Conference 2009

How Wars End

By kind permission of the Master and Fellows of Selwyn College, the Cambridge History Forum held its Annual Conference on 7th March 2009. The Conference’s theme of “How Wars End” was developed in two informative and thought-provoking papers given by Mrs Gill Bennett and Dr Mike Sewell examining, respectively, the end of the Second World War and the end of the Cold War.

Gill Bennett (Chief Historian of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office between 1995 and 2005) began by entertaining her audience with some fascinating anecdotes relating to her time in this role. Moving on to address the end of the Second World War, Mrs Bennett emphasised how far-reaching the consequences of the Second World War had been, its long-term consequences reaching well beyond 1990. Accordingly, her paper would regard its medium-term consequences as being from approximately 1955-1990, with the War’s short-term consequences arising before 1955.

 Turning to her first theme, Mrs Bennett examined the role of the United States at the end of the Second World War. Despite being the power which had emerged as the strongest from the War, the US was surprisingly deficient in intelligence information in 1945; moreover, it found itself increasingly regarded as an imperialist power, despite having entered the War (at least in part) out of anti-imperial motives. Related to contradictions such as this were some important longer-term ‘blind spots’ in American thinking, for example their inability to understand that Communism was an inherently more practical policy in the Far East than a return to imperialism, a failing which influenced the US response to China in the short term, Vietnam in the medium term and, in the longer term, to American policies regarding the spread of democracy (writ capitalism).

The use of atomic weapons was a further crucial context for the end of the Second World War. From then on, atomic weapons dominated international politics, not least through the financial outlay they necessitated. As with other themes explored in Mrs Bennett’s paper, this one extended to the present day in its implications: the concern now being that so-called “non-state actors” (or terrorists) might gain access to weapons of mass destruction. A very direct consequence of the War which was equally still with us was the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, with the concomitant displacement of the Arab population. In discussing this issue Mrs Bennett was able to draw on her personal experience of investigating the issue of ‘Nazi Gold’ between 1997 and 1999, and observed in this context that the major priority in 1945 had been “getting countries working again”, rather than returning property.

Mrs Bennett’s interesting and broad paper finished by addressing two final themes: multilateralism and the movement of population. Firstly, there was the advent of multilateralism: put simply, after 1945, countries stopped doing things by themselves! Working together, however difficult, was perceived to be better than not working together. Secondly, there was the practical problem of feeding people, notably the huge numbers of refugees, at the end of the war: this was something the US could afford to do, whereas Britain could not, and the latter’s decline and financial weakness was a further aspect of the situation after 1945 which needed to be considered. Moreover, the British Labour government in 1945 was suspected of being ‘Reds’ by the US, yet regarded as traitors by Stalin!

Mike Sewell (University Lecturer in History and International Relations at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Selwyn College) then examined the end of the Cold War. As there is no precise, agreed date at which this happened, he opened with a survey of possible points when it might be regarded as ending. These included more obvious ‘candidates’ such as the fall of the Berlin Wall in the Autumn of 1989, dates as early as the Spring of 1988, when George H.W. Bush felt prompted to remind President Reagan that “the Cold War isn’t over” (implying that some felt it might be), and events as late as December 1991, when Gorbachev informed Bush that the Soviet Nuclear Code Suitcase had been handed over to the President of the Russian Federation (whose name he couldn’t actually bear to use!). Dr Sewell argued that, whilst the fact that Germany was reunified within Nato in 1990 was certainly of great significance, there was much to be said for the moment just before Christmas 1989 when the USA encouraged the Soviet Union to intervene in Romania, and the USSR said that they couldn’t possibly: thus was reversed 43 years of policy! It is hard to see anything recognisable as the Cold War continuing beyond this point…

Turning to the factors bringing about the end of the Cold War, Dr Sewell explained how the growth of mutual trust was crucial, together with the ‘de-ideologisation’ (admittedly a term which translates somewhat awkwardly from the Russian!) of Soviet foreign policy. He highlighted too the generational shift whereby younger Russians felt less compelled to maintain to the hilt the territories won at such great cost during the Second World War than their elder comrades. Alluding to the debate as to whether the Cold War’s end represented a western triumph or a Soviet loss, he unveiled for the audience the domestic context of the 1980s in a Soviet Union whose economy – it was increasingly recognised – was being sapped with devastating effect by the arms race, and which took note of the technological breakthroughs in the West during the 1980s, not to mention the ability of Britain to successfully dispatch a task force to the Falklands. There was a sense in which the West was able to spend the Soviets into submission, draining Soviet resources in the process and thereby achieving a so-called ‘preponderance’: the Soviets were simply increasingly unable to keep up in military, technological or intelligence terms. Interestingly, this contrasted quite strongly with the late 1970s and early ‘80s, when there was a sense of crisis in the West and many feared a Soviet triumph.

In concluding his wide-ranging and fascinating paper, Dr Sewell discussed the question of German power in Europe, suggesting that this was integral to the Cold War and that it was necessary for Russian leaders (not to mention those in the West) to overcome the fear of Germany which had dominated their thinking since the end of World War II.

This was linked to the generational shift he had described earlier – men like Gorbachev were children of (not adults from) the war years – and to the issues raised by Gill Bennett in discussing the end of World War II. Both speakers were asked a series of questions which demonstrated both the connections between their talks and the underlying theme of “How Wars End”, as well as the extent to which they had stimulated their audience to reflect and question. The History Forum Committee is extremely grateful to them for their time and for enlightening all present with their expertise, and also to Selwyn College for providing the setting and hospitality which helped to make the 2009 Conference such an enjoyable and convivial experience. We look forward to 2010!