Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin; drawing by David Levine

The literature on the cold war, although already extensive and growing daily, is exceptionally weak on many problems, partly because of the apparent inability of most writers to abandon the “good guys-bad guys” approach. Standard historical accounts of the recent past ascribe to Stalin and his successors motives for world conquest that would have made Hitler blush, while emphasizing the honorable intentions of the United States. The new left, meanwhile, sometimes seems to do little more than reverse the hero and villain roles.

By selective concentration each side can “prove” its point—cold warriors describe the brutality of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe in considerable detail, illustrate the manner in which the Kremlin exploits the Poles, East Germans, and so on, not to mention the people of the Soviet Union itself, and show in general what a mockery the Soviet bureaucracy has made of its socialist ideals. All of which is true enough, and the commitment of the cold warriors to freedom of speech, publication, and religion is admirable. The pity is that these writers never seem to extend their moral indignation to conditions among the masses throughout the “Free World.” A greater pity for scholarship is that the new left historians again tend to reverse the argument, denouncing Washington and its allies while passing over in discreet silence the assault on humanity carried out by the Soviet rulers.

The relative absence of objectivity is, of course, partly a result of the closeness of events and will be largely corrected by time. Not so with another major problem, which is the inability of anyone in the West to speak with any assurance at all about the motivation of leading figures in Russia concerning major or minor events, or even to know what alternatives the Soviet government considered. This problem will remain with us; the best we can hope for is more denunciations of their predecessors by current rulers, or of the Russians by the Chinese and vice versa, but even then we learn only what the speakers want us to know. For all his diatribes against Stalin, Khrushchev never mentioned Trotsky or the manner in which Stalin disposed of him. Until the Kremlin opens its archives, hardly imminent, we must continue to guess why the Russians did what they did.1

The trouble is that scholars on the political left within the United States have done little of the guessing, leaving the field of Kremlinology in the hands of those who like to call themselves “realists.” Adam Ulam is a leading member of this group. A pre-World War II Polish émigré, he is a recognized expert on Soviet foreign policy and professor of government at Harvard. His concern is a foreign policy based on realism—his concluding chapter is called “The Immorality of Unrealism”—which, he asserts, has been lacking in the State Department and throughout the American government since at least 1944.

The chief obstacle to realism, Ulam believes, has been the tendency to see everything the Kremlin does as another step toward the triumph of world communism. Here he assumes a position close to that taken by the new left, arguing that Soviet foreign policy has been dominated chiefly by concern for Russian state security. But he goes beyond the revisionists by insisting that the class interests of the Russian rulers come before all else. He warns us against what he calls the popular assumption that Russia has become aware of sharing with the United States the responsibility for world peace, for

…this exaggerates both her rulers’ inclination to see an entirely peaceful world and their ability to work for this goal even if they were inclined to do so. The events of the last twenty years have created a gap…between the interests of Communism as a worldwide movement and the national interests of Russia. But the self-interest of the Soviet ruling class compels it to preserve the myth…that the security of their country and the expansion of Communism are indissolubly bound together [italics Ulam’s].

The most we can hope for is that Russian rulers “will become more aware of the risks of their policy of pretending to try to win the world for Communism,” which will allow Americans to enlarge the area of accommodation with the Soviet Union by persuading the Kremlin “to follow…national interest rather than obsolete ideological delusions.”

This is the line the realists have been advocating since at least the early Fifties. According to them, ideology is irrelevant. (“We have not mentioned one obstacle to a collaboration of the two countries which to many would appear as the basic one,” Ulam writes, “the fact that the USSR had a socialist and America a capitalist system. Without discounting the ideological element, this was…the least important of all bars to a US-Soviet understanding.”) The realists call for an accommodation, a world divided into spheres of influence run by the superpowers, on the lines of Roosevelt’s Four Policemen (China and Britain having dropped out, or been forced out), a world in which we will have order and security while our lives and those of people throughout the world are run by the elites in Washington and Moscow.


Ulam’s hopes for the future are based on his view of the past, a view that is hopelessly one-sided. Like many émigrés he is enthusiastically pro-American, seeing this country as the last, best hope of mankind and regretting only that the United States has not asserted itself more in foreign affairs. The Japanese surrender in 1945, Ulam declares, “marks the end of the period when American power could have, if intelligently used, dictated a viable international order for generations to come.”

