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The Cold War Revisited

WE NOW KNOW: Rethinking Cold War History.\o7 By John Lewis Gaddis\f7 .\o7 Oxford University Press: 430 pp., $30\f7

May 04, 1997|ANDERS STEPHANSON | Anders Stephanson is the author of "Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right." He teaches American history at Columbia University and is working on a book about diplomatic historiography in the United States

Around the time Mikhail S. Gorbachev was about to become leader of the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s, John Lewis Gaddis had a clever idea. Looking at the Cold War as a period of extended superpower stability, he discovered not a war but "the long peace," as he called it in a 1986 book of the same name. The term earned Gaddis a great deal of scorn. What about the constant confrontations? What about the countless people around the globe who had died directly or indirectly because of conflicts caused by the Cold War? Gaddis retorted that in the European context, conflicts of similar intensity before would doubtless have issued in actual war. The Cold War, then, prevented that from happening.

Gaddis' celebration of the Cold War, this long period of stability, was, as it turned out, ill-timed. Gorbachev was about to end "the long peace," and it obviously was a good thing he did.

Having written more than any other American historian about the Cold War, Gaddis, in his new book, "We Now Know," sets out to assess what "the new evidence" from various Eastern archives suggests about the origins of that now suddenly vanished era of stability. His title suggests that now indeed we really do know, but readers expecting an inventory of great revelations will be disappointed. Another recent work, "The Cold War and Soviet Insecurity: The Stalin Years," by Vojtech Mastny, addresses Stalin's foreign policy more accurately with the succinct comment: "The greatest surprise so far to have come out of the Russian archives is that there was no surprise." There is less here than meets the eye.

Gaddis is a first-rate historian who likes to synthesize and argue, not to compile. He is less interested in the "we now know" trope than in interpretive reassessments, where he has real novelty to offer. To be sure, there is new material about critical events that Gaddis, like all historians, reads in his own way. But the evidence is never self-evident. Thus, we get an intriguing account of the Korean War from the vantage point of the interplay between Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-tung and Kim Il-Sung. Recent interpretations see that war as a civil war, but Gaddis unambiguously writes about the North's attack on the South and the internal dialectic between the three communist leaders. Stalin's green light to Kim and the subsequent anxieties and divergences on the communist side are detailed. This is valuable. It is "diplomatic history" of a gripping kind. But it is not the whole story. Stalin probably gave his permission only because he thought, erroneously but not unreasonably, that the United States considered Korea beyond the realm of its intervention. Making this into a "communist story" also reduces Korea once again to a simple staging area.

We also get a history of the Cuban missile crisis, about which one thought everything had been said. Not so. The enormous volume of testimonies about this crucial event is brought together by Gaddis and woven into a superb analysis of the various actors. Nakita Khrushchev's missiles were not positioned merely for strategic balancing. They were put there as a measure of his strong support for the Cuban revolution. Even after their withdrawal, the Soviet leader always thought the confrontation had been successful because Khrushchev had prevented the expected destruction of Fidel Castro's regime. Gaddis also accentuates, rightly, that John F. Kennedy, aware of the immense dangers and quite willing to compromise, was much more of a dove than commonly thought. On the paradoxes and ironies of nuclear weapons, Gaddis tends to be at his best, playing out the subtleties in a game that does not involve simple oppositions of good and evil.

Gaddis' logic and ideological consideration of Germany is, by contrast, highly questionable in a way that is symptomatic of his book as a whole. Gaddis' overriding story, however, is about American democracy fighting Soviet totalitarianism or, in Gaddis' words, Soviet authoritarianism. In fact, this is less a book of revelations than an ideological one about ideology, an unabashed move to retell the old story of the Cold War as a struggle between good and evil. There can be no place for ambiguity within that frame. The "new evidence" would thus have to fit the frame exceedingly well to make the narrative convincing. This is where the problems begin. Take, for example, the central question of Germany in the immediate postwar period.

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