on March 8, 2005
We Now Know by John Lewis Gaddis is a preliminary reevaluation of the first half of the Cold War (roughly 1945-62) based on information from the Soviet side that has become available since the demise of the Soviet Union. After presenting a wealth of material, Gaddis offers eight tentative hypotheses:
1. Diversification of power did more to shape the Cold War than did the balance of power. The Soviet Union rivaled the west in military power but lagged significantly in every other dimension, such as economic, cultural, moral, and ideological.
2. Both the US and Soviet Union built empires during the Cold War but they differed significantly. The Western European nations actively sought US support and involvement in the post-WWII years, leading to NATO and the Marshall Plan. In contrast, the Soviet Union had to put down numerous active revolts by members of the Warsaw Pact.
3. Many people did see the Cold War as a contest between good and evil, even if historians rarely did. Thousands of East Germans voted with their feet immediately after WWII, again in the 1950s (leading to the construction of the Berlin Wall), and again in 1989 (when Hungary opened its borders).
4. Democracy proved superior to autocracy in maintaining coalitions. Gaddis observes that many attributes of a nation's internal politics carry over into its foreign policy. The US was able to maintain its coalition by applying the consensus building techniques used domestically to managing its coalition. The Soviet Union's approach to coalition building, based on its approach to domestic politics, achieved unity within the Warsaw Pact only by smothering dissent.
5. Marxism-Leninism fostered authoritarian romanticism. At the end of WWII, Stalin believed that the next war would be between competing capitalist nations, that the workers of the world would unite, and that all the Soviet Union needed to do was to wait for capitalism to self-destruct. He failed to realize that his aggressive moves into central Europe had united the capitalist nations against him.
6. Nuclear weapons exchanged destructiveness for duration. Nuclear weapons rendered direct military conflict between the US and Soviet Union untenable, even in the years when the US had an overwhelming nuclear superiority. The result was that the Cold War continued unabated until the late 1980s.
7. As long as Stalin was running the Soviet Union, the Cold War was inevitable. If one imagines the changes in history that might have resulted from removing one key individual, the only such change that might have prevented the Cold War appears to be the removal of Stalin. His unique position is due to both his absolute power over the Soviet Union and his aggressive policies, exemplified by his moves into central Europe, his encouragement of Kim Il Sung to invade South Korea, and pressure on Mao to intervene when the US/UN forces had defeated the North Koreans. In contrast, removing any one western leader would not have produced any significant change in the course of events.
8. Future Cold War historians should retain the capacity to be surprised. Gaddis modestly observes that his book is not likely to be the final word on the Cold war.
One striking aspects of We Now Know is the description of "Potemkinism" and the impact it had on (1) the Soviet Union, (2) the US, and (3) the Soviet allies. (A Potemkin Village is a façade: An apparently prosperous village consisting of nothing more than building fronts and props built solely to impress the Tsar.) (1) In the face of US military superiority after WWII, the Soviet leadership repeatedly exaggerated its military strength. Waves of bombers flying over the Kremlin in conjunction with parades circled back and flew over again to create the impression of tremendous air power. Khrushchev repeatedly boasted about the superiority of his missiles and nuclear warheads when, in fact, he had very few available. This bluff was designed to deter the US by concealing the actual weakness of the Soviet Union, but Khrushchev failed to anticipate the potential reactions by the US and his allies. (2) In the US, the bluff prompted the "missile gap" debate that figured prominently in the 1960 presidential election and provoked a major effort to "catch up" with the Soviets. The Soviets were then forced to commit more resources to expanding their strategic capabilities in the face of actual American superiority and the arms race was underway. (3) Several Soviet clients also believed the bluff and acted more aggressively because they relied on Soviet military superiority to back them up. This pattern contributed to Kim Il Sung's invasion of South Korea, the Chinese intervention in the Korean War, and Castro's aggressive stance during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
We Now Know focuses on the first half of the Cold War, so it is unfair to criticize it for not addressing how and why the Cold War ended. Gaddis offers a few hints related (1) the impact of the change in US policy under Reagan from containment to challenging the Soviets across the spectrum of power (military, economic, moral, cultural, etc) and (2) the numerous changes in Soviet policy under Gorbachev, glasnost, creation of democratic institutions, and especially, the decision not to intervene when the Berlin Wall came down.
