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].

Iranian Revolution Created Tensions That Have Yet to be Resolved

don-ivan-punchatz-ayatollah-khomeini-unpublished-alternate-time-magazine-cover-illustration-original-art-1984
An unpublished Time cover illustration of Ayatollah Khomeini by Don Ivan Punchatz (1936-2009), dated 1984, went to auction in September 2012.

By Jim O’Neal

No act of terror could have exceeded the profound tension of the 1970s after the unpredictable drama that enveloped a Middle East nation in 1979. For Americans, it closed out the decade with a new and ferocious attack on our pride and sense of well-being.

It arrived from a most unlikely source: a bearded, humorless, 79-year-old Muslim cleric – in exile the previous 15 years from his native Iran, the last of them in Neauphle-le-Château (outside of Paris), preaching Sharia law and campaigning for the ouster of the Shah.

Remarkably, in early 1979, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini achieved his life’s goal: toppling the Shah’s Pahlavi dynasty and replacing him as de facto head of a modern theocracy. As he did, the enthusiasm of his insurrection fanned the flames of anti-Western fanaticism throughout the Muslim world. An Islamic Revolution was formally under way.

After centuries of being guided by conservative mullahs, Iran had been wrenched into the 20th century by what the Shah described as a “white revolution” (bloodless). He was the son of an army officer who had seized control of Iran in the 1920s. The Shah succeeded his father, was briefly deposed and then reinstalled by a CIA-led coup in 1953.

The Shah was active, stripping the clergy of their vast land holdings, declaring radical new rights for women, dramatically increasing urbanization and strengthening ties to the West. In addition to being a source of oil, Iran became a strategic impediment to the advancement of its neighbor, the Soviet Union. As western alliances flourished, so did Iran. Previously a desert state, it was transformed into a stunning country with shiny steel mills, nuclear power and an army well-stocked with American artillery.

Unfortunately, much of the populace did not want to abandon their rich heritage. They found inspiration in the sermons of Muslim leaders and viewed the western world as plagued with problems. The increasing tension forced the Shah to crack down hard and by 1979, he could not prevent popular resistance.

Early on Nov. 4, 1979, a mob of demonstrators breached the American Embassy in Tehran, took the staff as hostages and began their 444-day declaration of vengeance against the Great Satan. They defied the United Nations, the United States, and a failed 1980 rescue mission that left aircraft wreckage, the bodies of eight U.S. servicemen, and Jimmy Carter’s reelection effort in the desert sands.

Thirty-seven years later, the struggle of East-West continues and only the leaders have changed. However, the West is now viewed as occupiers instead of hostages and multiple conflicts in various countries offer little hope for peace. Civil wars usually last about 10 years. This may turn out to be a generational conflict, involving competing civilizations, perhaps all armed with nuclear capabilities.

To date, no one has offered a coherent strategy for an endgame as we continue to argue and debate who or what to blame.

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].

For a Moment, It Seemed Warfare as We Know it Was in Its Final Days

An original 1991 Desert Storm editorial cartoon by Bill Mauldin for the Chicago Sun Times realized $418.25 in a November 2014 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

When it comes to naming military campaigns, few compare with “Desert Storm.” Besides its obvious evocations of sand-blown landscapes, the name could also work as the title of a pulp novel or B movie, even a video game. In early 1991, more than two dozen allied nations began an assault on Iraq in an attempt to drive its forces from neighboring Kuwait.

It was a classic military rout.

In just over 40 days of American air attacks, followed by fewer than 100 hours of ground fighting, thousands of high-tech bombs (precision-guided munitions) rained down on Iraqi positions. Enemy troops were driven back to Baghdad and into international humiliation.

For the United States, the war was the first since the debacle in Vietnam, and the American public entered into an anguished debate as President George H.W. Bush had pushed for congressional approval. Who could know if Iraq would become to the ’90s what Vietnam had been to the ’60s and ’70s?

Still, there was no denying these were different times. Among the allies standing with the U.S. against Saddam Hussein’s seizure of oil-rich Kuwaiti sands was the Soviet Union, the first instance since World War II in which Americans and Soviets fought on the same side. It also positioned the allied nations as a quasi-international police force stopping acts of raw aggression.

World War I had advanced combat into the sphere of mechanized warfare. World War II had taken technology even further and made civilians targets. Now, in Iraq, computer technology advanced both the tools and the strategy until it resembled science fiction. Beginning with the launch of a Tomahawk missile from the deck of the USS Wisconsin on Jan. 17, 1991, Baghdad became the site of one of the most devastating air raids in history.

There was now no doubt that warfare had entered a new epoch. With satellites mapping the globe it seemed possible war would soon become as simple as deleting a computer file – scanning a battlefield, identifying a target and systematically destroying it.

It was a clean war, precise and efficient, fought so fast it hardly demanded attention. There were few American losses (148 dead vs. 200,000 Iraqis) and undeniable results … Iraq out of Kuwait. Plus, we could tune in to CNN to get the latest update during an occasional coffee break.

The world was finally coming to its senses and if someone committed an act of aggression, it would only take a few coordinated responses to restore harmony. Finally, we could channel our energy and resources to eliminating disease, world hunger and a thorough cleansing of the air and oceans.

War was such a dumb idea. Why did it take us so long to recognize what a waste it was? The new millennium was impatiently waiting for us to get a fresh start.

Sigh.

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].