The Early Cold War, 1917 - 1939

(paper delivered at the 5th annual Great War Society seminar,

Bethesda Marriott Hotel, USA, 29 Sept. - 1 Oct. 1995)

by Michael Jabara Carley©



The conference this year is entitled "In pursuit of peace" and this session is about peacemaking; but let me say at the outset that my paper is about war and cold war. In fact, I cannot think of a better place than the Great War Society annual conference to share with you my ideas about the beginning of the Cold War.

        You will probably be thinking that I am a little confused since the cold war started after World War II, not after World War I. But my partner R. K. Debo and I don't agree and neither did American historian F. L. Schuman, who proposed the idea more than thirty years ago. His view attracted little or no attention, which is not surprising since so much historiography would have to be revised. No doubt like Don Quixote, I have taken up the idea to see if I can find a little legitimacy for it, and here is what I propose: that the cold war began as the First World War drew to a close, and that it contributed in an important way to the origins of the Second World War, and not the other way 'round.

        Last spring the internet discussion group, H-Diplo, was the venue of a long exchange on the cold war. It is true, more about the end of it, than its beginning. But during the course of these interesting exchanges, definitions of the cold war were discussed. I will not go into all of them, but here are a few: 1.) a bipolar conflict, 2.) between the United States and the Soviet Union, 3.) between super powers, 4.) armed with nuclear weapons, and 5.) where the degree of antagonism between the two countries caused normal diplomatic channels to cease to function.

        I followed the daily exchanges, and I thought to myself that the most important definition of cold war was missing. "And what is that?" you might ask. I would propose that it is the ideological animosity of the two conflicting parties. Bolshevism to start with, communism as it became known, vs. capitalism. Their way against ours. Collectivism vs. individualism. And so on. I proposed this old idea on the internet, and it did not provoke much reaction: a little cold war disdain from the American far right, and surprise from an open-minded, Canadian graduate student, who thought my idea was "radical stuff". I don't know why he thought it was radical stuff, by the way; it seems rather mundane and obvious to me.

        Of course, Cold War is used as a proper name for the Soviet-American rivalry after the Second World War. But what about cold war as a generic title, meaning the bipolar, largely ideologically driven struggle between Soviet communism and western capitalism. And when I say bipolar, I do not mean Soviet Russia vs. the United States. In 1918 the United States was only one of many enemies of the Soviet state, and not the most important either. Great Britain, France, Japan, for example, also wanted to down the Bolshies. In fact, during the inter-war years Great Britain and France were the main antagonists of the USSR; the United States had a secondary role.

        After the Bolsheviks seized power in November 1917, the Soviet government nationalized private property and land, and repudiated billions in foreign debts contracted by the tsars. The Bolsheviks withdrew from the Great War, condemning it as a bloody imperialist conflict in which the working classes were pawns and cannon fodder. This was a dangerous line to take during the fourth year of a seemingly endless and bloody conflict in which soldiers died by the hundred thousand.

        The Allied powers were dismayed and appalled by the Bolshevik revolution, and for a brief period in early 1918, debated how to respond. It did not take long for them to make up their minds. One British general said that "if we let the land be handed over to the peasantry in Russia, they will be doing the same thing in England in two years" (General Sir Alfred Knox, August 1917). The American Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, directed his ambassador in Russia not to have any formal, direct communications with the Soviet government. My word!, he thought, any sign of diplomatic recognition of the Bolshevik regime would only encourage their sympathizers outside of Russia (December 1917).

        The British war cabinet hotly debated the issue. Bolshevism was a menace to civilization. We should take care, said one Cabinet minister, because Bolshevism could be "catching" (Robert Cecil, February 1918). David Lloyd George, the Liberal prime minister, agreed but thought that maybe the British government should help the Bolsheviks to fight the Germans. Some soldiers in France - no less than Foch and Georges - considered the same idea. It made sense because the anti-Bolshevik factions were mostly weak, dissolute, and pro-German. On the other hand, the Bolsheviks seemed to want to fight the Germans. Lloyd George was one of the first "realists" or pragmatists, who was ready to overlook Bolshevik revolutionary ideas in order to achieve important purposes of state. Incidently, Sir Robert Vansittart, the permanent under-secretary of state in the British Foreign Office, coined the term "realist" in the 1930s, when he stood for Anglo-Soviet cooperation against Nazism. Lloyd George, was the most powerful early "realist". But even he could not overcome the anti-Bolshevik Ideologues, who wanted to snuff out Bolshevism before it could spread.

