Tuesday, November 20, 2012

What We're Reading: The Cold War

Six Months in 1945: From World War to Cold War by Michael Dobbs.

The post-World War ll international tensions that endured from 1945 to 1989, commonly known as the Cold War, framed the experience of the outside world for an entire generation of Americans.These underlying political and ideological conflicts not only broke out in armed conflict in localized wars in Korea and Vietnam, but were manifested in international stand-offs that threatened to develop into a third World War in events such as the blockade of Berlin and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Cold War defined for a generation a sense of what the other, the world outside our country, was like. It was a hostile world that seemed to constantly search out our vulnerabilities and frustrate our messianic idealism. We often deluded ourselves, believing that we could build liberal democracies at will that would accept our values and champion them against a totalitarian system we rightly sensed would impoverish and enslave so many. It is a legacy we yet live with as we look out at the world, as we try to decide where we can make a difference and where we cannot, as we try to evaluate where our national security interests are engaged and where our hopes for the freedom of others might be realized.

Six Months in 1945 by Michael Dobbs is the last book in a trilogy the author has written about the Cold War. His first book, Down with Big Brother: The Fall of the Soviet Empire, explored the events surrounding the liberation of Eastern Europe in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union. In One Minute to Midnight, he gave a fresh account of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He has concluded with this book, which explores the origins of the Cold War. Dobbs's technique in all of these books has been to focus on a short period of time, explore it thoroughly for the reader, and explain how the circumscribed set of events display representative issues and themes germane to the entire period. It is an intelligent choice that makes a subject that would otherwise be too vast and diffuse both manageable and comprehensible to the general reader.

This volume on the origins of the Cold War explores the subject with which the "Baby Boom" generation is probably least familiar, since the events occurred before they were born or when they were very young. Unlike One Minute to Midnight, the more knowledgeable reader will not find here a great deal of new material or original research, but this is quite a balanced and comprehensive synthesis of the major formative events that occurred internationally between February and August of 1945. The original material here consists largely of the detailed settings that enhance the narrative, the atmospheric and physical details that Dobbs is able to provide because he has personally visited Yalta and Babelsberg, the small village that hosted the major international delegations to the conference at Potsdam.

The major accomplishment of Dobbs's account is his skill in distinguishing the origins of the differences between the Soviets and their erstwhile American and British allies, explaining where they were cultural, where related to what were perceived as individual national security, economic, and territorial needs, and where they were more broadly ideological. In addition to his succinct overviews of the issues addressed at the Yalta and Potsdam conferences, some of the interesting highlights of his narrative include a running account of the espionage involved in securing German nuclear expertise and uranium reserves in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Berlin, including locating German nuclear scientists like Werner Heisenberg. The American nuclear program and the way its developing success impacted diplomatic strategy during these months is a major theme in Dobbs's account. The origins of the bifurcation of Germany are explored in the battle over massive population displacements and war reparations. We get representative examples of strategies the Soviets employed to secure their dominance over the countries of Eastern Europe. We also get insights into the personalities of Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, and Truman, and the particular character of their interactions. Dobbs is no apologist for Soviet foreign policy objectives, but he makes us understand their foundation in Russian history and recent experience. Above all, we get an understanding of Stalin’s point of view, his argumentative style, and his skill as a negotiator--an image that for the diplomatic moment tended to deflect from what was known about his ruthlessness and cruelty. Perhaps in a way that says most about the fundamental differences between democracies and totalitarian states, Dobbs makes note of Stalin’s derision of the concerns that Roosevelt, Churchill and Truman expressed to him about how certain compromises would be viewed by popular opinion in America and Britain. Stalin dismissed such concerns as nothing but a negotiating ploy, and could not understand how public opinion could be a factor in deciding a country’s foreign policy positions. He was astonished when, during the Potsdam conference, Churchill’s Tory party was turned out of office. To a totalitarian leader this was incomprehensible, a sign of both political mismanagement and weakness. Perhaps nothing spoke more clearly of the great divide and the long road ahead. And the reader cannot help but feel for Harry Truman. Dobbs makes clear that Truman ascended to the presidency completely in the dark about everything of major international importance. That Roosevelt left him so, knowing well his own precarious health, must be accounted a great failure in leadership.

There are some memorable quotes in this book. Favorites include Truman’s in a letter to his wife from Potsdam, when he says about Stalin, “He seems to like it best when I hit him with a hammer.” Another is the quotation from Lord Balford expressing his concern that the history of homo sapiens could end up being “a brief and unpleasant episode in the history of one of the minor planets.”

An understanding of the Cold War is important to comprehending how we view the world today, especially our international role in it. Six Months in 1945 recounts the major experience that still continues to influence the way we understand that role and the choices we make.

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