The Cold War: A New History

The Cold War: A New History

Gaddis does it again. "The Cold War: A New History" is an eminently readable account of the Cold War that places it in a larger historical, ideological, and strategic context. If you're alive today, you should probably read this book so that you can understand where we're coming from.

I'm not quite sure what it is about Gaddis's style, but this book reads much more like a novel than a dry history book. And of course, he manages to sneak in some of the Grand Strategy reading list too - from Thucydides to Machiavelli and Clausewitz.

I've included some of the best passages from the book below:

Rebuilding Europe

The British would attempt to influence the Americans as much as possible — they aspired to the role of Greeks, tutoring the new Romans — but under no circumstances would they get at odds with the Americans.

Not only did Soviet troops expropriate property and extract reparations on an indiscriminate scale, but they also indulged in mass rape — some 2 million German women suffered this fate between 1945 and 1947.

Several premises shaped the Marshall Plan: that the gravest threat to western interests in Europe was not the prospect of Soviet military intervention, but rather the risk that hunger, poverty, and despair might cause Europeans to vote their own communists into office, who would then obediently serve Moscow’s wishes; that American economic assistance would produce immediate psychological benefits and later material ones that would reverse this trend; that the Soviet Union would not itself accept such aid or allow its satellites to, thereby straining its relationship with them; and that the United States could then seize both the geopolitical and the moral initiative in the emerging Cold War.

And when several recipients of Marshall Plan aid pointed out that self-confidence could hardly be attained without military protection, the Americans agreed to provide this too in the form of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the first peacetime military alliance the United States had entered into since the termination, in 1800, of the one with France that had secured American independence.

Grand strategy in the atomic age

This grim trend led the great Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz, writing in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, to warn that states resorting to unlimited violence could be consumed by it. If the object of war was to secure the state — how could it not be? — then wars had to be limited: that is what Clausewitz meant when he insisted that war is “a continuation of political activity by other means. . . . The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purposes.” States themselves could become the victims of war if weapons ever became so destructive that they placed at risk the purposes for which wars were being fought. Any resort to force, under such circumstances, could destroy what it was meant to defend.

As the means of fighting great wars became exponentially more devastating, the likelihood of such wars diminished, and ultimately disappeared altogether. Contrary to the lesson Thucydides drew from the greatest war of his time, human nature did change — and the shock of Hiroshima and Nagasaki began the process by which it did so.

Without ever having read Clausewitz — at least as far as we know — the president revived that strategist’s great principle that war must be the instrument of politics, rather than the other way around... That stark fact caused this ordinary man to do an extraordinary thing. He reversed a pattern in human behavior so ancient that its origins lay shrouded in the mists of time: that when weapons are developed, they will be used.

Apart from the single instance of the Berlin blockade, it is difficult to see that the United States got any political advantages from its nuclear monopoly. “They frighten [us] with the atomic bomb, but we are not afraid of it,” Stalin assured the same Chinese he had warned about the dangers of risking war. The claim may not have been true, but Stalin’s strategy made sense: he had shrewdly calculated that, short of war itself, the atomic bomb was an almost unusable weapon.

There was, thus, no direct Soviet-American military confrontation over Korea — or so it appeared for many years. Recent evidence, however, has required revising this conclusion, for one other thing Stalin did was to authorize the use of Soviet fighter planes, manned by Soviet pilots, over the Korean peninsula — where they encountered American fighters flown by American pilots. And so there was, after all, a shooting war between the United States and the Soviet Union: it was the only time this happened during the Cold War. Both sides, however, kept it quiet. The Soviet Union never publicized its involvement in these air battles, and the United States, which was well aware of it, chose not to do so either. The two superpowers had found it necessary but also dangerous to be in combat with one another. They tacitly agreed, therefore, on a cover-up.

In the end, as the president saw it, if the United States could build what was now coming to be called a “hydrogen” bomb, then it must build one. To be behind in any category of weaponry — or even to appear to be — would risk disaster. The problem now was not so much how to defeat an adversary as how to convince him not to go to war in the first place. Paradoxically, that seemed to require the development of weapons so powerful that no one on the American side knew what their military uses might be, while simultaneously persuading everyone on the Soviet side that if the war did come those weapons would without doubt be employed.


“The fact of the matter is that there is a little bit of the totalitarian buried somewhere, way down deep, in each and every one of us,” Kennan told students at the National War College in 1947. “It is only the cheerful light of confidence and security which keeps this evil genius down. . . . If confidence and security were to disappear, don’t think that he would not be waiting to take their place.” This warning from the founder of containment — that the enemy to be contained might as easily lie within the beneficiaries of freedom as among its enemies — showed how pervasive fear had become in a postwar international order for which there had been so much hope. It helps to explain why Orwell’s 1984, when it appeared in 1949, became an instant literary triumph.

