A Story Still to Be Told

John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev
John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev; drawing by David Levine


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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.