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D. F. Fleming’s and Arnold Toynbee’s Lessons of Russian History as a Way of Understanding the War in Ukraine

On the morning of June 7, 1971, four eminent American historians—Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Adam Ulam, William Appleman Williams, and D. F. Fleming met in Room 2172 of the Rayburn House Office Building to testify before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Europe of the Committee on Foreign Affairs. The congressmen wanted to hear their views about the origins of the Cold War and the likely course that it would be taking as the war in Vietnam raged.

Schlesinger and Ulam generally had been apologists for American foreign policy during the Cold War whereas Williams and Fleming had been the leading revisionist historians in opposition. Schlesinger and Ulam held Stalin responsible for the Cold War. In the course of their testimony, they argued that the United States had no choice but to oppose him. The Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and NATO had been rational responses to the threat of Soviet aggression. No grounds existed for blaming the United States as the guilty party in starting the Cold War.

Williams and Fleming presented counter-narratives regarding the capitalist exploitation that accompanied America wherever it went in the developing world. They argued that the Cold War had to be understood fundamentally as an economic event in which the United States had promoted the cause of corporate capitalism. Washington had not played a merely defensive role against communism, but from the beginning had gone on the offensive in the name of its own economic system. According to them, Truman’s mistaken judgments and policies did more than anything else to cause the Cold War.

The historians’ debate before the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe, however, did not proceed simply as a contest between Cold War revisionism and orthodoxy, with Williams and Fleming on one side and Schlesinger and Ulam on the other. The two revisionists had their own differences as did the two putative upholders of orthodoxy. Moreover, points of agreement between the revisionists and the other side became evident as the session progressed, particularly regarding the war in Vietnam.

All four historians and every subcommittee member who spoke at the June 7 hearing, regardless of party, agreed on the ultimate bankruptcy of the policy that had led the United States into the rice paddies and jungles of Vietnam. Even Ulam, the most implacable of Washington’s defenders at the hearing, granted that the United States had misread the situation in Vietnam and the forces at work there. Schlesinger echoed the consensus: “Vietnam has been an expensive and horrible education.” We must have no more Vietnams, he implored.

Although heartily agreeing with Schlesinger, Fleming thought it necessary to add some deep historical background to the discussion in order to understand how American foreign policy as a whole had gone wrong in the Cold War. His comments place in context not only the Vietnam War but also the one being fought in Ukraine today.

Drawing on the research compiled for The Cold War and Its Origins: 1917-1960 (1961), Fleming began with an account of the horrors of the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution when millions of Russians died, and the society of tsarist Russia disintegrated. Then from 1918 to 1920, the Western capitalist countries did everything possible to destroy the new Soviet state “to scotch bolshevism at its birth by invasions from all four sides of the Russian realm.” Millions more Russians died during these terrible years. He thought that the trauma caused by the capitalist military interventions had introduced distortions into the growth process of the Soviet state, which in all probability would have evolved more mildly if it had been left alone.

Fleming wanted to remind the congressmen that to the Russian people the events of the Bolshevik Revolution and its unimaginably brutal aftermath constitute living history operating today “deep in the Russian soul,” not abstractly as material for mere study in the classroom. He thought that Americans, even at the leadership level, had a very shaky understanding of what had happened in Russia at that time and no awareness or concern about the depth of Russian resentment over military invasions from the West.

Another invasion occurred in 1941, this time from Nazi Germany. Fleming illustrated this part of his presentation with detailed statistical information. The Soviet victory over Hitler’s legions came at a horrific cost. In addition to 27 million Russian dead, the full tally included “15 cities, 1,700 towns, and 70,000 villages largely destroyed; 88 million people subjected to invasion, and 25 million deprived of shelter; 6 million buildings destroyed; 70 million head of livestock carried away; 40,000 hospitals, 84,000 schools, 44,000 theaters, and 43,000 libraries looted and destroyed—along with industrial enterprises, highways, bridges, postal, and telegraph stations.” He wondered what the reaction of Americans might have been had a similar fate befallen their country, if perhaps they, too, might have a heightened sensitivity about the prospect of foreign troops massing on their borders.

Between the years 1914 and 1941, Russia had experienced three invasions across its Western borders: the German invasion of World War I, the anti-Bolshevik military intervention, and the German invasion of World War II. At a later point in the discussion among the historians, Fleming mentioned these three invasions again and contended, “I don’t think that you can take the terrible memories of three tremendous traumas out of the history of a people, out of their minds….You can’t evade those terrible memories.”

To understand Russian concerns about border security, it might be well, Fleming thought, “to imagine ourselves being invaded from Mexico three times in 35 years, terrible invasions, reaching up to Chicago, Minneapolis, and all over, doing infinite damage that we can’t even imagine.” If the Mexicans had done that to us once, let alone three times, the American reaction easily could be foreseen. Border security would have been as important to Americans as it was to the Russians at the end of World War II.

Fleming found Stalin’s policy in Eastern Europe not morally perfect but perfectly understandable in the historical circumstances produced by Russia’s three great invasion traumas from the years 1914 to 1945. He concluded that Truman and his advisers should have been much more understanding and inventive about diplomacy than they had been on the issue of Russia’s border security. Instead, they militarized American foreign policy out of fear that Stalin schemed to invade Western Europe, a highly unlikely prospect given the utter devastation to which Russia had been subjected during the war. From Cold War misconceptions, America’s intervention in Vietnam had followed in a train of misguided wars, subversive plots against democratically elected governments, and support of right-wing dictatorships.

