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Essay: Could the Cold War have been avoided given what we know now?

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  • Published: 21 September 2019*
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  • Tags: Cold War essays

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Let’s parse this and break down some of the reasons that the Cold War “broke out.” First of all, at the end of the Second World War the Soviets were the dominant land force in Europe. But, this force had some severe limitations. First of all their logistical machinery was largely supplied by the Americans: they couldn’t have been nearly as successful without those Studebakers and the thousands of miles of phone lines, etc., that came in from the US. Furthermore, this army had run out of replacements in January 1945, so its combat strength could only go down. Next, there wasn’t an easy way to feed these troops, because the Soviet Union was so decimated. Also, while the Soviet Air Force was good, it wasn’t on the level of the US and British Air Forces. And, of course, the Soviet Union did not have the atom bomb. This means that while the Soviets were imposing and very scary to the West they had weaknesses of which Stalin was largely aware. The Westerners (like Kennan) understood that the Soviet military was flawed, but they also knew that the cost of fighting the Soviet Union would have been enormous. Could the Soviet Union have won a war with a determined West in 1945? Absolutely not, but victory would have taken years and several more atom bombs.
Now, the Soviet Union’s leadership were concerned about the Western threat. In fact, they had been paranoid about this threat for decades. And let’s be clear, there were many times that the threat had manifested itself in violence. Stalin and his cronies made some incorrect assumptions about the Western threat, though. First of all, they lumped the Nazis in with the British and the Americans: Stalin always feared they would come to an accommodation. Secondly, the Soviet Union’s leading economic theorists believed that the prime economic engine of the West was the United States. The United States produced an enormous amount of stuff, but it did so with deficit spending and its spending was devoted to war materials. With the war coming to an end the US home front was going to be flooded with returning veterans for whom there were no jobs. Furthermore, there was practically no consumption at home to sustain spending, so American (and by extension, Western) industries would collapse again from lack of demand. This would open the door for communist success in the West and Stalin wanted to be ready for that.
Let’s add something into all of the above: the Soviet Union had a huge army that it could not feed. It couldn’t afford to release its veterans back home because there was no place for them to go. The solution was to keep them in uniform occupying Eastern Europe. They looted the land under the guise of reparations and also provided a useful buffer for the Soviet Union (a goal of Stalin’s foreign policy for quite a while).
Now, Stalin’s economic assumptions were actually more or less correct. In the immediate aftermath of the War the West did suffer some bad recessions. There wasn’t enough food. There certainly weren’t enough jobs for returning US servicemen. Communist parties in Europe made lots of headway. What Stalin did not anticipate was the way in which America responded.
First of all, the US was more prepared for returning servicemen than even they realized. The GI Bill was a stroke of genius. For one thing, it gave many servicemen the opportunity to go to college. That meant that many servicemen ended up going to school instead of returning to the work force. This alone forced an expansion of the education sector which in turn drove domestic consumption. The educated folks who graduated years later provided the basis for the educated workforce the US needed. The GI Bill also allows for servicemen to get decent mortgage rates, etc. This made it easier for employed servicemen to buy a house. Now, the construction industry had been moribund for much of the Depression and only returned to life during the War. Well, the construction during the War was not for civilian use, so there was a huge pent up demand for housing. BAM! The construction industry actually expands. So, in the US there was a minor-ish recession, but it was ameliorated in the long term by the GI Bill.
The GI Bill was not intended to save the US from economic ruin: it was just a bonus. But the Marshall Plan was intended to save the West from economic ruin. It was a creative solution. People forget how much money and aid the US was already sending overseas and they focus on the Marshall Plan. This is for a very good reasons: the Marshall Plan was designed to “jump start” industry. It was all loan money, sure, but the US had rules on how it was to be spent. The first 40% could be spent on foreign (US) goods. This, of course, drove the US economy even further. The next 60%, though, had to be spent on local industry. This was brilliant. The US was essentially writing a check to allow Western countries to deficit spend to rebuild their industrial sectors (France and other European countries had horrible credit so they couldn’t possibly get these loans through selling bonds).
