“The Cold War was a struggle for the very soul of mankind,” former president George H. W. Bush wrote a few years ago. “It was a struggle for a way of life.”1
A decade ago, when I began work on this book, I would not have thought that I would come to view the Cold War in this manner. In 1989 and 1990, when I was finishing a book on the Truman administration’s national security policies, I had been stunned by contemporary developments. Free governments arose in Eastern Europe. The Berlin wall came down. Germany was unified. Soviet-American competition in the third world abated. The Cold War ended. I had never imagined that these events would occur in my lifetime. Less than a decade before, the Cold War seemed to be entering a deep freeze. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, in December 1979, relations between the United States and the Soviet Union appeared more ominously hostile than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Responsible officials talked and wrote about waging and winning nuclear wars. People in Moscow and Washington read articles about surprise attacks. Ideological foes inspired by malicious intentions were alleged to be on the prowl, seeking to take advantage of propitious moments to gain a preponderance of power. If officials were not vigilant—the same language was used in Moscow as well as in Washington—the adversary would employ its military power for blackmail. Concessions would lead to worse concessions. Allies would lose faith, clients would feel betrayed, the world balance of power would be upset, and vital security interests would be impaired. Leaders in Moscow and Washington never tired of telling their people that their way of life was at stake. The Cold War, it seemed, would last indefinitely or end in catastrophe.
Consequently, most of us were astonished by the turn of events when, in the half dozen years between 1985 and 1991, power in the international system was reconfigured and an ideological struggle that had engulfed the globe for almost a half century was ended.
How did this happen? Powerful men, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, had dramatically altered the course of history. But if they were able to do this so decisively, I began to wonder whether other leaders might have done likewise. Why, after all, did the Cold War last as long as it did? Might there have been other moments, other opportunities when the conflict could have been resolved? If men so different ideologically as Reagan and Gorbachev could muster the will and the ability to change the Soviet-American relationship, might their predecessors have done so? Had they ever thought of doing so? If so, why did they fail, and Reagan and Gorbachev succeed?
Tantalizing documents and memoirs from Moscow, Budapest, Berlin, Warsaw, Prague, and Beijing began to appear. As I read many of the new books and articles based on these newly released archival materials, and as I began examining the documents themselves, I was struck with a surprising and repeated fact, often submerged beneath the more dramatic details about espionage, subversion, nuclear blackmail, and proxy wars: leaders in Moscow and Washington often realized that their competition was counterproductive. They often understood the liabilities of the Cold War dynamic. They knew that the global rivalry diverted resources from domestic priorities, and that the arms race made little sense. They realized that the Cold War involved them in civil wars and regional conflicts in Asia and Africa that bore little relation to the vital interests of their own nations. They recognized that local crises in faraway places might engage them in escalatory measures that could get out of control and lead to a nuclear exchange.
On the one hand, these new documents suggested that the Cold War leaders were wiser or at least more knowledgeable than I had imagined. They understood the risks they were taking and calculated the tradeoffs they were making. Although this was interesting, it was also troubling. Why did they continue a rivalry that courted disaster for all humankind? Why did they continue a rivalry that diverted resources from priorities their own people clearly favored? Why were they not content to demonstrate the superiority of their way of life without arms races and proxy wars? If they grasped, even occasionally, that they had much to gain from avoiding a cold war, or modulating it, or disengaging from it, why did they not do so? And why did things change in the mid-1980s?
Many explanations have been given for the behavior of the two superpowers during the Cold War. These explanations often focus on great men, some of whom were outrageously evil, such as Joseph Stalin, some of whom spoke nobly about freedom and diversity, such as John F. Kennedy, and all of whom are fascinating to us—for the power they wielded and for their potential to do good or bad in the world.
Other explanations focus on the configuration of power in the international system. All governments respond to dynamics in the international environment that are beyond their control, the argument goes. They seek to fill power vacuums or, alternatively, strive to survive in a dangerous world where threats abound and where the naïve are punished if they are lucky and perish if they are not.
But governments do not simply respond to changes in the international environment. Governments are run by men and women with ideas and historical memories. Their beliefs and memories influence their understanding of what is going on in the world, shape their perception of threat and opportunity, and inspire dreams and visions about what might be accomplished at home and abroad.
Yet these men and women cannot always do what they aspire to do, because they are buffeted by domestic interest groups, public opinion, and powerful bureaucracies. Democratic statesmen are sensitive to domestic constituencies and to legislative-executive relationships, and they are sometimes beholden to economic interest groups whose views they may not share. Leaders in authoritarian, even totalitarian, countries must also contend with bureaucracies that have divergent aims and concerns. No leader, anywhere, acts in a domestic vacuum in which policy can be made with indifference to internal constituents, bureaucracies, and interest groups.
Leaders also have their constituents abroad, formal allies and sometimes informal clients, governments with their own interests that they pursue vigorously, sometimes with cunning and guile and sometimes with a dazzling candor and boldness. These clients and allies are never as weak as they may seem, and great powers aiming for hegemony cannot disregard them.
In seeking to understand why the Cold War lasted as long as it did, I have pondered the role of human agency. I have looked at the so-called realist theories that focus on power and survival and that dwell on the distribution of power in the international system. I have examined the influence of ideas, ideologies, and historical memories and pondered how officials construct their own realities. I have weighed the impact of domestic opinion, interest groups, and bureaucracies, including the military-industrial complexes. I have tried to analyze the role of allies and clients. My desire was to follow the trail of the evidence, keeping in mind the many persuasive interpretations of great-power behavior during the Cold War. Yes, of course, this is a naïve statement. Its intent is to suggest that I was not consciously wed to a particular theory, and that I had an open mind about the interpretative power of different lines of inquiry. I wanted to think about all of them and weigh them against the evidence.
