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

Buddhist Monk Committing Ritual Suicide

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Betty Friedan: Is that all?

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

Betty Friedan: ‘Is that all?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Author: Unknown; Source: here)

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

Betty Friedan’s main ideas included:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Find out more:

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Find out more:

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

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

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


 

 

 

 

The Berlin Wall: Seriously important concrete.

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The Berlin Wall: Seriously important concrete.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Berlin, Checkpoint Charlie

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

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

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

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

Berlin, Mauerbau

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

 

Find out more

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Canal_Mer_Blanche

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.

Stalingrad_aftermath

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’

 

 

 

 

Margaret Thatcher: The lady who would not turn

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Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan at Camp David, November 1986. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

Margaret Thatcher: The lady who would not turn

‘I am extraordinarily patient, provided I get my own way in the end.’ Margaret Thatcher

On 4th May, 1979, something rather unusual happened on the steps of 10, Downing Street. The new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom stood on the steps in front of that famous black door and greeted the crowds, having led the Conservative Party to victory in the General Election. The obvious thing to note was that Margaret Thatcher, the 51st person to hold the highest office in the land, was a woman, the first and, so far, only woman to do so. In achieving this, she was also only the sixth woman to have led any Government in the world, following the likes of Sirimavo Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka, Indira Gandhi in India and Golda Meir in Israel.

On her first day in office, Mrs. Thatcher famously quoted a prayer by St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology, amongst other things. In the light of what was to happen during the following eleven years, the words of the prayer can be seen as being at least slightly ironic. In her rather posh and forced voice she said: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.” Amongst those who reacted to her victory was Jeremy Thorpe, the soon to be disgraced leader of the Liberal Party: ‘I am horrified. She makes Ted Heath look like a moderate.’ If only he had realised just how true those words would be – and how Mrs. Thatcher would go on to make most politicians of the post-war era, the time of consensus politics, look like moderates.

The arrival of Mrs. Thatcher as leader of the Conservative Government marked a decisive change in the history of Britain, not just in policies but also in tone, vision and values. Her clear victory was, obviously, in part the result of the failings of the Labour Government of Jim Callaghan who had led the country through the late seventies following the shock resignation of Harold Wilson in 1976. Callaghan’s tenure can best be described as ‘troubled’ with the country in something of a decline, facing inflation of over 25%, needing an humiliating loan from the IMF and with soaring unemployment and widespread strike action. The famous ‘Winter of Discontent’ in 1979 provided the last few nails for the Labour ‘coffin’ and there was no surprise when the Conservatives swept to victory in May. Change was expected and change was going to come, although few people could have predicted quite how much the UK, Europe and even the world would be affected by the actions of Margaret Thatcher during the next decade.

The fact that Mrs. Thatcher was a woman has always been a bit of an irrelevance really because she was also, of course, a politician. There is something quite naïve and even sexist about the idea that, because she was female, she would lead in a completely different way to every other Prime Minister there had ever been. If you look at the polices, look at the appointments and read the speeches, there is nothing ‘feminine’ about them – and why should there have been? She was a hard-headed, intelligent, decisive, opinionated politician who, like most of her predecessors had climbed the greasy-pole to power with energy and determination. What did people expect – some sort of “touchy-feely”, stereo-typically feminised approach to the huge and urgent challenges of the time? If they did, then they were fools.

Margaret Hilda Roberts was born in Grantham, Lincolnshire, 1925. She was famously the daughter of a local greengrocer who went off to Oxford University to read Chemistry. She first worked for Joe Lyons in food manufacturing between 1945 and 1951. Her skills were used to study soap-making and the quality of cake and pie fillings but, despite many claims, she was not instrumental in the invention of soft ice-cream, something which Mr. Softee had achieved a decade earlier in the USA . Moving on from the world of science and ice-cream, she became a barrister before trying to win a seat as an MP for the Conservatives, eventually being successful in the General Election of 1959 when she was elected for Finchley in West London. Over the next 20 years, Margaret Thatcher (she had married Denis Thatcher, a divorced businessman, in 1951, having twins, Carol and Mark, the following year) took on various roles in Government and opposition. In 1970, she joined the Conservative Government of Edward Heath and was the Education Secretary (and, briefly, the Environment Secretary) until 1974, a role in which, rather interestingly, she was responsible for closing more Grammar Schools than any other Education Secretary. After the Conservatives narrowly lost both General Elections of 1974 to Harold Wilson’s Labour Party, Mrs. Thatcher challenged Edward Heath for the leadership of the Tory Party. She first defeated him and then defeated Heath’s choice as leader, William Whitelaw. Heath had never really liked Thatcher but this dislike took on a greater intensity after the leadership struggle and became a simmering antagonism until Heath died in 2005. So, by upsetting a few people, taking a tough stand on economic policies and offering a return to more traditional policies, Margaret Thatcher became the first woman to lead a major political party in Britain. And in 1979, an election which saw just 19 women elected as MPs, this would lead to her becoming the first and, so far, only, woman to be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Margaret_Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher. I once knew someone in his 20s who had a photo of Mrs. Thatcher, the then Prime Minister, next to his bed which, by any standards, has to be considered quite strange.

