Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Ups and Downs of the Cold War

The general attitudes of the American public seemed to vary between denial and determination during the years of the Cold War. At some points in time, perhaps overwhelmed by the size of the communist threat, it seemed as if the ordinary citizens simply wanted to pretend that the massive Soviet effort to destroy America didn’t exist. At other times, people appeared to see the threat clearly, and to be determined to meet and defeat it.

The Cold War can be said to have ended with the fall of communism in the USSR and in eastern Europe between 1989 and 1991. When the Cold War began is less clear: as early as 1919, the Soviets established espionage networks inside the United States with the stated goal of an eventual “violent” revolution.

The Communist Party in the United States (CPUSA) was no mere political organization promoting ideologies and candidates: it used the phrase “violent revolution” in its written materials to express one of its goals. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), allegedly a labor union, was actually a ‘front’ organization, being in reality a network of Soviet spies.

In 1919, the IWW took the city of Seattle hostage in a ‘general strike.’ Ordinary citizens were often confined to their homes while the IWW agents - called ‘wobblies’ - patrolled the streets enforcing the curfew. What happened in 1919 in the city of Seattle was an example of terrorism.

But some historians prefer to mark the start of the Cold War around 1946, when the defeat of Japan and of the Nazis eliminated Stalin’s need to pretend that he was a friendly partner to the western allies. Stalin had been a partner with Hitler and the two of them jointly invaded Poland in 1939. Although openly hostile to the western allies from the time he gained control in the USSR, 1924, until the time he joined them, 1941, Stalin suddenly portrayed himself as desiring a great national friendship with the United States.

From the other side, FDR likewise sought to build a friendship with Stalin. The USSR’s desire for a working relationship was strictly opportunistic, however: Stalin’s desire for this homey cooperation arose the minute Hitler doubled-crossed him in 1941 and ended as soon as Hitler was defeated.

During the five or so years in which FDR and Stalin at least pretended to be cooperating with each other, the American public was given to understand that the Soviets were our friends, and that we should look indulgently on those who dabbled in communist ideology. This accounts, perhaps, for some of the collective slumber which prevented the ordinary citizen from fully understanding the threat posed by the USSR.

Between 1924 and 1954, Stalin was responsible for millions of deaths. Scholars debate the total number of victims during Stalin’s murderous reign: The “Gulag” was a Soviet government agency overseeing prison camps; the forced resettlement of ‘kulaks’ (small farmers), the deportation of the Crimean Tartars, a manufactured famine in the Ukraine, the spurning of American help during the Russian famine of 1919 through 1923, and the Gulag each killed millions.

Yet, because President Roosevelt wanted to maintain the illusion that the USSR was a friend of the United States, Americans were taught not to ask uncomfortable questions about the international communist conspiracy and how its efforts had already planted numerous operatives inside the United States government. Agents inside the Stated Department, the Treasury Department, and other government offices were sending classified secret information to Moscow while influencing policymakers to form American decisions in the best interests of Stalin, not of American citizens.

Several events alerted ordinary Americans to the dangers of the international communist conspiracy and its espionage network inside the United States. First, FDR’s former vice president, Henry Wallace, ran for president as a candidate of the Progressive Party; while Wallace may have naively believed this to be a principled thirty party, it was in fact a puppet of the CPUSA and of Stalin.

Journalist Dwight Macdonald exposed high-profile Soviet agents who wormed their way into influential posts inside the United States government: Alger Hiss, who was sent to prison, and Judith Coplon, whose case contained legal irregularities which caused the court, after her numerous appeals, to conclude that she had in fact committed treason and espionage, but because evidence was gathered in inadmissible ways, no verdict of guilt would be issued, and she would not be sentenced.

These events functioned as an alarm, warning the American public to the hazards posed by international communism. As historian William F. Buckley writes:

Then, in 1948, poor Mr. Henry Wallace permitted himself to be run for the Presidency of the United States by a group of pros who hugged the Communist Party line even as you and I, edging our way across the peak of the Matterhorn, would hug a defile. Simultaneously, Stalin was gobbling up satellites, stealing our secrets and showing at every opportunity, with which he was amply provided, his contempt for the bourgeois notion that the alliance could survive the war. The climate changed; the existence of an undercover international Communist apparatus was garishly revealed by a succession of informants who submitted to the rack - testimony to the FBI, appearances before Congressional committees, books, articles, personal appearances; and it became generally accepted that, in the words of Dwight Macdonald, in fact there were loose in our society little witches like Judith Coplon, and little wizards like Alger Hiss; and for a few years the community settled down to accepting the realities the enemy imposed.

So it was that, in the postwar years, the United States awoke to the Soviet menace, and understood the danger presented by international communist conspiracy. With great effort, the United States was able to prevent the widespread death and destruction which Stalin’s agents hoped to inflict on America. The United States won the Cold War, but only because it awoke to the clear and present danger posed by the USSR.