Why did Cold War leaders view the Communist bloc as monolithic?

Whenever I read about Cold War history, American historians seem to constantly bemoan the fact that Western Cold War leaders viewed the Communist world as monolithic. This, it is said, impeded the West from recognizing or exploiting conflicts within the Communist bloc. Also, it prevented them from understanding, and appealing to, the nationalistic motivations and prejudices of Communist foreign leaders.

Assuming this was true, why was it true? Kennan, one of the earliest Cold Warriors, had recognized the Communist bloc as divisible and explicitly called for taking every opportunity to divide it. So who was it who convinced the Western world that the Communist world was “monolithic?” Was it a case of simply taking the Communists too much at their word, with their explicitly internationalist ideology? Or was the “monolith” idea homegrown in the West?

It doesn’t appear as though Reagan viewed the Soviets as being a monolithic organization as he recognized that there was dissent in Poland at least.


I think most cold warriors recognized the antipathy that existed between China and the Soviet Union. Hell, I was aware of it and I was a child at the time.

Also, regardless of dissent, most eastern European communist governments were in fact Soviet puppets. Notable exceptions were Yugoslavia and Albania. The Soviets ruled their puppets with an iron fist as the Hungarians and the Chezchoslovaks found out in '56 and '68.

Also Romania as far as I know.

You may be right about Reagan not viewing the Communist bloc as monolithic. But in that case, Reagan’s talking about dissent by the non-Communist laborers against the control of the Communist Party. Or I think he is. The Solidarity workers mostly didn’t belong to the Party, am I right?

I was talking more about the view of all Communist governments and party members as a single organization rather than as actual or potential rivals with one another. The Sino-Soviet split that Larry mentioned would be an example of the kind of conflict between Communists that Western leaders are accused of being slow to recognize and exploit. Then again, the Sino-Soviet split didn’t really manifest until 1958, ten years into the Cold War.

Certainly, by Reagan’s time the Western view of the Communists as monolithic had waned. I suppose Nixon’s visit to China would be the turning point in that regard.

What about Western nations besides America? Did the UK, France, West Germany, et al. tend to conflate all Communist governments into a “monolith,” or did they recognize the tensions that existed between them?

The U.S.S.R. and China spit in the 1960s. To the extent that Albania decided to align with China and Tito kept Yugoslavia (buffered by Bugaria and Romania) at arms length, everyone recognized that the Bloc was not utterly and completely unified. However, there were two reasons why the language of the times continued to reflect the idea of the monolith, one ideological and one practical.

The ideological reason was the continued desire to believe that the Comintern was still working to overthrow the entire world thirty years after it had ceased to function in all but name. Thus, appealing to the Communist Menace allowed us to stomp around the world trampling on the rights of nations that were aligned with the U.S.S.R. as though they were complicit in an effort to destroy us.

The practical reason was that, in terms of the Warsaw Pact nations–but not Angola, Nicaragua, (North) Vietnam, and other places–there was a genuine monolith run from Moscow. The crushing of Hungary in 1956 and the slightly less violent suppression of Czechoslovakia in 1968 demonstrated that any country that bordered on the U.S.S.R. or one of its primary puppet states survived only at the whim of Moscow.

As I recall, it was a fairly common opinion amongst the tighty righties of the day that the “rift” between the Soviets and the Chinese was a ruse meant to lull America into a sense of security, while they bided their time waiting for the flouridation of our water to take effect. Seems to me that this view was relfected by St Ronnie as he made the transition from Twenty Mule Team Borax huckster to leader of the free world.

Got a cite to back any of that up?

A careful reading of the post will reveal words like “as I recall”. This is generally given to indicate that the speaker is relying entirely on his own memory. I could be wrong, its bound to happen some day.

I don’t recall any such thing, so I suspect you are wrong in this case. This being GD and all, don’t you think it’s best we stick to verifiable facts in support of assertions?

First off, the rifts between leaders was recognized. But it was also largely irrelevant. It did not greatly affect Russian or Chinese foreign policy in any measure we could figure, and the rifts and breaks were often quite opaque to us outsiders. Heck, they were often invisible to people living inside the country.

Remember Kremlin Watching? During the annual May Day parade, people would look at the rare few images allowed out of the SovUnion and analyze them. Hey, Marshall Krendinsky is standing two places left and one row up from where he was last year! Must be a purge.

Of course it might be. Or not. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and we could never be sure what was happening. And even if we knew, how would it help? The fact that they didn’t like each other didn’t mean they liked us or would help us, especially as it could mean their own quick purge. The Sino-Soviet split never helped us because all sides despised each other equally.

Your high horse is crapping on my carpet. You say you “suspect” that I am wrong, and then give me a pious zinger about “verfiable facts”, offering none yourself. Gimmee a break, OK, pal?

Personally, I think it had some to do with the basic human psychology of a tendency to exaggerate threats. I’ve met people who think that Al Qaeda poses more of a threat to the US than the Soviet Union ever was… which makes me scratch my head.

I think the Soviet Union suffered from a similar misconception about the West: they seemed to view the presidents of the United States as being just as powerful and conniving as Soviet leaders were capable of being. The book The Mitrokhin Archives has a great discussion of how some in the Kremlin were convinced that Reagan was going to launch a nuclear attack at any moment, and also that there was a secret control room that commanded the US economy. If the Soviets were so able to see what they wanted to, it shouldn’t be surprising that Americans (and I suppose the West) can concoct a theory of a unified Commie menace… and actually believe it.

Meanwhile, I’m mystified at how John Mace is supposed to find a cite to disprove an unverified and admittedly possibly erroneous claim.

Hah! This is GD, bub. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. You come in here slinging a load of shit at your political opponents and then get all pissy when someone asks for a cite. Cites are S-O-fucking-P. around here. We got a whole 'nuther forum for opinions.

Anyway, if you won’t take my advice, maybe you’ll listen to this guy.

Well, Golitsyn claimed it, and I’m sure there were some of the more conspiracy-theory minded of the anti-communists who believed it, at least (and, btw, luci, there is a difference between anti-communist and “tighty righty”…anti-communism existed across the political spectrum). Here’s a review of one of his books from National Review from 1984 that mentions the book’s theory:


Never said otherwise, never believed otherwise.

Golitsyn is hardly representative of “tighty righties” in the US, but the National Review might be. Note that the reviewer does not buy Goltisyn’s thesis.

Getting on my nerves now, John. So lets be clear about this: if I can find a quote from Reagan that verifies my memory, I get to serve you a big ol’ heaping helping of crow, and you gobble it up, smack your lips and say “Mmmmmm-Good!”?

Sure you want to go there? If I find, say, a quote from a speech to the John Birch Society (just grabbing at random, here) and bring it, I get to rub your nose in it and gloat like a motherfucker?

You sure?

Take it to the pit if you want to make this personal. I have no interest in pursuing this further with you, in this forum.

Why would you want to? This is exactly the kind of shit that’s ruining this board.