Sunday, January 6, 2008

Rhodes reviews Cold War books: Leffler, For the Soul of Mankind and Zubok, A Failed Empire

Richard Rhodes reviews two new Cold War books in today's Washington Post: FOR THE SOUL OF MANKIND: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War by Melvyn P. Leffler (Hill and Wang) and A FAILED EMPIRE: The Soviet Union in the Cold War From Stalin to Gorbachev by Vladislav M. Zubok (Univ. of North Carolina). Rhodes writes:

In the first decade of what some claim to be a new cold war -- against "terrorism," "Islamofascism" or perhaps simply Iran -- we should welcome fresh analysis of the original Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, the type specimen, so to speak, of cold conflicts past, present and yet to come. Two histories, written by academics who acknowledge each other's advice, draw on abundant new primary sources to refine our understanding of the Cold War, turning it from a melodrama into a nuanced tragedy.

Melvin Leffler is a distinguished senior scholar, and if I had read his book alone I might have ranked it higher. He tells a good story. Leffler explains in his introduction that For the Soul of Mankind is a narrative of five momentous Cold War episodes rather than a full history. The first episode, about Stalin, Truman and the origins of the Cold War, feels perfunctory -- Leffler published an excellent book on the subject, The Preponderance of Power, in 1992. But the University of Virginia historian finds his voice in energetic examinations of the promising turmoil in the Politburo following Stalin's death in 1953, the near-Armageddon of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the erosion of detente in the Carter years and the end of the Cold War at the hands of Gorbachev, Reagan and George H. W. Bush....

Vladislav Zubok is a young Russian scholar who teaches at Temple University. His book, though focused more on the Soviet side of the story, is far richer than Leffler's in new information and fresh interpretation. Zubok reveals the full extent of Stalin's brutal post-World War II suppression of the Soviet people, including withholding strategic grain reserves to induce an artificial famine (similar to the Terror Famine of the 1930s) while increasing taxes on farmers by 150 percent. He demonstrates that the Berlin Blockade of 1948, when the United States and Britain supplied the people of the western zones of Berlin with food and coal by air after Stalin cut off road and rail access, "became a propaganda fiasco and a strategic failure" for the Soviet dictator that led directly to the formation of NATO and the creation of West Germany. Stalin's "way of getting back at the arrogant Americans," Zubok reports, "was to support Kim Il Sung's plan to annex South Korea." To involve the United States in the Korean War, Stalin "deliberately abstained from the crucial vote at the United Nations that proclaimed North Korea an aggressor state" -- a far more satisfactory explanation than the longstanding claim that the Soviet ambassador unintentionally missed the vote.

Contrary to the claims of the founding document of the Cold War, NSC-68, the 1950 National Security Council report that said the Soviet Union was "implacable in its purpose to destroy [us]" and could "seriously damage this country," Zubok confirms the Soviet lack of any nuclear retaliatory capacity in the mid-1950s, when the United States could field more than 1,400 strategic weapons. During this era the Soviet leadership nevertheless proliferated nuclear weapons technology to China, even preparing to ship the Chinese "a working sample of the atomic bomb." After Mao responded to Nikita Khrushchev's drive toward peaceful coexistence with the West by insulting and humiliating the Soviet leader when he visited Beijing in 1959 to mend fences, Khrushchev cancelled those preparations.

The rest is here.