Tag Archives: 1950s

Such terribly British problems: The Suez Crisis

Such terribly British problems: The ‘Suez Crisis’

‘We are not at war with Egypt. We are in an armed conflict’. Sir Anthony Eden, British Prime Minister in 1956

The years after 1945 were a time of great discomfort and challenge for Britain as it faced up to an era of inevitable decline in the wake of World War II. While the establishment might try to carry on with an attitude of ‘business as usual’, the shift in the balance of power, which saw the rise of the USA and the USSR as the dominant ‘Super-powers’ in the Cold War, was such that London could no longer dictate terms or set the global agenda as it had done for more than a century. However, managing decline is one of the most difficult and horrifying tasks in many areas, be it sport, business or politics, and despite the obvious difficulties of near bankruptcy and the break-up of the Empire, there was much in the language and culture of the Establishment that still smacked of being a ‘great power’.

There was some evidence to support this position, of course, for even though the USA and the USSR were clearly the ones dictating the pace and direction of international affairs, Britain still sat at the top table and was one of the five permanent members of the Security Council of the United Nations. There was still a aura of splendour amidst the relative decay, a glorious history for which the ‘free-world’ could offer thanks with regard to the two world wars if not for every aspect of empire, but the world had changed and Britain was no longer ‘top-dog’. It had become more of a lap-dog for the USA, the ‘special relationship’ proclaiming its role in the new gang which had gathered around, or behind, Washington.  The country had changed so that an uncertain future loomed, economically, politically and militarily, putting new threats and demands on politicians and other leaders who had grown up in a different age.

No group or class could exclude itself from the enormous social and political changes that swept through Britain in the wake of the World Wars. The structure of life and its accepted core values were shaken by the turmoil of the previous decades, so that new ideas and expectations came to the fore. Industrialisation, education, political ideology, the media, the arts and other factors, combined to create a society which was radically different from that which had shaped Britain, for better and for worse, in the years up to 1945. Peace did not bring a simple desire to return to the past, to 1939, as though that were some glorious, halcyon year in which everyone wished to live. The dawn of a new era was announced with Labour’s election victory over Churchill’s tired Conservative Party, a shocking landslide that led to the creation of the ‘Welfare State’. So many ideas and actual changes  that marked the ‘post-war consensus’ were introduced under Attlee’s Government, such as the creation of the NHS and changes in the benefit system, higher rates of income tax for the rich, fundamental changes to the education system. For the next three decades and more, there was to be a greater role for the state in most areas of life, a change so clearly expressed in the huge programme of nationalisation that brought coal production, the railways, the Bank of England and, of course, the health service under State control.

In 1945, Labour took control of a country which had its most powerful days behind it. The devastating effects of the two world wars and the economic depression, it was clear that, despite any rhetoric to the contrary, there could be no going back to the days of Empire and influence. The world had changed and there were now two new superpowers, the USA and the USSR, on the  world stage. Britain had to find a new role as it tried to ensure that a ‘managed decline’ could be achieved without dramas, pain or, indeed, revolution. Much of this was achieved with surprising dignity and control, with events like the break-up of the Empire after India was granted independence in 1947, the hosting of the Olympic Games in London in 1948, the ‘Festival of Britain’ in 1951 and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, showing the country in a positive light despite the many troubles. However, as the years went on, other events shone a light on a country which was struggling to adapt to the post-war changes. One which may sum up the confusion and fragility of the state was the ‘Suez Crisis’ of late October, 1956. It centred on control of the Suez Canal in Egypt, which had been the key link between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea for nearly a century and was especially important to Britain and France, primarily as the shipping route to India, South and East Asia, Australia and New Zealand.

Map showing the location of the Suez Canal as it links the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Image: here; Source: here

The Suez Canal was hailed as a major feat of engineering when it opened on 17th November, 1869. Under the guidance of Ferdinand de Lesseps,  in collaboration with the Egyptian authorities and the Emperor Napoleon III, the canal was built over a period of about ten years. Its impact was significant and, although France maintained a majority interest, Britain came to exercise some influence when it bought up Egypt’s share in the project as a result of its external debts. Although it was open to all shipping, the British saw the canal as being especially significant to its position, and through the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, it was allowed to maintain a military presence along the ‘Suez Canal Zone’. The changed nature of world affairs and international relations in the post-World War II era saw the decline of the old Imperial powers, in Britain and France, and the rise of national and independence movements in the former colonies. In Egypt, the nationalist movement was led by Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970), and an aspect of this development was a 1954 agreement with Britain which provided for the removal of the military presence over a seven year period. This was the back-drop to what happened in the ‘Suez Crisis’ but there were other factors at work in the 1950s.

Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970) in 1968. Image: here; Source: here

The late 1940s and early 1950s saw some astonishing changes in the geo-political landscape of the world; indeed few periods in world history can match the post-war decade for the scale of its shift in the balance of power. The USA had established itself as the leader of the western world with incredible speed, just as a family of Communism had been built around the USSR, and reached from the heart of Europe away to the Pacific. The old Empires of Britain and France were in decline, with major developments seen in India receiving independence from Britain in 1947 and France withdrawing from Vietnam in 1954. Across Africa, Asia and South America, nationalist and independence movements were on the rise, making demands on the former colonial powers at a time when they faced significant political change alongside economic and social challenges at home. The world of the early 1950s was far from having the clarity, stability and security that had existed for the ‘Great Powers’ at the opening of the Suez Canal eight decades earlier.

The early years of the Cold War saw the establishment of the battle-lines for supremacy between the USA and the USSR. Under the leadership of Harry Truman and Joseph Stalin, the likelihood seemed that a conflict of some kind, triggered by an event such as the Korean War or the Chinese Revolution, might lead to the end of humanity. The Superpowers seemed set on a course of probable destruction due to the logic rooted in meeting force with force; no compromise nor tolerance of the other power seemed possible. The initial period of tension and hostility then received a major jolt in 1953 when Truman came to the end of his term in office and was replaced by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, for the Republicans, and in Moscow, Joseph Stalin died, with Nikita Khrushchev coming to replace him. It is a sign of the relative decline of Britain and France that it was changes in Washington and Moscow that should shape their actions; they had become rather marginal, second-class powers.

Fundamental to what happened at Suez was the fall-out from the change in the leadership of the USSR. By 1956, the USA in particular had become rather concerned about the increasingly close relationship which seemed to be developing between Egypt and the USSR. This change was a direct consequence of Khrushchev’s ideas known as ‘Peaceful coexistence’, whereby he wanted to challenge the USA and the West by competing with them directly so as to show the supremacy of the Communist system. In the arts, sport, science and industry, the USSR and its allies would show how its ways and values were stronger than those produced by capitalism and democracy. This ideology would see visits to the West by circuses, orchestras and ballet dancers, intensive competition in the Olympic Games and, of course, the dramas of the Space Race, but it would also see a struggle for influence in what was known as ‘The Third World’, the developing and, largely, non-aligned countries and the colonies that were emerging from Imperial control.

President Gamal Nasser and Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the ceremony to divert the course of the River Nile for the construction of the Aswan Dam in 1964, eight years after the ‘Suez Crisis’.  Image: here; Source: here

In the early years of the Cold War, the USA has established its hegemony, expanding its influence through its economic influence and military deals. Khrushchev believed that American influence was actually very shallow and short-term, rooted in the dollar and the gun, so that if he offered the benefits of Communism to these countries, they would actually choose to ally themselves with Moscow. ‘The Third World’ became a major ideological battlefield where the struggle was fought by engineers, doctors and educators, and it was one in which the USSR had some significant successes as it gained influence in numerous countries, not the least of them being Egypt.

Egypt is, of course, an ancient country in a strategically powerful position. At the mouth of the Nile as it enters the Mediterranean, it is forever associated with the Pharaohs and pyramids, but that was long ago. However, as with the influence of the Romans on Italy, there is something of that ancient story which has continued to shape the aspirations of many people in the modern Egypt; past glories are powerful memories, and their influence could be seen just as clearly in the way Britain and France reacted in the post-war period.  Egypt had long been a part of the Ottoman Empire but had then come under British control before attaining a level of independence in 1921-22 although, as has been mentioned, British troops remained to oversee communications and to protect European ‘interests’, namely the Suez Canal. There was a growing sense of unrest and a rejection of a certain ‘colonial’ status amongst some sectors of Egyptian society and in 1952, a military coup saw King Farouk removed with, first General Neguib, and later Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, in power.

Nasser had various goals as leader of Egypt. He wanted to forge a new identity for an ancient country and ensure its security, prosperity and independence from the old European powers. To enable this to happen, he needed more money, the full control of the River Nile and more electricity which could drive economic development. To make this happen, he planned to build the Aswan Dam, a project which would require massive investment from overseas. Initially, the funding and technology for the dam was to have come from the USA but this was withdrawn when it was realised that Egypt was developing closer links with the USSR, an example of ‘Peaceful coexistence’ in action. There was a great concern in Washington that Communism was going to leap into North Africa, a sign of the feared ‘domino effect’ which could see region of vital interests fall under Moscow’s control, and a direct threat to oil production in the Middle East. In retaliation against this withdrawal of promised aid, and as an act of strength and independence, Nasser decided to nationalise the Suez Canal, knowing it would inconvenience and threaten the Western powers, giving him some leverage in future negotiations.

When the Egyptian Government announced its intention to nationalise the Suez Canal and take control away from Britain and France, there was great alarm in London and Paris, as well the recently formed Israel, which was in a tense relationship with Egypt and other countries of the region. For western countries, the added cost and uncertainty from having to travel around South Africa to reach India, Australia and the Far East, would have had a huge impact on costs, safety and time. It was also a humiliation that they no longer seemed able to pull the strings in Egypt, a sign which they thought might encourage similar acts of independence and confrontation in other countries and colonies. In what always seemed to be a desperate action, Britain and France, together with Israel, decided to invade Egypt and to take back control of the canal-zone. It was always a risky project but what made it more foolhardy was that they never consulted the USA. In the context of the Cold War, and with NATO being such a key organisation, to act in such a way was simply dangerous, especially if it went wrong – which it did.

The ‘Suez Crisis’ happened in late October-early November, 1956. The plan for the attack, codenamed ‘Operation Musketeer’, had been drawn up between the three Prime Ministers in a meeting at Sèvres near Paris: Guy Mollet of France, Anthony Eden of Britain and David Ben-Gurion of Israel. It is interesting to note that Eden had been Neville Chamberlain’s Foreign Secretary during appeasement in the 1930s and he was determined that such an approach should not be followed again. The plan set out was that Israel should attack Egypt on grounds that it was concerned about Egyptian forces being armed with Soviet weapons. In response to this, Britain and France would issue an ultimatum that both sides should stop fighting, believing that Egypt would then launch a counter-attack against Israel. This would give them the excuse of sending in troops to aid Israel as Egypt had ignored the warning. As it happened, Nasser started to withdraw Egypt’s forces in response to the ultimatum but Britain and France invaded anyway. The Egyptian air force was destroyed and Anglo-French forces made quick progress but could not reach the Suez Canal before the UN called for a ceasefire and an end to all actions.

Anthony Eden, the British Prime Minister in 1956. Image: here; Source: here

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Guy Mollet, the French Prime Minister in 1956. Image: here; Source: here

David Ben-Gurion, the Israeli Prime Minister in 1956. Image: here; Source: here

In a military sense, victory and control of the canal would have been easily achieved. But politically, the ‘Suez Crisis’ was a disaster for both Britain and France: Eisenhower in the USA was furious, their standing with the UN and in the Middle East was seriously weakened and, in the British Empire in particular, the colonies were concerned and disturbed by what they had seen. A UN Peacekeeping mission was sent into control the canal-zone and neither Britain nor France ever regained its influence. In Parliament, Eden basically lied and said that there was absolutely no planning or pre-meditation in what had happened, a direct denial of the meeting at Sèvres. That statement in the House of Commons was made in December, 1956, and was to be his last as Prime Minister. Eden resigned in January, 1957, largely as a result of stress and ill-health linked with those events.

The ‘Suez Crisis’ was especially significant because it happened at exactly the same time as the ‘Hungarian Revolution’ of October-November, 1956, took place, an event which painted the USSR as a power-hungry state, imposing its will on other countries and using unacceptable violence to achieve its goals – exactly the same as the two western powers did. Suez made it impossible for the West to level criticism against the USSR for its intervention in Hungary. It was a disaster of both planning and public relations, indicating that neither Britain nor France was any longer able to act alone militarily and also raised great concerns in Washington about the relationship with its two main Cold War allies. It weakened the West’s ‘moral status’ in the world and caused many smaller countries to seek independence from the old Empires. Overall, the ‘Suez Crisis’ was a disaster and a real low-point in international affairs for both Britain and France. It also threw Israel into some chaos which would entrench positions against the Arab states which surrounded it. The USA would eventually step in to ensure Israeli security in the aftermath of the ‘Suez Crisis’, an action which has repercussions to this day.

The ‘Suez Crisis’ was an easy military success but a disaster for both the British and French Governments, an example of the danger inherent in being driven by a memory of greatness and ignoring reality, no matter how unpleasant that might be. Like a punch-drunk ex-champion in boxing, Eden (and Mollet, of course) went into the ring once too often and suffered a humiliating defeat. The Establishment was shaken to its core by these events as a once mighty group, which prized its ability to discern, to manage and to act, as well as to win, had failed to read the rather obvious ‘signs of the times’. Suez was a stab to the heart that caused even the stiffest of upper lips to quiver.

Find out more
Books: ‘Suez’ by Keith Kyle; ‘Suez 1956: The Inside Story of the First Oil War’ by Barry Turner

Hungary, 1956: Blood on the streets and in the water.

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A statue of Imre Nagy, a key figure in the ‘Hungarian Uprising’ of 1956. (Author: Adam78; Source: here)

 

Hungary, 1956: Blood on the streets and in the water

There is something profound and satisfying about the victory of the underdog. It is a fundamental part of the human story reaching back into ancient tales, such as those great matches like David and Goliath from the First Book of Samuel and Aesop’s tale of that tortoise sneaking ahead of a rather cocky hare; they touch into something profound and powerful in the human psyche. Whether it be because of size, age, wealth or weapons, we seem to rejoice in the victory of the weaker or out-numbered force, unless we happen to be on the other side, of course. There is always a story behind such victories, bringing a need to find the cause behind the unexpected result.

The history of sport, of course, provides so many of the most satisfying examples of the mighty being humbled by the lesser power: Germany’s Max Schmeling knocking out the great Joe Louis in 1936; the USA soccer team stunning the world when they beat England 1-0 at the 1950 World Cup and Sunderland winning the FA Cup in 1973 against the ‘unbeatable’ Leeds United; Arthur Ashe out thinking Jimmy Connors to win Wimbledon in 1975; Ireland crushing the mighty West Indies at cricket in 1969 after bowling them out for just 25. But it happens in more important matters, too: the Viet Minh withstanding the might of the USA in the Vietnam War; Mahatma Gandhi overcoming the British Empire through peaceful resistance to bring Indian independence; the Montgomery Bus Boycott seeing patience and perseverance rewarded by an end to segregation on the buses.  The commitment, creativity and courage shown in these events from the last century can still serve as an inspiration today. And one of these stories is known as ‘Blood in the water’, an event which combines sport, violence and politics in a game of water-polo.

The story focuses on Hungary, so let’s check where it is by looking at a map of central Europe. today, it is a country of about 10 million people today, one which has a very long and proud tradition; it was once a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The empire fought with Germany in the Great War (1914-18) before being divided up by the ‘Treaty of Triannon’ (1920), which was part of those agreements which are usually grouped together as ‘The Treaty of Versailles’. Hungary as we know it today was, therefore, created in the wake of the Great War.

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Hungary (Author: CIA; Source: here)

Anyway, now for a little background about the country. Hungary’s country’s capital city is Budapest, a fine place split by the River Danube, the second longest river in Europe which starts in Germany and flows nearly 1800 miles down to the Black Sea. The city is in two halves, the older part being ‘Buda’ on the western side of the river and the newer being ‘Pest’ on the east. The Hungarian language is very unusual, having links with Finnish and Estonian but not much else, so don’t expect to understand much should you visit; there are some very strange letter combinations, like ‘Magyarország’, the name for Hungary itself. By the way, the name ‘Hun’ for a German or Austro-Hungarian soldier in the Great War comes from the fact that the whole of the Central European region was settled by that tribe in the 5th century when they were led by ‘The Scourge of God’, Attila the Hun. That was probably a fairly obvious point but hopefully someone will appreciate it.

Although it has a rich history, Hungary tends to be a bit of a forgotten place for most people today but there are actually quite a few famous Hungarians that you should have heard of: Robert Capa, the photographer; Zsa Zsa Gabor, the actress; Erno Rubik, inventor of the Cube and other time-occupying devices; Lazslo Biro, inventor of the ball-point pen and the automatic gear box for cars; Ferenc Puskas, one of the greatest footballers of all time; Calvin Klein, fashion, and Estee Lauder, make-up; Drew Barrymore, Paul Newman and Tony Curtis are famous actors from a Hungarian background; Bartok and Liszt, are well-known composers; and tennis champion Monica Seles was also from Hungary.

Hungary was profoundly affected by defeat in the Great War. As mentioned above, the ‘Treaty of Trianon’ in 1920 saw similar punishments placed on the country as had been put on Germany by the more famous ‘Treaty of Versailles’. And just as in Germany, deep resentment was felt by the leaders and the people as the Austro-Hungarian Empire had a long and hugely important history as part of the Habsburg (or Hapsburg) domain. This resentment proved to be a potent force, so that when the new Hungary was created, it took little time before it came under the control of a right-wing dictator. This was a less than brilliant but impeccably dressed naval officer called Admiral Horthy Miklos (1868-1957). Despite his limitations, Horthy was actually the longest surviving Fascist dictator of the inter-war period, ruling from 1920 to 1944 and just out-lasting Benito Musssolini in Italy. His position at the head of a fascist government was a sign of the frustration and anger at the defeat in the Great War, and its retreat into narrow and aggressive nationalist thinking echoed that seen elsewhere in the defeated nations.

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Admiral Horthy Miklos (as the surname comes first in Hungarian). One can only admire the hand on the sword, the uniform and the fine array of medals. (Author: unknown; Source: here)

The strong sense of nationalism in Hungary, a country which knew its traditions well, was only natural in a place which saw itself as being at the heart of Central European culture and learning. In the early 20th century, Hungary was a rather important country, being relatively wealthy and well-educated, and occupying a crucial region geographically. The country was used to making alliances, having been tied in with Austria and ruling so many other regions, so it was quite normal to enjoy strong political relations with the likes of Germany and Italy in the inter-war period. The humiliation of 1914-18 drove the country into the hands of the right-wing and so it was only natural that when World War II started, the country would fight alongside the Nazis. Without going into an analysis of the experiences of Hungary during World War II, for they are a major story in their own right, it is vital to know that it was the Soviet forces, the Red Army, which took control in 1945. Obviously, this left the country under the influence of Joseph Stalin and Communism, a massive ideological change compared to what had gone before. Naturally, Budapest was one of those cities Churchill referred to in 1946 as being one of ‘the ancient capitals of Europe’ which were on the wrong side of the ‘Iron Curtain’. 1946 was actually the year in which Hungary entered the record books as the country which suffered the very worst hyper-inflation of all time, its price rises even dwarfing those of Germany in 1922-23. As with Germany, it was reparations which were at the heart of the problem, although this time the payments had to be made to the USSR. The inflation rate of 41 900 000 000 000 000% meant prices were doubling every 13 hours and the government issued the highest value note of all time, the 100 000 000 000 000 000 000 pengo; the numbers were written quite small so that they could fit on. These numbers are so big that they become meaningless but it’s still good to know such things.

By the end of the war, Admiral Horthy had, of course, been forced to pack up his rather extensive wardrobe and move off into exile, finally arriving in Portugal via an appearance at the Nuremberg trials and some time living in Germany. By 1948, Hungary’s transformation from Fascism to Communism was complete as it joined the other East European countries under Stalin’s rule. A brief period of apparent liberty for the Hungarians had ended with the arrival in power of the General Secretary of the Communist Party, Rákosi Mátyás. A revolutionary going back to the days which had seen Horthy come to power, Rákosi was a particularly nasty man who was a true disciple of Stalin. He was known to the Hungarian people as ‘Old Arse Head’, and only a photo will suffice to explain this rather unpleasant but accurate description; while one should not judge people on looks alone, you will probably find yourself in agreement with the people on this one.

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Rákosi Mátyás (1892-1971) (Author: unknown; Source: here)

Even though he is sort of smiling in this picture, don’t be fooled; Rákosi was a deeply unpleasant man who oversaw the removal of many innocent people through the work of the AVO, the secret police. Several hundred thousand people disappeared in purges between 1948 and 1956 as he earned one of his other nicknames, ‘The Bald Murderer’. The Communist Party dominated life in Hungary as Rákosi proved his loyalty, and lack of imagination, by closely following Stalin’s policies of the Thirties. Opposition voices were crushed as he sought to impose totalitarian rule but then it all came to a sudden halt in 1956, three years after the death of his hero in Moscow.

Rákosi joined the various other leaders of the USSR’s satellite nations in Moscow for the XXth Party Congress. In the closed session for which the congress became famous, he was seen to go pale as he listened to Nikita Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’. The implications of this astonishing attack on Stalin was a clear sign of changes to come, a message soon heard and understood by the people as well as the leaders. Rákosi quickly became a victim of the new era and he disappeared from power and, quite naturally, the people of Hungary believed a better life awaited them; change following such a tyrant had to be for the better. This belief was soon strengthened by events in Poland, where there was an uprising in October, 1956. A significant outcome of this was that, for the first time, the local Communist Party was allowed to choose its own leader, Wladyslaw Gomulka. Admittedly, they had to chose someone who was ‘acceptable’ to Moscow but even so, this was a sign of change and ‘relaxation’ under Khrushchev; he was not as controlling as Stalin. To the people and the politicians, it really looked as though Khrushchev was acting on his speech by allowing greater freedom in some areas of life. In Budapest, there was a sense of hope and determination in the population that wanted to make that change real but few could have expected where it would lead them. there would be blood on the streets and in the water as a consequence of what happened next.

