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Such terribly British problems: The Profumo Affair

Such terribly British problems: The ‘Profumo Affair’

‘Discretion is the polite word for hypocrisy.’ Christine Keeler

By comparison with some modern scandals, the ‘Profumo Affair’ might seem rather tame, but it was an event of great significance in British political and social history. It sent shock waves through the country and marked a significant change in the status and standing of the political class. Where the ‘Suez Crisis’, for example, focused on war, economics and Britain’s declining status, ‘Profumo’ delved deep into the intriguing world of spies, secrets and sex; it was a story made for the tabloid press – and the country was spell-bound by the whole thing. It delighted and scandalised people in equal measure, being one of the earliest public humiliations of a politician caught up in a sex scandal, and like ‘Suez’, it seemed to be something of a ‘parable’ for the times.

The key events in the ‘Profumo Affair’ took place in 1961 but the headlines came in 1963, that famous year which saw Yuri Gagarin go into space, Martin Luther King delivered his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech and President Kennedy was assassinated. It was named after on John Profumo (1915-2006), the Conservative MP for Stratford-upon-Avon, who was a member of the Cabinet, the group of senior politicians which has special responsibility to govern the country: the Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and the numerous ministers for health, education and so on. Profumo was the ‘Secretary of State for War’ in the early 1960s, a time when such a post was really rather significant due to Cold War and events such as the U-2 spy plane incident, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the building of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis all showed the tension of relationships between the USA and the USSR. These were anxious times and Mr. Profumo was about to add his own small chapter to the drama.

To put this event into some context, it is important to be aware of the social changes under way in Britain around that time. This was the start of the ‘Swinging Sixties’, that period when Britain was at the heart of popular culture. London was a world centre for creativity, becoming the most dynamic, exciting and edgy place in which to live, with a wealth of creativity in musical, art and fashion being driven by the generation who had been born during the war and were now in their early twenties. Rising incomes and access to new technology saw many people shaking off what is often portrayed as the ‘drab’ life of the 1950s. The early Sixties also saw a number of events which impacted on society, most notably the introduction of ‘The Pill’, the first oral contraceptive which gave women some sort of control over pregnancy. 1963 was also the year in which ‘The Beatles’ came to fame (their second album, ‘With The Beatles’, was released on the day that Kennedy was assassinated), and it was three years after the famous obscenity trial focused on the publication of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ by D.H. Lawrence. The times were undoubtedly changing, as the traditional sense of deference shown to the ‘upper classes’ was disappearing and traditional morality, rooted in the Christian tradition, was under threat. The desire for scandal was far from what it was to become by the end of the century but there is no doubt that there was a greater interest in scandals, especially those which involved sex, drugs, money and celebrities. Two things which reflected the willingness of people to rock the boat and raise slightly awkward questions at this time were  ‘Private Eye’, established in 1961, and the famous TV programme, ‘That was the week that was’ (TW3 to its many admirers). Both of these focused on satire and took the opportunity to mock those who wished to be pretentious and questioned those who seemed to have something to hide; both were unpopular with the established powers in the country. Profumo was rather unfortunate that things happened when they did and, of course, where they did; in another time and place, he might well have got away with it.

Although it is a simplistic portrayal, you can get a sense of how life in the 1950s was often ‘remembered’ as being drab by listening to ‘Sunday afternoon at home’, an episode of the wonderful ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’, starring Tony Hancock (above). Image: here; Source: here

