08.05.2006
Fulton Revisited
№2 2006 April/June

It is rather difficult to pinpoint an exact event that triggered
the Cold War – a protracted and multidimensional event that evolved
in gradual stages. Historians remain divided on whether the signal
event was October 1917, World War II, the Truman Doctrine or the
Marshal Plan. Exactly 60 years ago, in the spring of 1946,
Washington’s and London’s strategic paradigm shifted drastically
away from cooperation with the Soviet Union to tough confrontation
with it.

Winston Churchill’s Fulton Speech may serve as the best starting
point for that showdown. In his famous speech, Churchill provided
the basic signposts of an emerging new era that served as a
guideline for the architects of the Cold War in the United States
and the U.K.: a bipolar division of the world, the central role of
the Anglo-American axis in the Western system, ideological
confrontation with the Soviet Union, and the pursuit of military
supremacy based on nuclear power. This new strategy appeared in
sharp contrast with the guidelines that had prevailed in Washington
just a year before.

“REFORM” STRATEGY REVISED

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Soviet strategy was based on a
perception of the Soviet Union as a problem country, not
intrinsically hostile to the United States, but whose anti-Western
complexes were rooted in its hard historical legacy (and up to a
point, the behavior of the West itself was a source of blame).
Roosevelt believed that those complexes could eventually be
overcome with a correct approach. There seemed to be signs that
Stalin’s regime was experiencing some degree of normalization,
which was perhaps more readily believable considering the Soviet
Union’s motives and behavior during the war, the positive
experience of military cooperation, and the optimism of the U.S.
president. He firmly believed that he would be able to “tame”
Stalin.
Roosevelt’s strategy of “reforming” the Soviet Union through its
gradual integration into the Western community, however, was
incompatible with Moscow’s isolation. On the contrary, it was built
on the premise that the West would recognize the legitimate
security interests of the Soviet Union as a great power and
co-founder of a new world order. Roosevelt and his co-planners
hoped the newly acquired habits of cooperation with the West would
become permanent and the baby would learn to walk, while friendship
through coercion would grow into a permanent friendship.

Of course, Roosevelt’s policy included an element of selfishness
and self-protection (delaying the opening of the Second Front, for
example, or keeping the Manhattan Project a secret from its ally,
etc.), but it was centered on wartime aid to the Soviet Union and
the hope that cooperation would continue in the postwar
reality.

Less than a year after Roosevelt died, however, a very different
view of the Soviet Union and prospects for cooperation with it
prevailed in Washington, to say nothing about London. The rationale
for the turnaround came in the famous Long Telegram by George
Kennan, U.S. charge d’affaires in Moscow (February 22, 1946), and
memos by his British counterpart, Frank Roberts (March 14 and 17,
1946).

According to Kennan and Roberts, the scale of the “Soviet
threat” hinged on Stalin’s system and the messianic aspirations of
its leaders, which enjoyed great military power, colossal
resources, and opportunities for expanding the Kremlin’s sphere of
influence after World War II. At the same time, the Soviet Union’s
legitimate security interests were completely ignored. It was not
those interests that were seen as the core motives behind “Soviet
behavior” but the insatiable and boundless striving for expansion.
Furthermore, what legitimate security interests could a
totalitarian state – as the West perceived the Soviet Union at that
time – possibly have?

Also, the belief in the inherent weakness of Stalin’s system as
based on fallacious principles, dooming it to economic
ineffectiveness and political fickleness, was unmistakable. “The
ruling group in the Kremlin is alienated from its own people,”
Kennan wrote, adding that “if fortune were really to turn against
them – if the belief in the firmness and certainty of their power
were to be widely shaken in the minds of their subjects and their
enemies – then there would be no extensive reserve of loyalties and
interests to which they could make their final appeal.” In other
words, at a critical moment the people would have no one to rely
on, which was amply borne out at the turn of the 1990s.

In the realm of foreign policy, the weakness of the Soviet
system arose primarily from its inability to ensure the long-term
loyalty of its new allies, both in Europe and in East Asia, through
sheer coercion and brute force. It was obvious that Moscow’s tough
control measures would inevitably come into conflict with local
nationalist aspirations, breeding resistance that would sooner or
later undermine its foundations and reverse Soviet expansion.

