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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

Appeasement: smoothing the road to war.

Appeasement: smoothing the road to war.

‘The day may come when my much cursed visit to Munich will be understood.’ Neville Chamberlain speaking to Margot Asquith, May, 1940.

‘You may gain temporary appeasement by a policy of concession to violence, but you do not gain lasting peace that way. It is a grave delusion to suppose that you can.’ Anthony Eden, British Foreign Secretary, speaking in May, 1938.

‘Appeasement’. Rarely has reaction to a word been so transformed by time, taking it from something worthy of the greatest praise to generating near-disgust. From common-sense avoidance of confrontation to cowardice rooted in ignoring the evidence, appeasement has gone from being a sensible policy for thoughtful politicians to something to be avoided at all costs. Why was it that this idea which was once so good has become so bad? Why was it followed with regard to Hitler and Mussolini in the thirties but not against, say, Saddam Hussein in 1991 and 2003?

In the 1930s, the world was dominated by the suffering caused by the ‘Great Depression’. The economic problems which were triggered by the Wall Street Crash in October, 1929, had seen unemployment rise, trade collapse, industrial production fall, share prices fall, incomes fall and wages fall. From New Zealand to New York, from Britain to Brazil, there was despair and fear, as people struggled to make ends meet. But there were countries that were making progress and there were leaders who promised hope. This was the age of the dictators and two of them in particular seemed to be working economic miracles. In the ‘red corner’, so to speak was Joseph Stalin, bringing industrial growth in the Communist Soviet Union thanks to his ‘Five Year Plans’, while in the ‘brown corner’, by contrast, was Germany’s right-wing dictator, Adolf Hitler, whose Nazi (National Socialist) policies were having a remarkable impact and transforming the country. The fact that no other major countries were doing anywhere near as well during the depression brought great envy and attention from the rest of the world.

Praise flooded in from some really rather well-respected people for both men. David Lloyd George, the British former Prime Minister, was one of those who expressed admiration for Hitler. After visiting the Führer, Lloyd George described him as a ‘George Washington of Germany…the greatest living German’. He was probably overwhelmed by the contrast between what he saw in Germany and the state of life in Britain, especially South Wales and the industrial heartlands of the country but, even so, it was a sad thing to hear from a great politician. He would later turn against Hitler, though, supporting Churchill’s ideas against appeasement but his reputation was seriously damaged. But he was far from alone in praising Hitler as there was widespread respect for his achievements across Europe and amongst several leading figures in the USA, most famously Henry Ford. The German economic recovery appeared to be so positive that most people were more than willing to overlook some of the tactics used and the shadowy side of some of the ideology.

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David Lloyd George, the ‘Welsh Wizard’, in 1932. His visits to Hitler in the 1930s undermined his status as an astute politician. (Author: Robert Sennecke; Source: here)

Likewise, there was praise for the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin from many Western visitors who were shown neither the harsh realities of life behind the Five Year Plans nor the effects of the forced collectivisation of farms and the effects of that most terrible disaster, the Ukrainian Famine of 1933. George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), a famous writer, was one who praised Stalin, controversially defending the Show Trials and naively believing that there was no famine in the Ukraine. He encouraged people from  the West to go to the USSR to find work and a better standard of living. Many hundreds of people did move from the USA and elsewhere to find prosperity and hope in a ‘Communist paradise’ but few found what they were looking for, as Tim Tzouliadis records in his excellent study, ‘The Forsaken’. Shaw spoke well of Stalin, putting him among those ‘superior leaders’ who had emerged during the Russian Revolution. Again, he was not alone in his opinions, with people like WEB Du Bois, one of the US founders of the civil rights group the NAACP, and the British Socialists, Sydney and Beatrice Webb, adding their praise for Stalin. In most of the world, though, overall conditions seemed worse than in Germany or the USSR.

Times of economic hardship tend to make countries turn inwards as they seek to protect their own systems, economies and people. In the USA, the richest and most powerful country of the age, this was especially true as the challenges of the Depression went alongside the renewed commitment to isolationism to which it had re-committed itself after the Great War. The USA had retreated from world affairs since Woodrow Wilson had left the White House in  1920 so that, even though it was his “Fourteen Points” had shaped the post-war world, but the US Congress had rejected the dying man’s plans for their own contribution. The post-war treaties of 1919 had not been ratified by the USA and so they had turned their backs on the League of Nations, the most important single organisation that would try to maintain peace and ensure smoother relations between nations. The League had come into existence but was only a shadow of what it needed to be and responsibility for keeping countries in line if there were unresolved disputes, rested with the two old European Powers, Britain and France. Economically they both lacked the capacity to act and politically they did not have the will to act. And in neither country was there great commitment from the ordinary people to demand decisive action, as they faced the immediate hardships of the Twenties and Thirties, and so the ‘League of Nations’ drifted. The logical thinking was, “Why should Britain and France take on these extra burdens at a time when there was such economic hardship in their own lands? Why should their men, their resources, their armies have to travel the world to sort out problems that had nothing to do with them when they would see little by way of the benefits?” The absence of the USA from the League of Nations would be a central problem which would smooth the path to war immeasurably.

Other problems afflicted the League of Nations between the wars, though. Various countries were not allowed to join the League at first, notably Germany and the other Central Powers from the war, as well as the newly formed Communist state of the USSR. These absences were a natural reaction to the horrors and chaos of the Great war but the gaps at the table would prove significant, morally and psychologically as well as politically. Germany finally joined in 1926 but the sense of ‘rejection’ in those early years was strong in Germany, as was the feeling that they had been made scapegoats for all the problems of the war and were to be ‘second class’ citizens in the new world order. Hitler and the Nazis would stoke up these fires of anger which smouldered away during the 1920s. Leaving the League of Nations was one of Hitler’s first actions in 1933, one which impact on the development of appeasement.

The League of Nations actually enjoyed some successes in the 1920s, mainly because the problems that came its way were quite small and included countries which were not too powerful. These countries were willing to accept the ‘advice’ of the League, which allowed Britain and France to avoid having to use the tougher measures they had available, like sending in troops to settle disputes. The League’s strategies for survival included actions at a more ‘diplomatic’ level: writing letters, holding meetings, sending advisers, making speeches which would criticise countries in public (the use of ‘shame’ to bring change) and trade sanctions. In reality, the solving of disputes in places like Silesia, Bulgaria the Aaland Islands did not tax Britain and France too much. They also had success in dealing with issues to do with border disputes, refugees, prisoners of war, slavery and leprosy. But some things were not well handled, such as a dispute involving Italy in Corfu, the failure to address the whole issue of military disarmament (which had been a big dream of President Wilson’s) and the invasion of the Ruhr by France in 1923 after Germany failed to make its reparations payments. The Ruhr invasion actually indicated a major tension between Britain and France as each country would choose to act in its own interests rather than the League of Nations; the two were not willing or able to cooperate. The weaknesses of the League became even clearer in the 1930′s when they were dealing with bigger countries and when the ‘easy’ solutions were not accepted.

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Woodrow Wilson, President of the USA (1856-1924) (Author: Harris & Ewing; Source: here)

Anyway, things were generally ‘okay’ for the League of Nations in the 1920s but they were to get much tougher in the 1930s as the Depression started and countries became increasingly aggressive and nationalistic in such tough economic circumstances. Germany, as has been mentioned, was invited to join the League of Nations in 1926, following the Locarno Treaty which settled all remaining border disputes after the war. Germany took its place alongside Britain, France, Japan and Italy as one of the main players in the League of Nations. However, in 1933, Germany left the League as Adolf Hitler did not want to be subject to their system, advice or sanctions. The crisis for the League was exacerbated in that same year when Japan also left because it was in dispute over Manchuria (see below). This indicated a major weakness of the League of Nations: what could they do when countries and politicians didn’t want to listen to them? In contrast, a year later Stalin decided that the USSR would join the League which seemed to strengthen it but the fundamental flaws in the system were so clear by then that even the presence of the USSR made little difference: everything would still depend on good will, reasonableness and the willingness of Britain and France to act together in a decisive manner. And the odds on these being successful were not exactly high.

