For the Soul of Mankind The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War

Melvyn P. Leffler

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

608 Pages



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Winner of the George Louis Beer Prize
Finalist for the Council on Foreign Relations' Arthur Ross Book Award

To the amazement of the public, pundits, and even the policymakers themselves, the ideological and political conflict that had endangered the world for half a century came to an end in 1990. In For the Soul of Mankind, historian Melvyn P. Leffler offers his interpretations about what caused the Cold War, why it lasted so long, and how it finally came to an end.

The distinguished historian Melvyn P. Leffler homes in on four crucial episodes when American and Soviet leaders considered modulating, avoiding, or ending hostilities and asks why they failed: Stalin and Truman devising new policies after 1945; Malenkov and Eisenhower exploring the chance for peace after Stalin's death in 1953; Kennedy, Khrushchev, and LBJ trying to reduce tensions after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962; and Brezhnev and Carter aiming to sustain détente after the Helsinki Conference of 1975. All these leaders glimpsed possibilities for peace, yet they allowed ideologies, political pressures, the expectations of allies and clients, the dynamics of the international system, and their own fearful memories to trap them in a cycle of hostility that seemed to have no end.

Leffler's important book illuminates how Reagan, Bush, and, above all, Gorbachev finally extricated themselves from the policies and mind-sets that had imprisoned their predecessors, and were able to reconfigure Soviet-American relations after decades of confrontation.


Praise for For the Soul of Mankind

"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 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."—Richard Rhodes, The Washington Post

"For the Soul of Mankind assesses both what went wrong and what went right in America's diplomatic, military and political interactions with the Soviet Union during the thermonuclear stand-off of the cold war [and] focuses loosely on several moments of tension between the American and Soviet leaders. They include the Truman-Stalin contest over occupied Germany, culminating in the Berlin airlift of 1948-49, the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and the tussle between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev over America's 'star wars' missile-shield programme in 1986. Mr. Leffler sees his book as 'a history of lost opportunities' when the cold war could plausibly have taken another course . . . The book succeeds in being even-handed: both sides come under careful scrutiny . . . Mr. Leffler believes in the importance of individuals and their decisions, even if only to understand how both become derailed. 'The cold war was not predetermined. Leaders made choices,' he writes. And, at the end, the choices that mattered were Russian ones. He argues that though America shaped the nature of the contest, Gorbachev was the key figure in its ending. In contrast to such scholars as John Lewis Gaddis, Mr Leffler finds that 'Reagan was critically important, but Gorbachev was the indispensable agent of change' . . . his conclusion is powerful. He laments that all too often 'ideology and historical experience' intensified American leaders' sense of threat . . . At their best, American presidents maintained a delicate balance between power and restraint. They realised that they needed to achieve their goals not through war but through close co-ordination with allies. The book argues that, had they not lost this balance during periods of tension, they might have seen the opportunities hidden beneath the dangers.  Although Mr. Leffler (wisely) leaves parallels to the present day implicit, he clearly has an important lesson to offer: a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. It makes unthinkable changes suddenly possible."—The Economist

"Through a series of biographical sketches, Mr. Leffler presents a convincing case, showing how leaders such as Harry Truman and Josef Stalin defined national self-interest in ways that ensured continued tension . . . The triumph of the Reagan-Gorbachev partnership supports Mr. Leffler's theme of the influence of personality on policy. As this intriguing book thoroughly illustrates, it does matter who leads a nation."—Philip Seib, The Dallas Morning News

"The Ford-Brezhnev summit was one of many hopeful high-level encounters that occurred during the cold war, the conflict that shaped world politics for almost 50 years. That decades-long struggle is the subject of Melvyn P. Leffler's sweeping work, For the Soul of Mankind: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War. Leffler, who teaches American history at the University of Virginia, is one of America’s most distinguished cold war historians, and this enlightening, readable study is the product of years of research and reflection . . . Leffler's chapters on the origins and the end of the cold war are especially engaging. Using recently released archival material from Soviet and Eastern European sources, he traces the early days of the struggle as Stalin and Truman staked out their positions . . . That it took Soviet and American Statesmen decades to end the cold war is perhaps the greatest tragedy in the history of post-1945 world politics. While the struggle never exploded into a US-Soviet conflagration, its costs were astronomical. Nations devoted vast sums to the conflict, and millions of soldiers and civilians died in the hot wars fought in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Africa, and Latin American, all of which were related, directly or indirectly, to the battle between communism and capitalism. The world’s peoples paid a high price indeed for the ‘lost opportunities’ that Professor Leffler has so ably documented."—Jonathan Rosenberg, The Christian Science Monitor

