The Cold War, part two

The tensions of the Cold War caused governments in the USA and the USSR—and, often but now always, in their respective allies—to view events in the world entirely through the filters of communism vs. capitalism and totalitarian control vs. freedom. Even internally, the two governments responded to their citizens based upon the rhetoric of Cold War opposition.

Since their governments were totalitarian, the USSR and its allies could be expected to shut down opposition. Citizens were watched, jailed, put on trial, imprisoned, and even executed for speaking against the government and its actions. The Soviet Union sent soldiers and military equipment into Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968) to quell opposition and stifle revolutions. The USA warned that it would not tolerate similar interference with the people of Poland when they resisted their government in 1980; still, the Polish armed forces grew suddenly with soldiers who spoke no Polish and wore hastily-made uniforms, using military equipment recently repainted to obscure the identification marks of the USSR.

Communist leanings had been socially acceptable in the United States in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. Those same leanings, or a history of such, were no longer tolerated in the 1950s. Government workers, entertainment figures, and other citizens were questioned by Congress about their sympathies toward Communism. Some lives and careers were unfairly maligned by these hearings, but a few traitors were also detected. Government officials (notably, J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI) continued to suspect Communist influence in mass movements of the 1960s, including Civil Rights demonstrations and anti-war protests. For the most part, though, freedom prevailed in the United States. Progress was made in the area of human rights, and government officials continued to respond to the feelings and opinions of American citizens. An air of mutual suspicion continued, however, and its effects are felt down to the present.

In Europe, the allies of the USA reduced their military capacities, having endured the horrors of two World Wars in the twentieth century. Sheltered under the umbrella of NATO, they trusted the Americans to stand up to the Soviets and prevent a military take-over of western Europe. Reduction in military spending allowed western European governments to experiment with non-Marxist forms of socialism, with varying results. These governments also sought greater economic power in the world by combining their resources. Beginning with the economic alliance of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg (which was named “Benelux”), the alliance gained more members and became the European Common Market. Assets of the Common Market were greatly strengthened when the United Kingdom joined in 1972. These countries were prepared for an even stronger economic union when the Cold War ended and several nations leaving the Warsaw Pact sought a place in the Common Market. This delayed the implementation of Union for a few years.

A major turning point occurred when the government of Egypt seized the Suez Canal in 1956. Britain and France wanted to intervene militarily to keep European control of the Canal, but the United States demurred, seeing an opportunity to gain friends in the so-called “Third World.” As a result, Britain and France became less involved in other events outside of Europe, which is why the Korean War saw an international alliance battle communism in eastern Asia, but the United States was left on its own to battle communism a decade later in Vietnam.

The label “Third World” was coined in the nineteenth century after the colonies of the western hemisphere—the “New World”—became independent. Colonialism continued in Asia, Africa, and the Pacific, and those colonies were called the Third World. During the Cold War, Latin America was added to the perceived Third World, as it became a description of those places where agents of the USA and the USSR openly competed for political control. In Latin America, hostility toward the United States had been growing ever since Napoleon III attempted to establish an empire in Mexico. Occasional military intervention by the United States and major economic control of the region prompted resistance. Communist movements existed in nearly every country of Latin America, where most governments still belonged to caudillos, the wealthy (and generally white-skinned) elite. Fidel Castro led one of the few successful overthrows of an American ally in Latin America during the Cold War, and Cold War tensions involving Cuba brought great trauma to the United States. American foreign policy in the Third World assumed that “the enemy of my friend is my enemy.” Therefore, if a dictator professed allegiance to the United States and its values, the United States supported that dictator against any danger of rebellion.

This same principle was followed in Africa. Following the Second World War, European governments granted independence to their African colonies. The same borders drawn by European governments to establish their colonies were used to designate the borders of the new countries, meaning that many tribes were split among more than one country, and many countries contained portions of tribes who had battled one another for generations. Violence in Africa continued beyond the Cold War and still exists today. But during the Cold War, the United States always responded to violence in Africa in light of professed Cold War loyalties. Even in South Africa, the United States supported a government opposed to civil rights while it spoke about civil rights in Communist countries and even offered increased civil rights to minorities in the USA.

