Monday, January 16, 2006

The Book of the Era: “The Cold War: A New History.”

the cold war
Probably the book not just of the year but of this era is “The Cold War: A New History” by John Lewis Gaddis [The Penguin Press: 2005]. Gaddis is Robert A. Lovett professor of history at Yale and probably the outstanding historian of the Cold War in the country. You literally can’t put this book down because it ratifies what we’ve heard in recent years, about Reagan’s incomparable role, but also because Gaddis mines new information that has recently come available.

The winners for the West were those with philosophic certainty: starting with Ronald Reagan over the ultra-pragmatic Richard Nixon. Nixon cherished détente but Reagan saw détente as the ratification of a deal that would keep communism in place, where he believed communism was failing (with which Nixon didn’t agree). Gaddis: “[Reagan’s] strength lay in his ability to see beyond complexity to simplicity. And what he saw was simply this: that because détente perpetuated—and had been meant to perpetuate—the Cold War, only killing détente could kill the Cold War.” A truly radical view at that time when progressives from both parties cherished détente. And what Reagan feared was “that before that happened [the fall of communism] human beings would disappear as the result of nuclear war.” The first actor to become president “who used his theatrical skills to spook

senescent Kremlin leaders.” Gaddis clearly believes that if Nixon and the realists controlled foreign policy in perpetuity, there would not have been a U.S. victory in the Cold War. Of course that goes for JFK, Johnson and Carter as well.

Gaddis on Reagan’s thinking: “It followed that neither communism nor nuclear weapons should continue to exist and yet détente was ensuring that both did.” It is astounding that none of Reagan’s biographers caught his view exactly like this—including Edmund Morris who regarded Reagan as an amiable boob and the latest, Richard Reeves who dismisses his thinking as light. (Gaddis does the best job of analyzing Reagan since Denish DeSouza who wrote an early biography. Sorry, I don’t think Peggy Noonan gets him down either. Bob Novak, who along with Rolland Evans, did a bio during Reagan’s first term, did).

The second major actor was “a short, squat man with a drooping mustache and jerky Charlie Chaplin-like movements” who had seen the shootings at the Gdansk shipyard in 1970, Lech Walesa who formed the first independent and self-governing trade union ever in the Marxist-Leninist world. Third: Maggie Thatcher “who relished being tougher than any man and revived the reputation of capitalism in Western Europe.” Fourth: John Paul II, an actor before becoming a priest. “Few leaders of his era could match him in his ability to use words, gestures, exhortations, rebukes—even jokes—to move the hearts and minds of the millions who saw and heard him.” I met JPII, was impressed with his charisma but, stupid me, didn’t give him as much credit as Gaddis. I’ll have to re-think it.

Fourth: Deng Xiaoping, “the diminutive, frequently purged…who brushed aside communism’s prohibitions on free enterprise while encouraging the Chinese people to `get rich.’” Fifth: Mikhail Gorbachev who “swept away communism’s emphasis on the class struggle, its insistence on the inevitability of a world proletarian revolution and hence its claims of historical infallibility.”

Rather than give a review which you can pick up elsewhere on the web, I’d like to give some observations about what is new to me, anyhow. First, Stalin was really misled by the historic Marxist concept that capitalism has within it the seeds of its own destruction. Stalin’s view: the great depression sent capitalists scrambling to save themselves and Nazi Germany arose as a result, sort of the dying stage of capitalism. With the end of WWII, he believed—heck, was sure—that the economic crisis was bound to return and that capitalists would need the Soviet Union. That’s why he believed the U.S. would have to lend the USSR billions in order to build up markets for their products to forestall another global crash. Moreover that the other capitalist superpower, Britain whose economic power he vastly overestimated, would have to break with the U.S. in capitalist rivalry. “[T]he inevitability of wars between capitalist countries remains in force” he said even in 1952. Viewed from our perspective and the sweep of history, Stalin’s view was weird, almost like he was smoking something. But this explains the step-by-step failures that the USSR made.

Instead, under Truman the U.S. helped revive Western Europe with the Marshall Plan with assistance Stalin stonily refused. I think I’d have put Truman up there someplace but Gaddis doesn’t. George H.W. Bush doesn’t come off very well, either: too much a preppy establishmentarian to understand Reagan’s point of view and who sought to stabilize Gorbachev when it was too late. Kissinger doesn’t rate high either. I think I’d have put Nixon up there somewhere for his opening of the door to China, but Gaddis stresses that Mao wanted the door open to confound the USSR. Get the exchange between Nixon and Mao. “I voted for you,” said Mao, “when your country was in havoc during your last electoral campaign…I am comparatively happy when these people on the right came to power.” He added: “I think that generally speaking, people like me sound a lot of big cannons. That is, things like `the whole world should unite and defeat imperialism, revisionism and all reactionaries…But perhaps you [Nixon] as an individual may not be among those to be overthrown…[Kissinger] is also among those not to be overthrown personally. And if all of you are overthrown we wouldn’t have any more friends left.”

The so-called “pragmatists” and “realists” of foreign policy don’t do well in this book. Nevertheless Kissinger does a blurb for the book: “A comprehensive and wise survey of the Cold War. Even those like me who do not agree with all its judgments will benefit from its sweep and scholarship.” To me the value of this book by Gaddis is that it will change historical perceptions enormously. And the fact that it is produced by a Yalie doesn’t hurt.

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