"This is a masterful account of the Cold War by a distinguished historian in full stride. Leffler focuses on critical turning points when crises, leadership changes, and shifting diplomatic landscapes provided opportunities for reducing hostilities. In each episode, he draws vivid portraits of U.S. and Soviet leaders—Harry Truman and Joseph Stalin, Dwight Eisenhower and Georgi Malenkov, John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev—as they defined threats and opportunities, navigated politics on the home front, and made strategic choices. Drawing on recently released Soviet documents and a long career as a scholar, Leffler moves beyond the old revisionist and traditionalist debates by offering a more synthetic interpretation that stresses both the imperatives of power politics and the legacies of ideas and history. In explaining the origins of the Cold War, he stresses the overriding importance of Germany; in explaining its persistence, he stresses competition in the developing world. What is most innovative is the attention Leffler pays to ideology and memory as they shaped assessments of international society and shifting power realities. In his view, each side was driven by security fears but also by worldviews and historical lessons that shaped how interests and strategy were perceived . . . The Cold War lasted as long as it did, Leffler concludes, because leaders were trapped in their ideas—until Reagan and Gorbachev were able to break out of these ideological cages. This important book will enlighten and sophisticate the debate on the Cold War, even if it will not end the discussion."—Foreign Affairs

"In For the Soul of Mankind [Leffler] examines the Cold War from start to finish, giving equal weight to the Soviet and American sides. That kind of evenhandedness is unusual in works of this genre, and makes for an especially intriguing tale. Leffler is impatient with grand theories of international competition and balance of power, preferring to concentrate on the leaders of the two principal states and how they arrived at the decisions that governed the world during their battle of wits. He takes up in living detail five crucial ‘moments’ in the history of the Cold War, 'a history of lost opportunities,' to discover how the respective Soviet and American leaders reacted to each other and what chances they may have missed to avert or shorten this long tale of hostility on the brink of mutual destruction . . . For the Soul of Mankind is simultaneously an important scholarly contribution and a fascinating popular read. From the professional standpoint, he marshals all the available literature in English, including American archive material and translations from the Soviet archives (he confesses his own limitation in the Russian language), backed by copious Notes and a careful Bibliography. For ordinary readers, he digs in wherever the record takes him; without any stylistic pretentiousness, he probes deeply into the human complexities of all five of his episodes . . . Leffler's work is an exciting reaction of all the tensions, fear and uncertainties that both superpowers suffered from in the Cold War years."—Robert V. Daniels, The New Leader

"Melvyn Leffler’s new book, For the Soul of Mankind: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War, provides a welcome infusion of intellectual energy into a subject that still matters deeply, and which can help us grapple with more recent events. Although sometimes described as a 'center-left historian,' Leffler cannot be so easily categorized. In this book, as in his previous work, certain qualities stand out: an encyclopedic knowledge of the literature, an immersion in archival materials, a regard for evidence and openness to contradictory information, a lucid writing style and the habit of asking fundamental questions . . . For the Soul of Mankind is without question the most evenhanded book on the Cold War to appear, and it is unlikely to be surpassed. Apart from its intrinsic interest, it is highly relevant to our contemporary travails because it challenges the unfortunate and inaccurate notion that during the Cold War the display of military power was somehow productive of a safer world. Indeed, it was not until one far-seeing leader walked away from the military contest that people across the globe could breathe more freely . . . For the Soul of Mankind is a fascinating, brilliant book that can only advance a vital debate."—Carolyn Eisenberg, Truthdig

"Leffler's study is a useful addition to the debate . . . Leffler has produced more than just a narrative of the Cold War . . . Within the space of 544 pages, five chapters and a conclusion . . . Leffler examines Joseph Stalin and Truman devising new policies in the seasons right after the Allied victory in 1945 . . . A significant contribution to the lessons of the Cold War."—Joseph M. Siracusa, RMIT University, The Journal of American History

"With a keen eye for telling detail, a concern for the choices of individual leaders, and careful judgments, Leffler generates a narrative that carries the reader along as it develops important new ideas. This landmark study transcends many of our standard arguments about the Cold War to focus on what it was really about. Driving much of the maneuvering for security and advantage was the struggle over which political system could meet people’s needs and produce a better society."—Robert Jervis, Columbia University

