Commentary Magazine

Peace in Our Time?

That the cold war should come to an end is indeed a rational wish shared by the overwhelming majority of people on both sides of the Iron Curtain. This wish is particularly strong among us whose instincts still long for the normalcy of isolation from the risks and liabilities of world politics and who find ourselves engaged in a contest for the world only (so we like to think) through the ill will of the enemy. If the Russians would only change, if they would only liberalize their domestic affairs and be less harsh in the conduct of their foreign policy (so the reasoning goes), we could “normalize” our relations with the Communist bloc, disarm, and live happily ever after. Thus we continuously search for the swallow which will make a summer, and whenever we feel a little less cold than we did yesterday we imagine a “thaw” in the cold war.

The emotions from which such expectations spring are honorable and generous, but they are politically blind, and pernicious if translated into action. And it makes no difference whether they manifest themselves as euphoric statements by high government officials, as involuted theories about polycentrism by former diplomats, as indiscriminate trading with the enemy by businessmen, or as the longing of the man in the street for peace and quiet and lower taxes.

Paradoxically enough, these manifestations of a decent aspiration for peace are actually a threat to peace; for they are a source of weakness in judgment and action, and hence they encourage and strengthen the enemy. Of decent emotion engendering futile and self-defeating policies, Neville Chamberlain has become the historic symbol. We pride ourselves on having learned the lessons of Chamberlain’s appeasement. But in truth we have only learned half the lesson. On the one hand, equating negotiations with appeasement, we have shied away from negotiated settlements even when there was a chance for them, as in 1953 after Stalin’s death. On the other hand, we have yielded to pressure where the enemy was, or gave the appearance of being, strong—e.g., Hungary in 1956 and Cuba in 1962—and we have foregone the opportunity of offering inducements and exerting pressure when the enemy was weak, as he is at present. We have, moreover, been unable to shed the illusion that civilized social intercourse among nations whose interests clash is somehow conducive to peace, and that the cold war could easily be ended if the antagonists would only treat each other in a more friendly and reasonable fashion. These attitudes and the policies springing from them have not brought peace but only a fleeting illusion of peace, for they leave the conflicts of interest from which the cold war arose and on which it has fed exactly as they found them.

The next to the latest euphoric interval occurred in 1959 in the aftermath of Mr. Khrushchev’s visit to the United States; its symbol was the “spirit of Camp David.” At that time I assumed in this magazine1 the thankless task of contrasting the illusory character of that “relaxation of tensions” with the inescapable realities of the cold war. Today we are living in another such interval, and the thankless task must be performed again. It is, indeed, even more urgent today than it was in 1959 because then our illusion was primarily intellectual and had no great political consequences, whereas today that same illusion is reflected in policies advantageous to the enemy. Responsible people are even talking about “replacing” the cold war with the war against poverty, as though the cold war had already come to an end.

In order to see our present condition in its true perspective, it is necessary to remind ourselves again of the origin and the nature of the cold war. The cold war arose in the aftermath of the Second World War from a conflict of interests, operating on two different levels, between the Western world and the Soviet Union. On the level of traditional power politics, that conflict has centered upon the control of Europe and, in particular, Germany. On the level of competing philosophies and social and political systems, the issue is the control of the world. The substance of these two great issues has remained constant for almost two decades. Only their modalities have been transformed, in that all-out nuclear war has been ruled out as a rational instrument of national policy and the struggle for the world is being waged primarily through political and economic competition and through what Mr. Khrushchev calls “wars of national liberation.” Has anything happened to affect this picture in any material way?

Secretary of State Dean Rusk, in his press conference of January 2, 1964, answered that question by enumerating five changes which in his view have contributed to the improvement of relations between the United States and the Soviet Union: the establishment of a “hot-line” teletype link between Washington and Moscow; the limited nuclear test-ban treaty; the United Nations resolution prohibiting weapons of mass destruction in orbit; negotiations for wheat purchases between the Soviet Union and the United States; the suspension by the Soviet Union of its jamming of the Voice of America. It is hardly necessary to demonstrate in detail that the Secretary of State has, by implication, given a negative answer to our question. None of these five changes has any bearing upon the substance of the cold war, while only one of them bears upon its modalities, and in a way that is detrimental to the interests of the United States.

The “hot line” facilitates communications between Washington and Moscow, but obviously the all-important question as to the kind of communications to be transmitted is not answered one way or the other by the installation of this politically neutral device. The limited test-ban treaty transforms into a temporary multilateral obligation the technological necessity, which had previously been observed by the nuclear powers unilaterally, to stop testing for a considerable period of time after the completion of a series of tests. The United Nations resolution prohibiting weapons of mass destruction in orbit is a recommendation which the United States and the Soviet Union have been able to accept because they are at present incapable of doing what the recommendation asks them not to do (though both nations are engaged in research exploring the usefulness of outer space for purposes of war). The sale of wheat—as we shall see in greater detail in a moment—helps the Soviet Union to wage the cold war, but does nothing to liquidate it. Finally, the decision to cease jamming is a peripheral measure which may be due to any number of technical or political reasons but does not affect the substance of the cold war.