Appeasement might not have been mentioned much so far but all of these developments in the League of Nations were important as background to it. The most significant political development that would put the spotlight on appeasement, of course, was that Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany on 30th January, 1933. He was invited to take on the role of Chancellor and he was determined to use this position to restore German power and pride by rebuilding the armed forces, revitalising the economy and creating a new Reich, a one party state that would end democracy. He set this process in motion as soon as he was in power, removing political opponents, closing down the Trades Unions, marginalising then attacking the Jews and so on. In time, he broke all of the restrictions placed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles: the army was increased to more than 100 000 troops, the air force was built up, warships and submarines were built, troops were sent into the Rhineland, land lost under the Treaty of Versailles was re-occupied and so on. This did not all happen overnight; it took several years, and it was often a tentative process because Hitler knew that the country was still vulnerable to a strong military action from Britain and France. Hitler could not be sure of how these two powers would react to his breaches of the treaty, but he did have some good clues as to what would probably happen and they served only to encourage him. After 1933, Germany was no longer subject to the League of Nations, but there could still be problems from London and Paris in the form of trade sanctions or even an invasion, so why was he increasingly confident that he would face no direct confrontation? Two events from the 1930s suggested that Britain and France would do all they could to avoid conflict, choosing talking over fighting and direct action; these events were the ‘Manchurian Crisis’ (1931-34) and the ‘Abyssinian Crisis (1935-36). Appeasement was pretty much a nailed on certainty when you see what happened with these two problems.

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Maps are needed here so let’s start with Manchuria, that’s away over in the north-east of China, where the Japanese were in control in 1931. The darker red section is the main region that they occupied. (Author: CIA; Source: here)

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And now a world map to show how far it was from Britain and France. Remember, in 1931, no one was making long journeys by plane; everything was by ship, making intervention across the globe both difficult and slow. Communications by telegram and increasingly by phone were possible. But Manchuria really was a long way away in the minds of most Europeans, so why bother? (Author: Wikiacc; Source: here)

The “Manchurian Crisis” was an expression of Japanese expansionism, which had really begun when it took control of Korea in 1910. This was all tied in with Japan’s economic growth and its desire to industrialise when it had very few of its own natural resources. To cope with this situation, the army led an invasion of Manchuria in north east China, effectively telling the politicians what to do. China raised the issue of the invasion with the League of Nations in 1931,  but the initial decision of the main powers was ‘to have a look at the problem’ and so they sent some officials to check things out. They also asked Japan to leave Manchuria but this was simply ignored and nothing was done about it. When the delegation reported in October, 1932, the delay itself was a sign in itself, the decision was to recommend that the Japanese that they should give Manchuria back to the Chinese. In February, 1933, the League held a  formal vote on the matter, two years after the case had been presented to them, and there was a unanimous vote to condemn Japan and demand their immediate withdrawal from China. In response, the Japanese simply got up and walked out, ignoring the League of Nations and staying in Manchuria.

The next stage in this dispute should have been public condemnation, a ban on the sale of weapons to Japan and a trade embargo, but with the USA not involved, any such ban on trade would simply have led to more trade between those two countries. What’s the point of a ban when the country you want to punish can just trade with someone else? Added to this, Britain and France needed any trading opportunities they could have with Japan as the Great Depression was causing serious economic hardship at home. The ‘Manchurian Crisis’ passed with no real changes and clear evidence that the League of Nations would not take decisive action, especially when there were such clear flaws in the process. Added to this, no one in Britain and France really cared about what was happening on the other side of the world; the majority of people and politicians simply saw no reason to fight over Manchuria. It had been only 13 years since the end of the Great War and few people had the appetite, money or willingness to fight – and Adolf Hitler was just one of those who took note.

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A map of Abyssinia in 1908 (Author: Ken Mayer; Source: here)

 

Africa and Europe showing the strategic importance of Abyssinia

The next major challenge to the League of Nations came with the “Abyssinian Crisis” which started in late 1934. Abyssinia was the name at the time for the country we know as Ethiopia. Being in East Africa, Abyssinia was a dispute that was much closer to Europe than Manchuria had been, and was one that touched on the interests of the great powers, but it followed a similar process and had a similar result. The dispute was based on the Italian dream of power and glory, an ambition linked with control of Abyssinia.

The man at the heart of the dispute was Benito Mussolini, the Fascist dictator who led Italy between 1922-1943. One of the great posers in political history, Mussolini had an ego almost as large as his chin and his torso, both of which he liked to thrust in the general direction of an adoring crowd. For Italy, he desired greatness, power and an empire; for himself he wanted glory and adoration from the people – and to be respected and feared by his enemies. Unfortunately, the chances of Mussolini or Italy being respected and feared in the mid-1930′s were rather low as the country was a bit of a laughing stock amongst the European powers, which could be traced back to the end of the Great War when their desire for land was pretty much passed over at Versailles. The Italian army had not performed with any real credit in the war, they had few colonies and little by way of industry to support a great military force. it was not actually that long since the army had actually been humiliated with defeat to Abyssinia  at the hands of Menelik II during the battle of Adwa in 1896. When Mussolini was looking for a target and an opportunity to build an Empire in the 1930s, Abyssinia was there, providing the land and resources as well as the chance for revenge and glory.

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Benito Mussolini (1883-1945)(Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Abyssinia was actually an important area of Africa for several powers. Control of it was useful for its proximity to the important sea lanes linked with the Suez Canal, the Red Sea and India, as well as the Middle East. For some time, Britain and France had held territory in the country as did the Italians. In 1934, there was a clash between Italian and Ethiopian forces at a place called Wel-Wel which was triggered by a border dispute focused on Italian Somaliland. The French and British noted that the Italians had moved beyond their borders in this dispute and it was referred to the League of Nations. Part of the problem was about whether Britain and France should support a potentially important Fascist European power or a small, more peripheral, African kingdom. Italy seemed to have greater significance for them in everyday affairs and economic business, so they both took care to do as little as possible to rock the boat. The decision was taken to ignore the law and so to avoid challenging Mussolini.

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Haile Selassie I (1892-1975), the last Emperor of Ethiopia. (Author: G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection; Source: here). Haile Selassie was the leader of Abyssinina at the time of the Italian invasion. His dignified appeal for help from the League of Nations in June, a936, fell on deaf ears and he was forced into exile in Britain. In 1941, he was reinstalled as leader with British assistance. Today, Haile Selassie is revered as a god in Rastafarianism.

The big issue for Britain and France at the time was the growing fear about Germany’s military build-up in Europe, and the two main powers wanted to keep Italy as an ally in that struggle. In 1935, Britain and France said that neither side was really at fault in Abyssinia, hoping that it would all just settle down, but this was effectively telling Italy that, as long as they promised to help against Germany, they would be pretty much free to act as they wanted in Africa. Mussolini built up his forces and, to cut a long story short, launched an attack which led to war. Over several months, from October, 1935, to May, 1936, the fighting continued until the Italians declared victory. Mussolini had his empire and the adulation of the Italian people; and the League of Nations had been exposed as toothless once more. It had been both powerless and, more importantly, unwilling to act in a clear-cut dispute; Britain and France failed to do the right thing by protecting Abyssinia, a small state which needed support against a more powerful aggressor. They had acted out of pure self-interest in allowing Italy to act as it did. Again, Hitler took note of the actions and the arguments of the British and French; the message was pretty easy to understand.

Soon after the conflict ended, Mussolini took Italy into an alliance with Hitler, seeing his strength and clarity as a better model for leadership than the inertia and avoidance of Britain and France; their plan to keep Mussolini on their side had unravelled. This was in October, 1936, and the so-called ‘Rome-Berlin axis’ was to be the start of a great alliance across the Alps. It would lead to further cooperation and a strengthened unity in the joint venture to support the Fascist forces of General Franco in the Spanish Civil War which had started in July, 1936. This would be another example of the failure of the League of Nations to take decisive action to stop the rise of the dictators. And so all this is the background for appeasement, the failure of Britain, in particular, to stand up to Hitler’s expansionism in Germany ahead of World War II.

Hitler came to power as Chancellor of Germany on 30th January, 1933. It was expected that he would be a ‘flash in the pan’, kept under control by the President, Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934), and various other experienced politicians. They got it slightly wrong, to say the least, so that Hitler and the Nazis stayed in power rather longer than had been expected, until May 1945, in fact. On Hindenburg’s death in August 1934, Hitler became both Chancellor and President, combining these roles as ‘The Führer’, the Leader of Germany.

