Marc J. Selverstone. Constructing the Monolith: The United States, Great Britain, and International Communism, 1945-1950. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009. xi + 304 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-03179-1.
Reviewed by Peter Weiler (Boston College)
Published on H-Diplo (November, 2009)
Commissioned by Christopher L. Ball
The Original Axis of Evil
In Constructing the Monolith, Marc Selverstone sets out to fill what he sees as a gap in our understanding of the Cold War. The “vision of a highly coordinated, conspiratorial, malevolent force became encoded in the image of a ‘Communist monolith,’” Selverstone writes, and was “arguably the most dominant representation of international Communism during the height of the Cold War” (p. 2). Although Selverstone notes that there is a large literature on the Cold War, these accounts, he contends, “devote comparatively little time to the origin of the Cold War mind-set,” while inquiries into the cultural Cold War “have failed to examine the image itself and the process by which it came to permeate the language of policymakers and the public” (p. 4). Selverstone aims to fill this gap and in so doing answer the question of why both the British and Americans came, as he puts it, “to see international Communism as a monolithic force when the history of that movement suggested it was no such thing” (p. 4). Secondarily, Selverstone looks at the “process by which policymakers tried to crack the monolith,” in particular by examining the vicissitudes of the “wedge strategy” as it developed after the rift between Josip Tito and Josef Stalin (p. 5). Although he does not pursue the argument, Selverstone suggests that the George W. Bush administration’s notion of an “axis of evil” and the way it shaped popular perceptions was “reminiscent of the early Cold War” (p. 8).
Constructing the Monolith has a number of strengths. It is based almost entirely on primary sources, and if some of the key documents are well known, others are not. It provides a useful side-by-side comparison of developments in the United States and Great Britain over the period, and offers a number of interesting examples of popular opinion, particularly in the United States. The chapters on the dilemmas that the Yugoslav-Soviet split posed for policymakers about how to respond to national Communism were particularly good, I thought, because they are the most original. The book also traces in the detail the continuing doubts that policymakers had about the notion of a monolith, even if they felt political necessity required them to keep these views private. Overall, however, the book has serious weaknesses.
To begin with, I was not always sure about the audience for this book. It has no bibliography, which made it difficult to keep up with the notes and to evaluate the author’s use of primary and secondary sources. Here and there, the book falls back on the sort of portentous language that I associate with books intended for a popular audience (e.g., “Into this mix appeared a political treatise [Schlesinger’s Vital Center] that sought to firm up America’s sense of steely resolve” [p. 145]). The opening and concluding chapters seemed to me more intended for a popular audience than an academic one. In the first chapter, for example, Selverstone argues that the background to the monolithic interpretation of Communism that both Britain and the United States adopted was a belief that each nation shared in its own historical mission as a force of good or civilization, but he presents little evidence to support this view. Instead, Selverstone contends that these beliefs came to a sort of fruition in both countries during the 1930s when what he calls an “Anglo-American historical consciousness” emerged “as part of a social process that reached into countless pockets of American and British life” (p. 19). Responding to domestic turmoil and foreign dangers, “increasing numbers of Britons and Americans” became “locked … into a reverence for their national traditions” (p. 20). But Selverstone offers no specific examples of this reverence. Nor does he name any of the “intellectuals in both countries” who “came to embrace the virtues of their native lands” (p. 20). Such unsupported generalizations simply do not do justice to the complex realities of either British or American society; they are too facile to carry any analytic weight.
To my mind, the main flaw of Constructing the Monolith is that it repeats a well-worn narrative of the Cold War. As Selverstone presents that narrative, Harry Truman and his secretary of state, James Byrnes, initially “minimized the importance of ideology as a factor in Stalin’s and, consequently, Moscow’s behavior… a perspective shared by countless others throughout the land” (p. 33). Although policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic remained unsure how to interpret Soviet actions, Soviet actions at the 1945 Council of Foreign Ministers and in Iran, as well as Stalin’s electoral address of February 1946, seemed so worrying that the State Department asked George Kennan to evaluate Soviet actions. His response, the famous “long telegram,” depicted “international Communism as a monolithic movement” and “established a veritable ‘company line’ on how to interpret Soviet behavior” (p. 37), confirming fears of its ideological origins. Popular opinion was similarly changing, particularly after Winston Churchill’s famous “iron curtain” speech at Westminster, Missouri, which “marked a turning point in postwar rhetoric and gave rise to a more hawkish portrayal of the Soviet Union” (p. 39).
Selverstone outlines the similar developments that took place in Britain where initial doubts gave way to alarmist views of Soviet behavior. The markers here are all well known: Frank Roberts’s telegram of March 1946, C. F. A. Warner’s memo on the “Soviet Campaign Against This Country and Our Response to It,” and the establishment of the Committee on Policy Toward Russia, which cast Soviet actions in the most negative possible light. To be sure, there was some concern with what Selverstone calls “the riddle of national Communism” (p. 42), but in the United States the famous Clifford-Elsey report of July 1946 “maintained the emerging emphasis on ideology that had begun to take hold earlier that year” (p. 45). Although there were more doubts about Asian Communism, particularly in Britain, “Britons and Americans would thus exit 1946 similarly convinced that Moscow was at the forefront of a monolithic Communist movement. They had not entered it that way” (p. 51).
