After Napoleon and Nazi Germany, Russia Lives with Paranoia of Conflict

A 1953 Russian propaganda poster showing Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin sold for $2,629 at a July 2016 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Joseph Stalin died on March 5, 1953, after ruling the Soviet Union for 25 years and leading the country in its transformation into a major world power. Born Iosif Dzhugashvili in 1878, while in his 30s he took the name “Stalin” meaning “Man of Steel.” After studying at a theological seminary, he read the works of revolutionary socialist Karl Marx, which inspired him to join the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

He was a protégé of Vladimir Lenin and after Lenin’s death, Stalin earned a reputation as one of the most ruthless and brutal dictators in world history (“Ideas are more powerful than guns,” he once said. “We don’t let our people have guns. Why should we let them have ideas?”).

After an extended Cold War with the West, the Soviet Union started to unravel when its eighth and final leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, assumed control in 1988. He seemed eager to “destroy the apparat” – weaken the Stalinist structure of the Communist Party and the Soviet state. Only then could he take the bold economic steps to revamp a bankrupt system that was crumbling fast.

The West hailed Gorbachev as the tsar liberator, a political magician, or as Time magazine editorialized in January 1990: “The Copernicus, Darwin and Freud of communism all wrapped into one.” A year earlier, he was Time’s “Man of the Decade.” But in early 1990, Lithuania demanded outright independence and a crowd of 200,000 in the capital of Vilnius demonstrated to get the entire Lithuanian territory returned. This was quickly followed by an Azerbaijani Popular Front rally that escalated into a civil war along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, with both sides clamoring for independence.

In August 1991, Latvia and Estonia declared restoration of full independence, followed by the Ukraine on Dec. 1. On Dec. 25, Christmas Day, Gorbachev resigned and the following day the Supreme Soviet voted itself and the Soviet Union out of existence.

I first met current Russian President Vladimir Putin in Saint Petersburg in 1992 when he was head of the Committee for External Relations, a group in the mayor’s office responsible for promoting international relations and foreign investment. We started shipping Lays potato chips from Warsaw and soon built a Frito-Lay plant near Moscow. I totally underestimated him and thought he was just another thug, a feeling that was reinforced when we started Pizza Hut in Moscow.

According to Henry Kissinger, Putin has always blamed Gorbachev for the dissolution of the Soviet Union due to his policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reform). “The greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.” It has always been a mystery to me why they gave up so much when the United States and others were willing to negotiate a softer landing. I haven’t read Putin’s autobiography, but I suspect the Russians will never be satisfied until there is an east-west buffer zone along the Ukrainian border.

After Napoleon and then Nazi Germany, there is an inherent paranoia that will only be exacerbated if Poland ever joins NATO. As philosopher George Santayana so wisely observed, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

American Forces Quickly Rallied to Face German Aggression

Tom Lovell’s World War I Soldiers on Horseback, painted for a magazine story illustration, sold for $8,750 at a March 2012 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

At the start of 1917, only four months before the United States declared war on the German Empire, the U.S. army totaled 107,641 men. Sixteen other nations had larger armies. Another major weakness was the lack of recent experience in large-scale military operations. It had been a full 51 years since the armistice at Appomattox had ended the Civil War and many things had become rusty in the interim.

Also, somewhat remarkably, there was no modern military equipment heavier than medium-size machine guns!

Even the National Guard was larger (132,000 men), but this part-time militia was dispersed among the 48 states, generally poorly trained, and any federal oversight was unusually lax. One sparkling exception was the U.S. Marine Corps, over 15,000 first-class troops. However, they were scattered throughout the Western Hemisphere in America’s possessions and in Central American republics, acting as police in the aftermath of the 1898 Spanish-American War.

Despite this bleak situation, and because the Germans had committed far too many acts of war, on April 2, President Woodrow Wilson requested a joint session of Congress. On April 6, the U.S. Congress voted overwhelmingly to go to war. The vote in the Senate was 82-6 in favor (with eight abstentions) and 373-50 in the House, with Jeannette Rankin of Montana in the minority. In 1941, she would become the only member of Congress to vote against declaring war on Japan after Pearl Harbor.

Yet, by June 1917, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, General John J. Pershing, had arrived in France and on July 4, American Independence Day, elements of his 1st Division paraded in the streets of Paris. Throughout the following months, fresh units of an Army designed to reach a strength of 80 divisions – nearly 3 million men – continued to arrive. By March 1918, 318,000 men had reached France, the vanguard of 1.3 million to be deployed, and not a single one had been lost to enemy action in oceanic transport.

Rare are the times in great wars when the fortunes of one side are transformed by the sudden accretion of reinforcements. Napoleon’s enemies in 1813 when the Russian army joined Britain/Austria … the North in our Civil War when the adoption of conscription added millions versus the South’s hundreds of thousands … 1941 when Adolf Hitler’s stupid declaration of war on the United States, followed by Japan’s ill-advised action, saved an isolated Britain and an almost defeated Soviet Union.

This was another of those times, when Germany had declared unrestricted war in the Atlantic in the flawed calculation that the war would be over in Europe before the United States could mobilize.

As philosopher George Santayana so wisely observed, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” and “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].