Archives Revise Cold-War History
Soviet documents reveal a Moscow that often had to be prodded into action by its client states
MOSCOW — 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."
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.
Mr. Kim presented a three-stage plan for war. He proposed beginning by concentrating forces north of the 38th parallel, which divided the North and South, then issuing an appeal for "peaceful reunification." When the US-backed South Korean government predictably rejected the appeal, Kim proposed to launch a surprise attack. That spring, the North Korean dictator was in Moscow where he finally received approval from Stalin.
The approval, however, was explicitly based on the assumption that the US would not intervene. In the view of American scholar Kathryn Weathersby, who examined the document after its discovery in the Central Committee archive by two Russian scholars, Stalin may have made that judgment based on the reports from British spies for the KGB that the US had decided to place Korea outside of its defense lines.
Why did Stalin go along with the Korean plan?
"He did it primarily because of his relationship with [Chinese Communist leader] Mao Zedong," Dr. Weathersby says. "If he did not approve Kim's plan, Kim would have turned to Mao for support. Stalin's claim to leadership of the communist world would have diminished and Mao's would have risen."
An examination of the Berlin crisis also unearthed a far more complex picture of ties between Moscow and the East German regime of Walter Ulbricht than had previously been understood.
Russian historian Vladislav Zubok, using Central Committee archives, disputes the conventional Western view that Soviet leader Nikita Khruschchev used the Berlin issue to try to break up the Atlantic alliance, to divide the US and West Germany. Rather Moscow thought itself on the defensive, holding exaggerated fears of the West and of German reunification.
At the same time, Moscow's blustering ultimatums were also fed by its competition with the Chinese radicals for control of the socialist camp.
Moscow's conflicting interests were exploited by its allies. Professor Zubok found voluminous evidence - in messages from Soviet officials in Berlin, communications between Ulbricht and Khruschchev, and other documents - of East Germans attempts to push the Soviets to confront the West. With East Germans fleeing west through Berlin, Ulbricht played up the threat of West German remilitarization to pressure Moscow for more economic aid to prop up his ailing regime. Walling off E. Germany
American scholar Hope Harrison, working mostly with recently opened East German archives, reaches much the same conclusion. She cites numerous letters from Ulbricht in 1960-61, urging the Soviet leader to take advantage of the opportunity of the new, untried administration of President Kennedy. She and Zubok agree that the August 1961 decision to erect the Berlin Wall was the Soviets' idea, but say that it was at least in part to keep their client under control.
"Kruschchev wanted to wall off Ulbricht from taking West Berlin," says Professor Harrison.
Mr. Garthoff, who at that time was responsible for drafting US intelligence estimates of Soviet policy, says US policymakers were aware of East German striving for independence but viewed Moscow as having total control. "It is now clear from these materials that this was not always the case," he told the conference.