Since the end of the Cold War, democratic governments have been given greater opportunity to arise and thrive in Africa. Tribal rivalries remain a problem, and dictators still tend to seize power over African nations. The biggest tension in Africa today, though, is between Christian and Muslim populations. This difference, fueled by tribal differences, remains a source of conflict among Africans in the twenty-first century.

Still to come: the Cold War in Asia. J.

The Second World War (part two)

The board game Risk was invented in 1957. Had it existed twenty years earlier, Hitler’s generals might have been able to use it to explain to the Fuhrer why his invasion of the Soviet Union was foolish—or, at best, premature. Hitler was no military genius. He and the Nazis rose to power because of blind self-confidence and illogical theories of racial superiority. They lost power and lost the world war for precisely the same reasons.

Totalitarian leaders survive by making citizens fear enemies, whether those enemies exist in the country or outside its borders. The shortcoming of leaders is less visible when the people being led are distracted by a common enemy, or at least by the appearance of an enemy. Hitler pushed himself overboard pursuing that strategy. Enemies within the borders of Germany included, according to Hitler, Jews and communists and gypsies (the Roma people). Enemies outside the borders included the Slavic people to the east, whom Hitler believed would easily be enslaved and forced to serve the interests of Germany. In both cases, he was wrong.

The Holocaust was, in once sense, about race, as Hitler imagined the Germans to represent a superior Aryan race and despised the Jews, Roma, and Slavs as inferior races. For two reasons, though, the Holocaust was not entirely about race. First, most Jews today would agree that Jewishness is neither a race nor a religion, but rather a common culture developed and passed down over many generations. Second, the victims of the Holocaust also included other groups: homosexuals, the mentally and emotionally ill, and political enemies of the Nazis—some of whom were Christian clergy. The Nazis denied civil rights to these groups. Then they imprisoned them in camps. Finally, they sentenced those millions of prisoners to death. Other nations, including the United States, knew about the Holocaust. Articles appeared in the New York Times and other newspapers. Letters were written to President Roosevelt and other leaders. Roosevelt’s answer to those letters was that the Holocaust could only be ended when Germany was defeated in the world war, and that the United States was doing everything possible to achieve that goal.

Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union, combined with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, drew the United States and the United Kingdom into an uneasy alliance with Josef Stalin and the Soviet Union. Stalin was known to be as dangerous a totalitarian despot as Hitler and Mussolini. But, to defeat the combined powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan, the free nations of the world had to fight alongside the Soviet Union. Economic differences were set aside long enough to defeat a common enemy.

The leaders of the Great Powers—Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin—met in Tehran, Iran, at the end of 1943. They met again at Yalta, on the Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea, in February 1945. The third meeting, at Potsdam, Germany, in July 1945, also included Stalin. Roosevelt had died and been replaced by Harry S. Truman; Churchill had lost and election and been replaced by Clement Attlee. These three conferences were dedicated first to cooperation in defeating German and Japan, but second to planning a new world order following that victory. The United Nations would replace the impotent League of Nations. Germany and Japan would be weakened so they could not threaten the world again. Most significant, each government would be responsible for creating and supporting new governments in lands they had captured or liberated. This meant that eastern European countries, including Poland and Hungary and Romania, would have soviet-style governments imposed upon them. Finally, the Soviet Union agreed to enter the war against Japan three months after the fall of Germany. One consequence of the last two points was the eventual division of Korea into North Korea and South Korea.

The battle of Stalingrad was the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany. From August 23, 1942, to February 2, 1943, German forces attacked the Russian city and Soviet forces defended the city. Both sides were committed to total victory. More than two million soldiers died in the conflict—in fact, the Soviet Union lost more soldiers in that one battle than the United States lost in the entire world war. The failure of the German army began a long, slow retreat across Europe that ended with the fall of Berlin in May 1945. Allied forces had taken north Africa, Italy, France, and parts of western Germany by that time. Rather than admit defeat, Hitler committed suicide. His Third Reich, promised to endure a thousand years, fell short by 988 years.

Meanwhile, Japan had instigated the Second World War by its attacks upon China in the 1930s. Japan already had control of Korea and Taiwan; in 1940, it added the French colonies of Indochina (now Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos). The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor near the end of 1941 coincided with invasions of Thailand and of British and Dutch territories in southeast Asia and the south Pacific. While these forays were initially successful, they brought the United States and the United Kingdom into the war against Japan. Naval and air forces from Alaska to Australia began to push back the Japanese Empire. By the summer of 1945, the Allies were prepared to invade the islands of Japan. President Truman authorized the use of newly-developed atomic bombs to shorten the war. This decision saved lives on both sides of the conflict (even compared to lives lost by Japan in the two bombings) and lessened the grasp of the Soviet Union that had just entered the war, already seizing Manchuria in China along with northern Korea. Japan surrendered, and the Second World War was finally at an end. This, of course, set the stage for the Cold War, involving the United States, the Soviet Union, and most other countries in the world. J.

The Second World War, part one

A few historians suggest that the two world wars were, in reality, one war of roughly thirty years, with a treaty separating the earlier hostilities from the final stage of the war. Their model for this suggestion is the Hundred Years War between England and France. That war began in 1337 and extended until 1453, but it consisted of three stages of fighting and two truces—one of roughly ten years and the other of nearly twenty-five years.

Both at the time and in retrospect, one could defend the proposition that the Second World War picked up where the first World War ended. But unlike the Hundred Years War, in which the governments of England and France both remained stable (even as kings died and were replaced), the governments that brought about the Second World War were largely different from those that had fought in the Great War. Hitler and the Nazis had little connection to the Kaiser’s government in Germany or that of the Emperor of Austria. The Italy of Mussolini was far different from Italy of the Great War, an Italy which joined the Allies to battle against Germany and Austria. The Czar of the Soviet Union had been displaced by Stalin and the Communists. Even Japan—which, for the most part, sat out the Great War—was changed. At the height of the Victorian Era, Japan consciously imitated the most successful policies they saw in Europe and North America. During the Great Depression, Japanese leaders saw more hope in imitating (and joining with) Hitler and Mussolini. All these nations embraced totalitarianism, and a totalitarian government needs continual enemies to battle, or the nation’s people will rise up against their government and overthrow it.

Therefore, Italy under Mussolini and the Fascists first invaded their neighbor, Albania, and then set out to colonize Ethiopia. When the League of Nations criticized these actions, Italy quit the League of Nations. Japan provoked an incident in China, using it as an excuse to invade and colonize northeastern China. When the League of Nations criticized these actions, Japan quit the League of Nations. With help from Stalin’s Soviet government, Hitler rebuilt Germany’s armed forces. He expanded German national power by absorbing Austria in the Anschluss, a union which many Austrians welcomed. Hitler then moved to claim a section of Czechoslovakia on the grounds that German-speaking people lived there. The British government was ready to challenge this expansion; instead, negotiators decided to appease Hitler, assuming that giving him what he wanted would keep him quiet. (Try this sort of appeasement with a five-year-old child in the grocery store!) Hitler then concluded that the rest of Czechoslovakia was too weak to survive, so he placed that land under German control as well.

Meanwhile, the League of Nations was also too weak to prevent civil war in Spain. The Spanish government first was overthrown by Communist forces, supported by the Soviet Union, who declared Spain a Republic. But, with help from Germany and Italy, General Franco struck back at the Republic, invading his own country from north Africa. Most other countries, including the United States, remained officially neutral, although some American volunteers did serve in Spain—helping the Communist Republic defend itself against Franco’s Nationalist forces. The war in Spain allowed both sides of the coming World War to test new technology that had not existed in 1918. Franco eventually won the war, and his Fascist government remained in power until his death in 1975.

Where and when did the Second World War begin? European historians point to the division of Poland between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and the incursion of German troops into Poland on September 1, 1939. But, since the war ended with the surrender of Japan, historians increasingly look to the Japanese invasion of China in 1936 to identify the beginning of the war. As Japan sought to increase its power at the expense of China, it changed a set of regional conflicts into a world-wide conflict. Germany’s successes in Europe enabled Japan to seize British and French colonies in eastern Asia. Even though the largest empire in history, counting only dry land, was the Mongolian Empire of Genghis Khan around 1225, if one includes control over ocean regions the Japanese Empire in 1942 was marginally larger than the Mongolian Empire.