Perhaps Professor Gaddis is working on a sequel to address the second half of the Cold War and, especially, its conclusion. I'll offer three gratuitous thoughts for this endeavor. (1) His comments on Gorbachev's impact on the Soviet Union and the Cold War are very much on the mark. Gorbachev was faced with the impossible task of reforming a monstrosity with no redeeming qualities. His willingness to allow the Soviet Union to die rather than return to the policies of Stalin and Lenin established him as the only Soviet leader who was truly a "Hero of the Soviet Union". (2) Gaddis' comment that it is not clear whether Reagan's policy change in the 1980s was out of "ignorance or craft" is a bit unfair. Moving to confrontation may have been risky (primarily in economic terms, since nuclear standoff was well established) but I think it was well thought out and executed. The challenge was extended primarily in the economic and moral dimensions of power where the Soviets were most vulnerable. I don't mean to give all credit to Reagan; I think Margaret Thatcher was his strategic and philosophical mentor in this and many other areas. (3) Finally, I'll offer some credit to Jimmy Carter who claimed the moral high ground for the US with his emphasis on human rights. His policies may have been largely ineffectual at the time (Iran, Nicaragua) but they laid the foundation for challenging the Soviet Union on moral grounds.
In this book, John Lewis Gaddis sets out to describe the major structural features of the Cold War, identify their causes, provide a narrative overview of the Cold War from its inception to the Cuban Missile Crisis, and embed the Cold War in the larger context of 20th century history. Gaddis succeeds in accomplishing all these ends in a well written book of less than 300 hundred pages. This is a considerable achievement. A good part of this book is driven by the fact that the end of the Cold War has resulted in access to Soviet, Chinese, and Eastern European sources that provide information about key events and decision makers. Much prior work concentrated one sidely on Western policies and policy makers. The new archival information allows reconstruction of important decisions and a more complete picture of the Cold War. It is important to note that not all the new information relates to Communist sources. For example, based on the availability of new documentation, Gaddis presents an account of John Kennedy's behavior in the Cuban Missile Crisis that varies considerably from the standard accounts.
Gaddis addresses a number of key issues. Why did the Cold War begin? He sees the Cold War as a result of Stalin's insecurity and brutal Soviet conduct in Eastern Europe. Given the conduct of Soviet Armies and Stalin's aggressive foreign policy, the USA and its Western European Allies had no choice but to respond to Stalin in some form of confrontation. Was the Cold War a conflict just between the USA and the Soviet Union? Gaddis is careful to emphasize the autonomy of many decision makers during the Cold War. Some of these are surprising. An early and important event was the declaration of independence issued by Yugoslav communists in 1948. This event infuriated Stalin and played a large role in precipitating the Stalinist repression that occurred in many Eastern European Soviet satellites, further scaring Western European governments and pushing them closer to the USA. The emergence of NATO is presented very much as driven by Western European governments with the British playing a particularly important role. Gaddis contrasts the wisdom of American policy towards Europe and Japan with the ultimate failure of the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe. The Americans nourished European recovery with the Marshall plan, planted democracies in Germany and Japan, and tolerated a good deal of independence by important European partners. The Eastern European Soviet satellites, in contrast, were a chronic source of dissent and required diversion of considerable Soviet economic resources to maintain Soviet hegemony. This latter phenomena was actually predicted by the American diplomat George Kennan in the late 40s.
Gaddis deals very well with the problem of divided Germany and the expansion of the Cold War into Asia. He treats the Chinese and North Koreans as important independent forces and describes nicely the complexity of relations between the Soviets, the Chinese, and the North Koreans. Similarly, Gaddis provides a nice analysis of the expansion of the Cold War into the Third World, revealing very well how American policies, so successful in Europe and Japan, were mistaken in the Middle East and Latin America. Another topic dealt with very well is the role of nuclear weapons in the Cold War. In Gaddis' view, nuclear weapons had a dual role. They reduced the chance of direct conflict between the US and the Soviet Union but provided the only arena in which it was possible for the Soviets to maintain some sort of parity with the West. The last effect considerably prolonged the Cold War.
Gaddis finishes after the Cuban missile crisis. This is a good choice for several reasons. It is likely that important documents relevant to the post-Missile Crisis period are only now emerging, so reassessment would be premature. It may be true also that in many important respects, the Cold War was over. The USA had triumphed in Western Europe and Japan, the Eastern European satellite states were a chronic headache for the Soviets, nuclear weapons had stablized the conflict, and conflicts in the 3rd world would never be crucial.
