Roads Not Taken

by William R. Keylor
The Lost Peace: Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope, 1945-1953
By Robert Dallek
HarperCollins, 432 Pages, $28.99
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The Lost Peace: Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope, 1945-1953 by Robert DallekA recurrent theme of the book is the periodic misreading of history and the development of false historical analogies that yielded unsound policies. Memories of appeasement and American isolationism in the 1930s, coupled with the tendency on the part of many American leaders to equate Stalin with Hitler, foreclosed the kind of sober, realistic appraisal of Soviet intentions that could have produced a more stable and peaceful world. Dallek notes that such missteps and false historical analogies were not confined to Washington. “One can only imagine how much better off Russia and the world would have been if . . . the unyielding ideologues in the Kremlin” had realized that a “cooperative posture” toward Washington would have been welcomed in the United States and yielded American economic aid to that devastated country.

The lone hero amid Dallek’s long list of villains in this unfolding drama was George Kennan, whose ideas “might have changed the course of the Cold War” if they had been taken seriously by U.S. policymakers. Had his expressions of concern about the excessive and unrealistic aspirations incorporated in the Truman Doctrine and the militarization of the containment policy symbolized by the formation of NATO been given serious consideration in the Truman administration, the costly and dangerous nuclear arms race between the two superpowers could have been avoided. The kind of clear-eyed, coldly realistic analysis that Kennan brought to bear on world events was notably absent in both Washington and Moscow, whose leaders, Dallek believes, allowed their personal prejudices and misreading of history to distort their vision of the world.

As Dallek sees it, the Korean War “was the result of poor leadership and misjudgments” by the leaders of all the interested parties: South Korea’s strongman Syngman Rhee’s bellicose statements calling for the unification of the peninsula under his rule; Truman’s and Dean Acheson’s failure to explicitly warn the North that an armed attack on the South to achieve unification under Pyongyang’s rule would be met with an American military response; Washington’s passivity in the face of MacArthur’s insistence on crossing the 38th Parallel and toppling the North Korean regime; Mao’s dragging his heels on the possibility of a negotiated settlement, despite the almost 1 million Chinese casualties in the war, over the subsidiary issue of prisoner-of-war exchanges; Stalin’s grossly mistaken belief that by tying down the Americans in a long, drawn-out conflict in East Asia, he would prevent them from building up military forces in the region that most concerned him — Europe.

Like all counterfactual history, Dallek’s lucidly presented and powerfully argued indictment of these postwar world leaders is vulnerable to the popular complaint that hindsight is 20/20.Retrospective criticism of decision making, fortified by the knowledge of what in fact transpired after the events in question, fails to take into account the limited information that leaders at the time possessed, the difficult choices they faced, and the trying circumstances under which they had to operate. The alternative scenarios that Dallek indulges in are intriguing, even if some are implausible: Soviet-American cooperation in the prevention of a nuclear arms race and the creation of a neutralized, disarmed Germany in Europe; a postwar Jewish state in the Rhineland rather than in Palestine; the replacement of Chiang with Mao as Washington’s partner in Asia; and a Soviet withdrawal from Eastern Europe, followed by an American program of economic assistance to its war-ravaged former ally. Leaving aside the question of whether these alternatives would have been preferable to what really happened, we need to ask if they were even remotely possible in the critically important transitional period from world war to cold war.

William R. Keylor ’71GSAS, ’71SIPA is a professor of history and international relations and the director of the International History Institute at Boston University. The sixth edition of his The Twentieth-Century World and Beyond: An International History Since 1900 has just been published.

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