“Russia: The Central Issue,” by Henry P. Van Dusen
July 8, 1946

Mr. John Foster Dulles’ widely discussed articles in LIFE magazine on “Soviet Foreign Policy and What to Do About It” have gone far to dispel the fogs of uncertainty and illusion which have bedeviled clear thought, especially in church circles, on our relations with Russia, and to bring the American people to face the Russian problem in all its stark unpleasantness and urgency.

Mr. Dulles has attempted to introduce few new data. Rather, he has gathered up into a composite and convincing picture the “many pieces” which have gradually emerged to sight as the war-time alliance has dissolved and the goals and methods of Soviet strategy have been disclosed through the struggle to achieve peace-time collaboration. The conclusions he offers are essentially those to which increasing numbers of informed persons of all shades of political and social outlook have found themselves inexorably, and usually reluctantly, driven. For all Americans, they will carry unusual authority because of Mr. Dulles’ intimate association with the events which are a principal source of data, as well as because of his long-time knowledge of world affairs and recognized powers of judicial judgment. For Christians, they should carry special weight because of his preeminent leadership of the churches’ thought in this realm; it was in part to further the work of the Commission on a Just and Durable Peace that his articles were drafted.

The pith of the diagnosis is found in these sentences: “Soviet leaders assume that peace and security depend upon quickly achieving world-wide acceptance of Soviet political philosophy… Since the world is one world and since peace is indivisible, peace and security… depend upon eradicating the non-Soviet type of society… Governments everywhere which accept the political philosophy of the Soviet Union… would create world harmony, a great political calm which will be the Pax Sovietica… The methods which Soviet leaders use are repugnant to our ideas of humanity and fair play.”

Mr. Dulles’ appeal is to Americans in general, and to Christians in particular. But the two appeals are not identical, for the political and religious appraisals of Soviet action are not identical. It is not easy to hold to the distinction, but it is important that it be maintained. The Christian abhorrence of the Soviet system is embodied in the last sentence quoted above: “Soviet methods are repugnant to our ideas of humanity and fair play”; this is a moral judgment. American apprehension over Soviet policy arises from its resolve “to eradicate the non-Soviet type of society”; this is a political concern. In principle, Christians should feel the same repugnance toward ruthless brutality and tyranny wherever they are practiced—in Poland or Korea or Hungary or even Russia, no less than over the threat of their introduction into our own land. But these practices become an issue of national policy only when they appear to threaten American security and well-being, that is when the wider circle of general moral judgment crosses the narrow circle of national self-interest.

It is time to take the full measure of certain arguments widely cherished by churchmen to excuse Soviet practice and minimize the Soviet threat. In particular, three considerations are often urged: Soviet policy and practice are the fruit of capitalist hostility toward Russia—support of the White Russians after the First War, maintenance of a cordon sanitaire against Russia through the inter-war period, bigoted anti-communist propaganda. Soviet policy should be judged by its ultimate social goals rather than its immediate political methods, and by its actual achievements in behalf of the working classes within Russia. Many evil features of Soviet practice—imperialism, repression, the fostering of revolution—have their parallels in past and present democratic practice; it is a matter of degree; with what right does the kettle call the pot black?

There is a measure of truth in each of these considerations. But it is important that the truth be carefully weighed. The first argument was advanced with equal justice in extenuation of Nazi practice, and wooed the most fair-minded into fatal appeasement. In the case of Russia, it shipwrecks on the hard fact that it is not against capitalist governments but against socialist regimes in Britain, the Dominions, Belgium, France and Italy that the most violent Soviet attacks are currently launched.

The second argument points to the sharpest differentiation between Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism. The late Archbishop of Canterbury was fond of stressing the distinction by characterizing Communist ideology as a Christian heresy but Fascism theory as crass paganism. In view of recent disclosures, it is doubtful if Sovietism can be so gently dismissed. In any event, for Christian thought, goals and methods cannot be sharply distinguished; they are organic.

As for the third consideration, those who equate British imperialism in India with Russian imperialism in the Balkans, or American rule in southern Korea with Russian rule in northern Korea, or General MacArthur’s administration in Japan with Soviet administration in Germany have lost the capacity for significant moral discrimination. In one sense, all ethical distinctions are matters of degree. The attempt to locate the issue between Russia and the West in a simple black-and-white of antithetic ideologies is largely fallacious, though there are great and important contrasts. The chasm lies far more in the less absolute but profounder gradations of moral principle.

Those who lived through the agony between Marco Polo Bridge and Pearl Harbor, not in the specious detachment of isolationist illusions but with some comprehension of humanity’s crisis, will not underestimate the gravity of the new crisis. Historic analogies are never precise, but the parallelism of underlying factors is too close to be denied. Appeasement has been tried and found wanting. The great question is whether firmness, if clearly adopted and disciplined by justice, can save mankind from a third holocaust.

Henry P. Van Dusen (1897–1975) served as Union Theological Seminary’s president from 1945 until his retirement in 1963. For his leadership in the ecumenical movement, his portrait appeared on the cover of Time in 1954.