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Joseph Stalin: ‘Man of the Year’, 1939 and 1942.

Josef Stalin

Joseph Stalin: ‘Man of the Year’, 1939 and 1942.

‘It is enough that the people know there was an election. The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything.’ Joseph Stalin

When Britons are asked to name an evil person from history they almost always go for Adolf Hitler. This is probably why so few British children have been called ‘Adolf’ recently. To be honest, it comes as something as a shock to hear that even 25 babies have been so named since 1945, as one has to assume at least a few were in honour of Germany’s most notorious leader. There’s no doubt that ‘The Führer’ was an astonishingly nasty man and no one can seriously object to Hitler as Rolling Stone’s choice as ‘The Most Hated Man in Modern History’ in 2009. However, Hitler is far from being the only contender for that dubious crown, and there are others who have committed the most horrific crimes but who seem to have somehow slipped under the radar. In the Twentieth Century alone there were many people who would have recognised Hitler as a kindred spirit. They might not have agreed with him politically, but in terms of tactics, the likes of Mao Zedong in China, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Idi Amin Dada in Uganda would have understood where he was coming from. Of all the challengers, though, maybe one stands out as the real contender for the title of ‘Most Evil Man of the Century’: Joseph Djughashvili, the Georgian peasant better known to the world by his nickname, ‘Stalin’, which means ‘Man of Steel’. One has to be impressed by ‘Time Magazine’ here. Not happy with honouring Hitler as their ‘Man of the Year’ for 1938, they followed this up by giving the award to Stalin in 1939 and 1942. Strange times, indeed.

Joseph Stalin led the Soviet Union or USSR (the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) from 1928 until his death in 1953. Despite the fact that even the prisoners cried when he died, the fact that Stalin was Saddam Hussein’s hero should be enough to warn us that here was a man of some darkness. When Saddam visited Moscow as the leader of Iraq, he was only interested in seeing Stalin’s rooms. When he was growing up, he apparently modelled himself on Stalin: he grew a similar moustache, smoked the same cigarettes and he imitated his behaviour when he came to power, including ethnic cleansing and the ‘removal’ of enemies. And both Saddam and Stalin had something in common as they were, for significant periods of time, close allies of the West receiving some serious assistance from the USA and Britain. This has almost certainly been a key factor in explaining why Stalin has never been seen as quite as bad as Hitler. Let’s have a look at why Saddam and some others have loved this man while most Westerners have managed no more than fear tinged with a little respect and a lot of gratitude.

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Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

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Saddam Hussein (1937-2006). Photographed in 1974, this shows Saddam as a young imitator of the ‘Man of Steel’. The moustache lacks a little flair. (Author: ; Source: here)

Joseph Djughashvili (1879-1953) was born in Georgia, a part of the Russian Empire at the time and also one of the states which later formed the USSR. He was from a peasant background but showed himself to be reasonably clever in his village. He was chosen to receive an education which most children would have been denied at that time under the Tsar’s autocratic or dictatorial system. He went to the local junior seminary for trainee priests in the Russian Orthodox Church which was the only place to get any real education at that time. While he was there, Stalin discovered radical ideas and first came into contact with the ideas of Communism and he left the seminary to become a full time revolutionary taking on the name ‘Stalin’ for reasons of security and because it sounded strong. He joined the fledgling Communist Party and was imprisoned by the Tsar’s forces on many occasions. Like thousands of other revolutionaries living in that very conservative society, Stalin was sent to prison in the Urals and Siberia, escaping five times and making his way back to the west of Russia. He never really showed that he had any original ideas or exhibited behaviour that suggested he would become one of the most famous people of the century.

Stalin’s journey to power started slowly and progressed slowly. He first met Lenin at the ‘Workers’ Hall’ in Tampere, Finland, in 1905 and went on to attend various Communist Party conferences in the years before the Russian Revolution (1917). He was not part of Lenin’s circle of friends and advisers, partly because Lenin was so much more educated and sophisticated than Stalin, the rough peasant. He played no real role in the two Revolutions of 1917 that came to establish Communism in the country, arriving to join in the chaos of that year. It was following the arrival of Lenin in Russia between the two revolutions, and especially in the aftermath of the ‘October Revolution’, that Stalin was to find his key role. Not only was Stalin diligent, organised and hard-working, he was also blessed with an almost photographic memory and total loyalty to Lenin and the Communist Party. While Lenin thought and planned, others argued over theory and strategy, looking inward and upward within the Party structures. Meanwhile, Stalin was left to do the dull, tedious work as General Secretary of the Communist Party, the lowest role on the Politburo, the main council of seven members, but a role which would, in time, create the power base from which he would control Party and the country, so changing the course of history. Stalin’s work involved allocating party membership cards, writing letters, arranging agendas and distributing minutes. He was the ‘dull’ man who was almost laughed at by the ‘intellectuals’ in the party, keeping his place simply because Lenin found him useful. How people can be underestimated.