The basic details of the events of October-November 1956, the so-called ‘Hungarian Uprising’ or ‘Hungarian Revolution’, are quite straight-forward. The uprising developed as a result of anger and frustration at life under Communist rule. Led by students in particular, there were protests and calls for greater freedom of speech, improved living conditions, and an end to the controls from Moscow and oppression by the state forces. In a crucial and symbolic act, the protesters took control of the radio station in Budapest. naturally, they met opposition from the AVO, the police and the army, both Hungarian and Soviet, with fighting and destruction on a significant scale. People cut the Communist symbols from the centre of the Hungarian flags and launched revenge attacks on the much-hated AVO; many were executed in public. There was violence on the streets as vigilantes used any weapons they could find against the official powers.

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The extraordinary anger of the common people flooded out in attacks against the AVO, the secret police, as this photo of a street execution shows. (Author: unknown, Source: here)

But then, to everyone’s relief, a peace descended as the Red Army and the Hungarian forces withdrew. Khrushchev was clearly going to act in a different way from that which Stalin would have. The people seem to have believed the reports that were coming from Radio Free Europe, an American backed station, which seemed to offer support to the rebels, suggesting that the people were not fighting alone but would have American and Western support. With their hopes raised so high, the people looked to establish even greater freedoms, choosing Imre Nagy (1897-1959), as the new Prime Minister. Nagy (pronounced ‘Narj’) was a far more moderate Communist than most politicians and was seen as a compromise candidate, a figure who might introduce change while still being acceptable to Moscow. He would later be called a hero but at the time Nagy lacked both awareness and courage, always seeming to be playing catch up with the people and misjudging the tone of the rebellion.

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Imre Nagy, the leading Communist who was chosen to be the figure-head of the Hungarian Uprising. (Author: unknown; Source: here)

Inn the end, though, it did not really matter because, after a short respite, the Red Army returned in force, with support from the Warsaw Pact forces, and took a ruthless revenge. The casualties were high on both sides as the uprising was dramatically and decisively crushed. the huge statue of Joseph Stalin in Budapest might have been destroyed, and Stalin himself might have been criticised in Moscow, but Khrushchev was not soft, especially when he had the threat of his own destruction hanging over him from hard-liners in the Party and the Red Army. Over 2500 Hungarians died in the fighting between 23rd October and 10th November. Another 13 000 were injured and over 200 000 would flee the country soon after. 700 Communist soldiers died, some being shot by their own officers for refusing to attack civilians. Imre Nagy, the rather weak and unwilling leader of a ‘free’ Hungary, would later be executed, just one of the many to die. The ‘promised’ help from the West never came to the Hungarian people as US President Eisenhower was simply not prepared to risk a world war over a small Eastern Bloc country like Hungary. In addition to that, any hopes of gathering a Western alliance together to help Hungary were thrown into turmoil by the Suez Crisis which saw Britain, France and Israel make an unsuccessful attempt to impose their will in Egypt. Hungary was crushed. Thousands were dead, wounded or in prison. Fear, anger and a sense of betrayal were in many people’s hearts.

 

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Crowds gather around the giant statue of Stalin after it was pulled down in Budapest. (Author: unknown; Source: here)

Considering the terrible state of affairs, it might seem strange but salvation of a kind was at hand for the Hungarian people. In the shadow of the greatest horror and suffering, a small sign of hope was to be found in a swimming pool 9 000 miles away  from Budapest. because, while there had been blood on the streets of Hungary, there was also to be blood in the water in Melbourne, Australia. Hungary has a great tradition of swimming. Outdoor pools are very common and many Hungarians are superb swimmers. They also have a great tradition of playing water polo, one of the toughest of all sports. Rather like handball but played in the water, teams of seven a side pass a ball to each other before attempting to score goals by throwing the ball into a net, like a small football goal. And like handball and basketball, it is supposed to be a game of no contact, a rule ignored by almost every team. Water polo is a tough game but it was never meant to be as violent as it got in 1956.

The Melbourne Olympics of 1956 were the first to be held in the northern winter months because Australia, of course, is in the southern hemisphere. This meant that it started just after the ‘Hungarian Uprising’ had ended in such a violent defeat for the ordinary people, the rebels of the country. The Hungarian water polo team travelled to Melbourne as one of the strongest contenders for the gold medal. But their journey to the games, and the competition itself, was over-shadowed by the events at home. The team made steady progress through the competition before reaching the semi-finals where they ended up facing the team from the Soviet Union. Traditionally, the two countries were great rivals but that took on a new level of enmity, thanks, of course, to the Moscow’s violent crushing of the revolution. The Hungarian team had been at a camp overlooking Budapest when the rebellion began. They had seen the smoke and heard the gun-fire before they were flown out to Australia. Reports of casualties and destruction had reached them so that they knew that in facing the Soviet Union they were doing more than playing a game; this was a rare opportunity for revenge, striking a blow for their friends and others who had fought and suffered at the hands of the AVO, the police and the tanks of the Red Army.

The match became the most famous in water polo’s history. It became known as the ‘Blood in the Water’ match, after violence erupted throughout the game. Players on both sides were kicked, bitten and punched but Hungary moved steadily ahead. They eventually won 4-0, refusing to show any respect to the team from the ‘senior’ country in Communism. Towards the end of the match, one of their star players, Ervin Zador (1935-2012), was punched so hard by his Soviet marker that he was cut above the eye. The crowd had been passionately involved in the match, as had both squads on the pool side, and this led to a riot. The referees, seeing that there was only a minute to play, abandoned the game, awarding the match to the Hungarians. Complaints were made by the Soviet team but to no avail; victory was given to the Hungarians who went on to take the gold medal by defeating Yugoslavia 2-1 in the final. But the real victory and the true glory rested on that semi-final victory. It was a triumph summed up in this famous photo of Zador.

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‘Blood in the water’, Ervin Zador in 1956. (Author: Corbis; Source: here)

After the tournament, many of the Hungarian team refused to return home, with some staying in Australia while others went to the USA. Ervin Zador himself went to the USA where he would stay involved with water polo and swimming. As a coach he looked after a promising young swimmer called Mark Spitz, the man who would go on to set an Olympic record in 1972 by winning seven gold medals in the pool at Munich. But he will always be remembered in Hungary for spilling his blood for the glory of his country against their greatest enemy, one small cut to set against the blood of thousands.

‘All I could think about was, ‘Could I play the next match?’’ Ervin Zador, Water-Polo player

 

Find out more

Films: ‘Children of Glory’ (DVD – Lions Gate Entertainment, 2008)

Books: ‘Twelve Days: Revolution 1956’ by Victor Sebestyen (Phoenix, 2007); ‘Nine Suitcases’ by Bela Szolt (Pimlico, 2005); ‘More Than a Game’ by Jan Stradling (Pier 9, Murdoch books Ltd, 2009)

 

 

Empire Windrush: helping the ‘Mother Country’.

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In 2008, this square in London was re-named to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the arrival of ‘Empire Windrush’. (Author: Felix-Felix; Source: here)

 

Empire Windrush: helping the ‘Mother Country’.

‘These people have British passports and they must be allowed to land…Anyway, they will not last a winter here.’ Arthur Creech Jones, Colonial Secretary.

22nd June, 1948. At Sheffield, the mighty Australian cricket team, ‘The Invincibles’, led by the great Don Bradman, were playing out a rather dull draw against Yorkshire. On the island of Jura off the west coast of Scotland, George Orwell was finishing ‘1984’. In London, the final preparations for the Olympic Games were in full swing ahead of the opening ceremony set for the end of July. In Germany, the Deutsche Mark had just been introduced, leading to the blockade of Berlin and the ‘Berlin Airlift’. War was on-going in Israel and the Communists had taken control of Czechoslovakia. And in just two weeks time, on 5th July, the new National Health Service was to start in Britain. These were hugely important and interesting times.

One of the most important events of that day, though, was taking place almost unseen and unheard at Tilbury Docks on the River Thames. The event was the arrival of a small group of passengers from the Caribbean who had arrived on the Essex coast on a very ordinary ship, the ‘Empire Windrush’. The arrival of a boat-load of immigrants from the West Indies, then part of the British Empire, attracted some attention from the media but there was very little interest overall and the significance was not grasped then nor in the years immediately following. This was a change which would impact on language, music, fashion, sport and food. Politics, culture and laws would be affected – and it would raise issues never considered before. The arrival of the ‘Empire Windrush’, marked a new phase in British life, the moment when Britain took a major step towards being a multi-national, multi-racial, multi-cultural society. But those first arrivals had no intention of having such a grand impact and most only intended to stay for a few years at the most. Why did they come to Britain just after the war? Why come to a country with a notoriously dull climate? Why live in a place where rationing still dominated the weekly shopping? Why take such a risk?

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‘MV Empire Windrush’ (Author: Michael A.W. Griffin; Source: here)

‘Empire Windrush’ brought 492 passengers from the West Indies on that June day. Many were wrapped up against the cold even though it was summer, while others wore their ‘Sunday best’ or ‘Church clothes’. Some leaped up and down as they were met by friends and family. For some, their arrival was a return as they had lived, worked and fought in Britain during World War II, when they had volunteered for the ‘Mother Country’. The ties between Britain and the Caribbean were strong as the West Indies were part of the British Empire, building trade, cultural, sporting and tourist links. These ties were further strengthened in 1948 when Parliament passed the ‘Nationality Act’, an incredibly important and often forgotten piece of legislation. It gave all members of the British Commonwealth the right to visit, and the right to live in, Britain. 22nd June, 1948, was a hugely important day.

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A child’s ration book from WWII. Rationing remained in place in the UK until well into the 1950’s. (Author: National Archive; Source: here)

But there was no paradise for the 492 visitors at Tilbury. Britain after the war was a country on its knees, desperately seeking a way towards recovery after the war. It has often been said that the best thing about World War II for Britain was winning it and the worst thing was winning it. No one would want to swap victory for defeat, especially in such a hugely significant and ideological conflict, but the cost of victory crippled the country financially. By 1947, Britain was bankrupt and there were huge consequences politically as it was unable to meet its commitments to protect its spheres of influence as agreed at Yalta and Potsdam. This was a humiliation but also a situation that demanded urgent action. Things came to a head in 1946 during the Greek Civil War, a conflict which had begun as World War II ended. Britain had to call an end to its support for the right-wing, pro-monarchist forces who were fighting the Communist rebels. The USA had to step in and it led to President Truman’s request to Congress for the funds to take on the responsibility for opposing the growth of Communism around the globe. Britain’s financial collapse was, therefore, the trigger for ‘Truman Doctrine’ as it developed from George Kennan’s ‘Long Telegram’ of February 1946, the policy which developed into containment. In that way, Britain’s economic crisis, one of the reasons for the arrival of the ‘Empire Windrush’, was also connected to the rapid rise of the USA into a ‘Superpower’.

Britain was struggling most of all because it had been forced to borrow so much money to fight the war. Actually during the war, the USA had operated a generous system called ‘Lend-Lease’, which meant goods were given to Britain, the USSR, China and other allies on a ‘use or return’ basis. They were to be used in fighting the war; if they were destroyed, so be it; if they were not, they could be returned. However, as the war ended so did ‘Lend-Lease’ but a series of loans and rents to the USA, which Britain had to repay, remained. Britain faced debt on a new scale. In fact the last repayment on those wartime loans to the USA was only made by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, at the end of 2006.

It must be remembered that in the 1920s and the 1930s, Britain had also been struggling economically. As the first country to have industrialised, Britain had developed technology and products which had started the ball rolling in industry but it had then fallen behind. Germany and the USA had caught up with, and then overtaken, Britain’s industrial power by about 1900. and then they had pushed ahead, partly by building on British technology and learning from her mistakes. So, for example, they had moved beyond steam power and coal to embrace cheaper and more efficient electricity. Britain’s position as a great power was always dependent to a large degree on its vast overseas Empire and that control was increasingly tenuous both during and immediately after the war: trade was badly disrupted during the war and increasing unrest developed in the ‘colonies’ afterwards, epitomised by Indian independence in 1947. Britain actually faced a situation similar to the economic and industrial issues of the USSR from about 1960 onwards: old, inefficient technology and an inflexible, unskilled workforce. Times were hard and change was needed but little happened.

Another factor in these economic troubles was that Britain had been heavily bombed during the war but it had not seen anywhere near the level of the destruction suffered by Germany, Japan, Italy, France and other rivals. In this period, there was a major change of political leadership as the old powers, like Britain and France, were replaced by the new ‘Superpowers’, the USA and the USSR. At the heart of the changes in the Western world, the USA took on an aggressive, dynamic role, using its enormous wealth to rebuild Europe, buying influence and creating a barrier to contain Communist expansion. This was seen most clearly in the ‘Marshall Plan’, the politically motivated economic recovery package funded by the USA and targeted at Europe and Japan as a means of ensuring that these countries remained capitalist and democratic. The resources for this huge project came from the USA alone and not from Britain which had neither the money nor the capacity to take that lead role.

Britain had desperate need of that aid itself and received a huge amount of money from the USA, more than any other country, in fact. But because many of Britain’s factories and its infrastructure (like the roads, railways and power supply) were more or less intact, they were rebuilt but not replaced. In Germany, by contrast, the destruction was on a whole different scale and things had to start from scratch: new water supplies, new power systems, new railways, new cities – and new attitudes. In the very short term this meant greater hardship but it soon brought many economic benefits to those countries which had suffered most in Western Europe. One only has to visit European cities like Berlin, Amsterdam and Brussels, to see the impact of this even now, in the broader streets, more efficient public transport and faster train travel than that enjoyed in Britain. Germany, Japan and other countries could not avoid the massive issues they faced: destruction had been almost total. Britain had the economic burdens of victory and the psychological baggage that came from seeing itself as ‘superior’ to those it had defeated; it carried on as best it could but it was trying to cling on to its old glories. And those days were over.

But going back to Tilbury, the people who arrived on the ‘Empire Windrush’ were not tourists; they were workers. They came because they were needed by Britain. They had been invited to come to Britain to work and so help the country recover after the war. The idyllic images of the Caribbean actually masked the widespread problems of poverty and a lack of job opportunities, so the 492 were not alone in travelling for work. Many moved within the West Indies while many others went to the USA and Canada, always looking for work. Until World War II, few had come to Britain but then they came to fight in the war, supporting the ‘Mother Country’. Some settled here afterwards but others returned home. And, in 1948, they came back, encouraged by Britain’s politicians who needed their help in re-building the country, to restore the economy and re-establish its links with the Empire.

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Clement Attlee, Prime Minister from 1945-51. His concern for the poorest in society had been inspired in part by his time working in the East End of London as a young man. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

The need for workers was especially important for the Labour Government of Clement Attlee with its extraordinary plans for a new Britain with many nationalised industries and the creation of the Welfare State, most importantly the new National Health Service. There was a major shortage of labour in many areas, though, including nursing, as well as low-skilled jobs, like cleaning and the transport sector. In filling these gaps, the many migrant workers who were to follow in the footsteps of those who travelled on the ‘Empire Windrush’, were playing a vital role for Britain but this soon got over-shadowed by bigger ‘issues’. The number of people immigrating to Britain from the Caribbean grew so that over 60 000 arrived in 1961, a figure many people considered too high. Competition for jobs, housing, pay and the like meant rising tension, especially between ethnic minorities in white working class areas.

Despite the contribution made by many immigrant workers to the British economy in the two decades after the arrival of ‘Empire Windrush’, tensions mounted in several areas. Increasing numbers of people arrived from Britain’s former colonies, seeking work and a new life, but also requiring accommodation, education, health care and the like. Differences in language, culture, religion and music can often inspire excitement and fear in equal measure and such was the case in Britain. There was undoubtedly widespread racism in many parts of the country; white immigrants were never treated with the same fear and anger which was shown to people from the West Indies, Africa and India, for example. Things came to a head in 1968, when Enoch Powell, a Conservative MP who had actually been one of those who had encouraged people from the Caribbean to come to Britain after the war, made an infamous speech which became known as the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. Powell was not saying that blood ‘should’ flow but that it ‘would’ flow from violence linked with racial tension unless ‘non-white’ immigration ended. Although he presented himself as being a reasonable voice expressing concerns based on what he had heard and seen, his proposal that non-white people already in Britain should be ‘encouraged to go home’ certainly inflamed relationships in society. Powell spoke for many people in Britain at that time but he personally became the focus of the blame that followed the rise in racial tension. Non-white immigrants had been an easy target for attack as they physically and culturally stood out on the streets of Nottingham or Notting Hill, both of which had seen racial unrest and violence in the 1950s. There was far less hostility to immigrants from Canada, the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Europe for the simple reason of skin colour.

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Enoch Powell (1912-1998), a Conservative MP (1950-1974) and an Ulster Unionist MP (1974-1987). His ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech was made in 1968 but it is often referred to today when issues linked with immigration and racism come up.  (Author: Allan Warren; Source: here)

It might be worth quoting a little bit of Powell’s speech here as it is so famous but also because it is not always as simple as it might appear. Powell was an intelligent man, a popular MP and a politician who wanted to reflect what people told him in terms of their concerns; many saw him as at least a future leader of the Conservatives and, therefore, a future prime Minister. He has been presented as a bit of a ‘mad-man’ over the years but, whether or not he was right or wrong, he acted in a way that really did reflect the concerns of many of his constituents and of the ordinary people who wrote to him. His comments also reflected many in people in the country at large and it is important that his infamous words should be put into some sort of context, otherwise any unpopular message (and the messenger) from the past can too easily be dismissed as a lunatic. Enoch Powell reflected the values and fears of many people at the time and his views remain embedded in the ideas of numerous politicians and many parts of society today, despite what might be said in public. Here is a part of his long and complex speech which he made to the Conservative Association in Birmingham on 20th April 1968. It demands careful reflection and does not work well with a ‘soundbite’. His references to Kindertransport, Karl Marx and the Windrush are especially interesting.

For these dangerous and divisive elements the legislation proposed in the Race Relations Bill is the very pabulum (bland or meaningless intellectual comments) they need to flourish. Here is the means of showing that the immigrant communities can organise to consolidate their members, to agitate and campaign against their fellow citizens, and to overawe and dominate the rest with the legal weapons which the ignorant and the ill-informed have provided. As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood.”

That tragic and intractable phenomenon which we watch with horror on the other side of the Atlantic (violence and tension linked with the Civil Rights Movement) but which there is interwoven with the history and existence of the States itself, is coming upon us here by our own volition and our own neglect. Indeed, it has all but come. In numerical terms, it will be of American proportions long before the end of the century.

Only resolute and urgent action will avert it even now. Whether there will be the public will to demand and obtain that action, I do not know. All I know is that to see, and not to speak, would be the great betrayal.

Migration is a common feature of life, for British people as much as any other nationality. Thousands of people emigrate from Britain each year and they value the opportunity. No one thinks of them as doing anything immoral as they move abroad for work or retirement, ignoring any negative impacts on local culture, wealth and welfare in the areas in which they settle. It is seen as something positive. Britain itself has a long tradition of opening its borders to people from abroad. It has been a very tolerant society welcoming those who face persecution, such as the Huguenots expelled from France in 1685 with the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the Jewish children who arrived in the late 1930s on the ‘Kindertransport’ from Germany or even to Karl Marx who spent his last 30 years of life in London. The welcome to the new arrivals made by politicians to those on the Windrush reflected that but the problems began within conservative working class society. Racism presented itself as people tried to find accommodation and work, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes blatant but tension developed, mainly in the cities and industrial towns. The fact that workers from abroad were needed was forgotten and skin colour, language and cultural differences proved far more significant. In fact it was in the Trade Unions that much opposition was found as migrant workers were often paid lower wages, so undermining pay and conditions for existing workers. This was seen in the Post Office and in transport where migrant workers seen in larger numbers than elsewhere. White workers blocked opportunities for non-white colleagues as they feared change and the impact on their own pay and conditions; and some were simply racist and did not like people who were different. This was seen in the early 1960s when white bus drivers and some companies blocked a decision to allow black immigrants to become drivers. It may seem strange today but this happened in Bristol, for example, even though it was a move supported by the Trade Union and the employers.

Powell’s speech raised many issues, put the matter into a broad historical context and placed much of the blame for racial tension with the white community, all factors which are missed or ignored when quoting him. He was undoubtedly controversial but his message reflected something important about British attitudes and must not be dismissed without proper study.

Racial unrest in the 1950s and 1960s grew on the back of other social change. Groups like the ‘Teddy Boys’ and skinheads had right-wing nationalist attitudes, seeing foreigners as an easy and legitimate target for violence. The police were often seen to ignore or belittle racial crime, seeing it as just a part of life and something to be put up with if foreigners wanted to live in Britain. There was successful racial integration in some areas but there was a sense of disturbance and upheaval in many towns and some parts of the cities at the rapid pace of change in the ethnic mix of communities.

Britain might not have seen the level of violence, civil unrest and segregation that happened in the Southern States of the USA but racial tension was clearly present after World War II and still exists today, as the steady if low level of support for groups like the British National Party (BNP) and English Defence League (EDL) shows. Too many people forget that those first immigrants on the Empire Windrush were needed in Britain they were encouraged to come to help the country. They came out of choice but they worked, paid taxes and kept key industries going at a time of great hardship. Some people, even our supposedly informed politicians, forget such things, seeing obvious differences and ignoring some hidden truths from the past. Racial tension is widespread and is common in many different societies but that does not mean it is right and students of history and politics should be able to present a balanced informed argument backed by more than just some gut feelings and simplistic argument.

Find out more:

Books: ‘Empire Windrush: Fifty years of writing about Black Britain’ by Onyekachi Wambu  ; ‘Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-racial Britain’ by Trevor Phillips and Mike Phillips (HarperCollins, 1998); ‘The British Dream: Successes and failures of post-War immigration’ by David Goodhart (Atlantic Books, 2013); ‘Small Island’ by Andrea Levy (Headline Review, 2004).

 

The Vietnam War – Part One: How did the USA end up fighting one of the poorest countries in the world?

