Archives Revise Cold-War History
Soviet documents reveal a Moscow that often had to be prodded into action by its client states
THE cold war took a decisive turn when communist North Korea launched its invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950. For US policymakers at the time, and many historians since, the attack was conclusive evidence of the Soviet Union's global, aggressive aims. In the years and the conflicts that followed, from Berlin to Vietnam, Washington's goal was to "prevent another Korea."Skip to next paragraph
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But evidence presented at a conference here by Russian and US scholars, based on recently opened Soviet archives, casts doubt on that cold war doctrine.
The historians resolved a long-standing mystery, revealing conclusive proof that Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin approved of the invasion plan. But those documents also show that Stalin did so only after repeated requests from the North Korean leadership, which was backed by the newly victorious Chinese Communists. Perhaps as important, Stalin's approval was based on the mistaken belief that the United States would not enter the conflict.
The joint US-Russian conference "On New Evidence on Cold War History" produced many new revelations about key moments in the superpower confrontation, including the Berlin crisis of 1958-61, the Taiwan Straits crisis of 1958, and the Vietnam War. From all of these emerges a pattern of Soviet behavior that runs contrary to the cold war image of a bloc tightly controlled and orchestrated by Moscow. Instead Moscow was often compelled to act by its erstwhile clients, a case, as one scholar put it, of "the ta il wagging the dog."
Many of the documents aired here come out of the Storage Center for Contemporary Documentation, which houses the records of the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee from 1952-1991. The center and the Russian Institute of Universal History are working with the Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in the US to open these documents.
The conference, held Jan. 12-15 in Moscow, also made clear, however, how much Soviet-era material remains closed. Almost all the documents reflecting decision-making at the highest level, the Soviet Politburo, remain in the Presidential Archive, a closed collection under the control of Russian President Boris Yeltsin. The archives of the KGB and the Army's General Staff also are sealed to outside use. Russian scholars presenting papers on the Cuban missile crisis, for example, complained that they still have no direct knowledge of the Soviet leadership's deliberations.
While acknowledging this, US scholars are hopeful that the new openings will be followed up.
"It's a beginning, a good one, for Russian historiography of the cold war and a beginning for reconsideration of Western historiography of this period," Soviet specialist Raymond Garthoff of the Brookings Institution says of the new research. N. Korea pressed Moscow
In the case of the Korean War, a key piece of the historical puzzle was contained in a 10-page report on the history of the Korean War prepared in 1966 for Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. It reveals that from the beginning of 1950, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung sent almost 50 telegrams to Stalin seeking support for plans to unify Korea by military means.