Isaac Deutscher 1954

How the Russians Bet a Little in Asia to Win a Lot in Europe

Source: The Reporter, 23 September 1954. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

The cease-fire in Indo-China that was arranged last July in Geneva throws new light on Soviet foreign policy. This is the second armistice agreement concluded since Stalin’s death in March 1953, the first being the agreement on Korea. Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov may be regarded as the prime mover of both. Towards the end of the Stalin era, the flames of war seared the fringes of Asia and threatened to spread. Now, a year and a half since Stalin’s death, there is no ground war on the mainland of Asia. The contrast speaks for itself, although the present situation may not last long.

One significant difference between the armistice in Korea and the cease-fire in Indo-China should be noted. In Korea the Communists could not hope to gain much ground through further fighting unless China intervened on a more massive scale or unless Russia was willing to become directly involved in the conflict. But China and Russia were no more inclined to extend the war beyond Korea than was the United States. That armistice reflected a military stalemate.

There was nothing like a stalemate in Indo-China. Up to the moment of cease-fire, Ho Chi Minh’s armies had been on the move and their fighting spirit was high. The siege and capture of Dienbienphu had increased their confidence. Bao Dai’s Vietnamese administration was demoralised. The French expeditionary force was a prey to dejection. When Pierre Mendès-France became France’s Premier and Foreign Minister, he was told by the British that, according to their own and US information, Ho Chi Minh’s troops were capable of seizing Saigon, near the southernmost tip of Indo-China, within less than six months. Mendès-France had no need to learn this from outsiders; the French in Vietnam had felt and known it for some time, and Mendès-France had repeatedly warned the French Parliament of the desperate military situation.

Red Light: Ho Chi Minh was carried to victory on a high tide of popular revolution, as Mao Tse-tung had been in 1948-49. He had virtually shattered the French expeditionary force in the Red River delta, and he was confident that he could seize the rest of the country in a few lightning offensives. However, during an interval in the Geneva Conference Chou En-lai, the Chinese Premier and Foreign Minister, paid Ho a visit to tell him that he must stop short and content himself with only half the prize that lay within his grasp.

The record of their meeting, if one exists, may well be one of the dramatic documents of contemporary history. Ho Chi Minh could not but feel that the settlement which Chou En-lai was proposing was almost a betrayal of Indo-Chinese Communism. It had nothing or little to do with the balance of strength on the spot. Modelled on the ominous Korean precedent, it split Vietnam along the seventeenth parallel, leaving Communism dominant in the north and anti-Communism in control of the south, and it veiled the act of partition with a promise of elections and unification in a problematic future. In short, the armistice would create a political state of affairs that could be justified only by assuming the existence of a military stalemate.

Molotov and Chou En-lai certainly appealed to Ho Chi Minh’s internationalist loyalty: as a good Communist he would surely subordinate local Indo-Chinese aspirations to the overall strategy of the Soviet bloc. That strategy demanded that Moscow and Peking should give the Western world an object lesson in ‘peaceful coexistence’.

This was not a matter of mere propaganda. Stalin’s successors have apparently reached the conclusion that the idea of ‘peaceful coexistence’ must be given a new interpretation. At a time when local wars threaten a world-wide atomic and hydrogen conflagration, ‘peaceful coexistence’ requires that local wars be brought under control and stopped. At least for the time being, they have been brought under control.

The new interpretation of ‘peaceful coexistence’ has shown itself also in the efforts of Soviet diplomacy to interpose a solid neutral buffer between the Soviet bloc and the Atlantic powers. In Stalin’s day Moscow had only derision for the advocates of any ‘third force’ and treated them as hypocritical agents of the Atlantic bloc. In the last few months both Moscow and Peking have heaped praise on Nehru; they no longer treat India and the so-called Colombo grouping of nations as ‘puppets of Western imperialism’. On the contrary, the neutrals are now spoken of with sympathy and respect. ‘He who is not with us is against us’ seems no longer to be a guiding principle for Molotov or Chou En-lai; they have abandoned the slogan to certain politicians and diplomats in the West.

