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].

Our Wishes, Passions Cannot Alter the State of Facts

“The Big Three” – Churchill, FDR and Stalin – at the Yalta Conference, Feb. 4, 1945.

By Jim O’Neal

In February 1945, with the war in Europe winding down, the time had come for President Franklin Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin to decide the continent’s postwar fate. They agreed to meet at the Black Sea port of Yalta to discuss the plan.

Each man arrived on Feb. 4, along with an entourage of diplomats, military officers, soldiers and personal aides. Among those attending for Great Britain were Alexander Cadogan, under-secretary for foreign affairs, and Anthony Eden, Britain’s foreign secretary. Stalin was accompanied by his minister of foreign affairs, Vyacheslav Molotov, and the Soviet ambassador to the United States. Roosevelt brought Secretary of State Edward Stettinius and Averell Harriman, U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union.

Roosevelt, recently elected to a fourth term, also brought along daughter Anna as his personal assistant, instead of wife Eleanor.

Aside from agreeing to the unconditional surrender of Germany, their agendas could not have been more different. While Stalin was firmly committed to expanding the USSR, Roosevelt and Churchill focused on the war in the Pacific. They hoped Stalin would declare war on Japan once Germany surrendered. Unbeknownst to Churchill, Roosevelt secretly secured the Soviet dictator’s cooperation by agreeing to grant the Soviets a sphere of influence in Manchuria once Japan capitulated.

The Allied leaders also discussed dividing Germany into zones of occupation. Each of the three nations, as well as France, would control one zone. Churchill and Roosevelt also agreed that all future governments in Eastern Europe would be “friendly” to the Soviet Union. Stalin agreed to allow free elections in each of the liberated Eastern European countries.

There was also a great deal of debate over Poland, but it was all a series of empty, almost laughable promises from Stalin in return for consenting to help with the establishment of the United Nations, which Roosevelt desperately wanted to create. He sincerely believed this new organization would step in when future conflicts arose and help countries settle their disputes peacefully.

The initial reaction to the Yalta agreements was one of celebration, especially in the United States. It appeared that the Western Allies and the Soviets would continue their wartime cooperation into the postwar period. Some historians continue to debate the impact of the conference. However, the facts are crystal clear. By spring, hopes of any continued cooperation had evaporated. After Yalta, Stalin quickly reneged on his promises concerning Eastern Europe, especially the agreement to allow free elections in countries liberated from Nazi control.

The USSR created an Iron Curtain and installed governments dominated by the Soviet Union. The one-time pseudo Allies found themselves on a more treacherous and dangerous path to another more ideologically driven one – the aptly named Cold War. Was FDR too tired and sick? He died two months after Yalta on April 12, 1945, at age 63. Was Churchill out of the loop or drinking heavily (or both)?

Seventy-plus years later, we are still consumed with Russian aggression in Crimea, Ukraine, Syria and the Baltics.

“Facts are stubborn things, and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence,” said lawyer and future president John Adams in 1770, while defending British soldiers in the Boston Massacre trial.

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].

After World War II, America Immediately Faced Challenges in China, Russia

Taiwan struck a gold 2000 Yuan Year 55 (1966) to commemorate the 80th birthday of Chaing Kai-shek.

By Jim O’Neal

Chaing Kai-shek joined the Chinese Nationalist Party in 1918, succeeding founder Sun Yat-sen as the leader. In 1925, he expelled Chinese Communists from the party and led a successful reunification of China. When the Allies declared war on Japan in 1941, China took its place among the Allied nations.

Chaing may have been an ally of the United States, but he presided over a corrupt society made ungovernable by China’s decade-long occupation at the hands of the Japanese and the growing strength of communist revolutionary Mao Zedong. Inflation was rampant, as was starvation, but Chiang’s police crushed opposition and no amount of American pressure could dissuade him.

