Question: Wasn't the U.S.S.R a totalitarian power, in principle opposed to human freedom, and never to be trusted for that reason?
Answer: This was the claim continually put forth by leaders of the capitalist West, and there is no danger in conceding some merit to it, as long as one keeps in mind that like most terms in the social sciences there is no precise definition to words like "totalitarian" and "freedom." Certainly personal liberty in the Soviet Union was restricted to an extent not seen in the Western industrial states, especially under Joseph Stalin, whose personal dictatorship earned him the title "Generalissimo." But a qualification should be included with this observation: Eastern Europe and Russia were long semi-colonial territories of the developing West, providing raw materials for industrialization (textile and metal industries), with the attendant ills of widespread poverty and foreign control of the economy. The military, the bureaucracy (partially), and finance and technology (railways, factories and banks) were in Western hands, making political liberty a futile dream for all but a privileged few. Bolshevik leaders inherited a deliberately underdeveloped country in which the vast majority were illiterate peasants engaged in back-breaking labor on the land, extending back for generations. Under such conditions, any comparison of the Soviet working class with middle class workers in the West was at best a mere ideological exercise, and at worst, a deliberate attempt to demonize rather than understand. Given the harsh historical conditions that prevailed in 1917 Russia, there was no chance of broad enjoyment of personal liberty no matter which group came to power or what policy choices they made.
Furthermore, in many ways the capitalist-socialist liberty comparison is one of apples to oranges. The capitalist West defines freedom as freedom from state "intrusion" in personal life, especially with respect to allocation of capital. The socialist U.S.S.R. stressed freedom from want, insecurity, and discrimination. Both social systems delivered on their definitions to vast populations within their political domains, a fact that cannot be perceived if we are forced to affiliate with one of the two sides as being necessarily "right" in its value judgments about what exactly constitutes the essence of human freedom.
Each side was untrustworthy in the eyes of the other precisely for differing in its fundamental value judgments. If opportunity to acquire and consume property free of government regulation is indispensable to human freedom, then the former USSR, dedicated not to "free markets" but economic development via state control, was not merely untrustworthy, but a principled and permanent antagonist, regardless of the policy choices of the West. On the other hand, if an absence of insecurity, want, and discrimination are essential characteristics of freedom, then the U.S.A., with its extensive poverty, racism, and gender discrimination, was (and remains) a fundamental obstacle to human liberty that the USSR had every right to resist and oppose.
Question: Wasn't the Soviet Union an expansionist military power dedicated to world conquest, which forced the U.S. to defend the free world from its aggressive design? Didn't Krushchev promise to "bury" the West?
Answer: Krushchev's "we will bury you" remark was not a threat to conquer the U.S., but a simple statement of ideological conviction. On the assumption that Soviet socialism better met the needs of human nature than did American capitalism, he expected that in the course of time the Soviet system would meet the approval of a majority of humanity, and therefore outlast capitalism. This did not happen, but at no time did the U.S.S.R. try to impose its ideology on the U.S. by force of arms. Sadly, the same cannot be said for U.S. capitalism, which was backed by a first-strike nuclear policy from the Truman years on. As President Eisenhower's Secretary of State John Foster Dulles said, the U.S. maintained a policy of "going to the brink of war" to destroy the U.S.S.R. Only by sheer luck did the Cold War end without a nuclear war.
On the expansionism charge, extension of Soviet borders ended with World War II. Nowhere did the Soviets take territory militarily that they hadn't held at the end of the war. They withdrew from Norway, Danish Bornholm Island, Czechoslovakia (returning later), Yugoslavia, and Iran. With the exception of one military base in each case, they also withdrew from Finland and Manchuria. These were the only external military bases the Soviets held in the entire world. Under Stalin and Krushchev, they withdrew from Korea and Austria, completed withdrawal from Bulgaria and Rumania, and surrendered naval bases in Finland and China. Meanwhile, Washington maintained a permanent military presence in Western Europe, Japan, Korea, mainland China (until 1949), the Western Pacific, the Philippines, and Latin America.