Finally, I have to address some comments made by other reviewers. Gaddis is not a right wing bigot. This is an evenhanded and fair book. It is written concisely and without literary flair but I would not describe it as dry. It is very difficult to combine narrative and analysis in a concise manner, especially when dealing with controversial topics like these. Gaddis has done an admirable job and deserves our thanks for bringing his analysis of the Cold War before the broad reading public.
on December 28, 2000
Author John Lewis Gaddis taught for many years at Ohio University and is now on the faculty at Yale. He is a long-time, thoughtful analyst of the great confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union which dominated world events for nearly five decades World War II. Since the end of the Cold War, Gaddis has had the opportunity to survey the English-language literature, as well as documents which, by the mid-1990s, were beginning to "trickle" out of the "other side" of the Cold War, to determine which aspects of the history of the Cold War, if any, require reassessment. Although this book primarily discusses the "high Cold War," the period from the end of World War II through the Cuban missile crisis, it is an important contribution to the literature.
Gaddis begins with Alexis de Tocqueville's intriguing observation, made in 1835, that "[t]here are now two great nations in the world...the Russians and the Anglo-Americans." Gaddis observes that there were several historical sources of "Russian-American antagonism" which predated the "power vacuum" that separated the United States and the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War. More important were the attitudes of the countries in 1945: the U.S. was determined, according to Gaddis, to "seek power in the postwar world" Stalin, the "Soviet leader, too sought security," but Gaddis asserts that, to Stalin, "[n]ational security had come to mean personal security." The role of Stalin in the Cold War's origins is central to Gaddis's thesis.
According to Gaddis, "the nature of the post-World War II international system" was characteristic of empire. In Gaddis's view, Stalin fused "Marxist internationalism with tsarist imperialism" and this prompted the Soviet Union's territorial acquisitions and establishment of spheres of influence." For the United States, according to Gaddis, "Pearl Harbor was...the defining event for the American empire," and its post-war goals were to maintain "a substantial peacetime military establishment and a string of bases around the world from which to resist aggression if it should ever occur." Gaddis writes: "One empire arose...by invitation; the other by imposition." According to Gaddis, "the Cold War through the end of 1948 remained primarily a European conflict," as a result of which "the Cold War's sudden expansion into Asia in 1949-50 caught everyone by surprise." According to Gaddis, "Korea turned out to be the most bitterly contested of all Cold War battlegrounds." Gaddis observes that the origins of the conflict remain complicated and controversial, but, writing about Stalin, Gaddis asserts that "the normally cautious Soviet leader" authorized the attack on South Korea as a result of "Stalin's new optimism about the prospects for international revolution." Nevertheless, according to Gaddis, when Stalin and Mao Zedong met to discuss the prospects for war in Korea, "Stalin warned the Koreans "not to `expect great assistance and support from the Soviet Union, because it had more important challenges to meet than the Korean problem.'" Gaddis remarks: "Stalin...was determined to have the Chinese confront the Americans but at the same time so determined not to have the Soviet Union do so that he would have sacrificed North Korea altogether had Mao refused to intervene."
Gaddis writes: "By the time Truman left office and Stalin died, early in 1953, the basic patterns of the Cold War were firmly established. Neither the United States nor the Soviet Union would accept the other's vision of the postwar world....Cold War history is, at least in part, the story of how what was thought to be unendurable became endurable; how order and stability, if rarely justice, evolved from bitter and sustained rivalry." Gaddis asserts that the "German question...did more than anything else to delay" the Cold War's settlement. By the middle 1950s, Gaddis suggests, the "continued division of Germany was...a convenient, perhaps even a comfortable option for the Americans, the Russians, and their respective allies." While the Cold War settled into a comfort level in Germany, it threatened to ignite nuclear war in Cuba. Gaddis asserts that, after Khrushchev came to power, he "hoped to improve relations with the United States," and "Castro's insurgency had attracted little attention and no support from Moscow." But Khrushchev seized the opportunity and by July 1960, according to Gaddis, the Soviet leader "was openly threatening to the United States with a Soviet missile attack if it should try to invade Cuba." That was mere bluster, but the missile crisis in October 1962 brought the world closer to nuclear war than at any time since the Korean War. Gaddis asks: "What is there new to say about the Cuban missile crisis?" Despite numerous "revisions and reconsiderations," Gaddis asserts that "the central place the Cuban missile crisis occupies in Cold War history" has not changed. The missiles were removed in what is generally regarded as a "great victory" for the United States, but Khrushchev later insisted that the crisis was a triumph for the Soviet Union because it was "able to extract from Kennedy a promise that neither America nor any of her allies would invade Cuba."
