The Cold War: A New Historyby John Lewis Gaddis Published 26 Dec 2006
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The “dean of Cold War historians” (The New York Times) now presents the definitive account of the global confrontation that dominated the last half of the twentieth century. Drawing on newly opened archives and the reminiscences of the major players, John Lewis Gaddis explains not just what happened but why—from the months in 1945 when the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. went from alliance to antagonism to the barely averted holocaust of the Cuban Missile Crisis to the maneuvers of Nixon and Mao, Reagan and Gorbachev. Brilliant, accessible, almost Shakespearean in its drama, The Cold War stands as a triumphant summation of the era that, more than any other, shaped our own.
"The Cold War: A New History" Reviews
The Cold War: A New History provides an excellent example of the ideological biases of a historian creating a skewed misrepresentation of the facts about an era in order to conform with biased perceptions. This so-called “new history” is full of sweeping generalizations, unwarranted conclusions, and dubious assertions that scream out bias at every turn. In conclusion, beware of books claiming to be history books! This one doesn’t meet the most basic criteria of objective reporting of the facts.
The Cold War: A New History is among the latest entries by John Lewis Gaddis on the history and politics of the Cold War. Though it reviews a time still within the living memory of many, Gaddis frets that younger generations have grown up without an understanding or an appreciation for the important lessons of the Cold War. This he thinks a shame, perhaps even a danger. So to provide a remedy and cure the ailment of historical ignorance, Gaddis proposes to write a history—a new history—that will supply his readers an account in short form of the essentials of the Cold War.
This anyway is the original intent of the book. But Gaddis does not develop his history in the way the typical history might. Gaddis does not retell the course of the Cold War year by year. He does not explain why this thing or why that. Gaddis engages the matter differently. He recounts the Cold War by its themes, rather than by its chronology. His chapters do not proceed in a linear course from the beginning of the Cold War to the end. Rather each chapter fixates on a particular theme that figures large in the Cold War, and then elaborates on the most signal events. One theme for each chapter: the first on the origins of the Cold War; the second on the perils of nuclear confrontation; the third on the failure of Soviet ideology and economy; the fourth on the burdens of superpower status; the fifth on the backlash to immoral foreign policies; the sixth on rise of Cold War iconoclasts; and the seventh on the marvel of bloodless revolution that ended the Cold War.
These themes form the very essence of Gaddis's book. Although it may be history, it is history in the thematic sense. Therefore what Gaddis's book ultimately supplies is not a description of the Cold War. It could not even be generously characterized as an explanation. Rather what Gaddis gives is an interpretation—and a moral one at that. The whole of the book abounds with moral overtones. The sense of right and wrong is everywhere. Historical figures are drawn as either black or white. Ideologies are contrasted as moral opposites. Outcomes in the Cold War are delivered with the authority of a judge’s verdict. The whole of the history is perceived as the completion of an inevitable, inescapable arch. The book therefore oozes with moral sentiments.
If this understanding of Gaddis's New History is right, what then are the larger morals and lessons that he intends to impress on his readers? Though Gaddis offers half-dozen smaller morals, surprisingly there is no single overarching takeaway. Gaddis tries to repair this omission in the epilogue of his book. There he tries to elaborate what are the implications of the period for post Cold War. But this efforts comes up far short; his improvised conclusions have all the texture and flavor of stale bread. He refers to the obsolescence of war, the discrediting of dictatorship, and the rise of democracy and globalization. But these sound more like the ejections of scholarly reflex rather than well-considered, deliberate conclusions. And the disjunct between it and the chapters that precede it are so great, the epilogue might as well be discarded.
Gaddis's real lessons of the Cold War are found instead in the seven main chapters themselves. Each serves as a little historical allegory onto itself. There is a unity in that they all are associated with the Cold War. But as explained above, they do not combine to form one single overarching moral. It is fitting then to gives brief mention of the chapter lessons each.