(Author: work provided by Chris Collins of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation; Source: here)

Mrs. Thatcher was in power as Prime Minister for eleven years from 1979 to 1990, the longest time in that office for anyone in the Twentieth Century. Some quotes from the ‘Iron Lady’ herself might be useful at this point as a way of indicating her values. ‘The Iron Lady’ was a name given to her by leading figures in the Soviet Union, a name she rather liked and sometimes used herself.

• “Disciplining yourself to do what you know is right and important, although difficult, is the high road to pride, self-esteem, and personal satisfaction.”

• “There is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families.”

• “I am in politics because of the conflict between good and evil, and I believe that, in the end, good will triumph.”

• “If you just set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time, and you would achieve nothing.”

• “I do not know anyone who has got to the top without hard work. That is the recipe. It will not always get you to the top, but should get you pretty near.”

• “I don’t mind how much my Ministers talk, so long as they do what I say.”

• “Economics are the method; the object is to change the soul.”

• “You turn if you want – but the Lady’s not for turning.” (This famous quote was written into a speech for her. She hated it but she did say it.)

What these quotes show is a specific set of values: clarity, determination, self-confidence, uncompromising, focused, individualistic. Mrs. Thatcher was a product of a different era of politics from those seen today. Although there was a tendency for the post-war Governments to act in line with the so-called ‘consensus politics’ of the centre, there was far more variety to be seen and heard amongst politicians. This was, after all, the era of the Cold War, a time when ideologies were stronger and opinions more extreme. Politicians tended to be older and more experienced than today. In an age when the media was not offering rolling news coverage, looks, voice and image were not so important and there was a greater variety of people elected as MPs. Many people could easily remember the dark days of the Great Depression and the Second World War, for instance, which had shaped and changed the lives of so many. Multi-national companies did not have quite the influence that they do today and people really saw that Governments could make a difference. Mrs. Thatcher was expected to make a difference to the fortunes of Britain, an ailing power which had fallen far from its once established position as a ‘Great Power’. And, maybe more importantly, Mrs. Thatcher herself expected to make a difference.

The quotes above can be read as Mrs. Thatcher supporting ‘traditional’, even ‘Victorian’, values. For many people, though, she went much further than mere traditionalism to become the most divisive figure in post-war politics. She fostered policies that focused on individuals over communities, emphasised rights over responsibilities, allowed big business to flourish at the expense of workers and made ‘greed’ acceptable so that money mattered more than morals. She appealed to many different sectors of society, especially those who would go on to benefit financially from the changes she introduced. Mrs. Thatcher certainly gave an impetus to industrial growth after many years of decline in British economic fortunes and she prioritised economic growth, attacking what she saw as the ‘British disease’ of industrial unrest and strikes. Indeed, it was her attacks on the Trade Unions with the erosion of workers’ rights in favour of business which became a particular cause of her ‘Marmite’ status in the country.

Her quote which said, “There is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families”, probably summed up the ideas about what she got wrong in so many people’s eyes. Her rejection of the idea of ‘society’ seemed to raise the individual to a position which meant that selfishness, competition, confrontation were essential values. In her ‘dog eat dog’ world, there were always going to be more winners and more losers. The eighties came to be seen as the decade of greed, an increasingly individualistic period when no one could criticise or even challenge others, especially if the outcome was the making of profit. Mrs. Thatcher may not have created this situation on her own but her values have become interlinked with that time and her face is the image of the age for many people. In parts of the country, she is certainly held responsible for drastic decline in social and economic fortunes, so that the Tories continue to have to fight her name and her legacy in many constituencies at each General Election. One has only to look at the lack of Conservative or ‘Tory’ MPs in Wales, Scotland and Northern England to get a sense of the long term problems they have faced in getting back into power, something they only managed to achieve in 2010 through a coalition with the Liberal Democrats being needed to defeat Gordon Brown, an unpopular Prime Minister, at a time of great economic crisis. Many people believe that the legacy of Mrs. Thatcher played a crucial role in preventing the Tories winning a majority, with the situation in Scotland being especially clear. By way of comparison, at the 1983 General Election, the Tories won 14 of the 38 seats in Wales and 21 of the 71 seats in Scotland.

Conservative MPs elected

Wales (Total MPs)

Scotland (Total MPs)

Northern England (Total MPs)

2001 Election

0 (40)

1 (72)

17 (162)

2005 Election

3 (40)

1 (59)

19 (162)

2010 Election

8 (40)

1 (59)

42 (158)

 

Anyway, let’s look at what Mrs. Thatcher actually did and some of the major events of her time in power so as to get a sense of what people have loved and hated about her. Firstly, she won three consecutive General Elections: 1979, 1983 and 1987. This was a record for any British Prime Minister in the Twentieth Century (although Labour’s Harold Wilson won four of the five elections between 1964 and 1974). Her continuous time in office (11 years 209 days) was also a record for the 1900s, a figure which later on seemed to become a target for Tony Blair (10 years 57 days). Only some of the famous names of the 18th and 19th centuries could match her endurance, including Robert Walpole, William Pitt the Younger, The Earl of Liverpool and William Gladstone. As well as the time she was in power, Mrs. Thatcher also dominated Government and Parliament to such an extent that many people see her time in office as marking a clear move towards a more American-style of politics through the ‘Presidential’ model of leadership.