Buddhist Monk Committing Ritual Suicide

A Buddhist monk sets himself on fire in Vietnam in protest at the anti-Buddhist policies of the Prime Minister, Ngo Dinh Diem.

 

The Vietnam War – Part One: How did the USA end up fighting one of the poorest countries in the world?

The memorial below is in the US capital, Washington, D.C., and honours the 36 000 American soldiers who died in the Korean War (1950-53). It is a monument paid for by the US Government. It was only commissioned in the 1990s, though, a late remembrance of a war which saw the USA lead the forces of the United Nations to a stalemate with the North Korean army which was backed by the USSR and China. The USA just about achieved its aims in that conflict by stopping the fall of South Korea to Communism.

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The Memorial to the Korean War (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Not that far from the Korean War Memorial, stands another one. This one is also from the Twentieth Century and remembers more than 58 000 American soldiers who died in the Vietnam War between 1965 and 1973. But this one received no money from the US Government and had to be paid for by the ‘Vietnam Veterans’ themselves. The decision to set up this memorial was inspired by a film, ‘The Deer Hunter’, just one of many famous Vietnam War films. There was widespread opposition in the USA to the memorial as it was simply a wall with a list of all those who died in the conflict. For many people, the problem was that it was not considered ‘heroic’ enough when it was first unveiled. But there was also a real issue about how to remember the victims of the most controversial war in the history of the USA, especially as it can be considered one which ended in defeat, despite many comments to the contrary which claim it was a victory for ‘Uncle Sam’. The memorial has become a major shrine to honour those who died, as well as a focus for those who survived but suffered either physically or mentally through the experience. There is no memorial for those ‘Vietnam Veterans’ who have died since the war, mainly through suicide and the effect of their injuries.

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The Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Not surprisingly, controversy surrounds the number of veterans who have committed suicide in the years since the conflict ended for the USA in 1973 as supporters of the war claim a figure of about 9 000 while veterans associations put the figure at well over 100 000. Statistics are dangerous things, of course, and the figures are highly disputed, but what is not in doubt is that many ‘Vietnam Veterans’ have suffered physically, psychologically and emotionally since the war finished. Some figures indicate that these men were nearly twice as likely as non-veterans to die of suicide, and over 50% more likely to die in road accidents. (University of California at San Francisco article, New England Journal of Medicine, March 1986, “Delayed Effects of the Military Draft on Mortality,”) The impact in terms of employment, substance abuse, relationship breakdown, violence, crime and the like have not been accurately measured but evidence suggests that Vietnam is a war many Veterans have not got over and the country itself has failed to come to terms with.

So, why is there such a difference in the memorials to the dead of these two wars? Why were the dead from Korea, the ‘Forgotten War’, eventually honoured with public money while those from Vietnam have not been ‘officially’ honoured?

The essential word is clear but rarely spoken: ‘lost’. The USA struggled in Korea but was clearly able to claim victory in a way but it effectively lost the Vietnam War and, in a pretty blatant act of denial, most Americans still seem to want to deny or ignore it. This is one of the factors which make the Vietnam War such a fascinating conflict on so many different levels and the number of books, documentaries, films and photos from the war bear ample testimony to this. The casualties, causes, outcomes and memories are all seen and interpreted under the shadow of that one word: lost. As ‘Top Nation’ of the Twentieth Century, the USA just doesn’t do ‘we lost’ to any real degree. The national psyche is geared to optimism, power, control and success; America loves winners not losers, even if they be ‘brave losers’, be it in business, sport, politics or war. This is one of the great strengths and most annoying traits of US culture, especially for British people; the Americans really don’t get that ‘plucky loser’ thing at all.

Anyway, a short study of Vietnam and the war which has defined it in public awareness for the last half-century. But before getting into the ‘When, Where, Who, How and Why’ questions, it is always sensible to start with a map or two so we know where we are.

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Map showing Vietnam as a united country. Its neighbours are: China, Laos and Cambodia. (Author: Welt Reis; Source: here)

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This map shows the main railway lines in Vietnam. They connect the two main cities, Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City in the south. Hanoi is the capital while Ho Chi Minh City is the former capital of South Vietnam under its old name, Saigon. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

Vietnam a long, thin country in South-east Asia, about 1650 kms (900 miles) long but only 50 kms (32 miles) wide at its narrowest point. It is a long way from the USA, on the opposite side of the world to Washington, DC, and 12 twelve time zones apart. It is a tropical country, with lots of rainforest but also mountains down the spine of the country. It is a hot, humid country for much of the year, getting most of its rain in the monsoons. Its population today is about 89 million (making it the 13th largest in the world) but in 1950 it was only about 28 million so there has been quite an increase. Most people live near the coast, and in the two main cities, Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in the south. Many people also live on the great delta of the Mekong River. By the way, if you’ve ever seen the musical called ‘Miss Saigon’, it is based on a famous old story called ‘Madame Butterfly’ with the story transferred to Saigon in the 1970s. The love story is changed to focus on a Vietnamese girl and an American GI at the very end of the Vietnam War, which we’ll get to soon. An ordinary American soldier, the equivalent of a ‘private’ in Britain, was called a ‘GI’, which stands for ‘Government Issue’, reflecting the equipment used, and it does not mean ‘General Infantry’, as I was always told when I was young.

Historically, Vietnam has been defined by its relationship with its neighbours, Laos, Cambodia and, most of all, China. In saying that, it is really no different to most other countries: neighbours impact on our lives and, when they are big and powerful, they fundamentally shape us. China’s repeated attempts to take control of Vietnam helped define it over many centuries. The Vietnamese have long held simple, clear goals as a community: independence and control of their own destiny. They fought off the Chinese by the late 10th century and then the Mongols in the 13th century, mismatches on the scale of David and Goliath (or Colchester 3 Leeds 2, FA Cup Fifth Round, 1971 – a delight for anyone outside Elland Road – ask your granddad about it). If you are interested in strong female role models, by the way, check out the extraordinary Vietnamese Trung Sisters (Trung Nac and Trung Nhi), warriors from the 1st century AD. They are still celebrated today, and a holiday is celebrated in their honour each February.

Following these events, after 1285 or so, the Vietnamese settled down to a simple, independent life based on a powerful sense of community: the village and the family was all. The country was poor (it remains one of the poorest countries in the world to this day), mainly being a subsistence economy, which means it only really produced enough food and goods for its own needs, having little or nothing left for trade or development. The long era of peace was finally shattered with the arrival of the French in South-east Asia in the mid-19th century. At the time, France was trying to build a larger Empire, partly in response to the power of the British Empire, and expanded is control into this region of Asia. The region became known as ‘French Indo-China’ and included Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. It was a useful area for the French, offering important resources in an area which also provided good communication and trade links with China, Australia and India. The main role of the region, though, was to support France at home, as is the case with any Empire.

French control brought significant changes in Vietnamese society. The wealthier members of society tended to collaborate with the French, learning to speak French and many became Catholic. Most of the Vietnamese remained poor, though, kept their Buddhist faith as well as speaking their own local languages. This division in Vietnamese society, based on language, politics, culture and religion, would become increasingly significant in the following century. Wealth came to some people but at the cost of control over their own lives, politically, socially and economically. This did not impact so much on the many people who lived out in the villages and mountains but it did affect life in the growing cities and towns. Many people just got on with life but some wanted Vietnam to be left alone, to be independent again, free to control its own affairs in its own way. One of these men was born in Vietnam in 1890. He was called Nguyen Sinh Cung and he became famous for his struggle to defend Vietnam; he was known to the world as ‘Ho Chi Minh’ (pronounced ‘Hoe-Chee-Min’).

At the time of the Vietnam War, and in the decades since, the USA has been keen to portray Ho Chi Minh as an evil dictator, a part of the Communist coalition controlled by Moscow and set on the destruction of the West and its way of life. This is an unfair and narrow assessment. Ho Chi Minh is a classic example of ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.’ His name was a nickname, meaning ‘Bringer of Light’, although it was probably one that he gave himself, which is never that satisfactory, rather like Joe McCarthy calling himself ‘Tail Gunner Joe’. Whatever the Americans and the West might have thought, though, Ho was extremely popular in North Vietnam, being Prime Minister of North Vietnam from 1945-55 and President from 1945-69. However, he was no ‘saint’ and was responsible for many deaths, especially amongst Government officials, and, of course, during the war. But was he justified from the point of view of self-defence on behalf of his country? It’s always an interesting question. Ask Harry Truman if the atom bombs which killed so many Japanese civilians were justified. Or ask Churchill if he approved of so many Russian deaths under Stalin, if ‘Bomber’ Harris had sleepless nights over the dead of Dresden or General Franco if he felt guilty over the destruction of Guernica. When words don’t work, in legitimate or illegitimate causes, violence often follows; it’s never easy and it’s never straight-forward.

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Ho Chi Minh just after World War II. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

So, let’s look at Nguyen Sinh Cung, the boy who grew up to become ‘Ho Chi Minh’. As a child, Cung studied Confucianism and also had a formal, French education, learning Chinese as well as French. He combined Eastern and Western influences, applying an understanding of these ‘foreign’ values over a framework of traditional Vietnamese teachings. His family were strong supporters of independence and expressed anti-French views; his father, in particular, got into a lot of trouble with the authorities. In his early 20s, Cung chose to travel and visited the USA, Britain, France, China and the USSR. He paid for his travel by working his way in the kitchens on ships and then worked as a chef and a waiter in numerous hotels wherever he stayed. In the 1920s he was in Paris, where he first encountered Communism, a system which made sense to him as its values echoed those of his Vietnamese roots. He had also met Korean nationalists in England who fired up his belief in resistance and the need to oppose colonial control. The 1920s and 1930s saw him living in Moscow, China, Thailand and Italy among other countries, seeing many different types of government, from Communist through to Fascist, democracies, monarchies and dictatorships. He married a Chinese girl, contracted a killer-disease called tuberculosis and, in 1940, finally took that name, ‘Ho Chi Minh’ or ‘Bringer of Light’. His education through travel had brought enlightenment and a sense of what was the best way forward for his home country.

In 1941, Ho Chi Minh returned to Vietnam, to lead the Viet Minh, a resistance organisation. He was determined to liberate his country, firstly by fighting the French and, when they were overthrown, the Japanese, who had took control of the country during World War II. The odd thing is that, a bit like support for the Mujahidin in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Viet Minh were secretly helped by the USA in their struggle with Japan during the war. The weapons they had been given to fight the Japanese would later be used to attack the French and the Americans themselves. History is a strange place to visit at times.

At the end of World War II, Ho Chi Minh was convinced that freedom had come to Vietnam with the removal of the Japanese. He declared the independence of the ‘Democratic Republic of Vietnam’, convinced that a new era would dawn with Vietnam being able to take control of its own destiny. Ironically, he based a lot of his vision on the revolutionary actions which had formed two countries that he knew well and admired: France and the USA. He was convinced that they would both understand and agree with what he had done, as they were historically such believers in independence, liberty and the right to control your own destiny. Ho Chi Minh actually wrote to President Truman on seven occasions after WWII, explaining what he was doing and asking for his support; Truman did not reply to any of the letters. And then, much against his own beliefs and the historic values of the USA, Truman approved the return of Indo-China to French control, a direct rejection of all that Ho Chi Minh had asked for. So it was that, with US approval, the French went back to Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, re-establishing the old ways and systems against which the Viet Minh and others had struggled for so long. And so the fighting started once again.

Why did the USA support France’s return to Indo-China? Well, it’s a bit complicated but, in simple terms, it was probably just too much like hard-work to say ‘no’. One does not want to compare a whole nation with a stroppy, anxious teenager but that image is not a bad one to have as you read the next bit. The French had suffered badly in World War II, morally and psychologically as much as militarily and financially. Defeat at the hands of the Nazis saw France under German control between May 1940 and June 1944. This had led to the establishment of the ‘Vichy Government’ in the south of France while the Germans controlled the north. Vichy France was basically an organised form of collaboration with the Nazis. In their defence, they did not have much choice as, if they had not collaborated, the politicians would have been ‘removed’ and the Nazis would have just taken over anyway. There was a French Government in exile under the leadership of Charles de Gaulle, but it relied on other countries, such as the US, Britain and Canada, for it to function. France, for so long a great power with a proud history, had lost control of its own country and its Empire, and relied on others to maintain some sense of its own independence. When liberation and ‘victory’ came in 1945, the humiliation and the legacy of collaboration found France a divided country. In the post—war period, the politicians wanted to re-establish the confidence and unity through the restoration of its glorious past. As a once proud nation, the people rallied behind its key political figures, men like de Gaulle, but the memories were painful and, the route to the future was a short-sighted interpretation of its past.

The world in 1945 was an anxious place, but France was under more pressure than most countries. No country was keener to re-establish its former glory but the balance of power had shifted and clearly lay with the ‘Big Three’: the USA, the USSR and, to a lesser extent, Britain. This was seen at Yalta and Potsdam, where the post-war future was shaped. The photos of those Conferences show just three leaders: at Yalta in February 1945 this meant Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) for the USA, Winston Churchill for Britain and Stalin for the Soviet Union; at Potsdam in July 1945, it meant Harry Truman for the USA, Clement Attlee for Britain and Stalin for the Soviet Union. France was not represented at the ‘top table’ and was, to a large extent, at the mercy of these agreements.

France was actually treated pretty well by the agreements made by the war time allies. Even though the French had played a minor role in the victory over Hitler and the Nazis, they were granted a role in running the post-war world. Although Stalin in particular saw no great reason to include France in these matters, Churchill was adamant that this should happen and his arguments won the day. Churchill believed that the French were needed to help ‘control’ a defeated Germany but he was also worried at the effect their not being involved might have on the country as a whole and on de Gaulle in particular. Put simply, he worried that in the face of such humiliation, they might sulk, stay on the sidelines and so weaken the pro-capitalism, pro-democracy alliance in Europe at a time when as much help as possible would be needed to rebuild the continent and resist potential Communist expansion. As a key member of the newly formed United Nations, a country with such a great heritage, an important economy and a significant Empire, Churchill saw the need to keep the French ‘on-side’.

Another important issue is that the USA had its own particular vision for the post-war world as it was keen to see an end to the old Empires, primarily those of Britain and France. However, the USA was also certain that it did not want to see Communist expansion around the world, especially in Europe, so keeping the French as ‘allies’ was vital. Washington did not want to see the French go back in to Indo-China but they felt that they had little real choice in the matter. French pride and the French economy had to be restored and if that involved massaging the ‘ego’ and restoring old trade links then so be it; there would be time to deal with the issue of ‘Empires’ in the years to come, but in the short-term, there were more pressing matters.

So it was that the French went back in to Vietnam and even received American aid. Over the years, that ‘assistance’ would grow, so that by the early 1950s, the USA was funding over 70% of French operations in the region. The funding was actually focused on struggles in Laos and Cambodia as much as Vietnam, with Communist-motivated forces being the perceived enemy. In reality, Laos rather than Vietnam was of far greater concern to the USA until the early 1960s, a fact which is one of those snippets of history which has been forgotten in the light of what happened later. The French really had the USA over a barrel, playing on their concerns in Europe about Communist expansion and using the frenzy over ‘the loss of China’ in late 1949 as a means to extract greater support (meaning money, weapons and approval) from the Truman administration.

Ho Chi Minh’s forces, the Viet Minh, were no match for the French in direct military terms. Naturally, they fought by using guerrilla warfare, tactics based on ambush and hit-and-run so as to avoid direct fighting with a more powerful enemy, tactics developed in the struggles of WWII. In these operations, Ho Chi Minh had the help and guidance of one of the great military commanders of the century: General Vo Nguyen Giap (1911-2013). Giap (pronounced ‘Zi-ap’) retired from the army after the Vietnam War and had an unsuccessful time as a politician before becoming heavily involved in ecology and the defence of the Vietnamese environment. He was still active in this after his 100th birthday, a far cry from his time as the scourge of the mighty armies of France and the USA; he was a seriously interesting man.

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General Vo Nguyen Giap, military leader of the Viet Minh (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

During the immediate post-war years, the French had tried to re-establish their control of Vietnam, despite the resistance and opposition. One of their strategies had been maintain their ‘Puppet Emperor’, Bao Dai, in power for nearly a decade after WWII. The Viet Minh maintained their struggle over these years until the key battle of Dien Bien Phu in March-May 1954. After a 57 day siege of this huge fort and defence system in the north-west of the country, the French were defeated by the Viet Minh – and they promptly left and walked out of Vietnam, leaving a potential disaster for the West as a power vacuum appeared in this corner of South-east Asia. The USA faced a major dilemma as to what to do and they decided to take over from the French, supporting the unpopular pro-western regime of Bao Dai which had its main power base in the cities and the south. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had come to the Presidency as a Republican after victory in November, 1952, and found that he had little room for manoeuvre. He was elected because of his great military record and was seen to be someone who would take the fight to the Soviet Union, standing up to Communism and maintaining the most robust defence of the USA. In these years, the Chinese Revolution of 1949 was a fresh and powerful memory and an event which had blighted Harry Truman’s final years in office. No President could confidently face a similar accusation to that thrown at Truman, namely, the‘loss of China’. With belief in ‘domino theory’ at its height and with the country still in thrall to Joe McCarthy’s Communist witch-hunt, even though he himself had just fallen from power, Eisenhower had little choice but to step in.

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Supplies for the French forces at Dien Bien Phu being dropped in 1954. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

The Americans now found themselves thrown into a leading role in a foreign environment and in a situation where they had little experience or expertise. One of the big problems was that in the previous years, they had got rid of nearly all of their experts on China and Vietnam because of the McCarthyite Witch Hunts; anyone interested in the region or who had visited it, studied it or spoke the language, had been removed because of fears over ‘Communist sympathies’. This was unfortunate, stupid or somewhere in between, depending on how you want to view it. Anyway, US policy became confused and chaotic as they misread information, misunderstood actions and made numerous mistakes based on political values at home rather than an accurate reading of events in Vietnam itself. Those responsible found themselves in a world they did not comprehend, doing things that made sense to themselves but which increasingly alienated the Vietnamese and failed to achieve any significant gains. Both politically and militarily, the Americans had a particular problem in that they were unwilling to do anything that hinted at weakness or compromise with Communism, as they believed strongly in ‘containment’ and the need to be strong in the face of the challenge they faced. It was an approach which would draw the USA irresistibly towards war.

The moment when US involvement in Indo-China became inevitable was the Geneva Conference, which was held in 1954-55 as a way of negotiating an acceptable way forward in Vietnam. The meeting was held in the aftermath of Dien Bien Phu and brought politicians from both sides in Vietnam together alongside the major powers. The Chinese, naturally, supported the Communists while the USA sided with Bao Dai and the pro-western groups. Discussions went on for some time before it was agreed that the country would be temporarily divided (just like Germany and Korea had been) into North Vietnam, under the control of Ho Chi Minh and the Communists, and South Vietnam, which would be a pro-Western Government under a man called Ngo Dinh Diem, (pronounced ‘Ho Zin Zee-em’) as Prime Minister and, later, President.

Washington’s short-sighted thinking in this would become very significant and the echoes of their appointment of Syngman Rhee, leader of South Korea, were clear in their choice of Ngo Ding Diem. Diem spoke French and English and had lived in both France and the USA, as well as being a Catholic, a religion which made more sense to the Americans than did Buddhism, the religion of the majority of Vietnamese. As Prime Minister, Diem was someone Washington understood as he made sense to them but he was also deeply unpopular with the ordinary people of Vietnam. The longer he stayed in power, the more unpopular he became, thanks most of all to a culture of bribery that surrounded him and fed the legend of his sister-in-law, ‘Madame Nhu’, Mrs. Ngo Dinh Nhu, the power behind the throne. Diem himself lived very simply and never married but his family became very rich through their links with him and the West. None of this had any impact on the Americans, of course, as they failed to consider the negative consequences of their actions on other people. Support for Diem would become increasingly important when Jack Kennedy, a Catholic himself, was elected President in 1960. JFK felt some extra sort of ‘obligation’ to support Diem because of their shared faith in the struggle against the Communist threat even when the evidence made it clear that the Vietnamese Prime Minister was a walking disaster.

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President Eisenhower (left) greeting President Ngo Dinh Diem in May, 1957. (Author: US Air Force; Source: here)

Going back to the Geneva Conference for a minute, it should be noted that it was decided to divide Vietnam at the 17th Parallel (which means the 17th line of latitude i.e. 17˚ north of the equator). It was marked as the ‘Demilitarized Zone’ (or DMZ) on maps, creating a border that split the country roughly in half. Originally it was supposed to last for one year or so until national elections were held which would choose a new democratic Government to re-unite the country. Both sides agreed to accept the result of this ‘free and fair’ contest. The election was never held, though, because the USA refused to allow them, claiming that the Communists would ensure that they were not ‘free and fair’. However, the reality was probably better expressed by Andrew Goodpaster, a general in the US Army and Eisenhower’s Staff Secretary, who in a rather uncomfortable interview in the 1990s, admitted that the real reason the elections could not be allowed was that Ho Chi Minh had the support of about 80% of the people and that his victory, and the West’s defeat, would have seen Communism win. This would then open Eisenhower up to the accusation of the ‘loss of Vietnam’. Logical though this might have been, it still puts a big question mark over the USA’s real commitment to ‘democracy’ at the time and reflects the deep anxiety at the power of ‘domino theory’ in the 1950s.

In the absence of the elections which would have seen him take power, Ho Chi Minh felt betrayed by the USA and authorised increased attacks on South Vietnam and the Government in particular during the late 1950s. Thousands of Government officials were killed, injured and intimidated by the Viet Minh and their collaborators in the south, who would come to be known as the ‘Viet Cong’, an insulting nickname given them by Ngo Dinh Diem. (‘The full name of the group was ‘Viet Nam Cong San’ which translates as ‘Vietnamese Communists’.) These two groups would later fight together against the USA in the Vietnam War, but the main military force was the Viet Minh rather than the Viet Cong.