This not only ignores, among other things, the lesson of Vietnam, but is based on a faith in the altruism of Washington’s intentions that is difficult to share. To put it another way, any weakness in the political left’s scholarship about the Soviet Union is matched by Ulam’s inability to accept the reality of American policy.

Ulam maintains, for example, that in the early years of the cold war the

…American people and their representatives were displaying amazing maturity and boldness in restructuring their foreign policy…. In their enlightened self-interest they were striking the right balance between the extremes of bellicosity toward the Soviet Union and supine acquiescence in the face of Communist encroachment. This judgment, with qualifications…still stands.

In his concluding section, Ulam declares: “Yet when all has been said, the over-all record of United States foreign policy during those years [1945-1964] is one of prudence, restraint, and generosity,” a statement which, in addition to being absurd, hardly helps us to sort out what the American government was up to, or why. Ulam would do much better to apply his class analysis of Russia’s rulers to those in Washington.

Nor does Ulam’s analysis take us very far in understanding what has happened in Asia since 1945. Consider his treatment of the failure to hold the 1956 elections promised for Vietnam in the Geneva Accords. Ulam believes that Diem was the popular hero in Vietnam, while Ho Chi Minh was a hated tyrant, but that Diem, alas, didn’t realize how popular he was. “It is a testimony not so much to his undemocratic propensities as to his political clumsiness, one should think, that Diem did not insist on having elections.”2

As for China, Ulam maintains that a realistic American policy there before 1950, supported by a reasonable commitment of manpower and resources

…could have preserved a large part of China from the Communists. Having two mainland Chinas would not have been a happy or stable situation…but who can say that it would not have been preferable and more hopeful both for the Chinese and for world peace than is the actuality?

It is hard to believe that anyone, much less a professor of government at Harvard, could argue that a North and South China, ruled respectively by Mao and Chiang, would be inherently more stable than the situation that exists, but Ulam so argues.

Like his counterparts, the official historians in the Soviet Union, Ulam is incapable of looking critically at his own government or those of America’s client states. That this is a common failing should go without saying, but the truth is that the new left historians are almost as guilty, since they have not subjected the Soviet Union to the searching analysis, inspired by moral indignation, that they have applied to the United States. We know that American politicians plotted and schemed to impose the American Century on an unwitting world, and we are learning more daily. But we don’t know enough about what Soviet rulers were up to at the same time, how they saw the world around them, and how they operated their empire.

Ulam is strongest when he tries to answer such questions, and at times he is very good indeed. From the first he breaks with most members of the realist school, not to mention the committed cold warriors, by establishing as his theme that the dominating fact of international life since 1944-45 has been the weakness of the Soviet Union in military as well as in all other areas of life. This is by no means a startling assertion—William A. Williams insisted on it in 1959—but much of the propaganda within the United States about the cold war, and at least some of the actions of the American government, have been based on the supposed menace of the Red Army to Western Europe and the world generally.


As Stalin looked at the world of 1945 and after, Ulam argues, he was terrified and would have been whatever its ideological division. In order to build his own country after the war, Stalin had to demobilize the Red Army,3 even in the face of American domination of the seas and skies, not to mention the atomic bomb. In order to preserve his own position and that of the Communist party, Stalin had to undertake repressive measures not only within Russia, where the people expected at least some relaxation after the victory over Hitler, but throughout the Eastern European satellites as well.

That Russia was weak, that Stalin feared the United States in particular and the future in general, is also the starting point for much recent revisionist writing about the cold war, but here the revisionists and Ulam part. William A. Williams and others insist that the incomparable power of the United States in 1945 meant that it was the Americans who set the tone of the cold war, that Washington overreacted to its own power.

Ulam insists that the United States was not aware of the strength of its position and did not do enough to ensure the triumph of peace, liberty, and the American way of life. “What is astounding,” Ulam writes, “is that no attempt was made by the United States to exploit politically the monopoly of this weapon of unique destructiveness [the atomic bomb] when it came to the peace settlement in Europe or Asia.” Here he ignores the realities—the bomb of that period was not the decisive weapon it was assumed to be (or would become after 1951), American delivery capabilities were questionable, and whatever the size of the Red Army, it was more than a match for the rag-tag American occupation army in Germany.

