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The Cold War: A New History Hardcover – December 29, 2005

4.2 out of 5 stars 159 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The; First Edition edition (December 29, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594200629
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594200625
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (159 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #96,107 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover
I bought this book with the expectation that it would provide a comprehensive overview of the events, episodes, personalities, motivations, and results of the Cold War. A reader looking for something similar might be disappointed. This book does not really attempt to be a comprehensive history of the Cold War, but is rather a collection of chapters, each devoted to a particular thematic aspect of the war. It reads as though Gaddis has a particular thesis about the Cold War that he wants to flesh out in each chapter, rather than telling the whole story in an orderly narrative.

As examples: there is a chapter about the "logic" of Mutual Assured Destruction, and how mankind's survival depended on two superpowers maneuvering their way through that system's pitfalls. There is another chapter contrasting the Leninist vision of authoritarianism with the Wilsonian vision of self-determination. There is a chapter about how the superpowers' respective allies eventually refused to do their bidding. There is a chapter about the moral paradoxes at the heart of American Cold War international policy. There is another about the key individual actors who forced the Cold War to a successful resolution. And there is one, sort of a "people power" chapter, about how the Cold War ended (Gaddis argues) largely because the internal contradictions of communism, the gap between its promises and its reality, would no longer be tolerated by its subjects.

I found many of these chapters to be thought-provoking, and often found them persuasive. At first, I resisted Gaddis's thesis about the spillover of amorality from the international sphere to the American domestic sphere, and how this precipitated the fall of Richard Nixon.
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Format: Hardcover
Yale history professor John Lewis Gaddis is America's foremost historian of the Cold War. Since the publication of "The United States and the Origins of the Cold War" in 1972, he has written a half dozen more books on the subject, each time finding a new perspective on the superpower standoff that took place between 1946 and 1991.

Prior to the 1970's, American historians, for the most part, put the blame of the origins of the Cold War on the Soviet system in general and on Josef Stalin in particular. Gaddis' early work was original insofar as it gave a more balanced perspective on the American/Soviet confrontation. After World War II, both superpowers acted rationally to protect their interests, having sacrificed many lives in hard-fought battles. Each side was protecting a way of life they thought morally superior.

In the current work under review, Gaddis' views seem to be evolving. Looking back at the Cold War in light of events since 1991, he concludes that it was primarily the power of ideas that won, since nuclear weapons had made military confrontation unthinkable. The liberal democracies and market economies of the West were better able to provide for their citizens than the command economies of the totalitarian system. The West offered their citizens hope while the Soviets instilled theirs with fear. Gaddis now believes it was the Soviets who were primarily responsible for starting the Cold War.

But why did the Cold War last so many years? Why didn't people rise up earlier? One reason, of course, was nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons prolonged the Cold War. The West had few options other than detente and containment.
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Format: Hardcover
The Good:

- Gaddis' 'Cold War' more than fulfills that basic requirement of all good books: style. The author never dwells on trifles, the book never gets dull, and you are more likely than not to be left wanting more when you finish it.

- More importantly though, the analysis is simply brilliant. Gaddis seems to have made it his purpose in this text to tackle the big 'whys' of the cold war: why the major events played out the way they did, why the major actors did what they did, why it all started, and why it ended.

- Another strong point is the author's encyclopedic knowledge of his sources. Gaddis is able to deploy the 'perfect quote' with unerring skill, and his evident familiarity with recently opened archives gives this book a distinct edge over older works on the same topic.

The Bad:

- The flip side of my second point above is that with so much analysis in a book which is so short to begin with, there is fairly little of the traditional historical narrative in this book. While that is probably a good thing for those who are already familiar with the major events of the conflict, it does detract somewhat from the ability of this book to function as an introduction to the cold war (which is the purpose Gaddis states in the preface).

- Otherwise, my only actual complaint about the book (and really, it's more of a quibble) is that the commendable objectivity which the author uses to describe the opening and middle events of the cold war seems to fade somewhat as we draw near to its close. Descriptions of Reagan, for example, are positively fawning, while those of Thatcher are only somewhat less exuberant.

In Summary:

-This is one of the most gripping works of non-fiction of any kind, and far and away the best single book about the cold war I have yet read. Highly recommended to anyone with an interest in the history of the 20th century.
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