October 16, 2008
Cold War Lessons and Contemporary Dilemmas
Melvyn Leffler, Professor of American History at the University of Virginia, addressed students and faculty in the LBJ Library on October 16. He began the talk by reviewing current policy challenges facing the United States, including the emergence of a powerful China, nuclear proliferation, climate change, and terrorism. He went on to say that lessons learned from the Cold War are directly applicable to all of these issues.
Dr. Leffler discussed two prevalent schools of thought regarding the causes of the Cold War’s end: triumphalism and blowback. The triumphalist theory essentially advocates the deregulation of markets and the spread of democracy. It further maintains that Ronald Reagan used the implementation of carefully considered policies to win the Cold War. The blowback school of thought, on the other hand, states that U.S. cold war policies were essentially misguided and that Reagan’s contributions to winning the war have been overstated. The blowback theory further questions whether the United States actually won the war. Leffler said that he subscribes to neither theory, as he disputes the blowback assertion that the United States did not win the war and views the triumphalists’ belief in Reagan’s role in ending the Cold War as historically inaccurate.
Dr. Leffler presented excerpts from recently declassified documents Reagan and his advisers wrote that contradict commonly held triumphalist beliefs. The documents, Dr. Leffler noted, showed that Reagan had conflicting impulses about how to address the Soviet threat and in fact considered establishing a peaceful arrangement with the U.S.S.R. years before the war actually ended. Dr. Leffler then attacked a fundamental belief of the blowback school of thought by describing how the end of the Cold War represented the triumph of capitalism over communism. He asserted that the Cold War was decided by the war for the “soul of mankind,” in which one system of governance clearly provided for its citizenry while the other was unable to make good on promises to its people.
Dr. Leffler offered eight lessons from the Cold War that apply to the modern age:
Melvyn P. Leffler is the Edward R. Stettinius Professor of American History at the University of Virginia. He served as the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at UVA from 1997-2001 and as president of the Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations. He has been a Fellow at the Norwegian Nobel Institute, the Woodrow Wilson International Center and the United States Institute of Peace. He served in the Carter administration's Office of the Secretary of Defense as a Council on Foreign Relations Fellow. His book, A Preponderance of Power, won the prestigious Bancroft Prize in 1993.
This presentation is part of the Strauss Center’s International Security Speaker Series, which features leading scholars and policy practitioners discussing challenges and solutions for meeting the security demands of the modern world.
Watch the full presentation below: