, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

It is now easy to forget how frightening the Cold War was. In particular, it is easy to assume that the outcome was always inevitable: that the triumph of the West and of capitalism was, somehow, hardwired into history. While making it easy to understand why the Soviets were frightened, this distances us from the fears that countries like America and Britain felt and can easily make them look illogically paranoid as a result.

At the time, however, the outcome of the Cold War certainly didn’t feel inevitable. Indeed for long spells during the period between 1945 and 1985, people on both sides of the Iron Curtain, including politicians, felt existentially uncertain about what the future might be. This uncertainty was partly the result of rhetoric, but also of real aggression and, of course, the inexorably growing stockpiles of lethal weapons that the main protagonists had. The uncertainty brought fear, and the fear all too often, and frequently with destructive consequences, was the engine of events.

In the papers of the British Cabinet, there is lots of evidence of this special Cold War fear. One document which expresses it better than most, I think (really capturing the slow, corrosive nature of much of it), is a Top Secret memorandum from 1961 on ‘East-West Relations’.

Prepared for the Cabinet by the Foreign Office, it was completed at an especially worrying moment, just a few weeks before the Soviets threw up the Berlin Wall and when the arms race had started to look like accelerating again. I reproduce extended excerpts from it below. As you read it, consider the indications it contains of British vulnerability and hesitancy, arguably greater than anything that would have been admitted to during the Second World War. These come out through the analysis itself but also in the document’s frustrated, sometimes petulant tone (spiky phrases like ‘apathy and spivvery’ and ‘as they are fond of saying’). Look also at how the authors interpret the signs of Eastern confidence as justifications, in and of themselves, for Western fears. This was the classic Cold War binary, felt in Moscow as much as Washington or London, and more than anything else the reason why it was impossible for peaceful co-existence to work in practice.

The Cold War has attained a certain glamour in retrospect, and rightly so in many ways. But this is a useful reminder of how grindingly depressing it could be too, and of how dizzyingly high the stakes often were. As ever in memoranda from this era, the quality of the Foreign Office drafting is impeccable, the English perfectly situated between formal and informal, and entirely free of management speak. So read it, shiver and enjoy!


The Berlin Wall shortly after it was put up, in August 1961, a terrifying expression of the will to power. Source: BBC




19th JULY 1961

1. It is clear that we are entering a period of increased tension in our relations with the Soviet Union … Briefly the Soviet leaders seem to have arrived at the belief that no important world problem can any longer be settled without their agreement, and that in some cases they can now impose their own solutions. This belief derives from reasonable confidence in their own strength, and a more doctrinaire assessment of Western weakness … [It] is reflected in their toughness of attitude on individual problems such as Laos and disarmament [and] Germany and Berlin …

Soviet Strength

3. Militarily, Mr Khrushchev has said, even the most inveterate enemies of the Soviet Union now concede that she is the strongest Power in the world. Economically, Russia expects to overtake the United States in total production by 1970 and in per capita production soon afterwards. Mr Khrushchev may not entirely believe these claims, and he certainly does not want to put the first to the test of war, but they colour his whole thinking.

4. Internally, the Soviet Union is on the eve of the XXIInd Party Congress. The chief item on the agenda is expected to be the transition from socialism … to communism … It is possible that a definite schedule will be laid down for the progress of the Soviet Union towards communism. Against the background of severe agricultural shortcomings, and a good deal of openly acknowledged and criticised apathy and spivvery, it seems doubtful whether there will in fact be any spectacular transition in the near future. Nevertheless some new formular is likely to be produced, the effect of which will be to bring the vision of communism appreciably closer. The significance of such a step should not be underestimated. For the true believer, communism represents the final stage of mankind’s achievement in the political, economic and social spheres. The prospect of its establishment in the Soviet Union will be of millenary significance for the party, and the general public will certainly be infected by their enthusiasm since it will minister to their national pride.

5. The Russians also take comfort from what appears to them as the spread of their sphere of influence abroad. As they are fond of saying, one-third of the world’s population now live under socialism. And although it is 10 years since communists came to power in any country, their power and prestige has much increased their capacity to win friends and influence people (if only by frightening them).

Capitalist Weakness

6. The counterpart of the advancement of socialism is the decay of capitalism. Here again, to Russian eyes, events have only confirmed the predictions of Marx and Lenin. In “the decisive sphere of human endeavour, the sphere of material production”, the West is falling behind in rate of growth. In the Soviet Union industrial production is increasing by 10 per cent a year, compared with 3 per cent in the United States. In addition, the Russians see evidence of our decadence in our economic difficulties and social problems. Mr Khrushchev’s “worn-out mare of capitalism” is much more than a figure of speech for him and for his audiences. Indeed many of the latter are probably more confident of our decline than they are of their own progress. The idea of a gradual transformation of capitalism … is quite foreign to Marxist or Russian logic.

7. The apparent weakening of Western influence abroad is also attributed to decadence. Our colonies are melting away, and Marxist economists do not expect us to survive for long without the raw materials and the markets which they are alleged to have provided. In Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, Western influence is no longer paramount. Cuba is only the latest example of a process which the Russians regard as continuous and inevitable. The Commonwealth, like the Welfare State, is a phenomenon which does not fit into their scheme of history, and is therefore usually ignored. The idea that a newly or genuinely independent country could for long be seriously opposed to communist or attached to democratic principles is probably beyond the grasp of the Soviet leaders. Mr Khrushchev may genuinely think, as he sometimes says, that in dividing the world into three classes, communist, capitalist and neutral, he is displaying a moderation for which we should be thankful.

