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The Fifty-Year Wound: How America's Cold War Victory Shapes Our World

The Fifty-Year Wound: How America's Cold War Victory Shapes Our World

by Derek Leebaert

The Fifty-Year Wound is the first cohesively integrated history of the Cold War, one replete with important lessons for today. Drawing upon literature, strategy, biography, and economics — plus an inside perspective from the intelligence community — Derek Leebaert explores what Americans sacrificed at the same time that they achieved the longest


The Fifty-Year Wound is the first cohesively integrated history of the Cold War, one replete with important lessons for today. Drawing upon literature, strategy, biography, and economics — plus an inside perspective from the intelligence community — Derek Leebaert explores what Americans sacrificed at the same time that they achieved the longest great-power peace since Rome fell. Why did they commit so much in wealth and opportunity with so little sustained complaint? Why did the conflict drag on for decades? What did the Cold War do to the country, and how? What was lost while victory was gained? Leebaert has uncovered an astonishing array of never-published documents and information, including major revelations about American covert operations and Soviet military activities. He has found, in the shadows of one of this century's great, epic stories, the sort of details and explanations that hit with the force of a lightning bolt and will change forever the way we think about our past.

Editorial Reviews

America won the Cold War, right? But at what cost? And how does that victory prepare us for what lies ahead? Derek Leebaert looks at the decades-long struggle and shows that some of the issues involved have still not been addressed. Leebaert, a Georgetown University professor and U.S. government consultant, covers the entire timeline of the Cold War and its aftermath.
Publishers Weekly
Leebaert, a founding editor of the journal International Security and lecturer in government at Georgetown, recalls how Paul Nitze, a long-time Cold Warrior, said at the turn of the 21st century that "we did a goddamn good job" with the Cold War. Leebaert answers that assessment in his sure-to-be-controversial and riveting book, in which heretofore unpublished documents and new analyses combine to create a lucid, balanced and in-depth study of the issue. "Well," Leebaert writes, "yes and no: yes if the overriding emphasis is that civilization survived more or less intact, that the Soviet Union collapsed peacefully, and that most of the world was liberalized along the way; no if we dwell on the indirection, inexcusable ignorance, political intrusions, personal opportunism, and crimes underlying this ultimate victory." What, in other words, did we lose in order to win? After relatively few pages outlining the postwar crises and confrontations up to 1950 and the Korean War, Leebaert begins what becomes a brilliant and highly quotable examination of what went right and what went wrong mostly wrong, he argues as the U.S. went from containment of a virulent and ominous U.S.S.R. to abetting its collapse. According to Leebaert, the often astonishing history of our recent past has numerous villains the CIA, the Pentagon, "systems analysis" technicians, a greedy "scientific and technological elite" and what Eisenhower called the "military-industrial-congressional complex." But Ike himself is one of Leebaert's heroes, as are Truman, Marshall and Reagan (he credits the latter with accelerating the end of the Cold War). Others, such as Kennedy and Nixon, get rough treatment (for them, the presidency was "a means for displaying planetary ambitions"), as do political gurus such as Kennan and Kissinger. America had to face down the Soviets almost alone, hindered, Leebaert asserts, by the rapaciousness of the OPEC nations and the self-interest of not only the rebuilding Japan, but of France and Britain as well. He considers the Korean War to have been "the detonator that blew U.S. power around the world" and that ended any chance of post-WWII American isolationism; the Chernobyl disaster,he contends, symbolized the Soviet empire's long slide into ineptitude and paralysis. His claim, however, that the greatest Cold War nuclear crisis came not from missiles in Cuba during the Kennedy years, but from the paranoid and disintegrating Andropov in 1983, will raise some eyebrows. Much happened in the 50 years that was "harmful to American life," Leebaert writes, and many of those costs emerge as frighteningly high in this analysis. 16 pages of photos not seen by PW. (On sale Mar. 6) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
We won the Cold War, but at what cost? Going beyond the traditional diplomatic history of scholars like John Lewis Gaddis (We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History, Oxford Univ., 1998. rev. ed.) and recalling H.W. Brands's The Devil We Knew: Americans and the Cold War (Oxford Univ., 1994. reprint), Leebaert, who teaches government at Georgetown University and has written previously on Soviet military strategy, has used both primary and secondary sources to craft a new synthesis of America's 50-year dance with the Soviet Union. He shows how after World War II American leadership became fixated on maintaining a strong military capacity while struggling to create sustained growth at home. He considers what America would have been like if those trillions of dollars spent on the Cold War as well as the attention of the best minds of two generations had been directed toward improving the social and cultural condition of the American people. In the most important work on the Cold War to come out in years, Leebaert makes us contemplate what we lost while winning the Cold War. Highly recommended for all collections. Ed Goedeken, Iowa State Univ. Lib., Ames Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A sprawling, highly readable history that judges America's long struggle to defeat Communism a necessary battle badly fought from start to finish. Did we do "a goddamn good job," as nuclear strategist Paul Nitze once remarked? Yes and no, concludes Leebaert (Government/Georgetown Univ.): "yes if the overriding emphasis is that civilization survived more or less intact, that the Soviet Union collapsed peacefully, and that most of the world was liberalized along the way; no if we dwell on the indirection, inexcusable ignorance, political intrusions, personal opportunism, and crimes underlying this ultimate victory." The author provides an impressive array of data to back up his assertion that the Cold War, fought with typical American haphazardness and reluctance, bled us dry, preventing us from building a New Jerusalem (or a decent health-care system) by diverting astonishing quantities of dollars into such things as developing intercontinental missiles and provisioning far-flung armies. There was good reason to confront the Communists, Leebaert allows: had the US not intervened in Korea in 1950, for instance, Josef Stalin "most likely would have been emboldened to crack down on Yugoslavia, the only independent Communist state in Europe." But America's conduct of the Cold War involved considerable betrayals (such as the abandonment of the Hungarian freedom fighters in 1956), unhappy alliances with tinhorn dictators around the world, stupid and foreseeable misadventures in places such as Vietnam, huge lies that overestimated the Soviet arsenal and the need to build up American arms to close the gap, and inexcusable gaffes in collecting and analyzing intelligence (Leebaert writes of theCIA, "no other single government body has blundered so often in so many ways integral to its designated purpose"). The author closes with a timely consideration of how such sorry artifacts of the Cold War threaten to reemerge in the new war against terrorism, led by some of the same players with much the same mindset. Fascinating through and through, if open to debate.