The country was gripped by the details of the ‘Profumo Affair’ that came out when a man called Stephen Ward was put on trial for ‘living off immoral earnings’, the polite way of saying he lived off prostitution. He was a wealthy man, a successful osteopath and an artist who did portraits of various high profile people including members of the Royal Family, such as Prince Philip and Princess Margaret. His life was a dramatic and scandalous mix of parties, drinking and lots of beautiful young women. Ward mixed in rather important circles,and he had the knack of ‘introducing’ rich and powerful men to young and beautiful women. So it was that in 1961, during an exclusive pool party at ‘Cliveden House’ in Berkshire, the home of Lord William Astor, Ward introduced to young women, Mandy Rice-Davies and Christine Keeler, to John Profumo. (A piece of trivia is that Astor was a relative of the famous John Jacob Astor IV who died on ‘Titanic’ in 1912.) At the time, Rice-Davies was 17 and Keeler was 19, while Profumo was 46 and married to the well-known actress, Valerie Hobson. This fateful meeting led to a sexual relationship between Christine Keeler and John Profumo, while Lord Astor, also a significant Conservative politician at the time, was alleged to have slept with Mandy Rice-Davies. At the trial,  when it was put to her that Lord Astor had denied any relationship with her, Rice-Davies gave the now legendary reply: ‘Well, he would, wouldn’t he?’; his wife later claimed to be able to show that on the dates in question, Astor was actually elsewhere but by then the damage had been done. The key affair, though, was between Keeler and Profumo and this took on a new level of significance when it became known that she was also sleeping with a man called Yevgeny Ivanov, a Soviet naval attaché who was thought to be working in Britain as a spy. Profumo was not aware of Christine Keeler’s other relationship; if he had been, he might well have thought, and acted, rather differently.

‘Cliveden’, the home of Lord Astor, where Profumo is alleged to have chased Christine Keeler around the swimming pool in July, 1961. Image: here; Source: here

Christine Keeler had actually come to the attention of the media earlier in 1963 because she was involved in another case at the time. She was seen as a key witness in a case involving a man called Johnny Edgecombe, a jazz promoter she had had an affair with in 1962. Edgecombe had badly wounded another of Keeler’s former lovers, a man called Aloysius ‘Lucky’ Gordon, in a knife attack, as well as firing a gun at the house of Stephen Ward, damaging the door and windows, because he believed Keeler was hiding there. When she failed to attend the court as a witness in Edgecombe’s trial, the media took advantage of the situation to publish accusations of her links with Profumo and so the story unfolded. People in high places were already aware of the affair because of an MI5 operation to entrap Ivanov for spying and they were aware of his relationship with Keeler. The problem for Profumo came when he made a statement to the House of Commons in which he lied by denying any involvement in the affair or having had contact with Keeler or Ward. In June, 1963, he was forced to resign because of these lies, especially when it came out that Keeler had also slept with Ivanov. News organizations in the USA really ran with the story after this particular revelation: anyone might have an affair, as they knew, for instance, that President Kennedy had, but what might Profumo have told Keeler which she might have told Ivanov so that he might have told Moscow? The personal story became a global scandal and Profumo had to resign in disgrace.

The whole story was obviously front page news. Simon Ward was arrested on the grounds of living off ‘immoral earnings’, and was put on trial. Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies had to give evidence at the trial, becoming rather famous in the process. Their photos appeared in many newspapers and the sight of two beautiful young women being asked about their sexual relations with a Lord of the realm, a Cabinet minister and a spy was an absolute delight for Fleet Street. Ward died from an overdose just before the verdict was delivered, suicide being given as the cause of death although (and conspiracy theories abound at such times) some people claim he was ‘helped on his way’ by MI5 or some other organisation. Ward was found guilty of living off the immoral earnings of the two women who were described in court as ‘prostitutes’. It certainly seems highly unlikely that Rice-Davies and Keeler could be described in such a way nor that Ward was living as a pimp; he made a comfortable living from his other work and it was said that such a thing would simply not fit with his ‘style of life’. It is fair to suggest that it might have been in the interest of MI5 and others to have Ward out of the way, as they denied he was involved in any work to catch spies although there is evidence that he was approached to entrap Ivanov and to help him to defect to the West. Fifty years after the event, Geoffrey Robertson QC, who sees the conviction of Ward as one of the great miscarriages of justice in recent British history, was calling for the release of documents linked with the case. His request was rejected and they currently remain hidden until 2044, the centenary of the birth of Mandy Rice-Davies, the youngest person involved in the case. We’ll probably never know those details but there still remains something ‘incomplete’ in the story.

