Carolyn Eisenberg | TruthDig | Sep 19, 2008
Until Russian troops rolled into Georgia in August, the Cold War was beginning to recede in memory, with an oddly sentimental glow. Here was a clear-cut American victory, in which not a single shot had been fired, at least not between the main antagonists. Considering the apocalyptic potential of the 40-year rivalry, the architects of U.S. policy appeared a wee bit wiser than they had looked during the gloomy days of Vietnam. And by comparison to the floundering “war on terror” and the breathtaking incompetence and ignorance of the Bush administration, the predecessors look like wizards.
Indeed, it has become a commonplace for Bush critics to invoke the golden era, when gifted statesmen like Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy, combining “toughness” with skilled diplomacy, kept Americans safe and inspired the world with our nation’s ideals. Throughout his political campaign, Barack Obama has gone out of his way to genuflect to the old “cold warriors” and to imply a return to their sophisticated ways.
And yet for some of us crotchety folks over the age of 50, those old Cold War policies and leaders do not evoke the same positive “buzz.” And there is more than a faint suspicion that the calamities of the present have some roots in that history.
What was the Cold War about? And what explains its persistence? With the declassification of American records and the opening of archives in many nations, including Russia, historians have never been in a better position to answer these questions. And yet the field itself has withered in recent years, with a widening gulf between the monographic studies in the academy and the knowledge of a literate public. Moreover, as left historians have retreated from any subject focused on powerful white men, the field of Cold War history has been largely left to the traditionalists.
Against this backdrop, 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. Continue reading ‘Does the Cold War Have Lessons for Today?’