When Tito Turned to the West

During the Cold War, Yugoslav socialist Tito tried to chart a course apart from the Soviets. But his actions enraged Stalin — putting Tito on the unlikely path of seeking Western support and revealing the difficulties of nonalignment amid great power politics.

Josip Broz Tito with US House Speaker Carl Albert in the 1970s. (Carl Albert Research and Studies Center, Congressional Collection via Wikimedia Commons)

In his memoir Conversations With Stalin, apparatchik-turned-dissident Milovan Djilas reports an awkward interaction with a Soviet handler during a 1948 trip to Leningrad. “In no Party in Eastern Europe,” the handler intimated, “is there such a closely watched foursome as yours.” The party was the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (CPY), and the foursome was Djilas, Edvard Kardelj, Aleksandar Ranković, and Tito. These were the CPY’s four most powerful members in the late 1940s, but Tito — the nom de guerre of Josip Broz — stood above the rest as the unquestioned leader of Communist Yugoslavia.

Why did the Soviets keep such a close eye on their ostensible comrades in the Balkans? After all, the Yugoslavs were, as the Marxist writer Isaac Deutscher describes them in his biography of Stalin, “up till 1948, considered to be the most dogmatic and fanatical of all European Stalinists.” After they took power in 1945, Tito and his comrades quickly and diligently constructed a new state along impeccably Soviet lines. According to historian Ivo Banac,

The Yugoslavs were not only the first to abolish monarchy in Eastern Europe, they were also the first to adopt a Soviet-style constitution (January 1946), the first to institute legal procedures against church dignitaries of episcopal rank (the trial of Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac in October 1946) and the “opposition within the united front,” the first to use rigged trials against their own wayward members (the Dachau trials of April and August of 1948 and July 1949), the first to introduce Soviet-style planning (First Five-Year Plan of April 1947 with the highest rate of state investment of 27 percent of GNP in Eastern Europe) and the first to establish collective farms (1,318 by the end of 1948).

The Soviets supplied Yugoslavia with substantial economic and military aid, and the Yugoslavs were an important part of the “socialist camp” in its burgeoning confrontation with its former allies in the war against Hitler. Many of Tito’s leading military officers were trained in the Soviet Union, and he did not hesitate to hide his loyalty to the Kremlin. “If the Red Army needs us to lead its march toward the English Channel,” Tito declared in 1946, “we’ll be there tomorrow!”

Just two years later, however, Stalin expelled the CPY from the Cominform (the Communist Information Bureau, the successor to the Communist International, or Comintern); ruling parties in the Soviet satellite states waged a vicious purge campaign against alleged followers of “Tito-fascism” in their ranks; and well-founded fears of a Soviet invasion had Tito turning to the United States and the newly established NATO alliance for a lifeline.

What happened? According to Deutscher, the “years of armed revolutionary struggle” against the Nazis and their collaborators transformed Tito from a “puppet into a man and leader”; Stalin “sensed the change, and grew suspicious” of Tito’s stature and autonomy. The Yugoslavs charted their own course during the Partisan war, and they were not about to give that up despite their fundamental alignment with the Soviet system. Tito became accustomed to occupying a position of command, and enjoyed enormous prestige as the leader of a national liberation movement that won its victory largely on its own strength. Stalin could not suffer a potential rival with an independent spirit in the Communist bloc, and he acted accordingly.

The conflict ran deeper, however, than a personal rivalry between two extremely strong-willed leaders. The Spanish Marxist Fernando Claudín, in his two-volume history The Communist Movement: From Comintern to Cominform, identified the fundamental question underlying the breach: Was “Yugoslavia to be an independent country or a ‘socialist’ colony? This conflict was the underground war in which the Soviet and Yugoslav secret services engaged in from 1945.”

Tito was a fervent Communist who owed his position at the head of the CPY to the Soviets, who purged the previous party leadership amid the great terror of 1937. But he emerged from the Partisan war and revolution as a leader who wanted to chart his own course, not just at home but in world politics. This impulse clashed not just with Stalin’s ego, but with Stalin’s calculations of what would best ensure the security interests of the Soviet state in the postwar order. This put the erstwhile comrades on a collision course, which in turn compelled Tito to look to the capitalist West for help against the Kremlin — a turn that would have been unthinkable for the Yugoslav Communists just a short time before.