The Communist attacks on South Vietnam caused serious disruption and concern, leading Diem to beg for help from the USA. At first this meant sending money but soon weapons and ‘advisers’ of one kind and another had to go to help the South Vietnamese; they needed guidance on how to fight, use the weapons, plan strategies and so on. But this was not enough to stop the attacks which escalated and in the early 1960s more weapons and even helicopters were needed – as were pilots to fly them and engineers to maintain them. When these came under attack, small numbers of soldiers had to go in to protect them – and they also started to teach the South Vietnamese soldiers how to go on patrol and how to get captured prisoners to ‘talk’, the polite way of saying guidance on interrogation and torture. This all meant the US was being sucked into an increasingly demanding situation, one which demanded more money, more people, more soldiers and more technology to protect the advisers, transport and so on and so on. Soon the Americans themselves became a target for Viet Minh attack and containment was becoming increasingly messy for the USA.

One particularly controversial policy introduced by the US advisers was called ‘Strategic hamlets’. This was an attempt to control pro-Communist activities by bringing all the people outside the cities together in large, fortified and heavily controlled villages. The people gathered in these larger communities were to be listed, monitored and tracked as necessary. A plan which made sense to the US strategists, at least on paper, turned out to be a disaster. Fundamental to its failure was the total misunderstanding of Vietnamese culture and the role of the village, something which would be central to problems which would blight the war itself from Washington’s point of view. The Americans simply did not understand that, to the Vietnamese, the village was not just a place to live but was something far more important; it was central to each person’s identity, the expression of their belonging, their family, the society itself. People did not just get up and leave their home to move, say, to a bigger or newer place. Families lived in the same house and village for centuries, burying their ancestors in the area, remaining close to their spirits. Each generation cared for the home and village as the expression of their family at that time. To remove people from their village was to separate a family from its roots, to destroy identity and break the bonds of connections that were like life itself.

‘Strategic hamlets’ created huge resentment and drove many Vietnamese towards the Communists, not because of strong ideological commitment but as they offered a way to restore people to their roots. Anyway, on a more practical level, the US had no easy way of monitoring all the people in the ‘strategic hamlets’, checking who was coming and going, or where they were going and what they were doing. Many American soldiers developed a very dismissive attitude towards local people, seeing them all as stupid and weak because they were poor by their standards, spoke a language they did not understand and ‘they all looked the same’. These issues would only get worse in the years that followed.

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The defences of a ‘strategic hamlet’ in 1964. (Author: Brotherreuse; Source: here)

Despite the many tensions in Vietnam, war was not inevitable at this time. However, such events rarely take place in isolation from other events and the early 1960s were, of course, a time of extraordinary tension in the Cold War and this must be considered as the back-drop to Vietnam. There had been increased division with the ‘Communist ‘family’ since the late 1950s as Chairman Mao was breaking with Khrushchev to follow more overtly aggressive and Stalinist policies seen in the threats against Taiwan and the ‘Great Leap Forward’ which brought widespread famine. The U-2 spy plane incident had heightened tension between the East and West in 1960, a situation which only worsened with the Bay of Pigs Fiasco in April 1961, the building of the Berlin Wall in August of the same year and then the Cuban Missile Crisis itself in October 1962. The USSRs successes in the Space Race had been enhanced by Yuri Gagarin’s successful orbit of the earth in 1961 and served to highlight Soviet technological advances as did the further development of nuclear missiles. Vietnam was set to become a place of great significance for the USA, the place where a stand would be taken against the rising tide of Communist threats and expansion but there would have to be a clear and specific threat identified before such a conflict could be started.

In the early 1960s, as we have seen, there was very significant unrest and attacks in South Vietnam. The most visible sign of those protests came in the actions of numerous Buddhist monks, as the picture at the start of this chapter indicated. In opposition to Ngo Dinh Diem’s unwillingness to recognise various Buddhist festivals, some monks set themselves on fire on the streets, often making contact with Western journalists and film crews beforehand so that they would turn up and witness what happened. the images went around the world and shocked many people so that they demanded answers about what was happening in the country. In the Cold War struggle for ‘hearts and minds, in Vietnam and around the world, such images hardly reflected well on the USA as the supposed leader of freedom and tolerance.

The actual trigger for the war itself came in August, 1964, with what became known as ‘The Gulf of Tonkin’ incident. The Gulf of Tonkin itself is the area of the sea just off the north east coast of Vietnam. US warships were patrolling there during the summer of 1964, partly because the US Navy had earlier been involved in covert missions to help fast patrol boats manned by South Vietnamese commandos to attack North Vietnam. Although the US forces had blocked radar systems in North Vietnam, those attacks had failed due to poor intelligence about the targeted sites. In an attempt to weaken the effectiveness of the North Vietnamese defences, an intelligence gathering operation called the ‘Desoto Patrol’ had been set up using US destroyers in international waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. Hanoi knew about this and the USs involvement in the earlier attacks on North Vietnam bridges and other military sites. They decided to use Soviet built P-4 motor torpedo boats which were not fast enough to hit the Norwegian made patrol boats but could work against the slower destroyers. One of these was the USS Maddox under the command of Captain John J. Herrick. On 2nd August, the Maddox was attacked although not damaged, except for one round of ammunition which hit the ship; the torpedoes missed. The P-4s were destroyed.

In Washington, there was surprise that Ho Chi Minh had not backed down under pressure and had responded in such a strong and attacking manner. It was decided that there had to be a show of strength by the USA as it could not be seen to back down in the face of Communist threats. The ‘Maddox’ continued its operations and was supported by another warship presence. With everything in a state of heightened tension, it was reported that two days later, on 4th August, the ‘Maddox’ had again come under attack. However, there was great confusion at the time as to whether or not that was actually true. An American pilot who was sent out to see what was happening reported nothing at all even though it was a clear night. Subsequent investigations and evidence show that there was, in fact, no attack that night. However, on 5th August, 1964, an American attack was launched which destroyed an oil storage unit at Vinh and sank about thirty ships along the coast. Of far more importance, though, was that on 7th August, Congress passed the ‘Tonkin Gulf Resolution’. Although no attack had taken place, President Johnson was given absolute power to conduct the war using military force as he alone saw fit. The door had been left wide open for the escalation of hostilities against Communist forces in Vietnam and LBJ would go through that door a few months later.

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The ‘USS Maddox’, the ship at the heart of the Gulf of Tonkin incident (Author: US Navy; Source: here)

One other thing worth noting at this time is a report presented a year earlier to President Kennedy, a report completed at the request of Robert MacNamara, the Defense Secretary. The report was the result of the ‘Krulak Mendenhall Mission’ which aimed to investigate how the South Vietnamese and their US advisers as they sort to gain control of the country and withstand Viet Cong insurgents. General Victor Krulak represented the  military while Joseph Mendenhall was more of a civil servant who had experience of Vietnam and was part of the Foreign Service. What is fascinating about the report they presented is how confused it was and how the two men gave such differing opinions. On one hand, there was Krulak looked only at the military operation itself where he saw only the positive and was extremely complimentary about what had been achieved, leading to him being very optimistic about the future. On the other hand, Mendenhall looked at the bigger picture, especially the attitudes and actions of the ordinary people and here he saw only causes for concern; the people were so anti-Diem that they believed that life would be better under the Viet Cong. Mendenhall’s informed pessimism contrasted so much with Krulak’s military focused optimism that it led Kennedy to ask, ‘The two of you did visit the same country, didn’t you?’ In showing the problems between the military and the civilian approaches, between the Pentagon and the politicians, as well as the difficulty in gathering accurate assessments of the situation, the ‘Krulak Mendenhall Mission’ is a great insight into the future problems that would so undermine the whole US policy towards Vietnam; they were stumbling towards the edge.

The Vietnam War officially started in February-March 1965 when President Johnson launched air strikes and then sent in the first US ground troops to support the South Vietnamese Army. Johnson had delayed intervention until after the presidential election of November 1964, an election he won comfortably in the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination the previous year. And Johnson was in many ways a hostage to fortune because of events which Kennedy, Eisenhower and even Truman had set in train. The Vietnam War would come to be known as ‘Johnson’s War’ but it was really the natural expression of containment, the policy of the previous two decades. Containment of Communism would find a very real expression at some place and that turned out to be Vietnam.

One particular stage on the way to war was the removal of Ngo Dinh Diem as leader of South Vietnam in November 1963. As mentioned before, Diem was deeply unpopular with many ordinary people. In the early 1960s, leading figures in the South Vietnamese Army wanted him to be replaced but President Kennedy would not allow it. Rather like the attack on the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, Diem was a ‘situation’ he had inherited from Eisenhower and he was determined to stand by him. Diem was seen as loyal and tough so choosing an alternative ran the risk of Kennedy being seen as ‘weak’ in the struggle against Communism. Kennedy was especially keen to support Diem as a fellow Catholic and this may have coloured his approach more than was healthy.

Kennedy may have heard but resisted the calls for Diem’s removal but he had likewise resisted many requests from President Diem to send in combat troops before 1963 as he was scared of escalating the conflict in Vietnam. As the conflict intensified, JFK received more and more requests for the removal of Diem and by late 1963, things were deteriorating so much that Kennedy finally gave the go-ahead and Diem was assassinated by his own troops on 2nd November, 1963. This brought in a period of chaos in South Vietnam as eight military coups took place in quick succession. This caused great anxiety in Washington but it all paled next to the key event of that period: the assassination of President Kennedy on 22nd November, 1963, just three weeks after Diem’s killing. The new president was the former vice –president, Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ), a Texan with great political experience. LBJ was wary of escalating American involvement in Vietnam before the 1964 election even though the military were calling for direct involvement. Johnson was determined to win the Presidency and then the military could have their war. He wanted to concentrate on Civil Rights and building the ‘Great Society’, both of which would were based on the highest of ideals but would both be seriously compromised by the war.

Johnson eventually launched the Vietnam War with ‘Operation Rolling Thunder’, the carpet bombing of Vietnam, after February 1965. The huge B-52 bombers dropped astonishing quantities of bombs both then and during the eight years of US involvement in the war, causing death and destruction on an extraordinary scale. In March 1965, the first 5000 US Marines were sent to fight, their numbers reaching 38 000 by the end of the year. From the first major battle at Ia Drang in November, 1965, until the US troops withdrew in 1973, the fighting would cost 58 000 US lives while hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese died or suffered injuries. People from Australia, South Korea, Cambodia, New Zealand and China were amongst the many others who served and died in the war.

The Vietnam War divided US society and saw some of the largest protests in its history. It brought pressure to bear on Washington as many allies and critics questioned its role, aims and values in the conduct of the war. It would be the event which ended President Johnson’s career, bringing Richard Nixon to power and so heralding change in Cold War relations. And it would lead to the creation of some of the most important music, art and literature of the era, although that will have to be left until a later chapter.

Hopefully, though, it is becoming more clear as to why the US had a problem in creating a memorial to the Vietnam War.

 

 

Betty Friedan: Is that all?

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The sort of kitchen that should have made every American woman of the 1950s very happy.

Betty Friedan: ‘Is that all?’

‘It is ridiculous to tell girls to be quiet when they enter a new field, or an old one, so the men will not notice they are there. A girl should not expect special privileges, because of her sex, but neither should she “adjust” to prejudice and discrimination.’ Betty Friedan

Billie Jean King was a very famous tennis player and one of the most successful players in the history of the women’s game having won 39 Grand Slam titles, 12 in the singles with a further 27 in the doubles and mixed doubles. But despite these many triumphs, some of her most significant time on court came in an exhibition against a washed-up 55 year-old man who had challenged her to a match. It was 1973 and Mrs. King’s opponent was a former tennis champion called Bobby Riggs (1918-1995) who believed that women had no right to equal prize money with men as they were simply not good enough. Riggs had retired from tennis many years before and was well past his best but he had recently beaten the famous Australian Champion, Margaret Court. He was expected to win ‘The Battle of the Sexes’ against the 29 year-old King, the high profile leader of the campaign for equality in tennis. The match took place at the Houston Astrodome and attracted a record TV audience for a tennis match. Played over the best of five sets, King won in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 but the significance of the result went well beyond money, pride or fame.

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Billie Jean King, winner of the ‘Battle of the Sexes’. (Author: David Shankbone; Source: here)

Billie Jean King was challenged to game of tennis by Bobby Riggs because she was the most high-profile figure in the campaign for equality for women in tennis. More specifically she wanted equality between women and men not only in terms of prize money but also in respect and status. At Wimbledon in 1968, for example, the first time the tournament was open to professionals, the men’s champion won £2000 while the women’s champion won £750. The argument used was that the women’s champion had it a lot easier than the men’s as women played only three set matches while men played over five sets. Many women’s matches, especially in the early rounds, lasted barely an hour, such was the lack of competition, while the greater depth of ability in the men’s game meant that the champion could expect to have faced far greater challenges on his way to the title. This was the long established norm and one which most people saw no reason to change.

For Billie Jean King, though, this was all a matter of justice and equality so that, even before she had retired from playing, she moved in to the administration of the women’s game and set herself the target of achieving equal prize money with men. Over the years, progress on this matter was achieved until, in 2007, Wimbledon joined the US and Australian Opens in paying equal prize money to everyone, while the French Open paid equal money to the Champions. Billie Jean King was seen as a champion of the campaign for equal rights for women but she was not working alone nor acting in a vacuum. Her work developed out of her belief in the ‘Women’s Liberation Movement’ which had developed in the USA from the early 1960s. And that movement had begun with the 1963 publication of a book called ‘The Feminine Mystique’. The author was a woman called Betty Friedan and this section looks at her work.

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Betty Friedan (1921-2006) (Author: Fred Palumbo; Source: here)

Betty Friedan (1921-2006) was born in the city of Peoria, some 140 miles south-west of Chicago in the state of Illinois just after the Great War. She became a writer and journalist and had strong left-wing sympathies in her twenties and thirties. She was forced to leave her job as a journalist when she became pregnant for the second time in the early 1950s but she continued to write as a freelance journalist, being paid for each piece she did for any newspaper or magazine. Following a reunion of women who had been her classmates at college, a group who had lived through the boom years of post-war America, Friedan found herself both saddened and inspired by what she had heard them say. On the surface they were from an extraordinarily privileged generation that seemed to have everything they could want, having moved beyond the struggles of the Great Depression to enjoy homes, education and wealth on an incredible scale as the new middle-class suburbs spread across the USA. They had cars, TVs, gardens and parties. They went on holidays across the US and around the world, had a wonderful range of clothes and shoes and met up with friends for drinks on an almost daily basis. The extraordinary rise in the wealth of middle class America after World War II had given them many new and  improved labour saving domestic devices almost overnight. Their homes were filled with giant fridges, washing machines, vacuum cleaners and even pop-corn makers. By comparison with every previous generation, these women should have been positive, happy and, above all, fulfilled. But Betty Friedan’s conversations had revealed that, below the surface, many women in America were far from happy. She believed that her contemporaries from her college days had so much and yet they were deeply dissatisfied and unfulfilled; above all, they were bored.

This feeling led Betty Friedan to undertake a wide-range of research, thought and reflection. What was wrong? How had it happened? Was it true? Were her classmates a true reflection of what was happening across the USA? By comparison with their mothers and grandmothers, the women of the fifties and sixties seemed to have all that they could have dreamt of materially. In a time of extraordinary economic growth, unemployment was low, pay was rising and technology was making new goods available. Their husbands jobs meant that middle class women were expected to stay at home, leaving them with lots of free time to themselves. Smaller families, convenience foods and new technology meant a world of leisure opened up before them each day. However, with the shopping and housework done before lunchtime, those days often stretched out before them towards a tedious horizon. Friedan’s conversations and research revealed that daytime TV, charity work and ‘Tupperware Parties’ could only bring satisfaction to a few or for a short time; the materialistic dream had lost its appeal for many women in America.

Betty Friedan found that many of her contemporaries were deeply unhappy and confused because they lacked any sense of fulfilment, challenge and purpose. Women lacked opportunities for self-expression, intellectual growth and risk-taking. The social norms of the time were rooted in those of the previous generation which expected, or even demanded, that women were mothers, the figures who stayed at home, cooked and cared for their children, always at the service of their husbands. They were not expected to socialise alone. Their greatest satisfaction was to come through having children who did well at school and college, children who were neat and polite. If they had been given opportunities in education, they were still expected to forego these in favour of the traditional roles of housewife and mother. They were expected to be subservient to their husbands in all matters, be it finances, where to go on holiday, what to eat or who drove the car. Friedan saw that wealth had brought opportunity and time for the modern women but society had not moved with the changes so creating a vacuum at the heart of many women’s lives in the shiny, affluent suburbs of Middle America. On the back of these discussions, Friedan gave shape to the thoughts and feelings of millions of women in her ground-breaking book, ‘The Feminine Mystique’, one of the most important, successful and influential non-fiction books of the century.

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Many adverts encouraged the belief that a woman’s fulfilment was best expressed as a housewife and mother.

(Author: Unknown; Source: here)

‘The Feminine Mystique’ was a powerful book with a hard message which struck at the heart of American society. Friedan’s revolutionary analysis led to attacks on numerous people, groups and institutions: Sigmund Freud’s ill developed psych-analysis, pretty much all men for their role in oppressing women, the Government for its lack of support and intervention on behalf of women, big business for its employment policies, the churches for their teachings and the exclusion of women from power and even some women, for the way they created a myth of ‘proper’ womanhood. The book caused a sensation on its release in 1963, a year of turmoil, change and reflection in the USA. Friedan encouraged the reader to look at things with new eyes, to seek opportunities, to challenge the established attitudes, to see themselves in a more positive light and to demand new ways  of living as a woman. With titles like ‘The Happy Housewife Heroine’, ‘The Sex Directed Educators’ and ‘Progressive Dehumanization: The Comfortable Concentration Camp Summary’, the book almost courted controversy. Certainly few institutions, systems and values in Western society did not come under attack, either directly or indirectly. It was a controversial best-seller and Betty Friedan became a major figure in US society, loved and hated, admired and feared, in equal measures.

Betty Friedan’s main ideas included:

• Equality with men in terms of economic opportunity, meaning equality in wages because men were usually paid more than women for doing the same job;

• The right of women to develop a career path just as men could;

• The opportunity for women to have a voice and a say in affairs both in the home and community as an equal with men;

• The need for women to be able to work as well as to have a family because she saw the fulfilling of the traditional role of housewife and mother as being stifling for many women, especially where they had studied and were skilled to a high level: why should this all be sacrificed to raising a family? This was summed up in her famous question, the question that lurked in the back of many women’s minds as they shopped and cleaned, namely, ‘Is this all?’

• The right to legal abortion as she believed women should have control over their own bodies and the nature of her family commitments.

Many women responded to the book’s rallying call for a ‘New Plan for Women’ by putting Friedan’s ideas and analysis into action. For some this happened in relatively ordinary but significant things like the sharing of household chores, getting their own car or getting a part-time job. But a few women became more extreme in their approach, forming the small and notorious ‘Women’s Liberation Movement’ or ‘Women’s Libbers’. They were a little like the Suffragettes had been in Britain, when they used violence and aggression as they campaigned to win the vote for women half a century before. Although small in number, the Suffragettes tactics ensured that they started many debates and attracted lots of attention in the media. The ‘Women’s Liberation Movement’ protested by holding marches, disrupting beauty contests and, occasionally, burning their bras and other underwear in public. The burning of bras and corsets not surprisingly attracted plenty of attention and was supposed to be a sign that such items were worn only for the pleasure and satisfaction of men and to make women conform to a social stereotype, even if it caused discomfort. The attacks on competitions such as the Miss World contest in 1970, were based on the idea that they were seen as degrading to women and done simply for the pleasure of men.

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A Women’s Liberation Movement protest in Washington, D.C., in 1970.

While the hard-liners of the campaign for equality grabbed most of the headlines, there was a broader, mainstream movement, too. The situation was very similar to that in the campaign for votes for women in Britain before the Great War. The NUWSS (the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies) were the peaceful, patient and quietly determined group of campaigners known as the ‘Suffragists’, while the WSPU (the Women’s Social and Political Union) were the far smaller, aggressive and violent ‘Suffragettes’. While the Suffragists adopted campaign methods such as signing petitions, attending meetings with MPs and writing letters to the newspapers, the Suffragettes adopted more extreme tactics, such as chaining themselves to the railings at Downing Street, throwing manure at MPs in Parliament and setting fire to golf clubhouses and pouring acid on the greens of the golf courses where they new men who opposed them were members. While people at the time and the average student of history remembers the more dramatic stories, the truth is that the arguments were really won by the  quieter campaigners and the extremists probably held back progress by presenting an ‘unattractive’ face to many ordinary people, both men and women.

In the campaign for equality for women in the wake of ‘The Feminine Mystique’, there was an equivalent of the ‘Suffragists’ who offered an alternative to the ‘Women’s Liberation Movement’. This group was more patient and less confrontational, quietly arguing for equality by challenging the system and the men that controlled it. This was ‘NOW’, the ‘National Organisation for Women’, a group set up by Betty Friedan herself in 1966 and which generally looked on with some anxiety as the ‘Women’s Lib’ approach attracted the mockery and ridicule of many in society at large. Just as with the Suffragettes, the argument was used that women who behaved in such a way did not deserve equality as they were violent, emotional and unreasonable.

The women’s movement really came to prominence in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. In the 1960s, the high profile of that movement, under Martin Luther King’s particular leadership, raised issues that made many women think in a similar manner, namely seeing themselves as second-class citizens to American men. There were clearly some similarities both between the issues which inspired the two movements and the ways in which they were treated. Both were mocked by some politicians, organisations and commentators in the media; both movements split into more than one group over issues such as their tactics and goals; and both fell short of total victory as the Sixties ended with much that was unchanged in the struggle for the ‘hearts and minds’ of Middle America. But both movements also achieved significant changes that impacted on US and western society so that overt racism and feminism are no longer anything like as widespread or ‘normal’ as they were in the years after World War II.

