Was American Diplomacy Really Tragic?

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Was American Diplomacy Really Tragic?

László Borhi

It is fashionable to lambaste U.S. foreign policy for undesired outcomes in world politics. In the 1990s, many blamed Washington for responding indecisively, sluggishly, even callously to genocide in Rwanda and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. More recently, the administration of George W. Bush has been accused of unilateralism, overassertiveness, and militaristic hubris. It is hardly surprising then, that the U.S. role in the most dangerous conflict in recent history, the Cold War, has been revisited by historians time and again. Some perspectives keep recurring, including ones that lay the primary blame on the United States for having started the Cold War. Proponents of this view contend that the U.S. government's anti-Soviet policies, especially the Marshall Plan, forced the Soviet Union to abandon its previous stance of moderation and cooperation with the West.1 As an unintended consequence of U.S. policy, Josif Stalin pressed ahead with the Communization of Eastern Europe and turned against the West in order to protect vital Soviet interests. As Michael Cox and Caroline Kennedy-Pipe argue, "exactly what the Soviet Union did in Eastern Europe was not predetermined." In their view, "as a result of the Marshall Plan, Stalin moved ahead with the Cominform and rejected any idea that Communist parties in Eastern and Central Europe could or should act independently through individual paths to socialism." Moreover, were it not for the Marshall Plan, "the East-West conflict ... might have been avoided altogether."2 These are bold statements, but alas they are based more on speculation than on hard evidence.

In fleshing out their argument, Cox and Kennedy-Pipe follow in the footsteps of William Appleman Williams, whose paradigmatic Tragedy of American Diplomacy was grounded on liberal and Marxist writings about the connection between capitalism and great-power expansionism.3 Williams attempted [End Page 159] to establish American culpability for the Cold War. The didactic purpose of his book was evident from the title, insofar as tragedy implies that a positive outcome might have been feasible: "the fall of the protagonist and the shaking of the world he inhabits are not regarded as totally threatening to those who survive the agonic test. There has been a gain in consciousness for the spectators of the contest."4 Unlike some of the more radical revisionists who followed, Williams believed that if his concerns were heeded, the United States might not be beyond redemption. He made the United States out as the antagonist of the Cold War in his quest to reform the alleged ills of American capitalism. In the process, however, he (and his followers) creatively manipulated historical evidence to suit the story they wanted to tell.5 In challenging the "old orthodoxies about who started the Cold War and why," Cox and Kennedy-Pipe are skeptical that new evidence proves Soviet culpability for starting the conflict. "In fact," they claim, " ... it was American policies as much as (and perhaps more than) Soviet actions that finally led to the division of Europe and thus the Cold War itself." They reject the thesis that Stalin's rule made the Cold War unavoidable. Central to their argument is the oft- repeated proposition that the Marshall Plan "propelled the Soviet leadership into a more antagonistic and hostile stance, including the establishment of its own economic and political bloc." The Sovietization of Eastern Europe, they believe, came as a response to the allegedly grave challenge posed by the Marshall Plan. The causal relationship between the Marshall Plan and Soviet hostility as manifested in the Bolshevization of Eastern Europe and the consequent division of the continent is the crux of the paper: Stalin allegedly switched his political course after the West cornered him in with the Marshall aid proposal.

This argument has several logical problems. First, if Stalin was able to consolidate his holdings in Eastern Europe with such ease—the East European countries declined participation in the plan at the first hint of Soviet displeasure—why was it necessary to go all the way to complete Stalinization? The answer lies in the dynamic of Soviet policy in Eastern Europe, not Western policies. Cox and Kennedy-Pipe assume, as many before them have, that Cold War politics was driven exclusively (or nearly so) by American foreign policy. This assumption causes them to brush aside or at least discount the significance of the policy of the other side. [End Page 160]

Second, to avoid the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc, it needs to be shown that the Marshall Plan actually caused Soviet leaders to alter their course from cooperation to hostility. Unfortunately, the evidence available so far is insufficient to bear out this claim. Nor is it likely that we will ever find the documents needed for a conclusive case. Historians may search for the evidence but may well turn out to be as disappointed as Mr. Casaubon in George Eliot's novel Middlemarch, who spent his life in search of the key to all mythologies, without, of course, ever finding it.

