the abrupt start of the cold war -- 2/7/22

Today's selection -- from Inside Money by Zachary Karabell. In 1946, the State Department’s George Kennan penned a memo casting the Soviet Union in a highly unfavorable light and setting the United States on a path to the adversarial policies of the Cold War:
"In February 1946, as Western Europe and Central Europe grap­pled with a winter of deprivation, George Kennan consolidated into one document his assessment of the Soviet Union. Rarely has policy been so clearly defined and articulated, and rarely has one document so shaped the future trajectory of a country and by extension the world. We will never know what U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union would have been had Ken­nan not penned his ‘long telegram.’ We do know that after it was sent and circulated in official Washington, there would be no live-and-let-live be­tween the Soviet Union and the United States. The arc of the Cold War as a contest for global dominance was largely set.
Kennan depicted the Soviet Union as a unique, and malevolent, force.

"Unlike great power rivalries of the past, the standoff between the Soviets and the states of the West was not amenable to traditional statecraft or set­tled spheres of influence. In Kennan's ominous words, 'We have here a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with the US there can be no permanent modus vivendi, that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken, If Soviet power is to be secure.’ While Kennan acknowledged that the Soviets were far weaker militarily and economically than the United States, that was bound to change. That made it urgent for the United States to take advantage of its position of strength, to educate the American public about the nature of the menace, and to design a strategy to confront it. A vital component would be to maintain and increase the vitality of the domestic American economy and that of its allies in Europe and Asia and beyond. 'Much depends on health and vigor of our own society,' Kennan concluded. 'World communism is like malignant parasite which feeds only on diseased tissue.' 

"Kennan's telegram was a match in a dry forest. While its contents were classified, it was widely read within the government, in part because of the assiduous efforts of Harriman and Forrestal to make sure it had the in­tended effect. Only weeks later, Winston Churchill, on a speaking tour of the United States after his ousting as British prime minister, stood on a po­dium in a high school gymnasium in Fulton, Missouri, flanked by Presi­dent Truman, and announced darkly that '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 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 all are subject, in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow.' Truman had already digested Kennan's telegram. Churchill gave the ideas added eloquence, and public airing. Churchill may have in­tended his words to force a recognition that the world was now divided into separate economic and ideological spheres; they were taken as a call to arms to roll back Soviet power before it was too late.

"Looking back, it is hard not to be struck by how quickly and almost without debate the United States shifted from viewing the Soviets as a com­plicated ally to an unequivocal adversary that posed an existential threat to the American way of life. Yes, there were voices of dissent, most notably from Henry Wallace, who objected to the onward rush toward confrontation wand was promptly ejected from the Truman administration. On the whole, an entire phalanx of American political and business elites -- Lovett and Harriman key among them -- accepted that Soviet communism was a new challenge that required as much effort in its way as the war that had just been fought. This time, however, the contest would be as much economic and ideological as military.

"How to explain this rush into a new conflict? The sense that Western Europe and parts of Asia were teetering on the verge of economic collapse was part of it. It was not unreasonable to look back at what had happened in the 1930s and draw the conclusion that economic chaos was a breeding ground for extreme ideologies. Everywhere in Europe in 1946, communist parties were surging. While the United States had a brief red scare at the end of World War I, communism had never become a serious domestic force, which meant that it was seen as an alien ideology. All of these factors generated a sense of urgency bordering on paranoia." 



Zachary Karabell


Inside Money


Penguin Press


Copyright 2021 by Zachary Karabell


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