THE LIMITS OF POWER by Gabriel & Joyce Kolko


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Professor Gabriel Kolko is one of the most important of the so-called radical historians. This ambitious sequel to The Politics of War (1970) deals with American aims and accomplishments in the first postwar decade, particularly the Truman years, with an emphasis not on Cold War diplomacy but on the effort to ""reconstruct European capitalism to [American] needs."" The effort to achieve free trade and ""open doors""; the fear of the French and Italian Communist Parties, no matter how cooperative; the campaign to force Congress and the public to sustain globalist policies and burdens which demanded contrived crises and anti-Soviet scares -- these are the foci of long, dense study. Kolko's habit is often to invert conventional wisdom, sometimes that of the orthodox, sometimes that of other revisionists. For example, he argues that the Marshall Plan was not an antiCommunist effort but simply a contribution to rebuilding European trade and investment; that not only the State Department but Truman and his cabinet were firmly pro-Arab; that it was not porkbarrel pressures from greedy industrialists but vaguely specified larger needs and forces which shaped the ""defense"" buildup; that ""Russia's real threat was. . . its ability to communicate its desire for peace and thereby take the momentum out of Washington's policies""; that NATO was geared toward internal threats, not the USSR; that Washington itself, not MacArthur, made the Korean War a war of ""liberation."" The biggest inversion of all is, of course, Kolko's expository insistence on the limits of U.S. power, in contrast to the usual leftish emphasis on galloping neo-imperialism. Thus the book underlines American capitalism's difficulties in implementing its plans for European restoration, partly because deflationary measures undercut them. The specific limits of the Marshall Plan, the ""loss"" of China, the Korean stalemate, the Vietnam problem, European pressure in the '50's for a detente with the Soviets, and the inability of the U.S. and the USSR to control revolutionary upheaval outside Europe are cited as evidence of ""the limits of power."" Nonetheless, much of this testifies to postwar triumphs -- control over oil resources, defeat of the Greek insurgents, cooperation from the Communist Parties as ""straw bosses of the economy,"" defeat of isolationism at home and, as the book acknowledges, consolidation of European capitalists without Gaullist economic nationalism, plus export subsidies, investment ""concessions,"" and victories against bilateral trade. The basic achievement of U.S. hegemony over the European economy is understated; and unfortunately the whole trade issue is not provided with enough theoretical underlining to make its importance clear to the ordinary reader. But the book remains a considerable accomplishment as empirical narrative, and an interesting if not wholly satisfactory polemic.

Pub Date: Feb. 23rd, 1971
Publisher: Harper & Row