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Little, Brown and Company
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Read an Excerpt

The Fifty-Year Wound

By Derek Leebaert '

Little, Brown

Copyright © 2002 Derek Leebaert
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-316-51847-6

Chapter One

The interregnum of the next decades will be a time of distress and of gnashing of teeth. We shall live in the hollow of the historical wave. -Arthur Koestler, 1944

The war that opened with an order to British officers to sharpen their swords, and that climaxed as proudly modern Germany blitzed into Russia with more horses than trucks, ended in nuclear ash. The world was being transformed by factories that could assemble aircraft faster than wheelbarrows had been made forty years before. Jets, missiles, atomic bombs, and computers were propelled into sustained development by the demands of war. What was not anticipated was how much faster everything was going to change.

This chapter is a snapshot of the way Americans saw themselves in the world of 1945. It emphasizes the utter lack of precedent that soon begot ad hoc, sporadic, reactive, expensive, and open-ended decisions; the reality of Stalinist Russia; and a nation coming simultaneously to believe in a sunny future and a limitless danger.

The Cold War did not metastasize overnight sometime during 1946 or 1947. It was brought about by the ghosts of the Great War of 1914 to 1918, and it took thirty years to attain full, deadly life. The First World War had made the second one almost inescapable: it ensured that politics and war technology, rather than trade and general civilized habits, would frame international relations. Itbecame ever more difficult to achieve a just and enduring world system. Once the precedent of totalitarianism taking over one great country was set, the next likely step was for it to be countered by its mirror image in a rival tyranny. Lenin became Hitler's alibi. Communism enabled Hitler to fulminate about ultimate danger and to posture as the savior of Germany. The Cold War and all its sacrifices would have been extremely unlikely without World War I's destruction of the old European order. Our children will keep hearing the guns of August even as they embrace the wonders ahead.

Within the lifetimes of many people still living today, the twentieth century appeared destined to be the century of collectivism and, if civilization did not take care, of totalitarianism. The 1930s "waves of the future" - Russian Communism, Italian Fascism, and German National Socialism - seemed only a beginning. Fascist and semifascist regimes arose from Spain to Eastern Europe. In Asia, Japan's ambition was imbued with its own themes of divine preeminence and race mastery. There and in Africa, European elites could still be confident that they controlled most of the world's destinies, and Washington was happy to let them do so, even in the Middle East. On its island continent, America remained remote.