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Adolf Hitler with his first cabinet in 193, Hermann Goering to his right and Franz von Papen to his left. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

As soon as he had power, Hitler acted in a far more decisive manner than his opponents expected. They could not have foreseen that he would take out the Communist and Socialist members of the Reichstag as a force; they did not foresee his ban on the Trades Unions on May 2nd, the day after he allowed the traditional May Day marches to go ahead; they could not have foreseen that the ‘Reichstag Fire’ in February 1933 would allow him to pass the Enabling Act, granting him the powers to act as a dictator during a time of ‘crisis’, a situation that would last until the end of the Second World war. And no one could have foreseen the energy with which the Nazis would enact their policies and the drive with which so many people came to support them, especially in moving forward the economic regeneration. The great symbol of this new Germany came to be the autobahns, the motorways built across the country in such number, and with such quality, that they remain amongst the finest in the world but there was development to observe in other areas of German society during the thirties.

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Building the autobahns in the 1930s; Hitler does some symbolic digging. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

On the back of the support he received, Hitler basically began to prepare for war and nearly every major decision he made has to be seen in this light. He was one of those who felt betrayed by the ‘November Criminals’ who had signed the Treaty of Versailles. He had served as a soldier in the Great War and felt deep anger at the armistice which inflicted defeat on a mighty army. He also had a deep seated hatred of the Jews, seeing them as a disease and a curse, worthy of punishment simply for being alive. He saw the Treaty of Versailles as the greatest injustice imposed upon the people of Germany, something that had to be thrown off as soon as possible. He believed that Germans were superior to other races, and deserved more ‘lebensraum’ (living space) in the East, where they would put it to far better use than the Slavic peoples. Time was short and preparations had to begin immediately to help build the Third Reich, which was to last for a thousand years.

Hitler proceeded to break each of the key terms of the Treaty of Versailles: the numbers in the army exceeded 100 000, warships were constructed and the Luftwaffe formed but Britain and France did nothing. German troops entered the Rhineland in 1936, it having been declared a demilitarised zone by the Treaty of Versailles, and Britain and France did nothing. Germany was united with Austria in the ‘Anschluss’ of March 1938 and, although there were concerns, Britain and France did nothing. They did speak to Hitler, though, and his promises that he would not do anything else to break the Treaty were enough for them; it is hard to see the acceptance of such a ‘promise’ as an act of wisdom. And then in October, 1938, Hitler’s troops moved in to the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia. This was an area which had been taken from Germany as part of the Treaty of Versailles, the Sudetens being German speaking, and Hitler declared that they should rightfully be in the German Reich. All the actions of Britain, France and the League of Nations suggested that they might moan and complain but they would not actually do anything about it. And so it was: comments were made, questions were asked, concerns were raised but no action was taken to stop Germany retaking the Sudetenland.

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A warm welcome for the German troops in Vienna, Austria, March 1938. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

This is really where Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, came in, doing an early form of shuttle diplomacy, flying off to visit Hitler in the hope of brokering a deal on Czechoslovakia. The Munich Conferences came to be seen as the epitome of appeasement, the weakest diplomacy, whereby a madman gave a fool the run around. The promise made by Hitler that he would not seek to extend Germany’s control any further would soon be ignored. The decisive moment that finally brought an end to appeasement came in September, 1939, when Hitler decided to move into Poland. Again, he thought that words not actions would follow but this time it proved wrong as both France and Britain declared war on Germany and World War II began. Six years of the most intense fighting would follow, the largest and most destructive war in history. But why did Britain, in particular, not act earlier?

The person seen as the epitome of the policy was, of course, Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister from 1937 to 1940. While this is logical, it is also a bit harsh as Chamberlain was not alone in following this policy. However, appeasement was an attitude and a policy of the British establishment throughout the 1930s, as can be seen from the way Winston Churchill was widely derided as a warmonger for his analysis of Hitler’s expansionist tendencies. Indeed for most of the thirties,he was the only senior politician to speak out against Hitler and appeasement, and his ideas around a ‘gathering storm’ saw him pushed well and truly to the margins of political life. People like Stanley Baldwin, the Prime Minister before Chamberlain, would often mock Churchill and his analysis of the dangers posed by Hitler and a strong Germany. The truth of the matter is that just about no one, no politician, no military leader and no major group in society, wanted war in 1935 or ‘36 or ’37, and with good reason: Britain was in an economic depression and could not afford it and the armed forces were not strong enough in numbers of trained troops and in technology.  And also of great significance was the fact that people remembered all too well the horrors of the Great War so that the thought of choosing a ‘return match’ for no good reason was beyond them; the fathers who had fought and survived, did not want to put their sons through the same hell. Appeasement was a hopeful ‘head-in-the-sand’ approach, but it was one that united the country and made sense. Any politician taking an alternative position would have been accused of being a ‘warmonger’, a maker of war, just as Churchill was accused.

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Neville Chamberlain and his famous piece of paper: ‘Peace for our time’, 30th September, 1938. (Author: Ministry of Information official photographer; Source: here)

The reaction of the people as Chamberlain returned from Munich on 30th September, 1938, waving that famous piece of paper in his hand, Hitler’s promise to keep his word, was one of overwhelming support. People sang and wept and cheered. They sang ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’ and they celebrated long into the night because it was ‘Peace for our time’. Chamberlain represented a nation of appeasers, and is that not what politicians are supposed to be in a democracy, people who represent the views of the majority? The reaction of the newspapers the next day indicated that it was Chamberlain who was seen as the wise one, the strong one, the brave one, and not Churchill. The years to come would change that but the country, and the papers, were lucky to be able to be wise after the event.

And France was no different really. They took pretty much the same line as Britain, seeking to negotiate where they could, taking the moral high-ground by pointing out breaches of the Treaty and expressing their concerns, but not pushing for war. This was actually an important positive in appeasement because when war finally did come, both Britain and France could say, ‘You were warned’. They could say they had tried everything else rather than rushing to war at the first opportunity. Hitler was clearly to blame for World War II in a way which the Kaiser probably could not have been held to be so totally responsible 25 years earlier.

One other thing that can serve to explain, if not totally justify, appeasement is that Britain (and France) eventually won. Okay, it might have happened earlier and with far less damage and fewer deaths, but there is a big argument to say that Britain could not have successfully embarked on a war of such magnitude any earlier than it did. Maybe if Britain and France had taken on Germany in 1938 or even 1936, they would have been fighting a much weaker force but they too were far weaker than they were in 1939 – and their leader would have been Chamberlain. Behind the banner of appeasement, Britain did build and prepare for war: planes were developed, tanks were built, ships were refitted, soldiers were recruited and supplies were built up. To argue against appeasement is easy and ‘alternative’ histories are impossible to prove; there is certainly an argument to justify Chamberlain’s actions and that comes with victory in 1945. Rather like the appalling ‘Nazi-Soviet Pact’ of August 1939, the one justification is that, when Hitler did launch Operation Barbarossa in 1941, the USSR withstood the attack. It was a victory achieved at huge cost and it might well have ended differently but, in the end, the USSR played the key role in defeating the Nazis. So it could not have been completely the wrong decision to make the Pact – and maybe Chamberlain could argue the same. All of his trips to Munich, being made to look a bit of a fool and sounding rather weak as he said, ‘My mother always told me, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again’, all was worth it because, in the end, victory was achieved. But it was a mighty close run thing.

And don’t forget, an alternative to appeasement might well be having leaders who look for opportunities to go to war, as some might say happened with the Falklands Conflict in 1982 or the Gulf War in 2003. Somewhere between the two approaches, there has to be a ‘happy medium’ – what a shame it’s never in the same place from one crisis to the next.

 

 

Find out more

Books: ‘Munich: The 1938 Appeasement Crisis’ by David Faber; ‘The Road to War: The origins of World War II’ by Richard Overy and Andrew Wheatcroft; ’1939: Countdown to War’ by Richard Overy; ‘The Origins of the Second World War’ by AJP Taylor; ‘Making friends with Hitler’ by Ian Kershaw

TV: ‘The Nazis – A Warning from History’ by Laurence Rees; ‘The World at War’ (Directed by Peter Tiffin for Thames Television, 2010 edition); ‘The Gathering Storm’ (BBC drama, 2002)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harry S. Truman: ‘The buck stops here.’

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Harry Truman at the Potsdam Conference of July-August, 1945, with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin: ‘The Big Three’. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

Harry S. Truman: ‘The buck stops here.’