The book begins with consideration of the origins of the Cold War. For Gaddis, the critical point is that the mistrust that nurtured the Cold War’s origins had taken root before the defeat of Nazi Germany. These suspicions were deep-set and mutually shared. They beget intrigue and recrimination. The peace settlements at the end of the Second World War served to exacerbate the mistrust, rather than alleviate it. So for Gaddis the emergence of Cold War politics was more fact than failure. The rise of Cold War politics was not a blunder of statesmanship, but a necessary and unavoidable evil.
The second chapter considers the influence of nuclear weapons on Cold War politics. Gaddis lauds President Truman's decision to resist using atomic weapons in Korea. It was, he says, one of the most important decisions of inaction of all the 20th century. But it was not at first appreciated. Like in the game of Poker, enthusiasts usually celebrate great bates or great bluffs. But who boasts about a really great fold? For this reason Truman’s insight had to be relearned. It required the perilous experience of the Eisenhower and Khrushchev years to appreciate the wisdom of Truman’s nuclear moratorium.
The third chapter draws out the ideological dimension of the Cold War. Under Gaddis’s understanding, the Cold War was less a time of tense, distrustful relations—it was less about relaxing the enmity of the early Cold War years—and more a contest between two revolutionary regimes, idealized by Lenin on the side and Wilson on the other. So by this theory, the failing economy and bankruptcy of the Soviet economy was not so much about the vicissitudes of international economics, but much more a confirmation of the triumph of American ideology.
The fourth chapter portrays the Soviets and the Americans as prisoner to their own superpower status. For all their power and influence, the superpowers were hostage to the failures and shortfalls of their allies and protectorates. The leaders of client states like Taiwan, the Koreas, the Germanys, the Vietnams, and Afghanistan, were able to frighten their superpower patrons into commitments out of proportion with their interests. Rather than the US and the Soviets uniting over their strength, they divided because of the weakness of their allies. Perhaps most embarrassing, allies like France and China learned to manipulate Cold War politics so to seize all the benefits of alliance while resisting the costs. Woe onto the superpowers.
The fifth chapter discusses the backlash in America to the experience of Cold War politics. Allegations of foreign intrigues, coups, assassinations, secret bombings, and war levied on false pretenses—these all had generated a deep well of resentment in the American public. By the height of the Vietnam War, the American public was bristling with anger. Revelation of Nixon’s complicity in the Watergate scandal brought this anger to a head. Dramatic political action followed. Congress terminated funds for Vietnam and Angola; it sabotaged Kissinger’s trade treaty with the Soviets; it set new limits on President’s powers of war and surveillance; the CIA was forced to disclose its notorious episodes of its clandestine activities. A new zeitgeist was had taken hold in US foreign policy. Leaders who adopted principled foreign policies were encouraged. Immoral, and amoral, foreign policies had fallen into disrepute.
The sixth chapter was example that even the powerful inertia of Cold War politics can be reversed. Though the Cold War world had become established as the political status quo, the emergence of new leaders like John Paul II, Thatcher, Walesa, Xiaoping, Reagan, and especially Gorbachev, combined to create a new political atmosphere. These leaders were not prisoner to the old politics and the legacies of their predecessors. They intended to be agents for change – and they succeeded. In spite of powerful countervailing forces, by 1989 enough incremental steps had been taken the politics of the Cold War was ripe for dramatic change.
The seventh chapter is a panegyric to what Gaddis calls the first bloodless revolution in history. It was he says what the Bolshevik revolution had wanted to be: spontaneous and truly popular. With the fall of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, and then the dissolution of the Soviet Union, an enormous political change was brought about. But it was achieved without war, and with a surprisingly little bloodshed. The ending of the Cold War exploded the myth that great revolutions are inevitably attended by great suffering. The peaceful retirement of the Soviet empire was proof of the possibility.
These anyway are the larger lessons that Gaddis is really intent upon. Much of his book is history. But both above and beneath that history are these larger morals that he perceives. Of course these different points can be debated; one could accuse Gaddis of partiality, of oversimplification, of exaggeration, of presumption, and similar criticisms. But these are weaknesses inherent to any book that gives a moral history. It is not surprising that a distinguished historian, on a subject of his expertise, and in the twilight of his career, might descant on the greater moral lessons of the Cold War. This is well within the traditions of historical writing. And so far as these criticisms would try and quibble with his history or unmake his morals conclusions, they would miss the mark.