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A true genius or the face of a madman? – Lenin, real name ‘Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov’ (1870-1924) (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Stalin’s role as General Secretary of the Party was crucial for various reasons, most of all for the role he had as the one who distributed the membership cards of the Communist Party. He became the known name for party members around the country, the first point of contact in Moscow. These cards were issued each year so people came to rely on approval from Comrade Stalin to stay in the ‘good books’. He might not have any ideological ideas but Stalin had power on a practical level; the membership card meant access to meetings and access to certain privileges. Over the years, Stalin was able to promote or reject people as he saw fit. He could decide who came to Moscow to present the views of the party from each region. He knew the outsiders, those far from Moscow and Petrograd/Leningrad. He knew the secrets, like a Chief Whip in UK politics. While his colleagues on the Politburo argued on ideology and debated over policy, Stalin just listened and watched and remembered; Lenin controlled everything anyway so debate was futile but it might not always be the case. And what the likes of Trotsky, the apparent heir to Lenin and the strongest members of the politburo, never realised was that Stalin really was a force to be reckoned with, a man with a plan if the opportunity ever came his way.

Things changed dramatically in Russia after the ‘October Revolution’. Lenin was the pre-eminent leader of Communism and everyone deferred to him but neither he nor the Party was able to establish Communism overnight. Chaos reigned in that huge country which had been struggling to modernise for several decades before under the rule of the Tsars. Russia was far behind the Western Powers economically and this was impacting on their fighting of the Great War where they had struggled in combating the vastly superior German Army for three years on the ‘Eastern Front’. 1.8 million men had died and there was no prospect of victory. With the Communist belief that the war was based on capitalist and nationalistic fervour, Lenin believed the war had to end. It was wrong that Imperialists were sacrificing the people for their own ends. The war ended promptly for Russia when the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed in February 1918, with Leon Trotsky negotiating on behalf of Russia. Land was lost to Germany and reparations had to be paid but many celebrated the end of what had been a horrible war for Russians everywhere but especially on the front line.

Trotsky was the obvious leader in waiting, if one was needed, in the years after the Revolution. He strengthened his position by creating and leading the Red Army to victory over the Whites (the Mensheviks and other opponents of the Bolsheviks) in the Russian Civil War (1918-21). This was a war which saw the Western Powers send soldiers and resources to try to defeat the Communists, something Stalin never forgot. But Lenin was relatively young, just 47 at the time of the Revolution, so there was no real need to consider what would happen in the coming years and who should succeed him. But in 1918, there was an assassination attempt on Lenin, who was badly wounded with one bullet remaining lodged in his head. Miraculously, he survived but he was never as strong again and after 1922 began to suffer a series of serious strokes. He was left unable to speak for the last year of his life before finally dying in January 1924. Lenin was just 53.

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Lenin shortly before his death. His wife, Krupskaya, is behind the chair. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

There had been no heir designated by Lenin and Trotsky was a man with too many enemies to be able to assume power. Rather than an individual, it was decided that the Politburo was to rule instead. However, there were serious tensions within the group, things which had remained in check while Lenin dominated everything but were now able to come to the surface. There were tensions between the right and left wings of the party over the nature and the pace of revolution; there was distrust of Trotsky, the former Menshevik turned Bolshevik; there was concern about how far Lenin’s reforms should be carried forward, especially those that had involved compromise with capitalism, such as the ‘New Economic Policy’. Lenin allowed the so called ‘Nepmen’ to operate in the USSR as a way of keeping the economy going in the troubled years of the Civil War. They were allowed to operate businesses, set wages and even make some profit which would later cause major ideological divisions to arise within the Politburo. But there was another aspect to Lenin’s legacy which had to be handled in a rather more urgent and practical way.

In his final years, Lenin had kept a record of many of his thoughts about his colleagues, including Stalin. This book of his writings and thoughts was known as ‘Lenin’s Testament’. At his death, this had been left with his wife, Nadya Krupskaya (1869-1939), but a copy had found its way to Stalin thanks to his control of people around Lenin, who included one of his secretaries. The document was to be addressed at a meeting of the General Council of the Communist Party but before this it was to be considered by the Politburo itself. It turned out that, in one way or another, ‘Lenin’s Testament’ attacked most of the Politburo, including Trotsky, Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Pyatokov. However, Lenin’s strongest and clearest attacks were reserved for the General Secretary, Stalin, heavily criticising him for great rudeness towards Krupskaya. Lenin made it clear that Stalin had such a dark side that he should never be allowed to wield power within the Communist Party. Stalin should have been kicked out there and then but the threat of attacks on the reputations of the rest of the group saved him; Stalin had an extraordinary piece of luck as they took the decision that ‘Lenin’s Testament’ was not to be published and was not even considered by the General Council. Stalin survived and how the others would come to regret it.