Wilson’s Fourteen Points speech of January, 1918, the single most influential statement of an American ideology in the 20th century, was a direct response to the ideological challenge Lenin had posed.

The reasons had less to do with any fundamental shift in the means of production, as a Marxist historian might have argued, than with a striking shift in the attitude of the United States toward the international system. Despite having built the world’s most powerful and diversified economy, Americans had shown remarkably little interest, prior to 1941, in how the rest of the world was governed. Repressive regimes elsewhere might be regrettable, but they could hardly harm the United States. Even involvement in World War I had failed to alter this attitude, as Wilson discovered to his embarrassment and chagrin. What did change it, immediately and irrevocably, was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. That event shattered the illusion that distance ensured safety: that it did not matter who ran what on the other side of the ocean. The nation’s security was now at risk, and because future aggressors with air and naval power could well follow the Japanese example, the problem was not likely to go away. There was little choice, then, but for the United States to assume global responsibilities. Those required winning the war against Japan and Germany — Hitler having declared war on the United States four days after Pearl Harbor—but they also meant planning a postwar world in which democracy and capitalism would be secure.

Not only had capitalism generated social inequality, as Marx had predicted it would. By this line of reasoning, it had also produced two world wars.

BOTH OF the ideologies that defined those worlds were meant to offer hope: that is why one has an ideology in the first place. One of them, however, had come to depend, for its functioning, upon the creation of fear. The other had no need to do so. Therein lay the basic ideological asymmetry of the Cold War.

By that time, one historian has estimated, the Stalinist dictatorship had either ended or wrecked the lives of between 10 and 11 million Soviet citizens — all for the purpose of maintaining itself in power.

But that meant accepting the proposition that Stalin himself was the font of all wisdom and common sense, claims his acolytes made frequently during the final years of his life. Whether he believed them or not, the “greatest genius of mankind” was in fact a lonely, deluded, and fearful old man, addicted to ill-informed pontifications on genetics, economics, philosophy, and linguistics, to long drunken dinners with terrified subordinates, and — oddly — to American movies. “I’m finished,” he acknowledged in a moment of candor shortly before his death. “I don’t even trust myself.”

But the system he was trying to preserve had itself been based, since the time of Marx and Engels, on the claim to be error-free. That was what it meant to have discovered the engine that drove history forward. A movement based on science had little place for confession, contrition, and the possibility of redemption. The problems Khrushchev created for himself and for the international communist movement, therefore, began almost from the moment he finished speaking.

Mao took a different path. His principal theoretical innovation was to claim that peasants were proletarians: that they did not have to be transformed.

Accordingly, Mao added to his industrialization and collectivization campaigns his own purge of potential dissidents. “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend,” he proclaimed ; but then he arrested as “rightists” those critics unwise enough to have taken him at his word. It was a strategy designed to “coax the snakes out of their holes, . . . to let the poisonous weeds grow first and then destroy them one by one. Let them become fertilizer.”

The result of Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” was the greatest single human calamity of the 20th century. Stalin’s campaign to collectivize agriculture had caused between 5 and 7 million people to starve to death during the early 1930s. Mao now sextupled that record, producing a famine that between 1958 and 1961 took the lives of over 30 million people, by far the worst on record anywhere ever. So Mao did wind up surpassing the Soviet Union and everyone else in at least one category. But it was not one of which the ideologists of Marxism, Leninism, Stalinism, or Maoism could be proud.

This is where the capitalists got it right: they were better than the communists at learning from history, because they never bought into any single, sacrosanct, and therefore unchallengeable theory of history.


But the nation would soon see Nixon haunted again, this time irreversibly, not by Vietnamese insurgents or radical students but by the legal consequences of a petty burglary that would drive him from office. The rule of law, within the United States at least, outweighed the accomplishments of grand strategy.

The claim was not a new one. Every chief executive since Franklin D. Roosevelt had sanctioned acts of questionable legality in the interests of national security, and Abraham Lincoln had done so more flagrantly than any of them in order to preserve national unity. Nixon, however, made several mistakes that were distinctly his own. The first was to exaggerate the problem confronting him: the leaking of The Pentagon Papers to the New York Times was not a threat comparable to secession in 1861, or to the prospect of subversion during World War II and the early Cold War. Nixon’s second mistake was to employ such clumsy agents that they got themselves caught. And his third mistake — the one that ended his presidency — was to lie about what he had done in a futile attempt to cover it up.

AMERICAN officials were, at first, reasonably confident that they could contain the Soviet Union and international communism without abandoning standards of behavior drawn from their own domestic experience. They believed firmly that aggression was linked to autocracy, and that a stable international order could best be built upon such principles as freedom of speech, freedom of belief, freedom of enterprise, and freedom of political choice. “The issue of Soviet-American relations is in essence a test of the overall worth of the United States as a nation among nations,” Kennan wrote in the summer of 1947. “To avoid destruction the United States need only measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation. Surely, there was never a fairer test . . . than this.