In 1946, George Marshall made a valiant effort to consolidate power between Chiang and Mao, but it proved futile. As the Cold War advanced, Americans saw their own security at risk by supporting the anti-communists. Then, the Communist Revolution created an ardent hatred of all things American, followed by more bad news in September 1949. As the last of the Chinese Nationalists fled to Formosa (now Taiwan), a squadron of USAF B-29s detected traces of radioactive material while flying over the North Pole. This provided irrefutable evidence that the Soviet Union had successfully exploded their first atomic bomb.

Americans were disillusioned. This was not the way things were supposed to go. Right was supposed to triumph over wrong, freedom over oppression, God over the godless. Hadn’t the Allies just finished proving this on the beaches of Normandy and in the vast waters of the Pacific? And hadn’t the gods determined that Americans alone should possess the atomic secrets to keep the forces of evil in check?

Mao’s victory and Joseph Stalin’s bomb forced a reconsideration of plans for occupied Japan, for now the line between East and West had to be drawn even more firmly, and every American decision had to be viewed through the prism of the Cold War. The initial strategy, as it had been for occupied Germany, had been to halt Japan’s capacity for future aggression, to disarm the former enemy and slowly introduce democracy. But, just as the Russian actions in Eastern Europe had changed the pace of reeducation in West Germany, the victory of the Chinese Communists made it essential that Japan be immediately strengthened to resist the spread of the Red Tide in Asia.

General Douglas MacArthur, the supreme commander of occupied Japan, had personally written the new Japanese constitution, which banned “land, sea and air forces” and stated any war potential “will never be maintained – or the development of a military industry.” Just three years after the end of the war, that ban was lifted, creating a “self-defense force” of 75,000.

Today, as North Korean nuclear threats continue to grow, there are discussions about Japan assuming total responsibility for their own defense, including the possibility of a nuclear deterrence, something that many believe could be viable in a matter of months.

We seem to be incapable of eradicating or even mitigating war capabilities. Maybe there is just too much profit potential involved.

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].

Pendulum Seems to Be Swinging Back to a Dangerous World

Many in the United States argued a sick President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the 1945 Yalta Conference conceded too much in return for assistance in the Pacific.

By Jim O’Neal

In the 21st century, the issue of nuclear threats primarily focuses on non-state actors, loosely defined as terrorist organizations. The prevailing theory is that too many loose nukes could result in a “suitcase bomb” detonated in New York, London or Paris. Nations would not risk the instant retaliation that would follow. This gradually evolved after WW2 and there was little doubt which nation would become America’s next adversary.

During the war, the United States and Soviet Union shared a mutual objective of defeating Germany and this blurred the stark differences in politics and culture. Among the most indelible images are photographs of American soldiers and their Russian counterparts meeting at the Elbe River, signaling the war’s triumphant end.

However, once the glow of victory ebbed (and it faded fast), Russian soldiers brutally raped their way through a defeated Germany, and communications between the two sides devolved into intense suspicion. For Americans, the situation seemed clear. The Soviets were basically an evil nation, intent on spreading their godless theology … especially in crippled Europe, Turkey and the oil-rich land of Iran.

To the leaders in Moscow, the Americans were the new imperialists, eager to deny Russia the spoils of war that had extracted a significant price from the Russian people. They also suspected we were intent on preventing them from building a buffer defense zone against another invasion of their western border. Just as America had balked at Versailles, we would now prevent them from acquiring the war treasure they deserved.

American negotiators pleaded for democratic principles to reorganize the ravaged nations of Europe. But the Russians were adamant about holding those lands where the Russian army stood, plus gaining ground adjacent. Many in the United States blamed the negotiations at the 1945 Yalta Conference, where a sick President Franklin D. Roosevelt had conceded too much in return for assistance in the Pacific. In the end, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin simply solidified Russian control throughout Eastern Europe, beginning a pattern of deportations, intimidation and corruption. This led to the “People’s Democracies” (fiercely loyal to the Soviet Union) in Poland, Hungary, Romania, East Germany and Czechoslovakia.

