The Cold War

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John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History,New York: Penguin Press, 2005, 333 p. $27.95 ISBN 1-59420-062-9



The Cold War: A New History is the latest and most comprehensive in a series of books by John Lewis Gaddis about the Cold War. He traces its beginning to the end of WW II when the Americans and British were allied with the Soviet Union to defeat Germany. The shaping of the postwar settlement set the boundaries of the new rivalry between the West and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had suffered terribly in the war, far more than the US and Britain, and Stalin was intent on a settlement that guaranteed security for his country and adequate compensation for its losses. As Gaddis says, “Stalin’s postwar goals were security for himself, his regime, his country, and his ideology, in precisely that order.” (p. 11)

The US wanted to restore the balance of power in Europe and bring its troops home, while Stalin sought to maintain the advanced positions of his troops to secure more favorable boundaries. Gaddis says, “Stalin’s goal, therefore, was not to restore a balance of power in Europe, but rather to dominate the continent as thoroughly as Hitler had sought to do.” (p. 14) The US and Britain sought a postwar settlement that would balance power and prevent any new war through collective security arrangements, political self-determination, and economic integration. However, according to Gaddis, “Stalin’s was a very different vision: a settlement that would secure his own and his country’s security while simultaneously encouraging the rivalries among capitalists that he believed would bring about a new war. Capitalist fratricide, in turn, would ensure the eventual soviet domination of Europe.” (p. 27)

Stalin obtained the territorial concessions he wanted in Eastern Europe and Northeast Asia, but he ran into resistance when he sought territory and bases in Turkey, Iran, and North Africa. As positions hardened and wartime cooperation ceased, the US tried to understand Soviet behavior and motives. Gaddis says that the best answer came from George F. Kennan, a junior Foreign Service officer in the American Embassy in Moscow who sent an 8,000 word cable on February 22, 1946 suggesting that it was necessary for the Soviet Union leaders to treat the West as hostile in order to justify their ruthless dictatorship. The “long telegram” of Kennan became the basis for US strategy toward the Soviet Union, which was a “long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” (p. 29)

In March 1947 Truman announced the Truman Doctrine providing military and economic assistance to Greece and Turkey and stating US policy as supporting “free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressure.” (p. 31) In June 1947 the US committed to the reconstruction of Europe through the European Recovery Plan (the Marshall Plan). Stalin opted not to participate and prohibited Eastern European countries from participating as well. Stalin responded to the Marshall Plan by tightening his grip on Eastern Europe, supporting the seizing of power in Czechoslovakia by communists. He next blockaded Berlin. the West German capital surrounded by Soviet occupied area. These actions backfired and led to the creation of NATO, a strong anti-communist alliance. On August 1, 1949, the Soviet Union exploded an atomic bomb, ending America’s monopoly on nuclear weapons and bringing a new dimension to the developing Cold War.

Developments in Asia expanded the scope of rivalry. On October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong, victorious over the Chinese nationalists, announced the formation of the People’s Republic of China. In June 1949 he declared alliance with the Soviet Union in the international communist movement. In December 1949 he traveled to Moscow and signed a Sino-Soviet Treaty, roughly analogous to the North Atlantic Treaty.

On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea with Stalin’s blessing. According to Gaddis, Stalin had not anticipated the effect this action would have on America, which was shocked by the surprise attack across a UN-sanctioned border that “appeared to challenge the entire structure of postwar collective security.” (p. 43) After the US-led troops pushed the North Koreans to the Sino-Korean border, the Chinese attacked on November 26 with 300,000 troops. The fighting dragged on until an armistice in July 1953. Gaddis states that 36,568 Americans died in combat compared to some 600,000 Chinese troops and over 2,000,000 Koreans, soldiers and civilians, on both sides. (p. 50) Gaddis finds that the only decisive outcome of the war was the precedent it set that nations armed with nuclear weapons could go to war without using them. (p. 50)

