Friday, June 16, 2006

Book Review: The Cold War

Continuing with reviews of the books I'm reading this summer, #2:

The Cold War: A New History, John Lewis Gaddis (New York: The Penguin Press, 2005).

The United States was as much, if not more, to blame for the emergence of the Cold War. The US post-World War II threatened Soviet interests by pushing on Soviet borders, offering the Marshall Plan to countries well within the Soviet sphere of influence, and otherwise pushing the Russians up against a wall where they had no choice but to challenge the US through the latter half of the 20th century. This is (or was) the argument of the "revisionist" historians who blamed the Cold War on US economic expansion that threatened Stalin and Soviet interests and power.

This new history of the Cold War, concise and sweeping, by Gaddis thoroughly demolishes and lays to rest any notions that the US or the West was to blame for the Cold War. Building off of his remarkable We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History, Gaddis uses recently opened Soviet archives to reveal to what great extent the Soviets really were intent on world domination and the expansion -- sometimes by force, sometimes by persuasion -- of communism.

Gaddis focuses on several themes with which to frame the Cold War: those who challenged Soviet ideology in different ways (Pope John Paul II, Lech Walesa, Ronald Reagan) make up the main focus of the latter days of the struggle. The beginning of the tale centers around Stalin, Khrushchev, and other Soviet leaders as they search for ways to spread revolutionary communism and consider how best to challenge the west. This is where the revisionist theories are destroyed. It's impossible to read Gaddis' account of the partition of Germany and Berlin, the original plans for the UN, or Soviet actions in Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia and maintain a belief in US blame or culpability for the war.

Gaddis makes several particularly interesting points throughout the book. First, he explains why some presidents are allowed to get away with lying, deceit, and subterfuge while others (Nixon) are pilloried for similar behavior. The difference hinges on whether the action in question could be, if exposed to the light of day, be justified as necessary for American interests. Gaddis writes:

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. Americans excused the lies Eisenhower and Kennedy told because the operations they covered up turned out to be defensible when uncovered. So too did the methods by which Nixon brought about the China opening, the SALT agreements, and the Vietnam cease-fire: the results, in those instances, made reliance on secrecy, even deception, seem reasonable.

But what about the secret bombing of a sovereign state? Or the attempted overthrow of a democratically elected government? Or the bugging of American citizens without legal authorization? Or burglaries carried out with presidential authorization? Or the organization of a conspiracy, inside the White House itself, to hide what had happened?

These actions, impossible to justify in pursuit of US interest, would not be accepted by the public if conducted openly; thus, when their clandestine pursuit was revealed, they were even more controversial. Gaddis' argument here helps explain why there has been little public outcry or dismay at revelations of NSA domestic unwarranted surveillance. Americans can understand and accept that such actions might be necessary to protect the country from international terrorism and that such a program might need to be conducted secretly.

Gaddis also highlights the need for morality and ideologies in the conduct of foreign policy. While the realpolitik of Nixon and Kissinger was able to manage the Cold War, it took the ideological challenge and leadership of Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and Walesa to bring the conflict to an end (Gaddis downplays the role that Gorbachev willingly and actively played in opening Russia, ending the Cold War, and dismantling the Soviet Union). Realism may protect interests, but it often does little to advance and promote them and just as often entrenches the status quo for lack of a vision. In this view, the Cold War should, in fact, be fundamentally understood as a battle of ideas and ideologies often played out in violence.

This new history is written on a grand scale, covering all of the Cold War in a mere 266 pages. It is an excellent read, and should be interesting for academics, historians, and interested lay people alike. Highly recommended for anyone who wants to understand the defining political contest of the 20th century.