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Home | Cold War Turns Hot | The Armed Forces Integrate | What the Experts Say

Stalin's Fear of America

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Biewen: And Stalin, how would you describe his perception of the Americans as a threat?

Weathersby: In 1949, 1950, at least until November of [1949], Stalin was extremely worried about war with the U.S.. He had almost lost the whole game in the summer of 1941 when the Germans attacked the Soviet Union. They came very close to taking control of the entire country. Stalin came very close to losing everything. Germany was much stronger than the Soviet Union at that time. So he had a very healthy respect for the danger that his country could fall, his regime could fall. At the end of World War II, the U.S. was the only industrialized power that had not had the war fought on its own territory. It had an enormous preponderance of the economic wealth, the productive capacity of the world. An enormous proportion of it was held by the United States.

The Soviet Union had been devastated by the war. And so Stalin knew that he needed a period of some years to recover from the war before he was ready to fight the Americans. It's not that he wanted to avoid war in general; he thought that eventually Communism would come to power everywhere and it would come to power through a war. It was not entirely clear what he thought about the ultimate inevitability of war with the U.S. and the rest of the capitalist world, but generally speaking he seemed to, I think, assume that that would eventually happen. But he didn't want it to happen until the Soviets were ready to win it, to put it most simply. And certainly four years after the end of World War II they were not ready.

What we know however from the record is that Stalin changed his mind in early January. He changed his mind about all of East Asia, not only about Korea - this is important. The first signal of his changing his mind had to do with his relations with the Communist government in China, which had come to power just in October of '49. The next month, Mao Tse-Tung, the leader of Communist China, came to Moscow to conclude a treaty. Now China was poor to begin with but had been devastated by civil war for a couple of decades and it desperately needed Soviet assistance; even though the Soviets themselves were rebuilding, still they were in a better position than the Chinese were.

So [Mao] desperately needed Soviet support economically, Soviet support militarily, Soviet support diplomatically. And the Soviets were the big brother in the Communist world. It was natural for Mao to do that. So he went to Moscow to conclude this, but it's very interesting what happened. When he first met with Stalin in December of '49 - so just two months after he came to power - he said that he wanted to create a new treaty to replace the treaty that Stalin had concluded in 1945 with the nationalist government. So this was another piece to this end-of-the-war set of agreements that Stalin had concluded. Well, like the agreement on the 38th parallel in Korea, the agreement with the Chinese nationalists, first of all, was beneficial to Stalin. It gave him rights in Manchuria among other things. But secondly it was part of his broader worldwide agreement with the Americans and the British, which had given him a lot. And in December of 1949 he was not willing to violate that. And he told Mao, even though Mao was a great Communist revolutionary hero, had just brought Communism to China, still Stalin told him he would not conclude a treaty because it would be a violation of the Yalta Agreement and he did not want to do that. So that's quite interesting. However, on January 2 he informed Mao that he now was willing to conclude a treaty. So that's why I think that this change happened as a result of what was adopted in Washington the end of December. News of which would have reached him through Donald Maclean.

So [Stalin] then proceeded to start making a treaty with the Chinese Communists which was a very big violation of the Yalta Agreement, and they said so openly and in their first meeting Mao said, Well, isn't this going to make the Americans upset? It's a violation of the Yalta. Stalin said, Yeah, but to hell with Yalta. Once we start changing things let's go all the way. And in fact he did go then further.

He also recognized very quickly Ho Chi Minh as the legitimate leader of Vietnam and he instructed the Communist Party in Japan to adopt an aggressive policy. He had instructed them until then to adopt a restrained, defensive policy, not to antagonize the Americans unduly. But now in January of '50 he instructed them to begin engaging in massive strikes and to disrupt the whole country. So it was a forward policy in all of East Asia. It looks to me as I saw the evidence that he saw a power vacuum, that the Americans had decided that they could not intervene on the mainland of Asia so Stalin is pushing forward. Korea was a part of that.

Next: The Korean Civil War