Some inconvenient truths from the Cold War years / By Steven Jonas

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Soviet soldiers embrace after breaking the siege on Leningrad, which cost 900,000 lives. 


Too True to be Good: 
Some inconvenient truths from the Cold War years. 

Russia’s decisive military action against Georgia in response to Saakashvili’s deluded attempt to retake by force the breakaway region of South Ossetia, was widely condemned in most media reports as an act of unprovoked aggression. The British government, more vociferously than those of France, Germany and Italy, has stood “shoulder to shoulder” with its closest ally, George W. Bush, who told the Russians that it was unacceptable in the 21st century to invade the territory of a sovereign state. Saakashvili, willing ally of Britain and the U.S. in their noble mission in Iraq, was compelled hastily to withdraw his 2000 troops from that country as they were needed at home.  If we are to believe the story about the growing Russian threat being told by our political leaders and those who echo them in most of the media, the account we are supposed to accept would go something like this: 

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites between 1989 and 1991, most of the countries of Eastern Europe and the constituent republics of the USSR opted for democracy. They freely opted to privatise all their state run industries. This also happened in Russia, whose people freely chose to sell off all their industries at knock-down prices to a small number of well-placed people who, in a country that previously had no millionaires, rapidly became billionaires. The former republics of the Soviet Union, after winning their freedom from centuries of Russian domination, chose to embrace the same version of democracy. The Russian transition from “totalitarian tyranny” to free market capitalism was led by the courageous democrat and friend of the West, Boris Yeltsin. The mass unemployment, gross social inequalities and impoverishment, and dramatic decline in life expectancy that followed close upon these momentous events, were no more than the teething pangs that had to be endured in order to reap the full fruits of freedom. Likewise, it was only natural that the newly liberated peoples of the eastern European states should be eager to join the European Union and NATO, both exemplars of the democratic way of life. National self-determination, from the Baltic to the Balkans, was the democratic ideal to which everyone would naturally aspire. 

Such, more or less, was the version we were sold. But then, following the same narrative, things started to go wrong. When friend Yeltsin (who, despite his submergence in corruption and alcohol was still our good friend) was replaced by sinister former KGB chief, Putin, Russia’s democratic revival was stalled. Completely unreasonably, he seemed to suspect that the U.S. and its NATO allies were attempting to encircle Russia. His increasingly authoritarian behaviour led him to rein in the activities of some of the oligarchs, to impose state controls over some of the privatised industries and to ally himself with one group of kleptocrats against others more favourably inclined towards the West. The U.S., NATO and the E.U. had no ulterior motives in extending their influence to the borders of Russia; they were simply encouraging the spread of democracy. All free countries should have the right to join NATO. It is not directed against Russia and has no interest in exploiting the economic resources of the former Soviet Union.  

Everything came to a head in August with the crisis in the Caucasus. This, we were told, confirmed the worst fears about Russia. The Russian bear was not a Teddy but a Grizzly! None of its neighbours was safe from its deadly embrace. A new cold war was upon us.  

The trouble is that no-one quite knows what to do. Dick Cheney, following Condoleeza Rice and David Miliband to the Caucasus, repeats the dire warnings to Russia, whose army, taking its time to leave Georgian soil, seems in no hurry to heed the warnings. The Russians in turn, issue their own warnings. Further U.S., Israeli or other Western military support to Georgia will not be tolerated. Implicit in the Russian warnings is that the admission of Georgia into Nato will also have unspecified but serious consequences. This can only deepen the split in the E.U. where Germany and France have serious misgivings about extending NATO membership to Georgia, while Britain’s foreign secretary, Miliband, has stated categorically that Russia’s actions over South Ossetia will hasten the process of Georgian and Ukrainian membership. In a further snub to NATO the U.S. and the E.U., the Russians have pre-empted the threat of sanctions by indicating their intention to “freeze all military cooperation with Nato and allied countries.” The Russian parliament has voted unanimously to back the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and Russia’s president, Medvedev, has endorsed the decision, thereby recognising their independence. This is more or less where things stand at present. There is no doubt that for all the huffing and puffing in Washington and London, the Russians hold the trump cards.  