The Soviet calculation is undoubtedly shrewd. If Ho Chi Minh’s armies had swooped down upon Hanoi and Saigon, if they had continued to fight in Laos and Cambodia, the neutral camp in Asia would have dispersed in panic and cried for Western help. Nehru himself might have become the ardent champion of a South-East Asia collective defence treaty. Now neutral Asia rejoices over the cease-fire in Indo-China and solemnly vows friendship to China. For the Soviet bloc this is a greater gain than the capture of another few thousand square miles of Indo-Chinese jungle.

The Stake Was EDC: This is not the first time Soviet diplomacy has yielded space to gain time or ceded positions in one part of the world to gain ground in another. Molotov had no sooner returned from Geneva to Moscow than he made it clear in the two notes sent out to the Western powers at the end of July and the beginning of August that the stakes for which he had played during the Indo-Chinese game were mostly German.

It was in Indo-China, according to Molotov’s scheme, that the European Defence Community was to die. Russia helped France pull clear of a ruinous and hopeless colonial war on the tacit assumption that France would obstruct Germany’s rearmament within EDC and refuse to play an effective part in any anti-Soviet alliance. Mendès-France may have said or done nothing to encourage such an assumption, but this did not prevent the Soviet Foreign Minister from basing his policy on it. In doing so Molotov faced, of course, a number of risks.

There certainly existed a school of thought in Moscow that argued thus: if the French were allowed to disengage from Indo-China and free their military resources from the drain of a hopeless colonial war, they would be less afraid of a German-dominated EDC and would use their increased freedom of movement in Europe against Russia. Molotov decided in favour of the subtler policy, calculating that a ‘generous’ armistice in Indo-China would decisively turn an apprehensive French opinion and a hesitant parliament and government against EDC. His assumption was soon proved correct.

17 June 1953: On Indo-China the Communist bloc played from strength. Its diplomacy had plenty of room for manoeuvre. It could afford to be supple and subtle. Freed from the paralysing fear of Stalin, Molotov surprised the Western Ministers by a tactical elasticity and politeness of manner of which they had held him to be incapable. There was, in addition, a curious change from his own behaviour at the Berlin Conference a few months earlier, where he had been playing from weakness.

The Berlin Conference convened on 25 January 1954, before Soviet policy had fully recovered from the shock of the Berlin rising of 17 June 1953. That revolt had revealed for all to see the utter failure of Soviet policy in East Germany. Soviet tanks quelled the rioting, but what followed was a cataclysm in Moscow and the downfall of Lavrenti Beria, who was accused of ‘plotting to yield East Germany to Western imperialism’. Molotov was negotiating with the Western ministers only a few weeks after Beria’s execution. He had to demonstrate that he was not going to commit the crime imputed to Beria; thus he had to be firm and unyielding over Germany.

More than a year has passed since the rising, a year of strange calm in East Germany. Does it augur another storm or indicate apathy and prostration? Moscow apparently holds that the Russian position in Germany has been considerably strengthened; that after the lesson of one abortive rising, the East Germans have no desire to rise again; and that for the first time since 1945, the political ferment in West Germany is beginning to favour Russia.

What, in this situation, are the aims of Soviet policy in Germany?

It is necessary to distinguish between the avowed aims and the real ones. One ostensible aim is to prevent the revival of German militarism, which, twice within the lifetime of one generation, has launched German armies against Russia and Western Europe. Soviet propagandists have dwelt on this because the memories of the German invasions are fresh and painful in the minds of Russians and Western Europeans.

This does not mean, however, that the fear of Germany’s new military power really haunts Moscow’s rulers. The strategists of the Kremlin coldly calculate the economic – demographic as well as industrial – and political factors that enter into the balance of strength between Russia and a rearmed Germany. Such a calculation inevitably leads them to the conclusion that German militarism by itself cannot, in the foreseeable future, become ever again the mortal threat to Russia it used to be. In the First World War, the Russian armament industry was only a small fraction of the German. On the eve of the Second World War, Russia’s heavy industries were roughly level with Germany’s. At present they are three to four times larger than Germany’s, and the discrepancy is almost certain to grow even wider in Russia’s favour.

