For the Soul of Mankind -- event video now available

September 25, 2007 // 4:00pm6:00pm
Event Co-sponsors: 
History and Public Policy Program

Melvyn P. Leffler, Stettinius Professor of American History at the University of Virginia and former Woodrow Wilson Center public policy scholar, discussed his new book, For the Soul of Mankind. For the Soul of Mankind provides a detailed account of the underlying dynamics of the Cold War and attempts to answer two central questions: "Why did the Cold War end?" and "Why did it last as long as it did?" by exploring the internal and external forces that nurtured the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War.

To answer these questions, Leffler draws upon a wide variety of newly available primary source documents from the Soviet side of the Cold War. The evidence garnered from these documents leads Leffler to analyze Cold War history using three key paradigms: the paradox of power and fear, the roles of public opinion and ideology; and the role of human agency in decision-making processes. According to Leffler, For the Soul of Mankind is not a narrative history, but rather an attempt to describe why the Cold War unfolded in the way that it did, drawing upon evidence from both the Communist bloc and the West, and using a wide variety of analytical models.

Leffler told the audience that both Soviet and Western leaders truly believed in the economic and political superiority of their respective systems. The constant clash of competing ideologies, Leffler suggested, literally became a struggle for the soul of mankind. In spite of this struggle, both superpowers often regarded the bi-polar system as counterproductive to the advancement of their states' interests. While cooperation seemed desirable, ideological competition and personal animosities prevented it from taking place.

Leffler's book focuses on four key moments in the Cold War: Initially, neither Stalin nor Truman wanted a bi-polar system. Later, Khrushchev and Eisenhower sought cooperation, but could not achieve it without compromising their goals. Finally, the thaws of the Cuban Missile Crisis and Détente subsided, and eventually led to renewed hostility.

In order to begin answering his two main questions, Leffler identified five main drivers behind the development of the Cold War. The political legacy of the Second World War created a power vacuum, and raised concerns as to who would step in to fill the void. The aftermath of the war gave impetus to decolonization and to a wave of revolutionary nationalism. In that context, ideology and historical memory shaped people's perceptions and led to a dichotomy between fear and opportunity. Leffler asserted that as domestic interest groups and bureaucracies on both sides of the ideological divide limited the options available to their respective leaders, allies and clients were simultaneously exerting pressure on the super-powers at the global-political level.

Finally, personality mattered. The character traits of leaders on both sides impacted the course of foreign and domestic policy in the US and the USSR. Leffler concluded that the Cold War could be summed up as a story of opportunities lost by leaders trapped in ideological cages. On the other hand, Leffler expressed his hope that his book would be read as evidence that leaders can overcome difficult circumstances in order to liberate humankind from the bonds of ideology.

Following Dr. Leffler's presentation, Robert Beisner, professor emeritus at American University, offered comments on the book. Beisner praised Leffler for asking questions that most historians try to avoid. He suggested that Leffler's book raises two important sub-questions: "Why did Reagan and Gorbachev end the Cold War?" and "Why then?" Beisner suggested that For the Soul of Mankind employs the kind of counter-factual analysis that the subject requires. Beisner stated that each of the five chapters in the book provides a valuable summary of its subject. The book as a whole, Beisner noted, has a very particular schematic architecture. Beisner questioned the share of responsibility that each side had been assigned in the book, as well as the sincerity of each superpower's calls for peace. He posed the question of whether it is true that "neither side was more culpable?" He doubted Stalin's commitment to the WWII alliance, due to his constant violations of agreements made among the big three, as well as his plans for the "peaceful takeover" of Eastern Europe. Beisner claimed that it would have been naïve to accept the "unwanting" sincerity of Soviet leaders who stated that they sought peace. Desiring peace, Beisner suggested, was a minimal accomplishment.

Beisner proceeded to discuss the constraints faced by the leaders of each super-power. Stalin, Beisner believed, had more room to maneuver, and therefore should bear a greater share of the responsibility for the tensions during the initial stages of the Cold War, than Truman, who faced reelection. In terms of the constraints that Reagan and Gorbachev had to overcome, Beisner asked whether Leffler argued that either Reagan or Gorbachev threw the constraints off, or whether the two leaders succeeded because the nature of the constraints had changed.

Beisner stated that For the Soul of Mankind provides insights into two distinct types of realism: one that has no concern with ideology and another which asserts that ideological conflict is the norm, rather than the exception. In this context, Beisner urged the audience to consider what Reagan and Gorbachev could have done differently. Beisner suggested that in the book Gorbachev takes all the credit for ending the Cold War, while Reagan gets a lot of the applause.

In his final remarks Beisner praised Leffler's research and analysis and stated that For the Soul of Mankind is a remarkably balanced and wise book.

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