Now to the most famous ‘haberdasher’ in history, Harry S. Truman. The ‘S.’ in Truman’s name, by the way, did not actually stand for anything but was an attempt by his parents to please both of his grandfathers, Shipp Truman and Solomon Young. Anyway, Harry Truman was originally from a town called Independence, Missouri, but he opened his haberdashery (in the USA that means a gentlemen’s clothes shop) in Kansas City after he returned from the Great War in which he had served as a captain in the Field Artillery. It was not a hugely successful enterprise and it failed in the tough economic conditions of the early 1920s. Truman changed career and took advantage of some useful contacts to get elected as a county court judge, a post he held for eight years. Truman’s political career really took off during the 1930s. He was a Democrat and a strong supporter of Harry Hopkins, one of FDRs most trusted allies. Truman was elected Senator for Missouri in 1934 and he headed off to Washington to help drive through the radical ideas behind the New Deal. There is not really the space here to look at his relatively uninspired time as a senator so we will move on; this is what might be called a ‘convenient excuse’.

Truman was elected to the vice-presidency in 1944, the fourth election victory for Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR was seriously ill at this time and there was a widespread expectation that he would not survive the next four years so Truman has to have been considered at least a ‘safe pair of hands’ by the Democratic leadership, most of all FDR himself. His move into the White House probably came sooner than expected as Roosevelt died less than three months after being sworn into office; Truman was 60 years old at the time. Dismissed by many as a bland and uninspiring man of little conviction or courage, Truman proved to be a far tougher and more aggressive character than was expected. He was in office for nearly eight years and pulled off one of the most remarkable election victories in US history when returning to the White House in 1948. His time in the Oval Office were those crucial years in which the USA adopted its role as the superpower of the West and he played a pivotal in shaping the post-war world as tensions developed into the Cold War. It was his vision and values which were fundamental in providing the foundations of US foreign policy for much of the second half of the century, so shaping world affairs and international relations in the most profound way. Harry Truman may have been an ‘accidental’ President but he grew into the role and grabbed his opportunities with both hands. This is just a part of his story.

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Harry S. Truman (1884-1972), the 33rd President of the USA (Author: Frank Gatteri; Source: here)

In the first weeks after Harry Truman became vice-president he hardly saw the president as FDR was away at the Yalta Conference, that meeting of the ‘Big Three’ which stood out as the most positive of the wartime meetings of the Allied Powers. Despite the natural tensions and simple politics of the occasion, it was generally an optimistic meeting between FDR, Churchill and Stalin which benefited from the knowledge that the war against the Nazis was effectively won, the final stages simply being played out in Central Europe. FDR’s health was a cause for concern and he was clearly a very sick man in the early months of 1945. This was one of the factors which led to various ‘details’ of what should happen in the post-war world being left open for a future conference, which would eventually take place at Potsdam near Berlin. FDRs poor health also meant that Truman rarely spent time alone with the great man, and actually only had one-to-one meetings with him on two occasions. When FDR died on 12th April, the country was in mourning for one of its most important leaders and also rather concerned as to how the relatively unknown Truman would handle his promotion. With no great track record of political leadership and rather lacking in the experience of foreign affairs, there were many questions and concerns as Truman took the responsibility for guiding the USA through the end of World War II and, it was hoped, into the post-war world.

Despite his less than inspiring background and the accidental manner of his arrival in the White House, Truman grew into a job which to most observers seemed to be beyond him in 1945. Rather surprisingly, Truman turned into a president who is regularly voted as one of the ‘Top Ten Presidents’ of all time, not matching Washington, Lincoln and FDR, maybe, but certainly well ahead of, say, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford and, of course, Warren Harding. So, what did Harry Truman do that makes it worth giving up a few minutes of your life to finding out about him? Here we will look at just a few things: his decision to drop the Atom Bombs on Japan; his relationship with Joseph Stalin; the Truman Doctrine and his commitment to the Marshall Plan.

First of all, then, let’s look at the impact made by the development of the atom bomb at the end of World War II, a technological event whose importance is rather difficult to over-state. Its use on two occasions in August, 1945, brought a swift end to World War II, killing tens of thousands but probably saving the lives of millions. It brought a dramatic shift in the balance of power in international relations. Its use marked the beginning of the ‘nuclear age’, an age in which the threat of total destruction hung over the world. Nuclear weapons cast the longest, broadest and darkest of shadows over the lives of people who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. This in turn led to the rise of a new form of political activism in the form of pressure groups like CND, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, creating a culture which has transformed the political landscape. There was a real sense of fear and impending doom in the back of people’s minds as they feared the ‘mushroom clouds’ that would come with the threatened nuclear attacks. And, also to the delight of many politicians and others, the new technology heralded the arrival of nuclear power and transformed the nature of war, giving a huge boost to ‘defence’ spending as research and development went into over-drive during the Cold War period. In the process, this impacted on the nature of political funding in the US as campaigns were increasingly supported by the defence industry. The fear factor in the Nuclear Age was an extraordinarily powerful driver of policy.

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A scene from ‘Duck and Cover’, a US Civil Defense Film from 1951. It’s hero was the Bert the Turtle who helped children with his advice on how to survive a nuclear attack.

If you want a sense of the tension and fear of this time, get onto ‘YouTube’ or buy the DVD called ‘Nuclear Scare Stories’, especially ‘Duck and Cover’, which is a classic. I won’t spoil it for you but people really were taught that putting a table cloth over your head would do wonders when it came to saving your life in the face of such an attack. After that, you might read the splendid but frightening, ‘When the wind blows’, by Raymond Briggs.

But the main issue in all this was, of course, Truman’s use of the atom bomb itself. Technological and industrial developments had already transformed war in the Twentieth Century. No more would there be soldiers in colourful uniforms, marching steadily in formation towards the enemy lines, and never again would cavalry and swords be seen on the battlefield. The atom bomb was just one more dramatic step in the transformation of conflict, a step on from the artillery, planes, machine guns and tanks which had slaughtered people in numbers beyond counting in the two world wars and other conflicts of the first half of the century. This was different, though, as complex science came to the fore and took the destructive capability to a whole new level and put astonishing potential in the hands of politicians and generals.

The atom bomb was finally developed by Robert Oppenheimer and his team who ran the ‘Manhattan Project’, which was based at three sites in the USA, most famously Los Alamos in New Mexico. It ran between 1942 and 1946, building on the theories of Albert Einstein and the research of other great scientists like Ernest Rutherford, at Manchester University. There were many other brilliant if lesser known scientists involved on various projects in Germany, Denmark, Britain and the USA, such as  Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner and Fritz Strassmann. Although the ‘Manhattan Project’ turned out to be the ‘winner’ in the race for the bomb which could harness atomic power, there was no certainty that this would be the case despite the US funding and the brilliance of Oppenheimer’s team. The Nazi regime had been seeking such a development itself during the war and there were major concerns for the Allies when Germany invaded Denmark in October 1943, so closing in on Niels Bohr, a leading atomic researcher. The British managed to move Bohr to Sweden and also disrupted some factories and supplies in the Nazi nuclear programme but this all reflected how tight things were at the time. This may well be seen as a decisive moment in the war as keeping Bohr safe gave a vital advantage to the Allies and helped the ‘Manhattan Project’ them to develop the atom bomb first. By 16th July, 1945, Oppenheimer had three bombs ready to test at the top secret Los Alamos base in New Mexico.

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J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967): leader of the ‘Manhattan Project’. (Author: Department of Energy, Office of Public Affairs ; Source: here)

When the tests on the bombs were completed, some of those involved in the project were astonished and horrified by the power they had unleashed. Oppenheimer himself declared, ‘Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds’, based on a quote from the ‘Bhagavad Gita’, a sacred Hindu book. Oppenheimer and many others feared what might happen as these new weapons were unleashed on the world. But for President Truman, the bombs were a necessary evil, a weapon that gave the US an unprecedented advantage in a war which had no clear end in sight, at least in the Pacific. The Atom Bomb had been developed at huge cost and Truman knew that they might be developed by the enemy who could use them against the US and her Allies. Being under huge pressure to justify the costs and to act quickly to end the war, Truman decided to use the atom bombs. Originally the plan had been to use them against the Nazi forces in Europe but Germany but  had surrendered on 8th May, 1945, and so it was that Japan was to face attack the atomic bombs in August, 1945. Whether or not Truman made the right call is hotly debated to this day.