Selverstone’s narrative continues with Truman’s famous 1947 speech to Congress that divided the world into good and evil, winning support for aid to Greece and Turkey but increasing popular fears. By calling forth popular anti-Communist fervor the Truman administration unleashed a tiger that they then had a hard time controlling, even when policymakers had more nuanced views of the Soviet Union. Although the British thought the Truman Doctrine speech had been over the top, they and American policymakers both found the view of a Communist monolith confirmed by Soviet refusal of Marshall Plan aid. The creation of the Cominform in September 1947, with its view that world had been divided into two camps, only provided additional confirmation of policymakers’ binary view of the world. In turn, Western publicity increasingly emphasized the notion of "red fascism," the idea that the Soviet Union was simply another, and equally threatening, version of Nazi Germany, with emphasis on the dangers of appeasing dictators. In 1948, the Czech coup and the Berlin blockade provided more grist for this mill.
The one exception to this growing uniformity of view, Selverstone emphasizes, was caused by the Yugoslav-Soviet split in the summer of 1948. That split raised the question of whether there could be a Communist movement that was independent of the Soviet Union, or whether Yugoslavia was a one-off. Policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic wondered particularly about Asian Communism but in the United Sates rampant anti-communism, Selverstone argues, “together with the need to build support for U. S. foreign and military policies, would lead government officials to lump all Communists together, propping up the image of the monolith at a time when several were questioning its very relevance” (p. 114). In turn, Tito prompted consideration of a “wedge strategy” (chap. 6), that is, a strategy to encourage splits between the USSR and other Communist countries. To encourage such divisions, the United States and Britain increasingly referred to Soviet imperialism as the danger so as not to seem opposed to Communism per se.
In the meantime, Selverstone goes on, popular opinion, particularly in the United States, became solidly antiCommunist. Although more complex views could be found among policymakers, the “portrayal of international affairs as a zero-sum contest between democracy and totalitarianism thwarted adoption of a more nuanced policy position” (p. 149). While the British somewhat disagreed, the United States increasingly rejected ideas of a national Communism not under the thumb of the USSR, a tendency reinforced by the “highly charged environment” created by Senator Joseph McCarthy. “The issues of the day had become too black-and-white,” adding “further heft to the rapidly hardening monolithic outlook” (p. 158).
The rest of Selverstone’s narrative follows the same familiar paths--the triumph of Mao Tse-Tung in China, the Soviet atomic bomb, and NSC 68, which explicitly rejected “ambiguity” and served as “a model of monolithic thought,” presenting the Cold War as a “worldwide” struggle between the “forces of ‘freedom’ against the agents of ‘slavery’” (p. 162). “Allusions to Red Fascism embedded the monolith even further into popular discourse” (p. 162). And finally, there was Korea, which provided definitive confirmation of a Communist monolith. And while the United States still proved willing to provide aid to Tito, and Great Britain took a relatively softer stance toward Communist China, “efforts to disentangle the workings of ideology from those of state behavior virtually disappeared as American officials equated international Communism and Soviet imperialism with greater regularity” (p. 191).
Not only does Constructing the Monolith follow the standard narrative of the Cold War, it also has a number of other shortcomings. First, while Selverstone calls British and American policy ideological, he never defines ideology or considers what it means to make that statement. There is, after all, a large literature about ideology but none of it is cited here. What are we to make of British and American views of the Soviet Union? False consciousness, as Karl Marx would have said? Systematic self-serving thought, as Karl Mannheim would have put it? And how exactly does ideology work? Many of the key documents of the Cold War are presented here--Kennan’s telegram, NSC 68, etc.--but the documents themselves are not analyzed in detail to deconstruct their logic and underlying assumptions.
Second, Selverstone provides insufficient context for British and American policymaking. In order to understand why British and American policymakers reacted as they did to the Soviet Union, we need more discussion of the way in which the Second World War had created vast political changes that potentially threatened the international balance of power or, in the British case, its empire. Similarly, we need to know more about the world policymakers wanted to construct--one that was safe for the remains of the empire in Britain’s case, or that would prevent closed blocs that might threaten the U.S. economy or recreate the conditions that gave rise to the Second World War in the American case. But there is almost no discussion of such larger policy concerns as can easily be found in, for example, Melvyn Leffler’s analysis of this period in A Preponderance of Power (1993) or John Kent’s British Imperial Strategy and the Origins of the Cold War (1993), one of a number of books about Britain that Selverstone has overlooked.
Third, there is a lot of repetition as time after time we are told about the “hardening of the monolithic framework” (p. 144), or the “rapidly hardening monolithic outlook” (p. 158). But repeating that at each turn of events the image of a Communist monolith increasingly prevailed is no substitute for a larger analysis that would allow the reader to make sense of this information--of the sort provided, for example, by Daniel Yergin in Shattered Peace (1977), with his notion of the competing Yalta and Riga axioms.
Fourth, one reason for such repetitiveness is that Selverstone provides no analysis of how British or American policymaking worked. There is almost no character analysis of the leading players, and no analysis of the different groupings within policymaking circles. Were all individuals and groups equal? Should more weight be given to the views of the secretary of state than those of an official on one of the area desks? To be sure, Selverstone points out that “the monolithic aspects of U.S. and British rhetoric should not obscure the many instances in which members of both governments pointed to tensions in the Communist world” (p. 168). That is certainly correct and useful, but Selverstone never establishes any hierarchy of opinion so it is often impossible to discern the importance of internal dissenters.
In short, I do not think this book modifies our understanding of the Cold War. As I said earlier, the chronology of the Cold War’s development remains unaltered. And Selverstone’s ultimate explanation for the adoption of the notion of a Communist monolith--Anglo-American historical consciousness of each country’s providential role predisposed Americans and Britons to see the world as a struggle between good and evil--is simply unproven at best or meaningless at worst.
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Peter Weiler. Review of Selverstone, Marc J., Constructing the Monolith: The United States, Great Britain, and International Communism, 1945-1950.
H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews.
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