HITLER HAD ASSESSED Great Britain and France as weak; they were not disposed to challenge his reassertion of German power. Mussolini followed suit. In the Far East, Japan had taken the line that she, and she alone, would dominate the affairs of east Asia; the imperial powers were decadent and they were far away. Neither Germany and Italy on the one hand, nor Japan on the other, paid a great deal of attention to the two potential giants, Russia and the United States.
Hitler especially was a European politician, continental in his outlook, understanding little of the sea, and extraordinarily ignorant of the United States. More surprising, in view of his anti-Slav and anti-Communist views, was his ignorance of Russia. Perhaps the difficulty lay less in ignorance than in the fact that, in the thirties, both Russia and the United States were free-floating variables as far as world affairs went. The potential was there; what either might do with it was nearly impossible to assess.
Russia was the more immediate of the two. It was impossible even to look at a map of Europe without sensing something of the immensity of Russia. Yet so little was known in the rest of the world of Russia’s strength and attitudes that she remained an unknown element. That was equally true of her government.
The old Tsarist government of the Romanovs had made great contributions to the Allied victory in World War I. Time and again through the war, they had launched offensives at the behest of the western states, and in accordance with the Allies’ timetables rather than their own. Imperial Russia had virtually destroyed itself for its allies, though indeed it was probably rotten enough to go anyway; Trotsky later wrote that without the enthusiasm for the war and the dynasty, the Russian Revolution would have broken out before it did.
After the abdication of the Tsar in 1917, the provisional government tried to remain in the war, faithful to its obligations. It may well be that that, more than any one other decision, killed parliamentary government in Russia. The democratic slogan of “on with the war” was no match for the Communist, Bolshevik cry, “Peace, land, bread.” When the Bolsheviks seized power later in 1917, overthrowing the provisional government, the country broke up in civil war, which lasted until 1920. The Western Allied governments and Japan all intervened in Russia. They sent forces to Murmansk and Archangel, and to Vladivostok in the east, ostensibly to protect the war materials they had already sent Russia. Actually, they gave surreptitious and ineffective help to the counter-revolutionary movement, the Whites.
The Whites had little to offer except a return to the past, however, and they were finally defeated, partly by the genius of Trotsky as the organizer of the Red Army, partly by their own internecine squabbles. The White cause died. In 1920, there was a war with Poland, in which Poland tried to take over the Ukraine, which wanted to break away from Russia anyway. The Poles lost, and when the whole civil war period ended, three things were obvious: The Reds were firmly in power; they thoroughly distrusted the West; and the West already thoroughly distrusted them.
The policy that Lenin and later Stalin produced was as complete a dictatorship as any of those of the right wing; the only difference was that it masqueraded under a different set of slogans. A dictatorship of the proletariat was still a dictatorship, and the state did not wither away in the classic Marxist formula.
Karl Marx, laboring away in the British Museum in the nineteenth century, had discarded Russia as inappropriate for the kind of class revolution he prophesied. He may well have been right. When Lenin died in 1924, there was a power struggle for his mantle. The chief contenders were Leon Trotsky, brilliant, intellectually supple, a figure with a world view, and Joseph Stalin, once the bully-boy of the party, now its secretary, with a spider-like web through all the channels of command. Stalin ended up in control. Trotsky ended up in exile in Mexico City where an assassin buried a geology pick in the back of his head in 1940.
Whether communism might have developed differently had Lenin lived longer, or had Trotsky succeeded him, is impossible to say. Many authorities accuse Stalin of betraying the revolutionary cause, of being a Russian of the Russias, of succumbing to nationalism. He went his own way, he killed his millions, and he must therefore be accounted one of the great forces of the twentieth century.