It is difficult to revisit this history and not see certain parallels with current tensions in Russia’s “near abroad,” including the war in Ukraine. In both instances, the regional power’s search for security against the West (first by the Soviet state, then its Russian successor) led it to seek an imperial relationship with its intended subordinate, only to see the strategy backfire.

In Yugoslavia’s case, Soviet attempts to restrict its sovereignty pushed Tito to establish closer economic and military relations with the West, thereby helping NATO consolidate its position in southeastern Europe. In Ukraine’s case, Russian attempts to keep the country in its orbit by indirect means failed. The full-scale invasion aimed at installing a pliant regime in Kyiv has been a strategic disaster for Russia by accelerating Ukraine’s westward turn. As Russia continues to decimate Ukraine, Ukrainian support for NATO membership and a generally pro-Western orientation has risen to an all-time high, and it may end up pushing away former Soviet republics in central Asia and the Caucasus too.

Realism came in for a beating in the wake of Russia’s invasion, not least because some leading realist scholars, namely John Mearsheimer, appeared to justify or excuse it. But in both the Yugoslav and Ukrainian cases, the players involved all behaved the way certain realist theories, including Mearsheimer’s, would have predicted. The Soviets, then the Russians, sought to restrict the sovereignty of smaller neighbors; those states resisted, and in doing so turned toward outside powers with their own interest in coming to those smaller states’ aid. In both cases, the fundamental problem for the Soviets and Russians was a lack of hegemonic capacity and an overreliance on coercion to achieve strategic goals.

Despite these similarities, however, it is important to avoid essentializing the USSR and its Russian successor; there is not an unbroken continuity through all of history. The Soviets adopted different approaches to their neighbors in East Central Europe in different times and places.

In Finland, the USSR exercised something akin to hegemony by limiting the scope of Finnish foreign policy but largely staying out of domestic policy (an arrangement commonly known as “Finlandization”). In the later stages of World War II and the immediate postwar period, it flexed its power in countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia through its Communist allies’ participation in broader coalition governments, and later shifted to a strategy of full-blown Stalinist imperialism as the Cold War intensified.

The Yugoslavs were unique in their successful resistance to both Finlandization and imperialism, which was made possible by their relative geographic distance from the USSR and the capacities they built through freeing themselves from the Nazis without decisive Red Army intervention.

Collision Course

In the late 1920s, the CPY descended into intense factional struggles that dismayed the leaders of the Comintern. A Bosnian Communist of Czech descent known as Milan Gorkić led the party beginning in the early 1930s. He was an ardent Communist, but as Banac writes in With Stalin Against Tito, he was “not always an obedient underling: his impatience with discipline and with Moscow’s supremacy was an issue in several party rows during the mid-1930s.”

Gorkić’s pursuit of a more ideologically flexible party organization chimed with the new Popular Front line (the Soviet policy of supporting a broad coalition of anti-fascist forces), which he backed and implemented with aplomb. That did not sit well with opponents of the policy, many of whom were jailed in the notorious Mitrovica prison. From behind the prison walls, they waged a fierce struggle against Gorkić’s leadership, and at times each other. The Comintern grew fed up with the constant strife in the Yugoslav party, and in 1937 Gorkić was summoned to Moscow, where he was arrested, imprisoned, and eventually executed. Tito was appointed to lead the purged party and tasked with ending the rampant factionalism, disciplining the party’s ranks, and making it capable of executing the directives handed down from Moscow.

Tito stands with his cabinet ministers and staff at his mountain headquarters in Yugoslavia on May 14, 1944. (Imperial War Museums / Wikimedia Commons)

In 1941, the Nazis invaded Yugoslavia, defeated the king’s forces, and drove his government into exile in London. The Communists quickly took on a leading role in the resistance to Nazi-fascist occupation, which put them on a collision course with the Chetniks, Serbian nationalist rebels backed by the government-in-exile.

According to Banac, however, conflict with nationalist forces in the anti-Nazi resistance

was precisely what Moscow wanted to avoid. Stalin’s concept of the “Grand Alliance” against fascism not only set aside the long-term communist revolutionary aims, but actually implicitly obliged communists to support the restoration of previous regimes as a matter of national salvation.

In Stalin’s view, the CPY should concentrate only on carrying out a partisan war in the enemy’s rear, not making a social revolution that would risk antagonizing the United States, Britain, and other Allied powers.