Third, the argument that American policy induced the Soviet Union to establish Stalinist dictatorships in Eastern Europe rests, at least implicitly, on the claim that there was a paradigmatic shift in Soviet foreign policy after Moscow rejected the Marshall Plan. This point remains to be demonstrated. Cox and Kennedy-Pipe offer only a brief survey of Soviet policy in Eastern Europe before and after 1947 and make no effort to draw on archives that are now open for research in Hungary, Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and the former East Germany. Several important volumes of Soviet documents on the topic have been published over the past decade, but not a single document from these volumes is mentioned in the article. The use of secondary literature is somewhat selective. Karel Kaplan's book on the establishment of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia is cited, but without any indication that Kaplan regarded the Sovietization of Czechoslovakia as predetermined. Krystyna Kersten reached a similar conclusion in her voluminous book that draws extensively on declassified Polish records.6 The same is true of at least some of the articles that the authors have actually consulted. Of course these works need not be taken at face value, but the evidence they present may help clarify issues.

Contrary to Cox's and Kennedy-Pipe's stylized account, there was in fact no change of paradigm in Stalin's foreign policy. The policy was guided by a single motive: to establish full and unconditional control of Eastern Europe even at the cost of having to break with the West. In March 1946, when an American démarche7 linked Soviet participation in world economic organizations to Moscow's willingness to consult with the Western allies about the revival of the Hungarian economy (which at the time was suffering from the worst inflation in history), the Soviet government flatly rejected the offer. The claim that the United States failed to recognize any measure of Soviet security [End Page 161] interests in Eastern Europe is hard to sustain. Eduard Mark has shown that the United States wanted (but had no chance of getting) an economically open sphere.8 Marc Trachtenberg has demonstrated that the U.S. government, albeit with some vacillation, had surrendered Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union as far back as 1945—the way to get along was to pull apart.9 Arthur Schoenfeld, who like many in the U.S. establishment was deeply skeptical of the capacity of East Europeans to build democracy, counseled against any assistance to Hungary in 1946 and turned down requests for U.S. support of democratic forces.10 The policies adopted in 1948 to "roll back" Communism did not apply in 1945. Like the Americans, the Soviet Union also wanted to pull apart. Even if one disregards the Soviet encroachments on Turkey and Iran, which were bound to alienate the West, the published text of the telegram from Soviet Ambassador Nikolai Novikov indicates that by 1946 the United States was regarded as an enemy—an enemy that was preparing for war "against the Soviet Union." Although Novikov did not set a precise date for the war, it is hard to see what kind of cooperation could have emerged from such a dark vision of one's "partner." Moreover, the telegram emphasized the Soviet economy's ability to function without the capitalist countries, a clear indication of a preference for autarky within the Soviet bloc. Soviet economic policy in Eastern Europe encompassed a Soviet state holding company, Gusimz, which was building a palpable (not informal) economic empire. The East European states were economically subordinated to the USSR from 1945 on.

Based on new archival evidence, Eduard Mark has recently argued that Stalin had a "highly developed political strategy for liberated countries throughout Europe," the objective of which was "the creeping establishment of Communist-dominated regimes directly subject to Moscow lest the USSR be drawn into premature conflict with its allies and forfeit the advantages ofassociation with them. Stalin wanted communist revolution in Europe andcontinued cooperation with the allies."11 This interpretation is cogent onboth points. True, it would have been possible to maintain cooperation with Stalin—but only if the Western governments had been ready to defer [End Page 162] to him on all points. Cooperation on these terms would have been possible even with Adolf Hitler. But we should hardly blame Winston Churchill fornot pursuing this option. From the perspective of Eastern Europe, U.S. policy can be criticized not because it was too aggressive but because it applied a double standard for the two halves of Europe. Mark's point on the creeping establishment of Communism also seems valid. My own research12 on theSovietization of Hungary reveals that initial moderation by the Hungarian Communist Party was in line with Stalin's tactic. The introduction of a Soviet-style system was the aim from the outset, and only the timing and modality were left open to suit Soviet needs and domestic conditions. Whatmakes the Hungarian case interesting from the viewpoint of Cox's and Kennedy-Pipe's article is that Hungary and Czechoslovakia were the two countries in which the democratic option was thought to have survived the longest.