The Politburo ruled the USSR for several years until Stalin became leader in 1928. This simple statement needs some explanation as it has already been said how marginal a figure Stalin was in the leadership. Stalin had got lucky in 1924 and in the following years he benefited from being under-estimated by the rest of the Politburo. The other six men persisted in seeing Stalin as dull and irrelevant, a man who had no originality, no ideas, nothing to offer intellectually. He voted one way or the other without seeming to understand the issues or the details. Stalin was the pen-pusher, the stamp –licker, the meetings-man, the minute-taker; he was dull. But behind the scenes things had happened that were sifting the balance of power in the USSR. Out of sight of the Politburo which had turned inward to debate and argue with each other about the vision and the policies, Stalin was building a support base where it mattered; he was shaping the Party itself for his own ends. Stalin was still the name that the ordinary people knew and needed in Moscow. He sent (or did not send) the membership cards, he confirmed appointments, he directed people to attend one council (‘soviet’) or another. Stalin had the power to make a practical difference and over the years he manipulated people into positions where they could be made to support him and his plans. By 1926-7, he was growing in confidence to the point where he felt able to act.

As he began his move for power, Stalin first focused on isolating his arch enemy Leon Trotsky and the left-wingers by siding with the right-wing over issues linked with the pace and nature of economic change and the future path of the revolution. In this debate, ‘World Revolution’, the radical idea favoured by Trotsky, lost out to the more conservative idea of ‘Communism in One State’, which was favoured by the right wing of the Politburo. Stalin had no real views of his own on this but he sided with Bukharin, the most popular figure on the Politburo, and the rest of the right-wing to defeat and oust Trotsky and the Left-wing members. Trotsky was isolated and was ultimately forced to leave the Politburo and, eventually, went into exile.

Having apparently shown he was a supporter of the right, Stalin was then trusted by them but this proved to be a mistake as Stalin was nothing of the sort. His actions had been for his own benefit and soon he turned his attentions to achieving total power by removing Bukharin and the right wing, positioning himself more to the left with the support of the new members he had helped promote to power. Stalin had influenced promotions to all the ‘soviets’ below the Politburo and so he was able to bring in his own people even at that level. Stalin ousted the right-wingers in 1928 and was established as the leading figure in the USSR. In those early years, Stalin was far from secure in power but he would survive, transforming the Soviet Union during the 25 years of dictatorial power which he enjoyed until his death from a stroke in March 1953.

There is a huge amount written about Stalin and it’s all fascinating stuff, so here there will only be mention of a few events that touch on his extraordinary life. Any research undertaken on Stalin is always fascinating and disturbing so be warned.

In 1928, Joseph Stalin became leader of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The country had been formally established in December 1922, covering a similar area to the former Russian Empire which had been one of the ‘Great Powers’ but one which had been isolated for centuries under the rule of the Tsars. It was a huge country by area covering about 1/10th of the world’s land mass and stretching across 5000 miles from the Polish border to the Pacific Ocean. The USSR had a relatively large population of about 130 million people but it was a backward, peasant economy. Karl Marx’s prophesy had been that that Communism would first arise in an advanced industrial society and this was not the way to describe the USSR in 1917.

When Stalin came to power, he said the USSR was a hundred years behind the West industrially and had to make good that difference within 10-15 years or it would be destroyed. Stalin’s strategy for addressing this was the first of the ‘Five-Year Plans’ which was launched in 1928. Industry and farming were to be overhauled rapidly with a particular focus on heavy industries, such as mining and steel production. This in turn would develop transport, power and military strength, a key concern in the light of Russia’s history. The revolution in agriculture was to come through ‘Collectivisation’ which would create massive industrial farms and so replace the millions of small, inefficient, peasant-run, subsistence farms of Russia’s past. Things had to change at an astonishing speed and on a massive scale across the USSR.

The outcome of that first ‘Five-Year Plan’ was the beginning of the transformation of the Soviet economy and society. It would see the start of industrial cities like Magnitogorsk, the massive growth of the industrial workforce and the arrival of the tractor in the countryside. The USSR would join Germany as the only economic success stories of the decade of the ‘Depression’ which followed the Wall Street Crash but the costs would be enormous. A whole tradition of farming would be wiped out in those years, as nearly all farmland came under the ‘collectives’ but it would devastate many areas and see the near wiping out of the most successful and talented peasant farmers, the Kulaks, and the horrid effect of the Ukrainian Famine of 1932-33.

