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The Cold War: A New History Paperback – December 26, 2006
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Energetically written and lucid, it makes an ideal introduction to the subject. (The New York Times)
A fresh and admirably concise history . . . Gaddiss mastery of the material, his fluent style and eye for the telling anecdote make his new work a pleasure. (The Economist)
About the Author
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John Lewis Gaddis is a well known and a renowned Cold War historian yet this work is sometimes a bit lacking and at times hard to follow. If you are looking for an in-depth study of the conflict that lasted for five decades and encompassed the globe this is not it. This is simply an overview of the most important events and personalities that shaped the course of the War, which sometimes got hot as in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan. The main issue I take with this book is not that it is too long or too short or that it brushes over certain historical occurrences in just a couple of paragraphs but its choice of how to approach the topic. All of those aforementioned issues are not really issues because as a historian you have the prerogative to prioritize how much importance you want to put on things/events/personalities as your research has indicated that those events perhaps were not that important. However, some issues, like the Vietnam War or Cuban Missile Crisis are oddly absent and the roots of those conflicts are left for the reader to research. Nevertheless, the main drawback is how different themes of the conflict are approached. Even though they generally follow a chronological and a geographical pattern, it is still difficult to discern what is happening and get the whole picture. The Cold War was a global conflict and the fact, that very abstract themes like "Hope" are chosen makes the topics harder to grasp.
However, when it comes to positives, this book has many. Firstly, a very interesting and in fact, funny, style of writing make the book much more enjoyable to read. Sometimes it reads like a good novel with metaphors and good biographies of the leaders. Additionally, the author covers all the major themes even if sometimes there are things you would like to know more about. The chapter about the non-aligned countries is particularly interesting to read for the new and unheard material is brought up, which we largely do not associate with this conflict. Fors instance, how smaller countries like Nationalist China (Taiwan), South Korea and even South Vietnam all had at one point or another threatened the US, that their governments might collapse if the US does not send aid. A similar role for the USSR played China, especially in the Taiwan crises of 1954 and 1958. Another interesting example is between China and France. Both of these states were thorns in the sides of their respective greater allies. France unnerved the US with its going alone stance and China continuously attacked the USSR and claimed it was not a truly socialist country. Finally, the number of details, citations, and variety of argument presented in most chapters allowed for a great visualization of this epic struggle between nations, states, ideallogies and ultimatelly, people.
One of the final chapters, which Lewis dubbed 'Actors' deals with those personalities who, whether intentionally or not, contributed to the Soviet Union's demise. These figures obviously include Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, but Gaddis provides wonderful insights into the roles of Pope John Paul II, Lech Wa''sa, Deng Xiaoping, and others whose actions helped to topple the "Dark and Evil Empire" of the USSR.
The virtue of this work, its brevity, is also its greatest weakness. Certain events are glossed over rather quickly leaving the reader not fully appreciating their effects upon the larger stage of the Cold War. Watergate, the Suez Crisis, the Bay of Pigs, and even the Cuban Missile Crisis to name a few, simply don't get the time and consideration that they require for a truly thorough history. Gaddis uses just under 270 pages of text to tell an international history of over 45 years.
That said, if you are new to studying this era you will find a good overview here. Also, serious students will still be amazed at Gaddis' analysis of key points in the conflict, and his take on the Cold War as whole. I enjoyed and learned a lot from this book, I only wish it had been longer.
Gaddis follows a chronological order while analyzing the important issues of the Cold War. Due to the shortness of the book (only 270 pages not including the footnotes), important events such as: the Suez Crisis, Watergate, Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs receive a few mere pages. Having said that, Gaddis did a great job of providing the reader with a basic understanding of the events that shaped the Cold War and the mindset of the world leaders who were running the show.
All in all, this is a fine book for people who are looking for a quick and enjoyable read on the Cold War. Highly recommended.
Top international reviews
There are some disappointing aspects however:
- the book was published a decade ago and the conclusions already feel dated and premature. It looks like the Cold War has a sting or two in the tail (cf. Ukraine)
- this is a book written from the perspective of the putative winners, from the heart of US foreign policy. It glosses over the moral failures on the US side, especially the CIA involvement in destabilising foreign governments.
- the concept of Actor politicians is a bit of a glib one, I didn't find it very convincing.
An entertaining, if slightly dated, survey of the Cold War, predominantly from the viewpoint of the two superpowers and with a very American-centric tone, that tries to answer the questions why the Cold War began and why it ended, somewhat more successfully in the former than the latter case. There is much more emphasis upon the development of strategic policy in the United States than in the Soviet Union, and much less than either of these upon how the Cold War was regarded and experienced in the various global hotspots, particularly in Europe and Asia, except as these areas affected the development of superpower strategy. This is, therefore, primarily a bipolar and political tour d'horizon approach to a period of world history with many facets.
Gaddis sets out from his clearly established and retrospective, democratic-capitalist perspective to show how Marxist ideas of historical inevitability, the crisis and contradictions of capitalism, and the certainty of the triumph of communism were shown to be false by Cold War events and the differing economic, social, and political efficiencies that were the outcome of the superior efficacy of market democracies as opposed to command economies, but at times he is prone to suggesting that the triumph of the first was predetermined, which for large parts of the period under review did not seem either to be the case or actually was. This was particularly so during the crisis of American democracy and of the so-called Imperial Presidency in the 1960s and 1970s where political crises, military defeat, domestic unrest, and economic stagnation led to uncertainty in not only whether the US was winning the Cold War but also, particularly from student protest, radicalism, and the New Left, whether it deserved so to do.
The book takes a tripartite approach to the era, distinguishing between the periods of, one, its origins and the development of bipolar geopolitical systems formed under the threat of mutually destructive thermonuclear war, from 1945 to the mid-1960s, two, the era of Détente between then and 1980 when the emphasis was upon stability, threat de-escalation, and mutual recognition, and, three, the final period from 1980 to 1989-91 when the West, reinvigorated by leaders who questioned the status quo, challenged the legitimacy of a Soviet Union that was simultaneously under attack from its own internal dynamics, eventually resulting in the latter's collapse and the end of the Cold War. These three periods, from the western, capitalist position of the author, may be categorized as phases, firstly, of fear, then of equivalence, and finally of victory, although not because they were so determined by policy makers in Washington, who were often in the dark as to the effects of their decisions, but because that is how events made them subsequently appear. At the beginning of the Cold War, the US and its allies acted primarily out of fear of a Soviet Union that had triumphed in the Second World War and occupied much of eastern Europe, then when the dangers of thermonuclear war and the limitations of American policy were revealed by the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War the emphasis was upon maintaining stability through a recognition of both Soviet and Chinese geopolitical and regional legitimacy and a mutual recognition of equivalent power systems, and then, finally, as the limitations of Détente became apparent and moral arguments were propounded as to the political, economic, and ethical inferiority of the Communist system compared to those of the democratic West, the USSR was faced by external and internal challenges that its system could not withstand, leading to the peaceful victory of the democratic and capitalist side in the Cold War. What was at the heart of these phases was a determination by the US, and the USSR, more noticeable after Stalin, to avoid a hot war between the superpowers that would escalate into a war of nuclear annihilation.
This three-way division is a useful, if simplistic way, of characterizing the development of the Cold War, and, from the American perspective, is explored by examination of the three US Presidents whose policies most determined these phases: Truman, who responded to the threat from the USSR and delineated the unacceptable and illogical risk thermonuclear war posed to the US; Nixon, who extracted the US from Vietnam, opened to China, and de-escalated the dangers of the Cold War through recognition and negotiation with the Communist powers at a time when the US was relatively weakened economically and socially; and Reagan, who rejected Détente as a means without an end, and through aggressive but optimistic rhetoric presented both an ideological and moral challenge to the USSR, and, through the Strategic Defence Initiative, a strategic and material challenge to which the Soviets could not respond. Unfortunately, Gaddis fails to properly connect the policies of these three presidents within US strategic thinking or to show how the positions they took were much more the product of circumstance than ideology. Truman, Nixon, and Reagan were all Cold Warriors, but they fought the Wars in differing ways because the strategic battlefield and the nature of the opposition had changed over time. Gaddis is clearly an admirer of Truman, and also Eisenhower, who evolved his predecessor's strategy to accommodate the new paradigm determined by mutually assured thermonuclear destruction, and has little time for Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter (and later Bush père), whose effectiveness is more at fault