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Monday, December 31, 2007

My Take on the Cold War

This article originally appeared in the January, 2002 issue of Liberty magazine http://libertyunbound.com/archive/2002_01/browne-cold_war.html, then edited by the late R.W. Bradford. I'm reprinting it here to give some context to my views on foreign policy. This version differs in minor respects from the original in points where I prefer my original wording to the published version, or where my writing just wasn't clear enough. (It was 15 years ago after all, I got better.)

New Perspectives on the Cold War

by Stephen Browne

The Soviet Union never intended to leave us alone; their goal was always to conquer us. Our intelligence capability, as misused as it sometimes was, was a major factor in keeping the peace.

I first came to Poland in 1991. Since then I have lived and worked in Bulgaria and Yugoslavia and have traveled frequently in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Belarus. On the whole I've been happy in Eastern Europe; I've bought an apartment in downtown Warsaw, married, and fathered a child here.

Ever since I came to Poland, I've been consumed with the question of what the Cold War was all about and how we came to win it. And gentlemen, win it we did. Whatever Europeans say about America and Americans, justified or not, people everywhere I've been want to be as rich as Americans, as free as Americans, and as ballsy as Americans.

Some, of course, believe that the way to do this is to become American by emigration. But nowadays others dare to hope that an American standard of living — and standard of law — might someday be theirs in their own homelands. Not anytime soon, to be sure, but the phenomenal changes in the last ten years have already made much of Eastern Europe quite a pleasant place to live.

So what was the Cold War all about and how did we come to win it? The place to find an answer to this question is to determine what we know for sure, what we can reasonably suppose from the available evidence, and what the most plausible speculations are based on the first two categories.

What we know to a fair degree of certainty is coming to light through such sources available in English as the Venona Transcripts, the Mitrokhin Archives, and the testimony of high-ranking defectors such as Col. Kuklinski of the Polish army General Staff. More are becoming available as new sources are declassified or translated from Eastern European sources and as former mid- to high-level personnel of the old Soviet hegemony publish their personal memoirs.

Let me be clear that I am not a "spook." But I have known some spooks, both American and European. I have met them in bars around Eastern Europe, I have worked with some, and, as it happens, I knew the intelligence officer of the American Embassy in Bulgaria through a family connection. (Interestingly enough, I worked there with a Russian boy, an English teacher, who was almost certainly the son of his opposing number in the KGB.)

I also know an Englishwoman who is the widow of a Russian defector who worked in the KGB bureau SMERSH, from the Russian for "Death to Spies." ("James Bond's old enemies!" I said. "Oh yes," she replied "those dreadful Bond books.") She still has family contacts within the command structure of NATO. And there is of course my father-in-law, a former Major of the Tajna Kancelaria (Secret Chancellery) of the Polish army.

Which questions from the last half-century can be said to be settled? To begin with, Alger Hiss was guilty, the Rosenbergs were guilty, and J. Robert Oppenheimer's innocence is extremely dubious.

There is not the remotest possibility that the Soviets could have developed the atomic bomb when they did without receiving extensive and detailed reports about the progress of the Manhattan Project. The former head of the Soviet atomic bomb project has freely admitted this (as revealed in the excellent documentary The Red Bomb http://www.amazon.com/The-Red-Bomb/dp/B0008IWFUW).

The Warsaw Pact countries were in fact captive nations, not allies of the Soviet Union. Can there be any doubt of this after the events of 1989? The buffer states of a mighty empire turned their guns around to face the Soviets, once the Solidarity movement in Poland proved that the Soviet Union no longer had the ability or the will to project power into its satellite states.

I had the opportunity to ask a student of mine, a retired geologist who was a veteran of the Warsaw Uprising, whether the period of communist control was an occupation. "Well, something like one and in other ways not." Large Russian forces were based in the country, but they were kept in out-of-the-way areas so as not to antagonize the population — and so that the Russians did not get to mix with the local population and take home accounts of how much better life was in Poland than in Russia. Most young people in Warsaw told me that they had never seen a Russian soldier. Ironically, Poles now have far more contact with Russians than they ever had during the Soviet occupation because Russians are flooding into Poland to sell whatever they have for hard currency (the zloty!) and find what casual work they can.

