Some Like It Cold

The Rivals: America and Russia Since World War II

by Adam B. Ulam
Viking, 405 pp., $10.95

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.


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