        "Any attempt of the Germans to interfere in Russia," said Lloyd George, "would be like an attempt to burgle a plague-house." This was a common western metaphor for Bolshevism, it was a contagious disease, a plague, a virus, a bacillus which threatened world socialist revolution and the laying low of capitalism and the abolition of property and individual freedom. That is why the Allied idea of helping the Bolsheviks to fight the Germans in the spring of 1918 did not go very far. Early forms of disinformation were used to accuse the Bolsheviks of being German agents. One American in Russia, Raymond Robins, said that if the Germans bought the Bolsheviks, they bought a lemon. In fact, he was talking about L. D. Trotskii, who became Soviet commissar for war in March 1918. He is "a four kind son of bitch", said Robins, but the "greatest Jew since [Jesus] Christ", and a potentially formidable adversary of Germany. Reasoning of this kind fell on barren ground. Trotsky was organizing an army for social revolution, and the Allies dared not help him. "This is out of the question," said Lansing, because Bolshevism was a greater danger to the United States than Germany (February 1918).

        In the end, the Allies decided to burgle the plague house themselves. They intervened in Russia to overthrow Soviet authority, but they promoted it as re-establishing an Eastern Front in Russia to fight Germany. This was only good public relations. Not even Woodrow Wilson, the American president, believed it. But the P.R. would avoid arousing opposition on the Left.

        The British government sent armed forces to the four corners of Russia to overthrow Soviet authority. From the Baltic Sea and northern Russia, to the Caucasus and Turkestan, to Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean, British army and naval units supported the enemies of the Soviet state. The British government eventually sent guns, stores, and munitions, costing £100 millions and sufficient to supply large anti-Bolshevik armies. The American government sent troops to northern Russia and to Siberia. Even the French, who had few troops to spare from the western front, sent small contingents to northern Russia and to Siberia. The Japanese sent the largest forces to Siberia. Allied troops were small in number, but then the Allies thought the Soviet was on the brink of collapse. A little nudge would send the Bolsheviks over the brink - and into hell.

        It did not quite work out that way. Commissar for war, Trotskii, had succeeded in building up a Red Army, which went over to the offensive in August 1918, and began to drive back the enemy. Quite unexpectedly, the Soviet survived and was building up its strength, and this frightened the Allies all the more.

        Allied military efforts against the Soviet increased at the end of the World War. Anti-Bolshevik Paul Reveres went on rides in all the Allied states warning of the spread of red revolution. With the war won and the Boches out of the way, the Allies could finish off the Bolshies. The French and the British governments considered sending 20 French, British, and Roumanian divisions to southern Russia. Fear of social revolution spurred them on. Woodrow Wilson told his cabinet that he was worried about the spread of revolution. "The spirit of the Bolsheviki," he said, "is lurking everywhere" (October 1918). It is "the most hideous and monstrous thing that the human mind has ever conceived", a "monster which seeks to devour civilized society and reduces mankind to the state of beasts" (Robert Lansing, October 1918).

        The French government said: "The Bolshevik problem has ceased to be purely a Russian question; it is now an international question." "All the civilized countries" shd unite to oppose this "anarchic contagion which should be fought in the same way as an epidemic" (Stéphane Pichon, French foreign minister, November 1918). Snuff out the Bolshevik revolution before it spreads.

        The mind was willing, but the body was not. The troops would not march. After more than four years of slaughter, the common soldier had had enough. Neither the British Tommy nor the French poilu wanted go to Russia.

        "To Hell with this," they said. "What the devil have we got against the Bolsheviks!" Hey, if the toffs in London and Paris want to fight the Bolsheviks, let them go themselves. But not us! We've had enough. "Vive les Bolcheviks!", said the French poilu. "Hands off Russia," said the British left (January-February 1919).

        The French government did not listen; it assumed that the poilu, like Napoleon's grognards, would fight anyway. But the French government was wrong. At the end of 1918 France sent armed forces to southern Russia, but they mutinied. In April 1919, French sailors raised the red flag on the battleships France and Jean Bart of the Black Sea fleet. This was enough for Paris, and the French hastily withdrew. One French general called it "the complete failure of a ridiculous adventure" (Philippe Henri d'Anselme, April 1919).

        But defeat in southern Russia did not induce the French to abandon their hostility to Soviet Russia. On the contrary, they devised a new policy which came to be known as the cordon sanitaire, a barricade of barbed wire and bayonets from the Baltic to the Black Seas. It was the first policy of containment, more than 25 years before the Americans thought up their own. Bolshevism was still catching. A Red government had established itself in Hungary. There was unrest nearly everywhere in Europe, as soldiers came home grumbling about those who had put them through it, and expecting and demanding more out of life than the war's miseries and terror.

