How Did the Cold War Begin?

Beginnings of the Cold War

by Martin F. Herz
Indiana, 214 pp., $4.95

Harry Truman
Harry Truman; drawing by David Levine

Writing as “Mr. X,” George Kennan suggested twenty years ago that the mechanism of Soviet diplomacy “moves inexorably along the prescribed path, like a persistent toy automobile wound up and headed in a given direction, stopping only when it meets with some unanswerable force.”1 A generation of Americans quickly embraced Kennan’s view as an explanation of the tension, danger, and waste of the Cold War. But was his theory of inexorable Soviet expansion—and its matching recommendation of “containment”—correct? A cautious but important book, Beginnings of the Cold War, suggests we might well have been more critical of so mechanistic an idea of the way Great Powers act and how the Cold War began.

Martin F. Herz is currently a United States diplomat serving in Teheran. His book is mainly concerned with the few months between the 1945 Yalta and Potsdam Conferences. It is well-documented and contains no polemic; indeed, as he says, “the author expresses few views of his own…” The book begins by recapitulating the main issues in dispute when Truman became President: Poland, German reparations, lend-lease aid. It moves from the Polish issue to a broader discussion of spheres of influence, and from reparations and lendlease to a general analysis of aid to Russia and its relation to other diplomatic considerations. The two issues are integrated in a brief concluding discussion of how the “die was cast” in 1945, and the Cold War began.

Any examination of the very earliest postwar period forces us to think about developments before 1947 when it was decided to contain the Soviet Union by “unanswerable force.” Herz’s study is important because it makes two serious judgments about this period: first, that in 1945 Soviet policy was by no means inexorably prescribed and expansionist; second, that mistakes made by American officials just after the war may well have prevented the kind of compromise and accommodation which is just beginning to emerge in Europe today.

THESE SUGGESTIONS recall Walter Lippmann’s The Cold War, published in 1947, which also argued—with greater candor and less detail—that the Russians might have been willing to accept a negotiated settlement in 1945 and 1946, but that US policy ignored opportunities to meet them halfway. Lippman’s now little-remembered book offered a powerful critique of Kennan’s theory of Soviet expansion and American containment. If Herz’s view is correct, accepted interpretations of American Russian relations are called into question. And if Lippmann was right in saying that American policy helped to prevent an accommodation in 1945 and 1946, the Cold War itself must be regarded, at least in part, as the result of fundamental errors of American diplomacy. These are startling conclusions, but anyone willing to bring an open mind to Herz’s book or to Lippmann’s will find that they have exposed many weaknesses in the usual explanations of early events in the Cold War.

No one, of course, can be certain…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.