How the West Won

John Lewis Gaddis rethinks the Cold War.

We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History
By John Lewis Gaddis
Oxford University Press; 425 pages; $30

Titles can be dangerous. John Lewis Gaddis, the most eminent of America’s Cold War historians, has taken a risk by naming his book We Now Know. For, the big surprise of the opening of so many of the Soviet, Chinese, and Eastern European archives is that we have learned so little that seriously alters the known contours of the 45-year confrontation.

True, much has been confirmed by the ongoing opening of the archives and the sterling work of the special Cold War research project at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., on whose delvings Gaddis leans heavily. To wit, Joseph Stalin’s hopes that the Communist Party would come to power, more or less legally, in the western chunks of Germany can now be reliably dated back to June 1945. We can establish that but for Stalin’s veto in December 1945, the Soviet Union might well have ratified the Bretton Woods postwar financial system. Stalin’s role in egging on the North Koreans to invade the South in 1950 is now clear, and so is the secret U.S.-Soviet accord that kept quiet the air battles between U.S. and Soviet fighter pilots over Korea, including the U.S. bombing of an air base on Soviet soil.

None of this, however, changes the old consensus that the grand strategy of the Cold War was set, at the latest, by 1950. By then, the NATO alliance was in place to contain the Soviet Union on its western front. The Korean War established a similar containment on the eastern front, where the Pentagon was building Japan’s ports, railways, and Toyota assembly lines and performing the same miracle that Marshall Plan funds were achieving in Europe. When the Western nations fought, they either lost (Britain and France at Suez; France in Algeria; France and, later, the United States in Vietnam) or were held to a bloody draw (the United States and the Soviet Union in Korea). But, by avoiding direct war, and by learning to avoid entanglement in local struggles, the West eventually won the peace. The West prevailed because nuclear weapons imposed a brittle truce, shifting the conflict to the economic rivalry in which the West’s greater resources and adaptability could produce both guns and butter, both family cars and aircraft carriers.

It is within this generally agreed-upon context that all the historians’ Cold War debates take place–and Gaddis’ thoughtful but often long-winded book broadly accepts this framework. But here comes the surprise. In the past, Gaddis picked a careful course between the anti-Communists who always blamed Moscow and the revisionists who thought the United States’ hunger for markets and raw materials was at least as responsible for the Cold War. Now Gaddis has finally taken sides. On the politically (if not historically) pivotal issue of who was to blame, his conclusion is “authoritarianism in general, and Stalin in particular.”

Having identified the Evil in particular, Gaddis widens his argument to identify the Evil in general: the Soviet system. To prove his point, he cites figures suggesting that as many as 2 million German women had been raped by the conquering Red Army between 1945 and 1946. The point is worth making, even though such awful spoils of war hardly address the moral argument of good and evil in the Cold War itself. And even though it was widely known that many of these women’s husbands and brothers in Wehrmacht uniform had fled to be taken prisoner by the Allies, abandoning the women to pay for the dreadfulness the menfolk had inflicted on the eastern front.

The moral superiority of the West has always been difficult to argue. Its advocates must grapple with the ugly facts of racial segregation in the United States; of the latter’s hardheaded if spasmodic support of its allies’ futile efforts to cling to their colonial empires; and of the West’s readiness to support loathsome regimes in the name of the greater cause. The U.S. adventure in Vietnam, that most tragic of the West’s Third World campaigns, falls outside Gaddis’ sadly truncated survey, which ends with the Cuban missile crisis. So Gaddis does not really tackle the most egregious moral disaster for the West.

Nor were the West’s leaders too nice in their discriminations. Gaddis cites a 1951 cable from Dean Acheson to his diplomats in Hanoi that bluntly states the case for Realpolitik: “Question whether Ho [Chi Minh] as much nationalist as Commie is irrelevant, all Stalinists in colonial areas are nationalists. With achievement of natl. aims (i.e. independence) their objective necessarily becomes subordination of state to Commie purposes.” Normally the most clearheaded of cold warriors, Acheson must have been dozing when he wrote that. Or, at least, he was conveniently forgetting that he had argued to supply $150 million in civilian aid and $60 million in arms to Marshal Tito’s regime in Yugoslavia, which, while nominally Communist, had hardly been subordinated to “Commie purposes.” Tito and Yugoslavia get disappointingly short shrift in Gaddis’ analysis, as does Stalin’s still mysterious decision to pull out of the Soviet-administered sector of northern Iran. These are areas where the Soviet Foreign Ministry and party archives have so far yielded little that is illuminating, and the Soviet military and intelligence archives are still tightly controlled where they have been opened at all. Where Gaddis does look at the breach between Tito and Stalin, it is to buttress his case that as democrats, the Americans were far more relaxed about managing alliance politics than Stalin was.