        In March 1919, the Soviet government set up the Communist International, or Comintern, to spread the cause of world revolution. The Bolsheviks acted as much from self-defence, as out of principle. They were blockaded and surrounded on all sides in an increasingly bloody and ruthless civil war. Communist propaganda was the only way to take the war against the Allies outside the frontiers of Russia, and to hit them back. The propaganda was dangerous, and the cordon sanitaire was intended to stop its leaking into the west. Poland, Rumania, Czechoslovakia were to be built up to block any Red expansion to the west; and the revolution in Hungary was snuffed out with Rumanian bayonets.

        The civil war in Russia, which the Allies had supported and encouraged, appeared to have been resolved by the end of 1919, when the Red Army emerged victorious. Anti-Bolshevik forces were routed and reduced to debris streaming towards exile.

        But it was not over yet. A Polish state had reemerged at the end of the war. The Polish government was dominated by visions of restoration to great power status in its 18th century frontiers, reaching far into the Russian borderlands to the city of Kiev in the Ukraine. In early 1920 the Poles sent secret envoys to Paris and hinted to the French minister in Warsaw that they wanted to launch a springtime offensive. The French minister thought the Poles had gone quite mad, and called them "megalomaniacs", but in Paris the dream of eradicating the red plague was still enticing. The French government acquiesced, sending powder and shell to Poland to support the offensive. They had already armed and supplied much of the Polish army. The French had to conceal their enthusiasm for the Polish offensive because in London, the prime minister, Lloyd George, thought it was folly. The Poles, he said, should take care they don't get their heads punched. The Poles would have been wise to listen to Lloyd George. Instead, they launched a major offensive in April 1920, and they seized Kiev in May.

        The Red Army recovered and launched a counter-offensive which took it to the outskirts of Warsaw in August 1920. The triumph of revolution seemed near, but the Red Army's lines of supply and communication were over-extended. The Poles launched their own counter-offensive which came to be known as the "Miracle on the Vistula." "Miracle" is the right word: it reminds me of Wellington's comment about the battle of Waterloo. "It was the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life."

        The last faint hopes of the west in the extinction of Bolshevism guttered out in March 1921 with the defeat of the Kronstadt rebellion of dissident Red soldiers and sailors. Against long odds, the Bolsheviks won the merciless, destructive civil war. The Bolsheviks had won... but really they had lost, for Russia was in ruins. The Russian economy barely functioned. War, Allied blockade, civil war had reduced industrial production to something like 10% of pre-war levels - and Russia in 1914 was still a largely agricultural economy.

        In a malicious twist of fate, the Bolsheviks had to turn to the capitalist west for trade, credits, and technical expertise to rebuild. Above all, the Soviet government needed to borrow. Soviet leader V. I. Lenin swallowed his pride and enjoined his comrades to do the same. Go west, he said, not as communists, but as merchants. It may surprise you, but the Bolsheviks were good businessmen, and "credit [wa]s Russia's God!" So said F. H. Nixon, Export Credits Guarantee Department, London, December 1931. The Bolsheviks quickly gained a reputation for driving a hard bargain, as any good merchant should do. The Soviet government enticed scoundrels first, and then progressively more respectable business people and companies to trade with the USSR. The Bolsheviks scrupulously respected their contracts, and they tempted the west with profitable business. They taunted those who held back, with sounds of jingling gold in competitors' pockets. This strategy divided the west between new merchants and old investors, and it divided the former Allies, all of whom wanted to trade in the potentially profitable Russian market.

        But western-Soviet trade was not easy. The Soviet government had annulled the Russian state debt and nationalized private property. Western industrialists and investors had, as I said, lost billions! When the Soviet said it wanted to trade and needed credit to do so; western bankers responded, "nothing doing, until you've paid up". Who could blame them? Western punishment against the Soviet was to deny it credit for foreign trade, or to make such credit expensive to acquire. Up to the end of the 1920s there was a tacit, if slightly leaky credit blockade against the USSR which the Soviet government worked tenaciously and cunningly to breakdown.

        On the whole, Soviet foreign policy was skilful and multi-faceted, and it took place on two planes: political and economic. It was directed at Germany, the United States, Great Britain, France, Italy, Spain, and virtually all independent states everywhere. Indeed, no country was too small to draw Soviet wooing and attention. Beyond trade, the Soviet government sought diplomatic recognition to enhance the terms and conditions of trade, but also to improve political relations with the west. The Soviet government feared - and not without reason - the formation of a western anti-communist block against it. Trade and better political relations would prevent this danger.

