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].

Watergate, Vietnam Reflect Complicated Times in American History

By Jim O’Neal

Nixon

Before Richard Nixon went to bed on Nov. 7, 1972, he gathered his supporters at the Sheraton Hotel in Washington, D.C., for a few final words of victory. As he turned away to retire, there was a loud chorus of voices chanting “Four more years!” This was an elite group of Republicans, but there was no way for the television audience to know that some of the most eminent chanters were felons.

And although the president had racked up a historic victory with 18 million more votes than his opponent, that was not the whole story. Only 55 percent of eligible voters actually went to the polls, a strong indication that perhaps a lot of people rejected both candidates. Plus, the Democrats continued to dominate both houses of Congress, limiting the power of the presidency to enact key legislation.

Even more significantly, this term would be the first (and only) in U.S. history where both the original president and vice president failed to complete their terms in office. Especially poignant was that both had been forced to resign … Spiro Agnew over corruption and Nixon over Watergate.

In a reference to Watergate, Democratic Party nominee George McGovern had described the Nixon administration as “the most corrupt in history,” but Gallup had reported in October that barely half the voters had even heard of the break-in and only 7 percent thought the president might be involved. The men around Nixon continued to be deeply involved in the cover-up … anything to push the issue past the election.

Kissinger

The president’s reelection campaign had been enormously enhanced in the final days by electrifying news from Henry Kissinger: He and Le Duc Tho, Hanoi’s chief negotiator, had achieved a breakthrough in their Paris talks. On Oct. 8, the North Vietnamese had dropped their insistence that South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu be ejected and instead a coalition government be installed in Saigon. Eighteen days later, Kissinger told a televised press conference that a final accord could be reached with just one more meeting. “Peace,” he said, “is at hand.”

But it wasn’t.

Saigon didn’t agree and Thieu vowed that, if necessary, his country would continue the war alone. Then the North became difficult again and Kissinger left Paris in despair on Dec. 14.

Nixon was furious with both sides and cabled North Vietnam’s Premier Pham Van Dong, warning him that unless serious negotiations were resumed within 72 hours, he would reseed Haiphong harbor with mines and unleash America’s aerial might: B-52s, F-4 Phantoms and Navy fighter bombers. General Curtis LeMay had proposed “bombing them back into the Stone Age” and Air Force generals assured the president that in two weeks, they could saturate the enemy homeland with more tonnage than in all the great raids of World War II – a terror-bombing on a scale never known before.

Hanoi did not respond and the result was the most savage chapter in the long history of our involvement as U.S. air bases on Guam and Thailand and carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin pounded them 24/7, flying more than 1,400 bombing sorties a week. Americans were stunned. Only a few days before, they thought the long nightmare was over.

Back in Washington, D.C., the other nightmare was also not going away. Despite the best efforts of All the President’s Men, it was also destined to end badly. A very complicated time in our history.

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].