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A Story Still to Be Told

Again, readers will learn little of these complexities in Gaddis’s account, much less of their implications for US foreign policy today. To the extent that he responds implicitly to criticisms of American missteps—and worse—in Latin America and elsewhere in the course of these decades, Gaddis appears to take the view that these were unfortunate things; for the most part they had to be done; and, anyway, they are all behind us. One is reminded of Marlowe’s Barabas:

Barnadine: Thou hast committed—

Barabas: Fornication? But that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead.6

Gaddis pays more attention to the nations within the Soviet bloc itself. But what he has to say about them, though well intentioned, inspires little confidence. Václav Havel is described as “the most influential chronicler of his generation’s disillusionment with communism.” But Havel suffered no such disillusionment: he never was a Communist. The rather isolated son of a wealthy family, dispossessed and discriminated against by the Communist authorities, Václav Havel took no part in his contemporaries’ flirtation with Marxism. He is said by Gaddis to have given voice to a widespread vision in Eastern Europe of “a society in which universal morality, state morality, and individual morality might all be the same thing.” (Gaddis isn’t very good with political abstractions but one sees what he means.) This would be nice if it were true; but sadly, in the twelve years between its founding and the fall of communism, Hável’s Charter 77 attracted fewer than two thousand signatures in a Czechoslovak population of 15 million.

Havel was elected as the first post-Communist president of Czechoslovakia precisely because he had spent much of the previous two decades in prison or under house arrest and was untainted by any links to the regime’s discredited past or its ideology; but his moralized rhetoric never sat comfortably with the nation at large. Though Havel had many friends in the former dissident intelligentsia of Central Europe, he aroused little popular affection outside of Bohemia itself (he was not much loved even in neighboring Slovakia). A more influential and representative chronicler of his generation’s lost illusions and post-Communist trajectory would be Havel’s Polish fellow dissident Adam Michnik, or even the Hungarian economist János Kornai (now at Harvard). But neither is mentioned by Gaddis.

Gaddis’s thumbnail sketches of Communist doctrine are clunky and a bit embarrassing. Of Marxism as an ideological project he has this to say:

Marxism brought hope to the poor, fear to the rich, and left governments somewhere in between. To rule solely on behalf of the bourgeoisie seemed likely to ensure revolution, thereby confirming Marx’s prophecy; but to do so only for the proletariat would mean that Marx’s revolution had already arrived.

He explains that Brezhnev-era communism was justified by an appeal to “ideology: to the claim that, in Marxism-Leninism, they had discovered the mechanisms by which history worked, and thus the means by which to improve the lives people lived.” Of Margaret Thatcher’s electoral popularity Gaddis concludes, “[it] was a blow to Marxism, for if capitalism really did exploit ‘the masses,’ why did so many among them cheer the ‘iron lady’?” This is history-writing at one notch above the level of the tabloid editorial.7

And indeed, when it comes to Eastern Europe under communism, Gaddis does little more than hastily recycle received wisdom. In a work of 333 pages, Tito’s break with Stalin gets just one paragraph; the Hungarian revolution of 1956 merits a mere twenty-seven lines (whereas page after page is devoted to Watergate); meanwhile John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan (“one of its [the US’s] sharpest strategists ever”) are credited at some length with bringing down communism.8 As for Mikhail Gorbachev, Gaddis’s account of him gives the Reagan administration full credit for many of Gorbachev’s own opinions, ideas, and achievements—as well it might, since in this section of the book Gaddis is paraphrasing and citing Secretary of State George Schultz’s memoirs.9 Here and elsewhere, as the Communist regimes fall like bowling pins and the US emerges resplendent, vindicated and victorious, The Cold War: A New History reads like the ventriloquized autobiography of an Olympic champion.