Secondly, there was the impact of the ‘Falkland’s War’ (1982), the defining moment in her career. There had been a serious lack of economic progress in her first few years in office, with unemployment rising and high inflation still being major issues following the election victory of 1979. The early 1980s in Britain saw major industrial unrest, too, a sign that things were not progressing as she had hoped and it is fair to say that there was a potential crisis on the horizon for Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives with a General Election no more than two years away. Then, in 1982, came the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands, the British Overseas Territory far away in the South Atlantic Ocean about 300 miles (480 kms) off the coast of Patagonia. A quick look at any world map, such as the one here, will show just how remote these islands are, some 8000 miles (11000 kms) from London. The islands were home to some 2000 British subjects, though, and Britain had a claim to the islands going back to 1776, with a settlement there continuously since 1833. The location was just one factor that made the Falklands a rather odd piece of British territory; it was rather like Argentina laying claim to the Isles of Scilly or the Outer Hebrides – or maybe the Isle of Wight. ‘Las Islas Malvinas’, as they are known in Argentina, had long been a source of tension between the two countries. With a military ‘junta’ (small group of generals) in control and seeking to distract the people from harsh economic and social conditions, they launched an attack to take control of the Falklands on 2nd April, 1982.

Rather than negotiate and compromise, Margaret Thatcher went on the offensive and launched a ‘Task Force’ to liberate the islands. The ‘Falklands’ War’ (or ‘Falklands’ Conflict’ as it is sometimes called) lasted from 21st May until 14th June, 1982. It was won by the British forces and the Argentines were forced off the islands. 655 Argentines, 255 British and 3 Falkland Islanders died. It was not the largest war in British history nor the longest, but for many people it was of great significance as it was seen to restore some national pride, a sign that Britain was a serious player on the international stage and could not be ‘messed around with’. In some quarters, especially in the tabloid newspapers, Mrs. Thatcher was painted as a new ‘Churchill’, a modern hero, restoring pride and pointing towards a glorious future. These things may or may not be true, with recent history suggesting Britain can only really act in military union with the USA or NATO, but, in those dark days of 1982, the Falklands’ War was a powerful experience for many people. A sense of the rather direct, nationalistic feeling of the time from the famous front page of ‘The Sun’ newspaper, ‘Gotcha’, in response to the sinking of the Argentine warship, the ‘General Belgrano’.

The Sun’s infamous front page, ‘Gotcha’, can be seen here.

What is so often forgotten about the Falklands’ War is the terrible economic situation in Britain at the time which provided the background to the conflict. The Conservatives, and Mrs. Thatcher herself, were hugely unpopular in the early 1980s with price inflation running at a high of 21.9% in her first year as Prime Minister and with over 3 million people out of work, the highest being 12% unemployment in 1984. These figures were the worst under any Conservative Government in the post-war period and little better than the darkest days of the seventies. Unemployment was worst in the old industrial areas of Northern Ireland, Scotland, South Wales and the north of England, while London and the south-east was doing far better. There was major social unrest, rising crime and a sense of anxiety and division across the country. There was anxiety about the decline of traditional industry, concerns about the future for young people and a huge need for re-structuring and investment. And there was much fear, anger and frustration in the country as many people felt marginalised and ignored by the politicians at Westminster.

When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, things were undoubtedly very bleak for Mrs. Thatcher and her popularity in the country was in free fall. As things turned out, Britain was, for many people, transformed by that victory in the Falklands. It gave a massive boost to Mrs. Thatcher’s status which saved the Conservatives in the General Election of 1983, one she called to take advantage of her popularity. Mind you, the Labour Party’s internal divisions and Michael Foot’s leadership in shifting to the left also made a pretty big contribution to the 1983 result.

A third feature of the ‘Thatcher decade’ was a directed attack on the nationalised industries and the Trade Unions, an attempt to reduce the power of workers in traditional industries and to introduce greater freedom and power for employers and businesses. Mrs. Thatcher was a follower of the American economist, Milton Friedman, who believed in the power of market forces, individual choice and power in the hands of big business as the best way to drive an economy forward. She privatised most of the nationalised industries, such as telecommunications, gas, electricity and the steel industry, those massive, essential industries which had been brought under state or government control in the years after World War II ended. The first nationalisations had been the decision of Clement Attlee’s Labour Government, a case of economic necessity and socialist political ideology, between 1945 and 1951. However, both Labour and Conservative Governments had maintained these nationalised industries but some analysts believed they had allowed old working practices to remain in place by giving too much power to the trade unions.

By the early 1980s, Britain was increasingly uncompetitive economically, with declining productivity and a lack of investment, leading many people to call it, ‘The sick man of Europe’. Various governments had tried to challenge and compromise with employers and unions but these had failed to deliver any real change. When she came to power, though, Mrs. Thatcher was clearly determined to address the issues in the way which she saw fit. In the 1980s, many of the nationalised industries were sold off: coal, electricity, the railways, water, steel and telecommunications were among those made available to control by the private sector. They were sold off relatively cheaply, floated on the stock markets and most of them soon saw massive profits for the new shareholders – but huge job losses and changes in working practices, too. The Trades Unions and millions of workers were furious, leading to a wide range of industrial action, as they saw their losses being turned into profits for the City of London, the accountants, the stockbrokers, the bankers and the already wealthy. The money seemed to be made on their pain – and not everyone was willing to accept it.