The full details of the dropping of the atom bombs are obviously available through many websites and books. Some of the key facts are here, though. At 8.15 am on Monday, 6th August, 1945, the city of Hiroshima was devastated when the first atom bomb, codenamed ‘Little Boy’, was dropped from a B-29 Superfortress bomber, called ‘Enola Gay’ in honour of the mother of Paul Tibbets, the pilot. The city had a population of about 340 000 and was an important military supply centre in the south of Honshu, Japan’s main island. It was an acceptable target for the bomb because of its use by the military but also because it had suffered no significant damage during the war up to that point which allowed a clear analysis of the power of the bomb. Even though ‘Little Boy’ only exploded with about 2% of its full potential, apparently, the explosion destroyed 70% of the city, killing 70 000-80 000 people almost instantly, many of them being vapourised in the process. Some of the dead included a small group of US prisoners of war. On Thursday, 9th August, a second bomb, ‘Fat Man’, was dropped on the city of Nagasaki on the southern island of Kyushu from a B-29 called ‘Bockscar’. Here there were fewer immediate deaths than in Hiroshima with about 50 000 – 70 000 killed but the bomb, which had a plutonium core as opposed to the uranium used in ‘Little Boy’, was a more powerful blast. The fewer deaths were partly down to the fact that Nagasaki was more hilly than Hiroshima. In both cities, the devastation was astonishing and the deaths from injuries and illness continued long after, mainly from the effect of burns and radiation sickness.  So far, these two incidents represent the only use of nuclear weapons although there were many near misses from accidents in the subsequent decades and on two particular occasions, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and during a NATO Training exercise in 1983, the world stood on the brink of full nuclear war. But back in 1945, Harry Truman was comfortable with his decisions and happy with the outcome, despite the deaths of so many civilians. A war against a fierce opponent who had never before surrendered in any war was brought to an end just a week afterwards with the announcement of the Japanese surrender. The actual statement had come the day before when Emperor Hirohito of Japan made his first ever radio broadcast and, to the shock and shame of many people, announced the surrender following the “use of a new and cruel bomb” which meant that continued fighting could bring the destruction of the nation and endanger the whole of humanity. The atom bomb clearly achieved its goal for President Truman who had shown a ruthless streak in his decision making.

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On 2nd September, 1945, the Japanese Foreign Minister, Mamoru Shigemitsu, signed the official surrender on behalf of his government. It took place on board the USS ‘Missouri’, a ship named after Harry Truman’s home state. (Author: Army Signal Corps; Source: here)

The question, “Was Truman right to use the atom bombs against Japan?” has been debated many times. No simple or clear solution is evident but the logic of Truman’s arguments always show that he has a case to support his actions despite the horrific number of casualties, especially those of innocent civilians – although some people argue that in war-time, very few people are completely ‘innocent’. On the ‘pro-Truman’ side of the argument are some rather important factors, especially for a politician. It meant that the USA and its Allies won. It meant a quicker end to the war against an enemy with a fierce reputation and no willingness to surrender. It meant far fewer casualties for the USA, which was a huge factor based on the experience of the fighting in the Pacific Islands. It saved money and enabled the USA to get on with other matters, such as addressing the crisis facing Europe which had seen so much death and destruction; ‘Marshall Aid’ and the recovery of Europe happened partly because of the Atom Bombs. For a former vice-president looking to prove himself as President, it showed Truman as a strong leader who could make tough decisions. It showed Stalin and the USSR just how powerful the Atom Bomb was and that the USA was willing to use it, giving a powerful message about future conflicts. By dropping two different types of bomb, scientists had a clear understanding of which one was more powerful  which allowed further developments in future; despite the lower level of destruction and fewer casualties, the ‘better’ bomb was ‘Fat Man’, the one dropped on Nagasaki and the plutonium method was the one developed. The development and use of the atom bombs marked the USA’s pre-eminent position on the world stage, a massive development from its days of isolationism and firmly established it as the Western ‘Superpower’.

One particular example of war in the Pacific may be of use here to explain the pressure Truman came under to use the atom bomb. Many will have heard the story of the ‘Battle of Iwo Jima’, either from history books, novels, photos or films. The battle took place over five weeks in February-March, 1945, some months before the atom bombs were dropped. Iwo Jima is a tiny island just south of Japan. It had been attacked by the US Army as they tried to fight their way towards Japan. The island was defended by a force estimated at 21000 Japanese soldiers. In the fighting, the Americans lost nearly 7000 men out of a force of 70 000 with another 20 000 wounded. The Japanese, by contrast, refused to surrender, and suffered a death rate of 95% as less than one thousand were taken prisoner – and some sources put that figure as low as 216, with many of them having to have their guns dragged from them. That battle was 70 000 against 21 000; there were many other islands to fight for – and what would happen when the Americans got to Japan itself? How many more would have to die? What would it cost? How long might it take? Many people believe the atom bomb saved lives; these figures suggest that was almost certainly true.

The argument against dropping the atom bombs on Japan is simpler. The fundamental point is that the bombs killed many thousands of people in a most violent and horrific manner and most of those who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were civilians. Although Hiroshima and Nagasaki were important places, the majority of casualties were non-military: women, the elderly and children. The destruction was indiscriminate. Death in war is rarely ‘clean’ but these were casualties of a new kind, a terrible agony being suffered from horrendous burns and the agony of radiation sickness; many people ceased to exist as their bodies were destroyed by the heat and the blast. And the agony went on for the survivors with many people suffering blindness and cancers, many giving birth to babies with the most severe deformities long after the bombing. Every death is a tragedy but Truman’s decision to use the atom bomb undoubtedly led to the deaths of thousands of innocent people.

In reality, the atom bomb was used twice against Japan and the argument is to some extent irrelevant or academic; the bombs cannot be ‘unused’ or the destruction be ‘undone’. What is clear is that nuclear bombs have not, so far, been used again. The shock of the destruction may have played a part in curbing the actions of politicians since then, according to some observers, most notably in the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was not a decision Truman took lightly but it was one which met with the strong approval of most Americans; and in a democracy, that is a pretty powerful justification for any politician.

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A burns victim being treated after the attack on Hiroshima. (Author: Shunkichi Kikuchi; Source: here)

The atom bomb had a huge impact politically as well as militarily with repercussions that shaped international relations between the ‘Superpowers’ in those early post-war years. Truman’s relationship with Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union, was tense from the start and a vital factor in the development of the Cold War. Stalin had respect for, and felt respected by, FDR and Churchill, there being a certain bond between the three leaders who had seen their respective countries, and the Alliance as a whole, through one of the darkest chapters in world history. The most positive conference they had was at Yalta in February, 1945, where they sketched out what was to happen after victory had been won. Things actually looked reasonably bright in the following weeks until other events kicked in; firstly, Roosevelt died in early April 1945, to be replaced by Truman and then, in July, during the Potsdam Conference itself, Churchill was replaced by Clement Attlee as Prime Minister of Britain. Stalin was saddened by FDR’s absence but death happens; he was absolutely stunned and horrified by the loss of Churchill to be replaced by, in his opinion, such an inconsequential figure as Attlee. The photos of Attlee at the Potsdam Conference do present him as a totally different presence from Churchill. Stalin had never been keen on democracy but the defeat of Churchill sealed its fate in Eastern Europe and the USSR: if the voters could get rid of a great hero like Churchill, Stalin was not going to be taking any risks in his sphere of influence. The wartime alliance was disintegrating even before the war ended. The relationship between Stalin and Truman would do nothing to help that relationship.

Truman had little by way of real experience in foreign affairs and certainly nothing in terms of dealing with Stalin and the Soviets when he arrived at Potsdam, near Berlin, for the conference in July, 1945. He was a man who felt that he had a lot to prove and so he took a very aggressive line with the Soviet delegation, many of whom said they had never been spoken to as rudely as they were by Truman. When referring to the existence of the atom bomb, Truman did it in a way which was meant to be slightly obscure and with a threat, effectively warning Stalin that it could be used against the USSR at some stage. Stalin was not hugely impressed by the news as he already knew of the atom bomb because of spies; but he was certainly not happy with Truman, who he dismissed as a little man who was not worthy of replacing the great Roosevelt.

