As the Cold War took shape during the late 1940s, policymakers in the United States and Great Britain displayed a marked tendency to regard international communism as a “monolithic” conspiratorial movement. The image of a “Communist monolith” distilled the messy realities of international relations into a neat, comprehensible formula. Its lesson was that all communists, regardless of their native land or political program, were essentially tools of the Kremlin.
Marc Selverstone recreates the manner in which the “monolith” emerged as a perpetual framework on both sides of the Atlantic. Though more pervasive and millennial in its American guise, this understanding also informed conceptions of international communism in its close ally Great Britain, casting the Kremlin’s challenge as but one more in a long line of threats to freedom.
This illuminating and important book not only explains the Cold War mindset that determined global policy for much of the twentieth century, but also reveals how the search to define a foreign threat can shape the ways in which that threat is actually met.
The Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis wrote 20 years ago that American statesmen in the postwar period never ‘believed in the existence of an international Communist monolith.’ After reading Selverstone’s work, it would be hard to accept that judgement… The parallels between ‘Communist monolith’ thinking and the ‘axis of evil’ delusion which infected the United States after 9/11 are all too clear… This is not a general history of the early Cold War, but rather a study of how the policymaking elites of Great Britain and the United States tried to develop ground rules and useful concepts in order to manage a perceived threat… Twenty years after the democratic upheavals of 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the idea that Communism was ever a serious threat to the American way now seems ridiculous—as ridiculous as the idea that al-Qaida could destroy liberal democracy.
A powerful and insightful book about a curiously neglected topic. Selverstone offers a compelling account of how dominant perceptions form during a period of crisis and how policymakers come to understand the ‘other.’ His analysis is most insightful in its emphasis on the interplay of ideology and circumstance. The prose is clear and sharp, making for a book that will appeal to experts and non-experts alike. This is a major contribution to international history.
An impressive work, sophisticated, subtle, and persuasive, that carries significant implications for larger historical debates about the nature of the early Cold War. Selverstone demonstrates that there was far greater sophistication, fluidity, and nuance in policy making circles, as well as in public discourse, in both Britain and the United States. I heartily recommend it.
Despite a plethora of books on the early Cold War period and Western policy, there is no other comparable study to Constructing the Monolith. This innovative work, written in clear, uncluttered prose, is an important contribution to scholarship on postwar U.S. and British foreign policy.
Selverstone expertly investigates the roots of an image and its impact on policy and public understanding of the Cold War. He demonstrates how the image of a monolith had roots in a fear of Bolshevism and the universal threat of Nazi totalitarianism, how key figures contributed to its propagation, and how policymakers simultaneously espoused the monolith while pursuing a ‘wedge strategy’ designed to break communist solidarity. British and American policies were not simply reactions to contemporary developments but responses in the light of ideas about global affairs.
- 2010, Winner of the Stuart L. Bernath Book Prize
- 318 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
From this author
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