These political decisions had economic and social consequences which led to the most important and iconic dispute of the Thatcher years: the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85. Under the leadership of Arthur Scargill (b. 1938), the President of the NUM (National Union of Mineworkers), there was a titanic struggle to stop privatisation, to save jobs and protect pay and conditions amongst Britain’s coal miners.

Arthur Scargill: photo link – with remarkable hair as a special bonus.

Mrs. Thatcher argued that Trade Unions distorted the free market by keeping wages artificially high, restricting competition and preventing investment. She believed that her policies would bring about the changes needed in working practices in an era where worldwide competition made such flexibility essential. Britain was deeply divided, almost in a ‘north-south’ split. The miners and workers in other heavy industries, such as steel and shipbuilding, tended to be based in the old industrial heartlands of Scotland, South Wales, the north of England and the Midlands. The business community, the ‘white-collar’ workers and the middle classes, tended to be found in the south-east of England and the more affluent parts of the country. The Miners’ Strike turned into a vicious dispute with serious violence and at least ten deaths. Reports were heard of concrete blocks being pushed off motorway bridges and going through the windscreens of lorries delivering coal during the dispute. Families were divided as some members broke the strike (the so-called ‘scabs’) while others stayed out on strike, suffering the economic hardship and black-listing that followed. In some areas, so many shops were forced to close that they became like ‘ghost towns’.

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(Author: http://underclassrising.net/; Source: here)

Miners'_strike_picket

(Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Further Miners’ Strike photo links: here, here and here.

In the face of the chaos and virulent attacks on her personally, Mrs. Thatcher stuck to her guns. Verbally abused by many as being heartless and dismissive of Britain’s industrial heritage and the ordinary working classes, she ordered the police in to the front line to break strikes. She argued her case with enormous power and commitment, meeting fire with fire. She forced through her changes in industrial laws as well as those for the privatisation of the nationalised industries. The strikes faded away in the end, as people were broken financially, if not ideologically, and were forced to accept the changes. In doing this, Margaret Thatcher established herself, in some eyes, as a leader of principle and commitment, hailed by her supporters as the finest Prime Minister since Churchill and one of the greatest leaders of the century. In a poll for the “Sunday Telegraph”, she actually received 34% of the vote for the ‘Greatest Prime Minister of the Century’, with Churchill second on 15% – which probably says something interesting about the readership of the ‘Telegraph’ as well as the esteem in which Mrs. Thatcher is held in some quarters.

On the international stage, Margaret Thatcher became a major figure, most of all for her part in the collapse of Communism in Europe and the USSR. While Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev were the main players in those extraordinary developments, she had a highly significant role in international affairs, rather similar to that of Pope John Paul II. Both she and the Pope seemed to embody a steeliness and commitment towards the USSR, so that their anti-Communist beliefs inspired President Reagan in particular to act in a more decisive and aggressive manner. The support given to the USA by the British leader made her a firm favourite with many Americans, a factor which led to her making lots of friends (and a lot of money) there in business and on the lecture circuit after she retired from politics.

One other area in which Mrs. Thatcher played a role of great significance was in Northern Ireland, especially through her clear and focused resistance to the IRA. During her time in office, there were many terrorist attacks in the province and on the mainland, with the most famous being the attack on the grand Hotel at Brighton in October, 1984, during the Conservative Party Conference. The bomb, which was set by Patrick Magee of the IRA, killed five people, injured 34 others, and came close to killing Mrs. Thatcher herself. Her determination in going on to deliver her speech at the conference was seen as a remarkable show of courage by many people, supporters and opponents alike. The bombing was presented by the IRA as a warning to the Conservative Party and the British Government that it could not ‘occupy Ireland and torture its prisoners’. This was a reference to the historic dispute over Irish independence as well as more recent issues such as the ‘Hunger Strikes’ at the Maze Prison in 1981. Mrs. Thatcher held an uncompromising line against the IRA and other Republican organisations throughout her time in office, and she was a hugely symbolic figure in Northern Ireland. As with her role in the collapse of Communism, Mrs. Thatcher’s part in ‘The Troubles’ will be looked at in more detail in another section.

Margaret Thatcher was forced out of power by her own party in November 1990. It’s an interesting story in its own right, peaking with a remarkable resignation speech delivered by her former Foreign Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister, Geoffrey Howe. A previous verbal attack by Howe on Labour front-bencher Denis Healy had been described as rather like being ‘mauled by a dead sheep’, so ineffective was he; this, however, turned out to be a devastating speech which put the final nails into Mrs. Thatcher’s political coffin. His statement included the memorable cricketing analogy regarding her role in restricting his ability to negotiate with the European Union on the EMU (European Monetary Union): “It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain”.

Albert_Sydney_and_Lord_Geoffrey_Howe

Geoffrey Howe (pictured right in 2011) was Foreign Secretary and a long-standing member of Mrs. Thatcher’s Cabinet. His resignation speech of 13th November, 1990, hastened her end as Prime Minister. (Author: Albert Sydney; Source: here)

Mrs. Thatcher with Geoffrey Howe: photo link

Margaret Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party on 22nd November, 1990. She had become a political and electoral liability so that people would no longer take her strong, direct, bullying style; they had accepted it while she was a winner but turned on her when their own political careers were under threat. It was, for some, a tragedy and a betrayal that she was forced from office in a cowardly manner; for others, there was a mixture of relief and delight that she was no longer able to cling to power on her own terms. Few people were indifferent to her fall and it is interesting that John Major, her successor, was a very different character in style and attitude.