There is remarkably little in this book about spies (and what there is, once again, concerns mostly American spies). This is odd, considering the importance of intelligence-gathering both during the cold war and since. Spying was one of the few things that the Soviet bloc could do well—the East German foreign intelligence network in particular, run for thirty-three years by Markus (“Mischa”) Wolf, was highly regarded for its techniques by both sides. The paradoxes of intelligence, generally ignored by Gaddis, are often quite interesting. Thus the USSR, whose own scientific and technical achievements lagged behind those of the West, compensated by stealing techniques and information from the West and incorporating them into weapons systems and aeronautics in particular. This—together with disinformation, self-delusion, and professional self-interest—led Western intelligence agencies (the CIA especially) to overestimate Soviet capacities and strengths and frighten their political leaders accordingly.10

Had Gaddis thought more about spies and spying, he might have avoided one particularly revealing error that highlights his self-confinement within the straitjacket of American domestic experience. Although there is only one mention in his book of McCarthyism, Gaddis uses that occasion to write that “it was not at all clear that the western democracies themselves could retain the tolerance for dissent and the respect for civil liberties that distinguished them from the dictators.” But Senator Joseph McCarthy was an American original. There was no McCarthyism in Britain, or France, or Norway, or Italy, or the Netherlands. Numerous victims of McCarthyism—whether actors, singers, musicians, playwrights, trade unionists, or history professors—came to live in Western Europe in these years and flourished there.11 Tolerance and civil liberties were not under threat in all “the western democracies.” They were under threat in the United States. There is a difference.

During the first decade of the cold war, espionage, subversion, and Communist takeovers in distant lands were perceived by many in the US as a direct challenge to the “American Way of Life”; Senator McCarthy, Richard Nixon, and the Republican Party were able to exploit the security issue in cold war America by pointing to real spies (Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs) as well as imagined ones. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in Great Britain, Klaus Fuchs, George Blake, Guy Burgess, Donald McLean, Anthony Blunt, and above all Kim Philby betrayed their country, their colleagues, and hundreds of their fellow agents. Between them they did far more damage to Western interests than any American spy until Aldrich Ames. Yet the serial revelation of their treason—beginning with the arrest of Fuchs in 1950—aroused remarkably little public anxiety; it certainly never provoked in Britain collective paranoia and political conformism on the scale that seized the US in these same years.


The cold war was experienced very differently in Britain from the way it was lived (and is remembered) in the US. And things were different again in France and Italy, where between a quarter and a third of the electorate voted for a Communist Party in those years. (The Italian case, where Enrico Berlinguer deftly led his Eurocommunist party out of the Soviet orbit and into the political mainstream, is particularly interesting—but receives no attention from Gaddis.) They were also different in the Netherlands and Denmark, where domestic communism was nonexistent but active commitment to NATO was perfectly compatible with extensive tolerance for cultural or political difference; or in Austria and Sweden—no less “western” and “democratic” than the US but ostentatiously and self-indulgently “neutral” in cold war confrontations. “Western democracy” can cover a multitude of different political cultures. America’s many friends in postwar Austria were forced to watch in frustration as the libraries of the popular “America Houses” in postwar Vienna, Salzburg, and elsewhere were stripped (on instructions from McCarthy-era Washington) of works by “unsuitable” authors: John Dos Passos, Arthur Miller, Charles Beard, Leonard Bernstein, Dashiell Hammett, and Upton Sinclair—and also Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Reinhold Niebuhr, Alberto Moravia, Tom Paine, and Henry Thoreau.12

John Gaddis misses all this. In general he is rather contemptuous of Western Europe: the European Economic Community gets just one passing mention and if Gaddis spends a little more time on Charles de Gaulle it is only in order to lump him patronizingly with Mao Zedong as the leaders of bumptious “medium powers” who performed “high-wire acrobatics without a net” in order to undermine and sabotage the strategies of their respective superpower patrons. Readers of The Cold War: A New History who lack prior familiarity with the subject will be at a loss to understand just why a French president should have behaved so capriciously toward his American protectors, “exasperating” Washington and “flaunting” French autonomy, or what it is about the history of the preceding decades that helps explain French irritation at the “Anglo-Saxon” powers. Nor will they learn anything about De Gaulle’s unquestioning loyalty to the US during the Cuba crisis or the quizzical respect (albeit much tested) with which he was regarded by Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. These are nuances—and John Gaddis is not much given to nuance.13

