1945 and All That

September 1, 2001 Topics: Society Tags: AcademiaCold WarThe Clash Of CivilizationsTory

1945 and All That

Mini Teaser: Well-trained historians need not be specialists, as P.M.H. Bell's illuminating new volume confirms.

by Author(s): John Lukacs

P.M.H. Bell, The World Since 1945: An International History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 593 pp., $80 (cloth), $29.95 (paper).

In the history of the world (and, of course, of the United States) 1945 was more of a turning point than 1918 had been. The First World War brought about the end of the European state system that had governed much of the world since the 16th century, even including the geopolitical situation of the Americas; but its worldwide consequences were not comparable to the results of the Second World War. After 1918 the colonial empires of Britain and France and of other European countries continued to exist. In 1917 the entry of the United States in, and the withdrawal of Russia from, the European War were decisive events-the first more than the second, since the Russian withdrawal from the war did not affect its course in the end, while the American entry did-but after 1918 America and Russia, albeit for very different reasons, withdrew from Europe. Again for very different reasons, both became involved in the Second World War in 1941, at the end of which they were the supreme victors. Thus 1945 marked many things: the end of the European Age; the partition of Europe and of Germany; the impending end of the colonial empires and the emergence of many dozens of new states in Asia and Africa; the primacy of the United States across the world, eventually involving the retreat of Russia and the dissolution of the Soviet Union-all of these events bearing long-range consequences. The world in 2001 is at first sight very different from the world in 1945, but one may, without much eye strain, espy its origins already at that time.

All of this has had an effect on the writing of history. During the last half-century it was not only the political configuration of the world that changed; so has the very texture of history, including changes in the structure of societies. The result is that historians must deal not only with what has been happening, but also with how. There exists an amazingly persistent interest in history (one of the very few encouraging phenomena at a time of overall intellectual decay). Yet seldom do historians consider these mutations adequately. Contemporary history flourishes as well as ever (consider only the plethora of histories of the Vietnam war). Yet even in massive volumes such as Henry Kissinger's Diplomacy something is missing. Its very title is inaccurate, since international relations have come to amount to something wider and deeper than the relations of states, which is what "diplomacy" has meant since the 15th century. The relationships of nations have become important, often even more important than the relations of states; in any event, the two sorts of relationships have become inseparable. The dominant popular force in the world is still nationalism, which has proved to be much more important and enduring than ideology. (In many contemporary historical interpretations of the Cold War the recognition of this is still wanting.) This phenomenon is worldwide.

Consequently, not only the global geographic scope but the very historical analysis of the world since 1945 presents an enormous task to a historian. Philip Bell's book is, in this respect, near encyclopedic and admirable. The World Since 1945 sounds like a grandiloquent title; but its content is fitting. This book ought to be a principal text in courses on contemporary history, and certainly for students of international relations (which, as suggested above, is an inaccurate term, dealing with the relations of states and governments and not of nations; but, then, the United Nations, too, is a booming misnomer, being an organization of governments and states, not of nations).

The structure of The World Since 1945 is magisterial. It reflects Bell's governing comprehension and treatment of two overwhelming themes: the history of the Cold War and the end of colonization-the first having reached its end more than ten years ago, the second whose end is not quite yet. Bell makes it clear that the origins of the Cold War were not due to the Russian Revolution, that is, to "International Communism", but to the Second World War and its consequences (the title of his prologue). Thereafter Part I describes the Cold War from 1945-62 and "Decolonization and Wars of Succession" during the same period. Part II treats world history from 1963 to the end of the Cold War, concluding with a brief and terse Part III: "The Conduct and Motivation of International Affairs", and "The World since the Cold War: New Order and Old Chaos."

Bell is historian enough to distinguish turning points from milestones. He recognizes, for example, how the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, even though suppressed by Russian armed force, was a long-range turning point in the Cold War because it marked the final decline of international communism, especially among Western intellectuals; but, far more importantly, because it led (after a temporarily acute bitterness) to an improvement of American-Russian relations, since Khrushchev and his Politburo associates had recognized that the United States was not inclined to challenge the then division of Europe. In Part II, Bell distinguishes between "détente", 1963-75, and the sudden decline of détente and "renewed Cold War", from 1976 to 1985.

Bell has not been an expert either of American-Russian relations or of the histories of Asia, Africa and South America-or, indeed, of the writing of history after 1945. Yet The World Since 1945 is proof of what a well-trained (and, in many ways, old-fashioned) historian is capable of doing when his interest and perspective are directed to problems, periods, places and peoples well beyond his earlier interests. Retired from teaching at Liverpool, he has written respectable and valuable works on many other topics, mostly about the Second World War and Anglo-French relations, including A Certain Eventuality: Britain and the Fall of France (1974) and two volumes of France and Britain: 1900-1994 (1996).

The quality of Bell's historianship appears, too, from the customary probity of his language. His style is both restrained and illuminating, an unusually good combination. Here are a few illustrations. About 1945: "Myths cling to the Yalta Conference like barnacles to a wreck." About the 1958 Mideast crisis: "as long as the Americans did not attempt to reverse the coup in Iraq, the Soviets were prepared to let Lebanon and Jordan alone." About the Vietnam War: "The Americans possessed total supremacy in the air, and if necessary could use massive fire-power on land. In the 1960s, American strategic thinking was dominated by a pseudo-scientific approach, strongly advocated by the Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, in which everything could be calculated in terms of fire-power, bomb-loads and casualty rates . . . too little attention was paid to the imponderable and incalculable issue of morale." About the Helsinki Accords of 1975: " . . . both of the superpowers were surprised by the outcome. The Soviets achieved their main objective, only to find out that other elements had been introduced into the deal. The Americans expected little, and slowly discovered that they had gained much." About the American-Russian conflict in the Third World: "It appeared that the Cold War was not after all going to be won or lost in Africa; it merely lost its way there, which was something very different." One of the strengths of this book, too, is Bell's consistent illumination-and reminder-of the reciprocal quid pro quo balancing of American-Russian moves throughout the Cold War.

There is, however, one caveat to note-perhaps the only marginal shortcoming of this admirable work. Bell understands the importance of public opinion and of popular sentiments-in sum, the domestic politics and pressures affecting conflicts and states. Yet-perhaps-he does not emphasize them strongly enough, except in his summary "Reflections" at the end of each part, and in his methodological and analytic conclusions at the end of the volume. National interest was and remains the decisive factor in the relations of states. But whereas in the past national interest was-well, almost-identical with the perceptions of governments, this vague but strong impulse has become more difficult to pinpoint when popular sentiments (again an element that is not necessarily identical with what is called, inaccurately, "public opinion") in the history of nations, nationalities and nationalisms have risen in importance, at the same time that the power and the freedom of action of governments (including traditional diplomacy) have declined. Like everything in history, this development is yet inchoate and not universally true; but it surely marks the history of the world since 1945. In this respect, too, The World Since 1945 is exceptionally useful: it amounts to a well-designed bridge leading from a-relatively-older order of things toward a very new world.

Essay Types: Book Review