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 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.

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.

This Issue

March 23, 2006