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Issue 36, March 1999

Blowing hot and cold

Cold War: An Illustrated History 1945-1991
By Jeremy Isaacs and Taylor Downing, Bantam Press, 1998, 22.50
Reviewed by Dave Reid

COLD WAR, the book of the TV series of the same name, provides a comprehensive account of events between 1945 and 1991. It will give anyone wanting to study the period most of the facts, and quite a few little-known insights, behind the scenes in the White House and the Kremlin.

However, Issacs' and Downing's views are coloured by the current conventional wisdom of the New World Order. They concentrate on superpower relations, only providing fleeting - and misleading - accounts of the revolutions and mass movements of the period. The Hungarian revolution of 1956, for example, is portrayed as a primarily nationalist movement fighting for western values, and not a movement of the working class for real democratic socialism. Isaacs and Downing concentrate on the response of the US and the West and their ultimate 'betrayal' of Hungary. In fact, the West was content to allow Khrushchev to crush the workers' uprising.

The Cold War began at the end of the Second World War. The war had ended with two superpowers militarily dominant - the US and Soviet Union. The US had amassed a huge economic and industrial strength: one-quarter of the world's industrial production and half the world's gold stocks were concentrated in the US. The planned economy of the Soviet Union had overcome the massive destruction wrought by the Nazi armies, despite the Stalinist bureaucracy's mismanagement and inefficiency. The Red Army became a decisive force in Europe.

The allies had smoothed over their differences in the common effort to defeat Germany and Japan. And their rivalries were secondary to the fundamental dispute between the capitalist system and the Soviet Union which, while it was not a socialist state, was based on a nationalised, planned economy. These two types of societies were incompatible and could not peacefully co-exist, hence the 45-year stand-off which became known as the Cold War.

  Inevitably, the book concentrates on superpower relations, but the dominant feature of the period was colonial national liberation movements and the collapse of support for capitalism and landlordism in the ex-colonial world. The driving out of imperialism and the establishment of Stalinist governments on the model of the USSR began in China in 1949 when a quarter of humanity left the capitalist camp. This presaged movements of a similar character across the ex-colonial world in Burma, Syria, Cuba, Angola, Mozambique, Yemen and Ethiopia, to name but a few. These events, central to the whole epoch, are dealt with only in passing and portrayed as merely the whims of individual leaders of the anti-colonial movements, rather than a wide-ranging rejection of imperialism and landlordism.

The main reason for the military impasse between the two superpowers was the development of nuclear weapons. This meant that neither of them could launch a full-scale attack on the other without risking annihilation themselves. The situation, aptly named MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), was a stand-off in terms of direct military action, but both powers fought each other through surrogates, supporting regimes in smaller nations to fight the Cold War for them.

In the West and East people lived in fear of nuclear war. Both sides organised civil defence mobilisations to underline the 'threat' from the enemy. In fact, the world never came close to a nuclear war except during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 when Khrushchev placed nuclear weapons on Cuba - 90 miles from the US. As the missiles were being shipped to Cuba the US president, Kennedy, ordered a blockade of Cuba and threatened military action unless the missile sites were removed. In return the USSR demanded the removal of US missile sites in Turkey. As the crisis developed a nuclear war between the two superpowers looked possible. Robert McNamara, the US Defence Secretary, at the height of the crisis feared that Saturday 27 October 'was the last Saturday I would ever see'. Eventually, a deal was worked out that removed missiles from Cuba allowing Kennedy to claim victory, with US missiles being removed from Turkey the following year.

  However, whilst avoiding nuclear conflict was the general policy of the US ruling class, the US military threw up some cold war warriors bent on global conquest. First among them was General MacArthur, commander of US forces in Korea, who was removed by President Eisenhower after he urged the bombing of Beijing.

Then there was Curtis 'Bombs Away' Le May, commander of the Strategic Air Command, who in the 1950s advocated pre-emptive nuclear strikes against the USSR to condemn it to 'an agrarian existence perhaps for generations to come'. After the Cuban missile crisis was resolved he advocted the bombing of Cuba anyway! However, even Le May was worried about the stability of his successor, Thomas Power, who declared to a Senate defence committee: 'Restraint? Why are you so concerned with saving their lives? The whole idea is to kill the bastards. At the end of the war if there are two Americans and one Russian left alive, we win'. Nevertheless, the US ruling class ensured that such psychopaths were kept at bay by a series of counter-checks that kept the nuclear arsenal under strict control.

One of the key aspects missing from the book was that this situation was maintained, not in the interests of the peoples of the USA and the Soviet Union but in the interests of their respective ruling class and ruling bureaucratic elite. They each used the fear of the other to mobilise popular support for the military build-up. But, in the course of the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia and the US wars in Korea and Vietnam, the rank and file in the armed forces began to understand what was going on. And these ideas were brought back to the masses back home - in the West the anti-nuclear movement was a rejection of the Cold War propaganda.

Nevertheless, this book effectively debunks the idea that the Soviet Union was striving for world domination. At every stage, Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev were very cautious before encouraging anti-capitalist measures amongst its supporters. Stalin originally viewed the states of Eastern Europe as a buffer zone between the West and the Soviet Union. But, as the book confirms, it was only after the collapse of coalition governments and the threat of hostile pro-western governments that he moved to impose the puppet regimes of Eastern Europe.

  Similarly in Cuba the Soviet bureaucracy took advantage of Castro's defiance of the US to expand its strategic influence only after Castro had been rebuffed by the US. The Soviet Union did not always economically exploit their satellites: Khrushchev's support for the Cuban economy in exporting cheap oil and importing Cuba's sugar at expensive prices severely strained the Soviet Union's shipping fleet.

The West's response, especially that of US imperialism, to the shrinking of its spheres of influence, and hence the scope for its bosses to exploit the world, was to pursue a policy of containment. They reasoned that if key countries like Greece and Vietnam fell to communism then the surrounding countries would fall like 'a row of dominoes', as Eisenhower put it. Generally, they avoided direct confrontation with the USSR and concentrated on fighting proxy wars in the colonial countries. The book graphically outlines the bloodshed of the wars in Korea, Central America, Vietnam, the Middle East, Angola and Afghanistan. In the Korean War of 1950-53, for example, up to two million military personnel and hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed. Five million people were made homeless in the South alone.

Overall, for just 20 days in those 45 years from 1945 to 1991 was there peace across the world. So, although to the superpower generals in their bunkers it really might have felt like a 'cold war', this was, in fact, a period of history when revolution, national liberation movements and war convulsed the whole world.


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