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Soviet tractors in the 1930s. Some children were called ‘Tractor’ in honour of this vital machine. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

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Victims of the Ukrainian famine lie on the streets of Kharkiv. Over seven million people died in total.  (Author: Unknown: Source: here)

How did such a huge famine devastate the Ukraine, such a rich and fertile region, which was the leading grain producing area of the USSR? Stalin had decided to use grain as a way of trading with the West so as to acquire key technology and resources for industrialisation. As grain production fell in 1932, Stalin actually increased the demand for grain to be exported, blatantly putting the people at risk but maintaining industrial development in the process. Stalin watched on as between six and seven million Ukrainians died in the name of ‘progress’. And he added in a few extra deaths by attacking local politicians and the intelligentsia so as to crush nationalist ambitions. How many people in the West ever hear of the ‘Ukrainian Famine’? Think on the number of deaths – up to seven million people in little more than a year. That is a frightening statistic and one which is appallingly reminiscent of the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust yet little is made of it in the West. But maybe it was just ‘too far away’ for people to know or care?

To drive industrialisation forward, the Five-Year Plans were based on a system of quotas and targets, something which traditionally brings corruption and manipulation in its wake. Each factory would receive its quota and each manager would be held responsible for the results. Corruption was rife as each manager aimed to meet or exceed the targets. Train drivers would be bribed to deliver goods to a particular factory, quality control was ignored in the race for quantity (the first tractors had to be pulled off the production lines as they did not work) and numbers were simply falsified. This led to an enormous number of deaths and imprisonments, as people who failed, questioned the system or challenged the results were ‘removed’. Thousands suffered by being accused of sabotage as managers and workers looked for people to blame for problems with machinery or the quality of goods. The quota system created a monstrous conspiracy of lies and deceit at every level as people tried not just to progress but to stay alive. It was far easier to blame a worker for breaking a machine than having to say that the machines were rubbish or that the system was flawed. A culture of fear and anxiety dominated Soviet society throughout the era of the Five-Year Plans, especially in the period before the ‘Great Patriotic War’ as the Soviets knew WWII.

The problems around quotas and targets became even worse in 1935 when Alexei Stakhanov, a miner, set an extraordinary record for digging coal. It was achieved thanks to a whole range of aid given to him, but Stakhanov’s achievement in mining 227 tonnes of coal in one shift, some 30 times over his target, made him a national hero and created a new movement. The ‘Stakhanovites’ were the heroes of the Soviet Union, warriors who helped build a great future through their energy and skill. Everyone was now capable of going beyond the targets if they really wanted to. The fact that it was all largely the result of cheating and manipulation did not matter and the propaganda element proved to be powerful in encouraging even more ‘target breaking’. It also meant even more silence from those who did not believe in the process and a strengthening of the cult of Stalin as the great leader. Who was going to challenge the achievements of the great Stakhanov even if they knew he had been given the best equipment, unlimited power and a team of men to collect his coal? People wanted to live and soon every manager was trying to create a new ‘Stakhanov’ in his factory.

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Alexey Grigoryevich Stakhanov – Hero of Socialist labour (1906-1977). The very clean and heroic Stakhanov explains his technique to a fellow miner.  (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

But there was serious tension and fear in the Kremlin and in Stalin’s mind in the early years of industrialisation. Stalin was not secure in his position as leader of the USSR. In 1934, at the 17th Party Congress, the so-called ‘Congress of Victors’, a leading Communist from Leningrad, Sergei Kirov, received high levels of support and emerged as a rival to Stalin. Kirov received only three negative votes regarding his membership of the Politburo while Stalin received 267, more than anyone else. This was all covered up by Stalin who arranged for the removal of his negative votes but Kirov, a handsome and popular man, was clearly a potential rival. On 1st December, 1934, Kirov was assassinated at the Communist Party offices in Leningrad. Stalin’s involvement was always suspected but not directly proven.

One thing which is clear is that the 17th Congress marked a change in Stalin. Nearly all those who attended the Congress would be killed or imprisoned during the ‘Great Purges’ of 1936-38, the systematic attempt by Stalin to kill all potential enemies and rivals, create a climate of fear and loyalty and to ensure his place of absolute power. The purges saw a wholesale attack on the Communist Party itself. In total, nearly a million people would be killed, imprisoned or ‘removed’, meaning over a third of the total membership of the Party was wiped out. Most famously, Stalin’s paranoia led to the ‘Show Trials’ and executions of some of the most high-profile members of the Party, including old colleagues and famous names of the revolution. Bukharin, Rykov, Kamenev and Zinoviev, old Bolsheviks who had played leading roles in 1917, would be among those forced in to humiliating admissions of betrayal while on trial, before being executed as enemies of Mother Russia. But the attacks focused on others, too, including the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Church, ethnic minorities and ordinary people. It was truly a reign of terror, a time which saw the deaths and imprisonment of millions of people. The numbers involved were even more frightening than those who suffered under Hitler and the Nazis at the same time in Germany.