In 1922, Russia and Germany had allied in the Treaty of Rapallo, the two pariahs of Europe getting together. It was this agreement that let Germany’s officially nonexistent airmen train in Russia, among other things. Then Britain finally accorded diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union in 1924, followed by most of the other European states; it was not until 1933 that the United States acknowledged her existence. Through the late twenties and the early thirties Russia signed nonaggression pacts and mutual-defense treaties with most of the central and east European states, and in 1934, she joined the League of Nations. She was always foremost in saying everyone ought to disarm; perhaps Russia said it too often, because few believed her. More than the Fascists, the Bolsheviks were the bogeymen of the interwar period.
Nonetheless, in 1935, France and Czechoslovakia signed an alliance with her. The timing was by no means accidental: Hitler denounced the disarmament clauses of Versailles in March; Britain, France, and Italy conferred in April; France, Russia, and Czechoslovakia signed their agreement in May. In July, the Third International, the voice of communism outside Russia, declared that Communists would support the democracies against fascism. Next year, Russia was the major prop of the Spanish Republicans against Franco in Spain.
Stalin had the same internal problems other dictators had, and he sought the same kind of solutions. Potential rivals accused of “Trotskyism” were put on trial late in 1936. Throughout the next year possible rivals were arrested and tried in a series of affairs that were called the “Purges.” They reached their height in June when Marshal Michael Tukhachevski, the victor of the Polish War, was executed after a secret court-martial. He and other top officers were accused of plotting with the Germans and the Japanese. The purges eventually did away with most of the higher echelons of the civil, diplomatic, and military service—and most of the men who might have challenged Stalin for power. These affairs seriously discredited Russia abroad; they also politicized the army, which would really pay the price for them in 1940 and 1941.
They further added to the difficulty for western observers in assessing Russia, so that by the time Hitler was ready to move, Russia remained a question mark. Nobody knew what she was worth, or how much she might be counted upon. In central Europe there was an added complication; from the Baltic to the Balkans, they were as scared of the Russians as they were of the Germans.
No one, on the other hand, was scared of the United States. She was far away from the center of things viewed by European eyes, and except for her navy was practically unarmed. Americans spent about 1 percent of their annual budget on all their military forces. There was no conscription for the army and no independent air force. In 1936, the U. S. Army consisted of 110,000 men. The War Department believed it could mobilize for war and call up what reserves it possessed in a month. If it had done so, the force would have been short of trucks, tanks, scout cars, antiaircraft equipment, machine guns, and machine-gun ammunition. In short, the United States hardly had an army.
This was no more than the reflection of the recent past. The United States had probably been the one state to benefit unequivocally from World War I. She had successfully resisted pressure to join overtly in it until 1917. Before then the Americans had produced masses of military material for, and invested large amounts of money in, the Allied cause. In 1917, mostly because of German strategic mistakes about their ability to win the war with submarines, the United States had entered the war. American troops did not reach the front until late in 1917, and they did not fight in large numbers until 1918. The U.S. sustained 109,000 battle deaths, about the same as Bulgaria, and less than half those suffered by Belgium. In 1918, they arrived in France in a flood, and they and their wealth were enough to tip the balance, and give victory to the exhausted Allies.
There were paradoxes in this situation that would come home to haunt the next generation. The Americans believed they had won the war, and in a sense they were right: without the contribution they made, partly in manpower but more in matériel, the Allies almost certainly would have collapsed before Germany did. Yet the Americans had won the war only because Britain and France—and Russia—had fought so hard and so long. World War I was like a tag-team match in which all of the opponents were staggering on the ropes, some of them already beaten, when a fresh player leaped in at the last moment, knocked out the enemy, and then having done little of the work, threw up his hands and shouted, “I won!”
Having won, the Americans went home again.
This was all right as long as the euphoria of victory lasted. Europeans were glad of American help, they recognized its significance, and after it was over, they were glad to have the Americans out of the way so they could return to the traditional ways of managing affairs. The Americans refused to enter into a long-term alliance with France and Britain, and they refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles. In July of 1921, Congress simply passed a resolution, declaring that the war with Germany was over. Most important of all, they refused to join the League of Nations. Their absence told against both the effectiveness of the League and Britain’s leadership of it.
