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The Balance Of Power

July 2024
3min read

The catch in all of this is that the lid was coming off Pandora’s box anyway. At the close of the nineteenth century the United States and the world at large were changing in such a way that America was going to be involved in power politics no matter what it did in the Caribbean or in Asia. From Dewey’s victory in Manila Bay to the announcement of the Truman Doctrine in 1947—which can be taken as the more or less formal beginning of the Cold War—was just a half century, and that half century had seen a profound shift in the whole international power structure. When President Truman pledged this country to “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures,” he was taking a step that was logically connected with what the McKinley administration did in 1898, but it was a step that almost certainly would have been forced upon us even if the McKinley administration had behaved differently.

Thus an excellent book to read in connection with Mr. Beisner’s work is Louis J. Halle’s The Cold War as History . Mr. Halle here undertakes to examine the Cold War from a detached viewpoint, discussing it precisely as a historian might do a century afterward. The book is written as if the Cold War were something we had already lived through, an affair that had not only a beginning but an end. The end, to be sure, has unfortunately not yet arrived, and yet Mr. Halle believes that it is in sight; or, at least, that the time of greatest danger has already passed. It is nice to find someone so hopeful; meanwhile, The Cold War as History does shed a good deal of light on the eventful half-century between McKinley and Truman, and it is worth reading even by those who may not share Mr. Halle’s optimism.

What Mr. Halle begins with is the assertion that by the end of the nineteenth century “the foundations of the long-standing world order on which American detachment depended were crumbling.” America had been able to be detached because of the long stability of the balance of power in Europe. In terms of power, Europe until then was the whole world, and its balance of power was a world balance. America could remain happily isolated as long as that balance existed.

In other words, says Mr. Halle, our detachment from international power politics rested on the great Pax Britannica, because the European balance of power had been maintained largely by British naval supremacy. But as the iSgo’s ended, that supremacy was beginning to come to an end; Germany, Japan, and the United States itself were becoming strong naval powers, as a result of which Europe’s balance was no longer in equilibrium. The British navy was no longer omnipotent, and so the New World was no longer strategically detached. Now America found itself involved in power politics in a way and to an extent no American had foreseen—not because it had thoughtlessly taken on an empire in Asia, but because the whole world had changed.

The great lesson of World War I, as Mr. Halle remarks, was that the chief responsibility for policing the balance of power now lay with us. We ignored the lesson, tried to return to our traditional isolation, and eventually found ourselves in World War II—which, essentially, was a fight to re-establish a stable power structure. After both of these wars, America tried to devise an alternative to power politics, Woodrow Wilson bringing forth the League of Nations, Franklin Roosevelt the United Nations. Neither succeeded, and both of them, in Mr. Halle’s view, simply reflected “the naïveté of the American mind in the first half of the century.”

And the Cold War (to continue with Mr. Halle’s argument) developed because World War II left a power vacuum—military, economic, and political—in Europe. We had fought to eliminate German power and had succeeded; England was exhausted, France was itself part of the vacuum, the vacuum had to be filled by something, and across Europe came the Russian armies. This in turn pulled the United States back to Europe, back into international affairs everywhere, and there developed what Mr. Halle considers the central condition of the Cold War—the mutual opposition of two Europes, one led by Russia, the other by America.

At which point we start looking again toward Asia. For this reason: “Europe had offered solid ground on which the United States could make a stand. By contrast, Asia was a swamp.” There was a common understanding with the Europeans; with the Asiatics there was none whatever. And this, the author suggests, blinded us to the fact that the Cold War was essentially “a spasm … brought on by a collapse of the Western power structure,” and that “by the end of 1962 the spasm appeared to be over.” The two sides were by no means ready to swear eternal friendship, but they were beginning to be ready to make peace, and Mr. Halle believes this peace will eventually be achieved “although its achievement would be delayed by all the repercussions of the American involvement in Asia.”

The Cold War as History , by Louis J. Halle. Harper and Row. 434 pp. $6.95.

He points out that heretofore such conflicts between powerful societies resulted finally in military conflict. Yet despite all of the shooting that has been going on, this ultimate conflict has not taken place. Here is his explanation:
Since 1945, however, the presence on the scene of weapons that could, presumably, destroy the greatest societies in one blow, had had a major inhibiting effect on this tendency. What was historically unique about the Cold War was the restraining influence of the new weapons, which had prevented a conflict on the grand scale from culminating in general war. In the new weapons, then, lay the hope of the world, no less than its peril, as it moved into an unknown future.

Cold comfort? Possibly. Yet perhaps a world which refrains from a new world war simply because it is so terrified by the thought of the catastrophe such a war would bring is, after all, beginning to learn something. In any case, here is a most provocative study of recent world history.

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