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A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War.

It should now be clear as our century draws to a dose that world communism came nearer than anything else to expressing the revolutionary impulse for our era which the French Revolution expressed for the nineteenth century. It was its vision of an alternative order and its declaration of war on the traditional pillars of our own social order - property, religion, and morality - which served to make the Soviet Union the home of an implacable, adversary culture. Always appearing new and dangerous, even as it grew more corrupt and impoverished, its political culture has always offended Americans. Although its power was more potential than real before 1941, it emerged as a superpower in 1945. It was already clear at the war's end that diplomacy was global in its reach, that the United States was the world's colossus, and that the great colonial empires were in an advanced state of disintegration with national liberation movements proliferating everywhere. It was these and other developments of 1946 and 1947 which, according to Melvyn P. Leffler, determined the course of world history for the rest of the twentieth century.

Twelve years in the making, this book exploits the recent revolution in American documentation and, at the same time, synthesizes the last thirty years of secondary scholarship on the subject. It has helped the author to produce a monumental work rich in information and insights, but also a book much longer than it needed to be and one replete with repetitions. And because the windfall in documentation is not matched on the Russian side, the book, like so many others in this field, is lop-sided in its presentation and very narrow in its focus.

In looking at the crucible of the Cold War Leffler considers only the perceptions of a narrow Washington elite which in the years 1945 to 1950 produced an American grand strategy for the Truman administration. Their policy towards the Soviet Union, according to Leffler, was shaped by fear and power: fear about the future of Germany and Japan, fear about revolutionary upheaval in the Third World, fear about European devastation, and fear that the Soviet Union would exploit these chaotic conditions and ultimately threaten American security itself; and power in the knowledge that with the atomic monopoly and with a tremendous economic lead American preponderance could and should prevent this from happening, at least in the short run. For American planners postwar problems only loomed large because "they could be exploited by a nefarious state bent on extinguishing freedom and gaining hegemony." In other words, men like Dean Acheson, George Kennan, and Clark Clifford made geostrategic considerations and policies on the basis of what the Soviet Union might do in the postwar world and not on the record of what they actually did. So what or who caused the Cold War? Leffler's answer here is a bit flaccid; on one hand, he argues that "neither the Americans nor the Soviets sought to harm the other in 1945. But each side in pursuit of its security interests took steps that aroused the others's [sic] apprehensions." Neither side, in what is the classic security dilemma, could comprehend the fears of the other. He might have left it at that but in the next breath he seems to tilt things towards one side by blaming the United States for "simplifying the threat, depicting the world in bipolar terms and naming the Soviet Union as an ideological enemy." It was the American belief in the inevitability of the struggle with the Soviet Union which really precipitated the Cold War.

My quarrel with this is that Leffler's relentless and often repetitious argument is made to the exclusion of almost everything else. When he does seek to balance his account and look at Soviet motivations and designs he resorts to the revisionist dicta and canards of the last generation; that is, he tends to view Soviet behaviour as primarily defensive and conservative. There was, he insists, no Soviet master plan for the domination of Eurasia (only an American obsession that there might be one), not even a calculated bid for European domination. If there mere Soviet probes and communist coups on that country's borders and beyond, it had less to do with that country's drive to alter the correlation of forces in its favour, than they mere preventive measures designed to frustrate the calculations of the hostile west. Leffler always allows the Soviets the most elastic definition of their security. Throughout this book the United States is judged by its own notions of ethical conduct and is measured by its achievements and failures. By the same token, the Soviet Union is always discussed dialectically and measured by its promises. It is this sort of distinction which gives Leffler's book that polemical look. Nowhere is this more important than in his dismissal of the more conventional action-reaction model of Cold War history ("neither nation was simply reacting to the actions of the other.") Rather, he says, quite unoriginally, they were responding to the chaos and power vacuums left in the wake of the war. This is a lesser theme in the book but one that allows him to assign the lion's share of responsibility for the Cold War to the United States. He accomplishes this by de-emphasizing and even trivializing the importance of Cold War crises in the 1940s. "Defining moments" in history are not for Leffler and so he says little of importance about the pressures on Turkey, the Iranian crisis, the Greek Civil War, the Czech crisis, and the Berlin Blockade. He discusses them but never really makes them into a coherent whole to establish context for policy-makers. He also pushes ideology to the periphery as he does domestic politics, and he manages to dismiss diplomatic milestones, like the Long Telegram, the Clifford Report, and the Iron Curtain Speech as so much misguided hyperbole. Hyperbole perhaps, but the fears were real and based on tangible and not just probable threats.

Lacking a particularly original thesis, A Preponderance of Power will not generate much controversy. Nevertheless, it is a prodigious and well-documented synthesis which provides students of Cold War history with the most detailed record me now have of what Washington policy-makers did in the 1940s, and how they came to do it. The book includes an excellent bibliography.
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Author:Grogin, R.C.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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