Blogs > Cliopatria > Jonathan Rosenberg: Review of John Lewis Gaddis's The Cold War: A New History

Dec 20, 2005 7:40 pm

Jonathan Rosenberg: Review of John Lewis Gaddis's The Cold War: A New History

... As US leaders strain to manage America's current overseas dilemmas, The Cold War: A New History by John Lewis Gaddis transports us to an earlier era. In luminous detail, Gaddis, the Robert A. Lovett professor of history at Yale, traces the history of the conflict that dominated world politics from the end of World War II to the early 1990s. How long ago it all seems.

Gaddis, America's most distinguished cold war historian, has been writing about the subject for more than 30 years. (I co-edited a book on nuclear diplomacy with Gaddis and two other scholars in 1999.)

But unlike several of his previous books, which were intended for scholars, this one is aimed at a broader audience - for those who want to understand how the cold war began, how it unfolded, and why it ended when it did.

Given these objectives, Gaddis has succeeded splendidly. Indeed, in the book's narrative sweep, analytical insights, and deft incorporation of the most recent scholarship, Gaddis has written the best one-volume treatment of the East-West struggle. By examining how individual leaders, differing ideologies, domestic politics, and the nuclear threat shaped the competition, he's produced an altogether stimulating work.

Assessing the origins of the cold war, a subject that has long sparked bitter debate among historians, Gaddis fully places responsibility for the conflict on Stalin and the Soviet Union. (Some historians assign the US primary responsibility, while others contend that both Moscow and Washington were to blame.)

The key, Gaddis argues, is that the United States and the Soviet Union had fundamentally different visions for the postwar world. The Americans possessed a multilateral vision that sought to avoid war by encouraging cooperation among the great powers, fostering political self-determination and economic integration, and relying on the United Nations to enhance the security of all states.

But Stalin's postwar vision could not have been more different. The Soviet dictator sought to advance Russian interests by establishing a ring of subservient (nondemocratic) states around his country's vulnerable western flank, while awaiting the inevitable rivalries that he believed would cause fissures and perhaps even war among capitalist nations.

As Gaddis observes, Stalin was convinced that "capitalist fratricide" would eventually allow the Soviets to dominate Europe.

Beyond exploring the conflict's origins, Gaddis superbly evaluates how nuclear weapons and ideology influenced the struggle. The bomb helped keep the peace between Moscow and Washington because using it first meant a certain, cataclysmic response. Thus, it was not a legitimate option for rational policymakers....

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