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Prisoners at work in an early gulag, building the Belomorkanal, 1932. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

These dreadful events were just part of the dark-side of Joseph Stalin’s actions. The plus side was to be that he became ‘Uncle Joe’, Churchill’s name for him in his role as one of the ‘Big Three’. Stalin was one of the three Allied leaders of World War II, with President Franklin Roosevelt of the USA and Britain’s Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. Stalin played a pivotal role by leading the USSR to victory in what is known as ‘The Great Patriotic War, 1941-45’. His ruthless policies of industrialisation proved to be essential for victory in the war and the people of the USSR made huge sacrifices in achieving the defeat of Nazism. In all, an estimated 27 million people from the Soviet Union died in winning the war. When measured against the total deaths in the war, an estimated 58-70 million, the significance is clear; at least a third of all deaths in the conflict were suffered by the USSR. When compared with estimates for deaths suffered by the other Allies, the numbers become even more important: Britain – 450 000 deaths, France – 560 000 and the USA – 410 000. World War II was effectively won in the USSR and not in Western Europe. The saying is that the war was won with ‘American money and Russian blood’, and there is a lot of truth in it.

But the figures hide some of the story as many of the Soviet deaths were really down to Stalin himself. There was a policy of brutality towards his own soldiers so that many were sacrificed in the cause of victory. Soldiers were sent in to battle without weapons, being told to pick up the guns of fallen comrades to carry on fighting; retreat was not allowed, the punishment being that soldiers were to be shot; soldiers were sent into battle simply to die, the theory being that the German Army would run out of ammunition in killing more and more people; there was little effort made in saving lives on the battlefield or to giving medical treatment to the wounded as this cost money and time. The horrible truth is, though, that against huge odds, especially at the three great battles for Moscow, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and Stalingrad (now Volgograd), the USSR emerged victorious and turned the tide against the Nazis in the east. There were many vital moments in World War II, such as the Battle of Britain, Pearl Harbor and D-Day, but the events which probably have the greatest claim to being ‘the’ turning point were those Russian victories that defended the cities of Leningrad, Moscow and Stalingrad. And those millions of Soviet deaths undoubtedly saved the lives of uncountable numbers of people in the West. Every allied country benefited from Stalin’s approach.

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One corner of Stalingrad shows the astonishing damage suffered during the greatest battle in history, ‘The Battle of Stalingrad, 1942-43’. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

There are many other things that could be written about Stalin: the infamous Nazi-Soviet Pact, the cult of personality, the role of the secret police and others being just a few. ‘Uncle Joe’ was a paranoid psychopath really and hardly the type of man to be stuck in a lift with. He was probably responsible for the deaths of well over 30 million people (estimates range from 10 million to 60 million) and that really is a lot of people for a man who is somewhat ignored by some people today. But, in many ways, Stalin’s policies were effective and can even be considered successful, despite the horrendous costs, because the USSR did industrialise in the 1930s so that it could just survive the Nazi attack of 1941 and so play the pivotal role in the Allied victory. This is one of the most horrid truths in modern history, namely, that Nazism was defeated because of Stalin; millions of people in the West are alive today because of Stalin; millions of people in the former USSR are not alive today because of Stalin. And yet he is a peripheral figure for many Westerners while being adored by many people in Russia so that there have been several attempts to re-instate him as a true hero of Russian history.

There is much more to be said about Joseph Stalin than can be covered here. The shock and out-pouring of grief at the announcement of his death on 5th March, 1953, was quite extraordinary. People across the USSR were stunned into disbelief as their great leader of the last quarter century was gone. Tears flowed across the nation, even in the gulags where so many thousands had been unjustly imprisoned by Stalin himself. The politburo was thrown into confusion and a power struggle ensued from which Nikita Khrushchev would eventually emerge as leader. The USSR was, of course, profoundly changed by Stalin’s death and so was the world, a world in which the nation transformed under Stalin was a Superpower, the leader of the Communist world. Relations with the USA and China, for example, developed a whole new dynamic following the death of Stalin – and it was not always a safer place or a calmer relationship.

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Stalin’s body was embalmed and laid next to that of Lenin from 1953 to 1961. It was then removed and buried in the walls of the Kremlin as part of the process of ‘De-Stalinisation’. (Author: Graham Colm; Source: here)

 

Joseph Stalin was, above all, a winner and a survivor, the man who turned the USSR from a backward peasant state in 1928 to a Superpower with the atomic bomb in 1949. But being a winner does not always make you good so please remember Iosif Vissarionovich Djughashvili, Joseph Stalin, the ‘Man of Steel’, when people go on about the worst man in history; Hitler does have competition.

 

Find out more

Books: ‘Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar’ (2007) and ‘The Young Stalin’ (2008), both by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Both are easy and exciting reads that serve as excellent introductions to Stalin.

Books: ‘The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia’ by Orlando Figes.

Books: ‘Stalin’ by Robert Service. Generally seen as the definitive biography of the evil genius.

Books: ‘A day in the life of Ivan Denisovich’ by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The famous book telling the story of life in the gulags through the life of one inmate.

Books: ‘The Forsaken’ by Tim Tzouliadis. A little known study of the Americans who emigrated to the USSR and suffered in the 1930s and 1940s.

