Still Fighting the Last War

By Hay, William Anthony | The American Conservative, February 27, 2006 | Go to article overview

Still Fighting the Last War

Hay, William Anthony, The American Conservative

[The Cold War: A New History, John Lewis Caddis, Penguin, 400 pages]

Still Fighting the Last War

THE COLD WAR defined international politics from 1945 to 1989 and profoundly shaped the outlook of two generations. As James Mann shows in Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet, Cold War tensions provided the formative experience for those making American foreign policy today. Even if the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union has passed from current events into history, its story gives some insight into current preoccupations.

Understanding the Cold War, however, involves piercing a thicket of preconceptions and plowing through a dense literature that accumulated from an early stage. John Lewis Gaddis points to the difficulties of describing an event from within: work written during the conflict often had a polemical edge that reflected ideological presuppositions. Information hidden in Soviet bloc archives before the 1990s, along with declassified material from Western governments, has changed how scholars view the protracted standoff between capitalist West and communist East. Gaddis has taken the lead in reassessing the struggle with books including We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History.

The Cold War: A New History reflects Caddis's experience teaching Yale undergraduates with no direct experience of the conflict. Requests for a concise overview that explained why a struggle that threatened to bring Armageddon ended with a whimper rather than a bang led him to synthesize earlier work into a book for the general reader. Unfortunately, the book itself lacks the drama Gaddis attributes to the Cold War. Gaddis often skips over the complexity of particular episodes to sustain the narrative and falls back on clichés in discussing other periods outside his expertise. Despite the book's brevity, its flagging pace after a few chapters suggests a lack of enthusiasm by the author that readers cannot help but share. If Gaddis provides an adequate introduction for newcomers, readers seeking depth, nuance, and interpretation might look elsewhere.

Although Gaddis's view of the Cold War as the product of Soviet aggression would strike most readers as unremarkable, setting it beside other literature gives a very different picture. Revisionists in the 1970s and '80s such as Gar Alperowitz and Lloyd Gardiner either divided blame between the antagonists or saw the United States as being more at fault. Their interpretation reflected the assumptions of the Vietnam-era New Left, with its emphasis on the inherently expansionist nature of capitalism and its implications for American foreign policy. Work along such lines by William Appleman Williams and Walter LaFaber may have lacked the taint of archival scholarship, relying instead on theory backed by facts cribbed from secondary work, but it carried weight within the academy.

Richard Pipes and Robert Conquest demonstrated beyond doubt that Ronald Reagan had the Soviet Union to rights when he called it an evil empire. Conquest indeed joked after the Cold War about entitling an updated edition of his work I Told You So. The Soviet regimes nature does not, however, give a complete picture of Cold War diplomacy. Drawing on documents from Soviet archives, Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov argue plausibly that Soviet policy represented a combination of older Tsarist Russian objectives and Marxist expansionism. While undeniably brutal, the Stalin regime approached foreign policy far more cautiously than its Nazi counterpart.

Analyzing the outbreak from a realist perspective based on broad research in American and foreign archives, Marc Trachtenberg makes a solid case in A Constructed Peace for the view that both Washington and Moscow sought hegemony after World War II and their maneuverings involved competition among states rather than the ideologically charged system of the 1930s and World War II. Anglo-American rivalry, a story rarely told by American authors, made Stalin's expectation of conflict within the West less absurd than Gaddis credits. …

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