Fleming’s testimony in the 1971 House hearings on “Cold War? Origins and Developments” gives us another way of thinking about the way the crisis in Ukraine might have been managed by the United States in 2022. A knowledge of Russian history might have given our leaders pause before acting on the idea of NATO expansion to that country’s borders, an obvious apple of discord for a people thrice traumatized by the invasions so vividly described by Fleming. If the goal of our policy in Ukraine had been peace and stability in that part of the world instead of the absorption of that country into our own system, we would have followed his recommendation in dealing with Russia, to show a good deal more diplomatic imagination and sensitivity than a militarized foreign policy allows.

Fleming advanced a chronologically and topically compressed version of a thesis about Russian history found in Arnold Toynbee’s The World and the West (1953). Toynbee counted five invasions of Russia by the West over the past five hundred years: the Poles in 1610, the Swedes in 1709. The French in 1812, and the Germans in 1915 and 1941. He mentioned earlier incursions as well and concluded that for Russia attacks from the West have been “a constant threat from the thirteenth century till 1945.”

Autocratic government evolved in Russia as a means of saving the country from their aggressive Western neighbors. In explaining the rise and triumph of Soviet Communism, Toynbee emphasized the importance of Russia’s catastrophic defeat at the hands of German invaders in the First World War. Stalin emerged as a latter-day Peter the Great repelling a second German invasion as his predecessor in the early eighteenth century had vanquished the Swedes. Western invasions had occurred at pivotal points in Russian history and had produced lasting effects on the way the country’s leaders viewed the world. It would appear to be the way Putin viewed the world as he contemplated the prospect of NATO armies and weapons at his doorstep in Ukraine.

Toynbee did not restrict his analysis to the Russians. All non-Western peoples feared the West as the arch-aggressor of modern times. The Islamic world, India, and the Far East also had come under sustained Western attack and domination. From the Crusades of the Middle Ages down to the present, the West had terrorized Muslim peoples. During modern times, sea power had been the decisive factor in the West’s dealings with Islam. Toynbee wrote, “the West, thanks to its conquest of the Ocean, had succeeded in throwing a lasso round Islam’s neck; but it was not until the nineteenth century that the West ventured to pull the rope tight.” By land, sea, and air, the tightening process has continued down to the present hour in Gaza.

As an Englishman, Toynbee would have been especially interested in and affected by the end of the British Empire in India. He had delivered in 1952 the B.B.C. Reith Lectures on which The World and the West had been based. India had gained its independence only five years before, in 1947. Surveying the history of the British presence in India since the 1780s, he said of the ruling administrators in their treatment of the people: “They were unscrupulous in using their political power to fleece and oppress them.” Of all the Western encounters with non-Western cultures depicted in the book, Toynbee found the Indian experience to have been the most painful and humiliating. Such a scarring phase of India’s history would be bound to produce desolating long-term consequences. The portrayal of Narendra Modi in Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A History of the Present (2017) as a hyper-nationalist Hindu demagogue “healing old injuries” fits into Toynbee’s predictions for an independent India.

In the Far East, China especially suffered from the depredations of Western imperialism. The West’s assault on China had begun in the sixteenth century. Only in the nineteenth century, however, did systematic invasion and control by the technologically advanced Western Powers begin to define Chinese history. The Chinese thereafter became a classic prey of Western conquerors. The “Western Question” for China in this period involved methods of resistance to conquest, subjugation, and exploitation by Europeans and Americans. Japan experienced similar fears but reacted more quickly than China did in adopting Western technology and military methods to protect itself from the fate that befell the hapless Chinese. China’s reactions to the West today must be understood in the context of these historic agonies inflicted by Western tormentors.

Russia, Islam, India, and China suffered the most at the hands of the West. Toynbee added, though, that all non-Western cultures had experienced varying degrees of degrading treatment by the West. In the light of his conclusion, we perhaps can understand the cool to freezing-cold reaction of the Global South to the Western cause in Ukraine today. The lack of support there for the West’s economic sanctions against Russia issues from resentments built up against Western elites long perceived to be arrogant and interfering exploiters perennially lying about their motives while fastening the shackles of empire on their intended victims. The West is in the position today of a salesman trying to convince once-bitten customers that they need not be twice-shy this time.

In the last chapter of The World and the West, Toynbee attempted to establish a parallel between ancient times and our own. The Greeks and the Romans overran their world. Much in the manner of the contemporary West since the rosy dawn of the American Century, the Romans became the “dominant minority that had devastated the world by conquering and plundering it and were now patrolling the ruins as self-commissioned gendarmes.” The methods of empire change over time, but the essential aim of the rich to rule the poor remains the same.

Toynbee enlisted the wisdom of Tacitus to illustrate the closing point of The World and the West. In the Agricola (98 A.D.),Tacitus had one of Rome’s enemies, the Caledonian chieftain, Calgacus, say while denouncing the Romans as the blackest moral desperadoes in history, “They make a desert and call it peace.” Toynbee said that the world took its revenge on the Romans by converting them to a non-Western religion. We are left wondering at the end of his book about the possible forms that the world’s revenge will take against the West in our time.

This article first appeared on Counterpunch on January 19, 2024

Published inNotebook

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