than their politics, but it is Reagan who is his political hero, just as George Kennan, whose famous 1946 'Long Telegram' first articulated the threat posed to the US by the USSR and who then helped to frame the American strategic and diplomatic response (and to whose memory this book is dedicated), is his ideological and academic mentor. However, I feel he underestimates the important role played by Richard Nixon in maintaining US influence and security during the time of the country's greatest domestic turmoil and geopolitical weakness due to Vietnam, and is over simplistic in associating the moral weaknesses of Watergate with a moral weakness of US foreign and security policy, which, in terms of outcome at a time of great difficulty, was remarkably successful. Détante was the only policy possible and Nixon pursued it extremely effectively. Where Watergate did prove a factor was that by rebalancing the control of foreign policy in favour of Congress to the relative disadvantage of the Executive, it made it harder for succeeding presidents, Ford and Carter, to make Détante based upon bilateral negotiations work, when agreements made between Washington and Moscow were so susceptible to alteration by the Congress. Although Gaddis makes no mention of this, it is not a surprise that Reagan sought to bypass congressional oversight, and even the law, to pursue his anti-Communist policy in Nicaragua, as he intended to exert a similar executive control over Cold War policy that Nixon had lost, but he and his predecessors had exercised. Gaddis takes an ethical objection to Nixon's conduct over Watergate, which may be justified in a book about domestic politics or the President himself, but it obscures proper analysis of how effective Nixon and Kissinger were from 1969 to 1974 in view of the unfavourable circumstances. Gaddis throughout tries to refract the Cold War through an ethical prism, and in terms of political thought that has value, but the efficacy of a strategic policy is still best measured by its outcome than its intent, and whatever Nixon's means (and their possible criminality), their ends were ultimately noble - the defence and security of the US and its democratic allies in face of resurgent threats from hostile one-party states without a superpower war. Further, the ethical failings of Nixon should not cloud the fact that both he and the system he represented were ethically superior to Brezhnev, Mao, and their totalitarian and murderous systems. Détente was a necessary and tactical recognition by Washington of equivalence in geopolitical power between the superpowers. It was not an acceptance by the US of moral equivalence.
Gaddis writes more about Watergate than Vietnam, but the former was very much a product of the latter, and it was the 'credibility gap' and domestic crises of Johnson's War, founded upon Kennedy and McNamara's flawed post-Missile Crisis South East Asian policy, that did more to undermine US power and government, at home and abroad, than any other political failure during the Cold War. On the other hand, Gaddis is correct about the failings of NSC-68, and the limitations of the 'flexible response' doctrine that developed in the 1960s in the thought of Paul Nitze, Henry Kissinger, and others, and so disastrously put into action by Johnson and McNamara in Vietnam. Perhaps, the biggest failure of this book is its inability to fit the Vietnam War into its narrative in such a way as to show how it was brought about by inept Cold War strategic thinking, and how both the military quagmire and subsequent US defeat significantly weakened the American geopolitical position, so as to give the USSR a relative and temporary advantage, only undermined through the break with China, which was more to do with ideological and political differences between the two Communist states than US action (Nixon in China was a response to this fissure, not its cause, and both Nixon and Mao took advantage of the opportunity of the opening to China to bolster their own country's relative position regarding the Soviet Union).
This is a story of the Cold War written from the victor's perspective, and perhaps lacks nuance, while being overly sympathetic to both the superiority of American democratic capitalism and the achievements of Ronald Reagan (the Iran-Contra lacuna is a giveaway - Gaddis ignores it because Reagan's unethical conduct undermines his criticism of Richard Nixon, whose unethical behaviour he regards as worse than that of other Presidents, but it might be argued that is only because he got caught and they did not, or, in Reagan's case, avoided responsibility for their unlawful actions). The book is, thus, a partial, if engaging account, and one which would appeal to traditional, non-neoconservative or non-Trumpian Republicans. It is not, although, to be fair, it does not set out to be, a total history of the Cold War. Rather, it is a discourse that tries to explain the West's victory and its justification from a western, specifically American, viewpoint, with all the faults that entails, although it does thereby reveal how the US strategic political and academic establishment came to see the Cold War at the time and in retrospect.
Troy Parfitt is the author of War Torn: Adventures in the Brave New Canada and Why China Will Never Rule the World.
Having said that, it was well written and JLG clearly is an expert in this field.
However the story seems to be the most important thing in this history book. The characters (the Pope, Reagan, Gorby) take a huge amount of space, and Reagan is glorified quite some.