From that perspective, the Soviet challenge had some comparable
elements with the Nazi threat, yet there were some essential
differences as well. “Soviet power, unlike that of Hitlerite
Germany, is neither schematic nor adventuristic,” Kennan wrote in
the Long Telegram. “It does not work by fixed plans. It does not
take unnecessary risks. Impervious to logic of reason, and it is
highly sensitive to logic of force. For this reason it can easily
withdraw – and usually does when strong resistance is encountered
at any point.” Roberts added to this cautiousness of the Russian
rulers the qualities that characterized common Russian people:
benevolent interest in the surrounding world, openness to external
influences, and a “fundamental streak of laziness, indiscipline and
inefficiency running through the Russian people, who must be
constantly kept up to the mark if they are to preserve their
position in the world.” The blend of these qualities made the
Russian people unfit for building a world empire: “This is
therefore a people very different from the Germans who regarded
themselves as a master race, destined to dominate the world and who
fully sympathized with the ruthless and ambitious policies of their
leaders.”
Their obsession with the “Soviet threat” did not prevent
Anglo-American policy makers from taking a realistic view of the
lineup of forces in the emerging stand-off: “Gauged against Western
World as a whole, Soviets are still by far the weaker force. Thus,
their success will really depend on degree of cohesion, firmness
and vigor which Western World can muster. And this is a factor
which it is within our power to influence,” Kennan wrote. Roberts
replied, “The Soviet Union…is nothing like so strong at present as
the Western democratic world, and knows it.”

Taking these insights into account, the architects of the
“containment” doctrine supposed that if the West chose a correct
strategy, it would have long-term advantages in the Cold War. Since
the Western capitals rejected the preventive-war scenario as too
risky (especially considering the crushing defeat of the German
Wehrmacht), priority was given to wearing down the enemy. That
could be achieved by containing the further expansion of its sphere
of influence, combined with intense pressure by all possible means
(including psychological warfare and subversive operations).

In short, the Kennan-Roberts concept finalized the antithesis to
the Roosevelt approach toward the Soviet Union: the Kremlin’s
intrinsic aggressiveness (as opposed to rational behavior), its
incorrigibility (as opposed to flexibility), which necessarily led
to a strategy of “breaking down” or “softening up” the Soviet
system under the impact of superior force (as opposed to its
gradual integration into the Western community).

THE PRINCIPLES OF CONTAINMENT

Eventually, the objectives of “containment” (and therefore
preconditions for victory in the Cold War) were specified in U.S.
strategic documents – directives by the National Security Council
20/1 (1948) and 68 (1950) – which sought to reduce Moscow’s
strength and influence to a level where it would no longer pose a
threat to the peace and stability of the international community,
and compel the Russian government to drastically revise its theory
and practice of international relations.

The strategy for the “reduction of strength and influence”
referred to freeing the East European countries from Soviet control
and reducing Soviet influence on other countries through their
communist parties. Priority was given to terminating the Soviet
presence in the center of Europe, which was regarded as a
historical anomaly, caused by World War II and the West’s inability
to cope with the Wehrmacht single-handedly. As long as the Red Army
remained encamped on the Oder and the Elbe, the Soviet Union
possessed unchallenged geopolitical trump cards in the Cold
War.

A “drastic revision” by the Kremlin of its vision of
international relations referred to the abandonment (if not in
word, then in deed) of its class-based approach toward the outside
world. However, it was not entirely clear how such a revolution in
Soviet thinking would happen. Kennan saw the system collapsing as
the result of an internal crisis or war, but prioritized its
gradual “softening up” as a safer scenario both for the United
States and the world as a whole. The idea was to adapt the Soviet
leadership to its reduced influence, creeping de-ideologization,
and gradual transition to new relations with the outside world.