In his concluding chapter on "New Cold War History,"Gaddis acknowledges that he is offering "first impressions," which he states as hypotheses. Perhaps the most interesting is Gaddis view that "the United States and the Soviet Union built empires after World War II, although not of the same kind." With respect to responsibility for the Cold War, Gaddis writes that "the `new' history brings us back to an old answer: that "as long as Stalin was running the Soviet Union a cold war was unavoidable." That accounts for the Cold War's origins, but it does not explain why it continued for over 35 years after Stalin died. As Gaddis observes: "Tocqueville had predicted bipolarity but not necessarily hostility." What was the principal cause of the bitter hostility essential to the Cold War? Until that is understood, there will be plenty of work for Gaddis and other practitioners of the "new" history of the Cold War.
on March 12, 2002
This is an analysis of the Cold War, not a history. Gaddis' writing style is a bit dry, but this is more than offset by the wealth of insight and information contained in his book. He has four principal themes:
· If you can pin the blame for starting the Cold War on anyone, it would be Josef Stalin. His personality and leadership style caused it. His imprint was so strong on the Soviet Union that Moscow's leadership style in the three decades following his death was still steeped in his. This served to perpetuate the Cold War, which began on his watch. (I presume, another reason it continued was that it had become institutionalized in the West as well by the mid-50s). It wasn't until the next generation of leaders-Gorbachev-came along that they finally broke from the Stalinist tradition. He sees no coincidence between this and the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
· The Cold War was less bi-polar than is generally thought. Not only did Yugoslavia set its own course from Moscow, but Red China often expressed a will of its own even in the early days. (I was surprised to learn that Mao Zedong was a fan of Stalin's and remained so after Stalin's death.) Also, Eastern Europe remained in the Soviet Union's sphere only by force and coercion. North Vietnam, North Korea, and even East Germany, didn't always tow the line.
· The turning point of the Cold War was the Cuban Missile Crisis. Up to that point, politics, ideology, and economics all played into the conflict, and the issue, even viewed from today, was considered to be in doubt. After the Cuban Missile Crisis the focus was solely on military power, which obscured to both sides the reality that the Soviet Union was losing-that it couldn't keep up either morally or economically.
· Digging into old Soviet and East European files and sources will bring surprises. He thinks (and, it would appear, reasonably so) that there's much more to be learned as we penetrate the old files.
Gaddis has a lot of detail on the Cuban Missile Crisis, especially on the number and types of Soviet missiles and associated equipment that deployed to Cuba, the number of Soviet troops involved, and the communications flow up and down the Soviet chain of command between Cuba and Moscow. I was struck by the apparent willingness of Castro to let the situation go nuclear.
This is a readable book that just begins to scratch the surface of the heretofore hidden history of the Cold War. Hopefully it is just a hint at what is to come.
For that matter, Mao seems to have never shrunk from the prospect of a full nuclear exchange either. This frightened Moscow, but in each case seems to have resulted from Castro's and Mao's believing Nikita Khrushchev's bombastic propaganda about the Soviet Union having nuclear parity with, and even superiority over, the West.
Professor Gaddis's course on the Cold War at Yale is, without a doubt, the most popular class offered, attracting probably 800-1000 (one-fifth of undergraduates) people before it must be capped at a still staggering 400, and rightfully so: an un-assuming fellow, he is a well-known and brilliant historian with a knack for writing and teaching. His book, We Now Know, is an outstanding piece of historical scholarship on the origins of the Cold War and how it played out in the years before the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is carefully argued and well-documented. He approaches all sides of the Cold War, including the sometimes overlooked role China played in the early Cold War, not to mention the attention he gives to nuclear weapons and the third world, for example. Gaddis's writing is very accessible, and he draws many insightful parallels and analogies which aid in understanding even the most complicated of events and theories. While I think those with at least a basic background in Cold War history would appreciate the book and its interpretations more, it could certainly serve as an introductory text. Gaddis is the don of modern Cold War historians, and this is nothing short of a masterpiece. I heartily recommend it.
"We Now Know" is Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis' review of the early years of the post-World War II competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. This book was first published in 1997, a few years after the Soviet side of the Cold War had become available to historians in the West. Gaddis and others had previously written from what was known about the West and surmised about the Communists. Gaddis revisits the struggle and fleshes out how actions on both sides drove the course of history.
This is a scholarly volume, written for the graduate student in foreign affairs, with large numbers of footnotes. Nevertheless, the general reader with an interest in the Cold War and the fortitude to persevere through some long stretches of dry material will be richly rewarded with some interesting insights.
