THE NATO summit in London this week celebrated the alliance’s 70th anniversary. And celebrated it should be. NATO is the institution that kept us safe through the cold-war decades. The front we presented to deter Soviet aggression, a demonstration that we were prepared to defend ourselves.
People forget the size of the threat that the USSR represented from the late 1940s onwards. Although it had been our ally until 1945, this was just about expediency. This was the state that only a few years before had been quite happy to be direct military allies with Hitler in the destruction of Poland. The Soviets had the moral sense of a jackal.
At the end of the war, they simply bristled with hostility towards us. Under the control of a paranoid ruthless dictatorship, they possessed a vast military machine. Their army had just conquered Germany and its satellites with appalling savagery; in the process as historian Antony Beevor has stated, raping ‘every German female from eight to 80′ with indiscriminate looting and murder thrown in. Their behaviour in other European countries was often little better.
As Hitler’s concentration camp network was dismantled, the Soviet one was still expanding; the apogee of a system of repression and terror. Justified by an ideology which believed its revolution would not be complete until the whole world was Communist, preferably under direct Soviet leadership. Something they accepted would be achieved only through war and bloody revolutions.
Almost wherever the Soviet armies reached in 1945, they stayed. Liberation became occupation. Apologists try to justify this by claiming that having often fallen victim to invaders, Russia simply wanted to create a defensive buffer. Perhaps, but it also wanted domination and to lever itself into a position of strategic advantage to help enable whatever future steps would be necessary to ensure Communism’s final world victory. If you think that sounds exaggerated, then you simply don’t understand old-style Communism.
The list of Soviet military aggressions from both before and after the Second World War is long and mostly forgotten. It started with the Bolshevik seizures of the old realms of the pre-revolutionary Tsarist empire. Nations which had exercised their rights to independence after Tsarism’s collapse; not rebellious provinces the Communists were simply re-assimilating into their union. From the Ukrainian Steppe to Central Asia, it took ferocious warfare to defeat peoples who saw the Bolsheviks as foreign invaders.
In 1921, the Soviets went past the old Tsarist borders with the invasion of Mongolia. Unsuccessful attempts were made to foment violent revolutions under their direction in Germany, Austria, Hungary and Estonia between 1919 and 1924. In 1929, there were Soviet military adventures in both Afghanistan and China. Finland was attacked in 1939, as was Poland; with the Soviet stab in the back under the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. In 1940, the Soviets annexed parts of Romania and then absorbed, in a process involving much bloodshed and misery the three Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
At the war’s end, while the western allies made friends out of their former enemies and American cash helped rebuild Europe under the Marshall Plan; the Soviets treated Eastern Europe as conquered lands to be robbed and exploited. They stretched their new empire’s boundaries as far as possible, not just westwards but southwards too. Greece only evaded Stalin’s clutches through fighting a bitter civil war against Red insurgents. Next, came unsuccessful Soviet attempts to annex Iran and to bully Turkey into substantial territorial concessions
These were abandoned only when the Americans offered their full military support to the region. In the Far East, the Soviets seized the Kuril archipelago and southern Sakhalin from Japan. And of course, North Korea’s invasion of the south in 1950 was a proxy war of aggression with much hidden Russian involvement. Made possible only with Stalin’s blessing.
It’s not a stretch to think that in 1945, had circumstances been favourable, Stalin would have wanted to realise the old Bolshevik dream and seize the countries of Western Europe; including our own. Of course there would have been serious difficulties in such an attempt. The USSR was exhausted from fighting Hitler. The logistical problems would have been formidable and it was unknowable whether the Soviet people could have been persuaded into the necessary sacrifices. But to suppose that Stalin would have had the slightest moral pang about further war would be beyond naïve.
Stalin prodded and probed to see what he could get away with. The answer soon proved to be, not nearly as much as he hoped. This was down to three factors. America’s lead in atomic weapons, President Truman’s formulation of the ‘Truman Doctrine;’ supporting any country threatened by Communism and then in 1949, the creation of NATO, which gave the framework around which all Western defence was organised.
NATO’s creation didn’t of course immediately end Soviet belligerence, neither did Stalin’s death. When Nikita Khrushchev famously told a group of Western ambassadors in 1956 that ‘We’ meaning the Communist bloc, ‘will bury you’, he was almost certainly expressing a very real wish, despite his later weaselly denials.
But NATO at least helped limit Soviet opportunities for causing trouble and more than played its part in preventing a potential Third World War. The Russians still promoted conflict and disorder, through regional Communist parties, movements of ‘national liberation’, or local dictators. But they had to be much more circumspect than in the glory days of the Red Army’s high tide under Stalin.
However much it is detested by Jeremy Corbyn and his comrades from the ‘Stop the War’ movement; whatever its current faults, we should all be profoundly grateful to NATO and thankful to those old-style Labour patriots Clement Attlee and Ernie Bevin who were instrumental in its founding.
If it, or a similar structure had never existed, there’s a fair chance that today we would all be speaking Russian.