Ohio History Journal

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Book Reviews

Book Reviews


Dangerous Relations: The Soviet Union in World Politics, 1970-1982. By

Adam B. Ulam. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. vi + 325p.;

notes, index. $25.00.)


In a recent study of American diplomatic historiography Jerald Combs

had some difficulty deciding if Adam Ulam had revisionist leanings or be-

longed firmly to the orthodox camp. No such doubts could follow from

Ulam's most recent study, a continuation chronologically of his Expansion

and Coexistence and the Rivals. Ulam sees a threat both from Soviet power

and from American inability to understand its dimensions.

Unlike in the 1950s, the Soviet Union of the 1970s and 1980s was genuinely

equal to the United States as a superpower and prepared to challenge the

United States in all parts of the globe wherever opportunities beckoned. Tur-

moil in the Third World from Africa to Latin America usually spelled oppor-

tunity for the Soviets as they could play on the normal anti-imperialist senti-

ments found wherever the Western influence had been. The United States

as heir to the British and French empires was inevitably vulnerable to Third

World suspicions. Hence, there appeared to be a succession of Soviet tri-

umphs in Vietnam, in Angola, and in Cuba. The latter was valued not only for

its Communist presence but also for its use as a surrogate of Soviet power in


From an American perspective Soviet power held another and even more

dangerous dimension. The much vaunted detente ushered in under the

Nixon-Kissinger administration led to division and weakness among the al-

lies who rushed to accommodation with the Soviet Union. It also symbol-

ized betrayal as the Soviets systematically modernized their military system

while the United States relaxed its guard. The missile crisis of the 1980s,

and the crisis of NATO itself, marked the success of the Soviet Union in

manipulating the workings of the Atlantic alliance to its own advantage.

Ulam presents these problems in some detail. But he shows at the same

time that many of America's troubles were of its own making. The Soviets

exploited fissures already present, without their necessarily reflecting a dia-

bolical world plot. As a superpower it assumed that it had as much right to

be as concerned with Africa as the United States was and was more puzzled

than annoyed by American outcries against its behavior. The Soviet leaders

were less cynical about their part in the Helsinki accords than America rec-

ognized. For them it was an acceptance of their role as America's equal in the

world and a legitimation of their control of eastern Europe.

From their perspective the United States was a disappointing and unrelia-

ble and impetuous partner in diplomacy. Despite the enormous increase in

power, the Soviet Union's insecurity was in many ways as great as it had been

in time of material weaknesses. The Helsinki agreements, even when vio-

lated, internationalized conditions of human rights in the Soviet bloc, and

exposed the enormous problems the Soviets had in managing their empire;

Afghanistan in 1979 and Poland in the 1980s are symptoms of a malaise that is

not under control. Moreover, American reaction to Soviet moves has consis-