Study Questions by Michael Wescott


Melvyn P. Leffler. A Preponderance of Power. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992.




Place Leffler’s book in the context of Cold War historiography. The 1950s historians largely saw the Soviet Union as a very real, aggressive threat. The 1960s and 1970s sought to temper this position, and saw the U.S. as over-reacting to foreign policy misconceptions. Where does Leffler fall?


The Soviet Union, though not an immediate military threat, was still the central preoccupation of the Truman administration. Why?


Leffler concentrates on the policy formations and actions of a few principal players in the Truman administration: Acheson, Nitze, Forrestal and the rest of the foreign policy elite. Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of this limited approach.


Leffler’s book contains copious notes, an exhaustive review of secondary sources, and numerous primary sources. What types of primary documents does Leffler use to formulate his arguments?


In a related concern, the bulk of this book was researched and written before the availability of Soviet archives, the absence of which Leffler notes. How important is this preponderance of American sources?


Would this be a much different book had it been published while the Cold War was still in progress? Would it be much different were it published now?


Chicken or egg: Did American policy precipitate the Cold War, or was it a reaction to the reality of global politics? Was the policy of the Truman administration aggressive, defensive, or both? Leffler seems to suggest that the Truman administration’s policies were both “prudent” and also based on exaggerated fears of Soviet domination. Can he really have it both ways? How accurate was the administration’s perception of reality?


When Leffler writes that “preponderance did not mean domination” (19), is he splitting hairs? Does he conflate western preponderance and U.S. preponderance?


What two nations did the Truman administration see as the primary bulwarks against the Soviet threat, and why?


Leffler is critical of the importance placed on the third world in the administration’s policies; for instance, he notes the numerous questionable characters (read: world leaders) befriended by the U.S. How fair is this criticism?