Sunday, February 22, 2009

On Stalin's Motives

Somewhere in one of Michael Kuznetsov’s blogs is the idea that Roosevelt and Truman got along with Stalin well enough but subsequent presidents turned on him. The fault for the breach in relations between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. belong to the former and not the latter, but could this be true?

On page 447 of Kissinger’s Diplomacy, we read “American leaders knew [in 1946] that they had to resist further Soviet expansion. But their national tradition caused them to seek to justify this resistance on nearly any basis other than as an appeal to the traditional balance of power. In doing this, American leaders were not being hypocritical. When they finally came to recognize that Roosevelt’s vision of the Four Policemen could not be implemented, they preferred to interpret this development as a temporary setback on the way to an essentially harmonious world order. Here they faced a philosophical challenge. Was Soviet intransigence merely a passing phase which Washington could wait out? Were the Americans, as former Vice President Henry Wallace and his followers suggested, unwittingly causing the Soviets to feel paranoid by not adequately communicating their pacific intentions to Stalin? Did Stalin really reject postwar cooperation with the strongest nation in the world? Did he want to be America’s friend?

“As the highest policymaking circles in Washington considered these questions, a document arrived from an expert on Russia, on George Kennan, a relatively junior diplomat at the American embassy in Moscow, that was to provide the philosophical and conceptual framework for interpreting Stalin’s foreign policy . . . Kennan maintained that the United States should stop blaming itself for Soviet intransigence; the sources of Soviet foreign policy lay deep within the Soviet system itself. In essence, he argued, Soviet foreign policy was an amalgam of communist ideological zeal and old-fashioned tsarist expansionism.

“According to Kennan, communist ideology was at the heart of Stalin’s approach to the world. Stalin regarded the Western capitalist powers as irrevocably hostile. The friction between the Soviet Union and America was therefore not the product of some misunderstanding or faulty communications between Washington and Moscow, but inherent in the Soviet Union’s perception of the outside world [the following is from Kennan’s ‘Long Telegram’ from Moscow, 2-22,1946]:

‘In this [communist] dogma, with its basic altruism of purpose, they found justification for their instinctive fear of outside world, for their dictatorship without which they did not know how to rule, for cruelties they did not dare not to inflict, for sacrifices they felt bound to demand. In the name of Marxism they sacrificed every single ethical value in their methods and tactics. Today they cannot dispense with it. It is fig leaf of their moral and intellectual respectability. Without it they would stand before history, at best, as only the last of that long succession of cruel and wasteful Russian rulers who have relentlessly forced [their] country on to ever new heights of military power in order to guarantee external security of their internally weak regimes. . . .’


As we know, Kennan went on to recommend a foreign policy of ‘containment.’ That is, to resist ‘communist’ expansion wherever it occurred in the world insofar as possible. Truman and Acheson, while accepting Kennan’s assessment of Stalin’s motives were conscious of economic considerations. They didn’t feel the U.S. was rich enough to resist every communist advance and that it should choose its battles carefully. Truman and Acheson, if memory serves me, were at odds about whether to resist the communist advance in Korea.

But after all, neither Kennan nor anyone else can know beyond doubt what was in Stalin’s mind; so let’s consider an alternative. Could Stalin have been just as Roosevelt and Truman at first imagined him to be, a comrade in arms interested in the same sorts of things Americans were interested in? This hypothesis would demand that Stalin’s philosophy was skin-deep and could be easily dispensed with in the interest of camaraderie and fraternity, but it defies my understanding of Communism.

As Kennan wrote, communist ideology was altruistic in purpose. If we look only at the ideals of communism we would probably all agree that they are indeed benign and quite wonderful. I mentioned this in regard to Bernardine Dohrn’s talk at a radical Leftists’ SDS reunion. She mourned the failure of “the revolution” which included the fall of the U.S.S.R. And she hoped for a better Socialism in the future, but she admitted that she didn’t know what steps would need to be taken to reach her “altruistic” goals. She was confident that her fellow revolutionaries could figure out those steps as their revolution progressed. But we have seen a number of Socialistic, or Communistic, revolutions and they all seem to progress in the same way: A small “vanguard” leads a violent revolution and the old, usually corrupt government is overthrown. A leader arises to lead the revolution and then there are purges. People who oppose or threaten or potentially threaten the leader and his government are locked up or executed. And then a police force is created to keep track of the people to make sure no new threats arise. This happened in Russia, in China, in Cuba, in North Korea, in Vietnam, and in Cambodia. Why have all of the Socialistic revolutions followed in this path? Because the “altruistic goal” is deemed more important than any individual’s rights. Theoretically, once those goals were achieved, the individual would gain rights he doesn’t enjoy during the process toward that goal, but in actual fact all the communist revolutions we witnessed in the 20th century settled down into a staid totalitarianism. Plans to give up dictatorial control and move on toward an egalitarian communism were abandoned. Leaders merely sought to remain in power. Perhaps the initial leaders, Lenin and Stalin believed in the altruistic goal, but subsequent leaders give little evidence of such adherence, and even Stalin may have abandoned it as the years went on. Wasn’t this his basic disagreement with Trotsky that first the USSR should be well established and then Communism should be advanced throughout the world whereas Trotsky thought that international Communism should take precedence over Russian development?

In retrospect, Trotsky’s goals seem much more idealistic and “impractical.” Stalin’s goals were less idealistic in appearance and far more ruthless in practice.


Anonymous said...

Mr Helm,

Stalin's motives can be understood only from the Russian point of view on the world's events.

The matter is that Stalin became -- gradually -- absolutely Russian in spirit. Although, he had not a drop of Russian blood in his veins, of course.
While Trotsky remained "un-Russian" always.

It's a huge topic.
I will try to explain to you our vision of the world a bit later.

Now, one question:
Do you think Kennan did speak the Russian language, or not?
It is very important to know.


Lawrence Helm said...


Yes, I am quite sure Kennan knew the Russian language. Wikipedia tells us "in 1929 he began a program on history, politics, and the Russian language at the University of Berlin's Oriental Institute."

Another reference tells us "In 1946, Kennan was 44 years old, fluent in the Russian language and its affairs . . ."

I'm sure I could find more references if necessary. I have read quote a lot by Kennan and have always believed he knew Russian. Do you believe something to the contrary?


Anonymous said...

Very well, thank you, Lawrence.

It is very important to know Russian so that to understand the Russians.

Although, the very knowledge of the tongue per se is not enough.
For example, Mr Sharansky (or rather Shcharansky) is absolutely fluent in Russian, but I argue that he does not understand us.
Simply because his mindset is different. Not better, not worse, but different, I would like to emphasize this nuance.

I am going to prepare a somewhat extensive response to the questions in your most interesting topic, yet it will require some time. Anyway, English is a foreign language to me, you will understand.