Russian forces were withdrawing from Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe when I came to Poland, and the boxcar loads of soldiers in a railroad siding remains one of the most pitiful sights I have ever seen. The poor sods ripped everything they could out of buildings to take home to sell or use, even concrete pillars. Often all they left behind were toxic slums.

I remember an account of two Russian soldiers who were killed as they tried to salvage a live electrical cable. And I remember the report of a Russian officer who sat in a car outside a playground near his Red army base in the east of Poland, with a bottle of vodka and a rifle. When he was drunk enough he pointed the rifle out of the car window and shot a 10-year-old boy through the head. The Polish government could do nothing but grit its teeth and ask the Russians to get the murderer out of the country as soon as possible.

There is a story that the prime minister almost had to be physically restrained when the commander of the Russian forces in Poland showed up in his office and demanded a huge sum of money for "all the good things the Red army has done for Poland."

The intentions of the Soviet Union were always hostile. They had always planned to invade and conquer Western Europe when the time was right — that is, when necessity forced them to loot the West in order to support their crumbling system. The date set was 1983, according to my English friend. A Polish friend close to the military hierarchy guesses that it was to be around 1981. In any case all the estimates I've heard agree on the early '80s.

(Note: for those still skeptical about this, over the past two years the Polish government has been publishing the Warsaw Pact battle plans for the projected invasion. One of the last acts of the Soviet Union was to compell the Pact countries to sign agreements not to do this. The Russians are furious with the Poles. The Poles could give a crap.)

We can reasonably suppose that the invasion plan involved the Red army driving the forces of their Eastern European satrapies before them to bear the brunt of the assault, in much the same way that hopelessly underarmed Russian soldiers were driven into the German invaders with guns and the gulag waiting behind them if they retreated. (My English friend's husband was sent against the German army with only a rifle and three cartridges.)

We can also reasonably suppose that in case the soldiers retreated, the Soviets would have mined Eastern Europe with nukes to destroy the pursuing NATO forces. The Soviets would have regarded the poor lands of Eastern Europe as far more expendable than the rich lands of the West with the loot the Soviets desperately needed.

Poland is the flattest land between the Fulda Gap and the Urals, and thus the natural invasion corridor between East and West. One has to see Poland to appreciate this. In 1991, shortly after I arrived in Poland, I took a trip from Warsaw to Gdansk. Afterwards a Polish friend asked me, "How did you like your first trip across the Polish countryside?" "Lovely," I replied, "but a nightmare to defend!" He nodded thoughtfully and said, "You're not the first American to tell me that."

In the north of Poland, near the sea, there are woods and gently rolling hills that would make jolly tank country. They are not high or steep enough to impede armor, but they are high enough to play hide-and-seek from direct line-of-sight observation and good for camouflage against aerial observation. In central Poland around Warsaw (north of the mountains on the southern border that protect Poland from the marauding Czechs), the terrain is so flat that the only real hiding places for serious concentrations of armor are in the towns and cities. A conventional war in this area would have been disastrous enough, a nuclear war would not have left enough of Poland to resurrect itself again, as it has in the past.

The realization that, if a European war went nuclear, the Soviets had written off Poland was evidently a primary reason for the defection of Col. Kuklinski, who passed highly classified information to the United States for ten years before being extracted.

In America, one of his sons was killed in a hit-and-run accident in which the driver and car were never found, and the other disappeared while on a diving vacation with friends. His daughter is now living in hiding. The KGB still has a long arm. My father-in-law and many of his colleagues in the Polish military think Col. Kuklinski was a hero who did what they would have had they been in a position to do so.

My English colleague says that the Russian military was convinced that the West had been weakened by conscious agents, fellow travelers, and "useful idiots" from within, and that when the time came the Western powers would lack the will to resist the Soviets and the United States would be paralyzed by internal dissent.

What happened during the Vietnam war lends credence to this. The Russians could see that for a modest investment in small arms and ammunition, the Vietnamese could tie up U.S. forces far from a European theater and inflict huge expenses on the United States. All the presidential administrations during the war, both Democratic and Republican, played into the Soviets' hands by not only pursuing a war with murky goals, no exit strategy, and no practical justification, but by turning many of the United States' potential defenders against their country by conscripting them for such a war.

The leadership of the anti-war movement was hijacked very early by hard-line communists whose motivation was not a desire for peace, but hatred of America.