But it is only between Russia and Germany that the balance of power has changed so dramatically. No comparable shift has occurred in the relationship between Germany and Western Europe. A new Wehrmacht would hardly have much chance of success in a new march towards the Volga or the Dnieper. But it might still reach the Marne, the Seine, the Loire and the English Channel. Paris and even London have much more real reason to fear German rearmament than has Moscow.

In any case, Moscow already has reconciled itself to the prospect of a rearmed Germany. In none of the schemes for a German settlement which the Soviet Foreign Ministry has worked out in the last few years is Germany denied the right to possess its own armed forces. These schemes have contrasted sharply with earlier Soviet plans, based on the Potsdam Agreement, which provided for Germany’s complete demilitarisation.

True enough, the new Soviet schemes propose that Germany should be allowed to possess defensive forces only. But this is no more than a face-saving formula or an escape clause. Neither the Soviet Foreign Ministry nor the Soviet General Staff takes the distinction between defensive and offensive forces seriously – and both are certain to hold the view that once German rearmament is under way, its momentum will sweep away all limitations imposed by the victors of 1945.

Nationalism as Before: The real purpose of Soviet policy is therefore not so much to prevent German rearmament as to ensure that Germany’s military power is not harnessed to the Atlantic alliance.

Yet even EDC did not loom as large in Soviet eyes as it might have appeared from Soviet propaganda. Moscow had never taken seriously the blueprints for European or Western European integration which have been put forward in recent years. It never believed that European capitalism would be able, even under American auspices, to overcome the inertia of the old nation-states and their centrifugal tendencies.

Just as long, however, as the governments and the political parties of Western Europe behaved as if they were ready to abandon the ramparts of nationalism and to devote themselves to a supranational cause, Moscow’s position was somewhat awkward. There was a certain attraction in the new supranational language of anti-Communism which Moscow could not easily belittle. But that attraction has decreased. Western Europe has once again shown its old face, twisted and disfigured by nationalist passion. Moscow’s propagandists are once again free to describe the unity of the anti-Communist world as a myth.

Apart from this propaganda advantage, Soviet post-Stalin diplomacy is reaping more specific benefits. The rearmament of Germany has, in any case, been delayed; and even if the delay turns out to be a short one, Moscow can now assume that every step forward in the reconstitution of Germany’s sovereignty and of its armed power will be accompanied by a recrudescence of intense Franco-German hostility and by a deepening of other divisions in the Western world. This was indeed what Stalin forecast in his last message to the Communist Party in October 1952, when he hinted that France was the weakest link in the Atlantic alliance, the link at which the whole chain might break.

Moscow will now watch with redoubled attention the new political ferment in France. During the Brussels Conference, Herr Adenauer was warned that if he rejected the French Premier’s ‘modified EDC’, the next French government might be formed by a Popular Front. This may not be in Moscow’s plans at all, for the formation of a Popular Front might easily give the anti-Communist and the anti-Russian feeling in Western Europe a stimulus and strength that it has been lacking in recent years. But Moscow may not be in a position to control the drift of emotion and the political realignments taking shape inside France.

Premier Mendès-France has gone on record as being opposed to the neutralisation of Germany. But on this point Mendès-France’s supporters are divided. There are those who argue that after Germany has been rearmed and included, in some form or another, in the Atlantic alliance, Russia will no longer be willing to negotiate over Germany and to make any concessions. There are also those who say that in that event Russia will negotiate not with France, the United States and Great Britain, but with Germany – in order to bribe it away from the Atlantic powers.

The principal immediate purpose of Soviet policy, according to many indications, is to bring about a withdrawal of all occupation armies from Germany. The Soviets feel that as long as the Russian and the Anglo-American armies confront one another in Germany, the chief danger of a third world war lies there. Therefore they want to eliminate that front and create a no man’s land between the Soviet bloc and the armed power of the United States.

The enigmatic character of Soviet policy on this point springs from the circumstance that Stalin’s successors have not made up their minds about the price they are prepared to pay for a withdrawal of the occupation armies.

Immediately after Stalin’s death his successors prepared almost openly to dismantle the Pieck – Ulbricht regime in East Germany. Then the rising of June 1953 made them aware that they were in danger of being routed even before they had completed the preliminaries to a retreat. The new order of the day was: no retreat, no withdrawal. Such was still the mood in Moscow even at the time of the Berlin Conference; and so when the Western ministers countered Molotov’s proposals for military evacuation of Germany by asking whether Russia would permit free elections in East Germany, Molotov could give no clear or satisfactory answer.