The country had some experience with quarrels over the size and nature of its armed forces. In the 1920s, for instance, General Billy Mitchell had warned about the harm of placing U.S. defense in the hands of the "merchants" - the "people with something to sell" (apparently not weapons). If Americans didn't look out, he insisted, its soldiers and sailors "might as well stop work." In this view, George F. Babbitt would sacrifice sound preparation for country club dues. All sorts of ironies were being set in place.

During the interwar years, Japan, the only exclusively Pacific power of the early twentieth century, was increasingly seen as America's most likely opponent. However, there was puzzlement over the more daunting British Empire. Was it a bosom partner or a fearsome rival? In deadly serious strategic planning right into the 1930s, the sharpest minds on the U.S. general staff could think of no greater danger than that of six million British troops rolling down from Canada to destroy the competitive challenge from the Midwest, as Japan locked the arms of American power in Asia.

Come the end of 1940, Britain was barely holding out against Hitler, while America was still at peace. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, elected president in 1932, made plans to lend or lease supplies to Britain, backed by a petition from 170 Americans that had been drafted by Lewis Douglas, a copper millionaire from Douglas, Arizona, and president of Mutual of New York Life Insurance. Douglas also wrote a characteristically intense letter to his friend James Conant, president of Harvard. "Our endeavor and England's endeavor," he mused, "should be aimed at the resuscitation of a world order in which ... the United States must become the dominant power." He saw little hope in his lifetime if that remained undone. The lofty reply from Massachusetts Hall read, "I believe the only satisfactory solution for the country is for the majority of the thinking people to become convinced that we must be a world power, and the price of being a world power is willingness and capacity to fight when necessary." This correspondence was one grace note in the grand opera of geopolitics, played in the better drawing rooms on the coast of the Northeast. It presumed both that the British Empire was expected to serve as a buffer realm and that influential people of all sorts were anticipating American predominance, whatever that might gain for the United States in a strange new world.

Lewis Douglas's brother-in-law, John J. McCloy, became assistant secretary of war as the United States approached full involvement. Harper's magazine would eventually describe him as "the most influential private citizen in America." McCloy unabashedly injected into this discussion his belief that "I would take a chance on this country using its strength tyrannously." He anticipated some sort of "Pax Americana." An unimaginative man with no sense of irony, he added that "in the course of it the world will become more receptive to the Bill of Rights."

There was agreement among men such as Lewis, McCloy, Conant, publisher Henry Luce, and their friends that the United States was destined to replace the British Empire as the world's foremost economic and military force. Since Britain did not remotely have such a role even at the start of World War II, this shows how far behind the times eminent men can be. Such datedness set the tone for half a century.

Only a few months before the United States entered the war, Luce, the unrivaled media titan of his day, declared that this was to be the "American Century." American or not, the rest of the twentieth century would be shaped by the Cold War, one of whose poles was America. However, such ambitions - whether voiced by Wall Streeters, by the president of Harvard, or by other enthusiasts who expected to direct in some way a Pax Americana - were not shared in Minnesota, Oregon, and Pennsylvania. There was no consensus in 1940, at the war's end in 1945, or as the rest of that bloody decade unfolded, that "America would turn outward and assume global responsibilities," as legend now has it.

The world that these and other grandees hoped to lead - once the approaching cataclysm had passed - was expected to be quieter and safer than the one that arrived. They had no inkling of thermonuclear threats, globe-girdling alliances, insular European allies whom they had thought to be world powers, defense budgets in the hundreds of billions, and, above all, the recurring "savage wars of peace," which Rudyard Kipling at the turn of the century had exhorted Americans to take up. Body bags from places like Chosin and Khe Sanh and a national debt in the trillions were inconceivable. That embodiment of Republican faith and statesmanship, Senator Robert Taft, remarked in 1940 that it was about as unlikely that a German army would invade America as it was that an American army would invade Germany, and yet within five years, GIs from Ohio were crossing the Rhine. For the next decades, the best-informed people would be eating their words about whatever political conjunction or technological achievement they had previously deemed unthinkable.

Army Chief of Staff George Marshall and one of his predecessors, General Douglas MacArthur, military adviser in the Philippines until five months before Pearl Harbor, were the two curiously contrasted American geniuses of World War II. They would have been at least equally appalled had it been prophesied to them as eager young cadets during the late 1890s that in their old age, they would have to come to terms with the power to end the human race. This was not soldiering, which they viewed as an exercise of discipline and sacrifice. Nor did it have anything to do with their studies, such as understanding Clausewitz's writings on the capacity to harness violent nonreason with the would-be stylized workings of state policy. From the beginning of history, strategists at their most desperate had never contemplated mutual destruction.

