The Forty Years’ Peace

Keith Kyle

  • The United States and the End of the Cold War: Implications, Reconsiderations and Provocations by John Lewis Gaddis
    Oxford, 301 pp, £19.50, July 1992, ISBN 0 19 505201 3
  • Dean Acheson: The Cold War Years, 1953-71 by Douglas Brinkley
    Yale, 429 pp, £22.00, February 1993, ISBN 0 300 04773 8
  • The Quest for Stability: Problems of West European Security 1918-1957 edited by Rolf Ahmann, A.M. Birke and Michael Howard
    Oxford, 546 pp, £50.00, June 1993, ISBN 0 19 920503 5

Early in 1983, when the newly founded Social Democratic Party was acquiring policies by holding study groups, one of these was devoted to East-West relations. At its first session a musty-looking gentleman called Sir John Lawrence proposed that we begin from the assumption that the decline of the Soviet economic system had passed the point of no-return. Any policy recommendations must therefore reckon with the consequences of its collapse within the next few years and the implications of its replacement. Either from genuine scepticism or out of a primitive dread of hubris and what follows from it, the panel did not swallow Lawrence neat. We thus lost the full benefit of almost the only accurate prediction then to be heard concerning the future of the Eastern bloc.

The great mass of politicians, professional policy-makers, specialist commentators and academic observers were stunned by the speed and completeness of the Soviet meltdown. It was, for example, disconcerting to find that one’s own arguments about the future of Germany proved in retrospect to have been sincere and honest when one had for so long assumed them to be hypocritical. To hold that West Germany could both remain a full member of Nato and the European Community and expect to be reunited with East Germany had been felt to be wishing for the impossible. Konrad Adenauer, under whose auspices this combination of policies was adopted, was often supposed to be the more reconciled to its impossibility by his distaste for the culture and politics of Germany east of the Rhineland. But the sudden speed-up of history in 1989-91 has made this strategy seem, on the one hand, more farsighted and, on the other, less Machiavellian than hitherto, while the thought was bound to occur to academics that now was the ideal opportunity to look afresh at the Cold War as a finite historical era.

Some things can now be stated with assurance, such as that the ‘balance of terror’ between the United States and the Soviet Union did not result in nuclear war or, in Europe, in conventional war either. This point deserves to be made so that we can give credit to the leaders who, often in the face of intense criticism, adhered to policies that brought us safely through. Yet John Lewis Gaddis’s book prompts the thought that perhaps the time of the historian is not yet. To be fair, Gaddis makes much of the risks of writing contemporary history, but adds that if historians are not willing to run them ‘political scientists and journalists surely will’. On the evidence of The United States and the End of the Cold War perhaps they should be allowed to do so. With the exception of some sections of it – an admirable chapter on Dulles is the outstanding example – a journalist (though not perhaps a political scientist) would surely have done as well.

Very occasionally we benefit from the special insight of the historian, as when Gaddis writes that Reagan’s chaotic encounter with Gorbachev at Reykjavik ‘resembled as nothing else the 1905 meeting between Tsar Nicholas II and Kaiser William II’. But the real difficulty is that to get at the kind of answers a historian of the Cold War now requires calls for access to the Russian archives. Before the war ended it was reasonable to act as if that day would never come. Now, to everyone’s enormous surprise, the possibility of unparalleled access to those archives exists, though more in principle than in practice, and in any case an immense task of sorting, translating, and analysing lies ahead. Michael Howard, for instance, in a characteristically crisp introduction to The Quest for Stability, asks the basic question whether at the end of the Second World War Stalin actually aspired to global hegemony. This, he says, ‘we shall be able to tell only when the Soviet archives have been explored, if indeed then.’

In the same volume Vojtech Mastny, a Russian now teaching in Bologna, argues that ‘initially the Pax Sovietica did not necessarily mean the replication of the Soviet system. It meant something more benign – the establishment of coalition or quasi-coalition regimes beholden to Moscow.’ If that was indeed the intention – and it may well have been – there would have been little objection to it on the part of Russia’s wartime allies, who in 1945 were in no mood to peer too closely behind a semi-respectable democratic façade. A policy of ‘Finlandisation’ in East and Central Europe would not have gone against Western expectations and would have made intelligent use of the Soviet Union’s prestige. Stalin either tried it, but was much too crude and impatient, or he did not genuinely try it at all. If he tried it, he must have changed his mind by 1948 at the latest; but even if he didn’t, that would not in itself mean that he (or his successors) ever thought of setting off on an unlimited advance through Europe. Conceding that Stalin’s policy was by no means peaceful, accommodating and respectful of the security interests of others, Mastny argues that ‘neither had it been as unequivocally bent on unlimited expansion as the West was inclined to believe.’

