Not many people know this but it was not the Cuban Missile Crisis that brought Soviet Union and US to initiate the Third World War. In fact, it was Joseph Stalin’s obsession of conquering Yugoslavia that posed a serious threat to global stability.
It is always interesting to find out and know more about a few events in the history of mankind that if they had yielded a not-so-desired outcome, could have changed the whole context of the international. One such event was the dangerous flirtation with a possible third World War where the chief belligerents were going to be the USSR and USA. Although both nations fought the Germans and played an equal role in downing the Nazis, what followed after the conclusion of WWII was the birth of a rivalry on all levels that nearly took the world to the brink of disaster.
In late June 1950, US President, Harry Truman’s bold decision to commit American military to save South Korea from a wave of Communism that was followed by the North Korean invasion, proved to be a great move.
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It was a risky commitment to make and a war which resulted in the deaths of 50,000 American soldiers. However, that commitment ensured that American interests in South Korea were given a safe passage when under extreme duress. It was a very bold move when the 24th Infantry and 1st Cavalry Divisions were ordered to leave their duties in Japan and go fight a war they never expected in Korea. However, that in the long run, helped keep the world away from a global confrontation.
Korean War: How close the US came to the WWIII
However, the Korean War was but a small fraction of how close we came to the Third World War. In fact, the reason behind this was on the other side of the planet. It was Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin’s personal war with Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia that could have turned into a global conflict.
The story of Tito and Stalin is that of a love affair turned sour in a horrible way. In mid-1947, Stalin was a great supporter and fan of Tito and his revolutionary way of thinking. His excellent leadership was the reason why Soviet Union was able to use the “Greek Line” in order to beef up insurgents in Greece with weapons and supplies.
However, with the passage of time, Stalin grew wary of his opposite number’s proclivity to take unnecessary risks. And although the opening up of the Greek Line served its purpose initially, Moscow started getting disenchanted with Tito’s over enthusiastic way of running things. In a letter sent to Tito, Stalin stated that the Communist insurgency was not going to come good in Athens because United States carried a lot of influence there.
But Tito was never one to back down and instead of listening to Stalin, he told them that he would carry on his mission in Greece; something that offended Moscow. Revenge was just around the corner and on June 28, 1948, on Serbia’s national day, Stalin kicked Yugoslavia out of the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform).
This ‘kicking to the curb’ scenario was followed by some really vitriolic propaganda based around Moscow’s accusations of Tito and his government being nothing more than common spies under the payroll of American and British imperialism. Soon after the smear campaign, an aggressive purge of ‘Titoists’ followed throughout the Soviet bloc especially in Hungary which was going to be the satellite frontline of the Yugoslav menace.
Budapest’s Interior Minister, Laszlo Rajik was executed in mid-1949 after being accused of ideological deviation and inclination towards guiding Hungary to a capitalist regime. The purge also saw numerous generals and high-ranking officers in Hungarian People’s Army executed or jailed for boasting pro-Yugoslav sentiments. These purges however, were not only confined to the Soviet side. Tito’s government followed a similar strategy, cleansing itself off of Soviet loyalists.
The initiation of a formidable secret police in the shape of UDBa set of an intelligence warfare that had never been seen before in the region. The main reason behind the formation of UDBa was Tito’s fear of Soviet subversion as Stalin’s intelligence service, the MGB, had already penetrated deep in institutions run by Tito’s government. Around 100,000 Yugoslav Communists who were suspected of disloyalty were sent to political prisons where most of them died under harsh circumstances. MGB’s network ran so deep within Tito’s government that three senior army officers were caught plotting a coup d’état with Soviet backing.