References in the British press to a new cold war are not entirely inappropriate. But in resurrecting the old cold war bogies we are being invited to buy in once again to the Manichean world view that bedevilled serious analysis of international relations for nearly fifty years. The Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies were, in Reagan’s words, the “Evil Empire”, while the United States and its Nato allies were defenders of the “Free World.” 

Russia, the West and Realpolitik in Retrospect 

This brings me to the title I have chosen for this column: Too True to be Good. The history of the Cold War is replete with propaganda, myths, hypocrisies, half truths and untruths that have served to obfuscate its realities. The truth behind many of the Cold War myths has been ignored or deliberately concealed because it is too true to be good for those in power who benefit from perpetuating myths. 

The Realities of Realpolitik.  The foreign policies of the powers who have dominated the world from the nineteenth century to the present have been governed by their national interests, which have usually meant the political and economic interests of their governing classes. Moral and ethical considerations, despite frequent claims to the contrary, have had little to do with it. Such realpolitik governed the relations of the “great powers” throughout the nineteenth century. Two of its most notable practitioners were Bismarck and Disraeli, who both had an interest in containing the expansion of Russia through the Black Sea into the Mediterranean, even if this meant propping up the moribund Ottoman Empire. 

During the Second World War Britain and the USA entered into an alliance with Soviet Russia. It was a “marriage of convenience” contracted for the purpose of defeating the bid by German imperialism led by the genocidal Nazi regime, to dominate Europe and the world. This alliance, whatever its raison d’etre, was one which saved humanity from barbarism. But what was conveniently ignored by the Western powers during the Cold War years, and continues to be down-played today is that the Soviet Union played by far the largest part in the defeat of Nazism. To bring home this reality one need only compare the U.S. and Soviet fatalities. The Soviet Union lost between 20 and 25 million dead and had one third of its towns, villages and industrial base destroyed. The USA lost 300,000 dead. Not a single bomb (apart from Pearl harbour) was dropped on American soil. The impact of the Second World War on Russia is indelibly imprinted on the national memory. 

No-one has any doubt about the brutal nature of the Stalinist regime. After the war, Soviet determination never again to allow the country to be encircled or threatened on its western frontiers, led Stalin to control the ring of East European states which constituted its “buffer zone.” This involved the brutal expulsion of several million Germans from Silesia, East Prussia, and the Sudetenland in order to reconstitute the states of Poland and Czechoslovakia. In the circumstances of Germany’s collapse, no-one protested at this early example of what later came to be called “ethnic cleansing” – an unfortunate term echoing the Nazis own racial doctrines and practices. No-one cared about the displacement of millions of Germans whose fate was considered well deserved. Such forced migrations of millions, often accompanied by atrocities, were to become commonplace in the decades that followed. 

Russia and NATO. The establishment of NATO in April 1949 marked the beginning of a new era in U.S. foreign policy. The U.S., at the time the only nuclear power, and the dominant force in the alliance, was extending its sphere of influence to Europe. NATO was obviously directed against the Soviet Union. The “North Atlantic” pretension rang hollow as its members included Italy, Greece and Turkey. Its democratic pretensions were suspect as it included the fascist dictatorship in Portugal. In the words of U.S. Senator Tom Connally, “the Atlantic Pact is but the logical extension of the Monroe Doctrine.”  In reply to a question from Senator Cabot Lodge about whether the U.S. intended to put Germans back in uniform, Secretary of State Dean Acheson replied “We are very clear that the disarmament and demilitarisation of Germany must be complete and absolute.” No ambiguity there. From the onset of the Cold War in 1947-48, the Soviets had become increasingly anxious about the possibility of a rearmed Germany, directed against them. With the division of Germany formalised in 1949, Soviet fears grew. They believed that NATO represented a U.S. led attempt to constitute a military alliance against them, and saw it as a means by which the Western powers could rearm West Germany. On the 9th May 1955 West Germany became a formal member of NATO. On the 14th May, the Soviet Union and its East European allies signed the Warsaw Pact. The order of events is significant.  

