Reactions to Soviet Expansion
For the Western Allies the setting up of communist governments in Eastern Europe was a major concern. World War Two had been fought in the name of freedom. Now it seemed that in many countries the hard-won freedom from Nazi dictatorship was being replaced by communist dictatorships.
An Exchange of Telegrams
The Long Telegram (February 1946)
In 1946, George Kennan, an official at the US Embassy in Moscow, was asked to provide a summary of what the Soviets were up to. His response became known as The Long Telegram because at 8,000 words, it was indeed long!
In much fewer than 8,000 words, what Kennan’s telegram said was that the USSR was heavily armed and feared the outside world. It was determined to spread communism and therefore there could be no peaceful co-existence between the USSR and the USA. However, the USA was stronger than the USSR and so communism could be ‘contained’.
The Novikov Telegram
The Soviet response to The Long Telegram was The Novikov Telegram, in which the Soviet ambassador to the USA, Nikolai Novikov, warned that the USA had emerged from World War Two economically strong and bent on world domination. As a result, the USSR needed to secure its buffer zone in Eastern Europe.
These two telegrams set the scene for the Cold War in Europe. The USSR would attempt to dominate Eastern Europe and spread communism where possible. The USA would commit to a policy of 'containment'.
The Iron Curtain Speech
On 5 March 1946, the by-now former British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, condemned the Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe in his famous Iron Curtain speech. In that speech he famously noted that .
In a nutshell, what Churchill meant by this was that the Allies had spent six years fighting for the freedom from Fascism in Europe, only to have half the continent now under Soviet dictatorship.
The Truman Doctrine, 12th March 1947
American and British politicians were concerned about events in Greece and Turkey. Previously, Britain had been influential in the area but was no longer in a financial position to support governments who would be pro-Western. Communism had already spread to many of Greece’s neighbours and the Greek Communist Party was becoming ever more popular: there were concerns that Greece would fall to communism next.
The USA was the only Western ally in a financial position to stop this from happening. In March 1947, President Truman made a speech to the US Congress in which he promised that the USA would provide aid to any country taking a stand against communism. This was developed into The Truman Doctrine. The USA was now fully committed to a policy of containment, or stopping the spread of communism..
Note how vague the word ‘aid’ is – it meant that the USA could provide anything from a pat on the back right up to military intervention.
The Marshall Plan
Fearing that all of Europe could fall under communist control, in 1947 President Truman sent General George Marshall to see what could be done to ensure this didn’t happen. Marshall recommended spending a lot of money - over $12 billion to be exact. This Marshall Aid money would be spent to help the economies of Western Europe recover after World War Two and make them less likely to fall prey to communism.
Marshall Aid was effectively a propaganda tool - a way of saying “Look how wealthy we are, you don’t need communism. Stick with us and you’ll be wealthy too”.
The Aid was offered to all countries, but Truman knew that the conditions were such that they would probably not take it up. Stalin blocked Czechoslovakia when they considered accepting the financial assistance on offer.
The Soviet Response
The USSR objected to the Marshall plan in the following ways:
- It declared Marshall Aid to be ‘dollar imperialism’ and claimed the USA was throwing its economic weight around, using it to gain influence in Europe.
- It forbade the Eastern Bloc countries under its control to apply for Marshall Aid.
- In September 1947 it set up Cominform – the Communist Information Bureau – which had as its aim to tighten Soviet control in Eastern Europe, to build collective heavy industry in those countries and to create a trade network between Communist countries. It published its own newspaper to spread Communist ideals and held conferences in the Eastern Bloc. However, its effectiveness was limited, as demonstrated when Yugoslavia left the group in June 1948.
- In January 1949 it also established Comecon – the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance – to administer its own Molotov Plan of financial aid to keep the Eastern Bloc countries on side. Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Romania all joined the Soviet Union in this group and were joined by Albania and East Germany shortly after. The group was not as successful as it might have been as the USSR dominated in terms of industrial production and total economy size, however all countries were committed to Communist economic theory such as state-ownership and state-planning of the economy. The group became more important after Cominform disbanded in 1956.
The Soviets were well-aware of Kennan's "Long Telegram" and in September 1946, they responded with a mirroring document of their own known as "The Novikov Telegram," which makes fascinating reading. Below, Novikov in 1945, from Life magazine.
Section 3 of the Novikov document is particularly interesting. Novikov wrote:
"Obvious indications of the U.S. effort to establish world dominance are also to be found in the increase in military potential in peacetime and in the establishment of a large number of naval and air bases both in the United States and beyond its borders."