Germany’s invasion of Poland caused France and the United Kingdom to declare war. The next year, Denmark and Norway both fell under German control, and the Germans then repeated their effort of 1914 to strike France quickly through the Netherlands and Belgium. This time, German forces made it to Paris. Motorized military vehicles overcame the risk of trench warfare which had happened in 1914. Germany’s Blitzkrieg, or “Lightning War,” seemed effective in overwhelming the opposition. In fact, Blitzkrieg was the only kind of fighting Germany could afford; a protracted bout of fighting would have driven the nation into insolvency and defeat. The United Kingdom managed to survive the Battle of Britain, and if Hitler had been satisfied with his gains in the early stages of the war, the course of history from that time until the present might have been far different.

Two things changed the course of the war. First, Hitler turned against his ally to the east and invaded the Soviet Union. He thought that the Blitzkrieg would work as well in eastern Europe as it had worked in Poland and in France. Hitler also hoped that Japan would invade the Soviet Union from the Pacific, forcing the Russians to fight on two fronts. Japan elected to wait and see before committing itself to battle the Soviets. Instead, six months after Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union, Japanese forces bombed American positions at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Japan hoped to prevent American interference in its Pacific empire. Instead, by bringing both the Soviet Union and the United States into the World War, Germany and Japan guaranteed their eventual defeat. J.

The Great Depression

The label “The Great Depression” applies largely to world-wide economic conditions after the Great War. France and Russia were badly damaged by the war (and both Russia and the Ottoman Empire continued to experience wartime conditions for several years after the Armistice). Germany was economically devastated and was further stifled by required reparation payments to France and Great Britain. Inflation in Germany was so bad after the way that Germany money was—literally—less valuable than the paper on which it was printed. The British Empire also required time to recover from the cost of the war in lives, dire medical conditions, industries that had been converted to wartime production, and disrupted transportation of raw materials and goods around the world.

The United States’ economy was booming from the economic benefits of a world war. Food, cotton, and many other products had been very profitable during the war and immediately after. But in the 1920s, customers did not always exist for American productivity; food and cotton and manufactured supplies began to pile up in warehouses. The problem worsened as European economies recovered from the war. Surpluses grew, prices fell, and jobs began to be cut. Powerful flooding further aggravated agricultural concerns in 1927. The historic Stock Market Crash of October 1929 was merely the final dramatic symptom of a Depression that had already begun. The banks that collapsed due to the stock market crash were already teetering on the edge of failure. In many parts of the country, the stock market crash was not even front-page news.

But economic depression was not the only kind of depression that the world faced in the 1920s. The Great War undercut everything that Europeans and North Americans had been saying about science and technology since the Enlightenment. Victorian optimism about an improving world was crushed by the War. Supposedly the most civilized and educated leaders had caused the war and had failed to stop it once it started. Science and technology had been used to cause and increase suffering. Optimism about solutions to all the world’s problems had been misplaced. Survivors of the Great War lacked the hope and encouragement that their parents and grandparents had invested in the future.

Some elements of this depression began during the Victorian Age. Cameras made naturalistic painting unnecessary, so painters began to experiment in abstract art, such as impressionism.  After the war, further adventures in art were explored, such as expressionism and cubism. All of these reflected, to a degree, rejection of the schools of art that had dominated European culture since the Renaissance. Likewise, in music, the change began during the Victorian Age. Especially in France, which lost a brief war to Germany in 1870, rejection of German music led to a new style of music which was also called impressionism. After the war, more jarring forms of music emerged, discordant and irregular in rhythm. Pessimism and absurdism began to emerge in literature and theater after the war. Writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald described the darker side of life, while other writers went to greater extremes to reflect their depression, turning away from the confident optimism that prevailed from the Enlightenment through the Victorian Age.

