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Review by Marc Trachtenberg, ucla russia’s Cold War

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Review by Marc Trachtenberg, UCLA

Russia’s Cold War is a remarkable piece of work. It is based, to a quite extraordinary degree for a book covering such a broad topic, on a vast amount of primary source material, in Russian, German, English, French, Italian, and even Czech and Polish. It would be impressive enough if Haslam had just gone through the published primary and memoir sources, but he has also done archival work in at least six different countries. And this is one of the things that makes this book so special. As the author points out, “detailed research at firsthand in the original language does matter” (xi). It certainly enabled him to bring the story of Soviet policy in the Cold War to life in a way that no one else has ever done. In this book, you’re looking at real people, at real institutions, with all their flaws and idiosyncrasies. You get to see the reality for what it was.
And that method yields some quite impressive results, especially in one area that most historians (myself included) pay less attention to than they should. I’m referring here to intelligence operations—still in many ways the “missing dimension” in the study of international politics.1 The Soviets, Haslam shows, were learning a great deal from intelligence sources. Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader from the mid-1950s until his fall from power in 1964, “knew from decrypted communications between Chiang and Dulles that Washington would not fight [in 1958] for the offshore islands” (177). And during the Cuban missile crisis, Khrushchev, thanks to Soviet cryptographers, had “direct access to secret U.S. communications,” and what he learned in that way “convinced him just how serious the situation had become” (209). But western counter-intelligence efforts could sometimes be extraordinarily effective. In 1982, “misleading data” that the Americans were able to inject “into the Soviet collection system” caused “so much damage and chaos that Moscow began to distrust its own sources” (329).
The most amazing case of this sort that Haslam talks about has to do with the Soviet decision to invade Afghanistan. By 1979, U.S. breakthroughs in cryptanalysis, based on the new Cray 1-A computer, allowed the National Security Agency to “open up a window onto Moscow’s most closely guarded political, diplomatic, and military secrets” (319). And this in turn “enabled [National Security Advisor Zbigniew] Brzezinski and [U.S. President Jimmy] Carter to trick Moscow into invading Afghanistan” at the end of that year. The section of the book that tells this story, “Luring Russia into its own Vietnam” (319-327), was to my mind the most interesting—and indeed the most shocking—part of the book.
So Russia’s Cold War is, among other things, a real gold mine, full of quite extraordinary information which I, at least, have never seen elsewhere. And that means that this book is enormous value, even to someone like me who does not fully agree with a number of Haslam’s central arguments.
I have in mind, in particular, his argument about ideology as the driving force behind Soviet policy during the Cold War. His chapter on the immediate post-World War II period, for example, is called “Ideology Triumphant.” Even during the period when Leonid Brezhnev was the Soviet leader (1964-82), Moscow, he thinks, “was entirely opposed to sacrificing its ideological commitments abroad.” “On the contrary,” he argues, “détente led to the reinforcement of them as if to reassert Soviet identity against western hopes of convergence” (214). The West was in Haslam’s view wrong to think (around 1969) that the USSR “was becoming less revolutionary” and more like a normal great power. That way of looking at things, he believes, mistakenly assumed “that the commitment to international revolution was merely a matter of choice for Soviet leaders.” In making that assumption, western officials and analysts “underestimated the very point that Trotsky insisted upon; namely, that however reactionary in preferences, Soviet leaders were driven by the nature of the system to pursue the expansion of the revolution.” But events, he says, ultimately made it clear “that Moscow had no intention of ending the Cold War through compromise in either the struggle over the balance of Europe or the larger ideological conflict over the shape of the international system” (295-296).
This was true, he thinks, even in 1945. “Stalin and his closest supporters,” in his view, “had every intention of seeking dominance over Europe by positioning Russia as the pivotal Power in the region, with Germany under foot, France counted out, and Britain confined to the periphery (largely to empire overseas” (395). Even “when in 1945-46 the West was ready for accommodation to settle the affairs of Europe, Stalin had held to unilateral expansion at the expense of his neighbors” (134; see also 76). That reaching for predominance in Europe was what had “sparked the Cold War,” but the policy was not abandoned after Stalin’s death: even his successors felt the USSR was entitled to “hold the balance of Europe, if not to prevail entirely” (308; see also 395-396).
My own view of Soviet policy during the Cold War is a little different. The USSR, I think, was a good deal less militant, less ideologically-driven, and more attuned to power realities, than most Americans thought at the time. With regard to Europe, the Soviets, as I see it, were basically willing from the start to live with a divided continent. They could not quite bring themselves to accept an arrangement whereby each side would have a totally free hand in the part of Europe it dominated. By that I mean that although they insisted on absolute control on their side of the line of demarcation, they could not allow the western powers a completely free hand in western Germany. The problem of German power was always of fundamental importance for them, and indeed for the western powers as well—in both cases, for entirely understandable reasons. So the basic Soviet goal was to stabilize the status quo. The one major exception, to my mind, had to do with the Khrushchev period, but that had to do with Khrushchev’s peculiar characteristics—and indeed with his utter incompetence as a statesman. With regard to the Third World, I don’t really see the USSR pursuing a particular aggressive policy, nor one that placed a great premium on promoting Communist revolution abroad.