As others obtained nuclear capability and the Cold War intensified, the world somehow managed to fight wars in China, Korea, Vietnam and dozens of other places despite 60 years of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). The “Doctor Strangelove” scenario never came to pass as nations were always acutely sensitive to the assurance of immediate annihilation.

Today, acts of terrorism have become routine and, surprisingly, another Cold War is heating up via rebuilding nuclear stockpiles, cyber threats and rogue nations like North Korea and Iran openly talking of death and destruction. It seems like the worst-case scenario is in full bloom. Who would have predicted a more dangerous world than the one we lived through in the 50 years preceding the fall of the Berlin Wall and the crumbling of the Evil Empire?

Sigh.

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].

Concerns Over Harry Truman Vanished as New President Exerted His Leadership

1945-white-house-press-release
A 1945 White House press release signed by Harry S. Truman as president announcing the bombing of Hiroshima realized $77,675 at an October 2010 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In February 1945, Franklin Delano Roosevelt traveled to Yalta in southeastern Russia to discuss plans for peace with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. He reported to Congress that plans had been arranged for an organization meeting of the United Nations on April 25, 1945. He said, “There, we all hope, and confidently expect, to execute a definite charter of organization under which the peace of the world will be preserved and the forces of aggression permanently outlawed.”

Upon his return, he looked tired and older than his 63 years. Late in March, he went to Warm Springs, Ga., for an overdue rest. On April 12, 1945, he was working at his desk as an artist painted his portrait when he suddenly complained of “a terrible headache.” A few hours later, at 4:45 p.m., he died of a cerebral hemorrhage. The last words he had written were “The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith.”

harry-s-truman
Truman

His successor, the first president to take office in the midst of a war, Harry S. Truman, said he felt “like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me.” The nation and world wondered if he was capable of taking Roosevelt’s place. His background and even his appearance added to the nervous uncertainty. He was the first president in 50 years without a college education. He spoke the language of a Missouri dirt farmer and World War I artilleryman – both of which he had been. Instead of talking like a statesman, he looked like a bank clerk or haberdasher – both of which he had been. And worst of all, everyone knew that for more than 20 years he had been a lieutenant of Tom Pendergast, one of the most corrupt political bosses in the country.

What most people didn’t know was that he was scrupulously honest, knew his own mind and was one of the most knowledgeable students of history ever to enter the White House. Importantly, he understood the powers of the president, and knew why some men had been strong chief executives and others had been weak leaders.

When he learned about the atomic bomb, there was no soul-searching or handwringing debates. He ordered it dropped on Japan because he was sure it would save American lives and quickly end World War II. It did not bother him in the least that years later, intellectuals would question whether one man should have made such an awesome decision alone. He knew in his heart that he was right … period.

Two of his well-known sayings capture the essence of Give’m Hell Harry Truman: The Buck Stops Here (a sign on his desk) and my favorite … If you can’t stand the heat, stay the hell out of the kitchen!

Leaders get paid to make tough decisions.

Jim O'NielIntelligent 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].

Battle of Stalingrad Defined Struggle Between Fascism and Bolshevism

the-boy-from-stalingrad-columbia-1943
The Boy from Stalingrad was a 1943 Columbia Pictures movie about Russian youths fighting the German assault on Stalingrad. The propaganda film was officially approved by the U.S. government, which briefly worked to maintain its wartime alliance with the Soviets.

By Jim O’Neal

While the siege of Leningrad was under way, a ferocious battle was beginning over Stalingrad, a sprawling provincial city of half a million, outlining the banks of the Volga River.

If there was one battle that defined the struggle between fascism and Bolshevism – the essential confrontation that Adolf Hitler had long dreamed of winning – it was this one. From a strategic standpoint, it would allow Germany to cut off the supply route to the Russian Army up north and open the way for the Wehrmacht to control the oil fields surrounding the Caucasus Mountains.

But Hitler wanted Stalingrad for a personal reason, too. Joseph Stalin had named this city in 1925 to honor the battle he had led there during the Russian Civil War. Its capture would be a symbolic victory and erode Russia’s willpower. However, Stalingrad would prove important to both sides and together they would expend the lives of 1 million people in just five months.