"This is a lively and very wise book on the Cold War from its beginning to its end. Concentrating on five critical intervals in the history of Soviet-American rivalry, Melvyn P. Leffler, one of the West’s leading authorities on U.S. foreign policy, mines a wealth of new sources for this fresh and stimulating analysis of Cold War crises. The portraits of Cold War leaders, both Soviet and American, are convincingly and elegantly drawn. As illustrated by Leffler, their travails and successes demonstrate how important leadership is in maintaining peace in an unstable world."—Norman M. Naimark, Stanford University

"Melvyn Leffler does an excellent job of surveying key phases of the Cold War. His analytical perspective, emphasizing both structure and agency, is illuminating throughout. The book is sophisticated and erudite but also engagingly written and lively. For the Soul of Mankind will appeal to general readers as well as to experts and university students, and will be a standard text in classes dealing with the Cold War."—Mark Kramer, Harvard University

"There will never be a last word on why the Cold War began and why it ended, but Mel Leffler's book is certainly the latest word—based on accumulated American and now Soviet sources. Leffler avoids the pitfalls of the older revisionism, which blamed the U.S. for the conflict, and of Cold War triumphalism, which saw the Soviet Union's collapse as testimony to American steadfastness in the face of Soviet obduracy. His is a story of two nations whose leaders, haunted by very different fears of a recurrent past, at crucial junctures perpetuated the conflict and made it insoluble. The Cold War ended, finally, when two remarkable men, Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, were able to recognize what was unfounded in their fears of each other."—John B. Judis, author of The Folly of Empire

"The Cold War began under murky and not entirely planned circumstances governed by individual personalities. So, writes Leffler, did it end, thanks to two personalities in particular. The U.S. and the Soviet Union made sometimes uncomfortable allies in the war against Hitler, but they were allies all the same. When that war ended, Leffler observes, there was a world to divide up; Stalin had his agenda, but so did Harry Truman, who demanded that America enjoy 85 percent of any given pie rather than a nice 50-50 split. Stalin took a dim view of that math; and in all events, when the U.S. announced that it would never again be caught napping or give up its military superiority, and that it would 'hold the atomic bomb as a 'sacred trust' for all mankind,' Stalin felt hemmed in, even blackmailed. Leffler does a creditable job of depicting the ensuing Cold War from the point of view of the Soviet leadership as well as from the already well-documented American one, and he turns up surprises: one, for instance, that the Soviet leadership, urged along by Lavrentiy Beria, was exploring the possibility of allowing Germany to reunify as a neutral power, a far better alternative in his mind than 'a permanently unstable socialist Germany whose survival relied on the support of the Soviet Union.' That plan went nowhere: Stalin died; Beria was executed; and another generation of East-West confrontation would ensue. Leffler's interest lies in the personalities of the leaders who enabled detente, and finally an end to the Cold War—foremost among them, in his assessment, Mikhail Gorbachev, who 'made the most fundamental alterations in his own thinking' in order to accept a fundamental shift in the world's political order. (Reagan had something to do with it, too, writes Leffler. But Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev? Useless.) A well-balanced and illuminating history of the Cold War."—Kirkus Reviews

"Drawing on extensive research in American and Soviet archives, Bancroft Prize–winner Leffler (A Preponderance of Power) offers a scintillating account of the forces that constrained Soviet and American leaders in the second half of the 20th century. Leffler begins by admitting that he was shocked by the rapid demise of communism. If Reagan and Gorbachev could end the Cold War, why hadn't earlier leaders been able to do so? To answer that question, Leffler examines five crucial moments when Washington and Moscow thought about avoiding or modulating the extreme tension between them. At the end of WWII, Leffler says, Stalin thought that cooperation with the West might be preferable to entrenched hostility. Yet he and Truman were pressed by an international order that engendered . . . fear to make decisions that led to Cold War and shaped policy for decades. Leffler examines why Eisenhower and Malenkov couldn't wipe the slate clean after Stalin's death; how Khrushchev, Kennedy and Johnson reacted to the pressures of international allies and domestic political enemies; why détente foundered under Carter and Brezhnev, and what circumstances allowed leaders of the 1980s to focus on common interests rather than differences. Leffler has produced possibly the most readable and insightful study of the Cold War yet."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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Read an Excerpt

“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
Read the full excerpt


  • Melvyn P. Leffler

  • Melvyn P. Leffler, Stettinius Professor of American History at the University of Virginia, is the author The Specter of Communism and A Preponderance of Power, which won the Bancroft Prize in 1992. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.