That is a pity, because an account of the cold war that was more sensitive to national variations might have picked up the cultural aspects of the confrontation, to which Gaddis’s history is completely indifferent. The cold war was fought on many fronts, not all of them geographical and some of them within national frontiers. One of these fronts was established by the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), inaugurated in Berlin in June 1950, under whose auspices Bertrand Russell, Benedetto Croce, John Dewey, Karl Jaspers, Jacques Maritain, Arthur Koestler, Raymond Aron, A.J. Ayer, Stephen Spender, Margarete Buber-Neumann, Ignazio Silone, Nicola Chiaromonte, Melvin Lasky, and Sidney Hook set out to challenge and undercut the intellectual appeal of communism, whose own illustrious supporters and camp followers included on various occasions Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Bertolt Brecht, Louis Aragon, Elio Vittorini, and many of the best minds of the coming intellectual generation—including in those years François Furet, Leszek Kolakowski, and the youthful Milan Kundera.

Not one of these names, not one—not even the CCF itself or Stalin’s international Peace Movement which it was set up to oppose—receives a single mention in Gaddis’s history of the cold war. Unsurprisingly, therefore, he misses something else: not just the intense intellectual and cultural confrontations over totalitarianism, communism, Marxism, and freedom, but also the cold war between the generations. The anti-Fascist generation of the Thirties—exemplified by Klaus Mann’s declaration in Paris in 1935: “Whatever Fascism is, we are not and we are against it”—was displaced and fragmented by the anti-Communist generation of the Fifties, only for both of them to be dismissed by the new radicals of the Sixties.14

The latter were uniquely cut off from the political past of their parents’ generation. Alienated from “the West” by its (in their eyes) unbroken links back to Nazi and Fascist regimes—in West Germany, Austria, and Italy above all—and by its neocolonial wars in Africa and Indochina, they had no greater sympathy for the “crapules staliniennes” (Daniel Cohn-Bendit) of a discredited Communist empire. They thus hung in an uncomfortable and sometimes violent limbo, athwart the international confrontation whose terms of reference they angrily rejected.15 This is not a uniquely European story, of course. The cold war changed the United States too, first in the formative years between 1948 and 1953 and again in the later Sixties. Young Americans of the same vintage as Cohn-Bendit or Germany’s Joschka Fischer experienced the “peripheral” confrontations of the cold war as a lasting schism within their own culture: one former Harvard student, looking back upon the impact of the Vietnam War on the Harvard Class of ‘70, wrote that her generation had “maintained a certain distance, a feeling of being in some ways outsiders to this society in which we are now adults.”16

The cold war may have begun, in a formal sense, in the late 1940s but its intensity and its longevity only make sense if we understand that it had far older sources. The confrontation between Leninist communism and the Western democracies dates to 1919; and in countries where communism struck root in the local labor movement and among the intellectual elite (notably Czechoslovakia, France, and India) it is more coherently thought of as having a domestic history that extends from World War I into the 1980s. In the Soviet Union itself the basic strategies to be deployed in relations with “bourgeois democracies” were forged not in the 1940s but in the 1920s.

Thus “détente,” which John Gaddis misleadingly presents as an innovation of the Seventies—a response to the generational revolts and democratic movements of the previous decade—in fact had its origins in the “wars of position” in which Soviet leaders ever since Lenin saw themselves as engaging against the more powerful West: sometimes taking a conciliatory line (e.g., between 1921 and 1926, during the Popular Fronts of 1934 to 1939, and again at points in the later Fifties and early Seventies), sometimes presenting an uncompromising “front”—as in the so-called “Third Period” between 1927 and 1934 and again during the frosty “Two Cultures” stand-off between 1947 and 1953. Moreover détente, too, has its paradoxes: an externally conciliatory Soviet position was often accompanied by (and helped camouflage) the reimposition of domestic repression, as during the Popular Front years or during the anti-dissident crackdown of the early 1970s.17