Naturally, Soviet leaders hoped to achieve the greatest influence possible for their cause, but this is the case with all adherents of a political ideology. Unlike the far more powerful U.S., their sphere of dominance was limited to neighboring territory, basically Eastern and parts of Central Europe, which twice in a generation was used as a pathway for invading German armies to leave the area a smoking ruin. While the U.S. was lifted out of the Great Depression by WWII, the Soviets were devastated by it. They lost over 20 million people, as well as their factories, farms, and housing for 25 million people, which was destroyed in the cities and villages occupied by the Nazis. Except for city streets the U.S.S.R. had never known the luxury of paved roads, and its railroads were ripped up by the Nazis' special plows and cam devices. Furthermore, the country's biggest power dam had been blown up, its coal mines flooded, and its blast mines and steel mills destroyed. In a 1963 speech President Kennedy emphasized that the extent of the damage was unprecedented in the annals of warfare: "No nation in the history of battle ever suffered more than the Soviet Union in the Second World War. At least twenty million lost their lives. Countless millions of homes were burned or sacked. A third of the nation's territory, including two-thirds of its industrial base, was turned into a wasteland - a loss equivalent to the destruction of this country east of Chicago."
Meanwhile, the U.S. emerged from the war with a booming economy that had doubled its GNP while Europe and Japan were reduced to rubble. With six percent of the world's population, the U.S. held 75% of its investment capital and two-thirds of its industrial capacity. It exercised military control over both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and had 12 million soldiers encircling the globe, backed up by an atomic monopoly. Its strategic planners anticipated dominating what they called a Grand Area, a region "strategically necessary for world control," which included the Western hemisphere, the former British domains, the Far East, the Pacific, and the richer half of Europe. The Communist world was considered regretfully out of reach, but Washington anticipated obtaining it later through conquest or collapse. Future Supreme Court justice Abe Fortas explained that such vast U.S. control was a form of noblesse oblige, simply "part of our obligation to the security of the world."
Quite at variance with all the talk of Kremlin subversion and an allegedly monolithic Communist conspiracy to take over the world, two generations of peace followed the end of WWII, during which time there was no attempt at Marxist revolution in Europe, Japan, or the United States. As for the Chinese revolution of 1949, it stemmed from indigenous causes, while the subsequent Sino-Soviet split demonstrated that Washington's paranoid conviction that all Communists think and act alike was not true.
Given its historical experience, Soviet leaders had a natural desire to use Eastern Europe as a buffer zone to guard against foreign invasion. Soviet violations of national sovereignty in Eastern and Central Europe were widely condemned with little attention given to the fact that the countries involved would have been Nazi occupied territories but for the military victory of the USSR in WWII. That does not make the Kremlin's interventions right, but it should be kept in mind that the United States has repeatedly intervened in neighboring countries, and far more bloodily, while rarely facing an invading force on its own soil, and never one as powerful as 20th century Germany.
Furthermore, though Washington's hostility to the U.S.S.R. was constantly presented to the U.S. public as a defensive reaction to Kremlin aggression, the documentary record reveals that U.S. antagonism pre-dated any Soviet action in the post-WWII era. On April 5, 1999 the Pentagon announced a Cold War Recognition Certificate, for which all 22 million Americans who had served in the U.S. armed forces during that period would be eligible. The document officially specified the beginning of the Cold War as the day the U.S.-Soviet WWII alliance ended - September 2, 1945 - the date of Japan's surrender. The last date for which a former serviceman could claim the certificate was December 26, 1991, the day of the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. This constitutes official admission that terminating Soviet socialism, not keeping world peace, was the real U.S. goal in the Cold War.
Soviet socialism was opposed, not because it posed some dreadful threat to human liberty per se, but because it was unwilling to complement the industrial economies of the West, preferring to withdraw from the profit system in favor of creating a self-sufficient internal economy based on national planning and production-for-use. This approach had great appeal in Third World countries attempting to throw off Western colonial rule and make rapid economic progress. In other words, the Soviet threat to the U.S. was not military, but political: the prospect that a non-profit world would induce other countries to also seek an exit from the capitalist order. It was for this reason that the U.S. and thirteen other countries invaded the U.S.S.R. just months after the Bolshevik Revolution triumphed in 1917, and for years maintained a total blockade against it, preventing entrance even of medicine and food. [According to William S. Graves, commander of U.S. forces in Siberia from 1918-1920, the vast majority of the killing in the U.S.S.R. was carried out not by Bolsheviks, but by Czarist forces and their foreign supporters: “There were horrible murders committed, but they were not committed by the Bolsheviks as the world believes. I am well on the side of safety when I say that the anti-Bolsheviks killed one hundred people in Eastern Siberia, to every one killed by the Bolsheviks.”]