Books: ‘Gulag’ by Anne Applebaum. A fascinating and powerful study of the whole system of the gulags.

TV: ‘The Cold War’ (CNN) The outstanding documentary by Jeremy Isaacs has numerous episodes that tell the story of Stalin and the Cold War.

TV: ‘World War II – Behind Closed Doors’

TV: ‘The World at War’ and ‘The People’s Century’

 

 

 

 

Joe McCarthy: what you can get away with when people are scared.

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Joe McCarthy during the Senate investigation into the activities of the US Army, 1954. (Author: US Senate; Source: here)

 

Joe McCarthy: what you can get away with when people are scared.

“I have here in my hand a list of two hundred and five people that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department.” Senator Joe McCarthy, 9th February, 1950.

‘Bad’ stuff is so much more interesting than ‘good’ stuff so a decent starting point for a look at the Twentieth Century is a politician from the USA by the name of Joe McCarthy. Although he was not really the biggest ‘baddie’ of the century, McCarthy was a fascinating and important character who shaped the modern political landscape and has divided opinion ever since he came to prominence. He still has many supporters, as any trip around the internet will show, and his message retains great significance today. So let’s leave the ‘big baddies’, like Hitler, Stalin and Mao to one side for the moment and begin with Joseph Raymond McCarthy, the Republican Senator for Wisconsin between 1947 and 1957.

Senator Joseph R. McCarthy

(Author: United Press, 1954; Source: Library of Congress)

Of course, Joe McCarthy doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Hitler, Stalin and Mao, but it’s true that he exercised huge power, shaped public opinion and most certainly ruined thousands of people’s lives. There was, to be honest, just something rather sinister and unpleasant about him, and the manner in which he was able to twist opinion and power in the USA in the first half of the 1950s was truly frightening. Although not quite so well known or understood today, McCarthy was, for a few years, amongst the most powerful politicians in the Western world and he reached that position through a mixture of lies, media support and the influence of some very powerful people. When it comes to evil figures in history, like the three already mentioned, it is far too easy to dismiss them as ‘nutters’. For many people, Hitler and Mao are almost ‘joke’ figures and there is a belief that no one would ever support them today because we could see through them. But somehow that does not work with Joe McCarthy who represents something potentially more dangerous exactly because he was so widely supported by main-stream Americans and operated within the democratic system.

Joe McCarthy was only popular and powerful for a rather brief period of four years. In fact, in 1950, the American press actually voted McCarthy as the worst senator in the country. Little did they know that he was on the verge of becoming the dominant figure in US life for the next four years. In that period, the so-called ‘McCarthy Era’, he quite literally shaped US politics, destroyed thousands of ordinary people, helped create a monster of Communism and ensured that the arms and defence industry grew to have quite extraordinary wealth and influence. Clearly, McCarthy had something important to say to the USA in this period and, therefore, he tells us something important about the values of that post-war era. McCarthy is a fascinating character who shows us how some people are prepared to act either to gain power or when they have power. He shows the power of the media and just how far people can be manipulated when they are scared. He was a most unpleasant man, a liar and a bully, who achieved great power. Joe McCarthy’s story is a true warning from history, a reminder of how powerful politicians can be, especially when they work with the media during a time of fear.

Joseph Raymond McCarthy was born in the wonderfully named Grand Chute, Wisconsin in 1908 to devout Catholic parents. Life was tough when he was young but he was considered reasonably bright and, despite some problems which meant he had to finish his formal education early, he went on to get a degree, worked as a lawyer and a judge, and then served with the US Marines in the Pacific during World War II. While he was with the Marines, he had a desk job, only flying safe missions on a few occasions, and rumour has it that he suffered from air sickness. He was certainly no great ‘war hero’, although he did his bit by being there and helping to organise things for those who fought. On his return to the USA, McCarthy needed a new career, so he left the army and abruptly entered politics.

It came as a surprise to some when Joe McCarthy was elected as Republican Senator for the state of Wisconsin (that’s up near the Canadian border, just west of the Great Lakes, where it gets very cold in winter) in 1946. He was one of many men who went into politics in the elections which followed the end of WWII, other examples being Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. One of his campaign tactics was actually to highlight his ‘proud war record’, in an attempt to contrast himself with his opponent, who had not served in the war. He referred to his numerous medals, but these had, in fact, not been awarded but had been given to him at his own request and did not match his actual service record. At this time, McCarthy gave himself the nickname ‘Tail-Gunner Joe’, even though he had never flown on a combat mission. As a Senator, he had a pretty dismal time and he was considered next to useless so that, as the elections of 1950 loomed, McCarthy was facing almost certain defeat. With things looking so bad, he gathered his campaign team together to work out a new strategy. One of them, a Catholic priest, said they needed a project, a focus for the campaign, anything to distract people from McCarthy’s poor record in office. So it was decided that he would launch a campaign against Communism – and so his journey to stardom began.