To ignore the prehistory of cold war politics in this way is to miss some of the most interesting aspects of the story. But perhaps the most revealing of all Gaddis’s omissions is his refusal to make the link between the cold war and what has happened since. He is quite explicit about this: “Nor does [this] book attempt to locate roots, within the Cold War, of such post– Cold War phenomena as globalization, ethnic cleansing, religious extremism, terrorism or the information revolution.” But with the partial exception of the information revolution, these, pace Gaddis, are not “post–Cold War phenomena.” Under the guise of proxy confrontations from Central America to Indonesia, both “pacification” and ethnic cleansing—not to speak of religious struggles—were a continuous accompaniment to the cold war. The mass killings of hundreds of thousands in Indonesia and Guatemala are just two egregious examples among many. And no one who knew anything about (or had merely lived in) the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Turkey, India, Colombia, Algeria, or anywhere in the Middle East could for one minute suppose that “terrorism” was a “post– Cold War phenomenon.”

On the contrary: far from “settl[ing] fundamental issues once and for all,” as Gaddis would have us believe, the cold war has an intimate, unfinished relationship with the world it left behind: whether for the vanquished Russians, whose troubled post-imperial frontier zones from Afghanistan and Chechnya to Armenia, Abkhazia, and Moldova are the unhappy heirs to Stalinist ethnic cleansing and Moscow’s heedless exploitation of local interest and divisions; or for the victorious Americans, whose unconstrained military monopoly ought to have made of the US a universally welcome international policeman but which is instead—thanks to cold war memories as well as the Bush administration’s mistakes—the source of an unprecedented level of popular anti-Americanism.

Indeed, the errors of America’s own post–cold war governments have deep pre-1989 roots. The military buildup and rhetorical overkill of the cold war had their uses in the strategic game-playing of those decades and in the need to repress (or reassure) client states and their constituencies. In Washington during the early cold war influential men talked loudly of bringing democracy and freedom to Eastern Europe. But when the crunch came, in November 1956, they did nothing (and had never intended to do anything, though they neglected to explain this in advance to Hungary’s doomed insurgents). Today things are very different. Big promises of support for democracy and liberty are no longer constrained by risk of nuclear war or even of a Great Power confrontation; but the habit is still with us. During the cold war, however, we were—on the whole—“against” something, reacting to a challenge. Now we are proactive, we are “for” something: an inherently more adventurous and risky position, however vague our objective.18

If Gaddis does not pursue these thoughts it is probably because he is not much troubled by them. To judge from what he has to say about the past, he is unlikely to lose sleep over presidential abuses of power in the present or future. Indeed, Gaddis admonishes Americans for placing restrictions on their elected rulers. Describing what he clearly sees as the regrettable over-reaction to Watergate and Vietnam in the 1970s, he writes: “The United States Congress was passing laws—always blunt instruments—to constrain the use of United States military and intelligence capabilities. It was as if the nation had become its own worst enemy.” Retrospectively frustrated by such constraints, Gaddis admires the boldness and vision of President George W. Bush. A keen supporter of the recent Iraq war, Gaddis in 2004 even published a guide for the use of American policymakers, showing how pre-emptive and preventive war-making has an honorable place in American history and is to be encouraged—where appropriate—as part of an ongoing project of benevolent interventionism.19

Thus while it may seem tempting to dismiss John Lewis Gaddis’s history of the cold war as a naively self-congratulatory account which leaves out much of what makes its subject interesting and of continuing relevance, that would be a mistake. Gaddis’s version is perfectly adapted for contemporary America: an anxious country curiously detached from its own past as well as from the rest of the world and hungry for “a fireside fairytale with a happy ending.”20 The Cold War: A New History is likely to be widely read in the US: both as history and, in the admiring words of a blurb on the dust jacket, for the “lessons” it can teach us in how to “deal with new threats.” That is a depressing thought.

  1. 6

    Christopher Marlowe, The Jew of Malta, Act IV, Scene i.

  2. 7

    And wrong, too. Under Margaret Thatcher the British Conservative Party’s share of the vote went down at every election she contested after 1979. The reason Thatcher won anyway was because Labour’s vote fell even further. The “masses” didn’t switch to Thatcher; they just stopped voting.

