By the autumn of 1945 it was the turn of the Americans to become the hawks in the stand-off with Stalin. The US finally began to outline plans for their post-war strategy, yet there was no presidential or ‘top-down’ directive as there had been with Churchill and Unthinkable. Instead, individual officers as well as the US Joint Planning Staff (USJPS) took the initiative in preparing reports on a post-war strategic plan. The plans did not, at this stage, detail operations but looked at overall US military capability and its requirements for worldwide bases and military reserves. ‘New weapons and countermeasures’ were discussed, with special consideration given to the potential of atomic bombs and guided missiles. Experts concluded that these new weapons had limitations, which would not change US military strategy, for at the time the range of V–2-type rockets could not be extended beyond 1,000 miles, while atomic bombs could not be made small enough to suit artillery rounds or naval torpedoes. Consequently, the planners and their experts believed that these new weapons would supplement conventional weapons and the idea that atomic bombs could be used as a deterrent did not seem to enter the equation. However, the planners did determine that crippling a nation’s industrial capacity would not affect the outcome of any atomic war, since the war would be over well before that could take effect. By late 1945 the strategic plan, which cloaked its objective with talk of ‘maintaining world peace’, was presented to the US Joint Chiefs of Staff and then the president for approval.
The impetus for more detailed US operational plans for a major conflict with the Soviet Union would take months to build. The US planners had not consulted with their British counterparts at this stage, for as an ailing Harry Hopkins observed, ‘to hear some people talk about the British, you would think the British were our potential enemies.’ But to some Americans, the British Empire was just that; when Major-General Francis Davidson of the British General Staff was on a tour of the US in the autumn of 1945, he was accosted by a journalist who demanded to know about ‘British imperialistic designs on Indonesia’. Such language might well have come out of the Kremlin, but at least Anglo-US military relations were on a more cordial level. During the autumn and winter of 1945 there was increasing co-operation between the two armies as well as a sharing of intelligence on Soviet deployments. Gradually, as a result of these constant and verifiable dossiers, corroborated by their own agents in the field, US intelligence began to take the Soviet threat seriously.
During October and November 1945 the US Joint Chiefs examined reports that assessed current Soviet military capability at more than sixty offensive infantry divisions, 25,000 tanks and 60,000 large-calibre artillery pieces. They concluded that Soviet forces could easily overrun Western Europe and the Middle East any time before 1948; such an alarming prospect made the US Joint Intelligence Committee calculate the effect of ‘blocking’ that advance by unleashing nuclear weapons. In what was the first US outline plan to attack the Soviet Union, twenty Soviet cities were selected as targets for atomic bombs, to be delivered by heavy bombers, yet the American JIC were excluded from most of the US atomic secrets and would not have had accurate data on the number of available bombs.
In November 1945 the US State Department was alarmed by news that Soviet troops in civilian clothes were assisting a tribal revolt in Iranian Azerbaijan with a view to annexing this adjacent province. The US Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered ‘a reassessment of US military capabilities in view of Soviet aggressive policies’, which indicated the US themselves were now preparing contingency plans for a conventional war with the Soviet Union. On 2 March 1946 the US Joint War Plans Committee (JWPC) produced a draft for Operation ‘Pincher’, the US broad equivalent to the British Operation Unthinkable. However, the casus belli was no longer Poland. It was assumed that the Soviet Union had already set up its ring of satellite states to protect its borders, and the conflict would arise from the Soviets attempting to infiltrate more countries beyond that ring. In particular, Pincher singled out the Middle East as a flashpoint, where US or British interests could be undermined. There might also be incidents in Turkey or Iran, which would compel the Western Allies to retaliate by military force, and thereby spark a Third World War. The original plan envisaged a war sometime between 1946 and 1949, but as tensions rose dramatically during 1946, the time span was drastically reduced. It looked to US planners as if they were staring into the abyss. Of course, they were unaware of the extent of the leaks by Donald Maclean, and how much the Soviets knew about US plans for retaliation in the event of a hostile move against Turkey. It is possible that because of the knowledge that the US would retaliate, Stalin may have backed off from an invasion of Turkey in 1946, which diffused the crisis.
Belatedly, President Truman talked of Stalin’s tactics in Poland as an ‘outrage’. This tough talking may have resulted from the new US atomic muscle, but their foreign policy hardened by the month. In February 1946 George Kennan sent his famous ‘Long Telegram’ from the US Mission in Moscow to Washington. It was a seminal moment, for in Kennan’s own words, ‘these years had been a strain for me nearly all the way through, because I watched our government making concession after concession to the Soviets.’ It seemed that both the US government and public opinion had needed a gestation period before they could readily address the Soviet threat.
It was not just the US administration that was changing its policy towards Stalin. Churchill’s fears about Soviet domination in the spring of 1945 had, by early 1946, become orthodox thinking in the British Foreign Office. The Mediterranean, Turkey and Iran were all vulnerable, and northern Italy had proved contentious. There were also concerns that the pro-Soviet French communist party might take power in France. If a conflict with the West erupted, Stalin would have no qualms about ordering a communist insurrection in France, to be followed by an attempted communist coup in Belgium and, after a civil war, a communist regime could follow in Spain. The worst fear for Britain remained triumphant communism ‘fuelled by German economic might’, as the British JIC confirmed:
Russia will no doubt give full weight to the fact that Great Britain and the United States are both war weary, faced with immense internal problems and rapidly demobilising their forces. By comparison, Russia’s own forces and industry are still on a war basis. No further demobilisation has been announced, and Russian divisions are being rapidly re-equipped with the latest material.