One thing McCarthy was considered reasonably good at was public speaking. On 9th February, 1950, he gave what was expected to be an unimportant talk to the Republican Women’s Club at Wheeling, West Virginia. Little could those ladies have known what dramas awaited them as they gathered to meet ‘The Pepsi Cola Kid’, another nickname for McCarthy because, as a Senator, he had once received a payment of $20 000 from a man who made the bottles for Pepsi. The day of the talk turned out to be a ‘slow-news day’ and what McCarthy had to say would make the headlines; on another day it might have disappeared. His message shocked the good ladies of Wheeling – and got the attention of everyone else: he claimed that Communist spies were working in the USA and that he alone had a list of 205 who were employed by the US Federal Government. It was a sensational story which the newspapers were delighted to run.

The post-war years from 1945-1949 were a period of rapid deterioration in relations between the USSR and its former western allies, years which provide a key back-drop to the rise of Joe McCarthy. These years saw the rise in tension between the new ‘Superpowers’, the USA and the USSR, which led to the ‘Cold War’, the era that dominated international relations down to 1990 when Communism collapsed. The term ‘Cold War’ was invented to describe this period of extreme tension and conflict which did not develop into a ‘Hot War’, or direct fighting, between the two sides. Various factors and events contributed to the start of the Cold War, some of which are mentioned here but are covered in greater detail elsewhere.

By 1949, Eastern Europe had come fully under the control of Communist forces, with countries such as Czechoslovakia being forced into an ‘alliance’ with Moscow. The ‘Berlin Blockade’ (1948-49), which had seen Joseph Stalin attempt to force the West out of the former capital of Germany by preventing essential supplies reaching its zones in the city, had raised tensions between the Superpowers but had shown Western competence and raised its commitment in the region. This had raised Stalin’s anger and anxiety about Truman’s plans for Europe.  The formation of NATO (The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) in April, 1949, raised the tension to new levels as the USA and 11 other countries made a military alliance so that an attack on any one of them by the USSR or any other country would bring a response from all. In addition to this, traditional powers in Western society, groups including politicians, monarchs, churches and businesses, were fiercely opposed to the apparent power of Communism, which seemed to represent the greatest threat to freedom ever seen. In the USA, the threat posed by Communism to the fulfilment of the ‘American dream’ of wealth, freedom and happiness was felt with particular intensity such was the fear of ‘big Government’ and left-wing ideology. Anxiety across the USA reached new levels when China fell to Communism and Chairman Mao Zedong in October 1949. The fact that the USA had been supporting Jiang Jieshi’s nationalists in their struggle against Chairman Mao led many politicians to criticise President Truman for having been too weak and blamed him for the ‘loss of China’, an accusation which had great power and scared many future presidents into adopting a tough anti-Communist stance in the face of other challenges.

President Harry Truman, a Democrat, was in power when McCarthyism started.

(Author: Edmonston Studio; Source: Library of Congress)

Something else which added strength to McCarthy’s claims and seemed to make the rise of Communist influence more frightening for the USA in these years was the fact that there had been numerous allegations of Soviet infiltration into American society before McCarthy came on the scene. The case against the ‘Hollywood Ten’ in 1947, for example, saw a number of film-makers charged with having Communist ‘sympathies’, bringing famous stars like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall out in support of their colleagues but shaking the confidence of many ‘ordinary’ Americans. Even more importantly, there had been one particular high-profile Communist spying case which reached the courts. Alger Hiss (1904-1996) was charged with spying for the USSR in a case led by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a group set up as far back as 1937 to investigate threats to the US state. The Alger Hiss case brought the future President Richard Nixon, a recently elected member of the House of Representatives, into the public eye, and Hiss was a particular obsession of Nixon’s throughout his life. Hiss was not found guilty of spying for the USSR but he was eventually imprisoned for perjury and his case convinced many people that there were Soviet spies in the US Government. Another case which had a very high-profile in the years around the rise of McCarthy concerned the spying activities of a couple called Julius (1918-1953) and Ethel (1915-1953) Rosenberg who were charged with passing secrets linked with the atom bomb to the Soviet Union; while Hiss was imprisoned, the Rosenbergs were executed in June 1953. The ‘Anti-Communist’ band-wagon was already up and running when McCarthy got on board and drove it to new heights.

Alger Hiss on trial. He was eventually convicted of perjury and sent to prison.

(Author: Unknown, 1950; Source: Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection)

Immediately after McCarthy made his claims about Communists within government, there were, not surprisingly, many questions from the press and others. When he was challenged about his ‘list’, which he claimed contained the names of 205 Communist spies within the US Government, McCarthy changed the number – several times. When asked to reveal his sources, he said he could not do that as he had to protect the people concerned. When asked how he had come to be in possession of such an important document, he gave no explanation, besides speaking of himself as a loyal American who had been trusted to act on the information given him. When accused of making it all up, McCarthy countered that anyone who challenged him must be sympathetic to Communism.  Things should have been clear to all: McCarthy was out of his depth, panicking in the face of electoral defeat and he was making things up. But that is not how things developed.

