Commentary Magazine

Shattered Peace, by Daniel Yergin

The Train of History

Shattered Peace: The Origins of the Cold War and the National Security State.
by Daniel Yergin.
Houghton Mifflin. 526 pp. $15.00.

Originally a Ph.D. thesis, the product of a solid course of study supervised or otherwise assisted by a large number of leading academics from Cambridge, Mass., Cambridge, England, New York, and Washington, and amply supported by seventy-six pages of detailed citations and a fairly elaborate bibliography, Daniel Yergin’s book is nevertheless astonishingly free of any trace of genuine scholarship. No new evidence is presented and neither can any of the arguments claim the status of a significant new interpretation as is ordinarily required of doctoral dissertations. Instead we have much “human-interest” material, learning in the very first lines of the first page of the text that Roosevelt on his way to Yalta flew for nine hours, from Malta 400 miles away, that his plane landed on an “icy” runway at Saki, that he sat in the plane for twenty minutes until Churchill’s aircraft landed also, that they then drove for five hours on a newly-paved road guarded by an “endless” line of soldiers, and that the climate changed abruptly as the coast was reached, the point being made by a Churchill quotation, very British and very un-Churchillian, about the weather.

None of the above was to be found, one presumes, in Yergin, Daniel H., “The Rise of the National Security State: Anti-Communism and the Origins of the Cold War,” Ph.D. dissertation, Cambridge University, 1974, the original work duly listed in the bibliography. There is nothing wrong with rewriting a dissertation in light prose for the mass public, and inserting all the grainy detail required by Time-style; we all have to make a living. But book and dissertation share a fatal defect that owes nothing to commercial ambition, and which utterly invalidates both: in Dr. Yergin’s story of the origins of the cold war, the sentiments and bureaucratic concerns of American policy-makers are all brightly illuminated before us, while the Soviet Union is a quiet offstage presence, its function being only to provide a plausible pretext for the main action, the rise of the “national security state” in America. It is not that Dr. Yergin deliberately intends to distort. He is no revisionist out to challenge the crude Reader’s Digest version of the history of the postwar years with a still more distorted anti-anti-Communist version of his own. He is, rather, a victim of the prevailing academic fashions, of the sad decline of university scholarship, and of the ethnocentrism chronic in American intellectual circles.

The school of “bureaucratic analysis,” whose promoters explain the making of state policy as the product of the contending interests of rival bureaucracies, has been in high fashion since circa 1971. Very useful to explain American foreign policy during the 60’s, when decisions were indeed made in a decentralized fashion by rival bureaucracies in State, Defense, CIA, and NSC, the theory happened to receive its fullest exposition precisely when Nixon and Kissinger were about to make nonsense of its claims by acting on their own, virtually uninfluenced by bureaucratic pressures. But by then the bureaucratic-analysis school had acquired momentum, its leading exponents had acquired professional chairs, and there was in any case no healthier contending school in the flaccid chaos of American political science.

Unfortunately, if taken seriously, the bureaucratic-analysis approach has a narcotic effect on the student of foreign affairs. The Russian deployment of ultra-heavy SS-18 missiles is now, for example, being explained as the product of a tenacious struggle for survival by a particular Russian design bureau which happened to specialize in heavy missiles during the late 50’s, and which has enough party influence to stay in business. This, as opposed to the old-fashioned “monolithic” explanation which links the deployment of the SS-18’s to the Soviet pursuit of a counter-deterrent strategy, the function of these missiles being to destroy the Minute-man ICBM’s of our land-based deterrent. Ostensibly the two approaches are compatible, but in practice the bureaucratic-analysis method has been used not to explain but rather to explain away, in arguing against a concrete American reaction to this particular threat. It is as if the meta-explanation somehow diminishes the real impact of the real event—whatever its motives.