While the issues over which the cold war started, then, still divide the United States and the Soviet Union today, three interrelated changes have occurred in recent years which add up to a drastic deterioration of the position of the Soviet Union: the conflict with China, the weakening of control over its allies, and an economic crisis of the first order.

The issue dividing the Soviet Union and China is in the short run the leadership of world Communism; in the long run it is the same issue that currently divides the United States and the Soviet Union: who shall inherit the earth? On the one hand, the Soviet Union has been able to stifle the economic development of China by severing economic relations. On the other hand, in the dispute as to who is the true exponent of Marxism-Leninism, the Chinese—both objectively and in the eyes of many Communists, especially outside the developed industrial nations—have had the better of the argument. Indeed, Khrushchev and Togliatti are today defending the positions which Bernstein and Kautsky held fifty years ago, while Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai are advancing the arguments which Lenin and Trotsky formulated then.

This conflict between the Soviet Union and China has weakened the control of the Soviet Union over its allies, for it provides the allies with an alternative to the Soviet connection. And while only Albania has openly defied the Soviet Union and taken the side of China, by being able to do so with impunity it has set an example for the other allies of the Soviet Union. Thus Cuba has refused to sign the test-ban treaty; Rumania has defied the Soviet Union in its plans for a division of economic labor within the Communist bloc which would have inhibited Rumanian industrial development; and Poland has, however cautiously, tried to play the Chinese off against the Russians in order to gain a greater measure of national independence.

Finally, and most importantly, the crisis of agricultural production, endemic in all Communist countries, has become acute in the Soviet Union. The Soviet economic system has proved incapable of providing “guns and butter” plus consumer goods at the same time, and is in consequence undergoing a drastic reallocation of resources. This economic crisis is bound to impose severe limitations upon the Soviet Union’s ability to keep pace with the United States in the armaments race and to make political use of its economic resources through the instruments of foreign aid and trade.



One does not need to be an expert in foreign policy in order to notice that this triple crisis in which the Soviet Union finds itself today opens up new and unprecedented opportunities for Western initiative. Common sense will, tell us that, given the relativity of power, the weakness of our enemy is a source of strength for us—provided we know how to use that weakness to further our own interests. This is not the place to spell out these opportunities; nor is it possible for the outsider to analyze such opportunities in detail. It is sufficient for the purposes of this discussion to state the general principle which ought to guide our policies, and to judge the policies we are actually pursuing in the light of that principle.

There is only one lesson nations will readily learn, and that is the lesson of necessity. This is particularly true of a nation like the Soviet Union, which combines the traditional objectives of a great imperial power with the world-wide aspirations of the leader of a revolutionary movement. Nations will stop when they realize that to advance entails risks greater than the benefits to be expected, and they will retreat when they realize that the advantages to be gained from retreat outweigh those to be expected from standing pat. The art of diplomacy consists in presenting the enemy with inducements, in the form of advantages and liabilities, for doing what one wants him to do.



Applying this principle to the present stage of the cold war, one would think that the West is in an excellent bargaining position vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. It has for sale what the Soviet Union desperately needs—agricultural products and industrial machinery—and it could use that need as a diplomatic lever to gain concessions concerning the Soviet Union’s control over Eastern Europe and, more particularly, East Germany, the Western presence in Berlin, the Soviet military presence in Cuba, its subversive activities throughout the world (especially through the instrumentality of Cuba), and disarmament. As I wrote in the New York Times Magazine on September 20, 1959:

Yet it is exactly because trade between the United States and the Soviet Union poses an issue which is not primarily economic but political that it could be affected by a political agreement. An American concession in the form of increased trade might be a proper price for a Russian guarantee of the status quo in Berlin, especially since it could be enlarged, decreased, or cancelled altogether, as circumstances might require. Foreign trade is by its very nature a most flexible instrument of foreign policy and can be a most potent one, provided one side has a much greater interest in trading than the other. The use of foreign trade in the Russian manner—that is, as a political instrument rather than in an economic context—offers the United States a bargaining power of which it has not even begun to take advantage.

“Idiotic” is not too strong a term to characterize the Western response to these opportunities—“idiotic” meaning, according to Webster, “foolish; senseless.” For we have welcomed the present crisis in the Communist camp as an opportunity for trade, and we are willing to sell the Communist nations everything they ask for from wheat through buses and airplanes to whole petrochemical plants.

In order to understand the folly of this commercial approach to issues of high policy, it is first necessary to point to the obsolescence of the traditional distinction between strategic and non-strategic trade. The total war Communism has been waging against the West since Lenin accounts for that obsolescence. Ideally, foreign trade is carried on by private enterprise for the purpose of private gain. Actually, however, governments have time and again endeavored to use foreign trade as an instrument of national policy. “Dollar diplomacy” is a case in point.

