The United States never had imperialist ambitions. Although president Monroe declared the Americas under the hegemony of the United States, the country still preferred to remain within its own borders. It was Europe that requested intervention in two world wars and subsequently provided this imperial role. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, the heir to the empire of the tsars, was clearly imperial. The modest principality of the Middle Ages that once rendered homage to the Khan Tartar, over the course of centuries and by means of repeated annexations, had become an enormous power. Its ambition was to extended itself without end.
The Soviet Union, in addition to invasions and annexations, also acted by economic aid. The United States operated more subtlety through alliances and treaties, but above all through economic aid during the post-war period. The Marshall Plan provided European countries devastated by war with all that was needed to rebuild and reestablish themselves as quickly as possible. American generosity unfolded on a grand scale. France, among others, decided to thank them. The French gave all they could, in particular they sent works of art across the ocean in what was dubbed “The Merci Train.” My mother decided to contribute. In Paris, we had a set of mahogany Louis Philippe furniture upholstered in deep red velvet. My mother hated it, she had tried in vain to pass it off to our elderly concierge, Madame Fuet, who rather contemptuously refused, preferring instead the cozy-corner. So my mother had this venerable set sent to the United States as a symbol of French gratitude, where, after having been refused by our dear concierge, it might one day become the pride of a small provincial American museum. To this my mother added a large stained glass window that decorated the first floor gallery. It was a depiction of Apollo and the Muses. A nun who was particularly devout insisted that it was in fact Saint Michael and the angles, in which case the archangel was indecently underdressed.
During the Cold War, the two empires frequently took actions not directly for their own interest, but rather to complicate matters for the other. When one empire set their eyes upon a state or nation, the other tried to jump over them. It goes without saying that American presence and pressure was lighter than that of the Soviets.
Of course, as the name indicated, the Cold War lacked open conflict between the two empires. However, it came close on a number of occasions, including during the Greek Civil War. Greece had been liberated by English troops. The Germans had hardly left when the communist partisans attempted to seize power through a failed but bloody coup d’état. So began a long, cruel civil war between the communist troops and those loyal to the legitimate government that had been established through elections and who received the aid of England and the United States. The communist troops were heavily aided by the Soviet Union, although never officially. It was only when Tito became frustrated with Moscow and forbid the transport of Soviet aid destined for Greece from passing through his country that the tides turned in favor of the loyalists. As in every fratricidal war, there were inconceivable horrors; the wounds were still not healed when I arrived in my country in 1960.
The Cold War was marked by periods of calm and moments of grave crisis. The worst being the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which the Soviet Union sent missiles to the island of Cuba at the request of Fidel Castro. President Kennedy left all options on the table. I remember walking on the beach in Chalcidice in northern Greece and wondering if the following day would be the first day of nuclear war that would eliminate us all. As we know, the crisis was averted.
One particularity of history is that the Unites States has easily dropped its allies, recently Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, previously the Shah of Iran and Diem in Vietnam, while the Soviet Union and the Russia of today remain loyal to their friends and allies, such as in Syria with Assad, both the father and the son. This is probably due to the democratic nature of the United States and the power of American elections to shift foreign policy, whereas in the monolith of the Soviet Union, foreign policy was invariable and indestructible.
Yet, within this monolith there were fissures. The China of Chairman Mao Zedong was not always a faithful ally of the Soviet Union. As a student, and like most, I had admired Mao. He had eradicated famine in a country where it had been a problem for millennia. China was a communist dictatorship, but it was not in the same vein as the Soviet Union. Mao stood up to the Soviet Union. Of course, there was the Cultural Revolution, but it would be many years before the world caught a glimpse of the unprecedented disasters that it provoked, and many more years before Mao would take his place alongside Stalin and Hitler in the pantheon of monsters.
Then there was the Yugoslavia of Tito, the declared communist, who sent the Soviet Union packing. Greece was grateful that Tito closed his borders to Greek communists, which aided the effort to end the civil war. Ever since, Greece has remembered him fondly. King Paul and Queen Frederica recounted with enthusiasm their visits to Marshal Tito and his wife Jovanka in Yugoslavia. They were brought to the island of Brijuni and were met with every luxury imaginable. At the end of the trip, Queen Frederica said to Tito, “If being a communist means living like you, I’m becoming communist tomorrow.” The Marshal laughed loudly.
There was also Ceausescu’s Romania, which valiantly confronted the Soviet Union. Europe flattered this ruthless, bloody dictator whose true nature wasn’t revealed until after the revolution that overthrew him.
These faults in the Soviet Union, we watched them with delight and dreamed of seeing them grow and multiply.