Communism more generally is also too didactic. When I joined the Foreign Office in 1960 I inherited an intellectual tradition which had no difficulty in distinguishing between the Soviet Union’s pursuit of its national interests and its broader, ideological ambitions. The issue was whether the former was basically defensive or expansionist; and it seemed reasonably clear that cautious consolidation was almost always the priority. Ideological expansionism was more reckless, carried out without thought for the good of the countries concerned and using whatever stooges the Russians could find. And it had the further, often devastating, effect of provoking counter-measures under the Truman Doctrine. Despite the harm this caused, I have always felt a certain respect for Harry Truman. His determination to defend the ‘American Way of Life’ was no platitude. He saw the defence of the American constitution as his prime duty. In this respect he remains an example to the degenerate populists of today.

David Campbell

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