So how did the West win the Cold War? Of course, the whole Soviet bloc went broke in a big way and fell apart. But why didn't it invade Western Europe before it collapsed?

One source told me that, according to contacts in the highest circles of NATO, the Falkland Islands War was a crucial event in the West's victory; after the quick British victory over Argentina, the Soviet chief of staff stormed into a meeting of the Politburo and shouted something to the effect of, "You lied to us! You said the West was weak and unwilling to resist, and now one single nation has mounted an operation that I could not with all the forces at my command."

The result was that the Russians put off indefinitely their intended invasion of Western Europe while the Soviet system collapsed of its own inability to provide even the bare necessities of an industrial civilization.

I cannot vouch for this from direct sources, but I have from time to time asked the opinion of former American military officers, including one who maintains an active interest in the history of military logistics and materiel. Each seems to have his own favorite point at which the hinge of history turned, but the common agreement seems to be that, while American arms failed to secure decisive victories in protracted guerrilla wars, in the proxy wars fought in the Middle East, in which forces that the United States armed and trained met forces armed and trained by the Soviets, the U.S.-backed forces always won with minimal casualties.

The superiority of Western arms and technology quite obviously would have more than offset superior Soviet numbers along the European frontier.

I grew up on and around U.S. Navy bases. When I first came to Eastern Europe, I saw the military bases here and was shocked. When I saw the Polish army base in Modlin and was struck by how filthy the buildings were (even the bakery!) and how overgrown with rank grass and weeds the grounds were, breeding a loathsome concentration of mosquitoes. On a trip to Tallinn, Estonia, in the early '90s I passed a huge Russian army base surrounded by a high wall of badly laid brick and my first thought was, "How did such a small country come to have such a large prison?"

What I thought was that if U.S. military intelligence could have seen this, heads would have rolled, and if the U.S. taxpayers could have seen it, they could never have been talked into paying taxes for such a large military budget — no one would have believed that the Russian army was a serious threat.

Nevertheless, I am no longer the isolationist I once was. The Soviet threat was real and the Western world owes a debt of gratitude to the United States and the NATO allies who guarded the West until the threat subsided. The French deserve contempt for their refusal to participate in NATO even while they hid behind its lines. It is also my impression that the United States carried a bit more of the load than was its fair share, but maybe that's just me.

(Note: in retrospect, the West Europeans, and South Koreans for that matter, definitely got a free ride. And in giving it to them, we took their manhood from them, or rather they yielded it willingly - and they hate us for it.)

Funds for Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America was money well spent. Many Eastern Europeans have told me they got uncensored news and even learned English from them, though a Slovakian colleague wondered why they had not been a little more aggressive in their advocacy of liberty and done more in their efforts to educate people on the principles of a free society.

The seemingly senseless proxy wars supported by the United States seem to have had a beneficial effect, something I find disturbing. I am still convinced that Vietnam was the wrong war at the wrong time and in the wrong place. Military strategists from Sun Tsu to the present have all agreed that it is a capital mistake to allow the enemy to choose the time and place of battle.

But without a trial of arms in conventional wars the Soviets might never have had convincing proof of the inferiority of their arms and been tempted into a disastrous full-scale war in Europe.
I may not like these conclusions, but I cannot ignore them simply because they don't fit my personal likes and dislikes. I most definitely don't like America's ham-handed interventions in the affairs of countries of no real importance to our national interest.

The operative phrase is "important to our national interest." There is a kind of simple-minded isolationism floating around libertarian circles that favors having no military presence at all outside our borders and even abolishing the FBI and CIA.

This kind of isolationism assumes that if we left the Soviets alone they would leave us alone.

This we now know to be false. We know that the Soviet Union never intended to leave us alone; their goal was always to conquer us. Our intelligence capability, as misused as it sometimes was, was a major factor in keeping the peace — as was theirs. We were able to find out enough about their capabilities to counter them.

Yes, the government may have exaggerated the Soviet's capabilities for self-serving reasons. But would you rather they had underestimated them? And the Soviets were able to find out through their own intelligence enough about us to be reassured that we did not intend to annihilate them with a sneak attack.

I am still convinced that the struggle with communism was ultimately a battle of ideas and that the thing that won it was a superior idea. But we have to remind ourselves of what the enemies of freedom have never forgotten: An idea cannot be killed, but ideas reside in people's heads and people can be killed.

