A book review on Lewis Gaddis, John. The Cold War.

A book review on

Lewis Gaddis, John. The Cold War. A New History. Penguin Books, 2006

The Cold War is a thing we always hear about a lot, but are usually not really familiar
with. We know some of the key dates or key persons, but usually neither schools, nor
universities (except for History majors, of course) do not go beyond that. We seem to know the
plot: two superpowers face each other during a long period of time; all the rest is covered below
hundreds of pages of detailed description of different crisis’, conflicts over certain topics in
different years and decades. For the post-Cold War generations, the War is something at the
same time close and distant, contemporary and old, important and secondary. As Gaddis writes,
“…as they learn more about the great rivalry that dominated the last half of the last century, most of my students are fascinated, many are appalled, and a few—usually after the lecture on the Cuban missile crisis—leave class trembling. “Yikes!” they exclaim (I sanitize somewhat). “We had no idea that we came that close!” (page viii).
One of the main questions, which Gaddis’ book is trying to answer, is “How did we ever make it out of the Cold War alive?”. However, because of how the book is structured, it is really hard to claim that the author has a finite number of distinct theses to announce. I will tell more about the structure in the next section; in this one I will just name some of the points he makes, which seemed interesting to me.
According to Gaddis, the Atomic Bomb influenced the Soviet-American relationships the most in the beginning of the Cold War, as it helped the general distrust between nations grow really fast: according to Gaddis, the nuclear asymmetry was one of the main reasons of Cold War. Later, when the balance was restores, using the bomb was never an option, as it went beyond rational policymaking. The Cuban Missile Crisis, as Gaddis claims, only helped the participants understand the danger of nuclear weapons for both sides of conflict. The latter nuclear alerts were nor perceived as crisis’ dominating the relationships of the sides.
However, while we are usually used to see the Cold War in terms of great leaders and great powers, Gaddis writes a lot about “gray zones” in the political order. He finds such lacunae in both internal and external politics. The external ones are the actions of other countries, besides USSR and USA. When we speak of the Cold War, we usually focus only on the action of the sides of the conflict, picturing the other countries as being completely dependent on them, just participating in some parts of their strategic game. Gaddis, on the contrary, does not deny their agency, focusing on “non-alignment” strategies, where the neutral powers can commit to neither side, while simultaneously threatening to side with the other one; thus defending themselves from too much pressure and gaining profit (as, for example, some years of Tito in Yugoslavia or Neru in India). Gaddis shows how neutral countries can remain neutral (or, at least, not completely in line with one of the sides), while making Soviet and American leaders almost helpless in making certain decisions – mostly the ones concerning financing and support. The leaders of the two sides are to some extent hostages to their own game. As for the internal ones, Gaddis write a lot about reckless subordinates and different opinions on both camps. The governments of USSR and USA are not presented as united centers of decision-making, rather
being a set of actors with different motivations. Moreover, all the leaders are seen as rather practical ones: despite the fact that usually the Cold War is largely perceived through the lens of ideology (meaning that ideological dogmas influence decision-making), Gaddis does not agree with it. Even when talking about Stalin he says: “Stalins postwar goals were security for himself, his regime, his country, and his ideology, in precisely that order” (page 11).

