Excerpted from Chapter 1: The War of the British Succession, from The Atlantic and Its Enemies: A History of the Cold War, by © Norman Stone. Excerpted by permission of Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
The winter of 1946–7 sank into the memory of anyone who lived through it. A contemporary, the historian Correlli Barnett, writes that it was ‘a catastrophe of ice and snow’. It started early, and on 20 January produced a:
The Atlantic and Its Enemies: A History of the Cold War
(Basic Books; US: May 2010)
savage east wind that cut through every cranny in British houses and froze all within [and] the blizzards began to sweep in across the country again and again through the rest of January and on through the coldest February for three hundred years. In the hills nearly a third of the sheep perished. In East Anglia the snowdrifts piled to a height of fourteen feet. Off the Norfolk coast ice-floes eerily converted the North Sea into a semblance of the Arctic.
In London the temperature fell to sixteen below, and the railways were paralyzed; coal could not be moved from the pitheads, and the power stations’ stocks collapsed. By February 2,500,000 people were idle because of power cuts. This lasted until the end of March (and was followed by a drought). Yet the British climate was generally quite mild, and matters were made worse because of the strange way in which the British preferred inefficient coal fires (‘cosy’) to central heating, and put up, every winter, with the phenomenon of burst pipes. Later on, George Orwell, though not complaining at the time, blamed that winter in London for the appalling condition of his lungs, which later killed him.
On the European continent that winter was still worse the further east you went. In Germany the frozen waterways and paralyzed (or shattered) railways could not move stocks at all. The bombing damage had not been made good and people lived in cairns of rubble, freezing and starving; they did business by barter or in crumpled Reichsmark notes, marked with endless noughts. Such were the scenes that the American Secretary of State, George C. Marshall, saw from his train window as he went to a conference of foreign ministers at Moscow in the middle of that winter. In England, there had been bread rationing since the previous summer (500 grams per week for working men, half that for most others) and rations were low otherwise – 50 grams of tea and bacon, the same for mousetrap cheese, with about 250 grams for fat and sugar. Dried egg was an item of that period, eked out with water into an at least edible paste. The British were even then much better off than the French, whose official rations were considerably less. In Germany there was outright starvation, and an unknown number of people just died – maybe 9 million, in addition to the 6 million men who had gone in the war. In 1946, 6 million of them had been expelled, carrying a suitcase each, from Czechoslovakia and Poland, and they had been dumped in makeshift camps over the new German border.
Most of continental Europe was in dreadful shape. France had been fought over, and more comprehensively than in the First World War, which had affected only thirteen of the north-eastern and northern departments, whereas the Second affected seventy-four. She had also had a robber baron Nazi occupation for four years, and the outcome was terrible – with almost 10 per cent infant mortality at Tourcoing, for instance, and a whole range of growth troubles associated with vitamin deficiency, such as rickets. The railway system was so badly run down that you needed fifteen hours to go from Paris to Strasbourg and there was constant inflation, as paper money chased an industrial output less than one third of that of 1929. In Paris rations amounted to 1,500 calories per day in May 1945, as against an otherwise minimum 2,000, and the daily bread ration in the Marshall winter was at 250 grams and even at times 200. In 1946 France had to get half of her coal from the USA, not the Ruhr, and there were terrible shortages of fuel. There were shortages of grain because cattle, not people, were fed on it: the peasants would not sell grain for the paper money. In Italy, though she was spared the worst of the weather, matters were even worse. Much of the south was starving; the peninsula had been fought over; there had been a civil war in the north; there were millions of refugees; and in 1947 1.6 million were out of work. Those in work had seen their wages cut in half by inflation and survived often enough only through a subsidized canteen, eating meat only once a week. Italy was backward by other European standards, and there were millions of peasants; malaria was still a problem; and relations between the great landowners and their peasants in the south were sometimes tense, to the point of violent occupations of land, and counter-killings by the armed police.
Politics in both countries were at boiling point, and a Communist Party became the largest one, taking a third of the vote, and running the trade unions. In early March 1947, as General Marshall journeyed to Moscow through this devastated scene, he was well aware that Communist coups could be launched, to take over western Europe. Already, that had happened to the east, where only Czechoslovakia stood out as a parliamentary and democratically run country, but even there the Communists had taken two fifths of the vote. The Moscow conference that he attended – one of several, of foreign ministers, devoted to the subject of central Europe and especially Germany – dragged on for weeks and went nowhere. And now there was a very obvious problem, that the USSR would use the emergency to encourage the spread of Communism. Over Germany, the Soviet idea, said Ernest Bevin, was to ‘loot Germany at our expense’. The Russians wanted huge reparations for the damage caused to them in the war, and they also meant to keep Germany permanently down. Maybe, even, the Germans would vote Communist so as to save themselves from this miserable fate. There was no peace treaty as yet, but at the turn of 1946–7 such treaties with other countries had been settled, and Communists had won support in, say, Romania or Poland when they promised land at the expense of Hungary or Germany.
The Second World War had been, in western Europe, a civil war as well, and Communists were very strong in the resistance movements. When Marshall returned from Moscow, he could see that France and Italy were in no condition to withstand the effects of the winter of 1946–7. In fact Stalin had even been preening himself at the Americans’ discomfiture. Controlling as he did the Communist parties, he knew well enough that western Europe might be lost for the Americans altogether. The Americans might be the strongest military power, but they would be powerless if western Europe fell naturally into Communist hands, and in any case there would be an economic crisis in America once the demobilized soldiers tried to find jobs in an economy that could not export, given the collapse in Europe. He was of course informed of what was happening by spies in high positions – Donald Maclean, second man at the British embassy in Washington; Kim Philby, one of the chiefs of British Intelligence; Henri d’Astier de la Vigerie, in the immediate entourage of General de Gaulle, who in 1945 headed the French government; Anthony Blunt, also excellently informed as to British Intelligence; John Cairncross, chief civil servant in the London Cabinet defense committee, who revealed the secrets of the atomic bomb; Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White in the US machine: so many, in fact, that Stalin gave up reading what they wrote, because he could not believe that such men were real spies. When Maclean defected, he was simply sent to teach English in a remote Siberian place, and was drinking himself to death until a bright young foreign ministry man, Alexandr Lebedev, rescued him. Expecting Communism to triumph, Stalin and Vyacheslav Molotov, his foreign minister, refused to try to make that Moscow conference work. They dragged it out, haggling over details, and the Americans were struck by the confidence of Stalin’s tone. But this time the Americans were going to take up the challenge.
© Norman Stone