Hungary was a closed sphere from the beginning. The Soviet Army carried off 600,000 people to Soviet forced-labor camps, committed atrocities against the population (including random killings and rape), looted art treasures and factories, and pillaged the countryside without foreign interference. Hungarian airspace was under Soviet military control, and the Hungarian authorities were unable even to grant landing rights to U.S. or other foreign airlines. The Soviet Union was in full charge of the movement of people into and out of Hungary. Without Soviet permission, Hungarians could not leave the country, and foreigners could not enter. Restrictions on the Hungarians can be explained by the limitation of sovereignty imposed by the armistice agreement. But the same cannot be said about the restriction of the movement of American and British officials from the Allied Control Commission (ACC) or the limits imposed on trade delegations that wished to enter the country. More often than not, requests to enter Hungary were rejected. Hungarians were not allowed to pass information to the Western members of the ACC.13 In fact the president of the Hungarian National Bank was removed because he tried to inform the British and Americans about Hungary's economic situation. It is worth remembering that the armistice agreement gave full control of the ACC to the Soviet chairman, who acted as a conveyor belt for Stalin's wishes.

There is no space to go into details about Soviet penetration of Hungary prior to the Marshall Plan. Therefore I will address only one central point: Sovietization. [End Page 163]

As Communist Party leader Mátyás Rákosi remembered, "Stalin warned us that mention of the dictatorship of the proletariat before the time was right would play into the hands of the enemy."14 Rákosi's second in command, Ernó Geró was told by Stalin not "to be grudging with words. But once you gain ground, you should move ahead and use as many people as possible who could be of service to us."15 In November 1944 the Muscovite party ideologist, József Révai, explained to impatient Hungarian veterans of Communism that Soviet interests and domestic conditions did not allow mention of the dictatorship of the proletariat "yet."16 Soon the time came to get rid of the undesirable elements of the provisional government put together in Moscow. Rákosi's words were reminiscent of Stalin's instructions to the Chinese Communists about their Nationalist allies in 1927: "they have to be used as much as possible, squeezed like a lemon, and then thrown away."17 "Hungarian democracy cannot be satisfied with the situation of four months ago, when we had to justify to the world that the government was not Communist." Rákosi explained in April 1945 that "the people we needed can be gotten rid of later on."18 Gradualism was the right tactic. According to Rákosi, the workers' committees were too radical and failed to see that Moscow "did not want to set out on the road to socialism immediately." But the party planned to emphasize the committees "when the situation is right and we can go one step further. At that point these committees will be able to provide enormous help."19

They did not have to wait for long. First the effects of the democratic national election of November 1945 were all but nullified when Rákosi, at Stalin's behest, forced the winning Smallholders party to cede the Ministry of the Interior to the Hungarian Communist Party (HCP). In March 1946 Stalin disclosed to Rákosi that the establishment of a new Communist international [End Page 164] was being considered. Local Communist parties got a free hand "to liberate the proletariat." Rákosi explained to the HCP political committee:

Whenever a country achieves the conditions for the liberation of the proletariat or for socialism, this will be carried out with no regard for whether the respective country is in a capitalist environment.... This is fresh encouragement for all Communist parties. Their own work will determine whether the conditions for the liberation of the proletariat are created in their own country.20

Stalin's position on this matter was taking firm shape more than a year before the Marshall Plan was announced .