Tito and his comrades disagreed. They pursued a two-front war against both the Nazi occupation and the old regime led by the exiled king in London, and for a social revolution in Yugoslavia. Moscow wanted the CPY to collaborate with the Chetniks against the Nazis, even as the Chetniks collaborated with the occupiers.

Georgi Dimitrov, the Bulgarian head of the Comintern, advised Tito not to establish new, Communist-dominated political organs to compete with the royal government-in-exile. But Tito went ahead with it anyway. In 1942, the CPY founded the Anti-Fascist Council for the National Liberation of Yugoslavia (AVNOJ), followed by the establishment of its own government in 1943. The Communist-led resistance forces won military victories and extended their territorial control. Meanwhile, the Chetniks tarnished themselves by collaborating with the Nazis and committing atrocities against the civilian population. As the Partisans’ fortunes rose, the British abandoned the royalist government in favor of Tito’s AVNOJ in 1944, effectively making it the legitimate government of Yugoslavia.

Despite the wartime disagreements over strategy, the Soviets and Yugoslavs were closely aligned at war’s end. As historian Jože Pirjevec recounts in Tito and His Comrades, the Soviets supplied the Yugoslavs “with arms, munitions, and other essentials via a long-term loan. In addition, the two countries reached an agreement on trade and substantial financial aid for Yugoslav industry,” including joint Soviet-Yugoslav economic enterprises.

But the postwar honeymoon quickly turned sour. While the Soviets portrayed their joint enterprises as a boon for both countries, the Yugoslavs came to suspect them as vehicles to keep their country an underdeveloped supplier of food and raw materials to the Soviet metropole. Moreover, the Kremlin’s guardians of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy thought the Yugoslavs to be insufficiently deferential to Stalin’s supreme genius. Pirjevec cites a Soviet central committee opinion of their erstwhile comrades along these lines:

Tito and the other leaders of the CPY do not mention Comrade Stalin in their declarations as the most important theorist of our times — a worthy successor to Marx, Engels and Lenin. In their speeches, there is no hint of the groundbreaking role played by the communist parties, especially of the All-Soviet Communist Party (Bolshevik). The glorious influence of the Soviet Union, the only country to have successfully built a communist society, and which nurtures all human progress, is ignored.”

The Tito-Stalin Split

The burgeoning Soviet-Yugoslav conflict had economic and ideological dimensions, but its roots were fundamentally geopolitical. A civil war broke out in Greece in 1946, pitting communist rebels against the Greek monarchy. The Soviets did not come to the rebels’ aid, because Stalin had agreed to cede Greece to the Western sphere of influence in the “percentages agreement” with Winston Churchill. He did want to risk a new war with the West so soon after the devastating war with Hitler.

Tito and the Yugoslavs didn’t share their hesitations and provided extensive military aid to the Greek communists. The United States and Britain wanted to contain communism in the region, so they threw their weight behind the Greek monarchy.

With the Western presence in the eastern Mediterranean growing, Tito decided to resume discussions with the new Communist government in Bulgaria, led by former Comintern chief Dimitrov, about the possibility of establishing a Balkan federation. The British protested; Stalin agreed, and ordered the Yugoslavs to call off the talks.

Yet Tito not only persisted — he went further. As Pirjevec describes him, Tito was “convinced that he could create a powerful state in the Balkans capable of achieving independence from the Soviet Union and destabilizing the way in which the three great powers had divided the European southeast.” He sold the steps toward a Balkan federation primarily as a hedge against possible German aggression. But he also added, “We are not only against German imperialism, but against all those who wish to question our sovereignty” — a clear shot at his ostensible friends in Moscow. According to Pirjevec, the “final straw” for Stalin was Tito’s intention to turn neighboring Albania into a Yugoslav protectorate — a policy that Stalin did not actually oppose on its merits but rejected because Tito approached Tirana directly without consulting Moscow.

Stalin retaliated with a series of vituperative letters that attacked the Yugoslavs for various sins and errors, a campaign that culminated in the CPY’s expulsion from the Cominform in 1948. Fearing the possibility of a Soviet-engineered coup, Tito reacted by cracking down mercilessly on real and alleged “Cominformists” in the party. Somewhere between a tenth and a fifth of the party’s membership was caught in the dragnet, and thousands were shipped to the notorious Goli Otok prison island in the Adriatic to recant their alleged crimes.

