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We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History
By John Lewis Gaddis
(Clarendon Press, Oxford. 1997.
425 pages. $14.99 paper.)

American Diplomacy published an essay by Professor John Lewis Gaddis titled “The New Cold War History” in its Autumn 1998 issue (Vol. III, No. 4). The reviewer surveys below Dr. Gaddis’ definitive study on that interesting and important topic. ~ Ed.

New Insights into the Cold War

by Richard Schenck

THE COLD WAR IS HISTORY—at last. For the generation whose careers were entwined with it one way or another, We Now Know makes for an interesting read. John Lewis Gaddis, a professor at Yale University, takes a new look at the Cold War, using materials that have come to light as a result of the breakup of the Soviet bloc.

Reviewing the origins of the East-West confrontation Gaddis maintains that the way it ultimately developed was not inevitable, but was due primarily to one individual. For while superpower rivalry would certainly have existed, it was Stalin’s insistence on equating security with territory that led to counter-measures designed to contain his ambitions. Stalin’s suspicion, distrust, and his conviction that conciliation was weakness were fatal character flaws. Convinced that total control was necessary to defeat his domestic “enemies,” he carried this attitude over in his relations with the area under Red Army occupation. Stalin tried to construct a Soviet empire in Eastern Europe modeled on the way he ruled at home. Purges, insistence on conformity, crushing of dissent reflected the priorities and practices of a single individual and resulted, Gaddis says, in an empire by imposition.

The United States was building an empire as well. But our domestic experience made it natural to try to do so by consensus, compromise, and consultation, resulting in an empire in Western Europe by invitation. In the long run, democratic market capitalism proved superior to deterministic, command socialism. The former released positive forces making its alliance viable; the latter suppressed them.

Reviewing the major events of East-West rivalry, Gaddis provides some interesting new insights into those tense times. In Korea, for example, we now know that the Pyongyang regime assured Stalin that the United States would not intervene and that Mao, contrary to long held opinion, was more than ready to bloody our nose. Khrushchev saw Berlin as a convenient issue to unsettle the Allies while his prickly ally, Ulbricht, pressed for action which he hoped would shore up his shaky regime. Khrushchev’s decision to put missiles in Cuba now seems more an attempt to stave off a U.S. invasion than one to tip the strategic missile balance in his favor. He believed the United States would not protest because it had done the same thing in Turkey. Khrushchev viewed the outcome of the Cuban crisis as a victory, since it prevented Castro’s overthrow.

Gaddis says Stalin and Mao often were victims of an authoritarian romanticism which convinced them that capitalist states could not cooperate and were bound to be at each other’s throats, that capitalism was doomed to destroy itself, and that socialism simply was superior and would prevail. In reality, authoritarianism was no match for a democratic coalition based on compromise, openness, and respect for minority opinion and an economic system that released, rather than restricted, those forces necessary for prosperity.

Gaddis claims there is a new Cold War history, one more balanced than the view held while tension remained high. That tension caused a lack of detachment, gave disproportionate attention to our side and emphasized our interests at the expense of ideas. Now we can see that the latter were crucial, because it is only in terms of ideas that the collapse of our opponents makes sense. No uprising, no war, no cataclysmic event. Just insistence on central planning, collectivized agriculture, the command economy all of which had, by the 1960s, proved incapable of providing a standard of living anywhere near that of the West. Ironically, only nuclear parity kept the contest going as long as it did, obscuring the internal rot that ultimately brought about the demise of communism.

Read this book for new insights into the Cold War. And keep in mind the author’s admonition that winning the contest is no reason to be complacent. The West prevailed, in part, because its institutions and its leadership were best suited for rebuilding a war-torn world. Or maybe conditions that for thousands of years had favored authoritarianism suddenly disappeared in the period following World War II. With no guarantee they may not return one day, it may be premature to write authoritarianism’s obituary.  

Richard Schenck’s career in the U.S. Foreign Service covered the years 1962-1987 with assignments abroad at seven posts, including consul general at Madras. He has taught at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and the University of Maryland.

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