Shattered Peace

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1853

Analysis of the causes of the Cold War has been a favorite topic of historians for more than a decade. Each successive study attempts to delve deeper into the original sources in an effort to achieve the definitive explanation of this complex phenomenon. Daniel Yergin has probed more deeply and more widely into the American sources than any of his predecessors, and has written his account with skill and grace.

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Cold War historians can generally be divided into orthodox or revisionist schools depending on the degree to which they assign the responsibility for the breakdown of wartime unity to the Soviet Union or the United States. Those historians who experienced the early years of the Cold War rarely questioned the seemingly obvious conclusion that the tensions resulted from Stalin’s effort to expand the Communist world. Later historians, conditioned by the Vietnam War, were much more likely to suspect the actions and motivations of the United States. As a result, the orthodox and revisionist historians typically belong to separate generations. In this sense, the thirty-year-old Yergin is very much a product of his times. Writing in the mid-1970’s, however, he is much more moderate in his assessment of blame than were the strident accounts written at the height of the Vietnamese adventure.

Revisionist historians usually follow one of two lines of analysis in explaining American hostility toward the Soviet Union. One group sees the origin of American motives in capitalism, the Depression, and the Open Door. The conflict with the Soviets arose when the United States sought economic advantages in Eastern Europe—an area which the Russians considered their sphere of influence, and one vital to their security.

The other school of revisionists seeks to demonstrate that American aggressive actions began with the death of Roosevelt and the accession of the Redbaiting, inexperienced Harry Truman. There is little doubt that Yergin’s interpretation falls into this category. Roosevelt is depicted as the wise, experienced statesman pursuing a complex dual foreign policy of realism when dealing with the great powers while pretending a devotion to Wilsonian principles for domestic consumption. From this perspective Roosevelt’s major blunder in foreign policy was his failure to train a successor. Instead, he met only two times with his Vice President, and these conferences were not devoted to foreign policy problems. In part this lack of intimacy was due to time constraints, since Roosevelt spent only a third of the eighty-two days of his fourth term in Washington. But given Roosevelt’s personality, it was not surprising that he devoted so little effort to preparing to pass the torch. He probably did not believe that anyone could really replace him, and he was always very protective of his own position of power. There was also the very human reluctance to admit his own mortality.

Yergin very effectively introduces a dramatic tension into his story by organizing his analysis around two conflicting ideologies which he labels the Yalta and Riga axioms. While history is much too complex to fall neatly into two such well-defined categories, this device does provide a useful framework which helps the reader to keep the trees distinct from the forest. The only danger is that one must constantly be on guard not to assume that these constructs are reality rather than merely a mechanism for historical interpretation.

The Riga axioms came first and derived their name from the capital of Latvia, which served as a State Department observation post for Russian affairs during the period between the Bolshevik Revolution and the recognition of Stalin’s government by the United States in 1933. The Russian section of the American mission in this medieval city was established during the 1920’s as the United States center for research on the Soviet Union. On this site the Department’s Russian experts were trained and their fundamental attitudes formed and nurtured. The section was unique among our diplomatic posts. It believed itself the equal of any of the world’s leading academic research institutions, especially in economic matters. Within its walls the men who shaped the Department’s postwar Soviet policy went through a study program in Russian language, culture, and history. The first contact many had with Russians was with anti-Communist, highly cultured émigrés from the Soviet Union who created in the city an ambience of the Czarist past. In this environment, the diplomats developed an attitude of fascination and distaste for the Bolsheviks which marked their views ever after.

Because of this common experience, Yergin believes these men grew into a cohesive group with a powerful sense of identity. Before World War II they strongly opposed United States recognition of the Soviet government even though their professional careers would always be limited by the absence of diplomatic relations between the two countries; they would never be able to observe at firsthand the land to which they had dedicated their careers. Although Roosevelt had, for a variety of reasons, decided to establish relations with the Soviets, this group continued to regard the Bolshevik government as unfit to associate with the United States. Among those who championed the Riga views were George F. Kennan, Charles Bohlen, Loy Henderson, and Elbridge Durbow. Their views were always influential in the development of American policy, and eventually they triumphed in the postwar years.

“The Yalta axioms” is Yergin’s code word for Roosevelt’s grand design for postwar great power relationships and his tactics for achieving them. While a member of Wilson’s subcabinet he had become a loyal supporter of his chief’s plan for collective security through the League of Nations. As the Democratic party’s vice-presidential nominee in 1920 he had campaigned vigorously for the platform plank advocating United States membership in the League. During the 1930’s, Roosevelt and most of his fellow citizens grew increasingly disenchanted with the League as a means to preserve peace. As World War II approached, his views on international relations had become closer to those of his cousin Theodore than to those of Wilson. He thought the time had come to be more “realistic.” To him, this meant using the more traditional tactics of pre-Wilsonian diplomacy and spheres of influence.