  3. 8

    Here as elsewhere Gaddis’s account flattens out interesting undulations in the historical record. Thus Tito’s break with Stalin was more than just a revolt against “Cominform orthodoxy.” Tito himself was very orthodox, ideologically speaking. Indeed, he was “more Catholic than the Pope,” which was just what Stalin held against him. On this subject Gaddis’s Yale colleague Ivo Banac has written a very interesting book, With Stalin Against Tito: Cominformist Splits in Yugoslav Communism (Cornell University Press, 1988). Curiously, it does not figure in Gaddis’s bibliography.

  4. 9

    It is true that Gorbachev’s view of the Soviet system shifted sharply after 1986. But he was a convinced Communist and remained one. What changed his perspective was not George Schultz’s private lectures on the virtues of capitalism (as both Schultz and, less forgivably, Gaddis appear to believe) but the catastrophe of Chernobyl, on April 26, 1986, and its aftermath.

  5. 10

    See Markus Wolf, Man Without a Face: The Autobiography of Communism’s Greatest Spymaster (Times Books, 1997); also Andrew and Mitrokhin, The World Was Going Our Way, p. 489.

  6. 11

    One illustration among many: Moses Finley, whom I knew at Cambridge University, came to Great Britain in 1954 from Rutgers University in New Jersey. He had been fired by Rutgers in December 1952—for invoking the Fifth Amendment when called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities the previous March—and was unable to get another post in the US. He settled in Cambridge, became a British citizen, succeeded to the Chair of Ancient History in 1970, and died in 1986 as Professor Sir Moses Finley CBE, the most influential ancient historian of his time. I don’t believe anyone in Cambridge ever asked Finley whether he was then or had ever been a Communist.

  7. 12

    See Reinhold Wagnleitner, Coca-Colonization and the Cold War: The Cultural Mission of the United States in Austria after the Second World War (University of North Carolina Press, 1994), pp. 136–139.

  8. 13

    For a corrective, see Thomas Alan Schwartz, Lyndon Johnson and Europe (Harvard University Press, 2003). This important book is missing from Gaddis’s bibliography.

  9. 14

    The literature on the cultural history of the cold war is unusually rich. Among many works, see Abbott Gleason, Totalitarianism: The Inner History of the Cold War (Oxford University Press, 1995) and Volker R. Berghahn, America and the Intellectual Cold Wars in Europe (Princeton University Press, 2001). Sadly, Gaddis—whose bibliography contains ten entries under his own name—could not find room for either of these books.

  10. 15

    For a recent description of the trajectory of that generation, from street-fighting to government ministries, and its heritage in contemporary interventionism undertaken in the name of liberal ideals, see Paul Berman’s Power and the Idealists: or, The Passion of Joschka Fischer and Its Aftermath (Soft Skull Press, 2005). This is an important story, but Power and the Idealists would be a much better book if Berman had resisted the temptation to trace back his own fervently ideological support for the recent Iraq war into the mental and political world of Seventies-era German activists. (For an instance of the rather desperate lengths to which Berman goes to link Iraqi Baathists and al-Qaeda, in a chapter ostensibly devoted to Joschka Fischer and German foreign policy, see, e.g., pp. 124–125.)

  11. 16

    Martha Ritter, “Echoes from the Age of Relevance,” Harvard Magazine, July–August 1981, p. 10; quoted in David L. Schalk, War and The Ivory Tower: Algeria and Vietnam (University of Nebraska Press, 2005; first published in 1991).

  12. 17

    Gaddis’s historically foreshortened understanding of détente and its sources probably results from his dependence in these matters upon Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Détente (Harvard University Press, 2003), written by his former student Jeremi Suri. This is a stimulating and original study but one in which imaginative global interpretation occasionally substitutes for detailed local knowledge.

  13. 18

    For a levelheaded discussion of the implications of having a proactive superpower offering to “remake everyone else’s world,” see Ghassan Salamé, Quand l’Amérique refait le monde (Paris: Fayard, 2005), notably “Conclusion,” pp. 519–547.

  14. 19

    Surprise, Security, and the American Experience (Harvard University Press, 2004).

  15. 20

    The phrase is David Caute’s, from his review of The Cold War: A New History in The Spectator, London, January 14, 2006.

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