Churchill, now free of the political constraints on a prime minister, though still recognised as a world statesman, sensed a rising tide of realism in the West. On 5 March 1946 he used such recognition to full effect by giving a legendary speech during a tour of the US. At Fulton, Missouri, he uttered a solemn warning to Russia, and talked of ‘an iron curtain’ descending on Europe. He reminded the American people that the West could not afford to appease the Soviet Union, for such a policy had been disastrous before the war and now, in a post-war world, would be seen simply as weakness by Stalin. Yet despite the dramatic tone of his speech, the British press and public were lukewarm in their support for the ex-premier. This was hardly surprising, since in Britain there remained an overwhelming feeling of gratitude to the Soviet Union for their undeniable sacrifice in the war. Such public goodwill was certainly fostered by the unrelenting diet of wartime pro-Soviet propaganda that emitted from the British government. It was unrealistic to suppose that barely a year later the public could absorb the ‘justness’ of an attack on the Soviet Union.
Regardless of any protests in the West, Stalin’s suppression of Eastern Europe continued apace. In March 1946 alone the Soviet Ministry of the Interior recorded that ‘8,360 bandits were liquidated’ in the Ukraine, while in the Baltic Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia nearly 100,000 people were deported to gulags ‘forever’. Even as the packed cattle trucks of ‘bandits, nationalists and others’ trundled eastwards, Stalin launched his own verbal repost to Churchill’s Missouri speech, denouncing him as ‘a firebrand of war’. But Churchill’s views were no longer seen by the US as either extreme or as an impediment to better relations with Stalin. Just days before Churchill had delivered his Fulton speech, the US JWPC had finalised their Operation Pincher war plans. US policy was turning full circle in its attitude to the Soviet Union:
It is wise to emphasise the importance of being so prepared militarily and of showing such firmness and resolution that the Soviet Union will not, through miscalculation of American intentions, push to the point that results in war.
The US draft plan for their own Unthinkable war estimated that in the spring of 1946 the Soviets had fifty-one divisions in Germany and Austria, fifty divisions in the near or Middle East and twenty divisions in Hungary and Yugoslavia. This force of 121 divisions was supported by a central reserve of 152 divisions in the homeland, and a total of 87 divisions of pro-Soviet forces within the satellite states of Eastern Europe. A Soviet attack would most likely sweep across Western Europe and seize the channel ports and the Low Countries in little more than a month. Simultaneous attacks would be launched into Italy as well as the Middle East. In the midst of such overwhelming force (again, an estimate of three to one in favour of Soviet infantry), it was recommended that US troops would retreat into Spain or Italy to avoid being decimated by the Red Army on the continent. It was conceivable that the Red Army would even carry the invasion into Spain in an attempt to block the western Mediterranean, in which case US forces would swiftly withdraw and retreat to Britain. While Britain was considered a valuable base, Germany, Austria, France and the Low Countries would be sacrificed. Retreating Allied forces would also move across to the Middle East to bolster defences around the vital Suez Canal Zone. It was no surprise that the US chiefs of staff now accepted that an essential object of Stalinist policy was to ‘dominate the world’.
There would be a fight-back by the West, of course, but not until the Red Army had swept through Western Europe, the Balkans, Turkey and Iran; in the Far East, South Korea and Manchuria would also fall. Although Pincher did not go into further detail, the US and her Allies would launch devastating air attacks from remaining bases in Britain, Egypt and India, no doubt deploying their growing stock of atomic bombs, though the use of such weapons was still not seen as a ‘war winner’. Meanwhile the US Navy would seek to blockade the Soviet Union and destroy her naval fleets, as attempts were eventually made to recover Western Europe by a southerly thrust via the Mediterranean.
One old festering wound in Europe that looked like it could precipitate Operation Pincher was the dispute between Tito and the West over the Venezia Giulia region. It was also this scare that brought together the US and British Joint Chiefs of Staff for their first planning sessions for a Third World War. The first British Unthinkable plan, involving the attack on Soviet forces on 1 July 1945, had not been discussed beyond the tight circle of the prime minister, his Joint Chiefs and their Joint Planners. Similarly, the highly sensitive US Pincher plan was initially confined to the US Joint Chiefs, their Joint Planners and the commander-in-chief. But on 30 August 1946 Field Marshal Henry ‘Jumbo’ Maitland Wilson, representing the British Joint Chiefs, attended a lunch with his American counterparts. Reporting back to his JCS committee, Wilson was able to reassure them that at least both sets of chiefs were alert to the risk of an armed clash in Venezia Giulia, which could pull in both power blocs, whether they wanted war or not. There was agreement that in the event of a conflict in the Venezia region it was pointless having a plan for large reinforcements to be sent into the territory, since the fight would swiftly spread into central Europe. Poland, no longer seen as the tripwire by late 1946, would nevertheless find herself at the very centre of military activity.