Monday, March 21, 2011

What if...? The mistakes of the Cold War

I don't usually post book reviews on my blog unless I really like them, but I have mixed feelings about The Lost Peace: Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope, 1945-1953 by Robert Dallek which I received from Amazon Vine. It's actually very well-written and I was constantly grabbing a red pen to underline passages I found particularly interesting and insightful. At least, that was my reason for underlining for more than half of the book. At some point I found myself underlining statements that were so unbelievable I wondered what on earth the author was thinking?!?

(THE LOST PEACE) Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope, 1945-1953 by Dallek, Robert(Author)Hardcover{The Lost Peace: Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope, 1945-1953} on01-Nov-2010The Second World War was destruction on a scale not previously seen in history. Was it possible that, given such a frenzy of brutality and atrocity, mankind might have turned from its warlike ways and sought a true end to all wars? Alas, it's a moot point as we know the history that followed.  Although no global conflicts on a similar scale have occurred since, the respite has hardly been peaceful.

A statement on the back of the book calls it "a striking reinterpretation of the postwar years." I wondered, did "reinterpretation" mean "revisionist," which has become just another byword for those who blame the United States for all the woes of the world? I was encouraged by the Preface in which Mr. Dallek says: "While I highlight the failings of the notable men who dominated the scene during this time, I am not intent on denying them their due, or in the case of the greatest villains of the day, revising their reputations for wrongdoing" (pg xi). And indeed, he seems blunt in his vilification of the duplicitous dealings of Stalin with Churchill and Roosevelt (while they were allegedly allies), concluding he had little intention of keeping his word when signing treaties. His assessment of the situation in China is interesting - suggesting it might have been better opening a dialog with Mao Tse-tung, who was very reluctant to join the Soviet orbit and made overtures to the U.S., than clinging to the corrupt and unpopular regime of Chiang Kai-shek. His description of the atmosphere in America is likewise insightful, saying those on the left were naïve in their faith in communist benevolence, while decrying the provoking militancy of the right. Such uncompromising ideologues as Joseph McCarthy left few political options for American leaders who had to be mindful of public opinion.

Like I said, it's a fascinating and thought-provoking book, but it went from insightful to straining the limits of credibility. Perhaps in an effort to appear balanced, Dallek is highly critical of Western leaders for reacting to Stalin and Mao with "knee-jerk anticommunism." He is hard on comments by Western leaders but soft on Soviet and Chinese rhetoric. He justifies Stalin's paranoia as "Russian fear of invasion from the West" (pg 246) and dismisses Soviet espionage and foreign manipulations as "the greatly exaggerated threat of Communist subversion" (pg 269). Even while he explains Western needs to avoid the kind of appeasement that enabled Hitler’s murderous spree, he suggests Truman should have met with Stalin and "candidly explained America's reluctance to build weapons of such destructive power and invited the Soviets to join him in a shared effort to ban" them (pg 297) - which sounds a lot like appeasement. He downplays Soviet involvement in instigating the Korean conflict and blames it on "America's inattentiveness" (pg 314). And for all his lamentations over atomic weapons, he credits them with being an ironic deterrent to further large-scale conflict (pg 364-5).

He is also embarrassingly fawning over George Kennan, a diplomat who - according to Dallek - had the best understanding of Soviet thinking. Yet he quotes Kennan as dismissing the "Czech coup and the Berlin blockade [by the Soviets] as 'just the predictable baring of the fangs'" (pg 263) as though such events were harmless and inconsequential. His acknowledgements that Stalin and Mao "didn't hesitate to sacrifice lives for the sake of communism and [their] personal rule" (pg 327) and were responsible for the deaths and brutal oppression of many millions (!!!) of their own people seem lost in the jumble of so much history, almost dismissed as unimportant.

And yet... Dallek's study can be intriguing - and it's certainly well-written. He is mindful that his analysis has the benefit of historical hindsight, but that’s the point and he claims the historian's responsibility to render judgments and offer alternatives - a not unreasonable premise. But while I admire much he had to say, I was deeply troubled by his uneven judgments and minimizing the threat of Soviet communism. To suggest that Stalin might have been neutralized (or “rehabilitated”?) with plain and simple honesty is disturbing and seems the pinnacle of naïveté. Still, it's probably a worthwhile read if you're interested in Cold War history and the mistakes of leadership that led to it. Just don’t take everything at face value and don't make it the only book on the subject you read.

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