In one sense it no longer much matters: deterrence deterred and deterred both ways. It worked, for example, against plans by Frank Wisner of the CIA to commit paramilitary groups trained in West Germany to aid the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and it made the Russians generally cautious outside their own sphere. President Glafkos Cleridis of Cyprus has revealed that after the first Turkish intervention in 1974, and between the two Geneva Conferences, he sent for the Soviet Ambassador and offered the Russians a base on Cyprus in return for their support against Turkey. The response was that they would only intervene jointly with the United States. What we need to know from the historian – once he has had a chance of getting his newly available sources organised – is whether and when there was a real danger of deterrence breaking down and which type of deterrence worked in what circumstances. The fact that the commissar never called, and that there have been no nuclear bumps in the night, does not mean that no conceivable combination of Western errors, such as failing to found Nato or to make any credible response to the Soviet threat, could have produced a Communist domination of the continent. Now that we know the end result, the initial presumption has to be that the West played it right.

Not that this will inhibit historical argument. The documents may, for instance, make it possible to know whether there was any degree of Soviet sincerity behind the mission of Suslov and Mikoyan to Budapest at the end of October 1956, when a public statement was issued offering any satellite, including Hungary, the chance of having Russian forces removed from its territory. In response the Hungarians proclaimed their neutrality. Was it solely, as Khrushchev says in his memoirs, because he had had a bad night’s sleep, worrying about the fate of Hungarian Communists, that the next day he went to the Politburo and had the policy reversed and the rising crushed? Or had there been no doubt from the very outset that it must be crushed, so that Suslov and Mikoyan were only willing or unwilling stooges? To what extent did the West’s disarray over Suez (and the American Presidential election) affect these calculations? Then again, suppose the West had accepted and successfully negotiated the idea of a neutralised but reunited Germany put forward in George Kennan’s Reith Lectures. Might that have caused the Soviet system to unravel sooner?

Gaddis himself identifies some questions of this kind. He discusses the possibility that it was America’s coarser moves against ‘the evil empire’ which turned out to have been the most effective. He thinks that Ronald Reagan’s enchantment with star wars – offering the Russians the prospect of yet another round of costly research and development – may have been the decisive factor in precipitating the Soviet decay. ‘There are moments in history,’ he says, ‘when a single dramatic development can galvanise a country into taking action.’ But he also says that ‘it will be a long time – and it will require much greater access to Soviet sources than we have now – before we can sort out just how much weight to give to each of the many circumstances that led to this development.’ In other words we are still in journalists’ rather than historians’ time.

In an admirable chapter in The Quest for Stability, Ernest May describes how the Nato allies, in Lisbon in 1952, arguing from the premise that the Soviet Union aspired to conquer or at least control Western Europe, decided that 110 divisions, 77 of them in reserve, would be needed to defeat an advancing Red Army. The problem was to work out how they were going to progress to that figure from their present ten divisions and a virtual absence of reserves. The answer was that, as when crossing the Pont d’Avignon, it was possible to progress but not to arrive. The story of Nato is the story of the various justifications that were found for the maintenance of expensive armed forces that still fell well short of the proclaimed target. Michael Howard gets it exactly right when he writes that ‘for the next forty years the states of Europe were to purchase military security by spending enough on their own armed forces to make themselves sufficiently bändnisfähig [fit to enter into an alliance] to obtain access to American military strength and to make nuclear deterrence credible.’

At first there were scenarios which envisaged nuclear exchanges that would reduce the weight of the Red Army’s attack to the point where Nato’s defences would become adequate. There would then be a ‘broken-backed war’. This theory was to apply not only to Europe but also to the Middle East, where British generals tried to persuade the Shah of Iran, the Iraqis and others that they would not need many extra divisions once a few nuclear weapons had blocked the mountain passes. But even in Europe, and even in 1960, May says that the numbers and types of weapon delivered to American forces in Europe lagged well behind what was supposed in Western European capitals and in Washington. When General Templer, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, went to the inaugural meeting of the Baghdad Pact Council of Ministers in November 1955, he was advised to ‘adopt the line that we would prefer at this stage not to reveal our detailed stock of nuclear weapons in this theatre, any more than we have done elsewhere.’ The idea was that Britain’s Baghdad Pact partners should know that ‘a nuclear potential’ was ‘essential’ to make the defence of the Middle East credible while British planners admitted to themselves that ‘we have no such potential.’

After the notion of nuclear weapons being used to ‘create a level playing-field’ came the opposite idea, of conventional forces being used as a means of postponing the resort to nuclear ones. This was not entirely credible either. When General Sir John Hackett was the commander of Nato’s Northern Army Group in 1967, I asked him on television how long he could hold out with conventional means against a full-scale conventional attack. His reply was ‘48 hours.’ Was he confident that before the end of that time he would have the political authority to use nuclear weapons? He declared on the record that he was not. All this depended on calculations of the Soviet capacity for attack – Gaddis points out that only in 1961 was it acknowledged that intelligence estimates had been counting as divisions units one third the size of their Nato counterparts. In the light of what we know about the present state of the Russian Army it is easy to doubt whether the threat was ever as great as was imagined. Nevertheless, if the West had obviously underestimated it, Stalin or his heirs might have been tempted to act.