Cut off from the rest of the Communist world and besieged at home, Tito sought help from the only available source — the Western powers, above all the United States. Ironically, Tito moderated his foreign policy along the lines Stalin had demanded to win economic and military aid from the West against Stalin, as well as Western support for granting Yugoslavia a seat on the United Nations Security Council.

Gamal Abdel Naser, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Tito. (Stevan Kragujević / Tanja Kragujević / Wikimedia Commons)

Tito’s fears of Soviet aggression were not misplaced. At the same time they expelled the CPY from the Cominform, the Soviets were tightening their grip on the “people’s democracies” of Central and Eastern Europe and purging alleged followers of “Tito-fascism” from the Cominform parties. The outbreak of the Korean War further alarmed the Yugoslavs, especially since the Kremlin issued thinly veiled calls for regime change in Belgrade while giving the green light for North Korea’s attack on the South.

In the summer of 1950 Nikolai Bulganin, a member of the Soviet Politburo, gave a speech in Prague declaring: “The Yugoslav people deserve a better fate, and the day when they will overthrow the Fascist Tito-Ranković clique is probably not far away.” Stalin and the leaders of the Soviet satellite states made real plans to invade Yugoslavia and overthrow Tito’s government, which they considered to be a “chained dog” of the Western powers. Tito had a long memory, and he did not forget what happened in Moscow in 1937 to his immediate predecessors at the head of the CPY.

He understood very clearly who he was dealing with, and he prepared accordingly.

Tito, the United States, and NATO

In 1951, Tito moved to get arms from the United States, sending his top diplomat and chief of staff on a secret mission to Washington for direct talks with the Truman administration. Military and economic aid started flowed from the West, and Tito publicly offered praise for the support. The Truman administration, according to Pirjevec, even “seriously considered the inclusion of Yugoslavia in NATO.”

The Yugoslavs’ path to NATO membership was ultimately blocked because of Italian opposition, as well as Tito’s fear that joining the Western military alliance would have been a bridge too far. Instead, Tito engaged in a series of clever diplomatic maneuvers. He agreed to resolve lingering conflicts with Italy over Trieste on the Adriatic coast, clearing the way for further Western aid. And in a truly remarkable U-turn, he ended his support for the Greek communists, and, in 1953, joined a military pact with soon-to-be NATO members Greece and Turkey. This effectively gave Yugoslavia access to the Western alliance without actually joining it.

The cooperation between Tito and the West was certainly not rooted in ideological or political agreement, but in mutual geopolitical interest. The Yugoslavs had an interest in defending themselves from a potential Soviet invasion and securing economic aid — particularly massive shipments of wheat, without which the country would have struggled to feed itself. The United States and its NATO allies had an interest in driving a wedge into the “socialist camp,” and in strengthening its military position in the alliance’s southeastern flank.

As it turned to the West for military and economic aid, the CPY also sought new political allies like the social democratic and labor parties of Western Europe; after being expelled from the Cominform, it considered joining the Socialist International.

This momentum, however, was interrupted by one of the biggest international events of 1953: the death of Stalin. According to Pirjevec, the “inclusion of Yugoslavia in the Western world would probably have continued if, on 5 March 1953, Stalin had not suffered a fatal stroke. He had persevered in his propaganda against Tito until the end and it continued by force of inertia even after his death.”

Relations between the Soviets and the CPY began to thaw when Nikita Khrushchev took leadership of the Soviet party, a development that also set back the progress of Yugoslav democratization promoted by figures like Djilas. Djilas, for years one of Tito’s closest comrades, was ousted from his leading role in the renamed League of Yugoslav Communists (LCY) in 1954 and spent many years in jail for his outspoken criticism of the Communist government.

Despite this thaw in relations, tensions between the Soviets and Yugoslavs did not die with Stalin. Tito was a leading founder of the Non-Aligned Movement to counter the influence of the two Cold War camps in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. He continued to hedge against the Soviets in Europe by maintaining generally friendly relations with the West, particularly the United States and Britain. He was dismayed by Soviet military intervention against popular revolts in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968, though he did not always publicly voice his criticisms.

