Jerry Hough: “re Gessen’s article [‘The Quiet Americans Behind the U.S.-Russia Imbroglio’]”

File Photo of White House with South Lawn and Fountain

Subject: re Gessen’s article
Date: Thu, 10 May 2018
From: Jerry Hough <>

[Jerry Hough is James B. Duke Professor of Political Science at Duke University. Author of How the Soviet Union is Governed; Soviet Leadership in Transition; The Struggle for the Third World; Soviet Debate and American Options; Democratization and Revolution in the USSR 1985-1991; and The Logic of Economic Reform in Russia.]

The authors of other comments on Keith Gessen’s interesting article have focused on its actual content and speculate about the future. Perhaps as befits a person who took his first college class on the Soviet Union in 1953 and who always took an iconoclastic position, I would like to take a much broader view of the article and raise more iconoclastic questions about Soviet-American relations.

The first major flaw in the article is that it says nothing about the press and the New York Times. Those in the Moscow embassy in the 1970s and 1980s often complained that their superiors read the New York Times first and then rejected embassy analyses that did not correspond to its interpretation. The press follows the political parties and has some balance if, as in the Cold War, the parties have different postures. That is not true today as the McGovern liberals in the Democratic Party have surprisingly have become extremely hard-line on Putin, in many cases to the point of McCarthyism. The press is correspondingly hard-line and one-sided and even leads the way.

The second thing to note about the article is the nature of diplomatic work. I am no longer close to the process and know little about most of the actual persons discussed, but the work of the great majority of diplomats is focused on the micro-questions of diplomacy and the adjustment of interests. If governments get angry at each other, they, first of all, signal it by making life difficult for each others’ diplomats and intelligence agents. Governments first signal an end to anger by making life easier for them.

As a result, diplomats are extremely sensitive to changes in micro-relations. There is no reason to doubt their judgment, also reflected in press reports, that micro-relations between the United States and Russia are now extremely poor.

Third, however, there can be a major difference between micro foreign relations and macro foreign relations. I am finishing a book on the origins of the Cold War from 1930 to 1960 based on over a decade of research into American sources, including the archived papers of over 100 participants. The secondary literature was based on some strict taboos, but now they are not necessary. One can say publicly what insiders knew 75 years ago. That is the purpose of my book.

The primary postwar goal of Roosevelt and Stalin from 1941 onward was to end the centuries-old civil war in Europe, especially Western Europe–what Walter Lippmann called the outlawing of war in the Atlantic community. On December 16, 1941, Stalin proposed to Anthony Eden the division of Europe, including Germany, into two spheres of influence, implicitly with American and Soviet troops in the two halves. He ceded control of the Mediterranean, Middle East, and South Asia to the Western sphere. (See the Eden and Sumner Welles memoirs.)

The evidence clearly indicates that Roosevelt accepted this proposal by 1942 and formalized it in Tehran in 1943 and in Moscow in October 1944, the latter through his “foreign minister,” Winston Churchill. The evidence strongly indicates that as early as 1942 Roosevelt understood that the long-term division of Germany (what he called the detachment of Prussia from Germany, with Prussia being controlled by Soviet troops) would take place along the lines of the occupation zone boundaries.

But American troops could not be kept in Europe for decades without a Soviet threat. Stalin also needed an American threat to help maintain control of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. So both sides needed what Molotov said with a smile in 1946 was “rhetoric.” From this perspective the Cold War was Soviet-American cooperation to end the centuries of war between Britain, France, and Germany, but surface confrontation was the glue necessary to hold it together. The policy succeeded beyond anyone’s hopes in 1943.

In my strong opinion, we are now in a second Cold War. Thank God. It is about time. Now the common enemy is the Islamic terrorism that threatens Russian, European, and American peace, and Trump and Putin have restored the alliance that began in World War II. It has been extremely successful. Russian sanctions helped introduce peace in Korea. There is a cease-fire in Ukraine and probably an agreement in some months. Russia sent its special forces into Libya to help our man stabilize Benghazi. We ended the crazy war in Syria and northern Iraq–and most important the flood of refugees into Europe that was leading to fascism there. We are well under way in cooperating on what Mark Landler of the Times called a Biden strategy in Afghanistan.

Now there have been few more remarkable weeks in the history of American foreign policy than the current one as we and Putin cooperate to get Iran and Hezbollah out of Syria and move towards a stable Biden solution in Iraq and then Afghanistan. An election that gives Hezbollah more of its rightful place in Lebanon, this Saturday what seemingly will be a really remarkable election in Iraq, the opening of the American embassy in Jerusalem and with it apparently peace on the Gaza border, Netanyahu taken to Moscow to see Russian military might on VE day in case he had doubts-all within one week. And, of course, Trump’s action on the Iran agreement to set up the Macron-Merkel-Putin negotiation to get Iran out of Syria occurred in the middle. I only wish I knew who is writing the scenario.

Alas, American domestic politics forces us to have the same “rhetoric” in micro-politics that Molotov mentioned in 1946. Alas, the life of American and Russian diplomats has to be unpleasant. But what I think is one of the great and positive changes in the history of American foreign policy is going to be worth some pain. If it comes off, the diplomats can brag to their grandchildren of their scars from their participation in the achievement.

In a short comment, I have painted with a very broad brush–broader than reflects my nuanced belief. But there has been enough of the hysteria. We don’t need as much rhetoric as there has been. It has been worse than during the first Cold War. Even Joseph McCarthy did not accuse Truman of being Stalin’s agent. I hope that we can begin to reflect more thoughtfully on the real complexities of Russian-American relations and focus on what is important.