Science contributed to the depression. For several generations, it had seemed that science had achieved all its major discoveries; it appeared that science would now simply define its procedures, making knowledge more complete and more reliable with each new generation. Einstein’s theories of relativity changed all that. Suddenly it was seen that Euclid’s geometry and Newton’s physics only apply to the world we move through in our common experience. The rules are not the same at the very large or at the very small. Subatomic particles follow rules that seem to defy everything we thought we know about the real world. In biology, the prevailing theory of evolution presented men and women as nothing more than animals which were a little more successful than other kinds of animals. Now Sigmund Freud added to the recipe for darkness, arguing that strange and mysterious things are happening in our minds beyond the thoughts of which we were already aware.

In all this doubt and uncertainty—but especially in the turmoil of the economic Depression—large numbers of people put their trust in the power and authority of politicians and government to provide answers. Out of this misplaced trust came totalitarian governments—political powers that exercised control over vast portions of citizens’ lives. Modern technology made this kind of control more possible than ever before. Governments began by controlling communication—newspapers, magazines, books, radio broadcasts, and other way people shared thoughts and ideas. The same governments also controlled education. Stalin and the Communist Party gained that kind of power in the Soviet Union, followed by Mussolini and the Fascist Party in Italy, and Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany. In each of these countries, competing political parties were outlawed. Disagreeing with the government was not allowed. A person who spoke a contrary idea might be jailed as a criminal, or might be hospitalized as mentally ill (only released when that person was “cured” and agreed with the government), or might simply disappear. The government announced its economic successes, and no one was in a position to contradict those announcements. Even after the Second World War, an entire generations of historians continued to report that under the Fascists the trains ran on time. Finally, researchers took the trouble to fact-check that claim and to prove it false.

People from the United States visited the Soviet Union. They saw the new factories, they read the government reports, and they met no one who dared to seem unhappy with the new system. Therefore, they returned to the United States saying, “I have seen the future, and it works!” A Communist Party grew in the United States during the Depression, while other citizens advocated other forms of socialism. The Republicans in power seemed unable to help American citizens, especially when a devastating drought struck the central farmlands of the country in 1930 and 1931. Despairing voters turned to Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic Party, hoping that the promises of a New Deal could be kept.

Roosevelt and the Democrats believed that some problems are so big that only the government is big enough to solve them. New Deal programs included several government ages that hired workers—building schools and parks and armories, paving roads, digging ditches, and contributing in other ways to the infrastructure. Artists were hired to paint murals in government buildings, especially post offices. Writers were hired to interview the last surviving former slaves, to record the memories of pioneers, and to pen travelogues of the various states. Women were gathered to sew and to learn how to can fruits and vegetables. Meanwhile, Social Security was created—collecting a tax from workers and their employers to pay other people (mainly the disabled and the elderly) not to work. Farmers were paid not to plant crops. Lands seized for tax default were offered to homeless farm families under generous programs that helped them to reestablish themselves on the land.

Historians debate whether the New Deal ended the Depression or prolonged it. Since the Second World War ended the economic struggle of the Depression (as well as some New Deal programs), a clear conclusion about the value of the New Deal cannot be found. But Roosevelt and the New Deal Democrats did not seek or establish a totalitarian state. They did not outlaw the Republican Party, or even the Communist Party. Instead, Roosevelt spoke in favor of four freedoms: “Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear.” Even while expanding government’s presence and power in the lives of its people, the New Deal continued to focus on freedom for American citizens. J.

Socialism, totalitarianism, and the Cold War

In the aftermath of the Great War (that is, World War I) came the Great Depression. These combined perils caused the citizens of several countries to surrender their individual rights to their governments, hoping in return to obtain economic security, national pride, and protection from hostile forces within and beyond their countries’ borders. In Russia, Lenin’s Bolsheviks became Stalin’s Communist Party. In Italy, the Fascist Party rose under Mussolini; in Germany, the Nazi Party rose under Hitler. All three parties exercised totalitarianism, government control of the population that restricted freedom and human rights, controlled communication, and punished citizens who disagreed with the government’s policies.

