Cold War Collapse

  January 21, 2024   Read time 5 min
Cold War Collapse
After rising to great heights the world federalism movement came crashing down abruptly in the wake of the Korean War and the cold war political atmosphere that gripped the United States and other countries. The victory of the communist movement in China was misinterpreted as evidence of a spreading monolithic totalitarianism.

The development of the H-bomb and the sharp rise in East–West military tensions disillusioned many liberals and internationalists. Hopes for a more peaceful and cooperative postwar order disappeared. Fear and hysteria gripped public consciousness, as substantial majorities in Europe and the United States favored the development and possession of nuclear weapons to deter the Soviet threat. Anticommunism spread like a virus, undermining the universalist principles of federalism. Visions of one world gave way to the grim reality of a planet divided in two, separated by an iron curtain. In the United States Senator Joseph McCarthy fanned the flames of paranoia by charging that leftists in government had “lost” China. The hand of Moscow was suspected in liberal internationalist causes, especially those that advocated cooperation with communist states. The increasingly rigid anticommunism and intolerant political climate silenced many of those who had previously supported federalism. Most of the states that had passed measures favoring world government voted to rescind their earlier resolutions.

Liberal internationalists were swept up in the anticommunist wave. Many federalists and liberals began to equate internationalism with an interventionist foreign policy to deter the Soviet Union and the global communist threat. As DeBenedetti noted, the assumptions of federalism with its strong opposition to totalitarian aggression “coincided all too easily with the cold war premises of the emerging American national security state.” Many believed that the communist threat in the 1950s was equivalent to the fascist threat of the 1930s, and that collective military force and even nuclear deterrence were necessary to prevent renewed tyranny. The world federalism movement thus foundered on the shoals of cold war internationalism.

Some of those who had greeted the bomb with horror now came to accept it as a necessary deterrent against the communist threat. In 1948 a Church of England report stated that “the possession of atomic weapons is generally necessary for national self-preservation.” In the United States the Federal Council of Churches, which in 1945 had condemned the use of the bomb, declared in 1950 that atomic weapons were necessary for defense and that their use was “justifiable” as retaliation against attacks on the United States or its allies by “atomic weapons or other weapons of parallel destructiveness.” In Britain, France, West Germany, and other countries, public opinion polls showed substantial majorities in support of the bomb and favoring the use of nuclear weapons either preemptively or in response to attack. Many agreed with Churchill that without the bomb, “it is certain that Europe would have been communized and . . . London . . . under bombardment.”

The Korean War was a turning point in tilting public opinion toward support of cold war policies. Many internationalists and peace advocates supported the US-led war in Korea, which was seen as a justified act of collective defense against aggression and which was endorsed by the UN Security Council and General Assembly. The National Executive Council of the United World Federalists backed the war and urged the United States to “muster its full strength in the cause of freedom.” In Britain Henry Usborne of the Crusade for World Government declared himself “four square behind the United Nations” in the war.30 In Japan the previously pacifist Socialist Party split over the war and divided into two separate parties.

A few groups such as the WRL opposed the war and mounted meager protests, but they were a tiny minority. Later, some of those who had supported the war came to regret their decision. They were dismayed by General Douglas MacArthur’s march to the north, the subsequent Chinese intervention, and the bloody two-year stalemate that followed. They were horrified by the ferocity of the war, which killed 39,000 US soldiers and left more than two million Chinese and Koreans dead, many of them civilians. The war caused severe damage to US society as well, reinforcing a pervasive cold war atmosphere that suffocated the spirit of federalism and antiwar dissent. The result of the Korean War, wrote Michael Howard, “was quite simply to militarise the United States.”

The very language of peace was corrupted by the cold war ideological struggle. The Soviet-dominated East described itself as defending “peace,” while the US-dominated West emphasized the goal of “freedom.” These two great principles, which philosophers had for so long sought to combine, now came to be regarded as polar opposites. They were manipulated and distorted as propaganda shibboleths, and in the process lost much of their meaning – the “peace” of the East predicated on submission to totalitarianism, the “freedom” of the West based on the threat of war. Peace advocacy was further debased by the spread of communist-front “peace” organizations backed by the Soviet Union, which discredited the peace agenda and made the very concept seem subversive. Vera Brittain complained that the communist-front groups were making peace a “dirty word.” Pacifist groups found themselves labeled as communist fronts.

The federalist movement, with its emphasis on world government, was particularly susceptible to such charges. The identification of peace with communism became so pervasive that some mainstream groups placed the word “peace” in quotation marks. In these difficult circumstances a small number of determined pacifists kept alive the flicker of the absolutist faith. Groups such as the AFSC, the FOR, the WILPF, and the WRL continued to function, albeit at reduced levels. Some committed pacifists continued to speak out and engaged in nonviolent direct action against war and nuclear weapons, but mass-based peace activity in the United States became virtually nonexistent.

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