By Carolyn Eisenberg
Leffler resumes the narrative thread after Nixon had departed and at the point where President Gerald Ford, who had been carefully instructed by Henry Kissinger, was attempting to salvage the new relationship. A SALT II agreement was now ready to be signed, and the Helsinki Final Act had effectively ratified the status quo in Europe, while setting new standards on human rights. In Moscow, Brezhnev had made the development of détente the centerpiece of his foreign policy and fully expected it to continue. But forces were swirling around Ford and Jimmy Carter that would make this impossible. The Russian leader appears almost pitiful as he unsuccessfully pleads with the two presidents to make further progress. He is also stung and humiliated by Carter’s willingness to play the “China card” against him. After months of procrastination, Brezhnev made the reluctant decision to send Soviet troops into Afghanistan, where Islamic fundamentalists were battling a pro-Soviet government. This act froze Carter’s heart and seemed to kill any prospect of reviving détente.
By the time Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, the Cold War was roaring out of control: Nuclear arms negotiations had collapsed, a new generation of nuclear missiles was being built and proxy wars were raging on several continents. Enter Mikhail Gorbachev. As with every Soviet leader before him, Gorbachev urgently wanted a new relationship with the West. Like the others, Gorbachev desired American economic assistance; he wanted to release economic resources so that communism inside the Soviet Union could be rehabilitated. And he dearly wished, as a matter of commitment and not mere verbiage, to free the world from the prospect of nuclear annihilation.
Moreover, Gorbachev was willing to take the concrete steps that would make these aspirations a reality. Instead of insisting on strict reciprocity, he bowed to American demands on both intermediate-range and long-range nuclear missiles. He was determined to cut Russian conventional forces in Europe, regardless of the NATO response. And despite massive American intervention in Afghanistan, he removed all Soviet troops from there without conditions. Most shocking of all, Gorbachev allowed for self-determination in Eastern Europe and stood aside as the Berlin Wall came down.
For the Soul of Mankind
By Melvyn P. Leffler
Hill and Wang, 608 pages
Gorbachev is obviously the hero of Leffler’s book. It is the Russian who finally ended the Cold War. “Without losing his political faith, he transcended the Marxist-Leninist postulates,” the author reminds us. “He used his authority to retract Soviet power in ways that his predecessors had considered unimaginable. He understood how nuclear weapons had transformed the traditional security imperatives of the Soviet Union and how economic shortcomings required the government to reconfigure Soviet priorities.”
And yet there is a second hero in this story, which surprisingly enough turns out to be Ronald Reagan. This is not the gun-slinging Reagan of right-wing fantasy who single-handedly terrified the Soviets into submission. Quite the contrary, it was the reasonable, idealistic, open-minded Reagan who saved the day. “Reagan’s greatness,” Leffler contends, “was not his build-up of force, but his inspiring of trust.” This was a president who certainly “believed in strength. … But the purpose of strength was to negotiate. Even while he denounced the tyrants who ran an evil empire, he reached out to talk to them.” Because Reagan had the ability not only to talk but to listen attentively, he provided Mikhail Gorbachev with the reassurance that he needed to walk away from the Cold War and change the course of history.
While Leffler evinces particular enthusiasm for Reagan, his admiration for the other American presidents is palpable. Most readers of his book will be surprised by his sympathetic portrayal of the Russian adversaries, but they will find his treatment of the American principals more familiar. According to his description, all of them held the highest ideals, all thought they were advancing the well-being of mankind, all faced “agonizing” choices and each in his own way searched for peace.
Why were so many “wise” leaders, on both sides of the Cold War barricades, unable to stop a 40-year conflict even though they recognized that it was profoundly threatening to their national security? Leffler does a masterful job of examining the specific sources of tension, the reciprocal actions on both sides, the evolving thinking of the principals and the provocative behavior of allies and third parties.
Yet beneath the rich details lies a broad explanation that can account for the repeated failures. One underrated factor is the evolving “configuration of the international system,” meaning that whatever their abstract goals, both Soviet and American leaders were forced to respond to fresh developments in the larger international environment. These were constantly disruptive. Winston Churchill and Stalin might sit down and divide Europe on a piece of paper, yet such plans inevitably foundered on the unanticipated economic woes and political upheaval across the Continent. With so many nations in “meltdown,” it was hard for the Americans and Soviets to find a clear basis for accommodation. Over the years, the same pattern continued as fresh eruptions in the international scene disrupted great power diplomacy.
However, Leffler’s point is that these developments did not eliminate choice and agency. As they responded to events, both Soviet and American leaders were influenced by their distinctive historical memories and experiences. Each perceived discrete threats as well as seductive opportunities. And each would take actions that would arouse the anxieties and sometimes the rapacity of the other. Leaders on both sides saw themselves as struggling for “the soul of mankind” and, until Gorbachev, all were ultimately “trapped” by their own ideals and values.
“For the Soul of Mankind” is without question the most evenhanded book on the Cold War to appear, and it is unlikely to be surpassed. Apart from its intrinsic interest, it is highly relevant to our contemporary travails because it challenges the unfortunate and inaccurate notion that during the Cold War the display of military power was somehow productive of a safer world. Indeed, it was not until one far-seeing leader walked away from the military contest that people across the globe could breathe more freely.