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The Cold War in Hindsight
After a brush with calamity in 1983, both sides moved away from confrontation.

Reviewed by Richard Rhodes
Sunday, January 6, 2008

FOR THE SOUL OF MANKIND The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War

By Melvyn P. Leffler | Hill and Wang. 586 pp. $35

A FAILED EMPIRE The Soviet Union in the Cold War From Stalin to Gorbachev

By Vladislav M. Zubok | Univ. of North Carolina. 467 pp. $39.95

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 d¿tente in the Carter years and the end of the Cold War at the hands of Gorbachev, Reagan and George H. W. Bush.

Leffler properly sees Gorbachev as the primary driver of that end. "It was his thinking," he writes, "that shifted most fundamentally." Gorbachev could not have accomplished his goal without Ronald Reagan, to be sure, but "ironically, Reagan's greatest contribution to ending the Cold War was not the fear he engendered [with his vast defense buildup] but the trust he inspired." This conclusion, which contradicts the triumphalist view of an American Cold War victory won through threats and economic domination, and which has conclusive documentary support, is one that Zubok echoes (as do I, in my own history of the Cold War nuclear arms race).

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.

Leonid Brezhnev gains stature in Zubok's recounting. Khrushchev's successor had personally experienced combat in World War II and had supervised the production of nuclear weapons as a member of the Central Committee Secretariat in the 1960s; from such experiences he had arrived at a "disarmingly simple" fundamental conviction that "war must be avoided at all costs." One outcome of that conviction was support for German Chancellor Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik, which led to the nonaggression pact that West Germany and the Soviet Union signed in August 1970, one early sign that the Cold War was abating. Brezhnev's belief in peace through strength, however, led to his approval of a massive buildup of Soviet ballistic missiles, including a new heavy ICBM that could carry as many as 10 warheads and that U.S. neoconservatives claimed threatened a disarming first strike. The claim was bogus -- even if a Soviet attack had destroyed U.S. land missile forces, American nuclear submarines would have remained invulnerable -- but it contributed to the fear-mongering that helped elect Ronald Reagan president in 1980.

Zubok concludes that the last months of 1983 were a time of maximum danger in U.S.-Soviet relations, adding to the growing list of near-misses a Soviet false alarm over an apparent "massive U.S. ICBM launch" that September. When Yuri Andropov misread a November NATO field exercise as a possible nuclear surprise attack, Reagan, shocked that the ailing leader would take his anti-Soviet rhetoric seriously, hurriedly reminded the world on the last day of the field exercise that "a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought." By December, the Kremlin was deploying nuclear submarines along U.S. coasts.

These events contributed to Reagan's startling turnaround from cold warrior to champion of nuclear abolition, but it was Mikhail Gorbachev who finally reformed his country's foreign policy. Zubok's judgment of Gorbachev is severe, reflecting Russian rather than Western attitudes about the man who presided over the collapse of the Soviet Union. "Gorbachev took ideas too seriously," Zubok writes. "They played an excessive role in his behavior. They took precedence not only over the immediate demands of the negotiating process but also over the protection of state interests. . . . Gorbachev replaced one messianic revolutionary-imperial idea that had guided Soviet foreign policy with another messianic idea -- 'that perestroika in the USSR was only a part of some kind of global perestroika, the birth of a new world order.' " Would that it had been; would that it were. *

Richard Rhodes is the author most recently of "Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race."

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