Something very important happened in the USA in the days and weeks after McCarthy made his speech. The key point is that many people in the media accepted what he had to say and, through them, millions of ordinary Americans came to believe that there was a Communist threat and a high-level conspiracy to cover it all up. It was a classic case of perception and popularity being more powerful than the truth; the people believed McCarthy and they soon showed it in the most effective way they could – by voting for him and against his critics. At the Senate elections of 1950, Joe McCarthy achieved the re-election he had always wanted which in itself was remarkable after he had been such an unpopular and weak Senator for four years. His victory shocked many politicians who knew him to be incompetent and didn’t believe his story. Crucially, the man who had been his most vocal critic and opponent, Senator Millard Tydings, lost his seat in the same round of elections, apparently because of his opposition to McCarthy’s claims. Tydings was a highly respected politician; attributing his defeat to his opposition to McCarthy, other politicians became scared of speaking out – and many went to join the McCarthy camp.  McCarthy’s power was suddenly overwhelming, and politicians lost the confidence to challenge him. When a Senate committee was set up to investigate the extent of Communist infiltration in the US Government, there was only one man who could be chosen to chair it: Joe McCarthy.

And so began a frightening period in modern American history. The ‘McCarthyite Witch Hunts’ were so called because of the parallels with attacks on witches in previous centuries. Just as for the alleged witches of Salem, Massachusetts, in the 17th century, being accused was enough to ruin you.  And as with the witch trials, no logical defence was allowed. If you denied the charge you were lying; if you admitted it you were guilty; if anyone defended you, they must be a ‘sympathiser’. And all the time, the media was whipping up the frenzy amongst people who were increasingly hysterical about the latest ‘Red Scare’: the absolute belief grew that Communism was infiltrating American society under the powerful and devious leadership of the feared and hated Joseph Stalin, leader of the USSR and of World Communism.

In the four years of McCarthyism’s dominance, 3 million Government employees were investigated for possible ties to Communism. Some 2 000 of these were subsequently suspected of having such connections (about 0.067%, which is not very significant) but not one person was formally proven guilty on any of the charges. However, rather than go the process or answer the charges, over 100 000 people resigned for ‘personal’ reasons so as to avoid being investigated. Large numbers of these people never worked properly again, certainly not for the Government, even though no Communist links were found. Many left the country or even committed suicide; this was serious and frightening stuff. Many people saw their marriages and their lives ruined by the accusations made by McCarthy and his many supporters. McCarthy’s supporters saw the numerous resignations as admissions of guilt, taking them as evidence of Communist links or sympathy for the cause, and they claimed that it was OK if a few innocent people suffered, because the alternative was to risk leaving the guilty at large. The general mood of hysteria was heightened by the cases mentioned earlier: the ‘Hollywood Ten’, Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs. With so much smoke there had to be some fire…surely?

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg who were executed on 19th June, 1953 for passing information to the USSR. They refused to plead guilty, which would have saved their lives.

(Author: Roger Higgins, photographer from “New York World-Telegram and the Sun”, 1951; Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection.)

You won’t be surprised to hear that things were not as straightforward as they might have seemed. This will become clearer if you read about J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, later on. Many people did resign when accused, but usually because they had something else to hide: drug or alcohol addiction, tax evasion, homosexuality, affairs and gambling debts were just some of the issues that would have emerged in an investigation so they chose to go quietly, admitting the Communist charges rather than have the real ‘issues’ come out in court.

During those years from 1950 to 1954, Joe McCarthy dominated political life in the USA. Hated and feared by senior politicians, including President Truman, he was seen as a crusader by ordinary Americans, valiantly defending them all from the red terror of Communism within the Government. The enthusiastic support of the media, for whom he was a great story, helped strengthen and deepen anxiety about Communist infiltration. The fear of finding a ‘red under the bed’ led many people to accuse colleagues and even family members of possible involvement with left wing organisations. Few people were strong enough to willingly face the consequences of being charged, let alone convicted of links with Communism. The question, ‘Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?’ became one of the most famous statements of the age. The McCarthyite bandwagon attracted many passengers including two high-profile figures who would later become Republican presidents: Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. As mentioned earlier, Nixon had been involved in the case against Alger Hiss and became the darling of the right-wing of the Republican Party on the back of his strong ‘anti-Red’ credentials, leading Dwight D. Eisenhower to choose Nixon as his Vice-President from 1952-1960. During this same period, Ronald Reagan took his first steps into politics when he became the leader of the Actors Guild of America, gaining promotion on the back of the help he gave in finding alleged Communist infiltrators. In 1967, Reagan became Governor of California, a stepping stone to the White House and the Presidency.