David J. Gary

Summary for 3/20/06


Melvyn P. Leffler, A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992.


            Melvyn Leffler has written a focused and fair book on the thinking and activities of U.S. policymakers at the opening of the Cold War during the presidency of Harry S. Truman (1945-1953). Synthesizing the vast array of foreign policy monographs from the 1950s-1980s, Leffler has assembled a history of Cold War grand strategy that examines how officials identified vital national security interests in the aftermath of the Second World War. Focusing solely on the American side of the Cold War equation, Leffler blends military, diplomatic, and economic history in an attempt to understand the swirl of policies that were implemented during this pivotal period. With the world economy in shambles and the specter of communism looming as a viable option to the liberal capitalist system of the West, Leffler asks “Was the United States responsible for the cold war, and, if so, in what ways? Overall, was U.S. policy wise or foolish?” (ix). Despite the immense detail, Leffler’s thesis is simple: American preponderance of power, in both the military and economic spheres, allowed U.S. bureaucrats to take considerable risks in the face of perceived threats from the Soviet Union, despite not always having the resources to handle the fallout of those risks. Because of its preponderance of power, it was the United States most often moving the pieces on the proverbial chess board in the early years of the Cold War. Overall, Leffler gives the U.S. policymakers high marks for their tough-minded diplomacy, describing them as “prudent” while also describing them as “foolish” for overstating the evil intentions of the Soviet Union.

            Ultimately, Leffler claims it was economic power that allowed America to defend its national interests and perpetuate its core beliefs. He says “Power inhered in a nation’s control over or access to industrial infrastructure, raw materials, skilled labor, and critical bases,” (3) not purely military might. U.S. policymakers believed stability and prosperity needed an open market economy to flourish. To achieve that goal, America eschewed the isolationism of post-World War I and robustly sought the role of world hegemon, which it achieved through its atomic monopoly and unprecedented wealth, in an attempt to assert what it felt was a morally superior ideology. Despite its enhanced position in world affairs, the Americans were continuously looking over their shoulder at a Soviet Union that they felt had the potential to eventually overtake them. Leffler says the Americans did not so much fear a Russian military attack as an economic collapse that would allow for the spread of communism. This book examines how the Cold Warriors of the Truman Administration attempted to stay one step ahead of their Russian counterparts and create an economically stable world.

            The deck was stacked in the favor of the Americans after the war. The Soviet Union, America’s only competitor for hegemony, had lost 20 million men and saw its countryside devastated by the German invasion. In contrast, the American homeland was unscathed, its industry burgeoning, and its access to natural resources growing. The rest of the world was a mess: Europe was gutted by the war and could not feed itself, Japan was utterly ravaged by the American bombing campaign, and the Third World periphery of Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia was desperately seeking national determination. There was a large trade imbalance between America and Europe and a lack of dollars for the Europeans to buy raw materials with.  The Americans feared that the downward economic spiral would push desperate nations to communism, which offered short term succor to the disorder caused by the war. Therefore, Leffler explains, the Americans felt they had to take stands that were sometimes beyond their means to back up in order to prop up a world that seemed to be sliding into the communist camp.

            Leffler says the primary example of this policy in action was the Marshall Plan of in 1947-1948. Western European prosperity was the linchpin of a prosperous open market economy, but the region could not overcome its postwar slump. Therefore, American policymakers embarked upon an unprecedented aid program that was designed to wean Europe off American assistance and avert its gaze from any communist solution. The Americans knew the Kremlin would see the program as a direct threat to its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, but went ahead with it anyway. In the end, the Americans correctly assessed that the Soviets would not go to war over the Marshall Plan. The Kremlin simply refused to allow their satellites to receive American dollars and allowed Western Europe to freeze communist party activities, which was a sine qua non of the American offer. In this instance, economic preponderance, backed by an atomic monopoly, allowed America to win a decisive early victory in the Cold War. Leffler says the risk-taking trend can be seen throughout the early years of the Cold War. The Soviets did not go to war over the creation of West Germany, the rearmament of the Germans, or direct U.S. intervention in Korea. In fact, Leffler says the Truman Administration supported the advance of General Douglas MacArthur’s army north of the 38th parallel in a daring attempt to unify the Korean peninsula. The Soviets did not go to war, but the Chinese did, changing the dynamics of the war and showing that U.S. risk-taking did not always work out the way they planned.

            Despite the many successes of the early Cold Warriors, Leffler takes them to task for some of their flawed policies. For example, he says they placed too much emphasis on the Third World periphery. The Americans overestimated the attraction of communism to places like the Middle East, underestimated the national aspirations of communists like Ho Chi Minh, and aligned themselves with leaders of questionable credibility, all contributing to an erosion of American power and image. This led to problems on the periphery that probably could have been avoided. Leffler also says the Cold Warriors overestimated Soviet motivations, denying that the Russians had legitimate security concerns. In this scenario, the Russians simply wanted a reliable buffer zone in Eastern Europe to defend itself after the deadliest war in its history, not to dominate the world. Leffler says “Soviet actions were reactive … The challenging question, therefore is not whether U.S. actions exacerbated Soviet-U.S. relations, but whether they were intelligent responses to the real and perceived dangers that existed at the time?” (513).

            This book focuses on grand strategy, diplomacy, and economics and avoids a discussion of the ideological factors behind American foreign policy. It also does not look at class, race, and gender issues that influenced foreign policy.