Gaddis finds that the personalities of principal communist leaders such as Stalin, Khrushchev, and Mao played a disportionate role in determining the foreign policies of the Soviet Union and Communist China, the direct result of a lack of checks and balances in their authoritarian governments. Stalin's paranoid need for security inside and outside Russia, for example, was so great in 1945 that no concessions by the West could have avoided the Cold War. Khrushchev's attempt to bluff the West on the size of the Soviet strategic deterrent also fooled his allies, contributing to misunderstandings and failed policy. Gaddis assesses that Kim Il-Song of North Korea misled both Stalin and Mao into supporting his invasion of South Korea in 1950.
Gaddis finds that the policy of both the United States and the Soviet Union were to a significant degree shaped by interaction with their respective allies. The willingness of the United States to consult in a meaningful way with its allies was essential to the acceptance of its policies, while the tendency of the Soviet Union to coerce its allies triggered much of the resistance that undermined the Soviet empire. Gaddis' thoughtful analysis of the role of nuclear weapons is especially worthwhile.
"We Now Know" holds up remarkably well against the ten years of additional research available since Gaddis wrote this book. It is highly recommended to students of the Cold War.
on July 19, 2016
I imagine that this book was important in 1996 when it was released. The Soviet archives had been recently opened to historians, allowing for an entire new dimension to Cold War studies---hence the "Rethinking Cold War History." Reading the book 20 years later, however, it seems familiar and dated. This is, perhaps, a good thing; it shows that this rethinking as been incorporated into the current narrative of the Cold War.
The writing isn't brilliant but this isn't supposed to be poetry. The book actually gets more interesting the further you get into it. It may be helpful to read the last chapter first.
This is probably not a book for the casual reader who is looking for a general historical narrative. This book will be of more interest to the specialist or the grad student looking at Cold War historiography.
Good not not necessarily recommended (for the general reader).
on July 16, 2016
Usually, books with "New" or "Rethinking" set off my alarm bells. It is usually always revisionism lauding socialists. You can try this as you go through your day: in any newspaper article, magazine headline, report on social science, or school board policy, replace the word "new" with the word "socialism;" it usually works out.
This book was a pleasant surprise, examining the early history of the cold war and bringing in recent research. The author can be didactic and repetitive, but there are only so many ways to describe the events after WWII between the Soviets and the west.
The cold war was inevitable, given Stalin as the Soviet leader. Addis defends this argument through the course of the book.
Entertaining to read: well written, and just about as often cheery as bombastic.
Having grown up during the Cold War, I have always been interested in what was actually going on. It is not that we were only lied to during the Cold War. That would be a misrepresentation of the reality of those times. Rather, there were many voices proclaiming different realities to be true. There were the far right John Birchers, there was the far left Communist Party of America and the organs of the Soviet Union (Tass and Pravda) and everything in between.
What is now called the "mainstream press" was really all there was back in those days (the organs of the extreme organizations were decidedly small circulation underground voices) and these big voices moved more left as the years passed by beginning with the Alger Hiss case. It was not until the Soviet archives were opened and the Venona documents were declassified that incontrovertible evidence forced the left to admit that Hiss was indeed working for the Soviets.
This book begins with the end of World War Two through the Cuban Missle Crisis. It provides fascinating insight into what the Soviet Archives actually confirm about those decades. We now know that the Soviets had clear designs on Europe and thought they had Germany in their pocket. Except for the Marshall Plan, they very well might have succeeded. We know that it took Stalin's go ahead to start the Korean War, and we know much more about the Soviet thinking leading up to and during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Prof. Gaddis provides a fascinating story and solid reporting and incisive analysis. I enjoyed this book a great deal. Some may wonder why it is so important to clarify these past events. It is simply because so many voices were wrong and many of them were consciously trying to obfuscate the truth or were being used by those supporting the interests of the Soviet Union. They did so for many different reasons. Nevertheless, they were working against the interests of the United States (of course, some of them then and today say that their actions are, in fact, working for the interests of the United States because they see their socialist (or progressive) vision as in the interests of the USA).
Some may find the facts reported in this great book to be difficult to accept because of the conflict with their ideology. I do feel sorry for them. Prof. Gaddis does a solid job in presenting reality in a way that is hard to gainsay. It is very hard to spin away from the conclusions presented in this important book.
on May 14, 1999
No, this book doesn't come too soon after the end of the Cold War. As Gaddis says at appropriate points, "we now know," suggesting we know much more and can evaluate much better than we could even at the end of the Cold War, but the "now" is just a temproary point. Obviously, we will eventually know more, perhaps much more. But, for now, Gaddis sheds new light on numerous events, and he does so in a serious but almost self-deprecating manner. For someone just plunging into the Cold War, this would be an excellent place to start. For those who lived through most of the Cold War as I did, and have studied it now and again, this work provides a wonderful reality check.