The unmaking of the cold war

Historian Melvyn Leffler focuses on the moments when Washington and Moscow valued mankind over conflict.

In November 1974, just before President Gerald Ford boarded Air Force One in the Soviet city of Vladivostok for the long flight back to Washington, he took off his Alaskan wolfskin coat and gave it to Leonid Brezhnev. As Ford recalled, the Russian leader "seemed truly overwhelmed" by the gesture.

Ford was moved to do this because of the sentiments Brezhnev had expressed in their ride to the airport. Grabbing Ford's left hand and squeezing it tightly, the Soviet leader described the enormous suffering the Russian population had endured during World War II. "I do not want to inflict that upon my people again." Looking the American in the eye, Brezhnev claimed they had accomplished much at their meeting, but insisted there was more to do. "This is an opportunity to protect not only the people of our two countries, but, really, all mankind," he declared.

The Ford-Brezhnev summit was one of many hopeful high-level encounters that occurred during the cold war, the conflict that shaped world politics for almost 50 years. That decades-long struggle is the subject of Melvyn P. Leffler's sweeping work, For the Soul of Mankind: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War. Leffler, who teaches American history at the University of Virginia, is one of America's most distinguished cold war historians, and this enlightening, readable study is the product of years of research and reflection.

Instead of focusing on the most dangerous periods in the cold war, Leffler has chosen a different path. He explores the relationship between Moscow and Washington at several crucial moments in the post-1945 era, "when officials in Moscow and Washington thought about avoiding or modulating the extreme tension and hostility" between them.

Leffler shows how statesmen on both sides forged policies that were driven by a combination of domestic, international, and ideological factors. Often acting against their better judgement, they propelled the conflict forward, even as they "yearned for peace."

Leffler's chapters on the origins and the end of the cold war are especially engaging. Using recently released archival material from Soviet and Eastern European sources, he traces the early days of the struggle as Stalin and Truman staked out their positions. Seeking secure borders for his country, a land shattered by World War II, Stalin cracked down on Eastern Europe and installed regimes subservient to his will. Stalin's brutality mattered little to Truman, Leffler argues. What did matter was Soviet expansion, which Truman believed threatened the American way of life.

Over many turbulent years, US and Soviet leaders spoke of coexisting peacefully, a story Leffler presents by astutely considering policies of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, and Carter, along with decisions made by the Soviets. They negotiated, signed accords and agreements, and even acknowledged that a hot war between nuclear superpowers would be an act of lunacy. But not until Gorbachev and Reagan did these hopes come to life.

If Leffler's book has a hero, it is Mikhail Gorbachev. Realizing that his country could no longer devote vast sums to defense, Gorbachev moved to reconfigure the relationship between Moscow and Washington. "Our goal is to prevent the next round of the arms race," he told the Politburo. Failure to do so was not an option.

But Gorbachev's embrace of a more cooperative relationship required a receptive partner. Ronald Reagan, once an ardent cold warrior, was the ideal leader at this juncture. None could claim that Reagan, the man who had called the Soviet Union an "evil empire," was soft on communism. Yet, like Gorbachev, Reagan believed the relationship was ripe for change.

That it took Soviet and American statesmen decades to end the cold war is perhaps the greatest tragedy in the history of post-1945 world politics. While the struggle never exploded into a US-Soviet conflagration, its costs were astronomical. Nations devoted vast sums to the conflict, and millions of soldiers and civilians died in the hot wars fought in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Africa, and Latin America, all of which were related, directly or indirectly, to the battle between communism and capitalism. The world's peoples paid a high price indeed for the "lost opportunities" that Professor Leffler has so ably documented.

Jonathan Rosenberg, who teaches at Hunter College, is the author of 'How Far the Promised Land?: World Affairs and the American Civil Rights Movement from the First World War to Vietnam.'

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