Assumptions as to the potential enemy’s economic strength were based on the sort of calculation that writers like Robert Conquest have long criticised. According to a memorandum submitted by the Economic Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office in April 1946, for instance, Soviet industrial output would exceed that of the rest of Europe by 1960 and overtake that of the United States by about 1975. The Foreign Office economists listed as one of the main advantages that the Soviets had over the Americans ‘the close degree of central control to which industry and the individual citizen are subjected in the USSR’. By the middle of 1956, however, after the CIA had distributed copies of Khrushchev’s secret speech, Dulles was seeking to persuade a sceptical Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the Soviet economic system had reached the end of the road, that the Russians would have, as he put it, to tear it up and start again. This was to anticipate history by a quarter of a century. But it was typical of the more imaginative and reflective side of Dulles, as revealed by Gaddis’s careful analysis of his papers.

Lord Sherfield, who as Sir Roger Makins was British Ambassador in Washington in the Fifties, once remarked that Dulles was a man who developed his thinking aloud from one meeting to the next. If, like the British Ambassador, you saw him frequently, the trend of his thought would be intelligible, but for someone who saw him only once every six months the apparent discontinuities could be confusing. Gaddis finds Dulles worrying that America’s strategy ‘too much invokes massive nuclear attack in the event of any clash anywhere of United States with Soviet forces’, and records his suggestion to Eisenhower as early as 1953 that there should be a reciprocal withdrawal of Soviet troops from the satellites and of US troops from Western Europe. Gaddis could have mentioned in addition Dulles’s suggestion in October 1956 that an increase in anti-Americanism could be helpful in speeding up the move to European unity.

If Dulles turns out to have been more subtle than many might have suspected, his predecessor Dean Acheson appears less so, at least during the period from 1953 to 1971 when he was out of office. Douglas Brinkley, the able young historian who has chronicled Acheson’s final years, can be quite sharp towards him, despite his genuine admiration for the man who more than most was responsible for that combination of policies which led the Western world to safety in the early years of the Cold War. He accuses Acheson of wanting to put the West on a permanent war footing, of distorting and misreading the phrase ‘massive retaliation’ as promising nuclear war in response to any Soviet or Chinese violation of the status quo, and of lending support to white regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa ‘through a cluster of prejudices and attitudes that were beyond the reach of rational opposition’.

Dean Acheson was a very considerable personality, a powerful rapporteur on committees, a wit and coiner of epigrams and an outstanding Secretary of State, about whom there hangs a substantial air of paradox. Vilified by Republicans as being so soft on Communism as almost to countenance treason, he not only set in place the mechanism that brought Communism down but, once out of office, became the advocate of every hawkish response. Often characterised as a quintessential Anglophile, with the qualities, appearance and drawbacks of an English gentleman, he was sharply critical of many British attitudes and policies (though not over Suez) and in December 1962 at West Point spoke the stinging phrase which has not ceased to hurt, that ‘Great Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role.’ He had no time for the UN – ‘we are always stupid in the UN,’ he said. ‘We have a Department of Emotion which deals with the UN.’ Brinkley believes that ‘the attack of the primitives’ – of Republican personalities like Senator Joseph McCarthy – on Acheson’s period in office permanently scarred him, coarsening his process of analysis and turning him into ‘a caustic and at times vengeful man’. He certainly never let up on Dulles: when he died, Acheson’s reaction was ‘Thank God Foster is underground.’

The Quest for Stability bases itself on the proposition that a new ‘thirty years’ war’ (1914-45) has been followed by a ‘forty years’ peace’, and sets out to identify the security problems peculiar to Western Europe over this whole period. It is only partially successful. For one thing ‘Western Europe’ was not really a distinct entity throughout this time, and, for another, the end dates seem rather peculiar, with Klaus Hildebrand’s opening essay starting in 1878 and the book as a whole ending rather awkwardly in 1957. The early essays do not for the most part seem very closely related to the overall theme, but the volume contains a number of outstanding chapters: Wilfried Loth on the critical importance of the Korean War in winning support for the hitherto unpopular idea of a German military presence in Nato; John Young’s reassessment of British attitudes to European union; David Reynolds on the sharply different views of the post-1945 strategic pattern held by Attlee and Bevin, and the clash of the British chiefs of staff (already looking on Russia as the new enemy) first with the Foreign Office (which initially wanted to appease Moscow) and then, in alliance with Bevin against Attlee, who was faced with the chiefs’ threatened resignation at the beginning of 1947; and Charles Maier on the dominant role of the United States and the dollar in organising the coalition.