Neal Ascherson

  • Constructing the Monolith: The United States, Great Britain and International Communism 1945-50 by Marc Selverstone
    Harvard, 304 pp, £36.95, February 2009, ISBN 978 0 674 03179 1

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?

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