The “presidential historian,” that expert on the American presidency who is ubiquitous on television screens and newspaper pages during elections, is a very recent phenomenon. But it seems to be implanted in the culture now, becoming a respected side gig for those writing popular American history. Of these presidential historians – a group that would also include Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough, and Michael Beschloss – Robert Dallek probably is the best. He does the most original research, offers the most new insights into his subjects, and is the least likely to shower readers in nostalgia.
All of which makes The Lost Peace so disappointing. The book is not bad per se – it’s just unoriginal and unnecessary. “The Lost Peace” is an international history of the cold war’s beginnings, focusing on the maljudgments made by world leaders. As World War II closed, and the United States and the Soviet Union lost their common Nazi enemy, they turned on each other. By the time US President Harry Truman left office in 1953, the Allies were solidified as enemies, a status that lasted until Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union. How a period so pregnant with possibilities descended into just another great power conflict, and how it could have been otherwise, is the focus of Dallek’s mid-sized book. “[I]t is an attempt to revisit the end-of-war and immediate postwar events by asking why, in spite of the uncivilized acts of violence that had dominated international affairs, men and women all over the globe could still imagine that traditional power politics could assure their national safety and a wider peace,” he writes.
Every major aspect of the cold war, from FDR’s death to the 1952 US presidential election, is covered in “The Lost Peace,” focusing on events in the US, the Soviet Union, and, to a lesser extent, China. Dallek’s political judgment is very sound, recognizing as he does that Stalin was primarily responsible for beginning the cold war, but the US militarized and extended it through a combination of paranoid anti-Communism and militarism. If one were to need an introduction to the early cold-war years, “The Lost Peace” would serve well as an example.
But Dallek’s previous books went well beyond being mere introductions – they were definitive works on their subjects. “Nixon and Kissinger,” Dallek’s 2007 study of Franklin Roosevelt’s foreign policy, as well as his biographies of Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy, were so terrific precisely because they offered new insights and facts about their already-familiar subjects, in addition to being solid guides on their topics. Dallek utilized primary source material in those works, making extensive use of internal memorandums, tapes, letters, and documents.
“The Lost Peace,” instead, cites one single primary document. The rest comes from secondary sources and even, a few times, Wikipedia. Even worse, he overlooks some of the best scholarship on the cold war, work from respected scholars like Odd Arne Westad, Bruce Kuniholm, Walter LaFeber, and others. And he relies far too heavily on McCullough’s overrated, maudlin book, “Truman,” and the memoirs of George F. Kennan. It seems Dallek dipped into the vast ocean of cold war historiography, grabbed what he could with one hand, and declared himself satisfied.
This wouldn’t be so bad if Dallek had anything new to say about the years between 1945 and 1953. But he does not. The beginning years of the cold war are among the most examined in history. The subject has fascinated many and the fall of the Soviet Union has facilitated new research. Many good books already exist on the topic, from LaFeber’s books to those of John Lewis Gaddis, Melvyn Leffler, Vladislav Zubok, and others. When Dallek does cite their work, he rarely challenges their conclusions, rarely wades into the academic controversies. “Political leaders and governments around the world did not take much knowledge from the horrors of the two world wars,” he writes, a rather banal judgment coming from someone with so deep a knowledge of postwar foreign policy.
Coming from a lesser writer, “The Lost Peace” might not be so underwhelming. But emerging from someone as gifted and reliable as Dallek, it cannot be considered anything but.