Immediately after the end of World War II, Stalin’s strategic outlook was centered on the idea of holding secure what had just been won in the struggle against Nazi Germany. He codified that thinking in a lengthy memo he wrote early in 1947 titled: “Plan for the Active Defense of the Territory of the Soviet Union.”
In it, he forecast, were a new war to begin, it would do so via an Anglo-Allied attack into the Central European lands recently occupied by the Soviets. In turn, the Red Army’s initial mission would be to defeat that aggression before it could go far enough east to reach the Russian Motherland proper. The overall goal was to “secure the invulnerability of the boundaries established by international agreement after World War II.”
Since he still didn’t have an atomic bomb, his further thinking centered around defeating that US nuclear monopoly by deploying Soviet conventional strength on the ground. He therefore ordered the smaller postwar Red Army to be made more combat efficient via full motorization, which was mostly completed by 1949.
Despite the greater access to Kremlin records granted historians since the implosion of the USSR, no document has as yet emerged telling exactly when Stalin moved from the doctrine of strategic defense to one of strategic offense. Even so, though it remains impossible to distinguish exactly when he crossed that line, we know that sometime in 1948 he had made the switch in his thinking.
The evidence for that comes from his split with Yugoslav communist dictator Josef Broz Tito in March of that year. The long-offered explanation for their mutual alienation was it had come about due to Stalin’s jealously of the alternative approach to socialization presented by the smaller country’s dictator. As such, the blame for the split later offered by historians was kept centered on the Soviet dictator’s well known ego and belief in his own unique mission in history in regard to the final unfolding of communist dominance of the planet. More recently, though, as documents from the former Yugoslav government have become available, we know that interpretation is only part of the story.
The main reason the break came about was due to Tito’s desire to set up Yugoslavia as regional hegemon of the Balkans. More particularly, he saw the then burgeoning Greek Civil War as the means to do that. He pleaded, if Stalin would only give logistical support for Yugoslav and Albanian forces to intervene there, a quick and complete communist victory could be won.
Stalin disagreed, not on principle, but due to the fact he was then in the process of fully consolidating his own control over what he judged more strategically valuable territory to the north of the Balkans – namely Czechoslovakia and Poland – and in the Far East, via the communist victory looming in China’s civil war. He felt certain any open communist invasion of Greece would bring swift retaliation by the British and Americans, who had strong aero-naval forces on hand close by in the Mediterranean.
It therefore was best, he maintained, to let the communist momentum building on those more important fronts carry forward the socialist bloc to the proper moment for launching a larger war against the main opponents: the US and UK. Of course, for Tito, the Balkan peninsula was the crucial front.
Since Tito was unwilling to back off from his own idea, Stalin clothed the resultant split in ideological wrappings rather than discussing it as a disagreement over the best time and place to start World War III. In turn, Tito gave up launching his proposed invasion of Greece, since he had no confidence in its success minus at least Soviet logistical support.
Had Stalin been somewhat less egotistical, or had he merely had a different opinion of Euro-Asian strategic geography, we could’ve had a Third World War that began in the Balkans in 1948 or 1949, and that was then likely to have quickly expanded from there across all of southwest Asia. That expansion would’ve taken place for two reasons.
First, given the range of the US bomber force at the time, the only places from which the Americans could’ve dependably delivered their “air atomic” counteroffensive against the industrial vitals of the USSR – then still mostly in and just east of the Urals, after having been moved there to keep them out of German hands during the previous war – would’ve been from borrowed British bases on Cyprus, Crete and at Suez.
Second, America – which had been the powerhouse oil exporter for the whole Anglo-Allied war effort during World War II – was passing peak production. That meant the oilfields of the Mid-East would be crucial to any major new war effort by those nations. Those oilfields, in turn (see map) were almost totally undefended, and they lay much closer to the Red Army’s start lines than they did to any centers of Anglo-Allied power. Their early seizure in any new World War would’ve had powerful effect on the Allied capabilities.
At the end of World War II the Soviet Union had some 12.7 million personnel under arms, with the Red Army fielding approximately 477 division-equivalents supported by about 35,500 combat aircraft. By the end of 1947, the agricultural and industrial labor requirements for postwar reconstruction had allowed for only 4.4 million of those personnel to be kept in service along with about 24,000 aircraft. Meanwhile, however, the Anglo-Allied militaries declined from their wartime highs into an even smaller force.
If World War III had begun during 1948-49, it’s difficult to evaluate which side would’ve won. At the conventional level, it’s possible the Soviets could’ve achieved the overrunning of Western Europe and/or Southwest Asia that Allied planners feared. At the same time, though, if those Soviet advances didn’t break overall Allied morale, or failed to push the USAF bombers out of range, thereby allowing time for the US “air atomic” strategic counteroffensive to be carried out, it’s difficult to imagine how the Soviets could’ve held up against that kind of destruction.
It would most likely have been a close-run thing for both sides, with its final outcome dependent on which side kept up its morale – and therefore its determination to go on fighting – the longest.
This is an excerpt from a longer article that will appear in issue number 10 of the on-paper edition of CounterFact Magazine. Those interested in placing a pre-release discounted order for issue 10 should go here: