Customer Reviews: The Cold War: A New History
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on March 16, 2006
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. It seemed a weak thesis to me at first, but upon reflection, I agree with Gaddis that there was a fundamental discomfort, a paradox, in how America waged the Cold War. We cozied up to various dictators who violated American values re individual rights, so long as they sided with us in the conflict. And we countenanced actions abroad that we would not have at home. Eventually, Gaddis argues, the roof fell in on those contradictions, when President Nixon started to practice the sort of statecraft domestically that had previously only been tolerated internationally. Gaddis seems to suggest that it was only a matter of time before something like this happened, that this inconsistency was unsustainable.

In other places, though, I found Gaddis to be less convincing. Certainly the demonstrations of "people power" that brought down the communist regimes were courageous and consequential. But it is equally true that it could have come out quite differently, if a Stalin had still been in power. Gaddis argues that the people in the communist regimes had finally come to fully appreciate the vast gulf between communism's promises and its reality, and while that is no doubt true, many a similarly-cognizant subject of these regimes was crushed by them in earlier decades. Many other factors coalesced to bring down the governments behind the Iron Curtain, including the steady economic and military pressure brought to bear by a more prosperous west.

Perhaps the best chapter in the Gaddis book is the one that is devoted to "actors" -- the singular figures whose insights and vision succeeded in changing the world. Gaddis is clearly an admirer of John Paul II, and he also credits Ronald Reagan with a lofty vision beyond what most other statesmen of his time could see. Reagan, according to Gaddis, was critical to ending the uneasy, dangerous "peace" of Mutual Assured Destruction.

Another of Gaddis's finer chapters is one wherein he details the events in Hungary and East Germany that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Gaddis presents more details and insights than I have found in other histories of those wondrous events of 1989.

Some of Gaddis's pronouncements struck me as simply curious. He states in one chapter that never so much misery and suffering has been borne from good intentions as under the communist regimes. Whose good intentions, I wondered? Stalin? Lenin? Marx? Mao? It really stretches the definition of "good intentions" to ascribe such to the architects of 20th century authoritarian communism. By this malleable definition, most any dictator could be said to have "good intentions."

Gaddis also provides a much loftier portrait of Woodrow Wilson than I believe most historians would share. Gaddis indicates that Wilson is highly respected today, but I would suggest that at least as many historians regard Wilson as an impractical romantic, in the arena of international relations.

I would recommend Gaddis's book as a second or third book on the Cold War, but not the first source. It is not the best source as to the "what," though Gaddis's pronouncements on "why" are often convincing.
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on February 7, 2006
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. Gaddis has few kind words for the Nixon-Kissinger detente that left hundreds of thousands of disillusioned people behind the Iron Curtain without hope. He recounts in this book how certain key individuals facilitated change. Among these "saboteurs of the status quo" were Ronald Reagan, Margret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, and Lech Walesa. According to Gaddis, when Pope John Paul II went to Poland and kissed the ground, it marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Also, when Ronald Reagan sought to exploit the weaknesses of the Soviet Union by building an antimissle shield that he knew the Soviets couldn't match, he helped bring about the demise of the system. Also, adding to the slipstream of the demise was the unwitting assistance of Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev was different from previous Soviet leaders - and the world is forever in his debt - in that he realized the arms race could not continue and that the Soviet Union could no longer maintain control over the populations of Eastern Europe.

Although Gaddis' work has been used by the Bush Administration as an endorsement of spreading democracy in the Middle East, it should be noted that the saboteurs of the status quo - and Bush sees himself as such - can only facilitate change. The real change, Gaddis argues, must come from the bottom up. Ronald Reagan did not end the Cold War - though he contributed greatly to its conclusion. The Hungarians, the Poles, and the East Germans ended the Cold War as they faced down the repressive Soviet system. This is all very illuminating with our present involvement in the Middle East.

This is an excellent, well-written and well-argued one-volume history of the Cold War, written by one of its most diligent historians. I highly recommend this book.
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on January 11, 2006
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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on February 3, 2007
This is a well written book that unfortunately is not the book I hoped it would be. If, like me, you are looking for a book that retells the history and events of the cold war then you will be disappointed. If you already possess a knowledge or vivid memory of those events and are looking for an opinion on the thoughts of individuals and the ideology that led to those events then you will be delighted. For example, I would expect a book on the Cold War to spend 10+ pages on the Berlin airlift. There was one sentence that mentioned it occurred. Checkpoint Charlie and the stories associated with it - not mentioned. Gary Powers and the U2 plane - one paragraph. Etc. Etc. Again, this is a well written book and the author didn't fail to deliver so much as I failed to buy the right book. I offer this review so that others looking for the same book I was aren't disappointed.
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on March 16, 2006
This book is a sweeping summary of what the author believes to be the principal events of the over forty year long confrontation between Communism and Capitalism called the Cold War. Gaddis is in every sense of the word an expert on the Cold War phenomenon and has used his expertise to write a concise, readable, and accurate summary of it. He correctly gives the late George F. Kennan credit for crafting the confrontation strategy of dynamic containment that in end allowed the Capitalist West to prevail over the Soviet Union and its client states. He also provides fascinating glimpses of how American Presidents from Truman to George H. W. Bush applied this strategy and how the Soviet leadership reacted to its application. Not all historians agree that Gaddis has interpreted many aspects of this period correctly, but most would acknowledge his knowledge of the period.
So is this the definitive book on the Cold War? The short answer is, no it is not. It is an excellent summary and introduction to the complex political, diplomatic, and military activity that produced, perpetuated, and ended the Cold War. It is an invitation to the reader to make a serious study of the Cold War era and discover in detail what a unique period it was in the history of the world.
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on August 20, 2011
As the author stated in the preface, this book is not meant to be a comprehensive overview of the Cold War. But rather an overview of the important events of the Cold War and the root cause of it. However, contrary to what the title suggests, this book doesn't provide any new insights or information about the Cold War. (The author states that his research is based mostly on previous works and not on new sources.)

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.
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on January 23, 2015
This book is more of a survey of US foreign policy. Also, it doesn't have much unique to it in the sense of having new insights. What makes me give it four stars is that it is a very through survey. For someone like me, who bought the book already knowing a enormous amount of information regarding Cold War history and the policies taken by the major players. Very little new for me between these covers. Having said that, it is still my belief that every American should read this book. It is my belief, derived from an enormous amount of anecdotal evidence, that the VAST majority of Americans have next to nothing with regards to info on the Cold War. Perhaps this is understandable for those born in 1985 - present, understandable but not excusable. What truly blows my mind is to hear the most egregious ignorance or, much worse, false 'facts' coming from my peers and even those older than I (I am 38)! This book is a priceless corrective for the levels of ignorance plaguing our great nation.

Set your feet up before a fireplace that is burning copies of the works of Howard Zinn and the movies of Michael Moore and crack open this valuable book.

~I didn't give it 5 stars as there was nothing new for me in there.
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VINE VOICEon July 16, 2009
John Lewis Gaddis' book "The Cold War, A New History" accomplishes what it sets out to do very nicely- provide a general overview of the events, personalities, and issues at stake in the US-USSR confrontation. Gaddis expertly traces the evolution of relations between the two powers, their allies, and neutral nations during the period in which nuclear annihilation was an ever present fact of life.

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.
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on June 22, 2016
John Lewis Gaddis’s The Cold War: A New History provides an examination of the relationship of the Grand Alliance members and how that relationship changed in the postwar period. Robert A. Lovett Professor of Military and Naval History at Yale University, Gaddis has created a compelling and succinct account of American-Soviet relations during the Cold War. Gaddis is a leading Cold War historian and he has used his tremendous knowledge to create a work that quickly, yet expertly covers the main events of the Cold War period.
Gaddis begins his journey through the Cold War by examining the relationship between the Anglo-Saxon powers and the Soviet Union during the Second World War. Gaddis argues that the roots of the Cold War can be traced to the Second World War and the apparent distrust that existed between the Anglo-Saxons and the Soviets. The Grand Alliance was an alliance between powers that did not trust one another, nor did they share the same postwar plans, that came together to defeat a common enemy. With such a major difference in ideology, the alliance was a matter of convenience and necessity. Gaddis supports this claim using the development of the atomic bomb. The Anglo-Americans neglected to tell Stalin they were developing the weapon because of the position it would give them in the postwar world, but Stalin knew about the bomb because of his use of spies.
Gaddis focuses on many of the important “actors” of the Cold War and he explains their significance to the escalation/de-escalation of the conflict. Gaddis argues that Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan were responsible for the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. The examination of Reagan’s relationship with Gorbachev illustrates the impact the U.S. President had on the Soviet leader.
The Cold War attempts to cover the entire Cold War era in a very short book which means that Gaddis was forced to pick and choose what information he included. The book does not have a continuously flowing narrative, but rather, it jumps from theme to theme as he progresses through the work. This is not necessarily a criticism, but it can be disorienting for some new to the Cold War. Gaddis covers a tremendous amount of information in a fairly short work. For someone looking for a good overview of the Cold War, this book provides a good starting point for further study.
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When reading a work of history, one should always read the author's preface. With luck, the author has done more than merely thank the dozens of vital souls who helped make the book possible but do not share in the royalties. The author will tell you the purpose behind the book's writing -- "this is the book I wanted to write."

John Lewis Gaddis's preface to "The Cold War: A New History" does just that. Gaddis, a professor of Cold War history at Yale, wrote this book because he now has students who were 4 years old when the Berlin Wall came down. No longer are his students intimately familiar with Cold Warriors or with its unusual jargon (MAD, SALT I, "the Breznev Doctrine," etc.). His students had asked him point blank for an introduction to the Cold War that "didn't use so many words."

Based on this experience, Gaddis set out to write a thematic introduction to the Cold War, and a brief one at that. In this goal, he succeeded admirably. The text to "Cold War" is less than 270 pages, with dozens of pages of endnotes. The book tracks more or less in chronological order, but is organized by broad themes and ideas. As a result, "Cold War" does not delve deeply into either events or ideas -- this is pure "broad strokes" history.

Gaddis' over-arching theme is that the Cold War represents a failure of dizzying proportions, but the men and women who dominated the Cold War successfully avoided a much worse fate - the breakout of a "hot war" that would have destroyed human civilization. Gaddis notes that historians have calculated that approximately 21 million people, both civilian and military, died as the result of military conflicts during the decades of the Cold War. While not denying that is a tragedy, Gaddis points out that over 80 million people died in the shorter period from 1914 to 1945, and that was largely a pre-nuclear age. Early on, Gaddis writes a chilling passage about how easily world history could have been forever altered if the Korean War had gone nuclear. Based on this yardstick, Gaddis writes, we should judge (some of) our former leaders bit more gently.

If you want a Cold War version of Winston Churchill's multi-volume World War II series, look elsewhere. If you want an entertaining, comprehensive, brief overview of the Cold War -- backed with undeniable scholarship and judiciousness -- Gaddis's latest work is for you. Highly recommended.
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