Nor did the so-called Soviet threat emanate solely from desperately poor masses in the Third World. Workers on the home front were also seeking a bigger slice of the pie, and were in a better position to get it. Social Security, unemployment insurance, guaranteed medical care, indeed, virtually all of the U.S. social reforms of the 20th century, followed the Bolshevik Revolution. These concessions were granted not out of generosity, but because of extensive labor organization inside the U.S., coupled with the external example of an officially socialist system that could entice U.S. workers to reject capitalism. While loathing the official socialist alternative, U.S. leaders feared its broad appeal.
This fear sustained outright hysteria in the U.S. for many years. Consider just the 1948 independent presidential campaign of Henry Wallace. Merely for entertaining the notion of peaceful co-existence between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., he was attacked as a traitor and hounded with accusations that his Progressive Party was run by Moscow.
Though the validity of his concerns was subsequently confirmed by events, Wallace's critique of U.S. policy fell on deaf ears. He argued that the U.S. couldn't expect to simply purchase allies, and predicted a world-wide network of reactionary dictatorships would result if such an attempt were made. (Somoza, Marcos, Suharto, Pinochet, the Shah, etc.) He held that revolution was the harvest of thwarted needs and maintained that force ultimately could not hold back the rebellions decades of poverty, misery, and oppression created (China - 1949, Bolivia - 1952, Cuba - 1959, Vietnam - 1960s, Iran and Nicaragua - 1979, southern Mexico - 1994, Colombia - 1963 - present). He predicted that President Truman's attempt to impose a world-wide counterrevolution against the U.S.S.R. would militarize the U.S. and cost more in blood and treasure than Washington was counting on (endless undeclared wars, a world-wide network of U.S. military bases, steady decline of the U.S. middle class). He warned that obsessing over a presumed Red Menace would destroy individual rights, while the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan would divide the world into two irreconcilably hostile blocs (Two nuclear armed antagonists on hair-trigger alert, Truman-McCarthy hysteria via blacklistings, banning of heretical groups, and unconstitutional hearings). He foresaw that reaction to U.S. anti-Communist belligerence would lead colonial peoples to identify the Kremlin as their friend and Washington as their enemy (Vietnam, Cuba, Nicaragua etc.)
The response to Wallace's campaign was not reason, but harassment and violence. Meeting halls were denied for Progressive Party functions, and students threw eggs and screamed epithets to prevent pro-Wallace meetings from taking place on college campuses. Meanwhile, detectives conspicuously took down names at Wallace fund-raising events, the media dutifully published lists of Wallace petition-signers to incite abuse, and hundreds of Wallace supporters were fired or pressured into quitting their jobs.
In the South, Wallace himself was pelted with eggs for refusing to address segregated audiences. In Illinois, Progressive Party Senate candidate Curtis MacDougall was stoned. In Georgia, four women supporting Wallace were abducted and beaten. In Pontiac, Michigan, a Wallace campaigner was seized, beaten, and shaved bald with a pocket knife. In Birmingham, Wallace's running mate Glen Taylor was captured and jailed for attempting to pass through the "colored" door in church. In Chicago, police raided and arrested students attending a Wallace support meeting. In Charleston, Wallace supporter Robert New was killed by a fellow Maritime Union member who said he cut "the Communist nigger-lover's" jugular with a ten-inch knife. When he explained that his victim was a "despicable, slick, slimy Communist prowling the waterfront," he was let off with a light sentence.
Question: Wasn't the U.S.S.R. responsible for dividing Europe, locking countries east of the Elbe into Communist domination?