Neither objective was realistic, however, without a drastic
change of the Soviet system. But whereas shrewd Kennan believed in
the possibility of peaceful and parallel development of this
twofold process (stranger things have happened in history, he
said), the NSC-68 proclaimed such a change as an indispensable
precondition for the Kremlin’s transition to “new thinking.” It
also substantially simplified the understanding of the tasks and
objectives of its Soviet policy: while Kennan and Roberts believed
that Moscow did not work by fixed plans, the NSC-68 said the Soviet
Union had the “grand design” of achieving world supremacy.

Therefore, the main objective was to thwart that design, which,
according to the document’s authors, was to become a major step
toward weakening and eroding the entire Soviet system; this would
guarantee the irreversibility of those changes. In modern
terminology, that objective would probably be referred to as
“regime change.” Anyway, “containment” became a huge experiment to
“modify” the adversary’s behavior and “reform” it under the
pressure of superior force.

The main perceived risk was that in the process of “dosed and
gradual coercion” (the essence of the NSC-68 containment doctrine),
the Soviet leadership might resort to extreme measures and “bang
the door” instead of coming to terms with defeat and retreating to
the scrap heap of history. The hopes for minimizing that risk were
pinned on the careful application of coercion (so as not to drive
the adversary into a corner), as well as on the pragmatic behavior
of the Soviet leadership, which had been often demonstrated during
the war, as well as in the first postwar years.

Kennan and other architects of “containment” should be given
their due: their scenario was based on a thorough analysis of the
vulnerabilities of the Soviet system, offering the United States a
long-term vision and becoming its strategic compass in the Cold
War. The Soviet leadership had no such long-term guidelines, and
several Soviet diplomats who were closely involved in those events
share this view. Furthermore, all attempts to find any
programmatic, “grand strategy” documents in the domestic archives
have come up empty. However, this was not due to the lack of an
appropriate culture of thinking and planning mechanisms – the
Kremlin simply did not set itself such ambitious and far-reaching
aims.

Stalin’s perception of the adversary was up to a certain extent
quite similar to the U.S. perception of the Soviet Union:
inherently hostile and expansionist, but internally weak. Stalin
believed he could emerge victorious by containing and wearing down
the adversary. Plus, he placed the same hope for new shifts in the
balance of force under the impact of crises and wars. Yet, despite
their hatred for imperialism, the Bolsheviks apparently had no
plans for “regime change” in the United States or modifying U.S.
behavior. If there was a “grand design,” it existed in Washington
rather than in Moscow.

GLOBAL SECURITY

A legitimate question at this point is: What were the causes of
the turnaround in U.S. strategy, aimed to undermine (“reform”) the
erstwhile ally? According to official theory, it was a natural
reaction to the Soviet Union’s refusal to cooperate with the West,
and its return to “Communist expansion.”
As a matter of fact, Soviet policy in the 1940s had not undergone
any radical change and was largely defensive, although obviously
tough. Based on its experience in the prewar period and World War
II, the Soviet Union aimed to create a defense belt of pro-Soviet
states along its western borders, secure an outlet to the oceans,
and ensure the maximum degree of defense along the entire perimeter
of its state borders. Stalin strove to achieve such a strategy
first with Hitler, and then, when this had failed, with his Western
allies beginning in December 1941 when he opened negotiations with
Anthony Eden. The Kremlin believed that through its decisive
contribution to victory over a common enemy, the Soviet Union had
acquired the right to equal security, the recognition of its
interests, and a fair share of geopolitical “trophies.” It is true
that by the end of the war, the Kremlin’s geopolitical appetite had
grown somewhat, while Stalin’s strong (although futile) pressure on
Turkey and Iran gave cause for accusations of “expansion.” Still,
by the spring of 1946, Soviet policy had changed far less than had
the policy of its Western allies.

During the war, the United States and Great Britain, who needed
the Soviet Union to rout Nazism, were tolerant toward its
geopolitical aspirations. As during World War I, they made lavish
promises on the sea straits and even the Mediterranean, pledging to
provide assistance in the postwar reconstruction effort. But with
the end of the war, and a changing of guard at the White House,
most of the wartime promises were retracted. The Russians,
President Truman told his aides in April 1945, need us more than we
need them; so on important issues, Truman believed, the United
States should be able to get most of what it wanted.