The affair threatened to topple the Conservative Government of Harold MacMillan and it ended Profumo’s career at the age of just 48. Profumo never spoke a word in public about what happened and he quietly gave up his parliamentary career and went on to develop a career in charity work. He worked for ‘Toynbee Hall’ in the East End of London, starting by working in the kitchens, cleaning the toilets and helping at the “Meths drinkers’ club”. He went on to become the main fund-raiser; he maintained a calm dignity about things for the rest of his life and stayed married to his ever-supportive wife, Valerie, until her death in 1998. He was eventually welcomed back into ‘society’ as was seen when he was sat at the Queen’s right hand during a meal to celebrate the 70th birthday of Mrs. Thatcher. John Profumo, the 5th Baron Profumo of Italy, died in 2006 at the age of 91.

For the Prime Minister at the time, Harold Macmillan, the ‘Profumo Affair’ pretty much marked the end of his time in office, the stresses proving too much and he retired in late 1963, under the mistaken belief that he had terminal cancer; he died in 1986. His attempts to cover up the whole sorry mess around Profumo exposed the immorality and incompetence at the heart of Government and was a factor that led to a Labour victory in 1964. Yevgeny Ivanov, who MI5 saw as a possible defector, returned to the USSR after his relationship with Keeler became known. According to Keeler, who met him in the late 1980s, thanks to the ‘Daily Express’, his wife apparently left him as soon as she was told what had happened and he never re-married. In the 1960s, he was posted to Tokyo under a new name and he later received the ‘Order of Lenin’ for his services in London as he had managed to bring about the fall of the Minister of War. Christine Keeler was imprisoned for her part in the affair, receiving nine months for perjury. She never really settled in life and disappeared from the public eye to live in obscurity and poverty; she is probably best known today for the famous photo of her by Lewis Morley, where she sits naked astride a chair; it is one of the most imitated shots of all time. In many ways, Mandy Rice-Davies had far more fun in life as she did a whole range of things, including cabaret singing, writing cook books and acting (in ‘No sex, please, we’re British’, which was possibly a less than appropriate film for her). Her husband was a friend of Denis Thatcher and so it was that she became a friend of Margaret Thatcher, the two often visiting each other in Surrey and the Bahamas; you would be wary of making such a thing up in a novel.

But the biggest consequence of the affair may well have been its impact on the values and expectations in British society in general. The ‘leaders’ of the country had been caught in a flagrant scandal and many in the establishment had tried to lie, to cover it up and to blame others. Deference was already in decline in Britain by 1963 but it may be said to have formally come to an end with the ‘Profumo Affair’, making the rich, royalty, celebrities and politicians a fair target for questions and investigations. These events made a massive breach in the defences of the system and the privacy of the well-to-do which has never been repaired: ‘They are no better than us – in fact they’re worse than us’, was the view of many as they read their newspapers. Many people were shocked and embarrassed by what they read; many more were intrigued and fascinated. The story of John Profumo never quite went away (it became a film called ‘Scandal’ in 1989) and is still referred to when any such scandals arise today; sex continues to fascinate.In many ways, 1963 saw a ‘sea-change’ in British society. The arrival of The Beatles and the explosion of popular music and culture at that time may have played a role, as might other factors such as ‘TW3’ and ‘Private Eye’. Maybe it was ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ being published that changed opinion but when looking for the moment when Britain’s establishment became vulnerable and open to mockery and ridicule, don’t forget John Profumo and his affair.

Find out more
Films: ‘Scandal’ (1989)

Books: ‘An affair of State’ by Philip Knightley and Caroline Kennedy; ‘Mandy’ by Mandy Rice-Davies; ‘The Truth at Last’ by Christine Keeler

Songs: ‘Christine Keeler’ by Phil Ochs

Photos: Lewis Morley’s famous photo of Christine Keeler sat on a chair; and look up images of John Profumo (1915-2006), Christine Keeler (b. 1942), Mandy Rice-Davies (1944-2014), Yevgeny ‘Eugene’ Ivanov (1926-94), Stephen Ward (1912-1963) and Lord Denning
(1899-1999)

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)