From World War to Cold War

Armed Truce: The Beginnings of the Cold War 1945–46

by Hugh Thomas
Atheneum, 667 pp., $27.50

British Policy Towards the Soviet Union During the Second World War

by Martin Kitchen
St. Martin's, 309 pp., $35.00
Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill; drawing by David Levine


“This volume, the first of several about the Cold War, is a picture of the world in early 1946 insofar as it was a battleground in an undeclared war between the two new great powers, the Soviet Union and the United States, and their allies.”

Thus the preface to Armed Truce. A lordly undertaking. Book One, entitled “Despotism and Ideology,” opens with Stalin’s February 1946 “election” speech to the Supreme Soviet and depicts the Soviet Union in early 1946. Book Two portrays “The West”—meaning the United States and the United Kingdom. Book Three, “Disputed Lands,” takes us magisterially across the whole European continent, country by country, from Poland to Spain and from Finland to Greece, then down through Turkey into Persia and so to “The East: China, Japan, Korea and Indo-China.” Book Four deals with the first steps in nuclear diplomacy.

The battleground having thus been painted, in some 480 pages, battle can commence, which it does with Western reaction to Stalin’s “election” speech, Kennan’s Long Telegram, Churchill’s Fulton speech, and the “dénouement in Persia.” After just two months and sixty pages the narrative abruptly stops. But the reader is assured in an italicized coda that “the future of the characters and subjects in this study will be treated in another volume, it is hoped, of this history.” This volume is thus to be seen as a heroic mise en scène, its scale and grandeur justified by the enormous narrative vistas ahead: the portico of some great public building which has, however, yet to be built.

There is much to admire in both the spirit and the execution of this grand design. We now have a superabundance of interesting recent specialist works on many aspects of the early history of the cold war (though still with a disproportionate concentration on the Western side). It was high time someone tried to put it all together again in a balanced, comprehensive, and readable narrative history. Lord Thomas makes the attempt with tremendous verve, breadth, and appetite. He has assembled a gargantuan banquet of sources, and, like a gourmet host, takes almost audible delight in proffering us the choicest morsels. He is neither reductionist nor determinist, and has no particular ax to grind (though there are a few rhetorical echoes of first-term “Iron Lady” Thatcherism). While he emphasizes the role of individuals, the contingent, and the unforeseen, he is far from dismissing the significance of underlying social and economic forces; nor does he underrate (as Roosevelt and Churchill did) the importance of ideology. He has some excellent biographical sketches: his account of Roosevelt seems to me particularly good. His prose is often vivid and arresting.

Unfortunately, the high standard is not always sustained, and the editing seems slapdash. Such stylistic solecisms as “I have naturally laid special attention on the personality of Stalin” should not have passed a first proofreading. The deployment…

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