Although Ulam insists that Churchill and those early cold warriors who supported him in the West were wrong in thinking that simply being “firm” with the Soviets would force them to mind their manners, Ulam himself constantly talks about Russian “bluffs” that the United States should have called. How this differs from Churchill’s policies is not clear. To agree that Stalin acted out of fear in, say, trampling on Poland is not to agree that Stalin was always bluffing and thus always ready to back down if necessary. American opposition to the absence of elections in Poland was at least as strong as American opposition to Soviet control of northern Iran, yet in the first case Stalin was firm and in the second backed down. Not even a raid by the Eighth Air Force on Moscow would have pried Stalin out of Poland—one would think that the realists, above all, would recognize this truth—while a few diplomatic notes got the Red Army out of Iran.

Which is to say that Ulam, good as he is on Russia’s rape of Eastern Europe and of its own people, and right as he is on insisting upon the role of fear in Stalin’s diplomacy, fails to distinguish among specific cases. Russia demanded some of Italy’s North African colonies after the war, for example, but backed down almost immediately when the West said no. Surely here a bluff was called. Where Stalin was not bluffing was anywhere his troops were located, for what Stalin knew—and Ulam ignores—was that Russia’s weakness was relative. The Soviets were dreadfully weak in most parts of the world, as illustrated by their inability to get a lodgment in Japan during the occupation. In fact, as George Kennan pointed out long ago, at the end of the war the US controlled four of the five industrial bases of the world—the US homeland, Western Europe, Great Britain, and Japan. But around their borders the Red Army, however reduced in size, was dominant.

Still Ulam’s point that it was fear that caused Stalin to impose on Eastern European satellites regimes that are an affront to world socialism (not to mention the Soviet Union’s own professed ideals), that fear caused him to bluster and bluff when dealing with the Americans, that indeed fear permeated everything he did domestically and in foreign policy is valuable. The trouble is that he does not apply the same principle to the United States, even though in his account of the Bay of Pigs he accepts what he calls the “informative and brilliant account” of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., which claims that the Americans sponsored the invasion 1) in order to “show Khrushchev that ‘we are just as tough as they are,’ ” and 2) because of “fear of failure.”

In general, Ulam tends to disregard America’s own desires to dominate. According to him, the Cuban invasion had little or nothing to do with American reaction to the emergence of radicalism on the island and was only another episode in the cold war. This is a strange position indeed for a realist who insists on the importance of spheres of influence.

Yet at other places Ulam’s stress on the role of fear leads to interesting speculations. He traces the causes of the Cuban missile crisis, for example, to Khrushchev’s fear of West German and/or Chinese possession of nuclear weapons. Khrushchev wanted to use Berlin to force a German peace treaty that would keep Germany neutral and non-nuclear, then put pressure on China to join a general agreement on nuclear nonproliferation. But because the Americans would not give way on Berlin, he had to turn elsewhere. By 1962 he was ready to try again; he would use the missiles in Cuba to force the Americans to sign a German peace treaty prohibiting Bonn from acquiring nuclear weapons, and to drive the Americans out of Formosa, which would give him the leverage to force the Chinese to accept a nuclear nonproliferation treaty.

One can only speculate on Ulam’s speculation, but it would seem to credit Khrushchev with a shrewdness and an ability for long-range planning that simply was not there. The simpler explanation is equally likely: that Khrushchev saw an opportunity to prove to the Chinese and hard-liners in his own government that he could stand up to the Americans, an opportunity he took without regard for the potential consequences.

Still, Ulam’s work is useful as an account of the nature of Soviet imperialism. It raises some interesting speculations about Soviet motives and demonstrates that the Soviet Communist bureaucracy has class interests which it defends before all else. But it is hopeless when it comes to the roots of American policy. His emphasis on fear as a main force in Soviet foreign policy is valuable, but he takes a blinkered attitude toward that fear. Ulam argues that the United States should have exploited it in order to force the Russians to acquiesce in America’s definition of world order. Nowhere does he seriously consider the possibility that an American policy specifically and energetically designed to lessen Russian fears might have produced a better outcome. In his assumption that the United States must impose order and stability on the world, even after Vietnam, this realist is himself the victim of the “unrealism” he scorns so much.

This Issue

November 18, 1971