By the time the first Congress of the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform) was convened in September 1947, the Hungarian opposition had been driven into a state of complete disarray. The national election of August 1947 had essentially been nullified, and the opposition suppressed. It is noteworthy that although the Communists had decided to carve up the political opposition in 1946, this process gained momentum in February 1947 with the arrest of the Smallholder secretary general, Béla Kovács, and the forced resignation of Prime Minister Ferenc Nagy on 31 May 1947 (only four days prior to the arrest of Nikola Petkov in Bulgaria). After Nagy was removed, a puppet government took power under Lajos Dinnyés. He refused to seek a vote on the Marshall Plan when it was discussed at a Cabinet meeting. Instead, a "debate" of thirty minutes—actually, just a reading of the Soviet note indicating Stalin's position—was followed by the summary rejection of the Plan. It is worth noting that Vyacheslav Molotov had ruled out the participation of Hungary and the other former German satellites from the outset.21 The creeping Communization of Hungary as of early 1947 can be linked to the signing of the peace treaties for the former East European satellites in February of that year. The Soviet Union had its way on all major issues, including regional boundary questions. Most importantly, a British proposal allowed the Soviet Union to retain its military forces in Romania and Hungary even after the peace treaty went into effect. Thus all external constraints on the policy of Sovietization were lifted. This may in part explain Stalin's upbeat mood in early 1947.

A relatively little known aspect of Soviet policy is the economic penetration [End Page 165] of Eastern Europe.22 In Hungary an organ called the Supreme Economic Council was established in 1945 at Stalin's instruction and was put under Communist control. This body, and not the government or parliament, determined the country's economic policy, including far-reaching measure of economic centralization. In 1945 the Potsdam Declaration enabled the USSR to seize former German assets in the former satellite states under Soviet occupation, without putting any constraint on the Soviet interpretation of "German" assets. This provision, plus an economic agreement signed in August 1945, enabled the Soviet occupation forces to seize and control the major part of Hungary's mining industry and also to gain access to much of the country's raw material base, including bauxite, coal, manganese, and oil. The Gusimz empire in Hungary removed the economic pillar of Hungarian sovereignty and effectively transferred the country into a Soviet client state by 1947. With the economy and all organs of power—the police, the state security forces, the army, military intelligence, and a majority of local administrations—under Soviet or Communist control, the Soviet Union had unchallenged sway in Hungary by 1947. The country had progressed far along the road of Sovietization, which was accomplished once and for all in 1949. The Sovietization of Hungary was not a radical departure from pre-Marshall Plan policies; on the contrary, it was their logical culmination.

Unquestionably, the Western governments extended the Marshall Plan to Eastern Europe with an arrière-pensée. But if luring the East Europeans away was in the back of their minds, it shows only how little Western policymakers knew about the realities of life behind the Iron Curtain. The Marshall Plan came too late, for Soviet control of Eastern Europe was much too firm. Weaknesses notwithstanding, the Soviet Union controlled most of the Eurasian landmass and had the largest land army in the world, much of which was stationed in Soviet-occupied Europe. It is no doubt true that Stalin rejected the Marshall Plan for fear of Western influence in his domain. But it is likely that he had already made up his mind about the fate of East-Central Europe.

E. H. Carr noted that accidents are caused by reckless driving and not by the otherwise deplorable habit of smoking. Similarly, great powers expand not in response to foreign aid programs but because they have ambitions of power, ideological missions to fulfill, or both. Such was the case with the Soviet Union in East-Central Europe. I am not seeking to defend an American policy that failed to live up to its own ideals. Washington knew what it wanted in Eastern Europe—an economically open sphere with Soviet control [End Page 166] that would fall short of Communization. But the United States lacked the will or perhaps the knowledge of how to get there. The claim that the United States was responsible for Stalin's belligerence ignores much of the evidence, is logically problematic, and fails to take into account that Stalin had been on an expansionist trajectory since 1939. There is no final word on the origins of the Cold War, but to understand it better we need to concentrate more on the Soviet and East European side of the story. Perhaps it might be prudent to put the ghosts of the traditionalist-revisionist debate to rest.

László Borhi is a senior research fellow at the Institute of History, Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

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