Earlier dictators may have wished for totalitarian control of their countries, but twentieth century technology opened avenues to government power that had not previously existed. Governments could exercise total control over the printed word of newspapers, magazines, and books. They could exercise total control over spoken word of radio broadcasts. They could monitor private communication between citizens that used the postal service or the telephone. Rapid communication made control of schools easier than earlier times. Teachers were required to spread government propaganda in their classrooms and to report to the government any dissent represented among their students or noticed in the families of their students.

Stalin’s government was openly socialist—the official name of the country was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Hitler and Mussolini did not advocate socialist economies. Meanwhile, the United States government, led by Roosevelt’s Democratic Party, offered New Deal that increased government participation in the economy but did not directly threaten individual freedoms. Communication and education were not totally controlled by the government. Citizens were not arrested for openly disagreeing with government policies.

The Second World War defeated the Nazis and Fascists without overthrowing Stalin’s Communist Party. The Soviet Union was permitted to set up totalitarian governments and socialist economies in several nations, from Poland and East Germany to North Korea. Shortly thereafter, Mao’s Communist Party won control over most of China, establishing a government that was also totalitarian and socialist. The Cold War had begun. On one side of the Cold War stood totalitarian and socialist governments promising a Communist world when they had prevailed. On the other side stood democratic and capitalist governments promising a free world when they had prevailed. The rhetoric was more stark than the reality. Many allies of the United States maintained dictatorships rather than democracies, and some American allies in Europe experimented with socialist economies.

The “Communist” governments during the Cold War portrayed capitalists as a wealthy and powerful minority who crushed the majority of their fellow citizens, forcing them to work long hard hours for insufficient wages, forcing them to live in substandard housing with little medical care or hygiene, and denying them any real control of the political process that ran their lives. The “Free” governments during the Cold War portrayed communists as radical subversives, trying to overthrow the established order to take control, abolish religion, end all freedom, and enslave the entire world.

Democratic socialism and dictatorial capitalism were quietly ignored. Yet the stereotype of the “godless Communist,” as described by leaders in the “free world,” contained truth despite their exaggerations. During the decades of the Cold War, capitalist nations thrived while socialist nations struggled. As the standard of living rose in capitalist nations, so did individual freedoms. Dictatorships were replaced by democracies. Meanwhile, the totalitarian socialist governments regularly had to crush opposition with military force. People fled totalitarian socialist nations for free capitalist nations, forcing the former to build walls to contain their own people. Even China eventually chose to reestablish a capitalist economy, while remaining under control of a totalitarian government that still identified itself as the Communist Party.

Thirty years since the Cold War ended, its rhetoric and its reality continue to shape politics in the United States and around the world. American families who escaped totalitarian socialist governments in Poland, East Germany, China, Vietnam, and Cuba remain suspicious of politicians who speak well of socialism or who advocate greater government control of the American economy. Freedom, democracy, and capitalism remain linked in the minds of many people. Old pictures of capitalistic oppression, once fostered by the Soviet Union and its allies, are sometimes reiterated in political debate in the twenty-first century. Some American citizens, especially younger people born after the Cold War, sometimes forget why our side prevailed in that conflict. But advocates of socialism are rightly portrayed as isolated, huddling in the cold, bundled to resist reality while they continue to call for an economic system that has never worked.

Although democratic socialism exists as an option, it contains more threats to freedom than capitalism contains. Government control over prices and wages reduces freedom. Government decisions about which products to produce reduces freedom. As silly as it may seem, freedom to choose among dozens of brands of toothpaste or coffee or beer is far better than a single, mass-produced, government-controlled monopoly of toothpaste or coffee or beer. One free pair of shoes given each citizen once a year can never satisfy the human spirit as well as freedom to choose among many kinds of shoes, spending one’s own hard-earned money for the shoes one truly prefers.

The pendulum of politics swings to the left and then to the right. Free elections often reveal massive divisions of philosophy within a national population. True freedom allows both sides to state their case and invites voters to choose between them. Those who gain power cannot maintain their grasp indefinitely; the tighter they cling to power, the more it slips from between their fingers. Reversals happen, but the long course of history shows that freedom prevails over tyranny.  The future of America and of the world is bright, because free people will always work to remain free. J.