Mrs. Thatcher inherited a country on the verge of collapse in the ‘Winter of Discontent’ when the Labour Government of James Callaghan was facing disputes on almost every front and showed how alienated his government was from ordinary people. In those early years, she was far from popular but there was a strong feeling amongst many people that change was needed. In this way, she had significant support for her attacks on the Trades Unions as she attempted ‘to heal the sick man of Europe’. The Falkland’s War gave her a huge boost, as did her role in the changing relationship with the Communist world, her friendship with Ronald Reagan and her presence on the world stage. However, it is interesting to remember that one of the final things with which she was associated, the infamous ‘Poll Tax’, was itself a sign she herself had become out of touch with the majority of people in the country. The imposition of the ‘Community Charge’, as the ‘Poll Tax’ was known, was the cause of some of the most violent riots in recent British history. Her fall suggested that she had certainly failed to create a country which was truly content.

Baroness Thatcher died in April, 2013, at the age of 87. Her extraordinary ability to divide public opinion persisted beyond life as the country was split almost exactly 50-50 as to whether she had been a force for good or ill. But while many saw her as the woman who saved the country and others as the one who tore it apart, the truth was almost certainly somewhere in between. Studies of her economic influence, for example, show that she was far less positive than her supporters claim and far less negative that her opponents would have us think. Maybe more important was the perception, the tone, the image; the tough talking and victory in the South Atlantic; her appearance as a player on the world stage which reminded people of a new Churchill; and the way she exuded self-confidence and determination. Some people hate her memory to this day while others really do miss her. It will probably be like that for a long time to come.

 

Find out more

Books: ‘Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Volume One: Not For Turning’ by Charles Moore (Allen Lane, 2013) is very highly regarded and considered by many critics to be one of the finest political biographies of recent times. ‘Margaret Thatcher’ by John Campbell is another extremely powerful biography in two volumes (‘The Grocer’s Daughter’ and ‘The Iron Lady’ (Vintage, 2007). Works by Margaret Thatcher herself include ‘The Path to Power’ (Harper Press, 2012) and ‘The Downing Street Years’ (Harper Press, 2012).

For a rather different insight on the Thatcher years, Alan Clarke’s diaries are well worth reading: ‘Diaries: In Power, 1983-1992’ by Alan Clarke (Phoenix, 2003)

TV: ‘The Rise and Fall of Margaret Thatcher’ contains two well received plays made by the BBC. They are fictional but contain many points of interest as a useful background.

Songs: Many bands produced music which reflected the economic and political conditions of the 1980s, as well as reflecting on the Falkland’s War. Some of those worth checking, with several being folk songs, include: The Specials – ‘Ghost Town’; The Beat – ‘Stand Down Margaret’; lots of Billy Bragg including – ‘Which side are you on?’, ‘Thatcherites’, ‘Island of no return’, ‘There is power in a union’; Martin Carthy – ‘Company Policy’; Elvis Costello and Robert Wyatt – ‘Shipbuilding’ and Elvis Costello – ‘Tramp down the dirt’; and the little-known but legendary Vin Garbutt – ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’.

Film: ‘The Iron Lady’ (2011). Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Mrs. Thatcher was considered remarkable although the film itself divided opinion. It does not really deal with the issues of the time but may be of interest for its insights on her values, attitudes and goals.

 

 

 

A sporting moment

If you like football, the famous Maradona ‘Hand of God’ goal in the quarter finals of the Mexico World Cup in 1986 links very much with the Falklands’ War. The Argentinean team saw the match as an opportunity for revenge against the English for the injustice and humiliation of defeat. The blatant cheating of the first goal followed by the brilliance of the second, one by Maradona’s left hand, the other from eleven touches with his left foot, were greeted with sublime joy in Buenos Aires and elsewhere across the country. The first goal showed Maradona was cleverer than the English and the second was the sublime example proof that he was more skilful than them, too. That day in the Azteca Stadium in Mexico made millions of Argentine’s very happy indeed. The result was a 2-1 win for Argentina, by the way. Gary Lineker, the man with greying hair who presents ‘Match of the Day’ got England’s goal; he used to be very good.

Maradona 1-0 England – a moment of cheating (here)

Maradona 2-0 England – a moment of genius (here)

The adulation for Maradona in Argentina is based on more than this one game, of course, but his two goals, one through ‘guile’, the other through genius, came to embody something important for many Argentines. Some of Maradona’s fans have gone so far as to set up a church in his honour where they remember and celebrate his greatness, with the game against England being one of the particular highlights. His achievements gave hope and confidence to millions of Argentine’s and there is no doubt that a large part of their joy came because he brought such a famous victory against England just four years after the Falkland’s War.

 

 

Robert Capa: Close-up from the front

Robert Capa: Close-up from the front.