Roosevelt was not forthright in expressing his views publicly on postwar arrangements for two reasons. His Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, was a devoted advocate of collective security and American membership in a new international organization. He served as a Wilsonian conscience to the President and attempted to block Roosevelt’s power politics maneuvers when he discovered them. Second, Hull and other internationalists carried on an active and skillful political and propaganda effort to convince the American people and their leaders that United States membership in the League would have prevented World War II. Their purpose was to ensure popular support for the new United Nations organization. Roosevelt, ever wary to avoid Wilson’s mistakes, and finding little popular support for his ideas, pretended to be a strong supporter of collective security. When he returned from Yalta, he gave a speech condemning power blocs and spheres of influence. This was immediately after many felt he had conceded Eastern Europe as a Soviet sphere and negotiated away Chinese interests without consulting them.

It is clear that Yergin believes that if Roosevelt had lived, his skill as a manipulator might have permitted him to pursue simultaneously a foreign foreign policy of realism and a domestic foreign policy of idealism and in this way manage to avoid the extremes of the Cold War. Unfortunately, only Roosevelt and a few of his intimates knew the game he was playing. Certainly Truman did not know, and if the State Department was aware it did not sympathize with Roosevelt’s views. The “grand design” had no institutional base and thus perished with the designer.

Truman was an orthodox Wilsonian who was inclined to accept at face value the rhetoric of Roosevelt’s domestic foreign policy. Because of his inexperience and lack of self-confidence, he was extraordinarily susceptible to the influence of his advisers. Yergin identifies four men as key sources of Truman’s hard-line attitude toward the Soviets. They were Admiral Leahy who stayed on as Chief of Staff to the President; Averell Harriman, the wartime Ambassador to Russia; Edward Stettinius, the incumbent Secretary of State; and Winston Churchill. All had thought Roosevelt too conciliatory toward the Soviets and had sought to exploit the change in leadership to alter American policy. As time went on, Truman relied more and more on the State Department for policy recommendations. There the Riga influence was quite strong, particularly after George Marshall became Secretary. Soon containment of the Soviets became the consensus among the American diplomatic elite. Containment led to confrontation, to war scares, to escalating military budgets and the “National Security State.”

Yergin’s is the most exhaustively researched Cold War history yet produced. He has seemingly searched every available American source on the subject and some of the British archives. These sources have been supplemented by more than twenty interviews with individuals who had participated in the events described, and by a broad use of oral history collections. Yet the very depth of Yergin’s research makes the book seem rather unbalanced. Since Soviet primary material is generally not available to historians, the abundance and richness of detail about American perceptions, attitudes, and decisions result in a onesided account of the developing hostility and conflict. Though Yergin occasionally speculates about Soviet motives and goals, he can be much more precise about American actions.

Generally Yergin pictures Stalin’s government as a conservative power primarily concerned with establishing spheres of influence to secure their frontiers rather than spread Communism. Given this revisionist view of Russian policy, it is inevitable that Yergin’s account assigns a heavy responsibility to the United States policymakers in the origins of the Cold War. While he obviously believes the Riga interpretations of Soviet behavior was inaccurate, the author’s criticisms are always moderate and judicious. He never questions the sincerity of the advisers’ views.

Much of Yergin’s book is not new, but few have told the story so well. The most noteworthy new interpretation he advances concerns the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948. He contends that the Americans had prematurely written that country off as an inevitable Soviet satellite. He contends that the coup resulted from a political maneuver of the non-Communist members of the Czech cabinet who unexpectedly resigned and unknowingly opened the way for the Communists. The fall of the government was interpreted by the United States as a Soviet conspiracy which led to a war scare and was exploited by the Truman administration to pressure Congress into the passage of the Marshall Plan.

Shattered Peace may not be the definitive revisionist history of the Cold War, but it is the best account yet written. It has the dramatic construction and attention to personal detail which hold the reader’s interest. The interpretations are plausible and well documented. The fact that it has been attacked by both the orthodox and the extreme revisionists attests to its moderation and balance. It will not soon be surpassed.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 31

Booklist. LXXIII, July 15, 1977, p. 1690.

Business Week. July 18, 1977, p. 8.

Choice. XIV, October, 1977, p. 110.

Christian Science Monitor. LXIX, August 31, 1977, p. 23.

New Statesman. XCV, January 13, 1978, p. 46.

Newsweek. XC, July 18, 1977, p. 89.

Progressive. XLI, October, 1977, p. 54.

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