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The complete cold war -- a primer

What's this -- another book about the Cold War? And this one is by a historian, John Lewis Gaddis, who already has written half a dozen on the subject.

This work is a distillation of all the rest -- in fact, of four decades of scholarship by many historians -- giving a sweeping view of the entire postwar period. All those in their 70s, like this reviewer, have lived their adult lives in the shadow of the Cold War, but as Gaddis points out, to others (including his students at Yale), "It's history -- not all that different from the Peloponnesian War."

Some of his lectures on the Cuban missile crisis left his students aghast. "How did we ever make it out of the Cold War alive?" they ask. This comparatively brief book, designed for the general reader, provides some answers.

Today, with communism discredited around the world, it is difficult to recall the mood of 1945, when many Europeans (and Americans) had idealistic hopes for the Bolshevik experiment that began in 1917. European Communists had played a big role in the resistance to the Nazis and looked to big gains at the ballot box. To some in the West, communism seemed an ominous wave of the future.

The Kremlin also was fearful. Always suspicious that the Allies had delayed opening a second front, Stalin was worried that they might now sign a separate peace in the west while the eastern fighting continued. Thus, it was no surprise that the Cold War developed so quickly after the fighting ended. And with development of the A-bomb and then the H-bomb, the management of the Cold War became supremely important. Gaddis traces several basic themes in the period. The first is "containment" -- the doctrine laid down in 1946 by George Kennan, then a Foreign Service officer serving in Moscow, in an 8,000-word telegram to Washington. He called for a "long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansionist tendencies."

This theme, although not implemented as Kennan intended, was later echoed by Henry Kissinger and others and formed the basis for postwar foreign policy. Kennan, who died last year at age 101, was a friend of the author, who plans a biography of him.

A second theme traced by Gaddis is the division of the world into spheres of influence. Aggressive Soviet moves sought enlargement in Czechoslovakia, Korea, Afghanistan and Africa, while the United States countered with moves in Iran, Guatemala, Cuba, Chile and Vietnam. The failed Cuban invasion led to the 1962 missile crisis. This was frightening enough at the time, but it was later revealed that the Soviet nuclear missiles had been put in control of local commanders, who could have used them to stop an invasion.

Thirdly, he cites "a growing insistence that the rule of law -- or at least basic human standards of decency -- should govern the actions of states." He repeatedly hails the new thinking of Pope John Paul II, Lech Walesa, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, going so far as to say that, when the pope kissed the ground at Warsaw airport in 1979, "he began the process by which communism in Poland -- and ultimately everywhere in Europe -- would come to an end." In the nuclear age, military strength no longer guaranteed power.

Finally, the much-debated term "detente" runs through all these epic events, beginning with West German Chancellor Willy Brandt's historic moves to establish new links to the East in 1969.

Detente is usually taken to mean a reduction of tensions and the creation of new links between East and West -- something one would think everyone could agree on. And yet detente became a dirty word in the 1970s, condemned by Cold Warriors as according undue deference to the Kremlin.

Gaddis states that detente perpetuated the Cold War and that Reagan had to kill detente in order to kill the Cold War. Perhaps it is a matter of definition. Reagan criticized detente and talked of the "evil empire" like a hard-liner, but he also carried out successful negotiations with the Kremlin.

Despite all his praise for Reagan, the author notes that his early anti-Soviet rhetoric created panic in the Kremlin, causing a two-year intelligence alert by the Soviets, the shooting down of a straying South Korean airliner and the mistaken conclusion in 1983 that an American attack was imminent. Gaddis calls the latter "probably the most dangerous moment since the Cuban missile crisis."

One could also question the author's conclusion that, if Reagan had died in the l981 assassination attempt, "there probably would not have been an American challenge to the Cold War status quo," since President George H.W. Bush saw the Cold War as "a permanent feature of the international landscape." Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, presided over the final three years of the Cold War and, by their restraint and sensitive diplomacy, helped to ensure that there would be a "soft landing" and not some reactionary move by the Kremlin.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is given grudging praise, saying he "dithered" with no clear goal in mind. And yet he was, the author finally says, "the most deserving recipient ever of the Nobel Peace Prize."

Norman Rowlinson is a former News editorial writer.


>The Cold War: A New History

By John Lewis Gaddis

Penguin Press, 333 pages, $27.95

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