The Big Lie behind U.S. and NATO policy in Europe
An early Cold War propaganda poster depicts an aggressive USSR plotting its takeover of Western Europe.

In a speech in 1881, Wendell Phillips, the famous abolitionist and Native American rights activist, said that history is but “a series of lies agreed upon.” The expression originated in 18th century France, with both Voltaire and Napoleon Bonaparte, along with the American transcendentalist writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, expressing versions of it. In truth, however, history is much more than a series of “lies,” but these eminent figures highlight a seamier side of our past.

Demagogues and those in positions of power have often resorted to such deceit in order to bend public opinion in their favor and manipulate how people understand what happened in the past. Three examples, among many, stand out: Adolf Hitler in his rise to power, Donald Trump after the 2020 presidential election, and the U.S. government leadership after World War II. The results of such tactics have led to the deaths of millions of people, war, and a threat to democratic governance.

In 2022, the use of the “Big Lie” remains a threat to our country and our planet.

After World War I, Germany was a defeated nation whose people faced severe problems, with runaway inflation, unemployment, and massive debt, the result of the Treaty of Versailles imposed by the victorious Allies. Demagogues like Hitler blamed Germany’s problems on “Jewish bankers” and “Marxists,” whom he said, “stabbed Germany in the back” during the conflict. The outcome of his ranting resulted in the Holocaust and World War II, with some of the worst fighting taking place on the Eastern Front—in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Currently, we are still living with the aftermath and ongoing storm of Donald Trump’s “Big Lie.” The former president claims that through massive vote fraud his re-election was “stolen” from him. So far, this Big Lie has not brought the mass death and destruction seen in the 1930s and ’40s, though one cannot forget what happened during the January 6th insurrection.

The third of these “Big Lies” (though not labeled as such in the United States) was the enunciation in the years immediately after the conclusion of the Second World War of the idea that Western democracy was under existential threat from the Soviet Union, a country it claimed was run by communists out to destroy “democracy” and the American way of life. This policy had profound effects on U.S. society and the history of the world in the last three-quarters of a century.

The outcomes within our country included the harassment of thousands of communists and other progressives, the destruction of the militant labor movement, the erosion of human rights, the creation of the national security state, and the growth of extremist right-wing ideology as seen, for example, in the militarization of society.

The truth is that the Soviet Union never called for armed struggle against Western nations, but on the contrary, followed a policy of peace (at times called “peaceful cooperation” or “detente.”)

The words of its three most prominent leaders after World War II spell out this policy. Joseph Stalin, immediately after the defeat of Nazism, wrote in 1946: “[The] peoples [of the world]…no longer wish to live in the old way. [They want to] carry on an active struggle against the forces of reaction, against instigators of a new war. The peoples of the world do not wish a repetition of the calamities of war. They fight persistently for the strengthening of peace and security. In the vanguard of the struggle for peace and security marches the Soviet Union.”

Children in Kiev, Ukrainian SSR hold up a banner saying, ‘We’re for peace!’ during a parade in 1985. | Soviet Archives

Thirteen years later, Nikita Khrushchev reinforced this point, writing, “It is quite often said in the West that peaceful coexistence is nothing but a tactical move of the socialist states. There is not a grain of truth in such allegations. Our desire for peace and peaceful coexistence is not prompted by any time-serving or tactical considerations. It springs from the very nature of socialist society….”

Nearly two decades later, in a time when detente was a real possibility, Leonid Brezhnev reiterated the Soviet position: “We must fight actively and persistently for peace and detente…[with] a calm and clear confirmation of our course towards detente and towards the development of good, mutually beneficial relations with the United States.”

As an added note, if the Soviet Union was such an armed threat to Western Europe, why did it wait six years after the formation of NATO, until 1955, to establish its own military alliance, the Warsaw Pact?

Three quotations do not make an analysis of Soviet foreign policy of course, but they do give us a sense of its essence. And though the USSR ceased to exist 30 years ago, the United States continues its policies in the pursuit of world hegemony. Now, instead of the Soviet Union as the enemy in Europe, it is Russia under Vladimir Putin. President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken are following the same old worn-out playbook written in the 1940s. And as a cornerstone of its strategy, the U.S. government still relies on NATO.

Yesterday it was Berlin, Bosnia, and Afghanistan. Today it is Ukraine. Where will it be tomorrow?

NATO, an alliance founded in 1949 on a lie—the “threat of a Soviet military attack in Europe”—still persists in maintaining that lie. There is no reason for the alliance (or any military alliance) to exist in today’s world. The days of the Cold War are long over.

Let us face up to this “Big Lie.” It’s time for the United States to adjust its foreign policy to the reality of the 21st century.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.


David Cavendish
David Cavendish

David Cavendish is a retired teacher, active in the union movement, the peace movement (many years in an anti-Iraq/Afghanistan War vigil), and other progressive political activities. He is a longtime contributor to People’s World. David Cavendish es un maestro jubilado, activo en el movimiento sindical, el movimiento por la paz y otras actividades políticas progresistas. Colabora desde hace mucho tiempo en People’s World.