Gaddis discusses the debate over the use of nuclear weapons. After WW II Truman had taken control over atomic weapons away from the military and made the decision on their use a presidential prerogative. Gaddis says, “[D] espite repeated requests from his increasingly frustrated war planners, Truman refused to clarify the circumstances in which they could count on using atomic bombs in any future war.” (p. 54) With the development of thermonuclear weapons, the possibility of global destruction became real. Both the US and the Soviet Union concluded that nuclear weapons could not be used. Gaddis says, “For them, though, the implications of “equality in annihilation” were clear: because a war fought with nuclear weapons could destroy what it was intended to defend, such a war must never be fought.” (p. 65) Eisenhower understood the dangers of nuclear war, and, Gaddis asserts, “insisted that the United States prepare only for all-out nuclear war.” (p. 66) By insisting on planning only for total war, “His purpose was to make sure that no war at all would take place.” (p. 68)

From 1957 to 1961, Kruschev repeatedly threatened the West with nuclear annihilation. However, American U-2 spy plane flights over the Soviet Union confirmed the limited size and inferior capabilities of the Soviet long-range bomber force and the lack of operational intercontinental missiles. Kruschev precipitated the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962. which came close to igniting a full war. According to Gaddis, “It persuaded everyone who was involved in it . . . that the weapons each side had developed during the Cold War posed a greater threat to both sides than the United States and the Soviet Union did to each other.” (p. 78) Subsequently, the US adopted a new strategy known as “Mutual Assured Destruction.” Gaddis states, “The assumption behind it was that if no one could be sure of surviving a nuclear war, there would not be one.” (p. 80) The Berlin wall went up in August 1961 to stop the flight of East Germans to the West. Gaddis quotes President Kennedy who described the wall as “the most obvious and vivid demonstration of the failures of the Communist system, for all the world to see.” (p. 115)

The US and the Soviet Union competed for the allegiance of other nations, dividing the world into Eat and West blocks. Gaddis reflects on the emergence of autonomy for smaller nations on both sides as the nuclear stalemate created opportunities for them to chart their own course. He says that while the international system in the 50’s, 60’s, and early 70’s appeared bipolar, “In fact, though, the superpowers were finding it increasingly difficult to manage the smaller powers whether allies or neutrals in the Cold War.” (p. 120)

European colonialism declined after WW II, but third world nationalists identified the US with imperialism because of its alliance with colonial powers. Newly independent nations charted a middle course through “non-alignment” that gave them bargaining power. The US worried that former colonies could fall under the sway of the Soviet Union or China in a “domino” effect. South Vietnam became a battleground as the US escalated an indigenous revolt against a corrupt government into an East-West confrontation of global significance. When Nixon gained the presidency in January 1971, he was determined to extricate the US from a distracting and debilitating war in order to regain the initiative in the Cold War and restore government authority at home.

Under Nixon the concept of “détente” was implemented to lower the risks of war and encourage a more predictable relationship among the Cold War rivals. (p. 181) But, as Gaddis points out, “détente sought to freeze the Cold War in place,” not to end it. (p. 198) Instead of ending the conflict, it would merely establish rules by which it would be conducted. An important part of this effort was the attempt to limit the nuclear arms race. The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks produced an agreement in 1972 limiting the number of intercontinental and submarine-based ballistic missiles each side could deploy and a treaty proscribing missile defenses. The SALT II treaty followed this in 1979. However, while negotiations were going on, the Soviet Union had escalated the race with the deployment of new intermediate range missiles targeting Western Europe. NATO responded with the deployment of similar missiles in Europe in 1979. The Soviet Union responded by invading Afghanistan. As Gaddis states, “Détente had failed, then, to halt the nuclear arms race, or to end superpower rivalries in the “third world,” or even to prevent the Soviet Union from using military force again to save “socialism" . . . .” President Carter then withdrew the SALT II treaty from the Senate and called for increased defense spending. Gaddis finds that the Soviet Union’s actions did not advance its interests and looked “less like a coordinated strategy to shift the global balance of power and more like the absence of any strategy at all.” (p. 214)

Ronald Reagan came to office determined to end détente. He felt that since detente perpetuated the Cold War, only killing it could end the conflict. According to Gaddis, he believed “that neither communism nor nuclear weapons should continue to exist, and yet détente was ensuring that both did.” (p. 217) He declared the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” seeking to take away the moral and ideological equality of legitimacy given the Soviet Union by détente. He sought to repudiate the concept of MAD by proposing the Strategic Defense Initiative to develop missile defenses.

Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union and introduced modernization through his concepts of Glasnost and Perestroika. He sought unsuccessfully to maintain the communist system while introducing market forces. In a bloodless revolution starting with the fall of the Berlin wall, the Soviet Union and, with it, the Cold War came to an end.


Dave Smith, Fall 2006

The Cold War: A New History, by John Lewis Gaddis is a comprehensive overview of the Cold War in which Gaddis pulls together several trains of thought in his previous books on particular aspects of the Cold War. He does an excellent job of synthesizing the growing array of secondary sources and makes good use of newly available primary sources, such as the minutes of Soviet politburo meetings. However, the book is disappointing in its lack of depth. Gaddis gives only superficial treatment to a number of key events. For example, the Berlin blockade of 1949 receives only brief mention. In describing the decision to place intermediate range missiles in Europe in response to the Soviet deployment, Gaddis makes no mention of the tremendous controversy both in the US and Europe that accompanied the decision. The inescapable conclusion is that Gaddis intends this book for a less sophisticated audience looking for a quick and easy summary of the Cold War.

Gaddis approaches the subject from a conservative point of view, not as a right wing ideologue, but as definitely a believer in the superiority of democracy and free enterprise capitalism. Communism was discredited because it failed to bring about political and social justice and failed to deliver a better life economically. Command economies simply cannot compete with capitalism in delivering on their promises. Gaddis finds that democracy expanded from a limited to a global phenomenon that has produced a developing consensus that democracy confers legitimacy.

Gaddis appears to be a great admirer of Ronald Reagan and gives him credit for pressuring the Soviets into actions that brought about dissolution of the Soviet Union. He attributes to Reagan a well-conceived and well-executed strategy to discredit the communist system and encourage its demise. While Reagan does deserve some credit, the fall of the Soviet Union was bound to occur eventually. Reagan merely sped up the process.

Lisa Harry, Spring 2007

The Cold War: A New History by John Gaddis makes a very important contribution to the historiography of the Cold War. This is in large part due to the credibilty the book carries with it. The extensive amount of notes provided makes it authoritative enough for scholars. The Cold War is meticulously researched and the points made by Gaddis are well supported by information taken from primary documents of the time. These documents include presidential papers and audio tapes, government documents, interviews, diaries, manuscripts, and periodicals. It is because of these sources that Gaddis' points are so memorable.

While doing some background research on the Cold War I came upon, The Cold War: how it began, why it ended, an article by Jonathan Rosenberg that was published in The Christian Science Monitor's December 20, 2005 edition. One of the topics the paper covers is the origins of the Cold War, a topic Rosenberg acknowledges has long sparked bitter debate among historians. He brings Gaddis' ideas from The Cold War up with this topic. This controversy is something I really did not think about until I read this paper. Gaddis places full responsibility for the conflict on Stalin and the Societ Union. Many other historians argue that responsibility lies with the U.S., while others assert that both Moscow and Washington were to blame. The key, Gaddis argues, is that the United States and the Soviet Union had very differenct ideas for the what the postwar world should be like. The United States wanted to avoid future wars by encouraging the great powers to work together. The U.S. wanted economic integration and believed the United Nations could enhance the security of all states. Stalin on the otherhand wanted to advance Russia's interests by surrounding the country with a group of nondemocratic states. Stalin hoped that rivalries among the nations would develop which might ultimately lead to a war among captitalist nations.

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