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We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History

by John Lewis Gaddis

Buy the book: John Lewis Gaddis. We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History

Release Date: May, 1998

Edition: Paperback


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Buy the book: John Lewis Gaddis. We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History

Is this Cold War History "New"?

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 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.



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.


Nizhniy Novgorod

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