We Now Know

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John Lewis Gaddis. We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. 448 pages. $18.95


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Tom Demharter, 2005

--Tdemharter 18:49, 13 Sep 2005 (EDT)

Can blame for the development of the Cold War that began directly at the end of World War II be placed upon a particular country? Or what about any of the leaders of those countries? Or possibly events that were out of the hands of those leaders? What about the philosophical political differences that existed between the United States, Europe and the Soviet Union? This is the pressing question that historians have argued over since the 1950’s – where should blame for the Cold War be placed (if it is at all even possible to assign blame)? John Lewis Gaddis believes that the end of the Cold War and the opening of numerous archives from behind the Iron Curtain have begun to shed additional light on this subject.

Gaddis has been studying the origins of the Cold War for many decades. Throughout all of his research, one thing has remained constant – the world in which the Cold War developed was one where the victors of World War II followed the rules of zero-sum game theory in their relations with each other. Advantages gained by either side were seen as a loss for theirs. As he points out in the book, “World politics was an extension of Soviet politics, which was in turn an extension of Stalin’s preferred environment: a zero sum game, in which achieving security for one meant depriving everyone else of it.” Even in an earlier study of the Cold War, Gaddis cannot find credence with comparative work that has been done in international systems to help explain the origins of the Cold War. While Gaddis does argue that systems theory does create a “…useful point of departure for thinking about the nature of international relations since 1945, … the difficulty is that our actual experience is limited to the operations of a single system – the balance of power system – operating either within the multipolar configuration that characterized international politics until World War II, or the bipolar configuration that has characterized them since.”

Where Gaddis was once only interested in explaining why the bipolar system that was created by the United States and the Soviet Union was able to stay so stable over a long period of time and not break down into World War III, the culmination of the Cold War has made Gaddis now shift his attention to determining who should be blamed for its creation. Having sifted through numerous pieces of transcripts and additional records, Gaddis believes that fault clearly lies with one man – Joseph Stalin. Gaddis argues that it takes men “…responding unpredictably to circumstances, to forge the chain of causation; and it took one man in particular, responding predictably to his own authoritarian, paranoid, and narcissistic predisposition, to lock it into place.” By relying on the zero-sum game theory, Gaddis argues that Stalin continued to focus on what he saw as the pressing security needs of the Soviet Union over cooperation with the West at the end of World War II; and through the use of forced corrosion and terror, Stalin attempted to achieve his goal of a “buffer zone” around his empire.

In much of his examinations of America-Soviet relations, Gaddis finds it important to discuss the history of early parallels in the growth and development of both nations. I agree with him on this point. In order to understand what is driving the security (and domestic) needs of a country, you need to know how that country has gotten to where it is. To better understand why both the United States and Russia acted as they did at the end of World War II, we need to examine the particulars of their past. Gaddis sees the geographical divide that exists between the two countries as just one of the many circumstances that led to the independent development of the two nations. Each did not need the other in order to develop, giving them little need for interaction. Gaddis argues that many of the confrontations that developed between the two nations were a result of “…remarkable misconceptions of each side’s intentions by the other.” Gaddis continues this trend by adding that “the simultaneous shift of American and Russian concerns away from Europe and toward the development of continental empires meant that for decades to come citizens of two countries would have little to do with one another.” Without the development of relationships between the two countries, it is difficult for an environment of trust and mutual understanding to develop. Gaddis is quite on the point with this line of thinking.

Where I believe Gaddis errors is in the blame game. Unfortunately, Gaddis’s argument creates a conundrum – how can blame be levied on just one individual when this individual was not acting alone inside a vacuum. There were external influences that were pulling on Stalin that helped to guide him in particular directions. While I am not a Stalin apologist, I believe that both Churchill and Roosevelt must be figured into the equation as well. For me, the question becomes - what came first, the chicken or the egg? In this paradigm, the chicken represents Roosevelt and Churchill; the egg is Stalin. The actions of the chicken determined what environment the egg would develop in. Both ‘parents’ knew that the egg was rotten yet they chose to ignore this fact and let it hatch. Roosevelt more that Churchill believed that a post-war environment could be created where the egg could be nurtured in a manner to control the actions of this new chicken. This did not happen. As soon as the parents were not looking, the new chick attacked in an attempt to create its own little space in its new world Unfortunately for the coop, both parents soon left the scene, one having died and the other thrown out for not having listened to the others around him. One of the foster parents was very strict, attempting to set up a perimeter around the chick to contain him while the birth parent yelled from the outside, having seen his errors in allowing the egg to have hatched. At any point, these parents still had the ability to end the life of this chick but refused to take this albeit drastic measure.

This is my problem with the Gaddis book – he refuses to lay blame upon the West for its inability to stop Stalin before it was too late. If you accept the beginning of the story, it is easy to follow the rest of the history as it plays out. Clearly once safely in power behind his buffer states, Stalin was free to act as he wanted, for he did not have to answer to an electorate that would keep him in power. The purges behind the Iron Curtain continued and the rest is the history that Gaddis presents to us in a spectacular fashion. Having read his previous works, I am not certain as to why Gaddis took this approach. Within a zero-sum game, there are always multiple actors; not just one person controls the game. Choices are made by all sides. To now just affix blame on one actor simply makes little sense. Even as vile and ruthless as Hitler was, historians have little trouble placing some of the blame for World War II on German appeasement by England and France. How can Gaddis not do the same? While much of the information that Gaddis uses does show that Stalin did create many of the situation that the West had to deal with, at every step, Stalin (and eventually Khrushchev) would back away when faced with strong opposition from the West. Gaddis does point to Greece and the Middle East as geopolitical examples of British and American success, but we must ask ourselves, did Stalin really want this land or was he seeing just how far he could wander outside of his safety zone? I for one believe the latter.

Overall, Gaddis does an excellent job in gathering and interpreting much of the new information that has been released from the former Soviet Union by putting it into context of American reaction and policy development. With this, I have no problem – the amount of new information is staggering and will continue to be examined and re-examined for decades to come. Where much of Gaddis’s prior work was done from a Western perspective, in We Now Know, Gaddis steps away from this perspective and attempts to look at the world from the Soviet (Stalin) perspective. While he does do a good job of this, Gaddis forgets that the Soviets were interacting with the West. He needs to blend both perspectives together instead of just focusing on one side. With his concluding remarks in “the Long Peace,” Gaddis warns us that “history…has a habit of making bad prophets out of both those who make and those who chronicle it. It tends to take expectations and turn them upside down; it is not at all tolerant of those who would seek too self-confidently to anticipate its future course.” Maybe Gaddis should have taken some of his own advice when writing We Now Know. If Gaddis is going to now argue for a multidimensional examination of the Cold War, he cannot simply lay blame on one individual, no matter how evil that man may be.

While this book is excellent as an example of post-revisionism, its use would be limited to either an upper level undergraduate history class or a graduate seminar in either history or political science. Much of the information that is presented by Gaddis assumes a tremendous amount of prior knowledge about the Cold War. High school student would find little use with this book, having too little prior knowledge to make sense of it.

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