Now, if you’re Stalin, you see postwar Europe going the way you want it to, then you begin to perceive a sudden turning of the tide against you. To Stalin this looks like a direct threat to him and the Soviet Union. What to do? Well, Stalin knew that the Soviet Union and its satellite states were woefully behind in reconstruction (something the communist Polish and Czech leaders knew all too well—they begged Stalin to be allowed to take American aid). In Stalin’s opinion he had to pressure the West (especially the US) into making humiliating concessions to the Soviet Union. The idea here was to demonstrate to Europe that the Soviets were the only true power on the continent. If the US backed down from a war then the Western countries would realize the US won’t help them resist the Soviets. Thus we get recurring Berlin Crises, etc. Of course, the US did stand up to the Soviet Union which resulted in a hardening of the Western alliance. Stalin’s miscalculation in this respect led to the consolidation of anti-communist sentiment.
The question here is simple: why had Stalin miscalculated? Stalin was brutal and evil, but he was not an idiot. His calculations are rational, but his conclusions were all wrong. What happened?
A few things happened. One of them is George Kennan. George Kennan articulated the theory of containment. Basically, he argued that the communist states could not possibly succeed unless they had access to all of the world’s resources, otherwise they would always be forced into the market for the things they needed and that was to their disadvantage. To this end, Kennan posited, the Soviet Union needed to push worldwide revolution: communism could only be successful when it achieved world domination.
Now Kennan’s theory is widely reviled and he himself complained how much it was misinterpreted. He was right that economically a true communist state could only succeed if it had all means of production under its control. He was wrong in assuming that that was necessarily Stalin’s goal. Stalin more likely wanted to neuter the major powers around him and to dominate Eurasia (the result, of course, would have been world domination). In other words, Stalin’s motivation was defensive driven by his paranoia.
In any case, Kennan argued that stopping the communist tide rested on a combination of approaches, diplomatic, cultural, economic, and military (often referred to as DIME). To his consternation, most US governments interpreted Kennan’s plan as necessitating military involvement and commitment and ignoring the other factors he laid out. This was a dumb choice, because it meant ignoring the US’s other strengths to compete with the Soviet Union’s one strength.
Okay, so Kennan lays out a policy, but it catches fire for many reasons. One is that many politicians in the US are already inclined to be anti-communist. Even if they’re somewhat socialistic in their outlook they are often anti-Soviet (Stalin earned that one). Plus, the sense is that giving the communists an inch anywhere would be appeasement, and that led to disaster with Hitler.
Let’s make it even more layered. During the Depression Roosevelt had a coalition that included many socialist/communist sympathizers (Roosevelt himself was not sympathetic, but communists tend to be sympathetic to social programs). There was certainly an uptick in Communist Party membership. That’s not a problem, except the Comintern tried to keep fairly tight control of communist parties outside of the Soviet Union. The perception was that the Soviets controlled the foreign communist parties (this was largely correct). At the very least the Soviet Union used the communists and their fellow travelers as a recruiting base for spies. And let’s be clear here: there were a lot of spies.
As spies were uncovered paranoia in the United States mounted. Toss in the fact that politicians (in particular the long-out-of-power Republicans) were using the spy issue to undermine their political and cultural opponents and no one wants to be seen as “soft” on communism.
So what we have here is a ratcheting process: the Soviet Union was trying to achieve its goals by frustrating the United States. The United States felt that the Soviet Union was trying to expand its power by any means necessary. So they ended up both raising the stakes, because neither one wanted to be humiliated.
So let’s tackle question number two first: Could the Cold War have been avoided given what folks knew at the time? I think that the answer is no. Both sides were rational, but had totally different domestic pressures and ways of looking at the world. Neither could see a way out of confrontation without backing down.
Now for question number one: Could the Cold War have been avoided given what we know now? Only if the Soviets and the Americans gave up their lifelong preconceptions about the other. I think that’s incredibly unrealistic.

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