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The United States and Origins of the Cold War, 1917 – 1945


Lawrence C. Jorgensen, 1971

NOTE: This series originally appeared in the Los Angeles News Advocate, 1971, an "alternative" weekly primarily directed toward the liberal Catholic community. Begun and operated by Tom Ritt, a long time Catholic lay activist and writer, the News Advocate espoused a form of Catholic Liberation theology. Recovering from a 1969 heart attack, and trying to avoid the kind of direct, physical action that might precipitate another, I joined Ritt as an Associate editor and contributor in 1970. In 1972, the United States Post Office forced the closure of the News Advocate by refusing to renew the bulk and 4th class mailing privileges. In any case, Ritt had a good three-year run. I have not changed anything, including the religious references or those statements that are clearly anachronistic. To Tom Ritt, of "Gather Around the Stake" Pacifica radio fame, RIP. -- LCJ, 1997.


"...and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free." -- John, 8:32

"The Christian responsibility is not to one side or the other in the power struggle:
it is to God and truth, and to the whole of mankind." ---Thomas Merton

"...the only honorable course will be to stake everything on a formidable gamble:
that words are more powerful than munitions." -- Albert Camus



Henry L. Mencken, one of this country’s truly great and independent journalists, once wrote:

"The only way that Democracy can be made bearable is by developing and cherishing a class of men sufficiently honest and disinterested to challenge the prevailing quacks. No such class has ever appeared in strength in the United States. Thus the business of harassing quacks revolves upon the newspapers. When they fail in their duty, which is usually, we are at the quacks’ mercy."

In the some twenty-five years since H.L. Mencken wrote the above, the newspapers have generally continued to fail in their duty. Worse, they have become, in the main, implements of the very quackery that they ought to combat. It is my hope and feeling, however, that just such a class is developing in this country; you may call them "new left" historians; you may call them "revisionists;" you may call them anything you wish. But they are men and women who are and – if allowed – will continue to increasingly challenge the prevailing quackery of orthodoxy.

The orthodoxy or traditional interpretation of the origins of the "cold war" has numerous advocates, disciples, and defenders. One of the most prestigious of these has been Professor Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., advisor to presidents, near-presidents and would-be presidents. According to Schlesinger, that interpretation,

"as originally set forth by the American government and as reaffirmed by most American scholars until recently, has been that the Cold War was the brave and essential response of free men to communist aggression ... And that classical Russian imperialism and Pan-Slavism, compounded after 1917 by Leninist Messianism, confronted the West at the end of the Second World War with an inexorable drive for domination."

"Communist aggression ... classical Russian imperialism and Pan-Slavism ... Leninist Messianism ... an inexorable drive for domination" – strong, very strong charges, indeed; but misleading and misinforming slogans they are, nonetheless. Truth, justice, international understanding, and peace – goals of decent men and women everywhere – are not served by dividing the world into "good guys" and "bad guys," into saints and devils, into "free men" and followers of an Anti-Christ.

To argue this way is not to defend, exonerate, or apologize for the principles and policies of Communism in general or those of the Soviet Union in particular, domestic or foreign. Freedom is best served by freedom; truth is best served by truth; and understanding is best served by understanding. It is to these goals that this essay is directed, and to no other.



The Cold War is the continuing political, ideological and, at times, military conflict between the Soviet Union and its enemies. While there is an essential continuity contained in this conflict, this "cold war" may be divided into two relatively distinct periods. The first period began with the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia in November, 1917, and it lasted until the death of President Franklin Roosevelt in April, 1945.

During this first period, numerous non- and anti-Communist governments allied themselves, explicitly or implicitly, into an anti-Soviet alliance, that was temporarily suspended by the rise of a re-militarized and aggressively expansionist Germany under the leadership of Adolph Hitler. Great Britain and France eventually decided to resist that expansion, and that decision – temporarily and in the name of expediency – allied Great Britain, France, and finally the United States to the Soviet Union, who was also a victim of German aggression.

