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British historian's analysis of the cold war's origins

Armed Truce: The Beginnings of the Cold War, 1945-46, by Hugh Thomas. New York: Atheneum. 667 pp. $27.50. By far the most controversial question facing American historians in recent decades concerns the origins of - and the responsibility for - the cold war. Once attributed entirely to the Soviets, the blame was eagerly shifted to Washington by Vietnam-era revisionists. More recent scholars, less interested in indicting conspirators than in understanding tragedy, find intolerance and self-righteousness, misperception, and sheer error on both sides.

This essentially Russo-American conflict has dominated world politics since 1945; even decolonization runs a distant second. Americans have paid dearly for the cold war, not only in blood and treasure, but in the simplistic imperatives it has fostered.

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Hence the significance of this account, the first of several projected volumes. Hugh Thomas, a British popular historian, is a prolific writer and politically active (as a Thatcherite). His prestige, the authoritative aura of such a lengthy, fact-laden, and - apparently - scholarly work, and the respectful reviews it already has received, make it a book with which to reckon. But it must be reckoned as flawed at best.

The issue is: When, where, and why did the cold war begin? Thomas hearkens back to the 1950s by arguing that Marxist ideology, Soviet ambitions, and Stalin's personal drives place all guilt on the Soviets. The conflict began during May 1945 to March 1946, as communism followed the Red Army into Eastern Europe and Northeast Asia.

This new barbarism, Thomas proclaims (his contempt for Russian ``hordes'' smacks of racism), carried all before it, with only Finland, Greece, Turkey, and Iran escaping, for reasons that he barely explains. France, Italy, and even the Spanish frontier also saw communism on the march, as did China and Indochina.

If they were indeed so powerful, what stopped the communists? Thomas is good at facts, but not at selecting the relevant from the merely colorful or providing much sense of cause-and-effect, particularly when writing about the complexities of Iran and Eastern Europe. That communism in 1945 frightened elites, but also attracted groups that hated the discredited old order is barely suggested, let alone assessed. Thomas provides few guideposts throughout his 550 pages of text, save the traditional Tory fascination with Carlyle's great men, who - for unspecified reasons - shape events while lesser men fail.

One theme does, however, shape the entire book, a theme that conservatives will applaud: Marxism as the mainspring of Soviet expansion. Not for Thomas (aside from scattered remarks) is the thesis that Stalin by 1945 was essentially a traditional Russian ruler, moving to strengthen Russia's borderlands against hostile outsiders, particularly a revived Germany.

Nor does Thomas recognize that the cold war, whose opening he telescopes into a mere nine months in 1945-46, evolved gradually, with cut-and-thrust on both sides, becoming firmly fixed only in 1948, with the communist coup in Czechoslovakia and the Berlin blockade. These events convinced the West that agreement with Moscow was impossible, especially over Germany, a far more important issue than Eastern Europe. The communization of that region Thomas rightly treats with horror. But Washington lacked power over events there; Germany was another matter.

Moral indignation also prevents Thomas from acknowledging the extreme likelihood of conflict between two victorious and self-righteous powers, neither understanding the other, both standing toe-to-toe, eager to reshape the world in its own respective image (consider their policies in countries under their sway), and without other important states to provide balance or restraint. Clashing moralisms rarely encourage peace.

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But this book lacks professionalism as well as wisdom. Typos, misdating, factual errors in plenty, a clumsy system of notes, gross simplification of events, even misspelling of names, not to mention tangled sentences whose clauses bump and clatter: This is less a finished text than a first draft, thick with outright misinformation. Has narrative history, with its commitment to logic, reliable data, and fine distinctions, and its avowal of explanation, not polemicism, so lost its place with the lay public that a prestigious author and a reputable publisher can simply ignore its rules?

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