Tito’s complaints about the Soviet-Yugoslav relationship,” Gaddis points out, “were no more serious than those that arose routinely between London, Paris, and Washington” over such questions as the treatment of Germany. But Tito and Stalin were not interested in keeping their disputes in hand. Stalin wanted outright subservience; Tito, unique in having liberated his country with his own partisan resources, was far too prickly to knuckle under. In contrast, Gaddis writes, “American officials saw nothing strange in combining executive leadership with a careful acknowledgment of individual sovereignties. … Truman and Eisenhower handled NATO much as they did the Congress: by cutting deals instead of imposing wills.” Gaddis claims, in essence, that this managerial style went beyond the difference between Western allies and Soviet satellites, even beyond the distinction between the United States’ soft empire of consenting partners and Stalin’s hard empire of secret police and satrapies. In the end, he says, even the steeliest of U.S. military authoritarians were products of a more benign political heritage than the Soviet-sponsored regimes were: “The Truman and Eisenhower administrations ran the alliance much as [Gens.] Clay and MacArthur had run occupied Germany and Japan: in ways that reflected democratic culture.”

The French and British governments would not unreservedly agree. However foolish their 1956 conspiracy with Israel to recapture the Suez Canal, the U.S. decision first to vote with the Soviets to condemn them at the United Nations and then to apply what Gaddis calls “crushing economic pressure” on their currencies was hardly a collegial way to run the alliance. France responded to this highhandedness by embarking on a crash program to develop its own nuclear force, and by evicting NATO forces from French soil. And, Gaddis concludes, “[T]he Americans lost influence in the Middle East as a result of Suez, while the Russians gained it.”

If Gaddis wants to blame Stalin and authoritarian rule for the Cold War, he must explain why the confrontation lingered on so long after the old brute’s death in 1953. Gaddis’ answer, of course, is that the game was under way by then: The heirs of Truman and Stalin were condemned to play by Cold War rules. But this undermines his entire case about Stalin’s unique responsibility. For, Truman and Stalin brought their own historic baggage to the task of creating a new world order after 1945. They were locked into a Europe divided by military deployments; an Asia in turmoil after Japan’s defeat and Mao’s triumph; and a rivalry between capitalist and Communist systems that long predated both men.

There is no doubt that Stalin was a brute. We knew that while the Cold War still raged. It took a little more courage for a Western historian to say that then than it does to say it now, with the long confrontation finally over. But does Stalin’s guilt automatically establish U.S. innocence in other areas of the Cold War? Obviously not–it would be hard to fault Stalin for the destruction of the Vietnamese city of Hue 15 years after his death. However unsatisfactory and over-argued the revisionist case, it did make one serious point: that the United States had clear national and economic interests and found the Cold War an unusually congenial way to pursue them.

Perhaps the most acute epitaph of the Cold War was written at its birth, by Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, who objected to U.S. demands for “an open door” for its industrialists throughout Europe: “We would probably live to see the day when in your own country, on switching on the radio, you would be hearing not so much your own language as one American gramophone record after [another] … on going to the cinema, you would be seeing American films sold for foreign consumption,” Molotov argued. “Is it not clear that such unrestricted applications of the principles of ‘equal opportunity’ would in practice mean the veritable economic enslavement of the small states and their subjugation to the rule and arbitrary will of strong and enriched foreign firms, banks, and industrial corporations? Was this what we fought for when we battled the fascist invaders?”

Yes, Mr. Molotov. Given half a chance, Hollywood movies and British pop songs and Mercedes limos and all the glitzy glamour of rumbustious capitalism were exactly what people wanted. The West prevailed because it was rich, rather than because it was good. It would be nice to say that we were rich because we were good, but the randomness of the market and the casual ethics of the hidden hand allow no such theocratic conclusion.