For the Soul of Mankind – Review

In Melvin Leffler’s book For the Soul of Mankind: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War, the author identifies five key moments of the Cold War and seeks to understand why American and Soviet leaders were unable to bridge their differences. By focusing on individual leaders, Leffler explores the backgrounds and experiences of these individuals and argues that their choices were “strongly influenced by their ideological mind-sets and historical memories.” (7) This suggests that individual personalities and their experiences were far more important to the ebbs and flows of the Cold War than economic, strategic, and domestic politics; moreover, this line argumentation indicates that emotions, rather than cold rationality, played a much more significant role in the perpetuation of the Cold War. To support his argument, Leffler’s study relies on recently released primary sources material from the Cold War International History Project and the National Security Archive which hold documents concerning the Soviet side of the Cold War. The author also relied on documents from Presidential Libraries, the Library of Congress, and the National Archives. This multi-archival research allows Leffler to present a narrative that includes both the Soviets and American perspectives of the Cold War and investigate how personalities shaped policy.

Leffler’s first case study examines President Harry Truman and Soviet General Secretary Josef Stalin in the immediate period after the Second World War. The author asserts that the Cold War was not inevitable, and instead suggests that Truman’s support for self-determination and open elections conflicted with Stalin’s desire for security, particularly in Eastern Europe; moreover, Stalin perceived American economic aid to Western Europe as capitalist encirclement, thus confirming his Marxist-Lenin ideology. These two leaders who initially planned to work together ultimately started a decades long conflict based on personal experience, ideology, and perception of the international system. The other case studies examined by Leffler include Malenkov and Eisenhower, Khrushchev, Kennedy, and Johnson, and Brezhnev and Carter. In all of these examples, the author shows how individual leaders were unable to put aside ideological differences to pursue common interests. According to the author, the first individual willing to put aside his ideological blinders was Mikhail Gorbachev. In the final chapter examining Gorbachev, Reagan, and Bush, the author asserts that Gorbachev understood that the Soviet Union’s geopolitical competition with United States diverted attention and money from the Soviet Union’s rapidly deteriorating domestic problems. This recognition spurred the Soviet leader to reduce tensions with the United States. Although Gorbachev never renounced communism, he was the first leader willing to put aside ideology in order to reach agreements with his American counterparts.

By focusing on personalities, Leffler’s study depicts how ideology and memory played a significant role in prolonging the Cold war throughout the 20th century. Scholars such as Vladislav Zubok agree with this line of analysis, and in his study A Failed Empire, Zubok asserts that Soviet leaders were motivated by a “messianic ideology.” (Zubok, xxiv) However, while Leffler examines the “lost opportunities” of American and Soviet leaders to transcend ideology, Zubok argues that security and power remained the only interest of Soviet leaders – their ideology never permitted them to seek out opportunities to work with their American counterparts. Moreover, Zubok, in stark contrast to Leffler, critiques Gorbachev’s foreign policy pointing his naiveté, lofty ideals, and inability to negotiate from a position of power. Thus, although these two scholars find ideology as a crucial point of analysis, they fail to find common ground. This perhaps arises from their different perspectives during the Cold War.

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