Through the twenties the United States became increasingly preoccupied with its own affairs. An extremely jaundiced view of World War I and what it had been all about sprang up, and many men—not just Americans—of the generation who had fought the war, began to question what it had been about anyway. At a distance of ten years it looked less like a crusade for freedom and democracy than a large confidence trick, foisted on a gullible public by crooked diplomats, arms manufacturers, and backroom politicians. The anti-war movement was in full cry, and a series of great books painted an appalling picture of what the war had really been like. There has always been a vision in the United States of Europeans as a sordid bunch of petty-minded states, and the interwar debunkers did nothing to disabuse the public of it. Americans were busy with their own affairs, foremost among them prohibition. They limited immigration, especially of Asians, and they invoked high tariffs to protect American industry. There was a great deal of labor unrest, there were Communist scares, there were political scandals, and there was unhappiness in the veterans’ organizations.
The things that interested Americans internationally were not such as to make them better disposed toward Europe. There was the ongoing matter of disarmament talks that never seemed to achieve anything solid. There was above all the question of reparations payments and war debts.
Germany at Versailles had agreed to pay war reparations, with the cost to be filled in later. Meanwhile, all of the Allied governments had contracted immense debts to the United States. After the end of the war the United States wanted to be repaid. The other Allies tended to the view that the debts had been incurred in the common cause, and perhaps ought to be canceled. Needless to say, this did not appeal to the American taxpayer. The Allies then proposed that the debtors repay the money, but that payment be contingent upon their, in their turn, receiving reparations from Germany. Since the Allied governments simply did not have the money—there was not enough money in the world to repay the debts—the Americans had to settle for this.
But Germany did not have the money either. She soon defaulted on her reparations, inflated the mark, and went officially bankrupt.
The solution arrived at was logical only to financiers and, presumably, voters. Under the Dawes Plan the United States loaned money to Germany. Germany thereupon paid war reparations to the Allies; they then repaid some of their war debts to the United States, who turned about and loaned more money to Germany. This circular cash flow lasted until the Depression, when everyone defaulted all along the line. The only state that fully paid off its war debt to the United States was the little Baltic state of Finland, independent of Russia after the 1917 revolution. Americans were left to conclude, not entirely accurately, but not entirely inaccurately either, that they had not only been tricked into the war, but had also been tricked into paying for it. Americans were not inclined to take a profound or particularly benevolent interest in Europe in the thirties.
They were mildly interested in the Far East. There has always tended to be an oscillation in American foreign interests, from Europe to East Asia; Russian foreign policy tends to swing, too, between central Europe and the Far East. American interests were upset by the forward Japanese policy in Manchuria, they were outraged by the intervention in China, and they delivered a constant series of protests to the Japanese government. They made it quite clear, however, that they were not going to war over China. If moral suasion would not make the Japanese behave, the United States would not go any farther. Indeed, given the state of its armed forces, the United States could not go any farther. Even if President Roosevelt had wished to pursue a more active foreign policy, there was no way he could have carried popular opinion and Congress with him. Between the end of the Depression and the New Deal social legislation, he was busy enough at home.
Rather than thinking of intervention, the United States thought more in terms of how to stay clear of the mess. In August of 1935, in February of 1936, and definitively in May of 1937, Congress passed a series of Neutrality Acts. They prohibited the export of arms and ammunition to belligerents. Strategic materials designated as such by the President had to be paid for in cash before leaving the United States, and they had to be carried in foreign ships, rather than U. S.-flag vessels. All other materials must be paid for in cash. No American citizen was to take passage on the ship of a belligerent, and there were to be no American loans to any state at war.
The acts illustrated graphically how the Americans thought they had been dragged into World War I, and even more important, how the United States had no intention of being led down the garden path a second time. If Adolf Hitler, out of ignorance, thought he could count the United States out, most Americans completely agreed with him. Once burned, twice shy.