The leaders of the Soviet Union have consistently laid the greatest stress upon the expansion of foreign trade. They have evoked memories of Cobden and Bright, the leaders of the Manchester liberals of a century ago, as well as of our own former Secretary of State Cordell Hull, with their emphasis on what foreign trade can do for private profits and international peace. They have consistently shown a particular interest in whole industrial plants rather than manufactured goods. But the Russian leaders are not Manchester liberals. They have wanted foreign trade not for the commercial purposes our businessmen want it for, but in order to gain the political strength necessary to achieve the universal triumph of Communism. As Lenin put it: “We welcomed Genoa [the International Economic Conference at Genoa in April 1922], we understood perfectly well, and did not conceal it that we were going there as merchants because trade with capitalistic countries is absolutely essential for us (so long as they have not yet collapsed).” Khrushchev was even more explicit when he said in 1957: “We declare war upon you . . . in the peaceful field of peaceful production. We are relentless in this, and it will prove the superiority of our system.” And in 1952 Stalin also voiced his confidence in the profit motive of Western businessmen as an instrument through which the Soviet Union would be made strong enough for its final triumph.



It is against this background of consistent Soviet attitudes and policies with regard to foreign trade and the accentuation of these attitudes and policies owing to the present critical weakness of the Soviet Union that one must judge the Russians’ current lack of aggressiveness and our response to it. The supremacy of the Soviet Union in the Communist camp is seriously threatened by Chinese competition, and in order to counter this threat the Soviet Union must be able to demonstrate to the world Communist movement that its policies are more likely to have beneficial results than those advocated by China. Thus the Soviet Union must be able to point at least to a semblance of successes in its dealings with the Western world. The partial test-ban treaty, enormously oversold by Soviet propaganda, has been important for the Soviet Union primarily as such an argument against Chinese competition.

The Soviet Union is compelled by the dynamics of that competition to search for other successes, real or apparent. It might find one in the placing of stationary ground observers on both sides of the Iron Curtain in order to prevent a conventional surprise attack. Such an arrangement would be innocuous because those observers could observe nothing that ordinary intelligence could not detect more completely and reliably, and it would also be meaningless since no government in its senses could seriously consider a conventional surprise attack in the center of Europe. It is exactly for these reasons that such an agreement has a better chance of being concluded than others that have been discussed.

As long as the Soviet Union can hope to follow up the test-ban treaty with other agreements, it will persist in its present non-aggressive attitude. If, however, this hope should fail, the Russians would then be compelled by the very same dynamics of their competition with China to compete with the latter in revolutionary militancy. For if the Soviet Union can no longer demonstrate that its policies—in contrast to the Chinese—strengthen Communism without increasing the risks of war, it must at least show that its revolutionary militancy is second to none.

Yet this alternative is unlikely to be of much avail to the Soviet Union. For China can counter by pointing to the advantages it is reaping in spite, or by virtue, of its militancy. Do not Western businessmen compete with each other for the privilege of trading with China, just as they do with the Soviet Union? And if Chinese militancy has not opened the door to the uncommitted nations, the United Nations, and general international respectability, it certainly has done nothing to close it.

I am not arguing here against Western trade with Communist nations per se. I am only arguing in favor of the proposition that foreign trade has a different meaning for Communist nations than it has for us. Trade with Communist nations is a political act which has political consequences. It is folly to trade, or for that matter to refuse to trade, with Communist nations without concern for these political consequences. There is no reason to object to our selling a Communist country goods it needs in exchange for goods we need. There is no reason to object to trading with Communist countries like Yugoslavia, if such trade promises political results favorable to our interests. But it is a folly, comparable to that of selling scrap iron to Japan in the 30′s, to stabilize the Castro regime by trading with a Cuba that is today the most important training center for Communist subversion throughout the world and to equip the Soviet Union and China with whole industrial plants and transportation systems which will then be used as weapons in the political, military, and economic offensives of Communism against the West.

That folly is compounded in the case of trade with China. The Soviet Union terminated its economic relations with China, especially in the form of aid, at the beginning of the 60′s because it did not find it in its interest to supply the economic foundations for the power of a hostile China. An industrially developed China, whose population might then approach a billion, would be the most powerful nation on earth, more powerful than either the Soviet Union or the United States. It is extremely doubtful that China, in view of the numbers and poverty of its population, could find within her own borders the resources for such industrial development if she is not supplied with capital and goods from abroad. She would then remain for the foreseeable future a weak and fragile giant, a threat to her immediate neighbors but not to the two superpowers.

The Soviet Union has understood this prospect and has left China to her own economic devices. Yet with that blind and self-destructive folly which is the quality of men and nations whom fate has doomed, Western governments and businessmen are rushing into the gap left by the Russian withdrawal, replacing the Soviet Union as a source of capital and goods for China. But is China less hostile, and will she be less dangerous, to the West if and when she has become an advanced industrial nation, than she is, and will be, to the Soviet Union? Obviously, the West has at least as good reason as the Soviet Union to fear a powerful China. If it is in the interest of the Soviet Union not to help China become a modern industrial nation, it is by the very same token in the interest of the West.

Yet while the Soviet Union knows its interest and acts upon it, the West does not know it and, insofar as it does, is unable to act upon it. Marx said that the capitalists would be their own grave-diggers. Western businessmen, so staunchly anti-Communist when it costs nothing, except perhaps freedom of speech for others, seem bent upon proving that Marx was right.


1 “Khrushchev's New Cold War Strategy.” November 1959.

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