        Soviet diplomacy ran into difficulties, although it succeeded in establishing diplomatic relations with Great Britain, Italy, France, and Japan, but not with the United States. The Comintern still pursued the objective of world revolution even though the chances of it had slipped away as Europe returned to normal after the war. And the Soviet government could not then control the Comintern as it did under the iron dictatorship of Stalin. So Bolshevik revolutionaries interfered with the work of Bolshevik businessmen. Historians have traditionally called this the dual policy. Naturally, western governments took a dim view of Comintern propaganda, and disbelieved claims from the commissariat for foreign affairs, the Narkomindel, that the Comintern was independent of Soviet government control.

        The Narkomindel and the commissariat for foreign trade were the bastions of Soviet realpolitik. Chicherin, foreign commissar, Litvinov, his deputy, and Krasin, commissar for foreign trade and itinerant Soviet diplomat, were the strongest proponents of business-like relations with the west.

        The West had a dual policy also, though one hears less about it. Anti-Bolshevik Ideologues, fearing communist propaganda and subversion, rejected any notion of accommodation with Soviet Russia, trade or otherwise. The Ideologues held the upper hand over Realists, who said that trade and national security should not be affected by judgements about Soviet communism. The debate between Realist and Ideologue continued throughout the inter-war years: in the 1920s it pivoted largely on the question of trade; in the 1930s, on the question of who was the paramount enemy of the west: Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia? Even in the 1920s French realists, for example, thought of Franco-Soviet relations in terms of future French security against Germany. But the Ideologues were stronger: they feared communist revolution, they brooded over the billions in "stolen" investments, and they chalked up a red bogey to down the left. It was the same in Great Britain where Tory "die-hards" used anti-communist slogans to defeat Labour - 25 years before Richard Nixon tried them out on American Democrats. The Anglo-French press was full of lurid, sensational stories about the perils of communism. One British Foreign Office official - with a trenchant sense of humour - commented that if the British press "called a truce in the long range bombardment of Moscow... Half their 'copy' would [need to] go..." (C. H. Bateman, January 1930)

        Efforts at conciliation were not more successful in the United States. In the autumn of 1926 Krasin approached the American ambassador in London, but nothing came of it, since the American government was only interested in deflecting the Soviet initiative. Krasin was anxious to meet American officials to discuss recognition and trade, but he died at the end of November, preventing any awkwardness for the American government. More than money is involved, explained Frank B. Kellogg, the secretary of state, it is "a question of principle". "We cannot recognize a régime whose very foundation principle is ultimately to bring about the overthrow of every foreign government by revolution..." At the end of the decade, the American position was unchanged. A State department official commented, "We have waited 10 years for the Soviets to be overturned in Russia" (Robert Kelley, April 1929).

        In 1926-27, the British government railed against the Soviet for helping the nationalist and slightly communist revolution in China, which was ruining British trade. China was Red, thought the British Foreign Office in 1926 - 23 years before it actually was. When the revolution failed in 1927, and the Communists were routed and slaughtered, the Foreign Office said, "Our prayers have been answered beyond our wildest dreams".

        In the same year when the Soviet tried to conclude a political and economic arrangement with France, the French government refused it. What if the Soviet accepts all our demands? a French official asked rhetorically. No problem, he said, we'll put more obstacles in the way (Jean-Jacques Bizot, finance ministry, May 1927). It is an old diplomatic ruse: make unacceptable demands, and blame the other side for refusing them.

        In the autumn of 1927 the Soviet ambassador was driven out of Paris in a furious anti-communist press campaign, reportedly inspired by the French interior minister and financed by an anti-red oil baron. A few months earlier Great Britain broke off diplomatic relations with the USSR.

        The end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s saw a continuation of the smouldering conflict. The French were unrelenting, but in Great Britain a minority Labour government renewed diplomatic relations in 1929 and signed a trade agreement with the USSR in 1930. Tory die-hards then went on the offensive, and blocked any further improvement.

        The rise of Nazism temporarily braked Anglo-French anti-communism. In 1931 French and Soviet negotiators initialled a non-aggression pact. But news of it leaked out, and the right wing press raised a hue and cry. The French government dropped the pact like a hot stone, and only signed it 18 months later.

        Comintern activities still interfered with Soviet-western relations. Litvinov, foreign commissar during the 1930s, said to the British ambassador in 1930 that the Comintern was "hopeless". "Why don't you take the thing? You are a free country. We do not want it here. Do arrange for it hold its sessions in London." "You can hang [all foreign communists]; or burn them alive if catch them," Litvinov sometimes said (e.g., to British ambassador, Sir Edmund Ovey, December 1929).

