Monday, February 29, 2016

The History of the Cold War #1

In 1992, my parents ventured into the land of distrust and bellicose relations with the United States for almost 50 years. The great and abominable USSR had opened their doors to the outside world and tourists. My parents tarried forth with curiosity and trepidation. They loaded their bags with gifts, because that was the way to greet people they had shunned and feared for most of their adult lives.

The surprise of their lives came when they entered a country of  poverty and deprivation. They had assumed, as most Americans had, that a nation capable and intent on obliterating their beloved country, would be a country of greatness.

Everywhere food shortages. Oppressed people. Unhappy faces who had learned to do without. Denied of privileges to worship, think, and act.

This is the country we have feared for fifty years? They wondered. Having prospered during the same 50 years of Russian misery, my parents wanted to help the poor Russians who could now engage in capitalistic trade. My parents came back with dolls, wooden nesting dolls, war pins sold by old men on the street; Russian hats, scarves.

Tony's parents, curious too, went to Russia and had the same experience. Their trip was more interactive with the people and they walked away with a shocking story from a woman they visited. When the communists came to dictate the new rules of the regime, they saw she had five, strong producing fruit trees. They promptly chopped down three of the five trees because no one else in the village had more than two and she wasn't allowed to have more. Insane politics.

Though mostly a child and a teenager during the cold war years, I too remember the strangeness of Germans in a divided country. East Germans who were shot if they tried to go beyond a wall. I remember the tensions and threat of nuclear arms build-up. Bombs in silos-projections of Russian missiles that could hit America. The clear words of Ronald Reagan, "Mr. Gorbachev, bring down that wall." I'd studied the Cuban Missile Crisis, Bay of Pigs, read wicked stories of the KGB, saw impressionable photos of tough Russian leaders with gargantuan eyebrows, and of course knew the enemy in the movies was always the Russians. But I never knew from where it all began.

My curiosity has led me to undertake a study of the Cold War-the conflict between America and Russia, or America and communism from 1945-1991. I am motivated in part by the students who will learn from my research. I also want to understand the fifty year conflict from the angle of United States foreign policy. I will write what I learn and will include a works cited page in the last installment.

America Encounters Russia

Western exploration in the late 1700's brought the sometimes new Americans in contact with Russians for the first time. The men and women who pushed towards the west coast and California, found Russians just 60 miles north of San Francisco. 

The Russians had discovered Alaska in 1741 and claimed the land of sea otter pelts for their own. When the market for otter pelts crashed, they offered the land to the United States. It was Secretary of State William Seward's idea, and he was lambasted by the press for what was considered a worthless purchase of desolate, ice-covered land, referred to as "Seward's icebox," and "Seward's folly." The United Stated did purchase Alaska--at a cost of  7.2 million in 1867. It was a bold move considering the debt and destruction accumulated during the Civil War.

History of Russia Leading up to the Cold War

For 300 years, Russia was ruled by the Tzars. Oh, do they have their stories of failed goodness and successful oppression. Every Tzar had enemies, court intrigue, and many died at the hands of those enemies: beheading, poison, shooting and gonorrhea. They fought the peasants, the jealous, the power hungry, other members of family, to keep their power. By 1917, during the reign of Nicholas II, the Bolsheviks had gained the upper hand and Nicholas was removed and replaced by a provisional government. Provisional is an invitation for the greatest power to take control, and they did. Nicholas II and his family were shot in cold blood to insure the end of the reign of monarchy and autocracy forever. Yet, the change for the better proved just as bad, or even worse than the Tzars.

The leader of the Bolsheviks was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin and the founder of the communist party. At the age of 19, he was inspired by the writings of Karl Marx and believed his socialist principles would save his country.  He was a prolific writer and his theories and thoughts reached and inspired his countrymen. The weakened state of Russia during WWI allowed him and his band of Bolsheviks to overthrow the reign of the Tzars.

Beginning practices of the communists were put into place: private trade was forbidden; industry was nationalized; Russian peasants who had seized the land were legitimized; proletarian leadership was established; the cheka, or secret police were established.

The communist take-over did not go unopposed. The White Russians tried to fight the Bolsheviks and asked for international help. Churchill recognized another despotic regime and sent English troops. A few other countries joined, including the United States but the minimal help offered after the bloody battles of WWI, were too little to thwart the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks renamed their army, the Red army in contrast to the White Russians. Red was to become a symbol of their bloody leadership.