Stalin’s declaration of war on Tiotist ideology
Stalin’s declaration of war on Tiotist ideology was actually greeted by the US government in a rather unconcealed fashion. This offered Washington a wide variety of options as the Cold War slowly started maturing. The Belgrade-Moscow split was going to be taken advantage of as Stalin further plotted to take down Tito in a similar fashion he took down Trotsky. These plans involved propaganda, intimidation and assassination. Indeed Moscow made several attempts to assassinate Tito but thanks to UDBa’s efficient counterintelligence mechanism, all such ploys failed.
When these measures failed to serve the purpose, Stalin opted for a direct military solution to the Tito problem. The might of the Red Army was going to help him accomplish his obsession for once and for all. NATO had already begun suspecting Soviet military aspirations thanks to the defection of General Bela Kiraly who was once the commander of Hungary’s planned invasion force. The General revealed that he was asked by a Soviet colonel where he was asked to focus on only one battleground. “Your students must be taught one battleground only, the territory of the enemy, Yugoslavia.”
In early 1951, Yugoslav fears of being invaded by the Soviet Union had reached their crescendo. And although Washington did not have the vital intelligence to know more about Soviet intentions, it felt that although Yugoslavia’s army might stand a chance against the satellite armies of Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania, the presence of more Soviet satellites would tip the balance and Tito’s forces will surely be overwhelmed. Hence, it was concluded that Tito needed military assistance and consequently, his army obtained US aid via the Marshall Plan.
The fears of Soviet attack on Yugoslavia
Although initially the split was greeted by the West, George Kennan, the outbreak of Korean War forced him to be concerned about a proxy war in the Balkans. In the end, it was concluded that Soviet attack on Yugoslavia would be a prelude to the Third World War.
In the year that followed the Korean invasion, US provided Belgrade military aid worth $77.5 million and by the mid-1950s, that aid had reached almost half-billion dollars. This new found friendship between the two states was ironic to say the least considering the fact that Yugoslavia had only recently been denounced as “Soviet Satellite Number One” in the Western media. Now, US considered Yugoslavia as a future NATO member alongside Greece, Turkey and Spain.
Moreover, Yugoslavia was now being viewed as a frontline defense for the vulnerable states of Italy and Greece who were having a hard time thwart the communist fervor.
However, NATO and British Chiefs of Staffs feared that an attack on Yugoslavia would never remain confined to two parties and would take a global shape with alliances being broken and made. Coupled with the fact that NATO’s conventional forces were no match with the ones that Soviet Union boasted, the discussion came to the nuclear solution.
It had already been accepted by the West that atomic weapons might be used to defend Yugoslavia something that as a result, would wreak havoc across the planet.
Fortunately, the fears of Soviet attack on Yugoslavia never came to life. Thanks to an unexpectedly strong response from Washington’s part following North Korean aggression, Soviets started treading carefully and made the policymakers at Kremlin reassess their observations on American military might.
Despite this, Soviet military planning did not stop and in January 1951, a war training exercise in Hungary forced American troops to be placed in Yugoslavia.
Knowing that he might never be able to conquer Yugoslavia, Stalin chose to return to his previous plans of taking Tito out of the equation. Assassination attempts returned to the menu but like before, never worked out in Stalin’s favor.
Things however, simmered down when Stalin suffered a fatal stroke on March 2, 1953. With his death, ended the Soviet obsession of conquering Belgrade!
Stalin’s death resulted in relations between Belgrade and Moscow improve slowly and although Tito remained far away from the grips of the Soviet bloc, it did not remain a bone of contention anymore.
However, the chapter did not close until Tito’s death in 1980 even though the Yugoslav police continued monitoring activities of suspects. Though this particular part of history has never before been discussed in the media outlets, it was perhaps the biggest story that could have resulted in catastrophic events that threatened the very existence of humanity and would have put to shame devastations caused by previous wars.
The heroics of American military in Inchon and Chosin thwarted a potential Armageddon and thus fully earned their place right alongside “The Greatest Generation”. The achievements of the veterans of Second World War have been constantly discussed and rightly so but the efforts of the young soldiers of 1950 were equally commendable even though they were unheard, until now.