Above all, Soviet policy was hamstrung by the fear that a Russian retreat from Germany might be turned into a rout. Military evacuation might serve as a signal for a new rising in East Germany, and this could easily lead to upheavals in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

Paradoxically, despite all the differences of context and motive, the policy of the Western powers has been dominated by a similar fear – the fear that for the West, too, retreat might become rout. After the military evacuation of Germany the Russian armies would still be standing on the Oder or on the Bug, only a few dozen or a few hundred miles from Berlin, while the American forces would be withdrawn across the ocean. Then all Western Europe would be at Russia’s mercy. This fear would not be much abated even if the Russians agreed to free elections in East Germany and abandoned the Pieck – Ulbricht government.

The diplomatic deadlock over Germany reflects the pressure of these two great fears.

Can a new European conference, proposed by the Soviet Foreign Minister, do anything to break the deadlock?

A New Conference? Moscow has recently hinted that it would come to such a conference with greater and more definite concessions than those it has proposed hitherto. There have been signs that Soviet policymakers have once again been weighing the pros and cons of keeping the Pieck – Ulbricht team in office. Once again Soviet representatives in Berlin have been paying a great deal of attention to such non-Communist German politicians as have cared to listen, telling them that Russia is prepared to go to very great lengths to secure Germany’s reunification, and that the East German regime will most surely not be allowed to stand in the way.

The main problem for Moscow is whether any compromise solution can be found between the present total occupation of Germany, with all its inherent dangers to peace, and that total military evacuation which both Russia and the West fear equally, each in a different way and each for a different reason. During the Berlin Conference the Soviet Foreign Minister proposed that after their military evacuation the occupying powers should leave limited contingents in Germany entrusted with certain supervisory functions. The Western Ministers found this proposal unacceptable. It amounted to total military evacuation and left Russia the full benefit of geographic proximity to Western Europe.

There still remains the possibility of an arrangement which would consist not in a complete withdrawal of occupation armies but in their falling back to the fringes of Germany. The Russians would hold to the Oder – Neisse line, and the Western armies would take up positions at the Rhine. An all-German government, freely elected, could then achieve the unification of Germany and the revival of German sovereignty.

From Russia’s viewpoint the advantage of such an arrangement would consist in the interposition of a sort of no man’s land between the armed forces of the two blocs.

From the West’s point of view this solution might have the advantage that it would not allow Russia to exploit its geographic proximity, would not leave Germany and Western Europe at Russia’s mercy, and would enable the powers to pursue from Germany’s fringes the objectives of policy they have pursued for nearly a decade by total occupation of Germany.

This solution appeals to one very important political factor in Germany – the Socialist Party led by Erich Ollenhauer. In the West German Republic, with its predominantly rural and Catholic Rhinelanders and Bavarians, the Socialist Party can only be a minority, large but ineffective. Its strength has traditionally lain in Berlin, Prussia and Saxony, in what is today the Soviet Zone of Germany. If the Socialists were to be readmitted in that zone and allowed to come into the open and take part in elections, they would in all probability emerge as a majority party capable of forming the first genuine all-German government. (It is possible, even probable, that the Socialists would then coalesce with the Christian Democrats as their Austrian comrades have done.)

The Russians have done everything to encourage these hopes in the Socialist Party of Germany. Despite his fundamentally pro-Western and anti-Russian attitude, Ollenhauer has therefore been loud in demanding that the Atlantic powers lend a more attentive ear to the proposals and suggestions that Molotov has made or that he is preparing to make.

Recent events have underlined even more vividly the elements of weakness in Herr Adenauer’s position. That personalities eminent in the Adenauer regime should seek refuge in East Germany is symptomatic of the new ferment in Germany. The collapse of EDC intensifies that ferment. Demands are being made more loudly than before for a new four-power conference.

This demand, now rising simultaneously on both sides of the Rhine, is pleasant music to Soviet ears. And a persistent American refusal to listen to the demand may make the music even sweeter.