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The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis

The Cold War: A New History
by John Lewis Gaddis
Penguin. 352 pp. $27.95

The conflict known since 1945 as the “cold war” was one of those titanic struggles between two great powers striving for hegemony that date back to the Greek-Persian confrontation in the 5th century B.C.E. and that recurred periodically thereafter. Notable instances included the Peloponnesian war, Rome’s struggles with Carthage three centuries later, the clashes of Christian Europe with Islam, the Hundred-Years war between England and France, and so on until modern times. Invariably, these conflicts took the form of armed clashes that, thanks to advances in weapons technology, claimed ever more victims.

The invention of nuclear weapons in the mid-20th century threatened to escalate the number of such victims exponentially and possibly extinguish all life on earth. Paradoxically, however, it had the opposite effect, eliminating armed conflict as a way of resolving global conflicts. For this, the only such occurrence in human history, a great deal of credit must go to the leadership of the United States, which for a long time enjoyed an actual or virtual monopoly on these weapons but refrained from using them. (In 1959, on the eve of the Cuban missile crisis, the Soviet Union had only six operational strategic missiles in its arsenal.)

This fact is one among many to be found in The Cold War: A New History. John Lewis Gaddis, a professor at Yale, has made an academic specialty of the U.S.-Soviet conflict. Among his half-dozen books on the subject, the most recent before this latest title, and the most ambitious, was We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (1997), which brought the story down to 1962 and, along the way, deflated the revisionist idée fixe that the U.S. was as much to blame for the conflict as the Soviet Union. The present book, which seems to have originated in a course given by Gaddis at Yale, carries the narrative to the end—that is, to the dissolution of the USSR that brought to a close the contest the USSR had itself started.

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For the cold war really began with the founding of the Soviet state in late 1917. In seizing power in Russia, Lenin and his associates aimed not at transforming their country into a model Communist state but at using it as a springboard for unleashing a global revolution: a social revolution in the West, an anti-colonialist one elsewhere. The Bolsheviks (with the exception of Stalin) were convinced that “revolution in one country” was unsustainable—in part because the Russian “proletariat,” of which they fancied themselves the representatives, would drown in the sea of a hostile “petty bourgeois” peasantry and in part because the “capitalist” states, then at war with each other in Europe, would almost certainly bury their differences and attack the Soviet homeland.

Thus, from their first day in power, the Russian Communists issued calls to the world’s “masses” to rise against their exploiters. These appeals evoked little response, and the one attempt (in Poland in 1920) to back them with military force ended in disaster. Nevertheless, throughout the interwar period, Moscow continued scheming to expand its influence through various means, and especially by promoting discord among its “capitalist” enemies. This was the task assigned to the Communist International, founded in 1919, the principal instrument of the early cold war.

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The Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939, which unleashed World War II, marked the culmination of this process. But any narrative of the cold war that omits the prior, interwar period is bound to be deprived of historical depth—and Gaddis’s, which begins in the mid-1940’s with the end of World War II, is unfortunately no exception. Although he faithfully re-creates the major episodes and various flashpoints of the next 45 years, the conflict as he depicts it can too often assume the character of an ordinary struggle for power, rather than the contest between two very different ways of life that the cold war represented.

Gaddis, does, however, bring consummate skill to telling the political story. The great virtue of this book lies in showing the conflict’s immense complexity, for this was a battle involving not simply two rivals but all sorts of allies on either side (some of whom were able to manipulate the great powers to a surprising extent), and it produced a multitude of problems tangential to the main conflict.

Particularly impressive is Gaddis’s grasp of the way in which historical events are shaped by a combination of accident and inevitability, by individuals as well as by forces beyond their control. This quality is especially evident in his account of the Soviet Union’s collapse, which is told with dramatic force and from which it emerges that none of the protagonists quite knew what he was doing. Gaddis is also convincing in demonstrating the difficulties faced by the United States in fighting, within the confines of its laws and traditions, an undeclared war against a rival not so constrained.

In his scrupulous determination to appear fair and non-judgmental, Gaddis refuses to convey the amoral viciousness of the Communist side. This is in part the consequence of the more general flaw I pointed out earlier, namely, the failure to take cognizance of the roots of the conflict in the pre-World War II history of Soviet Communism.

Still, these and other shortcomings having been noted—although the book closes with 32 pages of references and a 16-page bibliography, not a single source is cited in a foreign language—The Cold War can be recommended as a succinct and authoritative account of what is unquestionably a unique event in the annals of humanity: a hegemonic struggle that ended without bloodshed when the party that began it quietly folded its tent and vanished from the historical stage.

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About the Author

Richard Pipes is professor of history emeritus at Harvard and the author most recently of Russian Conservatism and Its Critics (Yale).




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