While equality with men may have been achieved in tennis, there are many areas where supporters of Friedan’s ideas would say work still needs to be done. One of these is especially significant in the eyes of many campaigners, namely, politics, or more specifically, ‘leadership in Governments’. Ask many Western people to list well-known female politicians and they’ll probably come up with a limited list , certainly one which would be far shorter than an equivalent list for male politicians. In Britain, Margaret thatcher will still lead the list, although there might be  a mention for Barbara Castle, Shirley Williams, Ann Widdecombe, Theresa May, Margaret Beckett, Yvette Cooper, Harriet Harman and Diane Abbott – but you would be pretty committed to get a list that long. In Europe, Petra Keely, a key figure in the founding of the Green Party in Germany would get a mention, as would Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, but the point is that Frau Merkel is usually the only female leader when the Presidents and Prime Ministers of the G20 gather; there are very few high-profile women in leadership around the world. This simply reflects the reality of political life in most countries from Russia, China and Japan to Egypt, Canada and Peru because there have been very few women who have attained prominent positions of power in politics over the last century.

On this matter of women who have led a national Government was actually a Sri Lankan, Sirimavo Banadaranaike, in 1960. She was followed by Indira Gandhi in India in 1966 and then Golda Meir in Israel in 1969. More women have led countries since then but they remain in the minority by far. In Britain, there is an on-going concern over the number of women MPs and as members of the Cabinet, both of which remain well below the 50% level that is expected in some quarters. Elsewhere, Julia Gillard was Prime  Minister of Australia for a rather uncomfortable and bruising time between 2010 and 2013, while Jenny Shipley (1997-99) and Helen Clark (1999-2008) have led New Zealand. One of the worst records, perhaps, is that of the USA, the land of opportunity, where no woman has so far come close to being president or even to being the candidate for one of the major parties in more than two centuries. There is still some way to go if full equality for women is to be obtained, not just legally and in theory but also in reality and expectation.

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Golda Meir (1898-1978), Prime Minister of Israel (1969-74), one of the few women to have led a modern nation state. (Author: Marion S. Trikosko; Source: here)

Going back to the work of Betty Friedan, ‘The Feminine Mystique’ was a remarkable book that gave a real insight into the hearts and minds of millions of, though not all, women in the USA in the 1960s. It acted as a trigger for social debate and marked a step change in the role, hopes and expectations of women and it challenged many men, businesses and institutions to consider their own attitudes and actions. Betty Friedan was not the only person to play a role in seeking equality for women and her book was not the only factor that shaped ‘the battle of sexes’, as some saw it, but both she and her book played a hugely significant role in shaping opinion. After 1963, the rise of feminism became so much more likely, especially when placed alongside the availability of the contraceptive pill, greater access to education and the acceptance of principles embodied in the Civil Rights Movement. It is fair to say that many women found confidence and affirmation through Friedan’s work and her message, knowing they were not alone and understanding that taking control of their own destinies was an option, something which had never been available to any previous generation. The consequences were far reaching, impacting on the work place, marriage, family life, abortion rights, music, fashion and almost every other area of life.

Betty Friedan played a major role in shaping modern Western society and equal prize money in tennis was just one thing that flowed from her big question: ‘Is that all?’

 

Find out more:

Books: ‘The Feminine Mystique’ by Betty Friedan (Penguin Modern Classics); ‘A Necessary Spectacle: Billie Jean King, Bobby Riggs and the Tennis Match That Levelled the Game’ by Selena Roberts (Crown Publishers, 2005); ‘Game, Set, Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports’ by Susan Ware (The University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

Films:Far from heaven’ starring Juliette Moore and Dennis Quaid (Eiv Studios, 2003); ‘Pleasantville’ starring Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon (Warner Home Videos, 1998) and ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman all offer some insights on the relationships and values of the 1950s.

 

 

 

 

The enemy of my enemy is my friend – for now: The origins of the Cold War, 1945-49

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June 5th, 1945: Supreme Commanders of the Allied Forces in Berlin. From left: Montgomery (UK), Eisenhower (USA), Zhukov (USSR) and de Lattre (France)

The enemy of my enemy is my friend – for now: The origins of the Cold War, 1945-49

“We have to get tough with the Russians. They don’t know how to behave. They are like bulls in a china shop. They are only 25 years old. We are over 100 and the British are centuries older.  We have got to teach them how to behave.” Harry Truman, April 1945.

In life, the shared hatred of another figure often unites people who themselves have little love for each other. As the old saying goes, ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’, and there are many examples of this tension in history. Alliances formed by fear and necessity in the face of a dangerous enemy rarely survive the peace, though. Of the many examples, the point is made by the likes of the city states of Ancient Greece fighting the mighty Persians, the Communist and Nationalist forces in China putting aside their differences to oppose Japan in World War II and the very interesting case of US aid being given to the Mujahideen to oppose Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In each case, peace brought a brief period of celebration and easy relations which were soon followed by a re-establishment of the old order. The truth is, of course, that the two sides were never really allies with completely shared goals and never fully trusted each other. With regard to World War II, In reality, the USSR, the USA and Britain, the East and the West, were clearly divided on ideological grounds before hostilities began. The history of the three very different countries, their cultures, political systems and industrial structures were such that only the expansionist ideas of an Adolf Hitler could ever bring them to unity. When things like their values, needs and goals came to find expression in the shaping of the post-Nazi world, there was no realistic hope that the alliance could survive, and so it proved. By 1949, the Cold War was well and truly established and would dominate world affairs for four decades.

In summarising how the Cold War developed, there are a number of factors to consider. Just as happens in any relationship breakdown, each story about the end of a war-time alliance is unique but there are often shared and identifiable themes. When analysing the collapse of the East-West alliance of World War II, it is quite clear that some pretty fundamental issues were at work. These factors included: the leadership of the different countries, with the complex world of ego and personality to the fore; the historic tension between the different countries based on values and political systems, including the way the war had been fought; and the deeply held hopes and fears about the future, especially around the role of Germany. On top of these historic factors, there was then a range of events which added complexity and tension to the potentially volatile and anxious relationship. Any looking at the Allies and their ‘marriage of convenience’ in 1941 would have expected that it was doomed in the long run. The only real question was just how acrimonious the divorce would be. It turned out to be only just short of apocalyptic.

So, the first factor to consider is the role of the leaders of the three Allied nations: The United States of America (USA), the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the United kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (Britain). During the war, President Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) had led the USA, Winston Churchill was Prime Minister of Britain and Joseph Stalin had ruled the USSR. Together they were the ‘Big Three’. They were from very different backgrounds: Stalin was the son of Georgian peasant, FDR was from a very wealthy New York family and Churchill was born in one of the greatest houses in Europe, Blenheim Palace, a grandson of the Seventh Duke of Marlborough. Stalin had long been a Communist revolutionary, regularly imprisoned by the Tsar, a long-standing and under-estimated member of the Politburo following the Russian Revolution who came to power through manipulation and force in the aftermath of Lenin’s early death. FDR had known a life of leisure and privilege before going into politics under the US system of democracy before being struck down by polio. His rise to the Presidency and his role as the saviour of the country through the ‘New Deal’ in the 1930s saw him returned to the White House four times, a record which will never be matched. Churchill was one of the most famous men in Britain for forty years before finally becoming Prime Minister in 1940. His extraordinary life took him being a journalist and prisoner of war in the Boer War, to a leading role in the Liberal Government of Herbert Asquith, to becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Baldwin Government of the 1920s before he entered his years of isolation in the thirties. The great alliance which stood up to Hitler and the Nazis was led by three quite extraordinary figures, none of whom lacked attitude, experience and vision – and none of whom completely trusted the others.

These three men led three powerful countries. In the simplest terms it could be said that the USA was the richest country in the world, the USSR was the largest country in the world and Britain controlled the greatest Empire the world had ever seen. As individuals, FDR, Stalin and Churchill were complex figures who considered the status in the world and history. As leaders of countries whose populations had such high expectations of them, they were not free to compromise on potential security and influence in the post-war world. However, although they knew they were not real allies and were divided on numerous issues, their collaboration had been forged in the heat of battle and there was a strong and shared respect. Each of the countries had made major sacrifices and significant contributions to the struggle, and there was a powerful bond between them as they planned to shape the world after the defeat of National Socialism and its allies. They all seemed to enjoy being on the greatest political stage, sharing it with other powerful politicians and knowing that what they were doing would touch the lives of every person on earth. For Stalin, in particular, as a man from a peasant background in Georgia, there was real pride in standing alongside the leaders of the USA and Great Britain. From FDR and Churchill there was a recognition that the Soviet Union had suffered more than any other country in casualties and damage and it had made a mighty contribution to victory. The relationship was tense but they held together reasonably well, especially while victory was in the future.

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The ‘Big Three’ at Yalta, February 1945: Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

None of the leaders could ever be described as stupid, though. FDR, Stalin and Churchill all knew that respect did not necessarily mean trust. The peace-time challenges would clearly be different but there was hope that that their fragile but real bonds of respect might enable those difficulties to be met in a reasonably smooth and acceptable manner. However, one thing that became evident in the war conferences was that FDR and Churchill in particular were keen to manoeuvre against each other so as to get into as good a position as possible to deal with Stalin after the war. These conferences, which were held at Tehran in Persia (modern Iran), Yalta in the USSR (modern Ukraine) and Potsdam in Germany, were fundamental to the shaping of the post-war world – and they played a key role in laying the foundations for the Cold War, too.

The basic facts about the war-time conferences, such as the dates, venues, attendees and agendas, tell us a lot but not everything that we need to know. There is a ‘back-story’, some of which can be useful in helping us more fully appreciate the significance of the Conferences. This will be looked at in the second point, about the history of tension between the USSR and the Western Powers, in particular, going back to 1917. But, in this section, the focus is on the leading protagonists themselves and in this, there were some very momentous shifts.

The first change came on 12th April, 1945, Roosevelt died in Warm Springs, Georgia. He was only 63 years old but he was exhausted and he had looked terribly unwell when attending the Yalta conference in February of that year. People had been shocked at how frail he looked although the press releases all suggested that he was well, as they had done before the 1944 election. Obviously his polio and the pressures of office contributed to his premature death but there is little doubt that Joseph Stalin also made a contribution. Stalin was very unwilling to travel outside the USSR, or at least to move beyond the area under the control of the Red Army. He was unwilling, for example, to travel to London or Washington for any conference and so it was that FDR and Churchill, the former having problems with blood pressure and his heart, amongst other things, had to make the long journey to Yalta in the Crimea in the winter of 1944. The fact that it was the western powers who travelled is one of the signs of how much influence Stalin actually held and the way in which FDR and Churchill were keen not to be seen to upset him.

In place of the four-time President, a truly great statesman, who was the hero of the ‘New Deal’ and the man who had led the USA toward victory since the shock of Pearl Harbor, there stood an almost unknown figure, Harry S. Truman, the former haberdasher from Independence, Missouri. Having known Roosevelt, a man usually seen as one of the three greatest presidents of all time in the USA, Truman was a shock to Stalin when they met for the Potsdam Conference in late July, 1945. However, his arrival was at least something he could understand as, obviously, death comes to us all, and it was known that FDR had been seriously ill for some time. The second change, on the other hand, left Stalin stunned and horrified. At Potsdam, Winston Churchill arrived as leader of Britain but awaiting the result of a General Election which had been held at the start of July, 1945. There was a three week delay in announcing the result because of counting votes from military personnel around the world. It was during the conference itself that the result came through: Churchill had lost and was replaced as Britain’s Prime Minister by the Labour leader, Clement Attlee. Stalin could simply not understand how Churchill, the great war-time leader, could be replaced by Attlee, a man he saw as a non-entity with nothing of the power, vision and status of Churchill. While no one could ever claim that Stalin was a fan of democracy, it is difficult to believe that this did anything but harden his position against it; Attlee’s victory ensured that democracy was certain to remain unused in the USSR’s sphere of influence after the war, regardless of any promises that were made. More importantly, Stalin never had the respect for Truman and Attlee that he had for FDR and Churchill; something fundamental to the alliance was broken at Potsdam. There would have been problems after the war whoever had led the three great powers but there is little doubt that the sudden changes in the final months of the war added something to the chaos and tension that developed afterwards.

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The not quite so ‘Big Three’ at Potsdam, July-August 1945: seated from left to right are Clement Attlee, Harry Truman and Joseph Stalin. It always appears that Attlee looks so small and slight in this picture, lacking any physical presence. Truman had come to be president by accident and had much both to learn and to prove. Stalin was confused about the relationships but absolutely clear about what he wanted to achieve. (Author: Army Signal Corps Collection in the U.S. National Archives; Source: here).

A second factor that impacted on the post-conflict situation was the history of distrust and fear between the two sides. All of the Western Powers had looked on with great concern as the revolutions of 1917 tore Russia apart. The ‘February Revolution’ saw the Tsar removed and Russian forces effectively withdraw from the Great War where they had fought with France and Britain against German expansionism. The revolutionaries were seen as, at best, unreliable, tearing down traditional institutions and values such as the monarchy, church and landownership, which were seen as the bedrock of civilisation. On-going confusion in Russia during that remarkable year had ended with the ‘October Revolution’, which saw the Bolsheviks come to power. Lenin’s extreme form of communism was in control of Russia, the largest country in the world, and a peace treaty was agreed with Germany at Brest-Litovsk, placing great strain on Allied forces in the West. In one of the most notorious acts of the century, an action which sent shock waves around the world, Tsar Nicholas II and his family were killed in July, 1918. The limited democracy enjoyed in Russia since 1906 was ended, religion was attacked and freedoms were removed as Lenin took control; Communism was feared by many across the ‘free world’. When the Russian Civil War (1918-1921) broke out between the Bolsheviks and their opponents, the USA, Britain, France and Japan, sent troops to fight with the ‘Whites’, a mixture of monarchists and some of the military, against the ‘Reds’, the Bolshevik forces. Stalin, amongst others, would never forget the way those Western forces had worked for the destruction of Bolshevism and saw them as a threat he had to resist and, if possible, to eliminate. Victory for the Bolsheviks sent renewed anxiety around the world, threatening landowners, politicians, business leaders and religious powers in equal measure. ‘Communism’ was suddenly the greatest menace on earth.

A key expression of this in the 1920’s was the ‘Red Scare’ in the USA, the perceived threat of Communist infiltration, which spread fear across the country. The trial and subsequent execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, Italian anarchist immigrants, was just one famous anti-communist moment in that decade of prosperity, gangsters and prohibition. There was a powerful sense of Communist expansion, something felt just as keenly in Europe at that time. The collapse of the world economy triggered by the ‘Wall Street Crash’ in 1929 only increased tensions as the USSR’s economy began to grow under the first of Stalin’s five-year plans. The progress may have come at a horrid cost but it still caused many people from the USA to visit and even to move to the USSR. The support of people like Paul Robeson, the American singer and civil rights activist, George Bernard Shaw, the great writer, and Malcolm Muggerdige, a well-known journalist, made Moscow’s policies seem credible and there was great concern in the capitals of the West over the possible spread of left-wing influence at home.

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George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), the only man to win both a Nobel Prize and an Oscar, was a supporter of Communism who visited the USSR in 1931. (Author: Nobel Foundation; Source: here)

The fear of communism was also evident in Germany, where it led to a lot of support for Hitler and the Nazis. The ‘Spartacist Uprising’ of the post-war year had been the first sign of a move to the left in German politics, a movement which was harshly put down and saw the deaths of leaders like Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Leibknecht. Throughout the twenties, the extremes of the left and the right both lost support in the country as economic stability and growth returned in the wake of the ‘Dawes Plan’, which addressed the problem of war reparations. However, as the banks closed, unemployment rose and the economy collapsed in the Great depression, support for the extremist groups in Germany rose once more. The fear of communism was such that it led to some very powerful groups uniting behind Hitler, including Church leaders, businessmen, the aristocracy and the centrist politicians. This support was crucial to the rise of the Nazis.

But while there was fear in the west towards the rise of Marxist-Leninst ideology, Moscow also had concerns as it looked to the west during the decade before the war. The rise of right-wing Fascist dictatorships, such as Benito Mussolini in Italy and Admiral Horthy in Hungary could not be ignored. The failures of capitalism and democracy in the face of the economic crisis after the Wall Street Crash did not suggest a model for growth and stability for the USSR or the world. The dithering of the League of Nations in dealing with expansionist actions of Japan in Manchuria and Italy in Abyssinia suggested both weakness and a selfish, Imperialist attitude on the part of Britain and France in particular. The lack of support for the democratically elected but Republican Government in Spain, while it was known that Italy and Germany were supporting the Fascist forces of General Franco, served only to convince Stalin that the Western Powers were morally bankrupt opportunists. In addition to this, the failure of the League of Nations to stand up to Hitler over the Rhineland, the Anschluss with Austria and the invasion of the Sudetenland/Czechoslovakia, had strengthened Stalin’s view that Britain and France would allow German expansion towards the East, even as far as the USSR itself, just as long as Hitler did not disturb their world.

Stalin was a hard-headed analyst with a clear sense of what he wanted and this was expressed in the scandalous and shocking Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939. The agreement ‘guaranteed’ peace between the two obvious enemies just a few days before the German invasion of Poland was to take place. Stalin would argue that it was necessary to buy time for the Soviet forces to prepare for the invasion which would inevitably come at some time; for Hitler it was a way of guaranteeing that he would get a pretty free run at Poland. In London and Paris, there was horror at the pact but for Stalin, such words smacked of hypocrisy for appeasement had done exactly the same thing through the decades, avoiding conflict when it was inconvenient so saving lives, money and resources – and buying time. Stalin understood the criticisms and was under no illusions about what he was doing but there was no way he would compromise his goals for the sake of the West. This was something which was equally clear after 1945, for Stalin was a man of consistent principles, clear goals and with an astonishing memory, not only for what happened but also able to hold on to the power of those memories too. The fact that he was a psychopath with paranoid tendencies only served to make him an impossible man for FDR and Churchill, Truman and Attlee to deal with. Where the democratically elected also tended to look to the future and planned in the short term, Stalin had a strong sense of history and, as a dictator, could play the long-term game.

A third factor which shaped the Cold War was closely linked with the previous section, namely the vision for the future, the post-war world, which above all meant what to do with Germany. This had been under discussion since the Teheran Conference of October, 1943, when the leaders were convinced that the tide had turned in their favour and that, although victory was some way off, they could believe that the Allies would defeat Hitler. But it was at the second major conference of the ‘Big Three’, the February 1945 meeting held in the Crimean town of Yalta, that this vision was fully sketched out. This turned out to be a positive gathering as victory in the West was assured. The D-Day landings of June, 1944, had joined with the progress through Italy and, most of all, the huge advance of the ‘Red Army’ which was already at the Germany’s eastern border, and it was clear that victory over Germany was a matter of weeks away. At Yalta, the three leaders were optimistic and spoke in generous terms, promising to work together so as to cooperate after the war and to respect each other, especially in running Germany. The agreements reached at Yalta were big on ideas but thin on the specific details, which were left to a later date, what was to be the ‘Potsdam Conference’. The division of Germany and Austria, Berlin and Vienna, into zones to be occupied by the victors was agreed, and it was also decided that all issues affecting Germany and Austria would be discussed openly, there would be no secret talks and decisions would be reached unanimously otherwise they would not happen. Things sounded good on paper but reflection would show that there was plenty of cause for concern as the leaders returned to their respective capitals.

Some of the issues of those days would become significant in the early post-war years. There was, for example, division between FDR and Churchill as they tried to cut favourable deals with Stalin, often under-estimated and described as ‘Uncle Joe’. There was a sense of a change to the old world order, with Britain and France in decline and the USA and the USSR on the rise. Roosevelt was not happy about Britain and France, for example, keeping its empires and did not want to be tied into using US dollars to enable them to do that. There had already been some separate meetings amongst the three leaders, as well, with Roosevelt and Churchill meeting at Casablanca on the way to Yalta but, more importantly, one between Churchill and Stalin in October, 1944, which had led to the famous ‘Naughty document’, the agreement by which the Balkans were divided into ‘spheres of influence’. The ‘Percentages Agreement’ was completed on the back of an envelope over drinks one night, with Churchill doing the writing and Stalin giving his assent with a big tick. While Churchill knew that it stood on rather flimsy ground, a clear breach of some basic principles of democracy, it was a significant document for Stalin, one he would keep in mind in later discussions. One other area of debate, was the role that France should play in post-war affairs. For Churchill it was essential that France was involved as a victorious nation, one of the Allies, despite the fact that they had been defeated in just six weeks of fighting back in 1940. He believed that if France were humiliated then it could become a de-stabilising force in Europe. For Stalin, in particular, it seemed incredible that Paris should be invited to have a say but both he and Roosevelt went along with the plan, an act of respect to Churchill.

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The ‘Percentages Agreement’ or ‘Naughty Document’ produced one night in Moscow. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

At Yalta, then, the spirit of cooperation was strong in the talking but it did not transfer well into action. The final meeting of the war leaders at Potsdam in late July-early August, 1945, showed just how quickly things could fall apart. As already mentioned, Harry Truman arrived to replace Roosevelt while Clement Attlee turned up during the Conference to replace Churchill. The focus of tension was the relationship between Truman and Stalin. Harry Truman had only been Vice-President for a few months when FDR died, leaving him as the President but one who had, obviously, not been elected, and someone with limited profile and experience. Truman had actually had very little time and contact with Roosevelt in the wake of the Yalta Conference so he had much to learn. He needed to prove himself and show that he had what was needed to ensure that the USA was kept safe and able to act with strength on the world stage. He also needed to ensure that the war in the Pacific was ended successfully and as swiftly as possible. Truman believed he had to stand up to Stalin and Communism, although he did need the USSR to guarantee that it would stand by its promise to join the fight against Japan in the weeks after the Conference.

Potsdam was an unhappy and tense conference. Stalin did not have much time for his two new ‘allies’, and the whole Soviet team believed that Truman was rude, bullying and disrespectful towards them. They believed that Roosevelt would never have spoken to them the way Truman did and they very quickly settled for obstruction, limited discussion and the repetition of demands. The most memorable moment at the Conference, though, came with Truman’s indirect reference to the atom bomb which had just been tested by Robert Oppenheimer and his team at Los Alamos. Stalin already knew about the bomb, thanks to spies within the USA. However, the tone Truman used and the implication that it might be used against the Soviet Union if things did not go as the USA wanted, left Stalin feeling insecure and concerned. His relationship with Truman was such that it was the trigger for the many tensions which came to put the Cold War in place. Clement Attlee, it should be noted, was already seen as a marginal figure, a sign of what was to come as the two new superpowers came to lead world affairs.