The United States did not initiate the "cold war" in 1917; that dubious distinction falls, I think, to Great Britain and France; nor was the United States the leader of the anti-Soviet bloc. However, the United States was a member of that coalition, and a most active member at that, until Franklin Roosevelt’s first administration when certain domestic and international problems forced the United States government to lessen its official hostility to the Bolshevik regime in Soviet Russia. The Great Depression of the 1930s, and the resulting need for the United States to seek additional external markets for its surplus products, combined with the growing fear in Washington of Japanese expansion in Asia to produce a willingness on the part of the Roosevelt administration to alter Untied States policy toward the Soviet Union.

Though the necessities of the Second World War required an official alliance between the United States and Soviet Russia, upon the death of Roosevelt and the elevation of Harry Truman to the Presidency, the old opposition and then hostility to the Soviet Union returned, a return facilitated by the knowledge that the defeat of Germany and Japan was assured and that the need for Soviet assistance was no longer present.

This begins the second period of the "Cold war," and in this phase, the United States became the acknowledged leader of the anti-Soviet coalition. Because of its assumption and imposition as the political, economic, military, and ideological leader of the anti-Soviet, anti-Communist, and anti-leftist forces in the world, the United States must accept the major responsibility for the break-up of the war-time alliance and for the suspicion, hostility, anxieties, fears and military conflicts that have marked the past quarter of a century.

Please notice that I did not call the United States the leader of the "free world" in the struggle against the Soviet – or Communist – world. That is obviously nonsense, regardless of what the current President of the United States would have its people believe. Not only is this in fact untrue, but it is terribly unfair and discourteous to numerous of the governments that do continue to "follow" the United States: Spain, Turkey, Portugal, Greece, Nationalist China, South Korea, Thailand, South Vietnam, Iran, Brazil, etc., all of whom, probably, are anti-Soviet and anti-Communist, but none of whom qualify as "free."

All nation states, the people who comprise them as well as the individuals who rule them, judge the world around them according to the interaction of two forces. The first of these is the general cultural or ideological perspective through which the actions of the world are perceived and evaluated. The United States, for example, is primarily capitalistic, Christian, and liberal; consequently, the people and the rulers of this country would view world events differently than, say, a country that was a monarchy, feudal, and Buddhist.

To Russia and the Russian culture of 1917, the Bolsheviks brought a highly dynamic and revolutionary ideoloy, called Marxist-Leninism, or Communism, or Bolshevism. Communists are by their very ideology, rightly or wrongly, fundamentally suspicious of capitalists and often totally convinced of the inevitability of capitalist hostility to them, to their programs and policies, and to their government. Russians, independent of the addition of communist ideology, have generally felt the same way toward the "West." The combination of the two, the traditional Russian view of the world and Marxist-Leninism, in 1917 was not likely to produce a government known either for its trustfulness of, or friendship toward, the "West."

The second of these forces, and of equal importance to the first, is the force of history itself. That is, the events which have happened to a people and to a place shape the way those people become – and if not completely, certainly to very great extent. While it is true, perhaps, that people are able to make their own history, it is equally true that the same people are largely the result of the sum total of everything which has gone before them. We often ignore history; none of us escape it.

Perhaps it is a mistake to try and separate these two forces; while they can be discussed independently, neither exists without the other. In the real world they are like two kinds of glass joined together to construct a corrective lens, and it is through that lens, that combination of glass, that the world is perceived...perceived and reacted to.

Russian History, the 1000 years prior to the Bolshevik seizure of power in November, 1917, does not make pleasant reading: interesting, rich, varied, instructive, yes; but happy, no. From a Russian point of view, their relations with the outside world – from as far back as the memory of a people go -- appear to be mostly suffering an invasion, recovering after an invasion, or defending an anticipated invasion. It appears that no country has been invaded by as many different people on so many different occasions.

There is a saying about Soviet Russia: "Scratch a Bolshevik and you will find a Russian." This may or may not be true. In either case, whether the rulers of the Soviet Union are primarily Marxist-Communist or whether they are primarily Russians, the net effect is the same -- suspicion and fear of, and hostility toward, the outside and primarily the "West."



