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

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

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by Melvyn P. Leffler

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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. How did that happen? What caused the cold war in the first place, and why did it last as long as it did?

The distinguished historian Melvyn P. Leffler homes in on four

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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. How did that happen? What caused the cold war in the first place, and why did it last as long as it did?

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.

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Editorial Reviews

Richard Rhodes
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 detente in the Carter years and the end of the Cold War at the hands of Gorbachev, Reagan and George H. W. Bush.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

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. 47 b&w illus., 6 maps. (Sept.)

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Kirkus Reviews
The Cold War began under murky and not entirely planned circumstances governed by individual personalities. So, writes Leffler (History/Univ. of Virginia; The Specter of Communism: The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1917-1953, 1994, etc.), 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 German 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, MikhailGorbachev, 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.

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For the Soul of Mankind

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

By Melvyn P. Leffler

Hill and Wang

Copyright © 2007 Melvyn P. Leffler
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-6409-8


The Origins of The Cold War, 1945–48

Stalin and Truman

Stalin the Revolutionary

In 1909, Koba walked behind his wife's coffin, holding his infant son. She "softened my heart," he confided to an old friend. "Now she is dead, and with her passing goes my last drop of feeling for mankind." Placing his hand on his chest, Koba lamented, "Here, in here, everything is empty, unutterably empty."

In his youthful adolescence Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, later to take the name Stalin, had loved the name Koba. In Georgian folklore, Koba had been a romantic revolutionary, a Robin Hood character seeking to kill the tsar. Betrayed by one of his accomplices, Koba killed the betrayer. A few years after his wife's funeral, Iosif gradually changed his name from Koba to Stalin, meaning "man of steel." From romantic hero to man of steel; such was the evolution of Stalin's self-image.

In 1909, Stalin was thirty-one years old. He was a relatively unknown, dedicated communist revolutionary, in and out of Russian prisons, in and out of labor camps, continually escaping from the police and from internal exile. He had no close friends, no intimate ties with other people, except perhaps his mother and his wife. As a child growing up in Georgia he had been repeatedly beaten and then abandoned by his father. His mother had nurtured him. With the help of others, she had sent the young Stalin to the Gori Church School and to the Tiflis Theological Seminary. He was a devout, intelligent, and ambitious student. His years of education there, the only formal education he ever had, left a significant imprint. Stalin learned to think in absolutes — in dogma, in ritual, and in struggle. Yet he despised religion. "Endless prayers and enforced religious training," his daughter, Svetlana, later wrote, brought "extreme skepticism of everything heavenly, of everything sublime."

The ideology of Marxism-Leninism became Stalin's religious doctrine; his ritualistic practice, the making of revolution. As a teenager in the seminary, he mastered Russian and began secretly reading radical and Marxist literature. In 1899, when he was twenty-one, he left the seminary, aligned himself with small groups of Georgian Marxists, and started agitating among the tiny working class in Tiflis and Baku. Stalin never had any real job. His job was revolution.

What motivated Stalin's decision to become a revolutionary? Little is known, and even his most authoritative biographers have little to say on this subject. A few years after the Bolshevik revolution and long before he reached the pinnacle of power, he answered the question this way: "It is difficult to describe the process. First one becomes convinced that existing conditions are wrong and unjust. Then one resolves to do the best one can to remedy them."

But, in fact, Stalin wrote and said rather little about injustice. "He had a cold heart," said Sergo Beria, son of one of Stalin's secret police chiefs, a man also with a very cold heart. Stalin's mind, wrote one of his most able Russian biographers, "lacked a single noble feature, a trace of humanitarianism, to say nothing of love of mankind." Svetlana poignantly noted that her father joined the revolutionary movement "not as an idealistic dreamer of a beautiful future, like my mother's family ...; not as an enthusiastic writer like Gorky, who described in romantic hyperboles the coming Revolution.... He chose the way of a revolutionary because in him burned the cold flame of protest against society, in which he himself was at the bottom of the ladder and was supposed to remain there all his life. He wanted infinitely more, and there was no other road open to him but that of revolution."

As a young revolutionary, Stalin mastered the basic texts of Marx and Lenin. He was an active propagandist and writer. But in these years he never wrote anything substantial, except on the treatment of non-Russian nationality groups within a revolutionary multinational state. In prison camps and in exile, Stalin often preferred the company of criminals and robbers to that of fellow revolutionaries. Although he had a good memory and an incisive mind, he chose to scheme, manipulate, organize, and act.

Among his revolutionary brethren, he developed a reputation for his strong will and self-discipline. When the tsar was overthrown in February 1917, Lenin believed he could rely upon Stalin to get things done. In April, Lenin spoke in favor of Stalin's election to the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

After the Bolsheviks seized power in November, Stalin assumed important military responsibilities. The new government faced multiple enemies from within and without. Great Britain, France, Poland, Japan, and the United States sent troops and provided assistance to numerous anti-Bolshevik factions operating on various fronts. Stalin became a virtual warlord. He requisitioned and distributed food supplies, organized the local branches of the Cheka, the new secret police, and took charge of regional military activities. He was ruthless and relentless, cunning and cruel. Like other communist commissars, he executed enemies, incompetents, and traitors within his own ranks. Hating to take orders from anyone, he wrangled with Leon Trotsky, the overall commander of the Red armies, throughout the civil war. But Stalin deferred to Lenin, whose leadership was unchallenged.

In April 1922, after the Bolsheviks defeated their internal enemies, thwarted the allied intervention, and consolidated power, Stalin was made general secretary of the Communist Party's Central Committee. Biographers agree that Stalin used this key position, however gradually, to gain a monopoly of power. Lenin saw this happening. As he lay dying in 1923, he agonized over the leadership of the party, for he saw that the struggle between Trotsky and Stalin might tear it apart and destroy the revolution. He had no solution. But he warned, "Having become General Secretary, Comrade Stalin has concentrated unlimited power in his hands, and I am not sure that he will use that power with sufficient care." Stalin was, he wrote, "too rude." His job should be given to someone else who might be "more patient, more loyal, more respectful and attentive to the comrades, less capricious and so on."

Stalin was not removed. He maneuvered deftly and capitalized on the rift between Trotsky and other Bolsheviks such as Grigori Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev. Stalin initially did not stake out clear positions on how to manage the economy, deal with the peasantry, or rapidly modernize the economy. In 1924, he wrote the most important theoretical tract of his career, "The Foundations of Leninism," but none of his comrades looked to him for theoretical solutions to basic issues. While leftists and rightists in the party argued fiercely over the role of the market, the organization of agriculture, and the pace of industrialization, Stalin shifted his alignments to defeat the Trotskyites and outwit the leftists. He then adopted the latter's program to vanquish Nikolai Bukharin, who was inclined to work with the kulaks, or wealthy peasants, and who envisioned a more peaceful and evolutionary transition to socialism. By 1930, Stalin was the fiercest proponent of rapid industrialization and collectivization.

What is striking about Stalin and his gradual rise to unquestioned domination in the party and in the Soviet Union is his tactical ambiguity, pragmatic zealotry, and opportunism. "What stands out," writes one of his preeminent biographers, "is his slowness to adapt to crises and changes. His instinct at every key moment was to temporize, think things over, and only then adjust to the new situation." In difficult political situations, a key aide wrote, "he frequently had no idea what to do or how to behave, but was able to disguise his hesitation, often acting after the event rather than providing leadership."

One should not be too surprised by these tactical shifts. Stalin was fond of quoting Lenin: "A Marxist must take cognizance of real life," of concrete realities. Marxist-Leninist theory was a science that "does not and cannot stand still." Its "propositions and conclusions are bound to change in the course of time, are bound to be replaced by new conclusions and propositions corresponding to the new historical conditions." Stalin's thinking was always fluid, shifting, tactical, and expedient. But theory and ideology were important to him, notwithstanding the simplicity and flexibility of his ideas. Marxism was the scientific study of history. Society was governed by certain laws. Communism represented the future. Change was inevitable. Struggle was essential. Power had to be seized and maintained.

There could be no revolutionary movement, he believed, without revolutionary theory. Theory and ideology provided a framework for comprehending the world and for interpreting the unfolding of events, a guide for understanding threats and grasping opportunities, a lens through which to see the changing correlation of forces among classes, a means for understanding the actions and machinations of imperial powers.

Stalin believed that the "fundamental question of every revolution is the question of power." The party had to preserve its power in the Soviet Union. Since the conditions for socialism did not yet exist, the party had to use the state to build socialism, for that alone justified its power. "The construction of Socialism in the Soviet Union," Stalin wrote, "would be a momentous turning point in the history of mankind, a victory for the working class and peasantry of the U.S.S.R., marking a new epoch in the history of the world."

But socialism, as he saw it, was endangered from within and without. Ideology and experience confirmed this view. Bourgeois ideas lingered in the minds of men and women even after the revolution and had to be eradicated. The proletarian state, Stalin said, must use force, unrestricted by law, to suppress the bourgeoisie. But it would take time, an entire historical epoch. In the meantime, the party had to stand at the head of the working class and serve as its general staff. It had to have "unity of will, complete and absolute unity of action."

Unity at home was imperative, because even graver dangers lurked in the international arena. Imperial nations aimed to crush the revolution. Already by the mid-1920s, Stalin came to believe that Bolsheviks could not wait for revolution to succeed abroad. They had to "consolidate the dictatorship of the proletariat in one country, using it as a base for defeat of imperialism in all countries." For Stalin, capitalist encirclement was an ongoing, mortal danger. Soviet Russia was weak. Indeed, the whole "history of Russia [was] one unbroken record of the beatings she suffered for falling behind, for her backwardness. She was beaten by the Mongol Khans. She was beaten by the Turkish beys. She was beaten by the Swedish feudal lords. She was beaten by the Polish and Lithuanian gentry. She was beaten by the British and French capitalists. She was beaten by the Japanese barons. All beat her for her backwardness."