        The red tsar, Stalin, got the Comintern under control, more or less; and French diplomats said it was an instrument of Soviet foreign policy, no different than the Red Army. The Comintern was dangerous only to states hostile to the USSR. Realists wanted to strengthen relations with the USSR to create an anti-Nazi system of collective security, strongly pressed by commissar Litvinov.

        Between 1932 and 1934 Franco-Soviet relations improved. But in October 1934 agents of the Croatian fascist Ustashe assassinated the Yugoslav king and the French foreign minister, who was a strong advocate of better relations with the USSR. He was succeeded by a future Nazi collaborator, Pierre Laval, who feared that good relations with the Soviet would bring to France "the International and the red flag". And a European war would lead to an "invasion" of Bolshevism. This was a common, both spoken and unspoken assumption of the Anglo-French right in the 1930s.

        Franco-Soviet relations cooled after 1934 even though a Franco-Soviet pact of mutual assistance was signed in May 1935. It was never more than a scrap of paper though the Soviet pressed the French for military staff talks to make it something more. The French General Staff rejected Soviet initiatives for military talks and played hard to get. Its orders were: Do not offend the Soviet, but stall, stall, stall.

        The British put pressure on the French not to become too close to the Soviet. But for a time Anglo-Soviet relations also improved between July 1934 and February 1936, but they failed for the same reasons as in France. An Anglo-Soviet rapprochement is "a fatal policy", said one important Foreign Office official: it "can... only lead to one ultimate result, namely a European war in which the Soviet Government, in their capacity as agents of the Third International, would probably be the only beneficiaries" (Sir Orme Garton Sargent, assistant permanent under-secretary, January 1936).

        The situation worsened as 1936 unfolded. 1936 was a bad year. In the spring the French elected a left-centre coalition government. The British thought France was going red, or at least half red. In September 1936 the British embassy in Paris sent a despatch to London on "Sovietisation in France".

        Then in July 1936 the Spanish civil war began. Tory ideological dread was brought to a fine edge. The Spanish civil war could lead to a European conflict between ideological blocs; and war could provoke the spread of communist revolution or Soviet influence. It was better, a lot of Tories thought, to turn Germany eastward against the USSR. "Let gallant little Germany glut her fill of reds in the East...," suggested one Tory M.P. (Henry Channon, September 1936). Even the British prime minister, Stanley Baldwin was attracted by the idea. One Foreign Office official commented, "People... seem to lose all consideration for the interests of their country, as opposed to those of their church or of their class, when they deal with affairs in Spain...." (Laurence Collier, head, Northern Department, November 1937).

        Stalin's purges began in earnest in the late summer of 1936. First it was just old Bolsheviks who were shot; old revolutionaries about whom, the French anyway, did not care a pin. It was only in 1937 when Stalin did away with his best generals that the Anglo-French showed concern. But these events occurred long after Anglo-Franco-Soviet relations worsened. The purges did not cause the decline in relations; they justified it after the fact.

        The Anglo-French looked at the Soviet through a red prism. In 1938 and 1939, they still did. At Munich the Anglo-French ignored the USSR. In 1939 when an Anglo-Franco-Soviet alliance was mooted, prime minister Neville Chamberlain shunned the Soviet even though public opinion strongly favoured the alliance. The Soviet wants to drag us into a war, he said, in order to spread communism in Europe. The French had the same idea. In August 1939 the Soviet concluded a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany.

        It's all Stalin's fault, said the Anglo-French. But was it? Litvinov had for years warned of a Soviet-German rapprochement if Anglo-Franco-Soviet relations failed. Western realists had done the same. But the Ideologues said that the Soviet was just bluffing and would never conclude with the Nazis. We don't need an alliance with the USSR. The Ideologues were wrong.

        So why is it important to stress the strength of anti-communism after World War I; why should someone try to change the way we look at the cold war? For one thing, it adds to the importance of the First World War as the most influential event of the 20th century. The First World War not only left unresolved the issue of German hegemony in Europe, but it set off an ideological conflict, a smouldering cold war, between the Soviet and the west. This early cold war obsessed western governments and society, and it seriously impeded the defence of the west against Nazism in the 1930s. I return thus to my opening statement that the cold war began as the First World War ended, and that it contributed greatly to the origins of the Second World War, not the other way 'round. Most historians of the cold war have thus only missed the beginning of this great ideological struggle, by a single World War.