The newly established Central Intelligence Agency had neither the capability nor the authority at the time to conduct covert operations : such was the relative innocence of the era. But with the State Department’s encouragement, it stepped into the breach... Shortly thereafter, the National Security Council expanded the role of the C.I.A. to include propaganda, economic warfare; preventive direct action, including sabotage, anti-sabotage, demolition and evacuation measures; subversion against hostile states, including assistance to underground resistance movements, guerillas and refugee liberation groups, and support of indigenous anti-communist elements in threatened countries of the free world.

Kennan insisted that the State Department monitor C.I.A. activities to ensure that “plausible deniability” would not mean the lifting of all restraints... As Kennan later admitted : “It did not work out at all the way I had conceived it.”

The expanding scale and audacity of covert operations led Kennan to admit, years later, that recommending them had been “the greatest mistake I ever made.”

“[W]e are facing an implacable enemy whose avowed objective is world domination,” the Doolittle Report, a highly classified evaluation of C.I.A. covert operations, concluded in 1954. “There are no rules in such a game. Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply.” … And so the Cold War transformed American leaders into Machiavellians.

“I can say unequivocally,” Nixon wrote after resigning the presidency, “that without secrecy there would have been no opening to China, no SALT agreement with the Soviet Union, and no peace agreement ending the Vietnam war.” There is little reason to doubt that claim. ...Where Nixon went wrong was not in his use of secrecy to conduct foreign policy — diplomacy had always required that — but in failing to distinguish between actions he could have justified if exposed and those he could never have justified.

Beginning of the end of Communism in Europe

His problem was that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, like all other ruling communist parties, drew its authority from its claim to historical infallibility: that left it vulnerable when events failed to follow the script.

Helsinki became, in short, a legal and moral trap. Having pressed the United States and its allies to commit themselves in writing to recognizing existing boundaries in Eastern Europe, Brezhnev could hardly repudiate what he had agreed to in the same document — also in writing — with respect to human rights. Without realizing the implications, he thereby handed his critics a standard, based on universal principles of justice, rooted in international law, independent of Marxist-Leninist ideology, against which they could evaluate the behavior of his and other communist regimes.

Real power rested, during the final decade of the Cold War, with leaders like John Paul II, whose mastery of intangibles — of such qualities as courage, eloquence, imagination, determination, and faith — allowed them to expose disparities between what people believed and the systems under which the Cold War had obliged them to live. The gaps were most glaring in the Marxist-Leninist world: so much so that when fully revealed there was no way to close them other than to dismantle communism itself, and thereby end the Cold War.

Reagan and Gorbachev

Reagan was as skillful a politician as the nation had seen for many years, and one of its sharpest grand strategists ever. His strength lay in his ability to see beyond complexity to simplicity. And what he saw was simply this: that because détente perpetuated—and had been meant to perpetuate—the Cold War, only killing détente could end the Cold War.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, Gorbachev acknowledged his failure. “The Achilles heel of socialism was the inability to link the socialist goal with the provision of incentives for efficient labor and the encouragement of initiative on the part of individuals. It became clear in practice that a market provides such incentives best of all.”

But German reunification was, nonetheless, an unsettling prospect, not just for the Soviet Union but for all Europeans who remembered the record of the last unified German state.

Gorbachev was never a leader in the manner of Václav Havel, John Paul II, Deng Xiaoping, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Lech Wałęsa—even Boris Yeltsin. They all had destinations in mind and maps for reaching them. Gorbachev dithered in contradictions without resolving them... He chose love over fear, violating Machiavelli’s advice for princes and thereby ensuring that he ceased to be one.

Parting Notes

Columbus’s reputation, in turn, would hardly have been what it was had it not been for the decision of the Hongxi emperor, in 1424, to suspend China’s far more costly and ambitious program of maritime exploration, thus leaving the great discoveries to the Europeans. A strange decision, one might think, until one recalls the costly and ambitious American effort to outdo the Soviet Union by placing a man on the moon, completed triumphantly on July 20, 1969. It had been, President Nixon extravagantly boasted, “the greatest week in the history of the world since the Creation.” But then, after only five more moon landings over the next three and a half years, Nixon suspended the manned exploration of space altogether, leaving future discoveries to be postponed indefinitely. Which emperor’s behavior will seem stranger 500 years hence? It is difficult to say.

The Cold War may well be remembered, then, as the point at which military strength, a defining characteristic of “power” itself for the past five centuries, ceased to be that. The Soviet Union collapsed, after all, with its military forces, even its nuclear capabilities, fully intact.