 

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The Big Three at Potsdam: Attlee in a crumpled three piece suit, Truman in a bow tie and Stalin in military uniform. They make an unlikely team of allies. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Truman’s view of Stalin and the USSR was that both the man and the country were evil. When he received George Kennan’s famous  ‘Long Telegram’ in 1946, the idea that Stalin was calculating and aggressive, the modern equivalent of a dreadful modern Tsar, it made perfect sense to Truman. The ‘Long Telegram’ said that Stalin was seeking to expand Communism and he wanted ‘world revolution’ as Marx had called for. Truman responded with his policy for the ‘containment’ of Communism, the so-called ‘Truman Doctrine’ which would, despite some name changes under later presidents, come to dominate US foreign policy for most of the Cold War. The tension in the relationship between Truman and Stalin was certainly a significant contributory factor at the start of the Cold War, one which took it further and deeper than it might otherwise have gone.

Another crucial element in Truman’s contribution to world affairs was the ‘Marshall Plan’. It was a key aspect of ‘Truman Doctrine’ in action and transformed the post-war world. Its full title was the ‘European Recovery Plan’ and it was developed under the guidance of one of the most significant and reliable figures of the Twentieth Century: General George C. Marshall, Truman’s Secretary of State (which means he dealt with Foreign Affairs). It was on a visit to Europe in 1947 that Marshall saw the destruction of the continent, the plight of the refugees and the potential growth in influence by Communist supporters if recovery did not come quickly. He proposed the ‘Marshall Plan’ as a way of ensuring this recovery and eventually Truman’s support enabled $13.5 billion of aid to be given to 16 countries in Western Europe. Britain and France were the biggest beneficiaries, although even that would not be enough to ensure a full recovery; Britain had been effectively bankrupt in 1946-47, having to withdraw from its commitments to support Greece at a time when it faced the on-going threat of Civil War and this would be a crucial moment in which Truman further established himself as the first of the ‘Cold Warriors’.

Truman saw that Britain’s economic plight was a true crisis and that the USA had to step into support and, effectively, to replace the old powers who had for so long been the main players in international affairs, through their Empires and the League of Nations. This demanded a massive change of attitude in the US as he had to overturn the country’s long standing isolationism, whereby it had stayed out of foreign matters unless it had to get involved during a war. He also know that the decisions that would be faced had to be backed  by a huge amount of money so that the US could deliver on promises it would have to make. Truman managed to do this and so changed the role of the USA in world affairs, creating a new world order which was to ensure that the US would be the biggest player on the global stage throughout the rest of the Twentieth Century. Truman was fundamental in shaping the modern world order.

As indicated earlier, the primary goal of ‘Marshall Aid’ and the ‘Truman Doctrine’ was to contain the spread of Communism in the post-war era. These put the ‘Long Telegram’ into action but there was more to containing Communism than these high-profile policies. One country where the Communists/Socialists were especially strong in politics after World War II was Italy. It had turned away from the Fascism of Mussolini to embrace Left Wing ideology and, as elections loomed in 1948, the USA became deeply concerned at the prospect of a Communist Government in such a key European state. Such a result would extend Communist influence right into the heart of the Mediterranean and to the border with France. It would be a sign of the failure of containment, a sign of ‘domino theory’ in action. It would be a failure for the ‘Marshall Plan’ and for Truman himself. The Catholic Church was also deeply concerned at the thought of an atheistic Government in power in Italy, the heartland of the church and effectively the home of the Pope who lived in the Vatican. The shock of a Communist Government in a country such as Italy would have been immense and, at a time when stories of communist spies in the US itself were beginning to grab the headlines, Truman and the Democrats were under great pressure to act, especially as they faced own elections in November 1948. Something had to be done and Truman was prepared for a radical approach, so in stepped the recently formed CIA for its first direct attempt at influencing foreign affairs on behalf of capitalism and democracy.

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The CIA, an organisation brought into existence by President Truman (Author: US Central Government; Source: here)

The CIA is, of course, the ‘Central Intelligence Agency’. Although the USA had always gathered intelligence through spies and in other ways, there was nothing formally coordinated until World War II when FDR set up the OSS (Office of Strategic Services). This was closed down after the war but the importance of such work in the increasingly threatening atmosphere of the ‘Cold War’ led to it being re-established by the National Security Act. The CIA was set up in 1947 when President Truman gave it responsibility for overseeing security and intelligence matters abroad. Its first major attempt at going beyond intelligence gathering and into influencing events overseas was to be in those Italian elections, where they were directed to help the Christian Democrats against the Communists. With support also coming from the Catholic Church, whose priests often directed their congregations how to vote and excommunicated members of the Communist Party, the CIA gave money, technology and resources to help the anti-Communist politicians. F. Mark Wyatt, one of the CIA ‘operatives’ on the ground during what was a violent and dirty campaign, was interviewed for the CNN ‘Cold War’ series and said that he quite literally took bags of money around with him to hand out to politicians for their ‘expenses’ and to pay for propaganda posters and pamphlets. In addition, a massive campaign was run encouraging millions of Italian-Americans in the USA to write home, telling people of the dangers of communism.

And it all worked, much to the despair and anger of the Italian Communists who were defeated. The success of the campaign saw the Christian Democrats in power. There was relief in the capitals of Western Europe and a new belief in Washington: the ‘dominoes’ had not fallen and it was possible to get the desired results if there was an appropriate level of commitment and intervention. The CIA would be at the heart of many more years of covert American activities aimed at supporting anti-Communist groups in places like Guatemala, Chile, Cuba as well as around Europe and Asia. In Italy itself, declassified records from the CIA show that the tactics used in 1948 were repeated at every Italian General Election for at least the next 24 years: so much for democracy, it might be said.

Just back to Harry Truman to finish off. Truman amazed everyone by winning the 1948 election after he had been written off and some newspapers had even printed news of his defeat before the election was over. Despite his victory over the Republican candidate, Thomas Dewey, though, there was lots of trouble ahead. Within a year, the defeat of Jiang Jieshi at the hands of Mao Zedong saw the greatest ‘domino’ falling as China went ‘red’, taking Communism from central Europe to the Pacific coast of Asia. This led to the accusation that Truman had been responsible for ‘the loss of China’, a phrase which would haunt Truman. It was also used to threaten subsequent presidents who feared that they would be accused of the loss of another state which fell to Communism in future. In this way ‘Domino theory’ was a central part of US foreign policy in the next two decades, never more so than when Kennedy and Johnson became embroiled in the troubles of south-east Asia. In addition to the Chinese Revolution, the Soviet Union’s development of the atom bomb, spying scandals and difficulties of the Korean War, as well as the rise of McCarthyism, all made his final years in office a difficult time. Despite these problems, Truman is usually regarded as a successful president and a tough politician who seized his opportunities and made the the most of his talents.

Even if the ‘S.’ in his name stood for nothing, Truman himself certainly stood for something very important.  His most famous quote was, ‘The buck stops here’, a man who believed that as president he was ultimately responsible for what happened, for good or ill. And whether you think he was right or wrong over the Atom Bombs or anything else, Truman was a man who made some pretty big decisions and, in doing so, transformed the USA and shaped the modern world in a most profound manner.

Harry Truman died in 1972 at the age of 88.

 

Find out more

Books: ‘Truman’ by David McCullough (1992); ‘Hiroshima’ by John Hersey (1946); ‘American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer’ by Kai Bird & Martin J. Sherwin, 2009)

Films and DVDs: ‘Truman’ (Starring Gary Sinise) (1996); ‘The World at War’ (Thames Television); ‘Cold War’ (CNN); ‘Hiroshima’ (Paul Wilmhurst) (2011)

 

“I remember when I first came to Washington. For the first six months you wonder how the hell you ever got here. For the next six months you wonder how the hell the rest of them ever got here.” Harry S. Truman

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.

 

 

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?’

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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)

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

The Great War: ‘Well, this is a sort of war, isn’t it, sir?’

Archduke_Franz_with_his_wife

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Sophie, his wife, leave the Town Hall in Sarajevo – and the world is just five minutes away from the assassination which will take the world to war. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

The Great War, 1914-1918: ‘Well, this is a sort of a war, isn’t it, sir?’

