The Empire’s Last Stand

by | Sep 21, 2021


In the early months of 1947, President Harry Truman and Dean Acheson, his secretary of state, made up their minds to prop up Greece’s openly fascist monarchy against a popular revolt they had cast as a Soviet threat. After much hand-wringing, Truman went to Congress on March 12 to ask for $400 million in aid, not quite $5 billion today when adjusted for inflation.

Truman and Acheson knew the Greek intervention would be a hard sell: Congress was in no mood to spend that kind of money, and the war-weary public harbored hope for FDR’s vision of a postwar order built on the principle of peaceful coexistence. As the speech went through its multiple drafts, Arthur Vandenberg, Republican senator from Michigan and a presence in the planning of America’s postwar posture, offered advice that must be counted elegantly forthright, if diabolic in its cynicism.

It comes down to us today, and for good reason. “Mr. President,” Vandenberg said during White House deliberations, “the only way you are ever going to get this is to make a speech and scare hell out of the American people.”

Truman made his since-famous “scare hell” speech. The Greeks got their $400 million (a remarkable proportion of which was embezzled by government ministers), and the American public was kept scared for the next 40–odd years — the Cold War years.

When It Started

There are various thoughts as to when the Cold War started. Some scholars argue it began as early as the Yalta Conference in early 1945, when Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt told Joseph Stalin there would be no Allied support for the reconstruction of the Soviet Union, which had sacrificed 20 million to 27 million lives to defeat the Germans — a victory that left the Soviet economy in ruins.

My date is March 12, 1947, when Truman delivered his address to a joint session of Congress. And it is remarkable how faithfully the intervention in Greece, the first of Washington’s major Cold War undertakings, has been reproduced during all the decades since. A year later the US (with Britain’s assist) corrupted Italy’s first postwar general elections. Then came the coup in Iran, then the coup in Guatemala, and so on without interruption until our time.

Last Wednesday President Joe Biden announced a new trilateral security agreement with Britain and Australia. Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison, respectively the British and Australian prime ministers, joined him electronically from London and Canberra. Biden couldn’t remember Morrison’s name — “that fella down under” is as far as he got — but let us not allow the shocking incompetence of the man driving our bus to distract us from the gravity of the moment.

There are numerous things to say about the new accord, by which the US and Britain are to provide Australia with the sensitive technology needed to build a fleet of eight or more nuclear-powered submarines. But before we get to anything else, get used to Roman numerals: Last Wednesday was a three-sided declaration that Cold War II is now our new, flesh-and-blood, steel-and-bombs, propaganda-and-paranoia reality.

The Ides of September: Remember the date. Sept. 15, 2021, is our March 12, 1947. Xi Jinping’s People’s Republic is in 2021 what Stalin’s Soviet Union was three-quarters of a century ago. Truman and Acheson changed the world when they drafted the full-of-lies “scare hell” speech — greatly for the worse, of course. Biden, Johnson and Morrison just did the same. It would be hard to overstate the dangers and burdens Cold War II is going to inflict upon us — we Americans, we the rest of the human population.

Remember this, too, and bear witness. It is the US that has assiduously sought to kindle Cold War II, just as it, and not the Soviet Union, was responsible for starting Cold War I. I mention this because the origins of the first Cold War have been hopelessly blurred in the histories. We can watch this time. It is occurring before our eyes.

There had been talk of a new Cold War at least since the US recklessly, stupidly sponsored the coup in Ukraine in February 2014 and the monstrously paranoid Russophobia our authoritarian liberal friends began cultivating two years later. But we seem to have had our oceans and continents mixed up. Hardly are the policy cliques (and their clerks in the press) going to now encourage Americans to see Russia simply as it is. No chance. But it is China and the Chinese that they are now going to distort to the point whether neither is recognizable.

What does this bode for all of us? What will life be like as Cold War II is waged? I shudder to pose these questions, having lived through all of Cold War I, but for the first few years of it. Take my word for it, those too young to share the memories: This ain’t going to be no kind of fun.

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  • Patrick Lawrence

    Patrick Lawrence is a longtime columnist, essayist, critic, and lecturer. He was a correspondent abroad (writing as Patrick L. Smith) for many years, chiefly for the Far Eastern Economic Review, the International Herald Tribune, and The New Yorker, and chiefly in Asia.

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