For the Soul of Mankind

The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War

Melvyn P. Leffler

Hill and Wang

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.


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


Praise for For the Soul of Mankind

“[A] sweeping work . . . Leffler is one of America’s most distinguished cold war historians, and this enlightening, readable study is the product of years of research and reflection.” —Jonathan Rosenberg, The Christian Science Monitor

“A masterful account of the Cold War by a distinguished historian in full stride . . . This important book will enlighten and sophisticate the debate on the Cold War, even if it will not end the discussion.” —G. John Ikenberry, Foreign Affairs

“A scintillating account of the forces that constrained Soviet and American leaders in the second half of the 20th century . . . Possibly the most readable and insightful study of the Cold War yet.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"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
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.” —Carolyn Eisenberg, Truthdig

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Melvyn P. Leffler

  • Melvyn P. Leffler, Stettinius Professor of American History at the University of Virginia, is the author The Specter of Communism (H&W, 1994) and A Preponderance of Power. He lives in Charlottesville.





    Available Formats and Book Details

    For the Soul of Mankind

    The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War

    Melvyn P. Leffler

    American Historical Association George Louis Beer Prize




    Hill and Wang