On November 29, 1941, a picture of the USS Arizona was displayed in the Army-Navy game program, with a caption stating that "no battleship has ever been sunk by air attack." Eight days later, at least 1,177 men went to their deaths on that very ship in one fiery moment. A luncheon meeting of the Cleveland Council on World Affairs listened raptly on Sunday, December 7, to several renowned visitors, such as Count Sforza, Fascist Italy's most eminent political exile, explaining how Japan was too intelligent to do anything but accommodate the United States in the Pacific. As the meeting adjourned, news arrived that the fleet was burning.

That bright Sunday dawn awoke a fear that would endure throughout the Cold War and after: one moment's inattention, and the unparryable blow might fall. The country's leaders were learning to expect anything. Nothing could be certain, nothing secure. At Harvard, nearly everyone had been intensely isolationist. The most prominent exception was politics professor William Yandell Elliott. His colleagues derided him for his sense of emergency and for advising the Roosevelt administration on military affairs. The following day, the faculty gathered in Memorial Hall, dedicated to the university's Civil War dead. They would hear Roosevelt declare war together. As Elliott entered, he was greeted with rapturous applause. Many beliefs would be changing fast: the ablest people had no idea of what was and was not possible, of what would happen next.

Before America entered the war, the public had few opinions about either how the world worked or what their country might need from it. The America that fought the war was still homespun and often ill informed, its citizens and even leaders not knowing much about the rest of the globe. GIs going to Europe were incredulous that the Queen Elizabeth was not American; what other nation could build on such a scale? After two years of fighting, nearly a third of the country did not know that the Philippines had fallen, and twice that many had never heard of the Atlantic Charter. Somewhat more than half thought that the United States had been a member of the League of Nations. Public ignorance might have been the same or worse in France or Italy, but those countries were not about to change history.

Winston Churchill chose the name United Nations from a line by Byron. Other international arrangements also born during the war would become significant to restoring international prosperity. The Bretton Woods monetary conference of July 1944, attended by representatives of forty nations, pegged gold to the dollar at $35 an ounce, with the various national currencies connecting to the dollar like spokes to the hub of a wheel. The American economy was thereby recognized as the centerpiece of international exchange. To pay for postwar recovery and to ensure currency stability, corollary agreements reached by the contracting parties at this New Hampshire resort also created the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (the World Bank, which McCloy would head) and the International Monetary Fund: "This Fund that you call a Bank," noted the sardonic economist and negotiator John Maynard Keynes, "and this Bank you call a Fund." Imprecision was of little significance in the urgent present.

Breathtaking inventions were coming into being toward war's end, as the gates to progress seemed to fly open for a generation that was encountering "thinking machines," jets, penicillin, and atomic energy. The industrial revolution of rail, steel, telegraph, and turbine was being leapfrogged by that of radio and automobile. Bizarre new materials were undermining the certainties of statesmen - plutonium, for instance, which its discoverer would say "is so unusual as to approach the unbelievable." Nearly $2 billion of that era's money was going into the Manhattan Project for building the atomic bomb - in present-day terms (reckoning not only inflation but a sixfold increase in the size of gross domestic product) about $86 billion. And it was done in secret.

As victory approached, America's economy was booming. It nearly doubled in the war years, with the country having been pulled out of the Depression by war far more than by Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Many Americans nonetheless feared that this was a mere digression. Always a people inclined to overvalue recent experience, they recalled that war booms had habitually been followed by peace busts. Whether consumer demand, as well as unrealized new technologies pent up for a decade or more, could now keep the ball rolling was anyone's guess. Technologically, America was optimistic; economically, it was hypochondriac.

Other world leaders, whether in London or Moscow, had little faith in America's financial stability. Men of sixty could remember a long chain of U.S. excesses: the economic crisis of 1893; the alarms of inflation as manically urged by presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan and his "cross of gold"; the roller coaster of the 1920s, when U.S. tariff walls made it impossible to settle European debts. A history of fevered boom and bust in international markets can be charted at least as far back as Charles Dickens's Ebenezer Scrooge, who fears that the riches the Ghost has shown him are mere "United States securities." Perhaps America's moment would be a fleeting one.

In 1945, Lenin's arrival at the Finland Station to take over the Russian Revolution was about as recent as the end of the Vietnam War is today. The organizers of victory during that bewildering autumn easily remembered that a handful of Marxist dogmatists had just hammered a large part of the world into strange new shapes. Now city-evaporating weapons arrived seemingly out of nowhere. Who could tell what was next? Einstein himself had come late to the belief that nuclear fission was possible.


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