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Book Review: Alien Wars

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Alien Wars: The Soviet Union’s Aggressions against the World, 1919 to 1989
by Gen. Oleg Sarin and Col. Lev Dvoretsky (Novato, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1996); 243 pages; $24.95.

Historian Harry Elmer Barnes once explained the meaning of historical revisionism. Revisionism, he said, “implies an honest search for historical truth and the discrediting of misleading myths that may be a barrier to peace and goodwill among nations. . . . Revisionism has been most frequently and effectively applied to correcting the historical record relative to wars because truth is always the first war casualty.”

The interventionist spirit in American foreign policy, especially during the last 60 years, has led the United States into numerous misguided and disastrous adventures around the world. (See FFF’s new book, The Failure of America’s Foreign Wars.) Among the myths that still need revision are many pertaining to aspects of the Cold War.

For example, beginning in the 1930s, leftists in America accused their opponents of being paranoid about communism and the danger that there was “a communist under every bed.” The recently declassified Vonona documents, however, clearly show that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were Soviet spies (Julius’s Soviet code name was “liberal”); and that Alger Hiss really was a Soviet agent, as were Harry Dexter White, undersecretary of the treasury and one of the architects of the Bretton Woods agreement, and Laughlin Currie, leading Keynesian economist and state department official. Indeed, it appears that in the 1930s and 1940s there were more than 200 Soviet agents in the Washington bureaucracies, many of them in high positions.

One of the other myths during the Cold War was that the Korean War was started by South Korea in June 1950 or, if it was initiated by North Korea, it was without the approval or support of Stalin or Mao Zedong. A leading proponent of this view was the American journalist I.F. Stone. It now turns out that Stone was on the Soviet payroll.

Now that the Cold War is over and the Soviet Union no longer exists, Russian and Western historians have begun to get a look into many of the secret archives of the USSR. This has enabled the beginning of Russian historical revisionism, a revisionism that is putting to rest all of the lies of the Soviet state, from Lenin to Gorbachev. For example, the Soviet government always denied that the 1939 Non-Aggression Pact between Stalin and Hitler contained a “secret protocol” dividing up Eastern Europe. Not only has this finally been admitted, but the Soviet originals of these documents have been on display in Moscow.

The most valuable work in this area has been the “Cold War International History Project” sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. Since 1992, they have published translations and summaries of a vast number of released documents from the Soviet archives in their semiannual Bulletin, which is available free upon request. And a number of Soviet and Western scholars have been publishing histories of various periods and events during the Cold War on the basis of these new archival materials. Useful studies based on documents and previously unpublished memoirs from Communist China have also begun to appear. All of this is helping to put better perspective in many of the major events of the last half century.

One of these recent works is Alien Wars: The Soviet Union’s Aggressions against the World, 1919 to 1989 by Gen. Oleg Sarin and Col. Lev Dvoretsky. It is not as detailed as many of the more specialized studies or as thorough or well structured as a definitive history of the period will eventually have to be. But it offers many useful insights about Soviet foreign policy and Soviet actions before and during the Cold War.

The authors have an interesting chapter on the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, and the extent to which the Republican side was soon taken over by Stalin’s agents. They also detail the amount of Soviet military intervention in the war and how Stalin saw Spain as a proving ground for new military technologies, just as Hitler and Mussolini did in their support for the fascist side in the conflict.

In their discussion of the origin of the Second World War, the authors (like some other Russian historians in recent years) argue that Stalin not only wanted to help start a war between Hitler and Britain and France but was also planning to attack Nazi Germany (probably in 1942) as the crucial stage leading to the communizing of Europe; but Hitler beat Stalin to the punch by invading the Soviet Union first in June 1941.

They also detail the origins of the Korean War. Their discussion, along with Soviet documents now available through the Woodrow Wilson International Center, clearly demonstrate that while the first proposals for a war to unify all of Korea under communist rule came from North Korea’s dictator, Kim Il Sung, he had the full financial and military support of the Soviet Union. Stalin personally gave the official go-ahead. He sent Soviet military advisors to help plan the strategy of attack and conquest. After the war had begun and the tide had turned against the North Koreans, Soviet military pilots went into action against the U.S. Air Force from bases in Siberia and Manchuria in planes disguised with North Korean and Chinese Communist markings.

Another standard myth about the Korean War is that the Chinese Communists decided to intervene only when U.S. and UN troops began approaching the Manchurian-Korean border along the Yalu River in October 1950. However, this is contradicted by recent works, especially China’s Road to the Korean War by Chen Jian (1994). After Mao also gave the go-ahead to Kim Il Sung to start the war, Mao and the Chinese communist military began preparations in July 1950 for participation in the Korean War, as Mao’s next step in taking the leadership in Asia (with Stalin’s approval) for the communization of the Far East.

Sarin and Dvoretsky also explain the extent of Soviet military and financial intervention in the Vietnam wars, starting in 1946 through the fall of Saigon in 1975. Soviet advisors and military personal not only assisted the Vietnamese communists; they also flew aerial combat missions. They also flew combat missions for the Egyptians in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. The authors detail Soviet interventionism in Somalia and Ethiopia and how the Soviet government changed whom it supported as strategic opportunities shifted. They also describe Soviet motives and purposes for placing nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962, events behind Soviet military intervention in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, and the disastrous war in Afghanistan.

Soviet military adventurism after 1945 cost the lives of tens of thousands of ordinary Russians, who were sent to advise or fight in foreign lands in the name of winning the world for communism.

Revisionist histories about Soviet foreign adventurism are not valuable merely as a means for the Russians to face the facts and realities of their own past. They also assist in better understanding the events surrounding America’s own interventionist policies during this period. The lessons of history, Sarin and Dvoretsky hope at the end of their book, can be “useful in helping prevent unfortunate consequences in the future.”

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).