in Book Review

For the Soul of Mankind

The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War

Instead of dealing with a plethora of events – major and minor – that occurred throughout the Cold War, Melvyn Leffler’s For the Soul of Mankind: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War instead put the spotlight on five Soviet leaders – Stalin, Malenkov, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and Gorbachev – and how they dealt with the US leaders during their respective terms.

And yes, the book does focus a lot more on Soviet leaders than on the US presidents. It’s evident in the way the book’s narrative starts and ends – it began with Stalin’s early life, and ended with Gorbachev and the final months of the Soviet Union. The book showed how each Soviet leader dealt with their US counterparts – how they tried to uphold their Communist ideology, while trying to not bring about a nuclear war with the US.

But protecting and upholding one’s ideological principles is way more powerful than any desire to hold back the aggressiveness and discuss peace. Both the Soviet Union and America had to contend with this dilemma throughout the Cold War. For many times, they had to come to their allies’ aid, even as both superpowers strived to make peace and avoid confrontation with each other.

The US found itself fighting in Korea and Vietnam due to fear of Communists gobbling up the rest of the world, in what is known as the “domino theory”. The Soviet Union, for its part, had to intervene in the third world lest it be seen as abandoning its Communist comrades in the battle against capitalist West. This is most evident in Soviet intervention in Africa – Cuba’s Fidel Castro kept persuading Soviet Union for help for their comrades – and in the eventual decision to send troops to Afghanistan.

There were, indeed, numerous times when both Soviet and American leaders tried to break the vicious cycle that kept the Cold War going. Georgy Malenkov and Nikita Khrushchev broke away from the Stalinist system – the use of violence and intimidation to ensure absolute loyalty to the Party leader – and tried to negotiate detente, as it’s the only way they could focus on resolving domestic concerns. Leonid Brezhnev succeeded in negotiating an arms treaty, and strived to keep detente going, even as the need – or rather, desire – for foreign intervention in the third world kept him busy until his death. And Mikhail Gorbachev initiated reform from within, still with the intent of freeing up burdens and focus on domestic issues.

And it’s Gorbachev’s reforms that ultimately led to the end of the Cold War. For the Soul of Mankind is not a book that squarely frames the Cold War as a US victory. Far from it, in fact, as it was Gorbachev who initiated the policies of transparency and military retreat that unintentionally led to peaceful revolutions all over the Soviet empire. Pretty soon, the events were out of their control, and one by one the Soviet territories broke away, the Berlin Wall collapsed, and Soviet Union, with nothing else left to rule, peacefully ceased to exist.

For the Soul of Mankind is, in general, about the leaders and their dilemmas. It’s all about how they all sincerely wanted to put a stop to the madness, yet by virtue of their ideologies, and their political and social interests, failed to end the Cold War. It took Gorbachev’s bold decisions for the wheels to start slowing down, and ultimately come to a halt. Yet, for decades, the cycle of failed negotiations and foreign interventions just kept going on and on, in the long “struggle for the soul of mankind”, that began, continued, and ended, through events beyond control of the world’s most powerful people.