Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Lost Peace”

The Lost PeaceThe Lost Peace: Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope, 1945-1953. By Robert Dallek. New York: Harper: 2011.

Robert Dallek has emerged in the last decade as one of the most respected and reflective historians of the United States researching the twentieth century, especially in the context of American foreign policy, his chosen area of emphasis. And he has with The Lost Peace: Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope, 1945-1953 entered the lofty sphere of a handful of historians such as David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin whose names will sell the book. Dallek’s fame, however, does not mitigate the high quality seen in this particular study of the origins of the Cold War. This book is a thoughtful, well-researched and reasoned, and accessibly-written account of a critical period in the history of both the world and the United States.

Dallek’s analysis rests on the personalities of the key leaders of the period, especially Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, and Stalin. While all wanted peace at the end of World War II, they all demanded it on their own terms and during the period Dallek covers a careening set of assumptions, priorities, and even paranoias drove world leaders into a situation that resulted in a forty year Cold War that brought humanity to the brink of destruction on more than one occasion. These range from Soviet efforts to create buffer states in Eastern Europe to American insistence on the establishment of the state of Israel in Palestine to China and the Mao Zedong revolution to India’s independence to France’s demand that it retain its empire in Indochina to direct confrontation in Korea.

With the distance of nearly two decades since the end of the Cold War, Dallek presents an episodic and insightful analysis of its origins. In every instance, both sides misread the intentions of others, drew poor lessons from the recent past, and slouched toward confrontation without intending it. While Dallek’s analysis is less pointed and more nuanced than some other scholars working on this field, he points to many instances on all sides stumbling in their interactions. In that environment mistrust and fear dominated. Stalin sought a buffer to protect the Soviet Union and took control of much of Eastern Europe to accomplish this end. This looked like conquest to Western leaders and their response exacerbated Stalin’s strikingly paranoid tendencies, prompting his overreaction, prompting further Western responses, etc., etc.

As Dallek expresses it, the origins of the Cold War looks a bit like the historiography of American Civil War that emphasized that it was a “needless war,” a “repressible conflict,” and the result of folly by a “blundering generation” of leaders. Misjudgments and sometimes inexplicably unwise actions relating to nuclear arms created and extended this Cold War. One leaves this book asking the question, why could such a smart and accomplished group of leaders bungle their way into the dangerous situation suffered by the world during the Cold War?

Dallek seemingly shakes his head at this turn of events, questioning the wisdom of those who reemphasized traditional power politics and mistrust of others instead of embracing internationalism and the common good. That is not to say that Dallek believes these heads of state were dull-witted and lacking in wisdom, but the combination of personalities, perspectives, and circumstances nudged them in the direction of confrontation rather than collaboration. They seemingly were unable to fight that tide in any meaningful way.

This is a truly engaging work of history written by both a master of the subject and a thoughtful, erudite communicator. The Lost Peace: Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope, 1945-1953 is a joy to read, and a book that will affect how everyone thinks about this era.

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