Leffler Tapped for Beer Prize for Tome on the End of Cold War

December 04, 2008

December 4, 2008 — Melvyn P. Leffler, Edward R. Stettinius Professor of History at the University of Virginia, will receive the American Historical Association's 2008 George Louis Beer Prize for his book "For the Soul of Mankind: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War."

Leffler, a former dean of U.Va.'s College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, said he was surprised and deeply gratified by the award, which he will receive in January at the association's annual meeting in New York City.

"This is the best prize the American Historical Association gives to a writer of history of international relations," he said. "It is exhilarating to be able to step down from the deanship and revive one's scholarly career."

Leffler's 600-page book, published in 2007 by Hill and Wang, examines four crucial episodes during the Cold War when American and Soviet leaders considered modulating, avoiding or ending hostilities, and asks why they failed. He then illuminates how U.S. and Soviet leaders were able to reconfigure Soviet-American relations after decades of confrontation.

"I had long been interested in the Cold War," Leffler said. "What framed the book was that I had not expected it to end. When it did, I was interested in why it lasted as long as it did and why it ended when it did."

Leffler concluded that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, without losing his faith in communism, transformed many of his ideological views on what was necessary to improve the political and economic systems in Russia. Leffler also credited U.S. President Ronald Reagan with building up U.S. military strength and then negotiating from that position of strength.

"The importance of Reagan was that he did want to negotiate with the men who ran the 'Evil Empire,'" Leffler said.

"Mel is internationally recognized as a scholar of the Cold War and he richly deserves this prize," Duane Osheim, chairman of U.Va.'s history department, said. "His book is an important work on United States foreign policy during the Cold War. It is instructive because of the thoughtfulness he gives to the values and the ideology of both sides during the Cold War."

Ann Goldberg, associate professor of history at the University of California-Riverside, who chaired the award committee that selected Leffler's book, said "The Soul of Mankind" is a "masterful treatment" that will become required reading.

"Using newly accessible archival sources, Leffler constructs a richly nuanced, empirically rigorous history of the Cold War that avoids the ideological blinkers of past Cold War scholarship," she said.

The Economist, a respected news magazine, praised the book as "a highly relevant and much-needed historical study, one of the best books on the period to have been written."

Leffler said the book took him more than five years to complete. He started in 1997, took four years out during his deanship and then picked up the book again when he stepped down.

Receiving the Beer Prize will not necessarily make writing the next book easier, he said, but it will "provide incentive when I am confronted with the impasses one encounters when writing a book."

He is currently co-editing, with Norwegian scholar Odd Arne Westad, the three-volume Cambridge History of the Cold War, a project that has engaged the pair for the past eight years.

One of Leffler's previous books, "A Preponderance of Power: National Security, The Truman Administration, and the Cold War," which chronicles the start of the Cold War, won the Bancroft Prize. The Bancroft, considered the most prestigious prize for the writing of American history, is awarded each year by Columbia University trustees.

Leffler, who also authored "The Specter of Communism: The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1917-1953," was named the Randolph Jennings Fellow at the United States Institution for Peace in 2004 and Henry A. Kissinger Fellow in Foreign Policy and International Relations at the Library of Congress in 2004.

Leffler said he has a passion for the history of foreign relations because international diplomacy involves "some of the most important things — war and peace, life and death.”

Leffler is now a member of the Governing America in a Global Era program at U.Va.'s Miller Center of Public Affairs, and recently co-edited, with his colleague Jeff Legro, "To Lead the World: American Strategy After the Bush Doctrine" (Oxford University Press, 2008).

— By Matt Kelly