And I think that although Haslam’s general argument points in the opposite direction, his accounts of a whole series of specific episodes actually tend to support the view of Soviet policy I had come to hold before I read his book. Some of the interpretations you find there are in fact quite familiar. The idea that Stalin “moved with great caution” in Europe in 1946 (80), that he restrained the local Communists in France and Italy in 1947 (94-95) and in Greece in 1948 (97-98)—well, Haslam was certainly not the first to make those arguments. The same point applies to what he says about the Soviets preferring a bourgeois democracy like India to Communist China (156, 192-193).
And these were not isolated cases. What was striking to me, reading this book, was how pervasive that pattern was. In Latin America, for example, Soviet policy was quite restrained. In 1964-65 the United States helped overthrow leftist governments in Brazil and, more blatantly, in the Dominican Republic, but Moscow, Haslam writes, did not raise either issue “to the level of cause célèbre” (277). The Soviet reaction to the overthrow of the Allende government in Chile in 1972 was also quite mild: throughout the Chilean crisis, “in contrast to Havana, Moscow acted with restraint, failing to give Allende the kind of blank check they gave Havana” (278). In southeast Asia as well, his accounts support that same general picture. After the extermination of the Indonesian Communists in 1965, he writes, the Soviet leadership was “prepared to carry on as though nothing had happened” (229). It certainly supported the North Vietnamese in their war against the United States, but only within limits: it was not prepared to run any real risk of war with America (225). In the Middle East, the story was the same: the Soviets were willing to support countries like Egypt, where the government imprisoned the local Communists, but again there was a real limit to how far they were prepared to go in backing the Arabs against Israel. The Soviet response to the U.S. nuclear alert during the 1973 war was rather mild. “We won’t fight” for the Arabs, Brezhnev declared; “The people would not understand. And above all we don’t have any intention of being dragged into world war because of them” (276).
Haslam’s discussion of all these cases was quite interesting, in large part because of the new evidence he was able to present (like the Brezhnev quotation I just gave), but there were three additional cases where his accounts struck me as exceptionally important. The first case has to do with Angola in 1975. The USSR, it turns out, was a lot less eager to support the Cuban intervention there than I had assumed. The leadership was clearly divided on this issue, and Brezhnev especially did not like the idea of Soviet involvement there at all and had to be overruled by his colleagues (291-292). The second case has to do with Poland in 1981. Brezhnev was also “resolutely opposed” to Soviet military intervention there at the time. Even Yuri Andropov, “the ascetic diehard who increasingly saw himself as a true follower of Lenin,” was opposed to the use of force by the USSR: “if Kulikov [the commander-in-chief of the Warsaw Pact forces] actually talked of our forces going in,” he said, “then I consider this incorrect!” (335-336; for the characterization of Andropov, see 347, and also 216-217). The third and most astonishing case has to do with Afghanistan in 1979: the Soviets (as noted above) had to be “tricked” by the Americans into invading that country (319).
So putting all this together, a certain general picture takes shape. The Soviets do not come across as intent on dominating Europe or on doing whatever they can to promote the cause of revolution in the world as a whole. Their policy on the whole was relatively moderate—certainly more moderate than ordinary Americans believed at the time.
This is not to say, of course, that Communist ideology played no role at all in shaping Soviet policy. The Soviet leaders obviously had certain ideological preferences, as indeed we all do. But ideology was just one element in the policy mix, and far from the most important one. The Soviet Union was not what many Americans thought it was at the time: a power that knew what it wanted, a state pursuing a centrally-controlled and carefully worked-out policy, rooted in its Communist ideology. Policy was instead worked out by ordinary human beings, pulled in different directions, forced to deal with some very serious problems, and not doing it all that well—or at least that is the picture which for me emerges from Jonathan Haslam’s very impressive book.

Marc Trachtenberg, an historian by training, is currently a professor of political science at UCLA. He got his Ph.D. at Berkeley in 1974, and then taught in the history department at the University of Pennsylvania for 26 years, before moving back to California eleven years ago. He has written a number of books and articles dealing mainly with twentieth-century international politics, most notably A Constructed Peace: The Making of the European Settlement, which came out in 1999. His book The Craft of International History: A Guide to Method was published in 2006.

1 Christopher Andrew and David Dilks, The Missing Dimension: Governments and Intelligence Communities in the Twentieth Century (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984).

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