“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” Robert Capa

Robert Capa was a Hungarian photographer. He was born in 1913 and his real name was Endre (or Andrei) Friedmann. ‘Fine’, you say, ‘so why should I know about a foreign bloke who took some pictures and changed his name?’ Well, many of the photos he took were both interesting and important, to the point that they have become iconic. He covered some of the most important events of his time and he also happened to live a rather glamorous life, mixing with more than one or two stars in the process. And he died young while working in Vietnam during the first ‘Indochina War’, a conflict which would lead on to the Vietnam War. Robert Capa actually covered five major wars, including the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), World War II and the first Arab-Israeli War of 1948. He revolutionised photo-journalism by being one of the first to work in the heat of the action, with the soldiers, at the front-line, surrounded by the gun-fire and seeing the fighting at first hand. He became a legend for his work and left a legacy which is well worth investigating if you have any interest in war, journalism, art or photography – or about looking cool under pressure.

First of all, a couple of examples of Capa’s work that show him alongside soldiers in Normandy following D-Day in 1944.

6079902662_b113ed48ca_o

(Author: Robert Capa; Source: here) This might not look like a great photo but Capa was seriously unlucky. Nearly all of the photos that he took on D-Day, the Allied invasion of France on 6th June, 1944, were damaged and this is one of the few that survived. The Capa hallmark is clear though – he was there so that he could get the photo in the first place.

Some famous examples of Capa’s photography can be found here.

Robert Capa really is worth knowing a little bit about as he was so much more than just a photographer. In an age when we are so used to documentaries, film and photographs of war, we can easily ignore the work of those who first went to the frontline. To be a cameraman or photographer at the front today must be extraordinary, even with the digital technology, zoom lenses, flak jackets and helmets that are available; to have been doing this in the thirties, forties and fifties required a very unusual personality with extraordinary skills and attitude.

The young Endre Friedmann’s nickname was ‘capa’, which means ‘shark’ in Hungarian. He began his career in photography after dropping out of college in Berlin. Still called Endre Friedmann, he had moved to the German capital in 1931 in an effort to escape the tensions of Budapest, where the right-wing dictatorship under Admiral Horthy was causing increasing problems for the likes of him, as he was both Jewish and left-wing. He had been recommended to a famous photographer of the time, called Otto Umbehrs, by a fellow Hungarian who was also a famous photographer, Eva Besnyö. His first break came when he was sent to the Copenhagen Stadium in Berlin to photograph a well-known figure talking about politics; as luck would have it, Friedmann’s first professional photos were of the famous Communist, Leon Trotsky, then in exile and on the run from Joseph Stalin. Later on, Capa would enhance the story of that day a little, telling how he was sent at the last minute, without a ticket and how he had to sneak in to the hall with a group of workmen. The talk was actually advertised well in advance and Capa had a ticket but, even so, it was still a remarkable ‘first job’ by anyone’s standards. Luck can certainly play a part in many lives but you still need the skill to take advantage of the opportunities when they come your way and Friedmann showed early signs of his potential as he got really close to Trotsky and captured some of the passion and energy of the speech.

5625236164_aa2d052030_o - Copy

Leon Trotsky addressing the crowd at the Copenhagen Stadium, Berlin, in November 1932, the 19 year-old Endre Friedmann’s first assignment.

(Author: Robert Capa; Source: here)

But right wing politics was on the rise in Central Europe and Friedmann left Berlin soon after Hitler came to power in January 1933 and he soon arrived in Paris, one of many refugees from Nazism. He soon met and started going out with a German woman called Gerda Pohorylle (1910-1937), another photographer. In 1934, in an attempt to set up a business and make more money, Friedmann and Pohorylle created ‘Robert Capa’, claiming that they were agents for this ‘famous American’ photographer. They hoped to be able to charge the French newspapers double the normal fees for Capa’s work as he was so important; in reality they took the photos themselves. At the same time, Pohorylle also changed her name to Gerda Taro, as it was easier to spell and pronounce and it is by this name that she became famous in her own right as a photographer. The ‘Capa’ plan worked well for a while and they got numerous images into the French newspapers, some of which reflected the growing political tensions of the time. Friedmann photographed the workers’ strikes in Paris and went to the League of Nations in Geneva when the Abyssinian Emperor, Haile Salassie, begged for help in dealing with the growing threat posed by Italy’s fascist dictator, Mussolini. The double-identity of Friedmann/Capa was soon spotted but the quality of his work was acknowledged and he was given a job with an agency. As a result Friedmann became Robert Capa from that time on, a change which reflected the new dramas in his life.

In July 1936, news came through of the growing tensions in Spain. 1936 was a year of huge importance and drama, marking a step-change on the road to World War II and Capa would come to major prominence in this context by covering the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Like many people of that generation, he saw this conflict as a new type of struggle, an ideological battle of ideals and values, a fight to the death between ‘oppressive’ Fascism from the Right Wing and ‘liberating’ Left Wing ideals of Socialism and Communism. In Spain itself, the Fascists were the Nationalists, whose strength was rooted in the army, the landowners, the rich and the Catholic Church. Their leader was Colonel, later General, Francisco Franco. The Communists were the Republicans of the democratically elected Government, and were led by various people over the course of the war. It was a complex war which cannot be covered in detail here but certain important aspects can be mentioned.

