Until Russian troops rolled into Georgia in August, the Cold War was beginning to recede in memory, with an oddly sentimental glow. Here was a clear-cut American victory, in which not a single shot had been fired, at least not between the main antagonists. Considering the apocalyptic potential of the 40-year rivalry, the architects of U.S. policy appeared a wee bit wiser than they had looked during the gloomy days of Vietnam. And by comparison to the floundering “war on terror” and the breathtaking incompetence and ignorance of the Bush administration, the predecessors look like wizards.
Indeed, it has become a commonplace for Bush critics to invoke the golden era, when gifted statesmen like Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy, combining “toughness” with skilled diplomacy, kept Americans safe and inspired the world with our nation’s ideals. Throughout his political campaign, Barack Obama has gone out of his way to genuflect to the old “cold warriors” and to imply a return to their sophisticated ways.
For the Soul of Mankind
By Melvyn P. Leffler
Hill and Wang, 608 pages
And yet for some of us crotchety folks over the age of 50, those old Cold War policies and leaders do not evoke the same positive “buzz.” And there is more than a faint suspicion that the calamities of the present have some roots in that history.
What was the Cold War about? And what explains its persistence? With the declassification of American records and the opening of archives in many nations, including Russia, historians have never been in a better position to answer these questions. And yet the field itself has withered in recent years, with a widening gulf between the monographic studies in the academy and the knowledge of a literate public. Moreover, as left historians have retreated from any subject focused on powerful white men, the field of Cold War history has been largely left to the traditionalists.
Against this backdrop, Melvyn Leffler’s new book, “For the Soul of Mankind: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War,” provides a welcome infusion of intellectual energy into a subject that still matters deeply, and which can help us grapple with more recent events. Although sometimes described as a “center-left historian,” Leffler cannot be so easily categorized. In this book, as in his previous work, certain qualities stand out: an encyclopedic knowledge of the literature, an immersion in archival materials, a regard for evidence and openness to contradictory information, a lucid writing style and the habit of asking fundamental questions.
Given the peaceful way in which the Cold War ended, why didn’t this happen much sooner? To answer this question, Leffler selects five “moments—short intervals of time, when officials in Moscow and Washington thought about avoiding or modulating the extreme tension and hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union.” The author explicitly disavows any intention to write “a narrative history of the Cold War.” Yet taken together, his self-described “moments” are in actuality a broad swath of Cold War history.
Contrary to popular mythology, Leffler makes it clear that Soviet leaders never had a plan for world conquest, or were even much interested in territorial expansion, apart from areas immediately adjacent to the USSR. Josef Stalin was “evil” but not irrational, and as World War II ended, he hoped to continue the alliance with the United States and Britain. Unlike his partners, he was presiding over a traumatized country—with 20 million people dead, much of the industrial infrastructure in ruins and vast acres of farmland unable to produce food. Germany might be temporarily defeated, but as past experience had shown, its reconstruction could be rapid. Faced with myriad problems, Stalin’s safest bet was cooperation with the West. The United States was in a position to be of massive economic help and to assure the flow of reparations from western Germany. It could also prevent the revival of German and Japanese power and, if so inclined, ratify Soviet ascendancy in Eastern Europe.
As Leffler describes, none of these positive benefits materialized and Stalin became the militant “cold warrior” of popular lore, who cracked down harshly in Eastern Europe, permitted a communist attack on South Korea, rebuilt the Soviet military machine and began accumulating his own stockpile of nuclear weapons.
Yet upon his death in 1953, the new collective leadership, headed by Georgi Malenkov, began to rapidly dismantle the structures of repression and to make the production of consumer goods an urgent priority. With the workers of East Berlin in open revolt and the West German government moving closer to rearmament, Malenkov and his colleagues anxiously sought to reopen the European settlement and to scale back the arms race. And yet over a period of two years, their overtures went largely unheeded by Washington.
From Malenkov, Leffler moves to Nikita Khrushchev and the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis. The world had come perilously close to nuclear destruction, saved only by John Kennedy’s cautious diplomacy and the Russian leader’s willingness to back down. Yet the first party secretary knew only too well how close they had come, and how a different American leader might have precipitated disaster. Chastened by the experience and driven by the need for domestic reform, Khrushchev beseeched the Americans to reverse the Cold War. As one poignant illustration, he sent no fewer than seven messages to Lyndon Johnson in the first months of his presidency, pointing out areas of possible agreement. Johnson was mildly interested, but preoccupied by Vietnam.
By the time Leffler arrives at the Brezhnev years, 1975-1980, the story has taken on a certain mournful predictability. However, during the years following the demise of Khrushchev, much had changed. The United States had fought and finally lost its first major war, in Indochina. Richard Nixon had shocked the world by visiting China, which had become a mortal enemy of the Soviet Union. And most pertinently, Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev had met several times and initiated the era known as détente with a host of new agreements and dramatic changes in rhetoric. Leffler is surprisingly terse in his treatment of this subject, given his interest in lost opportunities. It is surely significant that no less a zealot than Nixon was temporarily able to disrupt the pattern.