The atom bombs were, of course, used to devastating effect on Hiroshima on 6th August and Nagasaki on 9th August, 1945. Japan surrendered on 15th August and so the greatest war in world history came to its official close. However, the damage was such that, in many ways, an equally great challenge awaited. In Europe, the focus for the difficulties was Germany and, most of all, Berlin and it was there that tensions most clearly developed. As is well-known, the four powers were to divide both Germany and Berlin (as they did with Austria and Vienna) into zones which they would administer together. They had particular responsibility for the control and security of each zone themselves but all decisions were to be taken together, unanimously, and following full and open discussions.

Germany occupies a crucial place in Europe, bordering so many other countries, and possessing many resources, a large and skilled labour force and with a powerful culture and history. Berlin was at the heart of Prussian power, elevated to being the capital of the new united Germany under the influence of Otto von Bismarck following victory over France in 1870-71. The city was at the heart of Nazi Germany, too, and it was there that Hitler died in 1945. Being far towards the east of the country, it meant that, as the Allied forces closed in on Germany, it was the Red Army of the USSR rather than the Western forces which captured the city in early May, 1945. This meant that the Soviets were in control of the city, giving it a powerful hand in what was to happen there afterwards. By the end of the war, the USSR had control of all of Germany to the east of the River Elbe, meaning that Berlin was surrounded by Soviet controlled territory. The Allies, by contrast, had control of the west of the country but were also given the western half of Berlin, putting them within the Soviet zone. The country and the city were, therefore, divided into four sections, with the French zones being slightly smaller than the others.

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The division of Berlin after 1945. (Author: historicair; Source: here)

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The division of Germany after 1945. (Author: Bwmoll3; Source: here)

Berlin had far greater significance than Vienna, the other divided city in Europe, and so it was the key place where East met West after the war. The extraordinary advance made by the Red Army had brought Soviet influence into the heart of Europe. Whereas communism in the 1920s and 1930s had controlled only one large but distant state, from the Western perspective, the post-war situation was markedly different. Stalin’s influence extended from the Pacific Ocean to central Germany, so he was effectively knocking at the door and the West was not keen to open it to him in. Stalin was equally determined, though, not prepared for anything that resembled concession or retreat simply to placate the Western democracies which he believed wanted only the destruction of the USSR at some time in the near future.

The opportunity for any of the powers to cause trouble in the running of German affairs, was clear from the start. All planning and decision-making about Berlin from 1945 onwards was supposed to be completed by a council of the four governing nations and decisions had to be unanimous. Regular meetings were held but progress was slow and sporadic, not least because of the differing goals the two sides had. While the Western Powers, particularly the USA and the UK, wanted to see rebuilding and recovery, the Soviets wanted to ensure that Germany remained weak. For the West, the lessons of Versailles were strong, and a weak German state would create a vacuum at the heart of Europe, a destabilising influence which might make it more likely to fall to communism. In addition to this, Germany was a potentially powerful trading partner and an economic power, so recovery there would be beneficial to their economies. The USSR, on the other hand, wanted to ensure its own safety so there was little desire to see a strong Germany back on its feet and able to influence affairs – and threaten the East once again.

There are a few issues that came up which highlight the problems of the time. One thing that was known by everyone was that Germany after the war was going to be in turmoil with many refugees and displaced people, problems with industry and issues over food production. With the west in control of the more industrial areas and the Soviets having more of the agriculture land, there was a need to transfer resources between the zones. As industrial products and machinery were to go to the east, so food was to be sent the other way. People were also to be free to move to where they wanted to live and most wanted to move out of the Soviet zone. However, although there were more people in the western zones, the USSR did not send any of the food that was promised even though machines and goods went the other way. There were clearly problems to be addressed and part of the solution for the USA and the UK was to administer their zones jointly, and so in January 1947 they created ‘Bizonia’. In April, 1949, the French decided to join their zone to this and that was the basis for the new West German state.

A second issue was raised by the London Conference of December 1947. This again saw the three Western Powers holding a meeting without the knowledge or agreement of the USSR, even though, due to spies in London, they knew what was discussed and what was decided. The meeting looked to introduce a new currency into the western zones and West Berlin, a way of restoring confidence and improving business conditions. When the new currency was released in June 1948, it was hugely popular and successful but caused chaos in the Soviet zone as everyone rushed to exchange their old currency for the new money. The USSR was angry and felt vulnerable to these actions, which were a clear breach of the wartime agreements. For Stalin, there was a clear body of evidence that the USSR was being marginalised and disrespected; for the west, Stalin was clearly impossible to work with.

A third factor came into play when the ‘Marshall Plan’ was approved and aid became available to the western zones in the spring of 1948. The money was offered to every country in Europe on condition that they accepted democracy and the capitalist system, and consequently Stalin prevented any country under Soviet influence from accepting it. This further destabilised relations and ‘Marshall Aid’ would prove to be a pivotal moment in the Cold War as it ensured that the different areas of Europe would recover at very different rates and in different ways. The USSR did offer its own aid to the countries under its influence later on, through a body known as COMECON, but it never matched the power of the USAs aid and it would, in time, become a terrible drain on the USSRs economy which eventually contributed to the failure of communism itself.

Underpinning these decisions by the West was a new vision for the post-war world. The USA was keen to force the pace of change in Europe for various reasons. The country was rich and powerful but also new to the world stage and had a desire to make things happen, using money and resources as it saw fit. The emergence from isolationism after pearl harbour and the recognition that it should act as a global power after 1945 meant a new policy had to be developed. The need for action based on a clear policy was especially true for the inexperienced and under-pressure president. As people watched his every move to see if he would stand up for American interests and oppose Communism, Truman went on the offensive. In the wake of Britain’s economic troubles after the war, when it was basically bankrupt and unable to fulfil its obligations to support the Government forces of Greece in the Civil war, Truman persuaded congress to step in. Using the countries unprecedented wealth and technology, Truman established the policy known as ‘Truman Doctrine’, the idea that the USA would support any nation placed under threat, either from within or from abroad, a clear reference to its willingness to constrain the growth of Communism, in line with the ideas in George Kennan’s famous ‘Long Telegram’.

‘Truman Doctrine’ did not mention Communism or the USSR directly but anyone could see what was intended. The USA had declared that it would operate a policy of containment against Moscow, as it believed that every Communist Party in the world was under the direct control of Stalin himself. No move could be made in Korea or Berlin without Stalin’s approval, as far as Washington was concerned. Communism across the world presented itself as one enemy – and the wartime alliance was clearly at an end with that policy. It was no surprise, therefore, when the USSR reacted as it did to the plans of the West in Berlin. ‘Marshall Aid’ and currency development were, for example, seen as a way of threatening the Soviet Union. At the ‘Control Commission’, the regular meetings to oversee the administration, the Soviet delegation walked out over the plans to introduce the Deutschmark for the whole of Germany. When the currency was introduced, firstly in the western zones of Germany and a few days later into West Berlin, Stalin decided to act. Lucius D. Clay, the administrator of the US sector of Berlin, had already made it clear that no matter what happened, the Allies were going to stay in the city and they would not be intimidated by any Soviet threats. The possibility of problems arising from things like interfering with traffic and transport in Berlin were clear but as the new notes began to circulate, the USSR did finally act.

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Lucius D. Clay, (1897-1978) the chain-smoking, coffee-drinking head of the US sector in Berlin. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

On 23rd-24th June, 1948, Stalin gave an order which would in many ways mark the start of the Cold War. He ordered that a blockade of west Berlin be started, so preventing any transport of goods between western zones of Germany and West Berlin. All essential items needed by West Berlin had to be brought in by railway, road and canal links with the west of the country, so when these links were cut, a crisis was immediately on the cards. Although some supplies were stockpiled, there was no way the western half of the city could hold out for too long – and Stalin knew this.

Everything needed by the two million and more people of West Berlin had to come in from the west. Food, coal, paper, medical supplies, clothes and so on, all came along the road, railway and canal links. The Allies faced a huge dilemma. Did they try to break the blockade and run the risk of provoking a war – or did they try to beat the blockade in some way? The world watched on to see how ‘Truman Doctrine’ might be put into action. The initial plan of Lucius Clay and the US army was to take a direct approach by driving a convoy up to the barriers at the border and challenging the blockade directly, forcing their way through if necessary. The British were more circumspect, though, and proposed first trying to supply the sectors by using the three air paths (or corridors) that linked the western sectors with two airfields and one lake (for sea-planes) in the city. Most people believed this was impossible as the planes were small, huge quantities of goods were needed, and the winter weather could be terrible, but it was agreed to at least attempt such an airlift during the summer and into the autumn.

The massive operation against the blockade was known as the ‘Berlin Airlift’ and lasted from June, 1948, to September, 1949, although the blockade itself failed and was lifted by Stalin in May, 1949. In one of the most remarkable actions of the whole Cold War, the planes supplied everything needed for the people of West Berlin. The airlift became a crusade, a symbol of hope, skill and commitment. It showed the power of the West, its commitment to the German people and its ability to face up to Communism. West Berlin became totally westernised, as the people became tied in with the resistance to Stalin. Where Allied bombers had destroyed the city just a few years earlier, now they brought hope and salvation; the people united and worked for the cause of democracy and capitalism as never before. Under the guidance of Ernst Reuter, the Mayor-elect of the West Berlin, and in co-operation with the chain-smoking Lucius D. Clay, the US Military Governor, the airlift was co-ordinated and the legend of ‘Free Berlin’ was established. 79 people died in the airlift but without it, the casualties could have been so much higher.

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Ernst Reuter (1889-1953), Mayor of West Berlin, pictured with Erich Duensing, Head of the West Berlin Police in 1953 (1889-1953). (Author: Georg Pahl; Source: here)

The ‘Berlin Blockade’ was a major defeat for Stalin, a plan which failed for various reasons. Stalin was not able to shoot down the planes, although he did try to intimidate them, because the airspace they flew in was western controlled. He had not anticipated that the West would attempt an airlift and he had no real plan to deal with it. Likewise, he could not have expected the people of West Berlin to be so resilient and supportive of the countries which had helped to destroy their city just a few years earlier. And he was very unlucky with the weather because the winter of 1948-49 was so mild, a factor which played a key role in saving the city for the West. If the snow had fallen as it did the previous winter, then it would have been impossible for the airlift to have worked. Stalin’s failure over Berlin ensured that the Cold War was well and truly established by 1949.

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A plane comes in to land at Templehof Airport during ‘Operation Vittles’, the Berlin Airlift. (Author: Unknown ; Source: here)

So, by 1949, Berlin was a divided city but with no internal barriers. You could walk from streets under communist control to capitalism in just a few minutes. People often lived in one sector and worked in another, socialised in one and visited relations in another, played games in one zone and shopped in another. Direct comparisons were easy to make and people soon reached a conclusion in comparing the two sides. The differences between the sectors was exacerbated by the fact that from this time on, the Western controlled areas really started to recover from the impact of the war on the back of Marshall Aid. This aid was pumped into much of Western Europe by the USA and there was a special commitment to ensure that West Berlin in particular would be strong and dynamic, giving out a clear message to people under Communist control that there was a better quality of life under capitalism and democracy.

The city of Berlin had a unique place in the origins of the Cold War. It was both fascinating and dangerous in equal measure, a point of contact, encounter and comparison between East and West. West Berlin was, effectively, a crack in the “Iron Curtain”, the open border between the Communist and Capitalist worlds. Originally made famous by Sir Winston Churchill in 1946 at a speech in Fulton, Missouri, the home town of President Truman, it defined the nature of division across Europe.

“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and … increasing measure of control from Moscow…The Communist parties, which were very small in all these Eastern States of Europe, have been raised to pre-eminence and power far beyond their numbers and are seeking everywhere to obtain totalitarian control. Police governments are prevailing in nearly every case, and so far, except in Czechoslovakia, there is no true democracy.”

But Berlin and Germany were the focus of a Cold War caused by many factors, including: fear and distrust, historic events, widely differing ideologies, personality clashes, the needs of an inexperienced leader, the paranoia of a psychopath, lack of knowledge and understanding and change imposed by democracy. For forty years, for long after Stalin had died and Truman had been replaced, the world held its breath as the frightening cloud of nuclear war hung over the world. The Cold War was one of the greatest examples of former allies falling out over history, goals, ideology and personality. The world was very lucky that it stayed ‘cold’.

Find out more:

TV/DVD: ‘Cold War’ (CNN Series) by Jeremy Isaacs, especially episodes 1-4; ‘World at War’ final episodes.

DVD: ‘Truman’ (2002) (Prism Leisure Corporation)

Book: ‘Stalin: A Biography’ by Robert Service (Pan, 2010); ‘Truman’ by David McCullough (Simon & Schuster, 1993); ‘The Cold War’ by John Lewis Geddis (Penguin, 2005); ‘Savage Continent’ by Keith Lowe (Penguin, 2012);’Cold War’ by Jeremy Isaacs and Taylor Downing (Santam Press, 1998); ‘The Cold War: A Very Short Introduction’ by Robert J. McMahon (OUP Oxford, 2003)


 

 

 

 

The Berlin Wall: Seriously important concrete.

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The Berlin Wall: Seriously important concrete.

‘Berlin is the testicles of the West. When I want the West to scream, I squeeze on Berlin.’ Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the USSR, 1954-1964

It was about 140 kms long, 3.65 metres high and just 12 centimetres thick at the top. In old measurements, that means it was 90 miles long, 12 feet high and five inches thick. From the summer of 1961 until the autumn of 1989, it was the most important symbol of Cold War tension between the East and the West, Communism and Capitalist Democracy. When it was built, many thought it would mark a permanent division not only between the Eastern and the Western sectors of the great city of Berlin, traditional capital of Prussia and Germany, but also between those two ideological systems which had divided the world. But then, quite suddenly and unexpectedly in the eyes of most observers, it was gone. After twenty eight years of separation, it was a broken force, torn down by the people it had enclosed for a generation. Although the USSR itself did not formally end until December 1991, the fall of the Berlin Wall became the iconic event which effectively marked the end of Communism as a major force in world politics, especially in Europe. Concrete, barbed wire, checkpoints, graffiti, death: what was the ‘Berlin Wall’ all about?

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The Berlin Wall under construction in 1961. (Author: National Archive; Source: here)

Across the city people experienced things in a completely different light to anywhere else in the world because they were able to make a direct comparison between the two different ways of life on offer. There were no barriers within the city and so, as the rubble was slowly removed, transport re-built, power and water re-connected and industry restored by visiting both systems. Contact with people from outside the city was easily controlled through visas but in Berlin this was impossible and Stalin feared the impact of such meetings; and he simply could not stop people from Eastern Europe going first to East Berlin and then travelling on to the West. From 1949 onwards, and especially after Stalin’s death in March 1953, more and more people made that journey through East Berlin and on into West Berlin; from there, many moved on to West Germany and beyond. The ‘crack’ in the ‘Iron Curtain’ was there throughout the 1950s and a trickle of emigrants became a flood. Between 1950 and 1961, an estimated 3.5 million East Germans left out of a total population of 20 million or so. This was about one in six of the population, a huge number, but even this does not tell the full story because those who left tended to be the young, the educated, those with families, skills and the ambition to do well in the West. It left the old, the less educated, the less creative to maintain the system. By 1961, the country was on the verge of collapse. Walter Ulbricht, the leader of East Germany was desperate for a solution and so was Nikita Khrushchev, then leader of the USSR. The collapse of East Germany would have triggered a reaction across the whole of the Eastern Bloc, bringing with it the end of Communism and, potentially, World War III – and Armageddon though a nuclear conflict. A solution was needed and it was found in the Berlin Wall.

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Walter Ulbricht (1893-1973), leader of East Germany from 1950-1971. (Author: Sturm, Horst; Zühlsdorf; Source: here)

The day was 13th August, 1961. It was a Sunday morning and the peace was shattered by sounds of building and transport, very different sounds from normal. Pneumatic drills, cranes, lorries and armoured trucks appeared in central Berlin, very near the Brandenburg Gate and along the official line dividing the Eastern and Western Sectors. Soldiers and police were lined up with workers building a fence. Although few realised it at the time, the ‘Berlin Wall’ was under construction and the city was facing its final few hours of unity: families and friends were being divided, people were losing the chance to go to work and, in some cases, even farms and gardens were being cut in two.

On Nikita Khrushchev’s orders, the Berlin Wall was built just inside the eastern sector of the city, not taking even an inch from the West. This linked with the careful reading of a statement from President Kennedy some weeks earlier where he had said that the West would not tolerate any attack or restriction on the west of Berlin. This had been a response to attempts by Khrushchev to force the USA, Britain and France to give up claims to Berlin and allow the city to be re-formed as an independent state, something Moscow had aimed for since 1958. Khrushchev and others noted that Kennedy had made no mention about acting on restrictions between the sectors within the city and so it was that building the Berlin Wall was proposed as a means of saving East Berlin and East Germany by blocking up this crack in the ‘Iron Curtain’.

In time, the Berlin Wall developed from being just a wire fence to a solid construction of bricks and cement. It developed a 100 metre exclusion zone on the Eastern side, a ‘no man’s land’ area where only border guards could go. On the western side, it became famous as a huge target for lovers of graffiti. Watch towers, dogs, guards, barbed wire and tank traps appeared. An estimated 5000 people attempted to cross between 1961 and 1989, and between 100 and 200 died. It became the greatest symbol of division in the Cold War.

The first man to escape was Conrad Schumann, a border guard on the Eastern side of the Wall at the time it was built. He was in charge of a group of guards and, while on patrol, he took the momentous decision to go, so he ran and jumped across what was still just a low barbed wire section in those early days, and creating one of the of the most famous photos of decade. (That photo can be seen here.)

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The statue to mark Conrad Schumann’s escape in 1961. It makes sense but has to be one of the slightly more odd memorials in Berlin. (Author: Jotquadrat; Source: here)

 

As the Berlin Wall was strengthened, ingenious methods were developed for escaping as people attempted to flee to the West. At the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, many of these things can be seen today. A few of the attempts included: sneaking out in converted cars, flying over in a hot-air balloon (‘well done’ to the Wetzel and Strelzyk families for building theirs out of thousands of small pieces of cloth), flying ultra-lights over the wall at night, digging tunnels and swimming through the canals and sewers in specially adapted frogmen outfits. Wolfgang Engels, a 19 year old student, actually stole a Soviet armoured car and drove it into the Wall, being wounded but escaping in the process. Early on people just ran across the zone between the two sectors while others leapt from windows into the blankets of the West Berlin Fire Service. Some worked but all reflected the anger and concern at being trapped by a system that people saw as failing. Eventually, pretty much every method of escape was closed off. As the East German writer, Stefan Heym (1913-2001), said: ‘What kind of system was it that could only survive by imprisoning its people?’

Berlin, Checkpoint Charlie

Crossing the Berlin Wall was officially possible only at a number of checkpoints, such as the famous Checkpoint Charlie. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

The Berlin Wall was an extraordinary thing. It was, as Stefan Heym said, a symbol of failure and hatred, yet it probably saved Communism, and given the tensions of the time, it might well have saved the city, the country and the world. The collapse of East Germany would have meant a crisis in the Eastern Bloc and the potential collapse of Communism. And that could easily have meant nuclear war.

In June 1963, nearly two years after the Wall had been built, President Kennedy visited Berlin, cementing the bond between the city and the West which had become so strong since the Berlin Blockade. He took with him Lucius Clay, the US General who had been in control of West Berlin at the time of the Airlift. And it was there that Kennedy made his famous speech which finished with the words: ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’, so often mis-translated as ‘I am a donut’. He actually said what he meant to say, namely, ‘I am a Berliner’. The people of West Berlin went wild, knowing they were special and playing a key role at the front-line of the Cold War. No other city played such an interesting and important role in world affairs as did Berlin between 1945 and 1989.

If you are looking for a fascinating place to go for a holiday then miss out the trendy, loud places and head off to Berlin – you won’t regret it.

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 The building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 – serious lumps of concrete and barbed wire. (Author: Helmut J. Wolf; Unknown; Source: here)

 

Find out more

TV: ‘Cold War’ (CNN) and ‘Berlin’ by Matt Frei (BBC)

Books: ‘The Berlin Wall: My part in its downfall’ by Peter Millar; ‘The Berlin Wall’ by Frederick Taylor; ‘Berlin Game’ by Len Deighton; ‘The Wall: The People’s Story’ by Christopher Hilton

 

 

 

 

 

General George C. Marshall: Buying capitalism, democracy and hope.

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General George C. Marshall: Buying capitalism, democracy and hope.

‘The truth of the matter is that Europe’s requirements for the next three or four years of foreign food and other essential products – principally from America – are so much greater than her present ability to pay that she must have substantial additional help or face economic, social, and political deterioration of a very grave character.’ General George C. Marshall, ‘The Marshall Plan Speech’, 1947

‘What should I call you, General? Would it be okay to call you ‘George’? ‘No, Mr. President, ‘General’ will be fine.’ This rather splendid snippet of conversation took place between President Harry Truman and General George C. Marshall as the general became the USA’s Secretary of State in 1947. The Secretary of State is a very senior politician, the person given responsibility for foreign affairs, having the same role as the Foreign Secretary in most other countries. Few people have imposed their mark on US foreign affairs in quite the way that Marshall did in just two years from 1947-1949, and for such an important man, surprisingly few people today have really heard of him. This will be an opportunity to at least make people aware of General Marshall and the incredibly important work he did. But, please, don’t expect any passion, laughs or scandal – this is a man who was, apparently, even called ‘General’ by his wife.