Firstly, the Spanish Civil War was seen as a testing ground for World War II. There was supposedly an embargo on any country supplying resources to either side or getting directly involved in the fighting but, while this was enforced regarding most supplies to the Republicans, little was done to prevent help getting to Franco’s forces. The main aid to the Fascists came from Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany, their men, weapons and tactics giving a decisive advantage which swung the war towards the Nationalists. Hitler in particular was impressed by what his troops had achieved, gaining confidence in the Wehrmacht’s (the German Army’s) potential as well as noting the reluctance of Britain and France to act, an sign of their commitment to appeasement in the 1930s. The most famous action by German forces came with the horrendous destruction of the symbolically important town of Guernica in the Basque region. The terrible deaths inspired one of the most famous works of art of the century, ‘Guernica’ by Pablo Picasso.

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‘Guernica’ by Pablo Picasso (1937). When asked by a German officer in Paris, in a disparaging tone, “Did you do this?”, Picasso replied, “No. You did.” The officer walked out.

(Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Secondly, Capa was not alone as a foreigner drawn to Spain at this time. Thousands of people from around the world, but especially from Europe, made the long trek to support either the Fascists or the Republicans in what was seen as a struggle not just for a country but for something more. The Spanish Civil War was a fight over the future direction of humanity, a struggle between traditional forces of monarchy, money and faith, against a rising tide seeking equality, justice and opportunity for all. The Right and the Left would clash horribly over the coming years, tearing apart families, destroying great cities, and spilling blood across the plains and mountains of Spain. Many famous people would be among those who volunteered to fight. Those from the Left Wing who joined the ‘International Brigades’ on the side of the Communists draw most attention today. Just a few of the famous foreigners associated with the ‘International Brigades’ included: Ernest Hemingway (author), George Orwell (author), Martha Gellhorn (journalist), Paul Robeson (actor), Willy Brandt (future leader of Germany), Laurie Lee (author), Jack Jones (British Trade Union leader), Simone Weil (philosopher and Christian mystic), Andre Marty (French political activist) and many others, from the USSR in particular. Hemingway’s ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ and Orwell’s ‘Homage to Catalonia’ are among the most famous books to come out of the Spanish Civil War. Robert Capa would be among this group.

Thirdly, Robert Capa was an eloquent witness to this war which had such important echoes down the rest of the century. His images from this extraordinary struggle bore testament to the willingness of ordinary people to fight for what they believed in, inspiring many rebels and revolutionaries around the world. The repercussions of the Spanish Civil War went well beyond the day of the Fascist victory and the ceasefire of 1939. Spain did not get directly involved in World War II due to the damage and suffering of the Civil War. The failures of Britain and France to act, as the leaders of the League of Nations, weakened their credibility on the world stage and strengthened Hitler enormously. For the Nazis, Spain had provided a real testing ground for their technology and tactics which would later be used to such effect in the early years of World War II. The failure of the Communist forces, so heavily backed by Stalin and the USSR, bred a fear and anxiety in Moscow which would lead to the infamous Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939. Generalissimo Franco remained in power as the much loved and totally hated ‘Benign Dictator’ until his death in 1975. He left a divided country where hatred and tension is only now being openly addressed and overcome.

Robert Capa spent much of the three years of the civil war in Spain itself, working as part of the Republican cause against Franco. Much of his material was lost and it was feared it had been destroyed but thousands of negatives eventually turned up in Mexico City in the 1990s. The collection is today known as ‘The Mexican Suitcase’ and much of the material can be viewed online. His work included one of the most famous and controversial photos of the century, ‘The Falling Soldier’. Debate as to its authenticity continues to this day, many seeing it as a remarkable image of the heroism and futility of war, while others believe it was simply a set-up. The sense of it being ‘staged’ is strong but what cannot be denied is the impact so many of Capa’s images had on people around the world.

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‘The Falling Soldier’, allegedly Federico Borrell, 5th September 1936. Probably the most famous and controversial photo ever taken by Robert Capa.

(Author: Robert Capa; Source: here)

His willingness to travel anywhere within the Republican zones, from Andalucía and Murcia in the south, to Madrid and Toledo in the centre, and to Barcelona and Bilbao in the north, meant he was always able to get closer to the action than just about anyone else. And he was always willing to go that little bit further than anyone else, capturing emotions that were then released into the lives of millions of readers around the world. His pictures from Bilbao just a few days after the notorious bombing of nearby Guernica by Hitler’s Condor Legion in April 1937 were especially powerful examples of the true cost of war.

Robert Capa’s legend was born in Spain. His courage, humour and skill were extraordinary, winning him many friends and admirers. His love of the high life was fostered, too, and he socialised with Ernest Hemingway amongst others. But the war brought tragedy into Capa’s own life, though, as he suffered the loss of his partner, Gerda Taro, herself a remarkable photographer, who was crushed to death by a tank during the Battle of Brunete near Madrid in late July 1937. Capa’s reputation as a great photographer was established during the Spanish Civil War. It brought him fame and celebrity status but these did nothing to stop his work, and his photography retained its power to tell stories that mattered and to challenge ideas throughout his life.

In January, 1938, a year or so before the end of the Spanish Civil War, but with Franco’s forces clearly in the ascendancy, Capa left for Asia to cover the troubles between China and Japan. A project had arisen to make a film documenting China’s resistance to Japanese expansion in the region. The main fighting for the Chinese was being led by the Communist forces of Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-Tung), but the project was funded and controlled by the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek, or more specifically, by his domineering and manipulative wife, ‘Madame Chiang’. Capa travelled to China from France in the company of two well-known authors, W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood. Auden was an American poet while Isherwood is famous today, amongst other things, for his memoirs of life in Berlin which were turned into the famous film ‘Cabaret’. The project, called ‘The 400 million’, turned out to be a frustrating disaster but Capa once again captured many remarkable photographs reflecting the horrors of war. By September 1938, Capa was on his way back to Europe, arriving to chronicle the last few months before the Spanish Republican forces were finally defeated by Franco in what many saw as the ‘death of European democracy’.