That said, the book does suffer from serious deficiencies. Gaddis claims to be writing history. But his book is more a compilation of historical essays than history itself. Nevertheless Gaddis insists on having it both ways; he wants both the history and the space to expound upon it. Although this may not be a flawed strategy in principle, in practice Gaddis has failed to achieve this balance in his book. This divided purpose, between explanation and interpretation, tends to create confusion within his chapters. His main point is often lost in a blizzard of anecdotes and historical citations. The books moral arguments often do not persuade, and perhaps worse, they rarely inspire. Some of his arguments suffer because he takes his moralizing too far, such as his comparison of Lenin and Wilson, with a severe condemnation of the former and a drooling endorsement of the latter. But more often his arguments do not impress since Gaddis prefers to assert rather than consider. Unlike other famous writers on history, Gaddis does not spare much space for deliberation. He resembles more a sea bird that is only willing to skim the surface and then quickly return to flight, rather than show a willingness to dive in and delve deep. This gives his whole history a light, glancing, insubstantial feeling. Although this may suffice if Gaddis was writing history in the conventional manner, it will not do for his moral history. The book then is somewhat of a disappointment. But the disappointment must be double for Gaddis himself. After much study and labor on a subject for so many years, one would think Gaddis would meditate more seriously on the lessons of the Cold War and its meaning for history; the kind of serious reflections that often form the crown of an illustrious academic career. A New History does not rise to the challenge. For Gaddis, it is an opportunity missed.
This was beyond amazing! Very clear and concise! If you want a run down of the Cold War I would recommend this book! Seriously, this will forever be my go-to on the topic.
I especially loved how this book took no sides, but simply laid out all the horrors and absurdities, and finally the amazements of the outcome.
The target audience of this book is the generation younger than me that has the Cold War as a historical event rather than part of their lives. As that, it is fairly well written, targeted well, and concise. Perhaps a bit too concise. The whole premise of the book comes off feeling as if decades passed without anything happening, then Ronald Reagan, the great professional actor comes and saves the day. The author clearly admires that particular president, and his usually restrained prose waxes ebullient when President Reagan reaches the stage. I don't have any strong dislike of him, but when the author uses a paragraph to say that the Pope and Reagan were both shot and it is a good thing the President didn't die, because we would still be in the Cold War, one begins to wonder if his enthusiasm hasn't taken himself a bit too far. If there were one other idea that he seems too fixated upon is this idea of Marxist infallibility. Somehow, that is supposedly the core idea that held the whole system together and when Stalin fell out of favor of the party, that was the beginning of the end.
I found this book very interesting and quite easy to read. It doesn't deal with exhaustive lists of facts, dates and persons or the minutiae of the Cold War but paints a broad picture of it. It certainly doesn't miss any of key events but it tries to put everything into perspective and show the underlying relations. I particularly liked the effort to explain the rationale behind the decisions of the key players and the predominant way of thinking.
Gaddis explains in his preface that he set out to write this book for his students, utilizing their feedback that the books they use in his classes have too many dates (among other things). He then wrote this book as a history of the Cold War, but focusing more on events and their impact upon subsequent events, rather than writing a chronological narrative. The result is a book that is engaging, interesting, and rarely feels like a "history book". Gaddis draws correlations between the actions of leaders and events, shows the influence of some leaders upon others, and focuses on telling the story of the key Cold War events from a wide perspective, not just the usual America vs. USSR one upon which most books on this topic seem to focus.
There were a few times when the small amount of dates frustrated me and I was often trying to place events chronologically in my mind. However, I think these are good signs, as I was constantly engaged enough in the reading to draw these connections, rather than losing the thread of the narrative through the time line, as so often happens. Overall, this is one of the most interesting and informative nonfiction books I have read.