Journal of Cold War Studies 6.2 (2004) 97-99
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Wilfried Loth, Overcoming the Cold War: A History of Détente, 1950-1991, trans. by Robert F. Hogg. New York: Palgrave, 2002. 255 pp. $72.00.
There is always room for another history of the Cold War. Not only are new factual revelations continuing to broaden our knowledge of events, but perspective on those events evolves as they recede further into the past. Or at least it should evolve. Wilfried Loth's latest contribution to the literature betrays an increasingly archaic viewpoint mired in the past he is portraying. Overcoming the Cold War: A History of Détente shows Loth to be an unabashed, old-school revisionist like those in the late 1960s and 1970s. He sees a general sincerity in Soviet motives, an overall disingenuousness on the part of the West, and a catalogue of missed opportunities, blunders, and personal mistakes, which he usually attributes to the United States. It all makes for a challenging read.
Also provocative in a different way is the book's failure to live up to the promise of its title. Overcoming the Cold War: A History of Détente suggests a significance to détente that the text does not convey. Cooperation hardly overcame the fundamental conflict at any point in this account. In fact, as Loth's story unfolds, the opposite turns out to be true: The Cold War overcame détente.
Loth's conception of détente is broader than the generally accepted understanding. The story begins with Soviet attempts to create a neutral, peaceful Germany. It then moves into Soviet struggles to prevent the formation of rival blocs. Next come Soviet desires to build a cooperative relationship with an unyielding West. Finally, Soviet efforts to end the Cold War are met with a suspicious and insufficient response from the United States.
The book thus succumbs to a major structural flaw. Détente is not necessarily the same thing as "overcoming the cold war." Détente was a contrived series of actions and results by the superpowers that involved the lessening of tension within the confines of the Cold War structure. Although there were episodes of mutual interest throughout the post-1945 period, détente is generally associated with what Loth calls the "Time of Treaties" in the 1970s. By stretching the term to include events both before and after the years under Henry Kissinger, he weakens its impact.
On the other hand, Loth might have chosen to place the 1970s in the spotlight, casting the 1950s and 1960s as background for a complete understanding and the 1980s as the inevitable backlash with its own inevitable consequences. However, Loth gives every era equal treatment, suggesting a broader interpretation than the convention allows. Indeed, he actually devotes little space—no more than twelve pages—to the mid-1970s. Perhaps it seems less interesting than confrontation, which receives the bulk of Loth's attention.
A true history of détente would focus mainly on experience that actually decreased hostility, increased collaboration, and lessened the likelihood of war. In fact, an in-depth account of how enemies can cooperate, what cooperation looks like, the [End Page 97] background of meetings, the off-the-record conversations, and so on would be a real contribution to our understanding of the Cold War and of hostility in general. Surely the softer periods of the Cold War and what transpired are as significant as the bad times, not only for historians but also for observers of today's climate. In Loth's telling, there is no lesson to be learned from détente, nothing that might be instructive for, say, India and Pakistan. Would it not be useful for them to know what happens when enemy leaders meet? Who steps forward first? How do they move beyond their inclinations to doubt the other's sincerity? How can real trust be engendered? How should mid-level officials interact for maximum benefit? Is nothing besides high politics important in the easing of relations? Can the whole...