The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis

Some twenty years after publication, The Cold War no longer matches its subtitle, “A New History,” but it remains a useful book about the conflict that shaped international politics for nearly half a century and, not incidentally, came close to ending human civilization. It is useful in a number of ways. First of all, it covers the entire period, with important arguments about the conflict’s origin in the tensions among the members of the Grand Alliance that won World War II. Second, it emphasizes how the principals in the conflict — the USA and the USSR — viewed the conflict as global. Regional powers naturally saw their region as the one that mattered most, sometimes as the only region worth considering, but while the superpowers considered some places — divided Berlin, for example — as crucial at some times, they never forgot that the conflict spanned the world. Third, Gaddis takes a clear point of view: regulated capitalism and representative democracy are preferable to state socialism and the one-party dictatorship of the proletariat, and thus the Cold War was worth both waging and winning. Fourth, he writes mainly for an audience for whom the Cold War has always been history. Considering that nobody presently under age 50 was an adult when the Cold War ended, this is an increasing and increasingly important share of the population. (Consider: Germany’s current Foreign Minister was under age 10 when the Berlin Wall fell.) Fifth, he does all of this in just over 250 pages of main text.

The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis

Gaddis also sets out plainly what the book is not. “It is not a work of original scholarship” (p. x–xi); it is a synthesis of his and other scholars’ more detailed studies. He adds that it does not attempt to locate the Cold War origins of later phenomena such as globalization. This is a history of a distinct period. “Nor does it make any contribution whatever to international relations theory, a field that has troubles enough of its own without my adding to them.” (p. xi) Scholarly humor tends toward the dry. Though Gaddis’ humor may be dry, his prose is not, and he avoids the historian’s pitfall of getting bogged down in details. He uses his decision to write a synthesis to his readers’ advantage. Those who want more detail may go and find it; for the others, he shows how the pieces fit together, and how the decision-makers at the time thought the pieces fit together. The two are not the same, and he is not afraid to draw sharp conclusions.

For example, he argues that despite some of Roosevelt’s hopes, the interests of the principal members of the Grand Alliance were too different for wartime cooperation to continue past the surrender of the Axis powers. Even during the war, the Allies competed for positioning in the postwar world. The difference between their behavior and that of, say, the seven different coalitions that fought Revolutionary France and Napoleon before his final fall, is that they managed to keep defeating the Axis as their top and joint priority. None of the Allies sought their own advantage to such an extent that the others would consider a separate peace. Considering the history of coalition warfare, this was no small achievement, but it couldn’t last. Gaddis writes:

But their coalition had been, from the start, both a means of cooperating to defeat the Axis and an instrument through which each of the victors sought to position itself for maximum influence in the postwar world. It could hardly be otherwise: despite public claims by the Big Three that politics were adjourned while the war was going on, none of them believed in or sought to practice this principle. What they did do—in communications and conferences mostly shrouded from public view—was to try to reconcile divergent political objectives even as they pursued a common military task. For the most part, they failed, and it was in that failure that the roots of the Cold War lay. (p. 18)

Stories at the micro level such as Forgotten Bastards of the Eastern Front show how the differences played out on the ground, and tend to support Gaddis’ argument. During the war, compromises, such as not contesting Soviet occupation of the Baltic republics, were made to keep the alliance together, and those had consequences for the postwar world. Soviet influence in Greece and Iran were points of contention partly held in abeyance during the war that became acute afterward. What to do with the defeated enemies — particularly the workings of four-power occupation of Germany — became a key source of conflict in the early Cold War. Finally, the atomic bomb transformed international relations. Warfare had been a tool of rulers since time immemorial but the bomb showed that warfare among atomic powers could be the end of the states themselves. A decade later, thermonuclear weapons demonstrated the potential to end contemporary civilization, forcing leaders, citizens and subjects alike to re-think the relationship between states and war.

Gaddis takes his readers through these steps, through the crises that characterized the Cold War, and through the solutions that were equally characteristic. He is careful to attribute agency throughout the period and among a wide range of actors. He has a section on the politics of non-alignment: how states could try to gain favors from Washington or Moscow by appearing to favor one or the other. When the superpowers viewed the whole world as a field of competition, and gains by one superpower treated as losses by the the other, opportunities opened for states in between to pursue their own interests by playing one off against the other. He also shows numerous examples of how client states were able to manipulate their patrons into actions that they would not necessarily have chosen on their own. Successive governments in South Vietnam, for example, succeeded in drawing the United States deeper into the civil war in the former French colony. Small commitments were difficult to back out of, even if backing out of larger ones later turned out to be even more costly.

Gaddis also discusses rivalries within the communist world, something often underappreciated in the free world. The relationship between Stalin and Mao was uneasy in the four years between Mao’s victory in China’s civil war in 1949 and Stalin’s death in 1953. After Stalin died, Mao often saw himself as the world’s most senior communist leader; these ideological conflicts co-existed with the history of rivalry between Russia and China in northern Asia. In the 1960s, the two states’ armies had occasional armed conflict, but they managed to contain the fighting and avoid large-scale war between the two most important communist powers.

He details how Cold War confrontation became detente, and how by the 1980s the material and ideological conditions that had appeared to keep the conflict on ice were both becoming unstable. The promise of communism to improve people’s lives, which seemed to be manifesting in the 1950s and early 1960s, was looking threadbare as Eastern Europe was propped up by Western loans and the USSR itself became increasingly dependent on income from oil and gas. Small circles of dissidents were making more connections, finding ways to recreate civil society outside of the party-state apparatus even as the official channels looked more and more blocked or venal. This was particularly true in Poland, where communism had always rested uneasily; Stalin called communism in Poland “like putting a saddle on a cow.” The 1979 visit of a Polish Pope to his homeland, coupled with the forced recognition of an independent trade union in the workers’ dictatorship of Poland shook the foundations of a Cold War order that was by then in its fourth decade. When declaration of martial law stopped Poland’s changes in their tracks, the deep freeze seemed to have returned, but it turned out to be a declaration of bankruptcy by one side.

The fall of the Berlin Wall as the defining moment of the end of the Cold War is detailed elsewhere, and Gaddis places it in context, both of China’s successful repression in service of keeping a communist party in power, and of the other revolutions in Eastern Europe, from Hungary’s slow dismantling through Poland’s round table deals to the sudden and violent end of the Ceausescus in Romania. Gaddis charts what the application of the ideas from Central Europe meant for the Soviet Union: dissolution, and Gorbachev’s descent from master of the Kremlin to chief of a think tank. With that, the Cold War and the book come to an end. Gaddis writes a bit more about the communist governments that continued past Moscow’s abdication, and he adds an epilogue looking back from 2004, but as author of a compact work of history of a specific period, he is done. He has delivered on his promise of explaining the Cold War to people for whom its history was never current events. Specialists and ideologues will find plenty to argue with, or at least to explore in greater depth, but for a synthesis that gets the big things right, this is still a very strong work even nearly 20 years after its publication as “a new history.”

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