Answer: Actually, the division of Germany was at U.S. initiative, which locked the Soviets out of West Germany, where coal and related industrial production were heavily concentrated, denying them promised benefits of their WWII victory, particularly reparations. A major reason was fear of worker participation in management, the desire for which was longstanding in Germany. With workers forming works councils and trade unions, calls for co-determination in industry to accompany democratic grass-roots control of unions was deeply worrisome to Washington and its depoliticized labor associates, intent as they were on restoring German corporate power within an anti-Communist Western alliance. They feared that disgruntled West German workers could not be trusted to retain an allegiance to capitalism while mingling with disciplined Communists from the East.
In 1946, State Department dove George Kennan noted that an undivided Germany would be subject to Soviet political penetration, the solution for which was to "endeavor to rescue Western zones of Germany by walling them off against Eastern penetration" - the reverse of the standard image - "and integrating them into an international pattern of Western Europe rather than into a united Germany," a violation of wartime agreements. In short, Kennan (and Washington generally) was not worried about a Soviet military attack, but about Soviet political influence, especially insofar as it encouraged the substantive demands of Western labor for public ownership and codetermination (i.e., worker participation in management). In short, the main problem was labor threatening conservative business dominance. Carolyn Eisenberg, author of a thorough study of the division of Germany, concludes that Washington's great fear, in fact - "horror" - was "a unified, centralized politicized labor movement committed to a far-reaching program of social change."
After incorporating the most economically valuable part of Germany in a military alliance hostile to the U.S.S.R., Washington proved extremely skeptical of Soviet overtures towards a unified demilitarized Germany in subsequent years, as well as moves to dismantle the overarching military pacts that kept Europe divided. A significant thaw in the Cold War would have invited a resurgence of popular participation in economic decisions, which the U.S. in principle rejected, and still rejects.
Be that as it may, the Soviet Union did dominate Eastern Europe in the Cold War years, but not as extensively as Washington dominated the Third World. While Moscow controlled a handful of client states in Europe, the U.S. controlled dozens of client states throughout the world. Only ideological convention dictated that Soviet client states were called "Communist satellites" while U.S. client states were praised as "Free World allies." Both superpowers practiced torture on an administrative basis.
Question: But isn't it well-established that the Soviet Union was a dungeon state that maintained "the Gulag," torturing and murdering countless victims, many of them worked to death in concentration camps?
Answer: A troubling question intrudes right from the start when we confront the claim of systematic killing of millions of innocents by Communist evil. If the former U.S.S.R. was ruthless enough to establish a far-flung system of death camps that deliberately murdered tens of millions of victims, how is it that its leaders ultimately relinquished power peacefully? All through the Cold War it was claimed that Communist leaders never conceded power without resort to arms. But in the end the Soviet Union dissolved itself almost without firing a shot.
As for state-sponsored killing, estimates of the total number vary widely, but it is generally agreed that the bulk of the "murders" occurred in the Stalin years (1929-1953). Estimates range from 5 million to 20 to 25 million and up, with William Rusher of Claremont Institute claiming that "100 million people [were] wantonly murdered by Communist dictators since the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917." Little if any convincing information is ever provided about how these fantastic and widely varying figures are arrived at, especially how to separate deaths due to harsh conditions attending industrialization from state-sanctioned murders in conformity with a deliberate campaign to eliminate whole categories of people. Unfortunately, there is a widespread tendency in anti-Communist literature to accept partisan denunciation as indisputable fact, leading to credulous acceptance of astronomical "murder" totals, the more extreme the better.
In any event, Soviet labor camps were not death camps, and there was no systematic extermination of inmates. The great majority of gulag inmates survived and eventually returned to society, either through amnesty or because they had completed their sentences. In any given year, between twenty and forty percent of inmates were released, according to scholars who have reviewed Soviet archives. The documents show that more than half of all gulag deaths in the years 1934-1953 occurred during WWII, mostly from malnutrition, when severe deprivation was the common experience of the entire Soviet population, and over 20 million died. So while the labor camp death rate was 92 per 1000 in 1944, it fell to 3 per 1000 in 1953, the year of Stalin's death. That year over half of the gulag inmates were freed and by 1960 the camps no longer existed. Although some anti-Communist writers claim that the gulag continued until the final days of the USSR, no emaciated hordes were witnessed pouring out of concentration camps in 1991.
-------Michael K. Smith is the author of "The Madness of King George" and "Portraits of Empire," both from Common Courage Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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