In July 1955, at the Geneva summit conference attended by U.S. Soviet, British and French heads of state, the Western leaders assured the Russians that NATO was not directed against the Soviet Union, but was simply a force for peace in Europe. In his memoirs, former Soviet foreign minister Gromyko recounts that Khrushchev and his delegation offered to join NATO. Recovering from the utter consternation into which this threw Eisenhower and Dulles, they asked Gromyko “Was the Soviet Union really being serious?” Gromyko replied “The Soviet Union does not make unserious proposals, especially in such an important forum as this.” “However”, he writes, “it was evident that the Western delegation did not want to discuss our proposal further.”    

This long forgotten episode has uncanny echoes today. Last year, in Moscow, Putin proposed to Bush that the U.S. ballistic missile shield to be placed in the Czech Republic, which is supposedly directed against Iran, could be sited in Russia instead. Putin knows his history better than Bush. The president evidently did not want to discuss the proposal further.

But there is another question that is never asked. What is the strategic purpose of NATO? The Warsaw Pact ceased to exist when the Soviet system collapsed. Why not NATO?  Given the history of the Cold War, the Russian conviction that the alliance is directed against them is hardly surprising. When the U.S. and its NATO allies claim that there is no place in the world today for powerful states carving out “spheres of influence”, it must ring rather hollow in Russian ears.  

I ended my last column with an imaginative reference to Cuba. The Cuban example is instructive in another case. Some of the reports of rising tension in Russia’s relations with its neighbours, have mentioned the determination of the Ukrainian government to reclaim the Russian naval base at Sevastopol on the Black Sea. The lease expires in 2017 and the Ukrainian government (though not, apparently the large Russian minority in the Ukraine) considers it a violation of their sovereignty. In this they have the support of the U.S. and the NATO states, to membership of which the Ukraine aspires. The Russians, it is asserted, must understand that they cannot continue to harbour the illusion that countries like the Ukraine come within their sphere of influence. 

As the whole world knows, the United States maintains a naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. It is held “in perpetuity” as a result of a treaty imposed upon Cuba in 1902. The Cubans don’t want it there and have made clear that they consider it to be a violation of their sovereignty. Their demands for its evacuation have been ignored for nearly fifty years. The Russians are fully aware of the principled moral stand the U.S. government takes in this case and will no doubt act accordingly.  


Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY) and author/co-author of over twenty-five books. Dr. Jonas is one of America’s most perceptive Democratic political analysts.  

Dr. Jonas is a Contributing Author for the webmagazine The Political (; a Columnist for the webmagazine BuzzFlash (; a Special Contributing Editor for Cyrano’s Journal Online (; a Contributing Columnist for the Project for the Old American Century, POAC (; an invited contributor to the weblog The Daily Scare (; and Contributing Editor for the weblog ( inactive). He also has his own weblog, “Dr. J.’s Short Shots, II” (

One comment on “Some inconvenient truths from the Cold War years / By Steven Jonas
  1. I thank Dr Jonas for focusing on a topic so muddled with misinformation and chauvinism as “the Cold War”. The American people have been indoctrinated for more than a century against any form of populist politics—let alone socialism—and the mountain of lies about our true motives for actions abroad could make Mt Everest look like a minor hill. Of course, until at least one-fifth of the populations “gets it together” in terms of our history, social system, etc., there’s no hope of correcting the trajectory of this nation. In any case, thanks again for a much needed article that anyone can access. As Dr Jonas says,

    “The truth behind many of the Cold War myths has been ignored or deliberately concealed because it is too true to be good for those in power who benefit from perpetuating myths….”

    Bull’s eye!

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