In Dr. Yergin’s case, the narcotic effect is manifest throughout the book, where the (undoubted) personal and bureaucratic struggles over policy, and over the organization of postwar defense, so dominate the presentation that the grim reality of the Soviet Union is entirely obscured. As Wallace, Byrnes, Acheson, Truman, Roosevelt, Forrestal, et al., are wheeled onto the scene to speak their lines, as the familiar old story of the army-air force/navy debate is retold along with many other old stories, the reader might well forget that the real action was all on the Soviet side, with the establishment of a ring of client states and the annexation of vast territories, both retained till this day.

The effect of a fashionable theory that provides pseudo-explanations is compounded by a sadly inadequate scholarship. Since there is a certain definite level of effort required to learn a foreign language, this modest but necessary tool of scholarship is naturally no longer an effective requirement for a postgraduate education. Dr. Yergin, like many others nowadays, has been allowed to write of U.S. Soviet relations, and of Europe, while being innocent of a knowledge of Russian or of the other essential languages.

This sanctioned ignorance is reflected in Dr. Yergin’s monolingual bibliography, and it compounds that peculiar phenomenon, the ethnocentrism of American liberals. While the Right ignores all the moral claims of all foreigners, the Left has a way of ignoring their very existence, attributing credit or blame only to fellow Americans, whether in the case of Vietnam or of the cold war.

It is for these reasons that Dr. Yergin’s version of the origins of the cold war is little more than an optical delusion, in which the moving train of Russian power is made to appear still, while the reader, kept in the hesitant train of American decision, has the illusion of reciprocal movement. At the end of the book one may find the full evidence for this verdict. Having brought his entire story of diverse American prejudices, hopes, and interests to a culmination in the spring of 1950, with the drafting of NSC-68—a document which belatedly set out a comprehensive strategy for the containment of Soviet power—Dr. Yergin duly notes that Congress seemed unwilling to fund the rearmament which the new strategy required. American forces hurriedly demobilized by 1946 were very small and grossly underarmed; by 1950 their equipment was in many cases decrepit, and indeed American military power amounted to very little except for the atomic bomb, by then possessed by the Soviet Union also. NSC-68 advocated an effective deterrence, and this required the rebuilding of a realistic army, navy, and air force. Very likely the document would have remained a dead letter. But then an unexpected event occurred. I quote:

The administration was still wrestling with the question of how to get funding for the NSC-68 program when, in the early morning hours of June 25, East Asian time, North Korea threw its troops across the border to the south.

Thus began the Korean war.

The administration certainly did not want that war, but once embroiled in the conflict, it did not hesitate to use it to promote the general build-up of American military strength.

There follows a gloating quote from Aviation Week on how well the aircraft industry was doing by December 1950. Then Dr. Yergin writes:

With the Korean conflict, a new phase had opened in the cold war.

With the expanded funding, the architecture of the national security state was complete.

So at last we finally discover exactly what is meant by that sinister phrase. A “national security state” is a state which has an army, a navy, and an air force, as well as a centralized intelligence department, a proper foreign office, and a unified department of defense. It took Pearl Harbor to endow the United States with these common attributes of external power which are so prosaic to the non-isolationist mind; all were then willfully dismantled in 1946 while a broad segment of European life was being handed over to the benevolent care of Josef Stalin. Americans of diverse opinions who feared the consequences of further Russian expansion then began to agitate for a policy of effective resistance by the United States. On the whole they failed, and Stalin unfortunately did not respect declaratory policies unsupported by effective military power. Then there is another Pearl Harbor, this time in Korea, and the United States rearms once again.

In other words, the real action in the “rise of the national security state” takes place in Tokyo 1940-41, Moscow 1939-1950, and perhaps in Pyongyang in 1950. What a pity that it cannot now be established how Kim Il Sung felt on the morning of the attack, or what Stalin wore as he watched Roosevelt’s plane take off after Yalta. And of course there is a scarcity of those pungent quotes which the Time-style requires. But looking where the street lamp shines will not help to find the key dropped across the street.

About the Author

Edward N. Luttwak is senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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