This essay is not a history of the "cold war;" several highly professional works of that nature are included in the "Selected Bibliography," and the reader is strongly urged to make use of one or more of them. Rather, the intent of this essay is to assist in the dissemination of a more accurate account of the more important events which have occurred since its beginning.

Most American historians, as well as most books dealing with the subject have until recently dated the beginning of the "cold war" in 1945. In addition, these writers (as well as their government) placed the responsibility for this beginning upon the Soviet Government, usually citing certain Soviet actions in Eastern Europe, particularly in Poland, as evidence of Soviet aggressive intentions toward the "West," toward the "free world."

This will not be the point of view of the essay you are about to read. Instead, the reader is asked to attempt to shed his or her ten or twenty or forty years of indoctrination, to temporarily lay aside the preconceptions and the biases and read an account of some of the major events of the years 1917 to 1950 from the point of view of a disinterested "space traveler," for probably only one from "outer space" could be truly objective about what has happened here on earth.

Failing that, try to imagine how these events might look from a Russian viewpoint, even if they were not already, by our standards, paranoid about "us." Has our side, our government, been guiltless? "Confession is good for the soul, I am told; and truth is essential to freedom."


One of the very first acts of Capitalist, or Imperialist, or Western hostility to the Soviet Union, certainly to the Bolshevik regime of 1918-1920, was the invasion of Soviet Russia by combined allied forces at the time of the Russian Civil War. The United States, in conjunction with various of its allies, invaded Soviet Russia and participated in the civil war against the Bolsheviks and on the side of the so-called "Whites." The motives for the American "intervention," as the episode is generally called in our history books (when it is mentioned at all) is explored and discussed below.

Soviet history, the books by which they teach their people, their children, takes great pride in pointing out that not only did they, the "Reds," defeat the "Whites," but they also defeated the various forced of the "imperialist invaders." Standard Soviet history texts are, apparently, just as nationalistic and as biased as are our own; however, the fact remains: we, "the interventionists," left; they, the Bolsheviks, remained in power.

The traditional American interpretation of the allied invasion of Russia in 1918 is quite simple. It is an interpretation based upon two assertions: the first is that the Russian Revolution of 1917 was a direct result of the First World War; the second is that the allied decision to "intervene" in Russia and Russia’s internal affairs was actually in response to the Bolshevik or Soviet decision to withdraw from the World War. That is, it is argued, the United States and the various other allied powers did not intend to actually choose sides in an internal struggle in another country; they did not intend to seize Russian territory; nor did they seek the restriction or the destruction of the Bolshevik-Soviet regime.

Not one of these traditionalists dispute that the "intervention" in fact became all those things; rather, they argue, this was not the initial intention, that these designs did not motivate the invasion, the "intervention." All agree that the "intervention" should not have taken place and that the results for the Allies as well as for the Russians were disastrous. However, by way of defense, the traditionalists insist that the allied leaders, including then president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, acted upon the misconceptions, misinformation, and in haste. Faulty policy decisions might have been made, but the essential purity of American motivation is not subject to question.

For those who are unfamiliar with the specific details of the Russian Revolution, the civil war, the allied "intervention," and the traditional and orthodox interpretation of these events, allow me to refer you first to the books by George F. Kennan, this country’s single most eminent apologist for the policy of "intervention." I would also recommend a check of whatever high school or college history textbooks you have around to see what they say, if anything, and you will readily see what this generation of Americans are learning – again, if anything. I then urge you to make use of the other works included in the "selected bibliography."

The results of the allied intervention or invasion of Russia were disastrous – disastrous then, and as an initial poisoning of the relations between the Soviet Union and the Untied States. Therefore, I hope to demonstrate that the traditional interpretation of these events is erroneous at best, deceitful at worse – and in either case extremely dangerous to this generation of Americans who would, I think, prefer to escape the legacy of the Cold War, a "cold war" that began with the allied invasion of Russia in 1918.

The argument that immediately follows is directed to the two traditional assertions, as stated above, that the Russian Revolution was primarily a result of the European War, and that the Allied "intervention," including that of the United States, was in response to the Soviet withdrawal from that War. ª ª ª ª