Tito with Nikita Khrushchev in Skopje, August 22, 1963. (The State Archives of the Republic of Macedonia / Wikimedia Commons)

Over two decades after Stalin’s death, well into his eighties, Tito was still vigilant against Soviet machinations. During a 1976 meeting with Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev in Belgrade, Tito reacted to Brezhnev’s insistence that he would not speak in front of a certain LCY central committee member in characteristic fashion. According to those present, Pirjevec recounts, Tito “ripped the cigarette from Brezhnev’s mouth, crushed it on the carpet and yelled ‘You ox! We are not in Czechoslovakia here, and I am not called Dubček!’” He rejected Brezhnev’s requests for military bases on the Adriatic coast, refused to cease criticizing the Soviets among the nonaligned countries, and resisted the Soviet push for a closer relationship between the two countries.

After meeting with Tito near the end of 1976 the French foreign minister related the Yugoslav leader’s resolve to his American, British, and West German counterparts: “They made it clear several times that they’re determined to resist the Russians. I have never heard Tito say this before. This time, we heard him for one or two hours. It was clear that they would defend very strongly their independence, their integrity.” In addition to the already-rising tide of ethnic chauvinism in the Yugoslav republics, Tito and his comrades considered resistance to Soviet power one of their main tasks in the era of the interventionist Brezhnev Doctrine.

Against Poles, Camps, and Blocs

Fernando Claudín’s verdict on the Yugoslav-Soviet split is unequivocal:

In the face of encirclement by Russian imperialism, camouflaged under the label “socialist,” and by the Communist movement, still totally alienated by Soviet “myths”, the only defensive move abroad still open to the Yugoslav revolution was to take advantage of the “cold war” between capitalist imperialism and the new imperialism which was beginning to appear.

The Soviets certainly did not see themselves as imperialists. Indeed, they considered their state the world’s anti-imperialist headquarters. Different conceptions of imperialism abound, particularly in the Marxist tradition, and a singular definition has never really been settled upon.

Leninist conceptions have been the most influential, and these revolve around competitive struggles between national blocs of finance capital. If one defines imperialism as an expression of capitalist development, then noncapitalist states by definition cannot be imperialist. This isn’t particularly satisfying, and it often amounts to special pleading. If imperialism is understood as the coercive restriction of sovereignty of one political unit by another, then Soviet relations with Yugoslavia and the “people’s democracies” were clearly imperialistic.

The devastation of the “Great Fatherland War” spurred Stalin to pursue a policy of defensive expansion in its wake. As Valerie Kivelson and Ronald Suny argue in Russia’s Empires, the postwar map of Central and Eastern Europe was “an unambiguously imperial one, with formerly independent polities subordinated through military conquest and control maintained through differentiated, more or less indirect rule, terror, and force. In the late Stalin years Moscow determined the political and foreign policy choices of its East Central European satellites” in an attempt to counter the Western alliance. It tried to subject Yugoslavia to similar treatment but failed. Stalin resorted to coercion and threats to compel Yugoslavia’s compliance, but only succeeded in pushing Tito to look for external help.

The Soviets did not formally absorb their satellite states, nor did the United States in its own sphere of influence. As Kivelson and Suny note, “Latin American states learned the lesson that they had to consider the interests of their powerful northern neighbor in their allegiances, programs, and choice of allies,” and the United States was not shy about intervening with force if the lesson wasn’t learned.

At the same time, however, Kivelson and Suny argue that the US empire in the Cold War era didn’t operate the same way as the Soviet version. In their view, the United States exercised “a looser but powerful influence that eschewed much interference in the domestic arena but demanded loyalty to the hegemonic state in foreign policy.” As Franklin Roosevelt colorfully described Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza: “he may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard.”

The Soviets did not impose their will on their smaller neighbors immediately after the war’s end, and at first permitted a degree of local autonomy. But as the Cold War took hold in the late 1940s, Kivelson and Suny observe, “Stalin pitilessly installed Communist Party dictatorships in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria.” The Soviets generally lacked the kind of “soft power” resources the United States could marshal, which meant they often had to rely on naked coercion to achieve their goals. This is a major reason why Tito’s diplomatic initiatives in the emergent postcolonial world — where newly independent countries were wary of falling quickly under the sway of either the United States or the Soviets — were so successful.

As the world careens toward a new era of great power rivalries, it is worth revisiting the history of Yugoslavia’s attempt to chart its own course. One need not approve of Tito’s pharaonic tendencies, nor the anti-Stalinist Stalinism that defined the Yugoslav party and state, to appreciate the value of a project that seeks to overcome the logic of poles, camps, and blocs in the name of a wider solidarity.