The Rhyming of History & Russian aggression
Looking back to February 1947 as a lesson for February 2022
Seventy-five years ago, nearly to the day, the United States found itself in a situation very much like that of the present. Russian aggression abroad was picking up and chipping away at the principles we had spent significant blood and treasure defending. While Russia had fought the same war, and some may point out they lost more blood than the US, they did so for a substantively different outcome. Moscow broke promises and violated agreements as it actively sought to expand its empire by undermining the peace, security, and independence of multiple countries. For the US, the tipping point came on February 21, 1947.
It was a cold and gray Friday in Washington, DC. George C. Marshall had been sworn in as Secretary of State exactly one month earlier and after a long and arduous diplomatic mission to China. He left his office earlier than usual to go to Princeton, where he would deliver his first address as Secretary and receive an honorary degree. It was to be an easy weekend for Marshall, an intentional lull in the schedule to recharge his batteries before flying to Moscow in two weeks for the next round of discussions with the foreign ministers of Great Britain, France, and Russia. Among the agenda items for the Council of Foreign Ministers were terms for the yet unsigned peace treaties with Germany and Austria. Also happening on this winter day was the State Department’s move from the old State, War, and Navy Building to “gaudier, more commodious, even air-conditioned quarters in a questionable part of town” called Foggy Bottom. The War and Navy Departments had decamped from the building with the “curious contours” at Seventeenth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, next to the White House, years before, long enough that the State Department was now moving into a structure built for but already abandoned by the War Department in favor of a five-sided building on the Potomac.
This would not be a routine day. The British Embassy rang the State Department to request an urgent meeting between the Secretary of State and the British ambassador. Under Secretary of State Dean Acheson decided to let Marshall continue with his trip and assigned the meeting to Loy Henderson, Director of the Office of Near Eastern and African Affairs, and John Hickerson, the Deputy Director of the Office of European Affairs. Hickerson was unavailable and the British, following protocol, sent the embassy’s First Secretary to meet with Henderson. That afternoon, the British informed the State Department that London would immediately end its promised economic and military aid to Greece and Turkey. The aid had been a reaction to clear Russian aggression toward both countries. Neither London nor Washington had an alliance with Athens or Ankara. Still, the threats to these nations threatened the larger peace and stability sought by Washington and London and the principles embodied in the new United Nations. The American reaction was swift and substantial.
Nineteen days later, President Harry S. Truman stood before a special joint session of Congress he requested to ask for the necessary authorities and funding to send supplies and US civilian and military personnel to Greece and Turkey to oppose Russian imperialism.
One of the primary objectives of the foreign policy of the United States is the creation of conditions in which we and other nations will be able to work out a way of life free from coercion. This was a fundamental issue in the war with Germany and Japan. Our victory was won over countries which sought to impose their will, and their way of life, upon other nations… We shall not realize our objectives, however, unless we are willing to help free peoples to maintain their free institutions and their national integrity against aggressive movements that seek to impose upon them totalitarian regimes. This is no more than a frank recognition that totalitarian regimes imposed on free peoples, by direct or indirect aggression, undermine the foundations of international peace and hence the security of the United States.
“This is no more than a frank recognition,” Truman declared, “that totalitarian regimes imposed on free peoples, by direct or indirect aggression, undermine the foundations of international peace and hence the security of the United States.” This was not just about two countries. The President declared Russia’s aggression in Greece, Turkey, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Iran, and Korea as fundamentally the same as that of Germany and Japan which led to World War II. Soon, more countries would be added to that list.
For more than a year, the proverbial warning lights had been flashing from Russia’s emerging patterns of abrogating agreements and direct and indirect activities against other nations. Kennan’s so-called “Long Telegram,” a response to a Treasury Department request for more information on Russia’s foot-dragging around an agreement, had been received at the State, War, and Navy Building one year, less a day, before the British Embassy’s phone call. Five months before the same phone call, again nearly to the day, the Clifford-Esley report “American Relations with the Soviet Union” cataloging Moscow’s antagonistic pattern, including abrogations of agreements, was sent to the President. Two weeks after the meeting between the British and Loy Henderson, Winston Churchill gave his “The Sinews of Peace” speech in Fulton, Missouri, in which he declared “an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” There was also a growing recognition of Moscow’s growing mendacious propaganda campaigns directed against the US, the United Nations, and democratic principles. The US finally realized it needed to respond to what Kennan had labeled as Moscow’s “subterranean” policies, or political warfare by another name.
The speed is significant, especially considering the reactions today. The State Department worked quickly and collaboratively with other departments and the White House long before email and cell phones, during a move, while the Secretary was preparing to fly to Moscow for a major international meeting with a complex agenda, and while a lot of other activities were taking place in the post-war world, including severe food and fuel shortages across Europe, which Russia was also seeking to exploit. Further, Truman would face a Republican Congress he labeled the “Do Nothing Congress” because of its opposition to his agenda, both foreign and domestic. Yet there was action, not paralysis.
Marshall did travel to Moscow for the Council of Foreign Ministers meeting and was there when Truman spoke before Congress to punctuate the message of the Truman Doctrine. This may have felt like a sudden policy change, but as Truman declared in his speech, the US was confidently adhering to the principles the US just fought and bled for. These were demonstrably not the same principles Russia had bled for in the war. The US had reached a tipping point with Russian activities that were increasingly clear and antithetical to the peace and security of nations near and far.
It is an understatement to say Russian aggression is more blatant and overt today than in February 1947. In February 2022, Moscow invaded Ukraine – again, as we must not ignore their earlier invasion and continued occupation of Crimea. We must also not forget or set aside Moscow’s invasion and continued occupation of Georgia and continued threats, subversion, and egregious cyberattacks against Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and others.
Seventy-five years ago, a Democrat President stood before a Republican-controlled Congress that was expressly against his policies and made a case for a strategic response to Russian aggression. While Moscow lies about de-Nazification, invades countries, and threatens others, the White House should invoke the principles behind our de-Nazification of Europe to again reject Russian imperialism. Moscow has expanded its threats to Finland and Sweden, and maybe others by the time this is read. At the same time, Moscow is far more vulnerable to outside financial, economic, and societal pressures than it was seventy-five years ago, and its victims are stronger, too. They just need clear and confident support. The White House must exercise the confidence to do more than issue an executive order and should push Congress to go on the record to either “to help free peoples to maintain their free institutions and their national integrity” or support Putin’s aggression that seeks to impose totalitarian and criminal regimes.