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Buying the same horse twice

By Afam Nkemdiche   |   07 March 2017   |   4:00 am

Averell Harriman

Buying the same horse twice is the title of John Dobbins’ thesis on the United States of America’s Embassy in Moscow at the end of World War II. Dobbins’ work examined the experiences and perspectives of three of the embassy’s principal members of staff: Ambassador Averell Harriman; Charge d’ Affairs George Kennan and Military Advisor Major General John Deane. The thesis observed that although the three envoys each held divergent perspectives respecting specificities on the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, USSR, but their respective conclusions on USSR’s post-war ambition in Eastern Europe converged.

As WWII entered its last but one year, the Allied nations held a conference at the city of Yalta on the Crimean Peninsula, to consider post-war agreements. The Yalta 1944 Agreement had centred on the composition of the Polish government and the repatriation of prisoners of war (PoWs). Harriman, Kennan, and Deane all agreed that the USSR never intended to abide by the Yalta Agreement. In their view, according to Dobbin, the Yalta Agreement was for the USSR no more than an instrument for yet another conference to discuss the same set of international challenges. The USSR always employed the pretence of renegotiating Agreements to secretly expand its spheres of influence in Eastern Europe; (hence the Buying the same horse twice thesis). The three U.S. envoys consequently advised Washington to adopt tougher foreign policy against the USSR to check the latter’s territorial ambition.

U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt wasn’t fully sold on the Buying the same horse twice thesis because he essentially advised himself on foreign policy. He had therefore stuck to his relatively liberal “firm but friendly” policy towards Joseph Stalin, his USSR opposite number. But the U.S. president took a different view when the USSR leader accused Roosevelt and the Western Allies of trying to negotiate a conditional surrender with the Germans on the western front, so that they could advance further east into Europe. Stalin’s accusation was said to have been borne out of his frustration at the fact that the Germans continued to vehemently fight the Soviets on the eastern front, while the U.S. and the British seemed to have no trouble on the western front.


Roosevelt responded to Stalin’s accusation in these instructive words: “…it would be one of the greatest tragedies of history if at the very moment of victory, now within our grasp, such distrust, such lack of faith, should prejudice the entire undertaking after the colossal losses of life, materiel and treasure involved… Frankly I cannot avoid a feeling of bitter resentment toward your informers…for such vile misrepresentation of my actions or those of my trusted subordinates.” Stalin’s shocking accusation largely vindicated Harriman, Deane, and Kennan’s long held conclusions on the USSR. Ambassador Harriman commented that “The whole incident showed the depth of Stalin’s suspicious nature… He had been schooled to believe in the inevitability of a clash between the Soviet Union and what he used to call ‘capitalist imperialism.’ He did not trust us and he could not believe that we trusted or would deal fairly with him…” Harriman went on to say that the accusation jarred ailing President Roosevelt into recognising that the post-war period was going to be far less pleasant than he had imagined.

WWII outlived Roosevelt; he died suddenly in April 1945 of cardiac-arrest. Succeeding President Harry Truman immediately recognised the worth of Harriman, Deane, and Kennan. The former foreign policy advisors were granted the status of “foreign policy makers.” But that measure proved too little, too late to reverse the course of USSR expansionism in Eastern Europe. So, as Harriman had postulated, the U.S./USSR post-war relations rapidly deteriorated, culminating in the Cold War.

Buying the same horse twice teaches invaluable lessons. First, while the U.S.-led Western Allies had credible intelligence that their Eastern partners held them in deep suspicion, they did absolutely nothing to allay that suspicion. Second, rather than focus on assuaging that suspicion, the Western Allies’ subsequent actions intensified it. (The U.S. didn’t disclose to the USSR that it had acquired the nuclear capability until the deadly weapon was deployed against Japan in August of 1945. And, when the Allied Nations resolved that the U.S. should destroy her stockpile of the new bomb, the U.S. secretly refused to comply) The USSR was therefore justified in her suspicion. But history also shows that the USSR had been just as consistently opaque in her relations with their western rivals.

Rivalry naturally breeds mutual suspicion. That epic rivalry between western democracy and eastern autocracy, and the concomitant Cold War have persisted to this day. It was a grand illusion to have imagined that the Cold War ended with the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev, the reforming USSR leader (1985–1991). When, in their existential struggle, a thesis and an antithesis collide (as indeed Joseph Stalin had envisaged capitalism and communism would inevitably), they both temporarily surrender their essential characters to the resultant synthesis; the struggle is thus said to be in abeyance.


But with time, a refined form of the thesis and the antithesis emerges to continue the struggle towards a higher synthesis (perfection). The Cold War had merely been in abeyance when democracy violently clashed with autocracy in the last quarter of the twentieth century, (the more rigid of the two disintegrated). The resultant synthesis of that clash was christened Perestroika and Glasnost.

But, as the proxy wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and other places have since demonstrated, Perestroika and Glasnost didn’t stop the Cold War. The western and eastern doctrines have since resumed their ego-centric struggle, albeit in a modified form as decreed by dialectics. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s every action points nostalgically to a “reformed Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” while U.S. President Donald Trump talks just as nostalgically of a “great native America.” Let us hope that the two modern leaders will be humble enough to connect the dots leading to the twenty-first century synthesis: a more equitable world order. That depends on if the two can trust each other. Even the lead actors of Perestroika and Glasnost, U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Comrade Mikhail Gorbachev, had expressly recognized this when they agreed to “trust but verify” each other. It was therefore a good pointer to hear presidential candidate, Donald Trump, rhetorically ask his supporters, “Wouldn’t it be nice if Putin and I get to like (read trust) each other?”

Indeed, that is precisely the gods’ prescribed antidote for the ongoing wasteful cycle of buying the same horse twice: America and Russia; climb down from your high horses.
Nkemdiche is a consulting engineer based in Abuja.




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