The Origins of the Cold War

by Ernie Trory


THERE MAY BE doubts in the minds of many as to when to so-called "cold war" was actually declared. Did it begin with the accession of Truman to the Presidency of the United States after the death of Roosevelt on the 12 April, 1945; or did it begin with Churchill's notorious "iron curtain" speech at Fulton, Missouri on 5th  March, 1946? Or did it begin much earlier?

But whatever the doubts as to its origins there can be no doubt that the cold war as such was finally institutionalised in Britain, albeit secretly, by the Labour government during 1947, when it set up a secret Foreign Office department, known as the Information Research Department (IRD) "to distribute anti-communist propaganda in Britain and abroad."

Details of this operation, successfully concealed from the public for 30 years, were not officially released until 1978, when they were pursued, first by Guardian and Observer reporters, but later more relentlessly by Lyn Smith, then a tutor at the Centre for Continuing Education at the University of Sussex and a research student with the Open University.

The original idea was the brain-child of Christopher Mayhew, Foreign Office Junior Minister in 1947. In a 17 October confidential paper to Ernest Bevin in that year, he proposed a covert "propaganda counter-offensive" against the Russians by means of a Foreign Office department to be formed specifically for that purpose.

Foreign Secretary Bevin did not require much convincing and nor, for that matter, did Prime Minister Attlee who, having also received a copy of the paper, invited Mayhew down to Chequers for discussions.

According to Lyn Smith: "A meeting was held on 18 November 1947, to discuss Mayhew's ideas in greater detail. This was attended by Sir Orme Sargent, the Foreign Office Permanent Under Secretary of State; Yvone Kirkpatrick, Assistant Under Secretary in charge of Foreign Office Information; and Christopher Warner, another Under Secretary in the Foreign Office.

"Mayhew put forward his ideas: the campaign should be as positive as possible laying stress on the merits of social democracy but, he pointed out, "we shouldn't appear as defenders of the status quo but should attack capitalism and imperialism along with Russian communism."

In fact, at this early stage the idea was more of a "Third Force" propaganda attacking capitalism as well as communism. This, however, was not to last for, as later documents reveal, anti-communism soon came to the fore.

"Mayhew also explained that stress should be laid on the weaknesses of communism rather than on its strengths. In particular Russia should be portrayed as a backward country, a land of poverty for the masses and privilege for the few. He was doubtful about making civil liberty the main platform of the counter-propaganda since this appealed largely to those already converted, namely the intelligentsia.

"Rather the aim should be to win the confidence of the workers and peasants and the best way of doing this was to show that there was more social justice and better living conditions for ordinary people under social democracy than under communism."

And so it was that in the mid-term of a Labour government, elected on a manifesto professing peace and friendship with the Soviet Union, the Labour Prime Minister and his Foreign Secretary were secretly engaged in setting up a propaganda machine. It was designed not only to keep voters in Britain safely insulated from communist ideas, but to win over the "workers and peasants" of the Soviet Union and of those countries in central and eastern Europe that had taken the path to socialism.

"Yvone Kirkpatrick was entrusted with the task of setting up IRD and recruiting the right personnel, many of whom, as Lyn Smith pointed out, were "emigrants from "iron curtain" countries, often journalists and writers." The staff of the Soviet section numbered 10 at the start but steadily rose, reaching more than 60 in the mid 1950s after Churchill had once more become Prime Minister.

Throughout the period of the Labour government, IRD gathered information from secret service sources as well as from diplomats in overseas missions. This Information, after processing, was distributed to British Ministers, MPs, trade union leaders, UN delegates and, of course, the British media - including the BBC World Service.

On 22 January 1948 during a debate on foreign affairs in the House of Commons, so we are informed by Lyn Smith: "Bevin made a long speech, decidedly more aggressive than anything hitherto and incorporating all the main IRD themes."

Bevin was not the only MP to use the "notes" provided by IRD. As Mayhew admitted in an interview with Lyn Smith: "If some anti-Stalinist MP wanted information or briefing on some subject, then we were only too happy to send him the facts."

IRD had close links with an anti-communist organisation called "Freedom First," run by one Herbert Tracey, Publicity Officer of the TUC until his retirement from full-time service in 1949. IRD publicity material was used in a newsletter published by "Freedom First" and distributed to several hundred key trade union organisers. There was also an international edition of this newsletter.

Lyn Smith tells us that: "Indirect financial aid was given by an arrangement whereby IRD purchased newsletters at a price and on a scale sufficient to guarantee its financial soundness." The "Freedom First" operation, however, came to an end when accusations were made that some of the money had been used dishonestly and a junior minister was forced to resign.

Thereafter, IRD concentrated on international affairs, being responsible in October 1948, for the initiation of an attack on "Stalinist tyranny and labour camps." That and similar "information" was supplied to journalists and broadcasters in OHMS envelopes, so them was no doubt as to its source. But the recipients were told that the documents were not statements of official policy and should be destroyed when no longer needed.

IRD also had relations with the External Services of the BBC.

According to Sir Hugh Greene, head of the Eastern European Services in 1949-50, IRD was known as "an anti-communist department for propaganda." In 1949 a regional information office was set up in Singapore.

In a letter from the head of IRD in London to the British Embassy in Singapore it was stated that: "The Commissioner General attaches considerable importance to the project, which has become even more necessary now that the communists look like becoming masters of at least most of China."

There is a copy of this letter in the US archives. "Although the Americans were not involved in any way with IRD's founding," says Lyn Smith, "they very soon, according to Mayhew, "started their own show" with the formation of the CIA and the US Information Agency."

After the fall of the Labour government in 1951, IRD expanded rapidly, moving from modest offices in Carlton House Terrace to a 12-storey block in Millbank but here we are only concerned with the extent of its operations under a Labour Foreign Secretary.

Had anything been known about these covert operations there would most certainly have been objections that the non-attributable information being circulated was calculated to deceive the public and, in some cases, "journalists and other opinion formers."

In an interview with Lyn Smith, sometime in the 1970s, Mayhew defended the need for secrecy as follows: "There was a large Labour majority in the House of Commons and quite a number of "fellow travellers" and people with Stalinist views inside the Labour Party. I think that had they known about IRD they would have attacked it as being contrary to Labour Party policies. So in a sense we had to keep it confidential for political reasons.

"It would not be politically dangerous now [in the 1970s] but in those days so may people made excuses for Stalin that what we were doing would have looked to them [had they known] to be contrary to the interests of peace and friendship with the Soviet Union. That was the political reason for secrecy.

"But it is difficult to make out that there was anything sinister about it. We were ahead of our time in fighting Stalinism; we were certainly taking great political risks, and quite right too. It was not underhand, unless it is underhand to brief up anti-Stalinist writers, broadcasters and trade unionists. I don't consider that underhand: it was confidential, but it wasn't underhand."

The department was curtailed in 1976 by Anthony Crosland, then Foreign Secretary, and finally closed down m May 1977 by his successor, Dr David Owen. Its activities were no longer considered appropriate in the "balmy atmosphere" of detente that was then developing on the eve of impending changes in the Soviet Union.

Students of the cold war, and of the role of social democracy in general, owe a debt of gratitude to Lyn Smith for her meticulous work in unearthing the facts of this sordid story, and to the editor of Millenium: Journal of International Studies, for publishing Lyn Smith's definitive article on the subject.