The drama began with the Germans attacking the city’s northern edge and discovering Russian civilians, many of them women in dresses, firing the guns. It was a harbinger of the legendary Russian resistance. That night, an enormous roar deafened Stalingrad, the sound of 600 German planes descending at once. They dropped bombs carrying incendiary devices and when they ignited, the city was so bright from flames that soldiers 40 miles away claimed they could read a newspaper. In all, 40,000 civilians died that night and the worst was yet to come.

Since the city was home to several prized armament plants, tanks rolled off the assembly line directly into battle. Yet it was hand-to-hand combat that came to dominate the fighting – building by building, block by block, rooftop to rooftop – until giant piles of rubble remained. Snipers worked from every garret, booby traps appeared at every turn, and hand grenades came flying from every angle. The insanity of the fighting was obvious even to impotent commanders, but the two leaders in Moscow and occupied Ukraine insisted their armies fight on.

Ignoring the pleas of his advisors, Hitler failed to protect his flanks and fresh Russian troops encircled the city, trapping the entire German army inside. Now they were the ones under siege, starving and freezing while they waited for the promised reinforcements that never came.

By January 1943, the battle was over and 80,000 German troops were marched off to Soviet camps, where all but a handful would eventually die. Things would only go downhill from here as the German people lost faith and the Allies started their offense directly against the Fatherland.

Jim O'NielIntelligent 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].

Siege of Leningrad was Devastating for Russian People

nicolai-fechin-russian-girl
Nicolai Fechin’s Russian Girl, an oil on canvas laid on masonite, sold for $109,375 at a November 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The suffering brought on by World War II was enormous, but when the total picture is considered there is little doubt that the greatest pain was borne by the people who lived within the grasp of the century’s most vicious tyrants: Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler.

While Americans were busy managing the factories that made them the “Arsenal of Democracy” and focusing on Japan, the people of Central Europe and Western Russia were in a life-and-death struggle fought on the very streets of their cities.

Throughout the winter of 1941-42 and onward for 900 days, the people of Leningrad were suffering dramatically. Concerned that his German army might encounter enormous losses if they launched an all-out assault, Hitler ordered a blockade of the city. By starving its 3 million people, he hoped to break Russian morale and force them to surrender.

Since Leningrad was closed on the west by the Baltic Sea, to the east by the 80-mile-wide Lake Ladoga and to the north by the Finnish army, the Wehrmacht only needed to seal the southern flank to isolate the city. But even as the Germans closed ranks around them and started bombing warehouses and supply routes, the hearty citizens showed they would not be so easily defeated. Volunteers built thousands of air-raid shelters and pillboxes, and cut down trees to block the Germans’ path.

By late December 1941, Leningrad was down to two days’ supply of flour and people had to make bread from cellulose, sawdust and floor sweepings of flour. Animal feed became human food, weeds were boiled to create soup and the dead were hidden so families could continue receiving their daily rations. 53,000 perished that month, and by February another 200,000 would join them.

Somehow the city hung on.

Then came a breakthrough. Scientists discovered Lake Ladoga had frozen so deeply that it could support truck traffic. They cautiously started sending convoys across the “Road of Life.” In the first seven days, 40 trucks sunk to the bottom, but dozens of others made it and returned with precious food. Then women and children were evacuated and the city limped along in darkness and silence since there was no oil to light the lamps and even the birds were dead. In fact, every creature – living or dead, including the human corpses in the gutters – had been picked over by the hungry hordes.

Leningrad Radio broadcast from the generator of a ship frozen in a river and aired the sound of a metronome between programs to let listeners know the city was not dead, yet. By the time Leningrad was liberated in January 1944, nearly 1 million people had died.

There were more civilians dead than in any city, in any war, in the history of mankind.

During this siege, Hitler became obsessed with conquering Stalingrad and that proved to be a fatal mistake that cost him the war. The little colonel from Bavaria proved to be a poor general.

Jim O'NielIntelligent 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].