Saturday, April 30, 2011

Of Great Men and Great Events

My previous musing on nations acting naturally came while reading about the post-WWII leaders who initiated the cold war and its attendant arms race. And the much of the spark for what became the National Security State comes down to Stalin’s paranoia and fear. The western allies had their own share of irrationality and fear but Stalin's fears drove them all. After the war’s immense devastation, Stalin was determined that Russia would never again be at risk of German or western attack. Stalin was also a paranoid who suspected everyone and whose own ruthlessness convinced him that those suspected adversaries were equally so, which gave him all the justification he needed for his actions. Stalin was a fearful, paranoid Russian nationalist with immense power and authority. His actions gave the US and its allies reasons to be wary of and hostile to their wartime ally. Allied fear and suspicion of Soviet motives and intent drove the allies to ignore and dismiss any but the most suspicious and militaristic motives behind the Soviet Union's actions even when those actions were a logical consequence of military and political realities of the post-WWII world and the Soviet horrific losses during that war.

The book, The Lost Peace, has received mixed reviews (here and here). I found it well written and interesting. I’m familiar with the major events of the post-war years but The Lost Peace provides much good detail. The book is especially rich in quotations from George Kennan's extensive writing about the Soviet Union during those years. Kennan's sober and realistic understanding of the Soviet Union has always appealed to me; The Lost Peace gave me new insight and appreciation for Kennan's work.

About the only off note was author Robert Dallek ’s musings on how things could have been different. When I encountered them my reaction was something like “yeah and if I had money, I’d be rich.” But one of the less favorable reviews gave those musings some context. The reviewer asked what peace was lost when Europe had been at war pretty much constantly for about four centuries. Dallek’s point is that following WWII, many around the world not only hoped for a lasting peace but felt it necessary to prevent the kind of devastation that the world had just witnessed. That was a time of possibility when leaders could have chosen a different path. The lost peace is the one that might have been possible. If only…

Stalin comes off as the most determined and single-minded of the national leaders which is why I give him credit/blame as the spark for what has become a horribly militarized world. (Maybe I should say he was the steel for the West's flint.) Josef Stalin certainly lends credence to the Great Man Theory of history, remembering that greatness is morally neutral in this context. Stalin not only influenced his own time but also world events six decades after his death. The National Security State that came into being because of America’s fear of Stalin and Communist Russia lives on.

And in whatever hell he’s in, even if only history’s approbation, I am sure Stalin would be satisfied and pleased to be remembered.

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