The U.S. military command, worried by the prospect of complete
demobilization and the dismantling of its military machine after
the routing of Japan, saw the preservation of its global presence
and superior military power as the only way of avoiding a
repetition of its strategic failures of World War I and World War
II. The Soviet Union, with its huge military resources and alien
ideology, was seen as the ideal equivalent of an external threat,
thereby giving the United States probably the only justification
for its continued military build-up. The United States, according
to experts at the Office of Strategic Services in April 1945, could
not possibly wait for Russian policy to assert itself worldwide.
They believed that Russia’s future military potential and the grave
threat it would pose to the U.S. if it succeeded in pooling
European and Asian resources under its control, was an
“overwhelming imperative” of the situation.

Brigadier General George Lincoln, chief of army operations,
wrote to his commanders: “To justify huge financial, human and
industrial resources for preparation of the U.S. for a war soon
after we have defeated the two great powers would be realistic only
if we could name a specific state – powerful and potentially
hostile with which we have a tangible conflict capable of leading
to a war in a near future.” Barely two weeks after Japan
surrendered, the Joint Chiefs of Staff began to develop a new
strategic concept based on the assumption that the Soviet Union was
the only major power with which the United States could have a
conflict that had no chance of being resolved at the UN.

The spring of 1946 became a landmark period in reforming U.S.
military-political planning. Once they had identified the nature
and objectives of the “Soviet threat,” Pentagon planners began
working on the military component of the “containment” doctrine.
The principal strategic task was to prevent the physical expansion
of the Soviet power. One way of achieving this goal was by creating
a military bloc in Western Europe; U.S. security doctrine was
becoming increasingly global.

In pursuit of absolute security, the U.S. planners did not even
bother to think about how the Soviet side would perceive their
actions or what the Soviet security concerns were in the first
place. “We were perhaps less conscious of Soviet concerns stemming
from experience of WWII than we should have been,” Henry Kissinger
admitted later in his memorandum to Richard Nixon (during the
preparations for a Soviet-U.S. summit in 1972). “We were perhaps
insufficiently conscious that security requirements of a
continental power differed from one, like ourselves, surrounded by
oceans. Our history of no foreign invasions since 1812 made us less
sensitive to problems of the nation invaded many times in the same
time span.”

Amidst the vacuum of force that had transpired as a result of
the war, together with the polarization of power between the Soviet
Union and the United States, and their fundamentally different
approaches toward building a postwar world order, U.S.-Soviet
rivalry for global influence was probably inevitable. However, it
could have assumed other, less dangerous and confrontational forms.
A considerable share of responsibility for such a scenario lay with
the United States, which was in a far more favorable situation than
the Soviet Union. Higher standards should be applied to a country
with unsurpassed power, a greater freedom of choice, confident of
its political, intellectual, and moral responsibility, not to
mention its maturity and leadership abilities, than to an erstwhile
pariah and new player in international politics. It would seem that
with such a margin of strength the United States could have
afforded a far more moderate and generous policy toward its former
ally. Even Secretary of State Dean Acheson subsequently admitted:
“A school of academic criticism has concluded that we overreacted
to Stalin, which in turn caused him to overreact to policies of the
United States. This may be true.” Instead of at least a partial
political settlement of differences, the West demanded an
“unconditional surrender that the Soviet Union was too strong to
accept,” as Kennan admitted years later.

WAS THERE AN ALTERNATIVE?

Why did the United States, at the beginning of the Cold War,
refuse to open a serious dialog with the Soviet Union and fail to
“even give this notion a close consideration?” This is a question
that a representative of the new generation of American Cold War
historians, Fredrik Logevall, asked in Diplomatic History
(September 2004). His main explanation is the moralism inherent in
“American exceptionalism” and its messianic superiority complex:
“America, that principle taught, represented the ultimate form of
civilization, the beacon of hope for humankind. Its policies were
uniquely altruistic, its institutions worthy of special emulation.
Any hostility to the United States was, by definition, hostility to
progress and righteousness, and therefore was, again by definition,
illegitimate.”