‘The conduct of Germany is almost unexampled in human history. The terrible responsibility which lies at her doors can be seen in the fact that not less than seven million dead lie buried in Europe, while more than twenty million others carry upon them the evidence of wounds and sufferings, because Germany saw fit to gratify her lust for tyranny by resort to war.’ Georges Clemenceau at the Versailles Conference, 1919

‘The Great War’, ‘World War I’, ‘The First World War’, ‘The War To End All Wars’. 1914 to 1918, or 1914 to 1917, or 1917 to 1918, depending on which country you were in. Whatever you want to call it and whatever you might think of it, the ‘Great War’, was very, very big and very, very important. It was a quite extraordinary event that marked a dramatic change in world history, shifted power between nations, redrew maps, changed international relations and killed more people than any previous war. There is good reason to see it as one of the most significant events of the Twentieth Century, alongside the Great Depression, World War II and the Cold War, and, in some mistaken minds, such ‘sensational’ moments as England winning the World Cup, the arrival of ‘Rock’n’Roll’ and the invention of colour TV. Here we will just take a brief look at the origins of the Great War, a tragic tale of boredom, revenge, envy, technology and bad luck.

The Great War did not start for one simple reason, one of the facts of life in history which can upset some people. Nothing so big can ever have a single cause and the road to that war was along many routes and from many different places, factors which merged together in the glorious summer of 1914. Some of these causes were long term, a few were medium term, others were short term and they were ignited by one final trigger. It was like building a good bonfire: you need some big chunks of wood (like railway sleepers and old fashioned wardrobes) which are hard to set alight but when they do they will keep going for ages; these are the long-term factors. Next you need some medium-term issues, which are like good branches and chairs which will help set the sleepers and wardrobes on fire. After that, small twigs and kindling, maybe some rags and newspapers, which will fill in the gaps of your bonfire and catch light easily. Finally you need a light, a match which will get the whole thing going. This is the trigger, often just a tiny flame which can be transformed into a terrifying conflagration. So, what set the war off?

As so often happens in history, it would be useful at this point to have a look at some maps, to help your understanding of the situation in the world of 1914. In Europe, you should look at the way the continent was dominated by five great powers: Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia. Notice how few countries there are in total and the absence of many familiar modern-day countries and borders. When you consider the strength and status these European Powers enjoyed thanks to their worldwide Empires, especially those of Britain, France and Germany, you can quickly see how this became the first truly global conflict. You should also look for maps that show you how the Great Powers split into the two alliances after 1914: the Triple Entente of France, Britain and Russia (with Italy after 1915 and the USA from 1917), the ‘Central powers’ of Germany, the Austro-Hungarians and Italy (until 1915) with Turkey (from 1915). And in case you don’t have time to find these maps for yourself, here are a few to help.

Map_Europe_alliances_1914-en.svg

This map shows the war alliances as they were at the start of the war in 1914. As mentioned, Italy actually switched sides in 1915, believing it had a better chance of gaining land and status there than with the central Powers. The Ottoman Empire joined the Central powers, again in 1915.

(Author: Map_Europe_alliances_1914-en.svg: * historicair (French original); Source: here)

It’s important to note that the alliances of the Great War were not deep and long-standing relationships based on deep trust, lasting friendship and a long-shared vision. The treaty between Russia and France, for example, had only been signed in 1894 while the one between Britain and France was only agreed in 1904, just a decade before the war itself. The alliance between Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire had been signed in 1879, and extended to include Italy in 1882. If you study some maps of Europe in 1914, you should also notice that some of the countries were a very different size and shape from what they are today; Germany, for example, was much bigger than it is today and had a border with Russia. There were also ‘states’ or empires, like the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which do not exist today but was an ancient territory that covered much of central and south-east Europe: modern Austria, Hungary, parts of Germany, Romania and Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Other countries with which we are very familiar today, such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, for example, did not exist and were parts of those former Empires. All of these states and regions, all of the many people, would be dramatically changed by the events of the next four years for this was war on a scale never seen before. After 1918, the whole map of Europe an, indeed, the world would be re-drawn.

So, why did this ‘Great War’ come about? Not surprisingly, this is not a small question and there can be no short answer. There were, instead, several long-term and medium-term factors which combined to provide the main fuel for the fire which was the Great War. One of these was, surprisingly, boredom and restlessness among the major European armies. The great European powers had a long history of fighting each other and, compared with most earlier periods, the nineteenth century (the 1800s) had actually been rather peaceful with little by way of a ‘proper’ war since the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo (which is in Belgium by the way) in 1815. There had been the Crimean War, of course, which had seen the British and French humiliate the Russian Army in 1854-56 and also the very important ‘Franco-Prussian War’ (France v Germany) in 1870-71, but overall, things in Europe had been very quiet for the best part of a hundred years. During this period, most European conflicts had in fact taken place in the more remote parts of the world, as the main powers made moves to develop and control their Empires. ‘Real’ war between the big players just hadn’t happened.

Most people would consider this situation of relative peace to have been a decidedly ‘good thing’. However, during the years of peace, one great development had been transforming the world, namely industrialisation. It had changed everything: work, pleasure, transport, buildings, diets and many other things. Those ‘other things’ included weapons. Massive scientific and technological advances had impacted on steel production, chemicals, fuel and machinery, so that military power had been transformed by the creation of powerful new weapons which had been made available to armies and generals across the continent. Armies had also got bigger as populations grew rapidly on the back of industrial progress. But many of those soldiers, especially the generals, had gone through their whole careers without the opportunity to use them. Many of them were restless, and eagerly looking for an opportunity to use their new ‘toys’. It may seem ridiculous to us but conflict between nations was seen as a far more natural and expected fact of life back then. Boredom really was an important factor in starting the Great War.

Another factor which led up to the war was the shifting balance of power between Europe’s major players. England’s traditional enemies were, of course, France and Scotland. If anything, England (and later, Britain) has had a far greater bond with Germany than it ever had with France for most of history; the ‘entente’ or ‘understanding’ with the French was a recent development, based in part at least on King Edward VII’s love of all things French, especially wine, food and women. Meanwhile, Britain had started to face a growing threat from Germany, partly in economics (as the German industrial-based economy overtook Britain’s around 1900) but also militarily through its navy. The German-British ‘arms race’ was shifting the traditional ‘balance of power’ by which peace had been maintained in Europe. France also felt a deep sense of anxiety at the military threat posed by the industrial strength of Germany but her people also wanted revenge for their defeat to Prussia in 1871. This had been a massive blow to national pride and resulted in the loss of two French regions, Alsace and Lorraine, to German control.

472px-Edward_VII_and_Alexandra_after_Gunn_&_Stuart

(Author: The National Portrait Gallery History of the Kings and Queens of England by David Williamson; Source: here)

Although it may be hard to see him as a ‘Ladies’ Man’, Edward VII’s love of all things French played a major role in the alliance between the two countries which had such an impact on the Great War. He is pictured here with his wife, Queen Alexandra.

Germany, by the way, had only been properly united as one country on 18th January, 1871, as a result of victory in the Franco-Prussian War, having previously been the ‘Holy Roman Empire’. This Empire had existed for a thousand years and had united many states, over 200 at times. These states had included large regions like Prussia, Bavaria, Bohemia and Saxony, with others which were very much smaller, like Lichtenstein, Thurn and Taxis, Luxembourg and Fürstenerg. The key man in the whole process of German unification, and the creator of what would be called the ‘Second Reich’, was ‘The Iron Chancellor’, Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898), a huge figure on the European and world stage. He deserves a picture.

403px-Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-2005-0057,_Otto_von_Bismarck

Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898): The Iron Chancellor.(Author: Jacques Pilartz; Source: here)

 

Another key factor that led to the Great War was the arrival on the scene of the hugely important Emperor, Wilhelm II (1859-1941) or ‘Kaiser Bill’ as he was known to British troops. Wilhelm became Emperor of Germany in 1888 following the death of his father, Frederick III, after only 99 days on the throne. Wilhelm would remain as ruler until 18th November, 1918, just after the end of the war, when he abdicated. Kaiser Wilhelm II played a major part in creating the tension that almost made the Great War an ‘inevitability’, a word to be used with great caution in history. Wilhelm demands a little more attention.

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Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941) – a fine hat and a moustache to die for. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

Wilhelm II was a complex character. Of course, many of us can claim to be ‘complex, brilliant, misunderstood’ figures but rarely do we come to wield the power of a dictator as Wilhelm did, though. He had numerous dangerous characteristics, being described as vain, ambitious, jealous and greedy for power. Wilhelm was also impulsive, inconsistent, obsessive and a bad listener; one can see that such a man as a dictator was potentially hazardous for all concerned. One other thing which is of particular significance, and what often sees in photos and film of him, is that he had been born with a withered left arm. Less obvious is that he also had terrible issues with his balance due to a problem with the development of the inner ear. This was very damaging to his self-image and to his ability to ride a horse, an essential for any royalty of the day. In learning to ride as a child, Wilhelm was put on a horse, day after day, for several years before he could stay upright. The falls he suffered and the abuse shouted at him, fired a fierce determination, a self-loathing at his ‘weaknesses’, a desire for power and a certain pleasure in the pain of others. Such characteristics can make an individual’s life and relationships challenging; in a ruler, they can bring disaster for millions.