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General George C. Marshall (1880-1959) – US Secretary of State, 1947-49. The ‘C’ stands for ‘Catlett’ but I suspect no one was brave enough to use this to the General. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Everyone wants peace when there’s a war on but, when it comes, that peace usually brings many problems: refugees, power vacuums, broken infrastructure, a loss of organisation in communities, unemployment, crop failure, illness and many other issues can threaten stability, especially after a major conflict. In Europe after 1945, the aftermath of World War II, the greatest war in history, presented immense challenges for all concerned. Germany and her allies had been forced to surrender and the most powerful country and economy of mainland Europe in 1939 had basically ceased to exist by 1945. Except for the USA, and some of the countries that had been neutral in the war, the damage from the war was impacting on daily life across the globe. Britain could claim victory but it was achieved at a huge cost and, in many people’s eyes, it has never fully recovered from that victory. In Europe, trade had almost ceased, factories lacked resources and energy, markets were no more, and money had ceased to be worth anything. Civil wars and localised disputes erupted or became continuations of the great conflict, plunging many regions into further chaos. Transport systems, power grids, hygiene, water supplies, hospitals, schools and many other essentials of modern life were no longer in place in most countries. Millions of people had been displaced by the fighting and had to make their way home across the continent, walking for hundreds of miles, finding food where they could, sleeping when they could. In the first years of peace, Europe hovered on the brink of collapse. But it was not only Europe which faced the most uncertain of futures as the whole world had been drawn in to this war; chaos was found across the globe and a new world order was needed.

It’s almost impossible to say how many people died in World War II. Estimates for the total vary between 45 million and 72 million, but a figure of around 58-60 million people is often used. Based on that estimate, it means that about 30 000 people had died every day for the six years of the war. In other words, about 10 times as many people died on every one of those 2000 days of fighting as died on 9/11. Every death is a tragedy but this went into numbers never seen before. It impacted on countries across the globe in an unprecedented manner. In Germany, an estimated 7 million people died from a population of 73 million in 1939; in the Soviet Union, between 20 and 30 million people died out of about 180 million. And don’t forget, these are only the deaths: in addition there were the wounded, the bereaved, the emotionally traumatised, those who lost their education, businesses, homes and so on. The peace had to be lived by people who had suffered on an unimaginable scale.

The damage done in a material sense was highlighted by the extraordinary impact of the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945, and also in the more conventional but extraordinary struggles for Leningrad, Moscow and Stalingrad. The Wehrmacht assaults on the USSR’s three major cities had a devastating impact on those cities and the whole country, holding it back many years in its development, especially when compared to the relatively light casualties of the USA (about 400 000 deaths) and the negligible destruction to the country itself. The contrasting wartime experiences of the USA and the USSR, who became the two ‘Superpowers’, would be one of the key factors that shaped the second half of the century.

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The shells of buildings in Dresden suggest just a few of the problems facing Europe in 1945. Problems to do with refugees, homelessness, sanitation, employment and transport were clear and urgent. (Author: G. Beyer; Source: here)

So, in 1946-47, Europe was on its knees. In his role with the US army at this time, General Marshall visited many countries and saw the desperate state of the people and their economies. He believed that something had to be done not only to save lives but also, with what was a matter of real concern for the USA, to save the continent of Europe from the clutches of Stalin and the USSR. Communism had reached deep into Europe by May, 1945, with the Red Army having reached the River Elbe in central Germany. Marshall feared that many Europeans would be so desperate that they would seek a solution to the chaos of their lives by turning to the Left, fooled into a rejection of capitalism and democracy by the promise of help and a new way of living under Moscow’s ‘guidance’. He believed something had to be done and done quickly – and only the USA was in a position to ‘save the free world’.

By previous agreements made by the ‘Big Three’ during the war, the USA, the Soviet Union and Britain had decided that Moscow was to have a large element of influence and control in post-war Europe. Germany and Berlin (as with Austria and Vienna) were to be divided following the agreements signed at the Potsdam Conference in July-August 1945. Europe itself was to be divided into two spheres of influence with the USSR taking control of the East as its share of the spoils of war. The countries of Western Europe were to remain independent but their security and stability could not be guaranteed if they disintegrated economically and fell into political and social chaos. These were bleak times for millions who had to rebuild their lives in the wake of the war and concerns reached across the Atlantic Ocean to Washington and the White House.

Despite the urgent hardship facing many people, General Marshall’s greatest fear was that, left to its own devices, Western Europe would fall to the influence of Moscow. He believed that this could be forced by a desperate short-term need for survival, so the challenge for the USA was to deliver a huge amount of aid in a very short period of time. The finance, logistics and organisation involved in meeting this challenge was unprecedented in the modern world but it had to be attempted for the cost of doing nothing did not bear thinking about. The USA desperately needed its former allies and other rich countries in Western Europe for trade, as much as anything else, so it was imperative that US politicians did not choose isolationism as they had done after World War I. Marshall was the man who would persuade President Truman to adopt the greatest package of economic aid in history.

The decision to follow Marshall’s plan would have far reaching consequences. The dominance and economic power of the USA in the second half of the 20th century can be traced to the events of the two World Wars. The world is like it is today in large part because of what was agreed, the ‘Marshall Plan’ and ‘Marshall Aid’, the money that flowed from the plan. The aid was the money which delivered the goals outlined in the plan; like a giant life support system, Western Europe was first kept alive and then helped to recover because of Marshall’s vision, Truman’s understanding and the USA’s economic power. The Marshall Plan drew the USA into world affairs in a way it had never done before, shaping the Cold War and setting agendas which are still alive today in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. George Marshall never planned to put MacDonald’s, Starbucks and KFC on every High Street and in shopping malls around the world but that, too, would become major consequences of what he proposed in those meetings with Truman. Rarely has such an apparently dull man brought about such massive change.

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The raising of the Communist ‘Red Flag’ over the Reichstag (parliament) in Berlin marked the arrival of Communism in the very heart of Europe. Mikhail Minin, the man who raised the flag, only died in 2008 at the age of 85. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

When the ‘Marshall Plan’ (or the ‘European Recovery Programme’ to give it its proper title) was introduced, though, it was part of the West’s longer term understanding of political tensions which existed with Moscow. Two of ‘The Big Three’, British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, and US President, Franklin Roosevelt, had long been concerned about the possibility of the growth of Communism into Central Europe after the war. They had desperately needed the USSR as an ally during World War II but, as peace loomed, the presence of Red Army troops so far towards the West was a matter of grave concern. During the final months of the war, Churchill had encouraged western forces to drive as far to the East as possible, so as to reduce the area under Stalin’s control when the war ended. In 1946, Churchill went to the USA and delivered his famous ‘Iron Curtain’ speech about the fall of the ancient territories of Eastern Europe to Soviet control. The map of the world had been redrawn and one hell of a lot of it looked ‘Commie Red’ to Washington’s eyes. In an attempt to grasp what Stalin and the USSR was likely to do, President Truman, who had little experience of foreign affairs, contacted the US Embassy in Moscow. He requested that someone should give him an understanding of Soviet foreign policy and their likely plans for the coming years. He little bargained for the reply he got from one George Kennan (pronounced ‘Kee-nan’). His reply would become one of the most important documents of the 20th century; it would have made a very short book but those 8000 words made for a mightily important document, known as ‘Kennan’s Long Telegram’.

The ‘Long Telegram’ attempted to explain Soviet policy by giving a short lesson in Russian history. Kennan believed a brief answer which looked only at recent events would be both inaccurate and misleading, so he looked back over several centuries to the Tsars and the creation of the Russian nation itself. Stalin himself often spoke of regaining territory held by the Tsars of old, comparing himself with Peter the Great or Ivan the Terrible far more than with Lenin. Kennan spoke of the many cultures, nationalities, languages and religions in the largest country on earth. He spoke of the struggle for unity that the Tsars had fought over the years and the threats they had faced on their long borders. Kennan pointed out that the Tsars had tried to create unity by creating a sense of fear amongst the people by highlightingthe fear that other nations, especially those in the West, were determined to destroy them. Regular invasion threats had been met by force which had moulded the nation and strengthened the hand of the House of Muscovy (Moscow) which had come to rule the Russian peoples. Kennan pointed out that the Communist system took a similar approach to that of the Tsars. By creating a sense of threat, it was able to enhance its own position at the centre (leading and protecting the nation) and encouraging the people to keep pushing at its own borders, trying to repel others by expanding its own lands. This expansionism had to be met by consistent, clear and firm resistance, a sort of containment; this was the key message of the ‘Long Telegram’.

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George Kennan (1904-2005) (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

George Kennan’s analysis of Stalin, the Soviet leadership and the USSR’s goals made a very deep impression on Truman. His focus on their aggressive intentions and strategies made sense to Truman, an unelected and inexperienced president, who needed to both act decisively and look tough, despite having so little first-hand knowledge of world affairs. Truman was so taken with the analysis provided by the ‘Long Telegram’ that he had copies made for everyone involved in foreign affairs and the principles of it were soon embodied in his ‘Truman Doctrine’. At the heart of this was the idea of ‘containment’, meaning that the USA’s plan was to stand up to any signs of Communist expansion around the world: Soviet backed force would be met with American backed force no matter where it happened. The USA would resist Soviet expansionism and slowly strangle Moscow’s ambitions, a strategy which would mark out the Cold War and set the scene for events such as the Korean War, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War.

Alongside Kennan’s ‘Long Telegram, another crucial piece of thinking shaped US policy and ‘Truman Doctrine’. This was the so-called ‘Domino Theory’ or ‘Domino Effect’, the idea that, as one country fell to communism, it made it more likely that its neighbours would fall too. This was considered a particular danger in Europe, where the war had clearly seen Eastern Europe fall to Soviet influence, and the immediate threat to Italy in the late 1940s was such that it was met with serious CIA intervention. In Washington’s opinion, though, the most significant example of the ‘domino effect’ came in October, 1949, when China, giant neighbour to the USSR and the country with the largest population on earth, fell under the control of Communism and Chairman Mao Zedong. In the White House and other bastions of US political thought, a huge part of the world map was now coloured ‘red’ and it seemed to be growing, sweeping across the globe to reach from deep in Germany all the way across to the Pacific Ocean. There was particular concern that Communism ‘hung’ over India and surrounded the Middle East, which was of increasing significance after the war, not least because of its oil. ‘Truman Doctrine’ would later be redefined by Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, amongst others, but its main ideas dominated US foreign policy throughout the Cold War, except for the Nixon years.

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One of the many propaganda posters promoting the ‘Marshall Plan’. (Author: E. Spreckmeester, published Economic Cooperation Administration; Source: here)

 

All of the countries of Western Europe, except for Spain, received aid from the Marshall Plan. Spain was not directly involved (although it benefited indirectly through increased foreign trade) because it was a Fascist dictatorship under Generalisimo Francisco Franco. The Marshall Plan required countries to accept the principles of democracy as well as capitalism in order to receive US Aid. From Germany and France to Greece and Turkey, most countries were more than willing to accept these demands and so ‘get into bed’ with the USA.

The original motivation for the ‘Marshall Plan’, then, was fundamentally linked with ‘Truman Doctrine’. It was seen as vital for the USA’s ‘national interests’ that the devastation of Europe must not trigger chaos and the collapse of the continent so that it fell into the arms of Moscow. The humanitarian need to help people was more than matched by the need to meet economic, political and military challenges. A power vacuum had to be avoided at all costs and only the USA could provide what was needed for European recovery. The US economy was strong in 1945 but Truman had to maintain its growth in the years of peace and that would be more likely if businesses could trade with a strong Europe; security there also eased the potential military threat to the USA for the future. If the whole of the Eurasian landmass (Europe and Asia combined) was under the control of Moscow, then massive markets, people and resources would be lost to the USA. To prevent the fall of Europe to Communism was in American interests and the one immediate advantage they had over Communism was money. This was the rationale and ideology behind the controversial ‘Marshall Plan’.

When General Marshall presented his plan to Harry Truman in 1947, its title was the ‘European Recovery Programme’. Europe was to be supported and restored economically, politically and socially by US money, technology and advisors. The USA had become incredibly rich during the war and was far and away the richest country in the world. It had been largely untouched by the war itself, developing its industry to unprecedented levels. The ‘Marshall Plan’ was fully adopted in 1948 and the first aid was sent almost immediately. In total, 16 European countries received about $13.5 billion of aid between 1948 and 1952 (roughly $120 billion in modern terms). Britain and France were the biggest recipients of money, but the impact on all countries was very significant, none more so than West Germany (and West Berlin) when it received aid after 1949. The impact on recovery in the Allied controlled zones of Germany marked the contrast between the West and the East, as people saw the standard of living rise far more rapidly in the West. This growth brought immediate hope and benefits to the people, something which not only strengthened links between Western Europe and the USA but was also a major factor in creating the flow of people from East Germany to the West during the 1950s, a movement which ultimately led to the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961.

The USA actually received more money back in trade over the years than it gave out in ‘Marshall Aid’. It was a so-called ‘win-win’ situation for both Europe and the USA. Everyone seemed happy with it, except for the Eastern Bloc, the Communist countries, who did not receive any aid. This was because the ‘Marshall Plan’ had strings attached: each country had to accept two things, namely, capitalism and democracy. In other words, you had to accept US values in order to get their help, something Stalin could not allow in his sphere of influence. Ultimately, the Communist economies never caught up with the West and this economic imbalance going back to the 1940s was a fundamental factor in the collapse of the system in the late 1980s. However, accepting the money would have effectively broken Communism in 1949, so it was a tough call either way.

The ‘Marshall Plan’ was not the only sign of the USA’s new found interest in the wider world. It ran alongside several other Washington approved initiatives, such as the establishment of NATO (1949), the creation of the CIA (1947), the building of military bases and the massive development of nuclear weapons as a means of strengthening international ties and containing the spread of Communism in the post-war years. They all came under the umbrella of the ‘Truman Doctrine’ and aimed to support and protect all ‘friendly’ countries, especially those which bordered Communism and were seen to be most at risk from ‘infiltration’. This vision led, for example, to CIA action in Italy when the USA put huge efforts in to influencing the outcome of the general elections of 1948 and those for the next 25 years.

Creating the military alliance of NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) whereby 14 western countries agreed to collaborate so as to train, fight, develop technology and share information under US leadership, was another huge step towards Washington’s leadership or control of the Western world. It was later matched by the creation of the Warsaw Pact in 1955, whereby the armed forces of the USSR and Eastern Europe were united, and strengthened by the establishment of SEATO (the South East Asian Treaty Organisation) which did the same role as NATO in that region. It was about creating alliances, gangs of countries which would work together for security reasons, pretty much going directly against Woodrow Wilson’s vision as outlined in the ‘Fourteen Points’ at the Treaty of Versailles. With NATO still so active in the 21st Century, it is easy to see this as one of the prime legacies of World War II and the changed role of the USA.

By 1950, within two years of the setting up of the ‘Marshall Plan’, almost every country that received aid was at or near its pre-war level for agricultural production and foreign trade. Remarkably, total industrial production was operating at 15% above its 1939 level. If you consider what had been the damage suffered during the war and the chaos in the immediate post-war years, this was a stunning achievement, creating a lasting recovery which transformed the world. Beyond the statistics, the impact on lives, confidence, expectations and attitudes was equally significant as it tied most Europeans into an ‘American-centric’ world at an unprecedented level. Suddenly, American businesses, music, fashions and tastes came to influence Europe (and the world), flooding in on the back of ‘Marshall Aid’. The growth of multi-national companies and international brands, like Coca-Cola, General Motors and Disney, as well as US control of resources in places as far apart as the Australian outback and Amazonian rainforest, were hugely influenced by the results of the ‘Marshall Plan’. It was also a key element in the creation of modern western society from jeans to rock and roll, computers to 24 hour TV, Facebook to Starbucks. The General’s vision and Truman’s Doctrine were clearly necessary but many would question some of the long term consequences of accepting ‘the dollar’.

The Marshall Plan ran for just four years from 1948 to 1952 but it had a huge impact on Europe, the USA and world affairs. It saved lives, transformed economies and created wealth on an unprecedented scale. It brought Hollywood and the ‘American Dream’ into every village and street in Europe. It hardened the divisions of the Cold War, increased corruption and the power of the media, and allowed countries like France and Britain to hold on to its old status and Empires in ways which were not necessarily healthy. It angered and intimidated Joseph Stalin, leading to a hardening of Moscow’s approach, as seen in the Berlin Blockade and the Korean War. Most of all, it established the USA as a ‘Superpower’ and the leader of the Western world, generating wealth and influence never before seen in one country. It brought the US presidency a level of influence never before held by one man. It helped to foster the ‘homogenisation’ (standardisation) of life around the world in terms of language, music, film, tastes and values which has itself produced a backlash in many cultures and societies, with numerous peoples trying to re-assert their own values, beliefs and identity in response.

The Marshall Plan might appear dull on some levels but few events have played a more significant role in shaping the modern world, a real example of ‘boring but important’. Little could General George C. Marshall have appreciated what he would go on to achieve as he drove around Europe in 1946.

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When countries put foreign politicians on their stamps, you know they’re important. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

Find out more

Books: ‘The most noble adventure’ by Greg Behrman; ‘Democracy and its critics’ by RA Dahl; ‘George C. Marshall’ by Mark A. Stoler;  ‘Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA’ by Tim Weiner;‘George F. Kennan: An American Life’ by John Gaddis; ‘The Cold War’ by John Lewis Gaddis; ‘Savage Continent’ by Keith Lowe

Films:‘The Third Man’ (1949), ‘The Bicycle Thief’ (1948) and ‘Germany, Year Zero’ (1947)

 

 

 

 

 

Marilyn Monroe: An icon, a soldier, a sportsman, a writer and a president

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Marilyn Monroe: An icon, a soldier, a sportsman, a writer and a president

Hearing that some actor in a ‘soap’ or a singer discovered on a reality show is ‘great’ is enough to send some of us heading for the ‘scream out loud’ button in our brains; in modern terminology, ‘great’ seems to mean what was once described as ‘pretty good’. The same is true with ‘icon’, a fine word which is now applied to almost anyone who has a slightly individualistic attitude, swears a bit and has a tattoo in Ancient Persian on their forearm or ear. Hearing that some young singer, soap actor, footballer or, indeed, a footballers’ wife or girlfriend, is an ‘icon’ disturbs those of us who look back to those who were far more deserving of the title. If they want to see themselves as icons then let them be measured against Marlon Brando and Audrey Hepburn, Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker, Picasso and Pele, just to mention a few Twentieth Century figures worthy of iconic status.

Iconic figures are more than just stars. They have an extra dimension, a status, which helps to shape and define their age. They embody some essential dimension of the ideas and values of their era. Their looks, words, tastes and actions are imitated at the time and inspire those who follow. They seem to express an indefinable quality of that period so that they almost become it. Their names become a shorthand way of referring to the era. To see Ché Guevara’s face adorning a million T-shirts, posters and CD covers is a slightly sad insight on society over the last forty years; the most stylish rebel of the century casts a shadow of credibility which is eagerly sought by many people. Ché would no doubt be delighted by the interest but bewildered by the way his image has made millions for business while his message of revolution has been lost to those who ‘wear’ him.

Amongst the icons of the twentieth century, one of the most celebrated was born as simple Norma Jeane Baker. Over the years she was transformed into one of the most beautiful, glamorous and mixed up women ever. In a world where the paparazzi are a big business all of their own, as is trying to ensure privacy, the celebrated but tragically short life of Marilyn Monroe is a telling moment in the journey towards celebrity obsession, and one which is well worth knowing a little about. Where Marilyn went, many others have followed since – and her life is a warning to all those seek fame as their greatest goal.

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An early modelling photo of Norma Jeane Baker. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Marilyn Monroe was born on 1st June, 1926, in Los Angeles. Confusion surrounds her early life, especially regarding who her father was. Her original name was Norma Jeane Mortenson but she was baptised as Norma Jeane Baker after her mother, Gladys Baker, who suffered mental illness and was soon taken into an ‘institution’. As a child, Norma Jeane spent her life in care homes and orphanages before she was finally adopted in 1937. However, in 1942, disaster struck when the Goddards, her adoptive family, could no longer afford to look after her. Faced with returning to a care home, she decided to marry her neighbour, a 21 year old man called Jimmy Dougherty (1920-2005). In 1944, Dougherty went off to war with the US Marines and Norma Jeane went to work in a Munitions factory where she was spotted by a photographer called David Conover. She was a natural in front of the camera (the phrase ‘a photographer’s dream’ was often used about her for the way she seemed more natural in front of the camera than in normal life) and she appeared on the front cover of more than 30 magazines during the war. When Jimmy Dougherty returned from the war, Norma Jeane faced a choice: family or work. She chose work. In doing this she was facing a dilemma which was to challenge more women as the century unfolded, the tension between work and family. She chose a career and they split up, the divorce coming through in June, 1946, just after Dougherty returned to the USA.

By way of her career, Norma Jeane was aiming for the movies but going from being a model to a film star required some changes. ‘Norma Jeane Baker’ was not considered a suitable name for a budding star who wanted to get into films and so she changed it to ‘Marilyn Monroe’, Monroe being her grandmother’s name. In going for the name change, Monroe she was far from alone in the acting world. No doubt many people would expect to see a list at this point, so here is one of just a few actors who ditched their childhood name in favour of something more memorable – or just simpler. One interesting thing to note is just how many film stars in middle years of the century were hiding foreign or Jewish names, a reflection of the values of the age.

