The puzzle of the Cold War

A speech given at Old Parliament House, Canberra, on the opening of exhibition on the Petrov Affair, 17 August 2004.

Tonight I want to give a broad sketch of the period of the Cold War, rather than to focus in on any particular aspect in depth. But I do want to discuss what I call the puzzle of the Cold War - how do we - from this period in time -- understand the fear of communism which characterized that time?

I want to begin by defining what we mean by the Cold War. Many people attribute the phrase to the British writer, George Orwell, whose used the term 'cold war' in 1945 to contrast that period to a period of hot war - that is a war involving guns and bombs. But this is a little misleading. During the Cold war, it is true, that there was no direct military conflict between the communist bloc and the capitalist West, though the Cuban missile crisis in the early 1960s nearly precipitated nuclear war.

But the Cold War did involve plenty of guns and bombs-type conflicts. There was, for example, the Korean war and later the Vietnam war, both costing millions of lives as well as a strong of smaller wars. Whatever their local and specific causes, these conflicts were fought as wars by proxy between the US and communist bloc.

When did the cold war begin and end? Some argue the cold war started in 1917, the year of the Russian revolution and, effectively, the beginning of the utopian tragedy of the Soviet state. This view has a lot going for it, since the Cold War's central defining element was the conflict between capitalism and communism, and communism's first and strongest government was the Soviet state which lasted until 1991.

For the purposes of tonight, I will concentrate on what is regarded as the early cold war - -the period from the late 1940s to the early 1950s, culminating in the Petrov defection and the resulting Royal Commission on Espionage in 1954-55.

This was a period in which events swung decisively against the labour movement and the Left. It was a period in which the Right became alarmed at the strength of communism, especially internationally, and mobilised political support on this basis.

And this transition to what became known as the Cold War happened very rapidly - just in the space of a few years - because when World War Two ended, the US, Britain, Australia were in alliance with the Soviet Union.

But, by 1948 it was clear that the victorious Soviet Union was determined to colonize eastern Europe -- which it did with some brutality. The airlift of supplies to Berlin symbolized to many people that communism simply denied civil freedoms which were taken for granted in the West. The popularity of the phrase 'the Iron Curtain' which appears so melodramatic today, had some popular currency at the time.

In the late 1940s Communism was on the move elsewhere. In former colonies of Europe strong independence movements emerged, often with communists playing key roles. In Malaya and Viet Nam such struggles ensued against respectively the British and French colonial powers. Most significant of all, was the communist victory in China in 1949 which sent shock waves around the world and gave rise to a belief that even more countries would fall like a line of dominos. In Australia this victory later allowed the Right to speak of a double barreled fear of a red and yellow peril. And all these fears were heightened when the Soviet Union detonated its own atomic bomb, breaking the US monopoly.

At home, the communist party -- the CPA -- was on the move as well. It emerged confidently from the Second World War with a large membership and a powerful base in the unions. It also had big plans. Initially, the challenge it made was within the labour movement. The bitter coal strike of 1949 was as much as challenge to the political leadership of the ALP as it was to the mine owners. In many other industries, the CPA urged a strongly militant stance and strikes were widespread.

The victory of the Liberal and Country parties in 1949 did much to dash the hopes of many of the Left and labor movement - in part because one of the winning elements of Menzies' campaign was fear of communism. Once in office he lost no time in drawing up a law to ban the CPA. Menzies regarded the communists as a treasonable force. So shortly after the bill passed through parliament, a series of raids on communist offices and the homes of CPA officials took place around Australia. But this plan also had a rallying effect on the targets of repression. And the Communist party, rather than challenging other forces on the Left, now began to seek allies to try to politically defeat the law to ban it.

The law was defeated - -first by the High Court in March 1951 and then the following September by a popular referendum to change the constitution - this defeat being one of the most remarkable events in the Cold War in Australia.

This is all the more remarkable because in the middle of the debate about the ban on the CPA, North Korea had invaded South Korea and Australian troops and pilots were sent to fight there.

But while a majority of Australians judged Menzies had gone too far with his ban on the CPA, for many people the fear of communism remained a legitimate concern because of the communism's victories overseas. These in turn created a climate in which many people began to believe that a new war would become possible. And for people who had just suffered a war this was a potent fear.