In the summer of 1946, for the first time in history of the country, Congress passed a law on the establishment of a peacetime army, not on a volunteer basis but on the basis of universal military service. The size of the army, which is supposed to amount to about one million persons as of July 1, 1947, was also increased significantly. The size of the navy at the conclusion of the war decreased quite insignificantly in comparison with war time. At the present time, the American navy occupies first place in the world, leaving England's navy far behind, to say nothing of those of other countries.Novikov goes on to point out that Britain is completely dependent on the United States, that the US's new interest in the Middle East comes at Britain's expense and that the US is clearly trying to gain control of the oil resources of the Middle East under the pretext of supporting Zionism (this was immediately before the creation of the state of Israel).
Expenditures on the army and navy have risen colossally, amounting to 13 billion dollars according to the budget for 1946-47 (about 40 percent of the total budget of 36 billion dollars). This is more than ten times greater than corresponding expenditures in the budget for 1938, which did not amount to even one billion dollars.
Along with maintaining a large army, navy, and air force, the budget provides that these enormous amounts also will be spent on establishing a very extensive system of naval and air bases in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. According to existing official plans, in the course of the next few years 228 bases, points of support, and radio stations are to be constructed in the Atlantic Ocean and 258 in the Pacific. A large number of these bases and points of support are located outside the boundaries of the United States"
After noting aggressive US actions in the Middle East, China, the Mediteranean and elsewhere, Novikov observes:
"The basic goal of this anti-Soviet campaign of American "public opinion" is to exert political pressure on the Soviet Union and compel it to make concessions. Another, no less important goal of the campaign is the attempt to create an atmosphere of war psychosis among the masses, who are weary of war, thus making it easier for the U.S. government to carry out measure for the maintenance of high military potential. It was in this very atmosphere that the law on universal military service in peacetime was passed by congress, that the huge military budget was adopted, and that plans are being worked out for the construction of an extensive system of naval and air bases."Comparing the Kennan and Novikov Telegrams
Novikov's document was consciously written as a response to Kennan's telegram. Like Kennan, Novikov was writing for his boss and calibrating his text to his boss's worldview. Novikov mixes an extremely clear and prescient analysis of the then-current global political situation with a somewhat alarmist view of American military expansion. That said, many of Novikov's remarks seem dead-on 63 years later.
The fact was, in the post-WW2 environment, the US had an enormous power advantage over the rest of the world. In the years immediately following World War Two, the US account for 50% of world GDP - an astonishing fact.
Whereas Kennan's telegram was primarily a psychological exegesis on the Soviet character, Novikov tended to deal more with physical facts. Joseph Stalin was much more interested in hard details - how many troops, how many tanks - than in theoretical psychological portraits or ideological musings. Stalin had famously responded to a warning that he was about to have conflict with the Pope with the dismissive question "and how many divisions does the Pope have?" Like Kennan, Novikov wrote in a language that his boss could understand.
Conversely, Kennan's telegram was intended for Harry Truman, a president with no foreign policy experience who held an extremely simplistic and Manichean view of the world, quite different from F.D.R.'s more nuanced view. Kennan had to know how his telegram would be received by Truman. Although the immediate effect of "The Long Telegram" was to boost Kennan's career - he was immediately recalled back to Washington and made the first director of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff, he would soon be replaced by hardliners who had an even less nuanced view of the world. The problem was, Kennan had framed the debate and there would be no backtracking from the baseline that he himself had set.
Kennan drew on his 13 years in the Soviet Union as a Russian specialist to draw a psychological portrait of the Russians that, arguably, still dominates the American interpretation of Russian motivations to this day, nearly twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Novikov is basically saying, hey, look around us, the British are out of the picture and the Americans are everywhere and they're still enlarging their military. He generally refrains from Kennan's attempts at nation-state psychoanalysis.
Although Kennan was a product of the "hard realist" school of foreign policy, his telegram is remarkable for what it doesn't say. He overstates the role of Marxist dogma and essentially ignores any Russian national security interest in protecting their borders that would have existed in Moscow in any case, irrespective of ideology. Everything is interpreted in the context of a massive communist conspiracy aimed at global domination abetted by a Russian tendency towards psychosis. Kennan also overstated Russian political and economic strength vis a vis the US's, which made the situation appear very dire despite the obvious facts to the contrary.
Novikov, although correctly assessing the geo-political facts of 1946, which clearly showed the United States emerging into super-power status, also viewed the United States' dominance as part of a larger plan for total global domination - an exact mirror of the Kennan worldview.
Kennan would later spend the next 50 years (literally - he lived to be 101) asserting that he had been misunderstood. Perhaps. The problem is, he set the tone, not only for US-Soviet relations during the Cold War, but for a certain approach to foreign policy that remains popular to this day. Moreover, he provided a somewhat dubious intellectual foundation (i.e., the Soviets are crazy and can't be reasoned with) that would be exploited and enlarged by his successor as director of Policy Planning, Paul Nitze and Secretaries of State Acheson and Dulles.
We're seeing some of this same hyperbolic and rather breathless rhetoric, i.e., "they are impervious to reason" being applied to Iran and North Korea today.
NEXT: The British Perspective and Frank Roberts Telegram