Kaiser Wilhelm knew England well, being a grandson of Queen Victoria, the ‘Grandmother of Europe’, as she was known because so many of her children had married into other royal families around the continent. Wilhelm visited England often and was fascinated by the Royal Navy. It is fair to say that he actually had quite an obsession with Great Britain and looked across the North Sea with particular envy and a desire to emulate her success. From the Isle of Wight, where Victoria often received Wilhelm as a guest, he would see the great warships pass, and he nurtured the desire to create such a navy of his own. German ships were invited to join the procession to mark Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, but were overshadowed by the British, much to Wilhelm’s shame. Wilhelm was actually given his own ship in the Royal Navy and was an honorary ‘Rear-Admiral’, giving him a uniform he loved to wear.

Thanks to the rise of Germany’s industrial power, Wilhelm had the opportunity to address his naval and military needs. Thanks to Krupp’s steel, for example, he had the opportunity to build ‘a fleet of my own’, especially new battleships, and so to compete with Britain for control of at least some of the seas. The British Government watched with alarm as these mighty German ships were launched, and responded by building the largest battleships ever: the Dreadnoughts. Despite all this, Britain’s desire to stay out of European affairs was strong and the Empire was far more the focus of her attention. However, there were plenty of people who thought that if the Germans wanted a fight they could have one, and that the chance to ‘put them in their place’ was not to be missed. Tension was rising in the first decade of the century.

800px-UK_dreadnoughts_through_the_Solent

A convoy of the most powerful ships of the age, the Dreadnoughts, including ‘Thunderer’, ‘Monarch’ and ‘Conqueror’. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

It should be remembered that the prelude to war was not all to do with Germany. Another area of tension was the Austro-Hungarian Empire which had been in decline for many decades. After 1848, the country had faced growing internal pressures as it tried to keep control of people of many different nationalities, cultures and religions within its borders. However, the memory of glory was strong among many leaders and generals, so that the there was not just a willingness to fight but even a desire for it, a cleansing of defeats past and the rebirth of a dynamic new empire. The relative successes of the Balkans War (1912-13) suggested they were still a powerful force.

Elsewhere, things were not so clear. Italian involvement was especially confused, although having signed the ‘Triple Alliance’ with Germany and the Austro-Hungarians in 1882 as a means of defending themselves against any threat from France and Russia, they did decide to honour their commitments when war started in 1914. However, there was much opposition to this from within Italy itself. The Ottoman Empire (basically modern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, Jordan, Iran, parts of Iraq and Saudi Arabia) would also become involved (after 1915) on the side of the Central Powers, partly as a way of withstanding any threat from Russia, its main enemy. The Ottoman Army was not strong, having fought badly in the Balkans War (1912-13) and this made an alliance essential. Fear was, therefore, a powerful reason for their involvement in the war.

So, why did the Great War start in 1914? In the briefest of summaries, we have: boredom in the military, coupled with the desire to try out new weapons; France’s desire for revenge and its old territories back; the push for Germany, under Wilhelm, to increase its naval power and rival Britain militarily; and the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires and Italy’s fear of their stronger neighbours. War would bring risks but also opportunities for power, land and glory. It is important to realise that the values which dominate societies do change overtime and this was especially true about Europe in the early years of the Twentieth Century. One factor which marked those days more than our own times was a widespread sense of nationalism, something well beyond patriotism, something far more aggressive, which looked down on foreigners with deep hatred. A word widely used in Britain was ‘Jingoism’, a sense of one’s own superiority with a belief in the right to win and to take over what belonged to someone else. This ‘nationalism’ meant decisions were made and events were interpreted by people who saw things in very stark terms: anger, revenge, glory, victory, hatred, distrust; us and them; right and wrong; kill or be killed.

Into the powder keg of fear, anger and greed came one horrid spark, a shot which would ring out around the world. The famous incident which finally set the European bonfire burning in the summer of 1914 has not been mentioned yet. The final element, the match or the trigger, was the death of a rather pompous and difficult man in a far off country, an event which might well have been a mere footnote in history had circumstances been a little different. This ‘spark’ was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Far from a footnote, his shooting was to become a headline on an epic scale.

On 28th June, 1914, Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, travelled down by train to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which had come under the control of the Austro-Hungarians in 1912-13 as a result of the ‘Balkan War’. They went to visit the soldiers of their Empire who were seeking to hold on to the region against local groups who were unhappy at their loss of independence. On their arrival at the railway station, the royal couple travelled down into Sarajevo by car but on the way they came under attack from a grenade thrown by a member of ‘The Black Hand Gang’, a group which wanted independence for Serbia, another region of the Balkans and also under the control of the Austro-Hungarians. They survived as Franz Ferdinand saw the bomb coming, put up his arm and deflected it away, unfortunately causing it to explode under the car behind. It injured about 20 people, including their attendants in the car.

The visit continued with a reception and speeches at the City Hall but Franz Ferdinand and Sophie wanted to visit the injured in the hospital. The driver of the car who was to take them to the hospital got lost as he took a wrong turn, one of the simplest, most devastating errors of all time. While he was reversing in a narrow street, trying to get back to the route, a member of the ‘Black Hand Gang’, Gavrilo Princip, just happened to walk by having come out of a shop; it was a pure coincidence that he saw the car. He was carrying a gun and fired two shots, hitting both the Archduke and his wife. Sophie, who was pregnant, died in her husband’s arms before he too died in the car. He was 51 at the time, and she was 46. Those shots would echo across the world. Princip was not executed because he was under 20 years of age; he died of tuberculosis while in prison in 1918. But his actions were to live on as the shootings would set Europe on fire for four years.

Archduke_Franz_with_his_wife

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, about five minutes before they were killed on 28th June, 1914. (Author: Bettmann/Corbis; Source: here)

 

Actually, it is only right to use another photo from that day, an image which is one of the most famous in history. This is Gavrilo Princip being arrested and taken to the police station in Sarajevo.

untitled

(Author: Unknown; Source: here)

But why did this killing of an heir to a throne, in an obscure town in a distant country, lead to 16 million deaths in the Great War? The key lies with the alliances described above. The Austro-Hungarians were furious with the Serbians for what had happened and gave them a list of 30 demands that they required to be met within a month, as reparation for the loss of the Archduke. The Serbians felt able to accept all but two of these demands. But this was not enough for the government in Vienna and the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia, triggering a chain reaction of declarations of allegiance on both sides.

The declaration of war set in train a series of alliances. Russia had an ancient agreement to defend Serbia and so declared war on the Austro-Hungarians. The Germans honoured their alliance with the Austro-Hungarians by declaring war on Russia, leading France to declare war on Germany. Germany was determined to avoid a direct attack on France owing to a line of huge forts which had been built on their joint border by the French since 1871, and so decided to invade with a sharp and dramatic attack through Belgium. This was called the ‘Schlieffen Plan’. But Britain had a treaty with Belgium going back to the 1830s saying it would protect Belgium if it were invaded. So it was that on Bank Holiday Monday, 4th August, 1914, Britain found itself at war with Germany as a way of defending ‘plucky little Belgium’. And the rest really is history.

 

Find out more

Books: There are obviously many books which deal with the Great War. A few novels and factual books which might be used to introduce the war include: ‘Birdsong’ by Sebastian Faulks; ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ by Erich Maria Remarque; the ‘Regeneration Trilogy’ by Pat Barker; ‘Testament of Youth’ by Vera Brittain; ‘Forgotten Voices of the Great War’ by Max Arthur; ‘The Great War, 1914-1918’ by Peter Hart; ‘The Western Front’ by Richard Holmes, and ‘1914-1918’ (BBC).

TV documentaries: ‘1914-1918’, ‘First World War in Colour’, ‘The Western Front’, ‘The Great War’

Films and dramatisations: ‘The Battle of the Somme’ (1916), ‘The Trench’, ‘Gallipoli’, ‘A very long engagement’, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, ‘Birdsong’.

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

Maps: Study maps of Europe from 1914 and from the 1920s to analyse the creation of new countries and the changes to old borders.