Free men need not only superior ideas, but the courage and force of arms to protect them.

Note: I had an interesting exchange with Bradford prior to publishing this. I asked, why was it necessary at all to go over this in a libertarian venue? This stuff is not new or original.

He answered with two words: Murray Rothbard.


  • At 5:48 PM, Blogger Steve Bodio said…

    Absolutely fascinating-- and convincing.

    Re Oppenheimer-- in the 80's here in NM I met the aged commie who I think was his main security risk (that is, knowing him was the problem), Ross (Giovanni Rossi) Lomanitz. He was still inveighing against Nixon! And doing pretty well.

    What do you think of Lattimore? I always thought he was a fellow traveller smart enough to have seen the light in the end, but I like his books and his understanding of Central Asia and could be prejudiced.

    In Mongolia the very separate Soviet garrisons were the same kind of thing you describe in Poland. Even when the administration was Stalinist the nomads were outside the structure. The monks, concentrated, suffered. They don't much like Russians there, still.

    Great blog always.

  • At 7:07 PM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    Owen Lattimore I know only from study. He seems to be one of those types (like Julius Rosenberg) who in retrospect was not only guilty, but so-o-o-o-o guilty you wonder how it was missed for so long.

    However, like John Derbyshire, I've got a grudging admiration for the Old Left - at least they went out and did things (like Lattimore in Mongolia and China) unlike the New Left wimp intellectuals that staff our universities.

    Did he see the light in the end? What happened to him?

  • At 11:33 AM, Blogger Steve Bodio said…

    He ended up an old scholar in Maryland, still researching and writing about Mongols, often saying quite nasty things about Russians and worse the Chinese. I think his affection for the Mongols soured him on the capital- C Commies. One odd thing I remember his saying is thet the trouble with leftists is that they never had to meet payroll!

    I agree entirely (& almost always) with Derb. Lattimore was an Indiana Jones- level adventurer and scholar, only real; new lefties aren't worth shining his boots.

  • At 4:25 PM, Blogger Evanston2 said…

    As a career Marine Corps officer during the cold war, I was surprised by the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. I figured these pasty fat old guys would hold on to power no matter what.

    The only reasonable explanation is that the elite were also those with the most exposure to the West. They could see (as you noted) how they were losing ground and really could not take care of their people, no less win a war. So they opted for a "middle way" (glasnost) which didn't stand a chance of working. As soon as Eastern Europe and components of the USSR saw a little daylight to free themselves (and loot government property to cut deals with the West) they did so.

    Ironically, the one group that could take down the USSR -- its own elite -- did so because it knew the most about the West. Its own intelligence activities destroyed its belief in communism. On their own they lost the "will to win."

    An interesting case for the Containment strategy and one to compare/contrast with the GWOT.

  • At 7:59 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    The way a student in Poland put it was that the communist elites "wanted to eat at the same table" with the West. Even with access to western goods in special shops, life was pretty third-world for them.

    However, I think that the difference between the Cold War and the present conflict is that the communists had a home address vulnerable to retaliation.

    The disturbing thing about a "war against terrorism" (and I agree with Dan Simmons that that's a stupid term - like "weapons of mass distruction") is that it brings up the horrible possibility of having to respond to an attack based on probability of origin...

  • At 2:17 PM, Blogger Evanston2 said…

    Yes, the inability to geographically pinpoint a terrorist "country" is the scariest aspect of the GWOT. That's why a "no safe havens" policy (like that behind OEF and OIF) is the only realistic one, though Americans have no stomach for it until the next 9-11 (or worse).

    Also in contradistinction to communism, Islamic terrorism has reliable economic forces behind its growth -- capitalist demand for oil. They outsource most of the work to folks who go to real schools and spend their money funding madrassas in the middle east and throughout the world. The religious/political overlap in Islam (unlike Christianity with Jesus' "my Kingdom is not of this world") embeds it throughout the cultural fabric.

    To me, the best parallel with the cold war is to use Containment to box them up so they fight among themselves. Worked well in Iraq. Once the locals got to know radical Islam up close and personal, it changed them into moderates. We're not going to be able to do it ourselves. At the risk of sounding bigoted, Containment may eventually include the need to restrict Islamic immigration. Hopefully I'm wrong. We'll know what to do based upon what happens in Europe over the next quarter century.


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