Excerpts from “The Cold War”

Walter Lippman

1947

My objection… to the policy of containment is not that it seeks to confront the Soviet power with American power, but that the policy is misconceived, and must result in a misuse of American power. For as I have sought to show, it commits this country to a struggle which has for its objective nothing more substantial than the hope that in ten or fifteen years the Soviet power will, as the result of long frustration, “break up” or “mellow.” In this prolonged struggle the role of the United States is, according to Mr. X, to react “at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points” to the encroachments of the Soviet power.

The policy, therefore, concedes to the Kremlin the strategical initiative as to when, where and under what local circumstances the issue is to be joined. It compels the United States to meet the Soviet pressure at these shifting geographical and political points by using satellite states, puppet governments and agents which have been subsidized and supported, though their effectiveness is meager and their reliability uncertain. By forcing us to expend our energies and our substance upon these dubious and unnatural allies on the perimeter of the Soviet Union, the effect of the policy is to neglect our natural allies in the Atlantic community, and to alienate them.

They are alienated also by the fact that they do not wish to become, like the nations of the perimeter, the clients of the United States in whose affairs we intervene, asking as the price of our support that they take the directives of their own policy from Washington. They are alienated above all by the prospect of war, which could break out by design or accident, by miscalculation or provocation, if at any of these constantly shifting geographical and political points the Russians or Americans became so deeply engaged that no retreat or compromise was possible. In this war their lands would be the battlefield. Their peoples would be divided by civil conflict. Their cities and their fields would be the bases and the bridgeheads in a total war which, because it would merge into a general civil war, would be as indecisive as it was savage…

… I am contending that the American diplomatic effort should be concentrated on the problem created by the armistice—which is on how the continent of Europe can be evacuated by the three non-European armies which are now inside Europe. This is the problem which will have to be solved if the independence of the European nations is to be restored. Without that there is no possibility of a tolerable peace. But if these armies withdraw, there will be a very different balance of power in the world than there is today, and one which cannot easily be upset. For the nations of Europe, separately and in groups, perhaps even in unity, will then, and then only, cease to be the stakes and the pawns of the Russian-American conflict.…

The terms of the problem were defined at Yalta in the winter of 1945. There, with a victory over Germany in sight, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin made a military settlement which fixed the boundaries where the converging armies were to meet, and were to wait while the governments negotiated the terms of peace which would provide for the withdrawal of the armies. The crucial issue in the world today is whether the Yalta military boundary, which was intended to be provisional for the period of the armistice, is to become the political boundary of two hostile coalitions.

The Yalta line registered an agreed estimate by Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin as to what would be the actual military situation at the close of hostilities. They knew that the Red Army would be in Warsaw, Bucharest, Budapest, Belgrade and Sofia. So Churchill and Roosevelt recognized that the military boundary for the armistice would place eastern Europe within the Soviet sphere. The British, on the other hand, were in Athens; the British-Americans were in Italy: therefore, Stalin recognized that Italy and Greece would be within the British and American sphere. The Americans, it was evident, were paramount in the Pacific and would play the leading part in the defeat of Japan. So the United States was recognized as the paramount power in Japan. There was some doubt as to where the Red Army and the western armies would meet in Germany and Austria. The Yalta line was, therefore, the result of a combined military estimate of where they would probably find themselves when the German resistance had finally been crushed. Actually the Americans advanced beyond that line. But at Yalta it was by no means certain that they would reach that line, and there is excellent authority for saying that Mr. Churchill felt he had made as good a bargain as British-American military prospects warranted.…

The Yalta military boundary was the datum line from which the diplomatic settlement of the war had necessarily to begin. It was, I believe, at this juncture that American diplomacy became confused, lost sight of the primary and essential objective, and became entangled in all manner of secondary issues and disputes in the Russian borderlands.

The British and the Americans, of course, could not accept the permanent division of the European continent along the Yalta line. They could not accept a settlement in which Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Rumania and Bulgaria would lose all independence and become incorporated as Soviet republics in the U.S.S.R. They had a debt of honor to the countless patriots in those lands. They realized that if the frontiers of the Soviet system were extended as far west as the middle of Germany and Austria, then not only Germany and Austria but all western Europe might fall within the Russian sphere of influence and be dominated by the Soviet Union.

Thus for the best of reasons and with the best of motives they came to the conclusion that they must wage a diplomatic campaign to prevent Russia from expanding her sphere, to prevent her from consolidating it, and to compel her to contract it. But they failed to see clearly that until the Red Army evacuated eastern Europe and withdrew to the frontiers of the Soviet Union, none of these objectives could be achieved.

Had they seen clearly the significance of the military situation, they would not have committed the United States to anything in eastern Europe while the Soviet government had the power to oppose it, while the United States had no power to enforce it. They would have taken and noted the pledges and promises to respect the independence and the freedom of the nations of eastern Europe which Stalin gave them at Yalta. But they would not have committed the United States to a guarantee that Stalin would keep his pledges while his army was occupying eastern Europe.

For since the United States could not make good this guarantee, the onus of the violation of the pledges was divided between the Russians, who broke them, and the Americans, who had promised to enforce them and did not. It would have been far better to base our policy on the realities of the balance of power; to let Stalin, who made the promises which he alone could fulfill, take the whole responsibility for breaking them; to concentrate our effort on treaties of peace which would end the occupation of Europe.

For if, and only if, we can bring about the withdrawal of the Red Army from the Yalta line to the new frontier of the Soviet Union—and simultaneously, of course, the withdrawal of the British and American armies from continental Europe—can a balance of power be established which can then be maintained. For after the withdrawal, an attempt to return would be an invasion—an open, unmistakable act of military aggression. Against such an aggression, the power of the United States to strike the vital centers of Russia by air and by amphibious assault would stand as the opposing and deterrent force. And until treaties are agreed to which bring about the withdrawal of the Red Army, the power of the United States to strike these vital centers would be built up for the express purpose of giving weight to our policy of ending the military occupation of Europe.

All the other pressures of the Soviet Union at the “constantly shifting geographical and political points,” which Mr. X is so concerned about—in the Middle East and in Asia—are, I contend, secondary and subsidiary to the fact that its armed forces are in the heart of Europe. It is to the Red Army in Europe, therefore, and not to ideologies, elections, forms of government, to socialism, to communism, to free enterprise, that a correctly conceived and soundly planned policy should be directed.

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