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Journal of Cold War Studies 4.2 (2002) 110-113

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Book Review

Britain and the Cold War, 1945-1991

Sean Greenwood, Britain and the Cold War, 1945-1991. Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 2000. 227 pp. $45.00.

On the cover of Preponderance of Power, Melvyn Leffler's magisterial study of the origins of the Cold War, is an interesting photograph, one that tells its own story about how we tend to view the history of the immediate post-1945 period. The picture is the one taken at the Potsdam conference with the leaders of the three great powers all sitting in their wicker chairs gazing out at the cameras and the world at large—masters of the universe in all but name. But there is something wrong with the image on Leffler's book. The new British prime minister, Clement Attlee, appears to have disappeared from the scene. He may have forgotten the appointment, though that seems unlikely. There is no reason to assume that any slight was intended by Leffler, who is too good a historian to assume that other actors did not play their part, whether at Potsdam or in the making of the postwar order. Still, this one picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words, and the impression conveyed only confirms a particular way [End Page 110] of thinking about the years after the war: that it was all a Soviet-American show in which the other players barely mattered.

Such views, of course, have not gone unchallenged. Scholars have launched two main waves of attack. The first occurred in earlier times when it was usually taken for granted—especially by British historians—that the "special relationship" between Britain and the United States really did mean something, and that it meant something only because it was based, in the last analysis, on the United Kingdom's possession of enough chips on the table to be taken seriously in international affairs. Certainly, for an aspiring young British historian like myself in the 1960s, there was never any doubt that Britain was still a force to be reckoned with, even after Suez. Moreover, having been raised on our very own E. H. Carr, we were always warned not to think retrospectively and not to judge the past in terms of the present. Thus, even if the sun had finally gone down on the British Empire by the 1970s, this did not mean that it had always been setting. After the Second World War, the argument went, Britain was still a force to be reckoned with.

The second wave of attack came later and took a somewhat different form. Historians in this second wave were not motivated simply by instinct or pride; instead, they consulted newly opened archives and found that Britain did indeed play a much bigger part in shaping the contours of the postwar world than the theorists of bipolarity had led us to believe. Decisions concerning the future of Germany, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the shape of the postwar economic order were not taken solely in Washington; they involved many other actors, including none more important than the United Kingdom itself. According to some of the new historians, Britain was not even that dependent on the United States. In some of the economic negotiations, it had even shown that it was more than a match for its American ally. Not all the shots, it seemed, were being fired by U.S. guns. This news must have come as something of a surprise to many Americans, though less so perhaps for those of us "over here" who had never bought into the notion that the superpowers alone were the sole authors of the postwar international system.

Significant though these findings were, "British revisionism" had another, even more interesting, piece of artillery in its intellectual armory. Britain, it was claimed by some writers, was not just more influential than most American historians had previously thought; it actually bore the heaviest responsibility for having started the Cold War in the first place. This idea was not...


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