It’s the stuff of nightmares. Two belligerent leaders with beliefs entirely opposed, with populaces afraid to dissent, and with the ability to precipitate nuclear war on a whim. This was a fear the world faced constantly from the late 1940s through to 1989. The achievement of Yale professor John Lewis Gaddis is not just his concise and engaging historical narrative, but that he makes a strong case that the Cold War was a good thing. No, not entirely – there are exceptions like Vietnam, the Soviet repression of Hungary, etc – but he seems to think that the Cold War was better than the alternative, namely hot war, and I’d feel foolish arguing with him.
Gaddis is close to the American ‘establishment’. He can write with great authority about the strategic brains on the American side of the Cold War, the likes of Robert McNamara, George F Kennan, and sundry presidents. He’s met most of them. He even has an endorsement from Henry Kissinger on the jacket. So it pays for a dirty leftie like myself to exercise some caution, but also to recognise that Gaddis is deeply, deeply knowledgeable. It’s easy to demonise the likes of Harry Truman, who dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. It’s easy to demonise Dwight Eisenhower, who invented the MAD policy, (Mutual Assured Destruction – the massive stockpiling of nuclear weapons), to ensure that an attack by either side could end only in the extinction of humankind. It sounds psychotic, but through interviews and archive materials Gaddis shows that the men in charge (on both sides) were responding, reluctantly but rationally, to a situation of unprecedented danger. He has a lot of respect for America’s post-WWII strategists, and it’s contagious. They quote from Shakespeare at presidential briefings, for God’s sake! It makes one very glad that the likes of Rumsfeld and Cheney weren’t in charge at the time.
Gaddis is unashamedly anti-Communist. Stalin and Mao are both portrayed as charming monsters, which seems to be historical consensus these days. They were violently oppressive and drove their populations to starvation in the name of ideology, but were willing to betray ideology and nation alike to stay in power. The leaders of nuclear powers all realised that outright war with each other could lead to total destruction, and were too fond of power to consider it. After all, what sort of power can one have over an empty planet? There were of course, many “proxy” wars fought, with the US and the USSR/China arming opposing forces, as in Vietnam. Gaddis could do more to recognise how destructive and pointless these proxy wars were to Third World states, but one does get a clear idea from his book that it was around Vietnam that American foreign policy began to lose its way. Ultimately, the stalemate could only be broken by someone who was willing to concede power altogether, and that was Gorbachev. It’s a rare politician who is willing to dismantle his own power base for the greater good, and Gaddis describes him as “the most deserving recipient ever of the Nobel Peace Prize.”
The Cold War is a surprisingly easy, compelling and well-paced history book that’ll leave most of us better informed for having read it. You know that dick you meet at every party who wants to argue that communism wasn’t really so bad? Remind him/her that Fidel Castro was the only Cold War leader who was ever really willing to see his people vapourised in the interests of ideology.
John Lewis Gaddis