For Gaddis, the Cold War was not just a security dilemma, where every country, while trying to preserve its security, threatens the other one, and vice-versa. More to that, Gaddis lists a number of cases where each side wants to achieve the same, but does not believe that the other wants it as well. He gives an example with military strategies: each side doesn’t was to target cities and civilians, but thinks that the other will do it, so it does not even try to use it as a plan.
He claims that “what had appeared to be “rational” behavior in Moscow had come across as dangerously “irrational” behavior in Washington, and vice versa” (page 80)
Speaking of author’s innovation, I think it lies more in the way of unfolding the topic and the research method. As for the method, I would like to point out the post-revisionist approach of Gaddis (which means the refusal to blame either side of conflict for its beginning, and focusing on more than just USSR and USA). Speaking of “Big Politics”, we usually imagine strong actors, a single decision-making centre, elaborate long-term plans. Gaddis, on the contrary, notes: “The Cold War was fought at different levels in dissimilar ways in multiple places over a very long time. Any attempt to reduce its history exclusively to the role of great forces, great powers, or great leaders would fail to do it justice. Any effort to capture it within a simple chronological narrative could only produce mush. I’ve chosen instead to focus each chapter on a significant topic: as a result, they overlap in time and move across space” (page ix).
As for the style, Gaddis makes no linear narrative about the Cold War. Each chapter is dedicated to a certain topic of interest, and Gaddis develops several “histories” of the Cold War: the history of nuclear warfare, the history of economics, the history of ideology, the history of contingency and accidents etc.
For each thesis Gaddis uses a wide range of historical examples – from other historical books and monographies to diaries, papers and letters of the government members, the book being too big to list them in detail. He does policy review too, making it in line with one of the narratives. While substantiating the thesis on the USA and USSR being hostages to their own game and wide possibilities of non-alignment strategies, Gaddis in detail reviews the behavior of different governments of China, Yugoslavia, South Korea and Egypt. Some of the countries blackmail the superpowers saying they side with the other one, others chose the strategy of appearing on the verge of collapse (such as Germany and North Korea) – and thus gained more financing from the superpowers then others. What was perceived as German weakness, became German strength – as both Germanies would exaggerate the power of the opposition in order to gain resources. Talking about the consequences of the War, he addresses political theory and theories of warfare, claiming that the Cold War meant the end of “hot” warfare and the usual understanding of “power”. The second consequence, according to Gaddis, was the discreditation of dictatorships. The third one he lists is the globalization of democratization. When making the conclusion, Gaddis also points out utter contingency of the conflicts – everything could have easily be completely different, there is no place for mastermind plans or elaborate “chess games”.
In general, Gaddis’ book is quite easy to read: in each chapter you are inside a separate narrative with several leading thesis. However, this style also has its drawbacks: each chapter has its own introduction – therefore, you have to deal with a lot of prehistory, facts and names, which do not directly tell you anything about the Cold War. In such conditions, the key theses are sometimes not sharp enough, but rather evenly distributed among the entire work. It can be hard to remember, what was the author’s point in the first chapter, when reading the last one – all chapters being dedicated to different topics and having just subtle connections to each other. The sources are generally reliable historical documents, however sometimes Gaddis would use some informal ones as well (such as, for example, the words of Mao’s personal physician, claiming Mao didn’t trust the leftists and approved of Nixon being right-wing).
As for me, I find some of Gaddis’ thesis and conclusions quite interesting. The part, where Gaddis observed the politics of the other countries besides the USSR and the Soviet Union, was particularly interesting for me, as I was not familiar with the research on the topic. The ideas of the government consisting of different actors with different interests, often tied by the conditions of the Cold War. The same goes for the post-revisionist idea of refusing to blame any side for the conflict and showing that it was inevitable and unfolded beyond the will of actors. To some extent, this is the book about how a conflict unfolds by its own, while all the sides are gradually getting used to the fact that they can do nothing about it and try to learn how to benefit.
However, there are also some things I disagree with. The consequences of the Cold War, listed by Gaddis in the conclusion of the book, seem to be rather banal: he simply lists discreditation of dictatorships and globalization of democratization among them, just as if it was “The End of History” by Fransis Fukuyama. However, the book is written in 2005 – in which it is no longer the case. I disagree with the thesis about discreditation of dictatorships – the abundance of hybrid regimes existing in 2021, as it seems to me, is a proof of that. Also, from the standpoint of political theory and theory of ideologies, I disagree with Gaddis’ definition of ideology as merely a “place for providing hope” and belittling the role of ideology in the process of decision-making. Moreover, there is a precise reason why ideology does not seem important to Gaddis: the narrative of the book is sometimes politically biased. Being close to President Bush1 and approving of the Trump election2, Gaddis has a concrete political position. This position sometimes leads to unmasked biases: for example, when talking about Raegan, he not only points out that ““Reagan was as skillful a politician as the nation had seen for many years, and one of its sharpest grand strategists ever” (page 217), but continues to say that “His strength lay in his ability to see beyond complexity to simplicity” (Ibid.). This leads to talking a lot about economics, but practically not mentioning culture; the word “McCarthism” is mentioned in the book only once, followed by the phrase “with irrefutable evidence that espionage had taken place on both sides of the Atlantic” (page 46).
In conclusion I would like to say that Gaddis’ book provides a decent summary of the main processes of the Cold War. He refuses to write an integral history, but rather outlines several topics, making “histories” instead. This is both a blessing and a curse: while it helps to change your focus from one sphere to the other, without having to keep in mind everything said before, it usually means dealing with a lot on introductions and notes, which take up your memory and erode key messages and theses.

The book is valuable from the perspective of historical science, as it introduces a post-revisionist approach to history. The war in this approach is not perceived as something initiated by an actor, or in any way predictable or controlled by them. It is rather a reality of its own – a chaotic reality, in which the actors have to struggle to keep in line. The secondary actors can influence the primary ones; they, in turn, turn out to be heterogenous and having different motivations. The two sides can have the same interests, but are unable to believe it – this is the contingent reality found behind the scenes of the Cold War, usually perceived as a meticulous chess game, where all turn are in sync and just the two players are in charge. The idea of a huge number of contingent events leading to precisely this ending of the Cold War is in itself quite interesting.
In contemporary Russia, we to a large extent live in the shadow of the Cold War. The government of Russia consisting of the people of the last generation working in the USSR administration, is widely influenced by the psychology and habitus of the Cold War.
Understanding it is, therefore, is an even more important thing for all of us.