The ensuing tendency to demonize the enemy was encouraged by the
bulky constitutional system of “checks and counterbalances” and the
popularity of mass anti-Communism, which inspired in politicians a
heightened sense of alarm about the “Soviet threat.” Another
important factor, Logevall went on, was that the U.S. political
elite lacked the historical experience of equitable political
alliances with other nations. From its original state of isolation,
the United States jumped to world leadership: “Both before and
after attaining great power status, therefore, Americans lacked the
necessity to negotiate and compromise continually in order to
survive and prosper.”

This is especially important for understanding the U.S.
idiosyncrasy toward the Soviet Union’s rise as a world power that
also represented an alternative model of development. That
combination, according to Russian historian Victor Malkov,
confronted the United States with a serious dilemma – “preserve a
close partnership with the Soviet Union (thereby recognizing it as
a superpower) or, by relying on its economic and military (nuclear)
superiority, gradually win back the geopolitical space that had
ended up under Soviet control, check its aspiration to become an
alternative center of force, and ultimately ensure the
liberalization of the Soviet regime and the acceptance of Western
values.”

Today, when the United States is going through a new period of
“imperial temptation” – this time as the “only superpower” – it is
faced with the same dilemma: find a modus vivendi with other
emerging power houses, sharing with them its rights and
responsibilities, or strive to preserve its global hegemony at any
cost.

During the New Deal era, and later in the war against Nazism,
the United States accumulated a material and intellectual
capability to make a second breakthrough toward global leadership
in the 20th century. Another impediment to the search for
compromise with Moscow was the obsession of the U.S. political
elite with anti-Communism, which, according to Henry Morgenthau, a
patriarch of the American school of “realism,” was stronger than
the Soviet Union’s sense of anti-capitalism. In those conditions,
the few advocates of the idea of resolving disagreements with the
Soviet Union through compromise had no chances of forcing
Washington to revise its policy.

Another question, which requires an in-depth analysis of
archival documents that are still not available, is: Was the Soviet
leadership ready for dialog with the United States in those years?
The nuclear factor remained a serious impediment to such a
possibility: the Kremlin was unwilling to negotiate with the United
States until an equitable balance of forces was achieved, while the
United States strove to use its advantage for exerting pressure on
the adversary.
That sharply aggravated the original contradiction inherent in the
doctrine of “containment” – i.e., the risk of a self-fulfilling
prophecy, which was noted by another American Cold War historian,
John Gaddis: “What if constant frustration of Soviet designs were
to increase rather than diminish Soviet antagonism toward the West?
How could one expect serious negotiations from the position of the
U.S. strength if for the Russians that would mean a position of
weakness?” Indeed, was the United States not making an even bigger
enemy for itself, an especially dangerous scenario since it could
eventually catch up with the United States militarily and attempt
to settle scores with it?

Following the logic of a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” it would be
legitimate to pose the following question which has never been
raised by U.S. policy planners: Did that policy, by actually
strengthening the system (at least in the middle term), not impede
the ultimate objective of “containment” – the “softening up” or
“breaking down” of the Soviet system? The conditions of a “hostile
environment” and constant threat to the country’s security not only
provided a reason for “tightening the screws” and justified
economic ineffectiveness, but also brought the Soviet power closer
to the people. The challenge from the outside further strengthened
the huge mobilization capacity of the Soviet system, straining the
nation’s resources and providing a rationale for the
sacrifices.
The confrontation between the two systems dragged on, becoming an
end in itself. “The real détente between East and West would
become possible only after a complete transformation of the Soviet
system,” chief executives of the U.S. Department of State believed.
“The Cold War would be over. All of our concepts of psychological
objectives related to the Cold War would become obsolete and
mischievous. But it seems to lie far beyond the range of
speculation permitted by reality.” The Cold War was becoming a
protracted positional warfare. As Kennan summed up melancholically
before resigning from the post of the head of the State
Department’s policy planning staff, “We both hang on doggedly to
the grips we have with our teeth on our respective spheres, that
is, the Russians and ourselves, and see whose internal
contradictions catch up first with whom.” History provided an
answer to this question, but not until after the Cold War was
over.