Why the Cold War Worked

We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History Press

by John Lewis Gaddis
A Council on Foreign Relations Book/ Clarendon Press/Oxford University, 425 pp., $30.00

The Cominform: Minutes of the Three Conferences 1947/1948/1949

edited by Giuliano Procacci
Milan: Fondazione Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, 1,054 pp., L170,000


Postwar London, where I grew up, was a world fueled by coal and driven by steam, where market vendors still used horses, where motor cars were uncommon and supermarkets (and much of what they sell) unknown. In its social geography, its climate and environment, its class relations and political alignments, its industrial trades and its habits of social deference, London in 1950 would have been immediately recognizable to an observer from half a century before. Even the great “socialist” projects of the postwar Labour governments were really the late flowering of the reforming ideas of Edwardian-era Liberals. Much had changed, of course; in Britain as in the rest of Europe war and economic decline had changed the physical and moral landscape. Yet for just that reason the distant past seemed closer and more familiar than ever. In important ways, mid-twentieth-century London was still a late-nineteenth-century city. Even so, the cold war had long since begun.

It is helpful to understand just how different the world was fifty years ago if we are to appreciate a point on which John Gaddis lays much emphasis in his excellent book. The cold war lasted a very long time—forty-three years, from the collapse of postwar negotiations with the USSR in 1947 to the unification of Germany in 1990. That is considerably longer than the interminable wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon, longer than the infamous Thirty Years War of the seventeenth century, and just one year short of the span of time separating, say, the death of Thomas Jefferson from the birth of Lenin.

In 1951, at the height of the Korean War, Europe was governed by men from a very different age: the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, and the German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, had both been born shortly after the first unification of Germany under Bismarck’s Prussia (in 1874 and 1876 respectively); and Bismarck was still the dominant figure on the international diplomatic scene when they first took cognizance of public affairs. Even their “younger” contemporaries, like the Italian Christian Democratic leader Alcide de Gasperi or Josef Stalin himself, had come to maturity a decade before the outbreak of the First World War, and their views on politics and especially on international relations had been forged by the configurations and conflicts of an earlier time. Before we too readily conflate the cold war with the dilemmas of the post-atomic age, we should keep in mind that the men who first fought it could not help but see the world through a very different lens.

His sensitivity to this consideration is one of the many qualities of Gaddis’s book, which is not so much a history of the cold war as a series of essays, in loosely chronological order, on the major themes and crises that marked it—the division of Europe, the German question, conflicts in Asia, the paradoxes of nuclear strategy, and so forth. Gaddis writes clearly, takes a common-sense and mostly unpolemical approach to highly contested and volatile…

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