Armed Truce

In Armed Truce: The Beginnings of the Cold War, 1945-46, Hugh Thomas explores the men, the political forces, and the events which led to the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union after the defeat of the Axis powers, Germany and Japan, in 1945. He focuses on the twelve months between the death of American president Franklin D. Roosevelt and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Iran. This period marked the collapse of cooperation among the Soviet Union, the United States, and Great Britain, whose collaboration against Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler had given hope for postwar harmony. Thomas recounts the end of the war, the Potsdam Conference, the establishment of new governments in liberated Europe, and the organization of the United Nations among the many events, large and small, which shaped the new political order of the globe. Armed Truce is the first volume of a projected series tracing the history of the Cold War.

Thomas is a well-regarded British historian best known for three books about Western democratic nations’ clash with revolutionary ideologies: The Spanish Civil War (1961), Suez (1967), and Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom, 1762-1969 (1971). In addition, he is the author of the controversial A History of the World (1979). His historical work has been highly praised for its literary style and its unorthodox, nonnarrative structure. Thomas is commended as a historian who does voluminous research (Cuba, for example, runs to nearly seventeen hundred pages), though his research has been sometimes faulted for relying on secondary sources in English and for maintaining a European-centered perspective.

Armed Truce possesses the virtues of the previous books but suffers less from their weaknesses. The structure of the book is complex and unusual. It begins with an account of Joseph Stalin’s “election” speech of February 9, 1946, and ends with Winston Churchill’s speech at Fulton, Missouri, twenty-four days later. The 540 pages in between range backward and forward in time to illuminate the causes, significance, and consequences of those two speeches. Thomas’ account is divided into five sections, the subjects of which are Stalin and the Soviet Union; Harry S Truman, his foreign affairs advisers, and the United States; the political situation in liberated lands; the development and deployment of the atomic bomb; and the events of March, 1946. This structure results in some duplication and overlap of analysis which may tire the nonspecialist reader, but it permits Thomas to suggest one of his important themes: The sheer complexity of political events ensured that postwar stability would be more difficult to achieve than wartime victory.

Armed Truce is clearly the product of intensive research. The analysis rests upon a foundation of almost twenty-five hundred footnotes; the majority of citations are to the memoirs, diaries, letters, and official papers of the important participants. The massive annotation is more than simply a sign of energy and diligence. It reflects another theme of the book, which the author explains in the preface: the role of individuals who exercised authority from 1945 to 1946 and who, by possessing the centralized power of modern states, shaped the world for good or evil. Thomas uses these men’s own words to assess intelligence, intuit motivation, and draw conclusions about character.

Thomas’ sources help him avoid one of the complaints lodged against his previous books, reliance upon secondary material. Thomas has clearly read materials long available as well as materials recently opened to public scrutiny. If there is a lack, it is Soviet source materials, though here the fault is clearly not Thomas’. The Soviet Union has never given to its own citizens, much less to foreign scholars, access to diplomatic files or internal documents.

The conclusions that Thomas explicitly draws mark a new stage in the four-decade debate about which nation deserves blame for beginning the Cold War. For the first twenty years, the consensus among Western historians and political analysts was, predictably, that Soviet aggression and expansionism were the culprits. In the mid-1960’s, a revisionist school argued that what seemed Soviet aggression was simply an attempt to protect borders from American bellicosity. The revisionists argued that America’s own imperial ambitions, often veiled as economic development in the Third World, forced the Soviet Union into a hostile posture.

Thomas’ book will give comfort to neither the Cold Warriors of the Right, who blame the Soviet Union, nor the Cold...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

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