A résumé of his life from early 1939 hints at more riches waiting to be discovered for those who study his brief life. He left Europe for the USA in 1939 and there he went through a sham marriage so as to stay in the country, as he was technically an ‘illegal immigrant’. He worked briefly for Life magazine in Mexico and the US before travelling to Britain. In 1943, Capa travelled to North Africa with Allied troops to photograph the invasion and, even more dramatically, he accompanied US troops who landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day, 6th June 1944. Most of his photos from that day were destroyed although a number of slightly out of focus images have survived. Capa loved gambling, champagne and the high life in general. He had too many affairs to mention, but three women who fell to his legendary vulnerability and charm were: the actress Ingrid Bergman, who starred alongside Humphrey Bogart in the classic film ‘Casablanca’; Hedy Lamarr, the star of the film, ‘Samson and Delilah’; and Vivien Leigh, wife of Laurence Olivier and the star of ‘Gone with the Wind’ with whom he had one of his many brief times of intimacy. Ingrid Bergman was a particularly significant relationship and she was just one of the many women who wanted to marry Capa but he refused to settle down, or to have anything to do with Hollywood, and so their relationship ended.

 

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Ingrid Bergman (1915-1982)

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Hedy Lamarr (1913-2000)

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Vivien Leigh (1913-1967)

 

In 1947, Capa joined forces with various well-known photographers to create a new photographic agency, ‘Magnum’. He was also involved with the ‘Photo League’, a left-wing agency that wanted to encourage socially aware photographers in their work; in 1947 it was ‘blacklisted’ as subversive and, in the era of the McCarthyite Witch Hunts, it closed down. Capa already knew Pablo Picasso and he photographed him once more during these years and even took images of Matisse at work. Also around this time, Capa joined John Steinbeck, the author of ‘Grapes of Wrath’ and ‘Of Mice and Men’, for a trip to the USSR. Capa’s freedom to photograph what he wanted was severely compromised and the results were disappointing, but he did get to visit Moscow, Stalingrad and Kiev, where he visited the Dynamo Stadium outside which, today, is found the memorial to FC Start (see Chapter 8). After a brief move into fashion photography linked with the work of Coco Chanel, which produced some interesting results but cost a fortune, mainly due to his huge expenses linked with drinking and gambling, Capa covered the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 and also some of the conflicts in French Indo-China in the early 1950s. And in 1952, he managed to join the list of illustrious figures charged with being a Communist sympathiser as part of the McCarthyite Witch Hunts. Few men can have been so intimately linked with the great people, places and events of the middle years of the Twentieth Century. In truth, Capa needed pressure and danger to focus his mind and enable him to produce his best work. He sought out that danger and produced his most famous and important work at the front line in war zones. He really was a ‘war’ photographer.

Robert Capa died on 25th May, 1954, on the Red River delta in Vietnam. He had agreed to cover the conflict between the French and the Vietminh, led by Ho Chi Minh and General Giap, standing in for a colleague. He had arrived as the French faced devastating defeat at Dien Bien Phu. Capa was the first photographer/journalist to die in the conflict which would develop into the Vietnam War. His death at the age of just 40 was a tragedy but one with a horrible logic and predictability about it; as Hemingway said, ‘The percentages caught up with him’. Capa had survived so many near misses over the years that it was clear that his luck would run out at some time.

‘Capa’, you may remember, means ‘shark’. In becoming Capa, Endre Friedmann created a dynamic and creative genius, a flawed character loved by almost all who met him. His short life contained far more adventure, affairs, gambling, stories and champagne than most people could ever dream of having. Hungarian émigré, friend of Hemingway and Picasso, lover of Ingrid Bergman and countless other women, terrible card player, compulsive gambler, heavy drinker, depressive, unreliable, witty, charming, a fixer and a friend. Remember Robert Capa, a man who made taking photos the basis for a truly extraordinary life.

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Robert Capa at work, a photo taken by Gerda Taro.

(Author: Gerda Taro; Source: here)

 

Find out more:

Capa’s photographs can be viewed on-line but various studies of his work are available, such as: ‘This is war: Robert Capa at work’ by Richard Whelan and Christopher Phillips (Steidl, 2007) and ‘Robert Capa: the Definitive Collection’ by Phaidon Press Ltd, 2004). His work also appears in collections such as ‘Magnum Magnum’ by Brigitte Lardinois (Thames and Hudson Ltd, 2009).

Book: ‘Blood and Champagne: The life of Robert Capa’ by Alex Kershaw (Da Capo Press, 2004).

Book: ‘Out of the shadows: A life of Gerda Taro’ by Francois Maspero (Souvenir Press Ltd., 2008).

Photos of Gerda Taro, the work of Capa’s long time partner can best be seen on-line.

 

 

The Olympics: Politics and sport don’t mix apparently.

Berlin, Olympia-Stadion (Luftaufnahme)