Respond to this Article April 2006

How We Won

John Lewis Gaddis's new history of the Cold War should be next on the president's reading list.

By Nicholas Thompson

I was terrified when the mailman showed up, straining under the weight of Yale professor John Lewis Gaddis's new book. The paper galleys clock in at four pounds and the title is imposingly simple: The Cold War. Likely the country's most esteemed historian of this particular topic, Gaddis has already churned out the following works: Origins of the Cold War, Rethinking Cold War History, and Inquiries into the History of the Cold War. What could be new and fresh in this volume? I expected a long, dry exegesis of how recently opened Soviet archives reveal the unappreciated influence of Anatol Gribkov.

The Cold War
by John Lewis Gaddis
Penguin Press HC, $27.95

But the enormous galleys contained a real surprise. Gaddis hasn't produced something new. Instead, he's mercilessly cribbed from his previous books, compressed key episodes, macerated major themes--and produced something terrific. The big, thick cover hides wide printing on every other page, and, inside, a short first-rate description of an era that Gaddis lived through and now has the luxury of treating as history. Eschewing the micro debates he's had with his colleagues, this new volume is about providing a readable summary of the world's most dangerous era. While doing so, he also provides useful lessons for Washington today.

The Cold War begins with the American and Russian armies converging on the Elbe River in Germany on April 25, 1945, five days before Adolf Hitler bit into a glass vial of cyanide and took a pistol to his own head. This should have been a moment to celebrate. But as Gaddis explains, the Russians and the Americans, with their incompatible ideologies, were doomed from the beginning. As his soldiers were approaching the Elbe, Joseph Stalin was avidly reading reports from his spies in America (he knew about the atomic bomb well before Harry Truman) and mulling how far he could expand his borders without earning America's ire.

Soon, the game began--coup in Czechoslovakia, Marshall Plan, Russia's atomic bomb, America's hydrogen bomb, Soviet missiles in Cuba, American soldiers in Vietnam, arms control, and the Berlin wall falling--and Gaddis smoothly describes each exchange. Throughout, he also keeps the reader aware of the conflict's most amazing fact: that the superpowers killed almost none of each other's citizens. In his one rhetorical flight of fancy, Gaddis writes a spoof section that begins by declaring, deadpan, that Douglas MacArthur ordered atomic bombs dropped on the Chinese army as it began to rout the general's soldiers during the Korean War. The Russians respond with a strike of their own, and, within a page, there's full-blown nuclear war. The ease with which the section flows may indicate the ease with which that tragedy could have happened.

Gaddis naturally focuses on the two big players and frequently reminds readers that the United States won in large part because it was just a vastly better place to live. But he also takes delight in the power of nonaligned nations. The Soviet Union and the United States knew they couldn't fight each other directly, so their battles--both for popularity and for territory--took place elsewhere. Smart leaders of small countries quickly figured out how to milk this situation. Yugoslavia's Josef Tito, for example, inveigled America into giving him aid money, and then pointed to the American fleet just off his coast if the Soviets thought about invading. He then made sure that Khrushchev sent him weapons and treated him as an equal, too. Not every small player dominated the big guys. Just ask Nicaragua. But it is interesting to see just how many tails could wag the two big dogs.

Gaddis's prime narrative focus is on the grand personalities who dominated the conflict. At rare moments, he pulls out sociological arguments--for example, suggesting that the demographics of the baby boom led to the student protests of the 1960s--but he firmly believes that it is men who make history, not the other way around. The Cold War might not have started were it not for Stalin's paranoia, and a lot more people would have survived it were it not for the callousness of Mao, the diminutive Chinese tyrant who liked greeting visitors in his swimming pool. Gaddis is particularly good on Khrushchev, countering the many historians who argue that the Soviet leader put missiles in Cuba because he feared America's vast nuclear superiority. Instead, Gaddis argues, Khrushchev was thrilled that Cuba had actually gone Communist without Soviet assistance. Indeed, the Soviet premier had vague romantic notions that a few Soviet warheads could help spread revolution around Latin America.

The two heroes of the story though are the two men who have long starred in the Yale professor's scripts: George Kennan and Ronald Reagan. At first blush, they're a rather odd couple. A frail hypochondriac with little self-confidence, Kennan was a pointy-headed intellectual and an icon to the left. A virile cowboy from California, Reagan was incurious and an icon to the right. But the two men did have something in common at core. They both were visionaries who saw new ways out of old problems and understood how to fight a war without actually ever drawing swords.

Kennan recognized before anyone else that the two superpowers could find a way of coexisting that lay between war and peace. His theory of containment--America's original, and long-defining Cold War strategy--was based on the notion that we shouldn't want to fight the Soviet Union. We should aim to keep it in check and then watch as the system rots from the inside out. The decay took longer than Kennan initially predicted. But his theory turned out to be exactly right.

Reagan was the first person to really see the folly of the arms race and to realize that the president of the United States could talk it out of existence. He knew the Soviet Union was weak, that its satellites could be persuaded to resist it, and that a few monkey wrenches could bring the whole system to its end. His wild pursuit of missile defense frazzled Gorbachev, opened the door for massive arms reductions, and helped spread the chaos that was beginning to engulf the powerful nation. Reagan's speeches helped spur the resistance in Poland, Romania, and East Germany that finally ended the conflict.

Gaddis doesn't say much about contemporary American foreign policy, but there are points our current president might take to heart. From Kennan, there's the obvious lesson that the world doesn't need to be divided into friends (whom we praise) and enemies (whom we kill). A policy of neo-containment--limit the terrorists as much as possible, co-opt their allies, and then wait for their hateful ideology to implode--could save us many of the headaches that our current, much more aggressive, policy seems to be creating.

Bush could learn a similar lesson about containment from Reagan. Our 40th president called the Soviet Union an evil empire and wrote fat checks to the Defense Department. But Reagan never threatened the U.S.S.R. directly, and after the Able Archer episode in early 1983--when Soviet spies became convinced that an American nuclear launch exercise was the real thing--he became obsessed with preventing confrontation.

Containing a state is easier than containing a terrorist band. But the essential principles to follow are the same: be tough but restrained, win allies, stay strong at home, and try to seduce your enemies instead of killing them. Let's hope this book gets passed around the White House. It's brisk enough for those busy people to read, and there are important lessons that should be heeded if we want the current war to turn out as well as the last one.

Nicholas Thompson is a contributing editor at The Washington Monthly, an editor at Wired Magazine, and a fellow at the New America Foundation.


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