To many people this remains one of the puzzles of the early cold war. To us today the message about the fear of communism appears exaggerated, hyped, and hysterical. I believe there certainly was an air of hysteria. And it is certainly true that fear of communism was a very politically useful weapon which the conservative parties used to great effect at election after election. Beating the anti-Communist drum seemed to drown out discussion on any other issues and to scare people into singing the one tune or staying silent. The accusation of communism was able to close off debate and shut people up. Nor are these criticisms new -- such criticisms were made at the time.

But the puzzle remains: why were these fears accepted by a large number of people? Why was the accusation of communism so potent a weapon?

It is of course very easy to judge a previous historical period.

The people are always more stupid than us - or more naïve --- or more noble. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. But the people and the political players of the cold war were in fact very much like us - in the given circumstances of the time.

One of the challenges for people like myself who was only just born in the period of the early cold war is to try to think our way into the feeling of the times. This became clear to me when I was writing my book on the history of ASIO and the Cold war. For example, it gradually became obvious to me that my picture of the former ASIO officers some of whom I interviewed and about whose files I read, courtesy of National Archives, were rather different creatures from what I imagined. I had imagined that they were a rather grim, fanatical bunch who opposed the high minded and idealistic lefties who wanted to change Australia for the better. What I realised was that many of the ASIO officers and the anti communists were of course, also idealists. And that in many ways the things which they did - and with which I disagreed --- were the action of idealists - driven by ideals to sacrifice some freedoms in the passionate belief that that this was necessary to save even a greater freedoms. Driven by ideals to label people who disagreed as soft on communism.

The other challenge to understand the cold war is one faced by anyone looking at history back over 60 years . And that is, that when we look backwards , we have to realise that what is now in the past was once in the future.

For example, we now know as a simple matter of fact that no direct conflict occurred between the Soviet Union and the West in the 1950s. But looking toward the future from a standpoint in 1950, this was by no means clear. A third world war was a possibility, it was genuinely believed.

This point of view was something which came home to me forcefully again, when I was writing my account of ASIO and the Cold War. Like many other historians of that period, I was surprised by the vehemence and bitterness of the anti-Communist cause. It became clear to me as ÃŽ researched the now-released files that Western intelligence and defence officials sincerely believed that a Third World War with their erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union, could soon break out. Moreover this view was shared by the intelligence and defence officials of the Soviet Union, which made various preparations, including alerting communist parties around the world to be ready.

So with both sides believing that a war could take place, some drastic plans were made. Some of these plans I discovered in my research, In particular in the early 1950s the Australian government made plans to intern over a thousand communists in camps in the event of war. This would involve the full gamut of repression -, the construction of internment camps, dawn raids on homes by police, difficult questions of whether to intern wives and small children, the shaky legal basis of interment etc .

To us today this seems bizarre. It seems all of a piece with attempts to ban the Communist party, and to fight almost any kind of non-conformism. But of course it all has be seen in context.

We usually have no difficulty seeing the context as it was seen by the victims of the Cold war. The communists and other people on the left saw the arguments of anti-communism as just another tactic by conservatives and by employers to beat back social change and perfectly reasonable reforms. They had faced such opposition since the beginning of the days of the trade union movement. They were accused of being merely an extension of the Soviet Union and they knew that that was quite incorrect. Rather, they represented the continuation of a radical tradition in Australia that long pre-dated the creation of the Soviet Union.

It is harder today to understand the context as the anti-Communists and the Right saw it. They were concerned that Stalin -- whom they knew was responsible for mass murder of his own people -- was armed with the A bomb. We now know that no Third World war ever took place. But this was not known in 1952 or 1953 or 54.

And that is the context for trying to understand the Royal Commission on Espionage which followed the defection of the Petrovs. It is true that on one level, it was a piece of political theatre, designed by a canny Menzies to drive home a lesson for the Australian people; but on another level it was quite understandable that some kind of investigation had to follow the defection of two Soviet spies, given that war with the Soviet Union was a possibility.

I am not saying that somehow the anti Communists were right, merely that today we have to make an effort to understand their perspective. For a long while, the Cold War has been a battle ground for what today are called the 'history wars.;' that is, a battle over the prevailing interpretation of the Cold war. By and large the Left has won this battle. Most people today look with incomprehension at the stifling of dissident opinion during the most intense period of the Cold War.

And so it takes an effort of imagination to see another point of view.

Finally, why would we bother to develop such a point of view ? Essentially because the Cold war has really, definitively finished and what we need now is a balanced view , not a partisan view of that period. This is not only the challenge to historians but to all of us who try to look back at anything in the past - whether it is family history or global history - we need to try and understand the perspective of people with whom we might have little sympathy. That us to say, we need to exercise a little empathy.