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A Story Still to Be Told


At first glance John Lewis Gaddis is the ideal person to write a general history of the cold war: he has already written six books on the same subject. His new book is based on a popular undergraduate course at Yale, where Gaddis is the Robert A. Lovett Professor of History. To be sure, it is not clear in what precise respect this latest version is distinctively new—We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (1997) had a decidedly stronger claim.1 But Gaddis, the “dean of cold war historians” according to The New York Times, writes with confidence and consummate self-assurance. And with so much practice he has his story down pat.

The cold war in Gaddis’s account was both inevitable and necessary. The Soviet empire and its allies could not be rolled back but they had to be contained. The resulting standoff lasted forty years. A lot of time and money was spent on nuclear weapons and the cautious new strategic thinking to which they gave rise. Partly for this reason there were no major wars (though there were a number of nerve-wracking confrontations). In the end—thanks to greater resources, a vastly more attractive political and economic model, and the initiative of a few good men (and one good woman)—the right side won. Since then, new complications have arisen, but we can at least be grateful to have said goodbye to all that.

Gaddis is most comfortable when discussing grand strategy, and the best parts of his new book are those that deal with the impact of the nuclear arms race on American policymakers. He discusses at length, and with some sympathy, Washington’s decades-long preoccupation with “credibility”: how to convince the Soviets that we would indeed be willing to go to war over various parts of Europe and Asia while insisting with as much conviction as possible upon our reluctance to do so. If the cold war “worked” as a system for keeping the peace it was because—albeit for slightly different reasons—Moscow had parallel preoccupations. These tense but stable arrangements, based on the apposite acronym MAD (mutually assured destruction), only came near to breaking down when one side temporarily lost faith in its antagonist’s commitment to the system: over Cuba in 1962, when Khrushchev miscalculated and Kennedy initially misread his intentions; and in the early Eighties, when Ronald Reagan’s huge rearmament program and reiterated rhetorical challenges to the “Evil Empire” led Moscow to believe that the US really was planning a preemptive nuclear first strike, and to prepare accordingly.2

Any history of the cold war that pays sustained attention to such issues of high strategy is likely to have its gaze firmly fixed upon the Great Powers. So it is with Gaddis. However, his close familiarity with the history of American foreign policy is not matched by a comparable expertise in the sources and psychology of Soviet strategic calculation. Gaddis’s account of American statesmen and their doings is detailed and lively. His coverage of Soviet behavior, by contrast, is conventional and two-dimensional. What emerges is a history of the cold war narrated as a superpower confrontation, but largely from the perspective of just one of those powers.

Until the fall of the Soviet Union, such unbalanced accounts were the norm. Little reliable information was available about Soviet thinking. Political observers were thus reduced either to “Kremlinology”—scouring speeches, newspaper editorials, and podium lineups—or else to deducing Communist behavior from Marxist principles. But as Gaddis himself has demonstrated elsewhere, we now know quite a lot about the thinking behind Soviet policies—rather more, in fact, than we do about some Western undertakings, thanks to the opening of Communist archives. So if The Cold War: A New History is so heavily weighted toward an American perspective, this cannot be an effect of unbalanced sources.3

It turns out to be the product of a decidedly partial viewpoint. Gaddis is an unapologetic triumphalist. America won the cold war because Americans deserved to win it. Unlike the Russians they were “impatient with hierarchy, at ease with flexibility, and profoundly distrustful of the notion that theory should determine practice rather than the other way around.” As the cold war got underway, only America understood what “justice” meant:

For the Americans, that term meant political democracy, market capitalism, and—in principle if not always in practice—respect for the rights of individuals. For the British and French, still running colonial empires, it meant something short of that…. And for Stalin’s Soviet Union, “justice” meant the unquestioning acceptance of authoritarian politics, command economies, and the right of the proletariat to advance, by whatever means the dictatorship that guided it chose to employ, toward a worldwide “classless” society.

Even Gaddis is constrained to concede that in their pursuit of justice American statesmen occasionally resorted to shady dealings and tactics. But he insists that whereas politicians elsewhere (in China, in the Soviet Union, in Western Europe) might be congenital sinners and cynics, for Americans this was something new—a byproduct of the cold war itself. American statesmen were forced to import the moral ambiguities of foreign conflicts into which they were being drawn:

And so the Cold War transformed American leaders into Machiavellians. Confronted with “so many who are not good,” they resolved “to learn to be able not to be good” themselves, and to use this skill or not use it, as the great Italian cynic—or patriot—had put it, “according to necessity.”

No doubt intended to flatter Truman and his colleagues, this irenic account of the loss of American innocence has the reverse effect. It bathes US history before the cold war in a sort of prelapsarian glow, while implausibly portraying worldly, cosmopolitan diplomats like Harriman, Acheson, Kennan, Bohlen, and others as a generation of benign provincial gentlemen reluctantly obliged to compromise their ethics and adopt the sophisticated, worldly wiles of their foes in order to overcome them.

