The Second World War had created a world divided between two imperialist blocs. Their nuclear arsenals acted as a ‘deterrent’, but rivalry and suspicion meant that war was never far away

‘The mushroom cloud which changed the world’ was how military historian Max Hastings described the nuclear attack on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945.

It caused injuries never seen before: ‘the cavalry horse standing pink, stripped of its hide; people with clothing patterns imprinted upon their flesh; the line of schoolgirls with ribbons of skin dangling from their faces; doomed survivors, hideously burned, without hope of effective medical relief; the host of charred and shrivelled corpses.’

The bomb exploded with the power 12,500 tons of TNT. The temperature at ground zero reached 5,400 degrees. More than 90% of the city’s buildings were destroyed by blast or fire. About a quarter of its people were killed immediately. Another quarter would die eventually.

Despite the insanity and horror of such weapons, by 1952 the Americans were testing H-bombs 100 times more powerful than the A-bomb used at Hiroshima.

The Russians were not far behind in the nuclear arms-race, testing their first A-bomb in 1949, their first H-bomb in 1955.

Military expenditure soared to unprecedented peacetime levels, with the US spending 20% of GDP on armaments, the Russians (with a smaller economy) as much as 40%.

By the late 1960s, the total mega-tonnage of destructive power deployed by the rival superpowers was around a million times that of the Hiroshima bomb. The rulers of the USA and the Soviet Union had the capacity to destroy human civilisation several times over.

‘Mutual Assured Destruction’ – ‘MAD’ for short – was the term applied to the balance of terror between the two imperialist blocs. Their respective nuclear arsenals acted as a ‘deterrent’ to full-scale war. But suspicion and rivalry meant that war was never far away.

It came closest during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. The Soviets were secretly installing nuclear missiles on Cuba, a Caribbean island within easy range of the United States. The Americans demanded they be withdrawn and prepared for nuclear war.

The US put its intercontinental ballistic missiles, its submarine-based missiles, and its aerial bombers on alert. It also assembled an invasion force of 100,000 men. ‘We all agreed,’ recalled US Attorney-General Robert Kennedy, ‘if the Russians were prepared to go to war over Cuba, they were prepared to go to nuclear war, and we might as well have the showdown then as six months later.’

The Russians backed down. But for week, the world had held its breath, the whole of humanity hovering on the brink of the ultimate insanity – global annihilation at the behest of a tiny group of nuclear-powered pharaohs.

MAD did, in the event, avert all-out war between the superpowers. But it did not prevent countless proxy wars on the peripheries of the rival empires. The first erupted within five years of the Second World War.

Korea had been divided at the 38th Parallel into Soviet and US occupation zones in 1945. As the Cold War intensified, the division became permanent, with two separate states formed in 1948.

A subsequent three-year war to reunite the country between 1950 and 1953 drew in the great powers, the Soviet-backed Chinese on the side of the North, the US and its allies on that of the South.

Two million Koreans were killed and two million Chinese and Western soldiers. Half the Southern population lost their homes. Both North and South were left economically prostrate.

Yet the war ended in stalemate along the original border, without any formal peace agreement, and the conflict has remained fossilised for more than half a century in barbed wire, watch-towers, and ritualised military confrontation. The war had been utterly futile.

What lay behind this sustained military confrontation?

The Second World War had created a world divided between two superpowers. Each had ended the war in effective control of a global ‘sphere of influence’ within which it was economically dominant. These two spheres were, to an exceptional degree, independent of one another. They formed largely self-contained imperialist blocs.

Stalin had at first imposed governments on Eastern Europe that included nationalists, liberals, and social-democrats, as well as communists. But as Soviet control hardened, non-communists were forced out of office. So, too, were local communists who proved too independent-minded. By 1948, pro-Soviet Stalinist dictatorships had been established across Eastern Europe.

Major industries were nationalised and government planning introduced. The state-capitalist model of economic development pioneered in Russia was now rolled out across Eastern Europe.

But this took place in an imperialist framework. The economies of East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Rumania, and Bulgaria were subordinated to that of the Soviet Union.

‘The traditional imperialist countries,’ explained revolutionary socialist Tony Cliff in his seminal State Capitalism in Russia (1948), ‘exploited their colonies in three ways: by buying the products of their colonies for low prices; by selling them the products of the ‘mother’ countries for high prices; and by establishing enterprises owned by the capitalists of the ‘mother’ country and employing ‘natives’. Russian state capitalism uses the same three methods to exploit its colonies.’

The Soviet Union was still a relatively backward economy. Its rulers therefore aimed to create a closed imperial market.

The USA, on the other hand, had the most advanced economy in the world, produced about 50% of global output, and dominated world markets. Its rulers therefore wanted open markets. This meant breaking up the old colonial empires of the European powers and limiting the extent of the new Soviet empire.

The Marshall Plan (1948-1952) was a primary mechanism for achieving this. European states were offered large US loans on generous terms to help rebuild their shattered economies. But they had to promote free trade and marginalise communists. The idea, as a US economist who worked on the plan later explained, was ‘to strengthen the area still outside Stalin’s grasp’.

‘An iron curtain has descended on the [European] continent,’ said Churchill, addressing an American audience in March 1946. The phrase stuck. ‘Iron Curtain’ became the term to describe the world’s main economic, political, and ideological fracture line during the long ‘Cold War’ between 1945 and 1989.

In the East, dissidents were demonised as ‘imperialist agents’ and ‘fascists’ and consigned to the gulags. In the West, communists were blacklisted and told ‘to go back to Russia’.

British unions banned communists from holding office. The American state backed Senator Joe McCarthy’s ‘House Un-American Acitivities Committee’ in its systematic witch-hunting of ‘communist sympathisers’. Radicals of all stripes were sacked and prevented from working. Some were driven to suicide. Two were executed for allegedly passing atomic secrets to Russia.

Dissidents often made the mistake of identifying with imperialist forces on the opposite side of the divide. In the East, anti-Stalinists idealised western capitalist democracy. In the West, communists continued to regard Russia as some sort of ‘socialist motherland’.

The world was threatened with nuclear Armageddon. The workers of the Eastern Bloc were exploited by state capitalism, those of the West by market capitalism. People everywhere were befuddled by Cold War ideology and a false dichotomy between rival ‘systems’.

But some activists understood that neither Western ‘democracy’ nor Eastern ‘communism’ offered a real alternative for humanity. Some retained a far more radical vision of revolution, people power, and an egalitarian society geared to human need not profit and war.

When mass struggles erupted against the exploitation, oppression, and violence of the rival Cold War ‘systems’, these activists, bearers of the age-old tradition of struggle from below, would reconnect with new forces.

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.

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