The documentation intrigued me. The records newly opened in Moscow and other communist countries after 1989, which most scholars never imagined seeing during the Cold War, are fascinating. Of course, they are incomplete, but they are suggestive. Access to Russian materials has waxed and waned over the last fifteen years. I have relied heavily on documents translated by the Cold War International History Project, the National Security Archive, and the Miller Center of the University of Virginia. For American records, I have spent lots of time at the presidential libraries and the National Archives. Normally, U.S. national security documents less than twenty-five years old would not be available in any significant numbers, but many of the most important ones can now be seen in the collections of the Cold War International History Project and the National Security Archive. These organizations and their institutional affiliates in the United States and around the globe have held “oral history” conferences with leading Cold War decision makers. For these meetings, they secured the declassification of treasure troves of documents, which I have employed systematically. In the latter parts of this book, I use these records to examine the erosion of détente in the 1970s and the end of the Cold War in the 1980s. There are fascinating transcripts of the meetings of Leonid Brezhnev with presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter and even more illuminating transcripts of the discussions between Gorbachev and Reagan. If I can convey a sense of the richness of these materials, I will have accomplished a good deal.
This book is not, however, a narrative history of the Cold War. Rather, it is an examination of five “moments” during it, that is, short intervals of time when officials in Moscow and Washington thought about avoiding or modulating the extreme tension and hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union. By exploring their motives and analyzing why they made the choices they did, I hope to illuminate the underlying dynamics of the Cold War overall.
The “moments” I have chosen for illustrative purposes are fascinating episodes in the Cold War. All through its history, U.S. and Soviet leaders struggled with crosscutting pressures. Postwar ferment in Europe, decolonization and revolutionary nationalism in Asia and Africa, and the revival of German (and Japanese) power were systemic conditions that captured the attention and circumscribed the choices of policy makers in Moscow and Washington. But the options they thought they had available were also strongly influenced by their ideological mind-sets and historical memories. Ideas, ideologies, beliefs, and experience shaped their perceptions of threat and opportunity arising from circumstances often beyond the control of even the most powerful men on earth.
My focus is on leaders, since I am interested in human agency as well as contingency in history. I look at Stalin and Truman; Malenkov and Eisenhower; Khrushchev, Kennedy, and Johnson; Brezhnev and Carter; and Gorbachev, Reagan, and Bush—at times when they believed they had choices to make. What did they want to do? What were their goals? Their motives? To what extent were they trapped by circumstance, pressured by allies or clients, buffeted by domestic constituencies, or imprisoned by ideas and historical memories? These men grappled with decisions that were of enormous consequence for their people and for human society worldwide. I want to convey a sense of the pressures they faced, the options they pondered, and the choices they made. Their often agonizing decisions were far less predetermined than one might think.
These decision makers could not control the fundamental dynamics. World War II had wrought destruction beyond human comprehension, unleashed unexpected political and social developments, bequeathed unanticipated configurations of power in the international arena, and catalyzed an unwanted atomic arms race. For three decades thereafter, peoples in Asia and Africa clamored for their independence, yearned for rapid modernization, and embraced revolutionary nationalist discourses that neither their former colonial masters nor Moscow or Washington could easily control. And once postwar reconstruction began, the questions of German and Japanese revival hovered over the capitals of the world. For decision makers in Moscow and Washington, as in all European capitals, no question was more important than the future of Germany. Would Germany stay divided? Would Germany be democratic? Would Germany be peaceful?
The meanings attributed to developments in the international arena were influenced by ideological axioms and historical experience. Marxism-Leninism and democratic capitalism shaped the visions of policymakers. Leaders in Moscow sincerely believed their government possessed the formula for the good life, and so did American leaders. In fact, the new archival materials reveal that public discourse did not depart a great deal from private conversations. Not only did Soviet and U.S. officials believe that their nations embodied a superior way of life, but their beliefs and memories affected their construction of “reality”—their perception of threats and opportunities in a turbulent world. Leaders had trouble liberating themselves from these ideas and memories even when they saw reason to do so.
This book, then, is about men and their ideas and their fears and their hopes. It is about ideology and memory. It is about structure and agency. It argues that officials in Washington and Moscow intermittently grasped the consequences of the Cold War, glimpsed the possibilities of détente, and yearned for peace, but they could not escape their fears or relinquish their dreams. Around the globe peoples were struggling to define their future and disputing the benefits of alternative ways of life, so the Cold War was indeed a struggle for the soul of mankind. Nobody can understand the Cold War without recognizing the disillusionment Europeans felt after decades of war, depression, and genocide; without realizing the fears that the possibility of German recovery inspired; without grasping the aspirations of Asian, African, and Latin American peoples for autonomy, modernization, and material advancement.
With so much turbulence, so much fear, and so much possibility, Soviet and U.S. statesmen were affected as much by their ideas and memory, by the pressures of allies and clients, and by the demands of constituents and the impulses of military and civilian bureaucrats as by rational calculations of national interests. They thought they were struggling for the soul of mankind. Yet in their quest for salvation and vindication, they made decisions that even by their own calculations perpetuated an often self-defeating conflict.
This is a history of lost opportunities, then, and it shows that opportunities are lost when leaders who wield great power are engulfed by circumstance and entrapped by ideology and memory. We can empathize with their fears and hopes and we can condemn their brutality and foolishness. But most of all, we should try to understand their behavior and to appreciate the courage, imagination, and determination of Gorbachev and Reagan (and Bush) to escape from a dynamic that had imprisoned their predecessors. It was not inevitable for the Cold War to end as it did.
Excerpted from For the Soul of Mankind by Melvyn P. Leffler. Copyright © 2007 by Melvyn P. Leffler. Published in September 2007 by Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.