Appropriately enough, Gaddis’s way of narrating cold war history reflects the same provincialism he foists approvingly upon his American protagonists. In part this is a matter of style—the author resorts quite often to down-home cliché: Eastern Europe in 1956 was a “powder keg,” communism was “like a building constructed on quicksand.” At times he edges close to bathos: Richard Nixon was defeated by “an adversary more powerful than either the Soviet Union or the international communist movement. It was the Constitution of the United States of America.” But this folksy prose—while maladapted to the broad-brush historical overviews Gaddis occasionally attempts (“Karl Marx knew little about penguins, but he did acknowledge, in the sexist terminology of 1852, that ‘Men make their own history’”)—is also a function of his terms of reference. John Lewis Gaddis has written a history of America’s cold war: as seen from America, as experienced in America, and told in a way most agreeable to many American readers.

As a result, this is a book whose silences are especially suggestive. The “third world” in particular comes up short. How we look at international history is always in some measure a function of where we stand. But it takes a uniquely parochial perspective—and one ill-becoming someone described by Michael Beschloss in The New York Times Book Review as “a scholar of extraordinary gifts” offering “his long-awaited retrospective verdict on the cold war”—to publish a history of the cold war containing not even an index entry for Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Panama, Grenada, or El Salvador, not to speak of Mozambique, the Congo, or Indonesia. Major events in Iran—where the CIA’s 1953 coup against Mohammad Mosaddeq is still held against the US—and Guatemala (where the US toppled Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán on June 27, 1954, precipitating decades of armed and bloody conflict) each receive passing acknowledgment from Gaddis, summarized thus: “The consequences, in both regions, proved costly.”

Indeed so. But those costs are never analyzed, much less incorporated into the author’s evaluation of the cold war as a whole. For Gaddis, as for so many American politicians and statesmen, the “third world” was a sideshow, albeit one in which hundreds of thousands of the performers got killed.4 And he seems to believe that whatever unfortunate developments took place in the course of these peripheral scuffles, they were confined to the cold war’s early years. Later, things improved: “The 1970s were not the 1950s.” Well, yes they were—in El Salvador, for example, not to mention Chile. But this sort of tunnel vision, tipping most of the world offstage and focusing exclusively upon Great Power confrontations in Europe or East Asia, is the price Gaddis pays for placing himself firmly in Washington, D.C., when “thinking” the cold war. For the other superpower saw the cold war very differently.

Seen from Moscow, the cold war was in very substantial measure about the non-European world. While President Kennedy and his advisers worried in October 1962 that Nikita Khrushchev’s Cuban missiles were a diversionary prelude to an attack on Berlin, the Soviet leadership (who were irritated by their East German clients and really didn’t care much about Berlin except as a diplomatic pawn) dreamed of a revolutionary front in Latin America. “For a quarter of a century,” one expert writes, “the KGB, unlike the CIA, believed that the Third World was the arena in which it could win the Cold War.”5 In pursuit of local influence on the African continent, Moscow fueled a huge arms boom there from the early Seventies through the onset of perestroika. Indeed, it is precisely those African countries most corrupted by the “proxy” wars of the later cold war that were to become the “failed states” of our own time—one of a number of ways in which the cold war and the post–cold war eras are intimately intertwined, though you would not learn this from Gaddis.

In Africa, as in Latin America, the cold war was a clash of empires rather than ideologies. Both sides supported and promoted unsavory puppets and surrogates. But whereas the Soviet Union treated its impoverished third-world clients with cynical disdain and did not even pretend to be in the business of promoting “democracy” or freedom, the US did—which is why it was so much more vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy, whether supporting authoritarian regimes in Spain or Portugal, venal and corrupt rulers in Vietnam or Egypt, “terrorists” in Afghanistan, or outright dictatorships from Tierra del Fuego to the Mexican border. As a consequence, for all the very real appeal of its music, its clothes, its films, and its way of life (not to speak of its limitless resources), the US would largely fail in later years to reap the benefits of its cold war engagements. It is one of the ironies of the cold war that America’s victories in Europe were frequently offset by long-term damage to its reputation further afield, in Vietnam, for example, or the Middle East: the Soviet Union was not the only “loser” in the cold war.

  1. 1

    See my essay “Why the Cold War Worked,” The New York Review, October 9, 1997. Gaddis’s many books include The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941–1947 (Columbia University Press, 1972); Russia, the Soviet Union and the United States: An Interpretive History (Knopf, 1978); Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy (Oxford University Press, 1982); The Long Peace: Inquiries into the History of the Cold War (Oxford University Press, 1987); The United States and the End of the Cold War: Implications, Reconsiderations, Provocations (Oxford University Press, 1992).

  2. 2

    Huge increases in the Pentagon budget during Reagan’s first term led the KGB and GRU—Soviet military intelligence—to mount the biggest intelligence operation of the cold war in an effort to penetrate Washington’s (nonexistent) plans for a nuclear attack. See Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB (Basic Books, 1999), pp. 392–393.

  3. 3

    Except insofar as these are in languages Gaddis does not read. But thanks to the publications of the invaluable Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, even this is no longer an insuperable impediment, as Gaddis himself generously acknowledges.

  4. 4

    For an alternative viewpoint, see Greg Grandin, The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War (University of Chicago Press, 2004).

  5. 5

    Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World (Basic Books, 2005), foreword, p. xxvi.

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