The immediate task was to strengthen Soviet Russia. Rapid industrialization was urgent. "The industrialization of the country would ensure its economic independence, strengthen its power of defense and create the conditions for the victory of Socialism in the U.S.S.R." In the late 1920s, Stalin claimed that his domestic foes, such as Bukharin, would unwittingly destroy the revolution. Their policies would preserve Soviet Russia as an agrarian nation, producing foodstuffs, exporting raw materials, and importing machinery. Such plans were tantamount to the "economic enslavement of the U.S.S.R. by the industrially developed foreign countries, a plan for the perpetuation of the industrial backwardness of the U.S.S.R. for the benefit of the imperialist sharks of the capitalist countries."

Stalin could not tolerate such an approach. The first task of planning, he later explained, was "to ensure the independence of the socialist economy from the capitalist encirclement. This is absolutely the most important task. It is a type of battle with world capitalism." In 1931, he exhorted industrial managers: "The tempo must not be reduced! ... To slacken the tempo would mean falling behind. And those who fall behind get beaten. But we do not want to be beaten. No, we refuse to be beaten." To be beaten would mean the defeat of the inevitable march of history.

To avoid defeat and achieve rapid industrialization, Stalin had to eradicate his enemies. He had, most of all, to crush the kulaks, who the party claimed were withholding food from the cities and thwarting his industrialization program. After Stalin ordered the collectivization of agriculture in 1928–29, he forced fifteen million people into collective farms; those who protested were arrested, shipped off to labor camps, or killed. Then he demanded even larger grain deliveries to the state. When famine erupted in 1932–34, he cared not a whit. Millions perished from starvation. He demanded silence. Merely to speak of the famine could mean death.

With his second wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, Stalin was callous and domineering. Depressed, jealous, and suffering from migraine headaches, she committed suicide in 1932. Stalin, mortified, grieved as few had ever seen him grieve. "I can't go on living like this," he lamented. He threatened to resign, and ruminated about killing himself. But he lived and ruled. In fact, he grew more distant, more suspicious, and more paranoid. Ice, writes the historian Robert Service, "entered his soul."

Between 1932 and 1938 Stalin extinguished every trace of opposition within the Politburo, the Kremlin's ruling body, although very little existed. His lust for power was absolute. No longer did it suffice to defeat his foes; Stalin now had to have them executed. They might recant; they might admit they were enemies of the revolution, but they had to die. Tortured, they might acknowledge, falsely, that they conspired against Stalin, or the state, or socialism, but they had to die. They might acknowledge that they had schemed with enemies abroad, but they had to die. His old comrades from the revolution — Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin — were shot. His former allies in the Politburo were shot. His military chieftains were shot. Friends and relatives were shot. The executioners were then shot. During 1937 and 1938, Stalin signed 383 lists, directly sending 40,000 human beings to their deaths. He also catalyzed a reign of terror by subordinate cadres everywhere. Overall, almost a million people died in the purges of 1937–38; millions more were sent to camps in Siberia and the Arctic, to the Gulag, where they died from work, starvation, disease, and despair.

Top party officials shared Stalin's fears. They were acutely aware that their policies were failing. Millions of peasants and urban proprietors were angry and confused; millions of others had been killed or died of starvation. "Nobody really understood how the economy was working or should work, not even its new directors." The party elite in Moscow put the blame on regional leaders; regional leaders accused their local enemies; rank-and-file communists wreaked revenge on local leaders they despised. In 1937–38 the result was mass terror and mass murder, some of it carefully orchestrated from above, some of it unleashed from below. But what united the perpetrators was their insecurity, their fear for the safety of the regime, and their concern for their careers, which they had linked to the success of socialism. In their worldview, "the future of humanity depended on socialism. Socialism in turn depended on the survival of the Soviet revolutionary experiment, which depended on keeping the Bolshevik regime united, tightly disciplined, and in control of a society that frequently exhibited hostility to that regime."

Hence, party leaders united around Stalin, the man of steel, who could keep everything in check and preserve the revolution. He, in turn, was certain that his followers needed a tsar, a tsar with a vision of the future that transcended the petty everyday needs of humankind. Even his victims who knew him best did not contest his right to crush the foes of revolution. Facing death, Bukharin wrote a letter to his old comrade, Koba, pleading for his life but also acknowledging, with evident sincerity, that he "knew all too well that great plans, great ideas, and great interests take precedence over everything, and I know that it would be petty for me to place the question of my own person on a par with the universal-historical tasks, resting, first and foremost, on your shoulders."


Excerpted from For the Soul of Mankind by Melvyn P. Leffler. Copyright © 2007 Melvyn P. Leffler. Excerpted by permission of Hill and Wang.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

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, which won the Bancroft Prize in 1992. He lives in Charlottesville.
Melvyn P. Leffler, Stettinius Professor of History at the University of Virginia, is the author of A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War, which won the Bancroft Prize, the Farrell Prize, and the Hoover Book Award in 1993.

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