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Frances Gumm became Judy Garland (1922-1969).  She was a seriously famous actress and singer, the child star of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ who was the mother of two well-known singers and actresses, Liza Minnelli and Lorna Luft. (Author: NBC; Source: here)

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The Marx Brothers: Julius Henry Marx, Leonard Marx, Adolph Marx, Herbert Marx and Milton Marx became Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Zeppo Marx and Gummo Marx, sadly the one most people never remember for that is an inspired name. Together they formed one of the greatest and most popular comedy teams of the 1930s. In the photo, they are (from the top): Chico, Harpo, Groucho and Zeppo – so Gummo was already missing out. Author: Ralph F. Stitt; Source: here)

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Doris Mary Ann von Kappelhoff (born 1924) for some reason decided that ‘Doris Day’ was a better name for her. She was one of the finest singers and comedy actresses of the 1940s and 1950s. Her films included ‘Pillow Talk’, ‘The Pajama Game’ and‘Calamity Jane’ while her songs included classics like ‘Secret Love’ and ‘Que será será’, without which football fans would have little to sing at FA Cup matches. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

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Archibald Leach (1904-1986) is one of the most successful British-born actors of all time. Taking the name Cary Grant might have helped him on  the way. One of the greatest ‘matinee idols’ of films from the thirties to the sixties. Cary Grant was a handsome and witty actor who was voted the second greatest male star of all time – after Humphrey Bogart. And he made a film called ‘Touch of Mink’ with Doris Day. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

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Marion Morrison (1907-1979) is known to history as John Wayne. The all-American hero of the big screen, he attained iconic status through his many cowboy and war films. A fiercely loyal American who inspired many people – ‘Marion’ was, of course, simply wrong on many levels. (Author: Unknown ; Source: here)

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Isidore Demsky (born 1916) became Issur Danielovitch before settling on the slightly punchier ‘Kirk Douglas’. The owner of the finest dimple ever seen in a chin, Kirk Douglas starred in dozens of films of which ‘Spartacus’ and ‘The Vikings’ are just two marvellous old films that are well worth watching. He is also the father of Michael Douglas. (Author: Cinema Center Films; Source: here)

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Frederick Austerlitz (1899-1987) and Virginia Katherine McMath (1911-1995) became slightly more suave and sophisticated as ‘Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’. They are celebrated as the most famous dancing couple ever seen in films. The plots of their films, like ‘Top Hat’, were pretty thin but the dancing and the dresses were sensational. (Author: Movie Studio ; Source: here)

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Bernard Schwarz (1925-2010) switched to Tony Curtis and so became one of the most famous actors who made it big in Hollywood. Curtis became a popular leading man, playing opposite Marilyn Monroe in the greatest comedy of all-time, ‘Some like it hot’. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Anyway, back to Marilyn Monroe. Despite her hopes and good looks, the change of name did not work miracles and her career took several years before it got going. She continued modelling and had small parts in a number of films but, apart from some acclaim for ‘Asphalt Jungle’ and ‘All about Eve’, her career was drifting – until 1953 when she appeared in ‘Niagara’. Her decision to dye her hair blonde back in 1947 finally paid off as it raised her profile and helped her win higher profile roles in hit films like ‘Gentlemen prefer blondes’ and ‘How to marry a millionaire’. Fame had well and truly found her – and she was one of the biggest names in Hollywood as well as one of the most followed and imitated. Marilyn Monroe attracted attention and admirers from around the world and it was little surprise when she re-married in 1954. Her first marriage had been one of convenience in 1942 but now Norma Jeane Baker married one of the USA’s most famous men, Joe DiMaggio (1914-1999). It was one of the celebrity marriages of the decade, captivating the country and raising Monroe’s profile even higher as DiMaggio, famous as ‘Joltin’ Joe’ or ‘The Yankee Clipper’ as he was known from his days with the New York Yankees, was one of the greatest players of all time – and he still holds the record for a hitting streak in Major League Baseball – 56 consecutive games in 1941. Sadly, as with all of her relationships, it was to be neither a long nor a happy one.

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Joe DiMaggio – ‘The Yankee Clipper’ – second husband of Marilyn Monroe. (Author: Leslie Jones Collection; Source: here)

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Monroe’s third husband was the famous playwright, Arthur Miller. (Author: US State Department; Source: here)

Monroe’s most famous film was made at the end of the fifties, the Oscar winning comedy, ‘Some Like It Hot’ (1959). Directed by the great Billy Wilder, the film also starred Tony Curtis (who was on the list of name changes earlier) and Jack Lemmon (who could have been, as he was originally called ‘John Uhler Lemmon III’). Both Wilder and Curtis were Hungarian-Jews, although Wilder immigrated to the USA while Curtis was born there. The film showed off Monroe’s comic skills at their very best but the film was a tense and difficult one to make. The script, cast and direction were all wonderful – but everyone said they would never work with Monroe again. She was invariably late and almost impossible to work with – although Tony Curtis must have been partly to blame as he did have an affair with her and claimed she became pregnant during the making of the film.

‘Some Like It Hot’ was just one of many great films directed by Billy Wilder (1906-2002). Wilder was Jewish and had been forced to emigrate from Europe to the USA in the 1930s so as to escape the Nazis. His mother and grandmother died in the Death Camp at Auschwitz during the war. Wilder was one of the high-profile figures who supported those actors who came under investigation by the HUAC and Joe McCarthy in the late forties and early fifties for allegedly being Communist supporters; in this he joined Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, John Huston and Groucho Marx, amongst others. So many little links are brought together in people like Billy Wilder. If you have some spare cash, buy a collection of his best films, several of which are in the ‘Best 100’ lists that appear when the critics get together.

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Billy Wilder with the famous actress, Gloria Swanson. (Author: Studio; Source: here)

Returning to Marilyn Monroe, her last completed film was called ‘The Misfits’ (1961) in which she co-starred alongside two great stars, Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift. It was written by her third husband, Arthur Miller, and it turned out to be Gable’s last film, as he died just after filming ended. People blamed his heavy smoking and also the crash diet he had gone on before making what was to be a physically demanding film. But it seems that stress and tension on the set was to be even more exhausting for Gable as he, and everyone else, had to wait almost every day for Monroe to be ready – echoes of ‘Some Like it Hot only worse’. Over the years, she had developed an extraordinary nervousness and anxiety around performing so that she would often keep people waiting for hours before appearing. While the world saw only beauty, wealth, fame and glamour, Marilyn seemed lost and bewildered, somehow never moving on from her early years of insecurity and rejection; the need for affirmation and acceptance always ran up against feelings of inadequacy so that she increasingly turned to drugs and alcohol as the ways to get her through the days. Fame and wealth did not mean happiness but were more of a mask behind which she experienced crushing loneliness and insecurity.

On 5th August 1962, Marilyn Monroe was found dead at her home in California. The coroner said it was ‘probably suicide’ but others said it was simply an accidental overdose. Some said it was done by a jealous lover (and there were many to choose from) while others suspected Mafia involvement. Rumours abound about Monroe’s affairs and she has been linked with many men, including Bobby Kennedy and, more especially, President Jack Kennedy, with whom she was supposedly obsessed. Many people believe that Marilyn was murdered by the CIA or the FBI because she ‘knew too much’, although as to exactly what that knowledge was, people are less clear. FBI files released in 2006 apparently claim her death was murder linked with her affair with Bobby Kennedy but that does not mean those files were authentic, especially as the man in charge of the FBI at the time was, of course, J. Edgar Hoover – and it does not make it clear who was supposed to have carried out the killing. This has all led to a barrage of conspiracy theories around the idea that she was killed off on orders from the White House or someone ‘high-up’ for knowing ‘stuff’ or simply to get her out of the way because she was increasingly unstable. In all probability, Monroe’s death was a tragic accident, the confused actions of a beautiful but deeply confused and anxious woman.

Marilyn Monroe lived and died in a way which linked her with many famous, powerful and important people, not least of all, President Jack Kennedy and his brother, Bobby, both of whom she is rumoured to have had affairs with. Within three months of her death, Jack and Bobby would be saving the world from destruction in the Cuban Missile Crisis and it’s incredible to think what must have been going on in their private lives when all that was about to kick off. And maybe the saddest part is to remember that Marilyn died aged just 36 while Jack was killed at 46 and Bobby was only 42.

Just as sad and significant in many ways were her relationships with Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, both of whom she was married to only briefly. As mentioned above, Joe DiMaggio is one of the greatest of America’s sporting icons (that word again), one of the most famous baseball players of all time. DiMaggio’s particular anger regarding Marilyn was triggered by the famous ‘skirt scene’ in ‘Seven Year Itch’, which he saw as explicit and exploitative. Monroe was a ‘sex symbol’ who sold dreams, a fantasy figure whose life seems to be a bridge between the apparent innocence of the post-war period and the apparent hedonism of the sixties and beyond. DiMaggio himself would live until 1999, dying at the age of 84. He was an All-American legend, forever ‘Joltin’ Joe’ or ‘The Yankee Clipper’ to millions of fans. One of the New York Yankees’ most famous sons, he was mentioned in ‘Mrs. Robinson’ by Simon and Garfunkel, which was used in the soundtrack to ‘The Graduate’ (1967) which starred Dustin Hoffman who went on to play Carl Bernstein in ‘All the President’s Men’, the film about Watergate and Richard Nixon.

Arthur Miller was husband number three, another famous man who wrote plays which defined the era. In the early 1950s, Miller had been under investigation by the HUAC. He saw the power of McCarthyism at work and was horrified by its ability to destroy careers and lives. In response to McCarthy’s tactics he wrote one of the great plays of American theatre, ‘The Crucible’. On the face of it, this was a re-telling of the story of the Salem witch trials of 1692 in Massachusetts, but in reality it was an allegory of life in 1950’s America. It was, and remains, a mighty piece of stage writing and a brilliant attack on how elders and leaders in a society can play on fears to create violence and hatred so as to build more fear. Arthur Miller died in 2005 at the age of 89.

Monroe’s first husband, Jimmy Dougherty, a police officer, died in 2005 (the same year as Miller) at the age of 84 (the same as DiMaggio). When set alongside Jack Kennedy, you have a soldier, a sportsman, a writer and a politician who were all involved with a true icon. Monroe was not the first celebrity, nor was she the first famous person to die young. But she was one of the most beautiful, fascinating and vulnerable women of the century, one who epitomised a change in the nature of stardom. Her life and her death in many ways came to mark a change in the whole experience of being a celebrity.

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Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962) (Author: Studio; Source: here)

 

Find out more

Films: ‘Some Like It Hot’, ‘Seven Year Itch’, ‘Niagara’, ‘Gentlemen prefer blondes’, ‘Bus Stop’, How to marry a millionaire’.

You Tube: ‘Happy Birthday, Mr. President’ (1962) is probably the most famous version of the song ever made.

Songs: Marilyn Monroe’s Greatest Hits, ‘Candle in the wind’ by Elton John and ‘Mrs. Robinson’ by Simon and Garfunkel

Photos: far too many to number and most are available on-line

Plays: ‘The Crucible’, ‘Death of a Salesman’ and ‘A View from the Bridge’ by Arthur Miller (all from ‘Penguin Modern Classics’)

Books: Many books concentrate on photos of Marilyn or present a number of the conspiracy theories about her death. A wide range of these can be found on-line or in most book-shops. As an overview, one of the older books is a good place to start: ‘Marilyn Monroe: The Biography’ by Donald Spotto (Arrow, 1994).

 

 

 

 

The Lord of the Rings: From Sarehole to Somme

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The Lord of the Rings: From Sarehole to Somme

‘Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger.’ JRR Tolkien

When JRR Tolkien’s epic, ‘The Lord of the Rings’, appeared in three volumes in 1954-55 it sold pretty well without setting the publishing world on fire. It only became a ‘legendary’ book in the 1960s when it captured the imagination of a new generation of readers including many amongst the ‘hippy’ generation. Tolkien’s story of hobbits, elves and dwarves fighting alongside men against the evil power of Mordor was rich in imagery and seemed to be especially enjoyable when viewed through a smoky haze of some kind. Led Zeppelin, the legendary band of the late sixties and seventies, wrote many songs which were filled with imagery taken straight from the legends of ‘Middle Earth’. The incredible popularity of Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy of films took the legend of Frodo, Bilbo, Gandalf, Gollum and the ring to an enormous audience around the world. But what was ‘The Lord of the Rings’ actually about? Indeed, was it about anything at all?

Having been published in the mid-1950s, many people read Tolkien’s work as an allegory for the struggle for power in the Cold War. The ‘good’ forces of the West, seen in the feisty dwarves, the pure elves, the fragile men and above all the innocent, loyal and determined hobbits, were vulnerable band of friends, the allies, taking on the ‘dark forces’ of Communism represented by Mordor in the East. This was certainly a widespread interpretation and one passed on to me and many who read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ in the seventies. But the story was actually written long before the Cold War and the frightening tension between Communism and the West. Some people claimed it was based on World War II with Germany being ‘Mordor’ while others looked for a simpler tale rooted in the Norse myths that Tolkien had loved and studied since childhood. In reality, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ speaks of war, of course, and has images rich in Norse mythology but its true origins and the essence of its meaning is to be found in an earlier conflict, the Great War of 1914-18, when Captain Tolkien served with the British Army in the trenches of the Western Front.

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JRR Tolkien, in military uniform during the Great War (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

JRR Tolkien was born in 1892, in Bloemfontein, South Africa but his family moved to England after his father died in 1896. They lived just outside Birmingham, in a village called Sarehole, near Moseley and in what was then Worcestershire but today is very much part of the city itself. It was from Sarehole that the young Tolkien would look out towards Birmingham in the distance, across to Perrot’s Folly and the Edgbaston Waterworks, the buildings which would become the ‘Two Towers’. The domes of St. Philip’s Cathedral and the Oratory church in Birmingham may also have influenced his imagery, as did the local mill at Sarehole. ‘Ronald’ as he was known (his full name was John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, in case you need to know) grew up at a time of great upheaval with technological change impacting on life at almost every level in Britain. For Tolkien this drama was played out at home as the strength of the local industrial city cast a lengthening shadow over the countryside around him: crafts were changing, traditions were under threat and ‘Old England’ was dying.

Without going into too much detail, childhood was far from straight-forward for Ronald Tolkien, especially after his mother died in 1904. She had suffered from diabetes which was untreatable in those days before insulin had been discovered. It may seem surprising to people today, but Ronald and his brother were placed in the care of Father Francis Xavier Morgan, a friend of the family. Father Morgan was a Catholic priest at a church called the Birmingham Oratory, which had been founded in the 19th Century by John Henry Newman, a famous Anglican convert to Catholicism. Tolkien’s mother had grown up as a Baptist but had become a Catholic and JRR was strongly influenced by his own Catholic faith. Tolkien was a very intelligent, bright child, who was taught a lot by his mother, and he was extraordinarily talented at languages. He mastered Latin and Greek as a boy before developing an interest in Welsh, Finnish and Old English at Oxford University. He also had a habit, going back to childhood, of inventing his own languages, something that would lead to his creation of ‘Elvish’ as used in his books.

1916 was a momentous year for Tolkien: at the age of 24, he married Edith Bratt at St. Mary’s Church, Warwick, and was also sent out to fight in the Great War. He arrived just in time to join the fighting at the Battle of the Somme, which started on 1st July of that year. He was in and out of the trenches for four months before being sent home with a common infection called ‘trench fever’, a result of the unhygienic conditions at the front line. He was kept in hospital in Birmingham for over a month, during which time he heard that most of his old friends from school had been killed in the war. These experiences influenced him deeply and were formed into a story known as ‘The Book of Lost Tales’ which later became ‘The Silmarillion’. The sense of belonging to small groups of friends seems to have been significant for Tolkien throughout his life: at school, in the army and later on in academic life he was most at ease with small groups of like-minded men. There was something life-giving and sustaining about facing the hardships and challenges of ‘mighty forces’ in the company of a faithful ‘band’ of friends, something which stands at the heart of ‘The Lord of the Rings’.

Tolkien suffered recurring bouts of trench fever in 1917-18 and he did not return to the army. He entered academic life, becoming professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University in 1925 where he remained until he retired in 1959. Tolkien was a normal sort of ‘prof’ really, doing nothing too remarkable apart from being part of ‘The Inklings’, a group that met in various pubs around Oxford, the best known of which is ‘The Eagle and Child’. Each week the group met for drinks, discussions and debates on their own writings, and the group famously included the other great ‘religious novelist’ of the period, the Anglican CS Lewis, author of ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, ‘The Screwtape Letters’ and ‘Surprised by Joy’ amongst others. Tolkien clearly valued the company of like-minded men who were able to reflect on life and offer good company.

In 1937, Tolkien had a story published. It was called ‘The Hobbit’, which received widespread acclaim at the time and has remained a children’s classic ever since, selling over 100 million copies. ‘The Hobbit’ was a fantasy work which introduced Bilbo Baggins, Gollum, Middle Earth and ‘The Ring’ to the world, and would provide the background for ‘The Lord of the Rings’, which would take 16 more years to reach publication. The key point to know, though, is that the great themes of both books are to be found in his earlier book, ‘The Book of Lost Tales’ or ‘The Silmarillion’. In other words, the themes and imagery for ‘Lord of the Rings’ are rooted in his early experiences in life, his childhood in and around Birmingham, his Catholicism and, most importantly, his experience of fighting and the destruction of the Great War.

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Sarehole Mill, Moseley, Birmingham. (Author: Ashley Dace; Source: here)

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Trenches of the Somme, 1916. (Author: John Warwick Brooke; Source: here)

‘The Lord of the Rings’ is a big book in length, of course, but also in ideas, which is why so many people read it at different levels. The basic setting is the on-going struggle for power between good and evil, such that there is almost a dualism at work between a ‘good god’ (embodied in Gandalf) and a ‘bad god’ (represented by Lord Sauron with help from another baddy in Saruman). Religious values mingle with basic human and cultural values to represent a traditional way of life that comes under threat from something more simple, direct and ultimately destructive in the forces that come out of Mordor. They are expressed in the obsessive greed, lying and violence that come from the power of the ring.

The real backdrop or context for the struggle in the story is the Great War, which is one of the reasons why the story focuses on men; very few women play a significant role in the story. The plot is rooted in the traditional values of ‘Middle England’, the world of his childhood, which Tolkien saw as coming under such threat in the war. These values were expressed in many ordinary, traditional things and rooted in the disappearing English countryside: the landscape itself, the small farmers, the village pub, the old crafts, the folk songs and the relationships between ordinary people who just wanted a simple, safe life. These values saw people take time over things that mattered, built quality goods, respected wisdom and the old ways, a world in which people had time for play and for friendship. They were people who lived by the rhythm of the seasons, people who understood the traditional arts and crafts and had manners, honesty and respect for all. This way of life, the life of the ‘Hobbits’ of ‘The Shire’, had come under the greatest threat from dark, distant forces which reached out to cast a shadow over the traditional ways. These were the violent forces of the Ringwraiths at first but the Orcs and others too, the forces that wanted to seize, exploit and reject traditional ways in favour of control, selfishness and greed. The dark forces of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ were the result of the rise of industry, capitalism, individualism, greed and violence. The Hobbits were the simple people Tolkien had grown up amongst and who saw their way of life under threat: the farmers, craftsmen, the families of ‘Middle England’ who were thrown into a nightmare not of their making. Most of all they were the ordinary young men who were forced out of ‘The Shire’ and thrown into the horror and the slaughter of the trenches, in a war which seemed to be a struggle for the survival of civilisation itself. The story almost comes to express the values of the Luddites and Captain Swing, all mixed together with a bit of William Morris and the ‘Arts and Crafts Movement’.

The context for the struggle faced by Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Aragorn, Gandalf and the others is the Great War, the First World War of 1914-1918. Young men, many of whom had never left their home villages and towns, and who knew of foreign lands only through books and newspapers, marched off with high hopes and in great excitement to face an unknown enemy from the East. Inspired by dreams of loyalty, trust and patriotism, they volunteered and celebrated the chance to do their bit ‘for King and for country’. These men, some of them as volunteers, others as conscripts, were sent to the front line to be mown down in their millions for this was a new horror, the first ‘industrial’ war. Traditional weapons and tactics came face to face with the mass-produced destruction made available through machinery, as symbolised by the creation of the Orcs. In the Great War, artillery, gas, tanks and machine guns would wipe out a generation. Industry was tearing up the countryside of Tolkien’s childhood, the landscape being destroyed to turn trees into guns and men into monsters. ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is really war poetry on the grandest scale.

One particular scene might serve to illustrate this. If you watch the final film, ‘The Return of the King’, there is a point where, following an ‘Entmoot’, a slow discussion amongst the Ents, Merry and Pippin are carried by the leading Ent to the edge of the wood. There they look out towards Isengard, the fortress of Saruman, and see a devastated landscape where the trees are being torn up and thrown into a giant furnace to build an army of Orcs to destroy Middle Earth. The Ents, or trees, are representative of the countryside itself, symbols of the slow moving but wise and deep-rooted wisdom of Middle Earth, the unchanging landscape of England reaching back to the Anglo-Saxon times and the days of Beowulf, Bede and Caedmon. Nature is being fed into the fires of industry, the landscape is being lost and the old ways are on the verge of destruction at the hands of the Orcs and Ringwraiths who are led by cold, heartless leaders who look down on all that they represent. In this scene, Tolkien recreates the trenches, the battlefields of the Somme and Passchendaele, and shows what is at stake with the battle for the ‘Ring’, namely civilisation and the heart of humanity. ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is the struggle for the soul of ‘Old England’ expressed in the horrors unleashed by politicians and rulers who seek power and ‘progress’ at any cost. The alliance of dwarves, elves, men and hobbits represent a vulnerable group which can survive only by sticking together and putting differences of language, culture and religion to one side.

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A scene from ‘Gibraltar’ bunker on the Somme showing the destruction of life as well as the countryside. (Author: British War Photographer; Source: here)

Tolkien would later speak out against Communism and Nazism for the same reasons really: totalitarian regimes, imposing their wills on ordinary people and rejecting traditional, cultural and religious values in the process. He had a world-view that was firmly set against these new ideas and against industrialisation. He favoured tradition and saw a frightening tipping point in his experiences on the battlefields of the Western Front. This is the real meaning of his greatest book.

But maybe it really is just a fairy tale about some brave little hobbits, some elves, a ring and, of course, Gollum. Maybe.

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Professor Tolkien in 1967. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

Find out more

Books: ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’ by JRR Tolkien (both Harper Collins)

Films : ‘The Lord of the Rings Trilogy’ and ‘The Hobbit’ by Peter Jackson (Eiv)

Books: ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ by CS Lewis (Harper Collins)

War Poets: Poems of the Great War (Penguin): Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, John McCrae, Ivor Gurney and others.

Book and film: ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ by Erich Maria Remarque, one of the most famous anti-war statements of all time, with the film best seen in the original from 1933.

Books on ‘The Somme’: There are so many fine works about ‘The Battle of the Somme’ that it is hard to choose one or two. Fine works include: ‘The first day on the Somme’ by Martin Middlebrook (Penguin History, 2006); ‘Forgotten Voices of the Somme’ by Joshua Levine (Ebury Press) shares many of the stories of ordinary soldiers in the battle and Peter Barton’s ‘The Somme’ (Constable) contains a wide range of photographs and testimonies.

DVD: The original of ‘The Battle of the Somme’ which appeared in cinemas at the time is available from the Imperial War Museum here.