Peaceful Co-existence

8. Mr Khrushchev has given us no excuse for misunderstanding this famous slogan, which has only the slightest restraining influence on his policies. “Peaceful co-existence” is “a form of class struggle …” fought by every means short of full-scale war …

The Points at Issue

10. … Even granted that their public statements often go beyond their real convictions, it seems clear that the general mood of the leaders is one of self-confidence and vigour. The following paragraphs deal successively with the Soviet attitude on Germany and Berlin [and] Disarmament and Nuclear Tests …

Germany and Berlin

11. The problem of Germany and Berlin must irritate Mr Khrushchev in several ways:

a. The absence of a settlement is a failure which contrasts with Soviet success elsewhere.

b. It is also out of keeping with the new balance of power as the Russians see it.

c. Mr Khrushchev’s personal prestige … has been engaged since his first ultimatum of November 1958. [This was when the Soviet premier gave Britain, France and the USA 6 months to pull out of West Berlin. On the expiry of the deadline he had taken no punitive action, only suggesting talks, and thus leaving himself open to the charge that he had lost face.]

d. The present situation prevents the consolidation of the East German State, whose present weakness discredits and debilitates the whole satellite system, and even makes its whole future questionable.

e. The growth of the power of the Federal German Republic must be genuinely alarming to any Russian. Mr Khrushchev cannot crush the Federal German Chancellor, Dr Adenauer, but Berlin provides an opportunity to clip his wings.

12. … The general [Russian] argument is [always] the same. The continued absence of a peace treaty between Germany and her conquers is an anomaly and a source of danger. It is time to “draw a line under the Second World War”, to “put a seal on the position which actually exists” … East Germany is a sovereign State, having East Berlin as its capital. West Berlin is economically and culturally linked with West Germany, but does not form part of it … West Berlin must be given a definite international status, which Mr Khrushchev suggests should be that of a free city. But whether or not the Western Allies and the Federal Republic agree with these plans, the Soviet Union intends, together with other “peaceloving” States, to sign a treaty with East Germany “at the end of the year”. After that, “countries wishing to maintain ties with West Berlin will have to reach agreement with the German Democratic Republic on ways of access to West Berlin and communications with the city”. And “if any country… crosses the frontiers – land, air or water – of another, that country will assume full responsibility for the consequences of the aggression and will receive a proper rebuff”; in other words, an Allied airlift no less than a land probe would be likely to evoke a Soviet response…

15. They know that this method of proceeding may bring about a major crisis, but believe that (a) while it lasts, they are better able to withstand it than we are, and (b) it can be solved with some substantial gains to themselves, given the vulnerability of the Western position in Berlin to pressure short of nuclear war, and the unwillingness of the West to take any nuclear initiative.

16. They are preparing for a crisis in various ways. The 20th anniversary of Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union [22nd June 1961] was made the occasion for warning their own people that the “imperialist[s]”, who started the last war, are busy trying to start another, and that the Soviet Union is strong enough and well enough prepared to knock these attempts on the head – or, if another war comes, to win it …

18. The peace treaty with East Germany is obviously not an end in itself, though it will confer some extra prestige on the DDR. Mr Khrushchev’s minimum objectives in this whole operation are no doubt to:

a. Force the Western Allies into some de facto recognition of the DDR in order to secure access to Berlin (he himself said that de jure recognition would not be necessary for this purpose).

b. Achieve a firmer and more widely recognised definition of the East German frontier…

19. … After the minimum objectives were achieved, there would remain the major tasks of stopping the flow of refugees to West Germany via West Berlin, in order to consolidate the DDR, and … of squeezing out the troops of the Western Powers, in order to absorb West Berlin into the DDR…

Disarmament and Nuclear Tests

20. Six months ago … the Soviet leaders appeared to be genuinely convinced that a negotiated disarmament agreement was both a desirable and a feasible objective … The same appeared to be true of their attitude on the banning of nuclear tests … The latest evidence, however, points the other way on both subjects…

21. On disarmament, Mr Khrushchev has expressed the belief that the Western Powers “did not and, to be frank, do not want disarmament to this day” … Simultaneously, an article in the Soviet foreign affairs journal “International Life” seems designed to prepare the ground for the failure of the Washington talks and to throw the blame on the Americans in advance…

23. A similar calculation seems to lie behind the Soviet volte-face on nuclear tests. From being ready to negotiate a ban on the basis of a control system whose day-to-day work would be supervised by a single neutral Administrator, they have switched to insistence on the Administrator’s replacement by a three-man board, on the standard troika pattern, and a suggestion  that nuclear tests and disarmament be discussed “in their interdependence”, i.e. simultaneously … The explanation is probably complex. Mr Khrushchev spoke on 21st June of new Soviet nuclear devices which he said need practical testing. He may think that the price in terms of control is too heavy for the gain involved in formalising a de facto ban. He may well also believe that the Chinese are not going to be deterred from making and testing their own nuclear weapons, whatever the Soviet Union may agree to. He has therefore sidetracked the negotiations in Geneva, and is trying to merge them into the general problem of disarmament … If the United States responds by resuming testing, he will gladly do the same, of course proclaiming that his hand has been forced…

Foreign Office, S.W.1.

In the event, the USSR did not wait for the USA to resume testing. This is the mushroom cloud from Tsar Bomba, which was detonated by the Russians in October 1961. It is still the biggest nuclear weapon ever exploded. Source: Wikipedia.