Review of “The Cold War: A New History” by John Lewis Gaddis

Note 1: This book, published by Penguin Press in 2005, was the recent selection of our book club for discussion. Since it was my husband Jim’s selection, we were in charge of food, and in spite of the fact that I didn’t much like the book, at least I had lots of fun planning “cold war” food. As a bonus, I forgot to take the brownies to the meeting (decorated with dots to look like dominos, representing the domino theory of Communism), so we had many leftovers of an endorphin-elevating nature.

Note 2: And yes, this is the longest post in the history of my posts, ever! I wouldn’t blame anyone for just looking at the entertaining pictures, or skipping to the pithy conclusion! (I concede that those who disagree with me on the merit of this book would spell “pithy” with a couple of esses in it…)

The rivalry of the “official” Cold War may have ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December, 1991, but John Lewis Gaddis still has an ax to grind. In his mind, the USSR was never anything but The Evil Empire, and the U.S. never had anything but good intentions. And the most important factor in striking down that Evil was none other than that alleged towering paragon of strategy and tactics, Ronald Reagan.

The Cold War: A New History provides an excellent example of the ideological biases of a historian creating a skewed misrepresentation of the facts about an era in order to conform with biased perceptions. This so-called “new history” is full of sweeping generalizations, unwarranted conclusions, and dubious assertions that scream out bias at every turn. I’m just going to point out a few that irritated me more than the rest.

Gaddis is an unabashed Reagan idolizer, although he himself is the only “authority” he can come up with to footnote when he bestows lavish praises upon Reagan. His thesis is that it was Ronald Reagan, more than anyone or any event, who was responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War. In support of this dubious allegation, Gaddis asserts: “Reagan was as skillful a politician as the nation had seen for many years, and one of its sharpest grand strategists ever.” In a sentence worthy of Animal Farm, Gaddis declares about Reagan, “His strength lay in his ability to see beyond complexity to simplicity.”

Almost all other accounts tell a different story. Reagan’s biographer Lou Cannon wrote that Reagan came to the White House “notoriously ill-informed about foreign affairs” and that Bill Clark, his second national security advisor, found that he could only teach Reagan about issues by showing him movies.

Robert McFarlane (quoted by Pulitzer Prize winning historian Richard Rhodes, in Arsenals of Folly) explained that the fundamentalist Reagan derived his commitment to strategic defense “primarily from his belief that Armageddon was approaching.” McFarlane went on:

“‘He sees himself as a romantic, heroic figure who believes in the power of a hero to overcome even Armageddon. I think it may come from Hollywood.’ Frank Carlucci, one of Reagan’s five national security advisers, confirmed that Reagan was guided in his decision-making by the belief that, as Reagan said in 1971, ‘Everything is in place for the battle of Armageddon and the second coming of Christ.’”

Without the Bible (or a script) around as a guide, however, Reagan was in trouble. When he met with Gorbachev, he read from a pocket set of color-coded cue cards he carried, full of clichés. As Rhodes reported, Gorbachev was appalled at Reagan’s index cards with their vapid maxims and his initial unwillingness to engage Gorbachev directly, recalling ‘the blank, uncomprehending eyes of the president, who mumbled banalities from a piece of paper.’”

Rhodes tells about the time Reagan dropped his cue cards, and was literally unable to continue with the meeting after that.

But let’s go back to the beginning, when the seeds for the Cold War were just getting planted. Gaddis traces the intellectual underpinnings of the Cold War, which followed World War II, to the visions of both Wilson and Lenin at the end of World War I.

To me, the most egregious misrepresentation in the book is the portrait Gaddis paints of Woodrow Wilson, one of the most reprehensible presidents in our American pantheon. Wilson, yet another president guided by his understanding of the Bible (this characteristic seems to elevate the decision-making process of a president in Gaddis’s estimation), is made out by Gaddis to be democracy’s champion. Wilson, Gaddis explains, saw a world that could be made better by capitalism, and Lenin saw one that could be improved by socialism. So far, so good. But then Gaddis continues that although both ideologies were meant to offer hope, one of them (socialism) depended upon the creation of fear, while the other “had no need to do so. Therein lay the basic ideological asymmetry of the Cold War.”

President Woodrow Wilson

Writing this about Wilson is just pure, unadulterated garbage. Wilson is the president who, as World War I began, put into force a 200,000 member American Protective League, who reported to the Justice Department’s new internal security agency headed by J. Edgar Hoover, and whose mission was to spy on neighbors and coworkers for “loyalty.” Another force, the “Minute Men,” ultimately exceeding over 100,000 in number, gave patriotic speeches before meetings, movies, and shows. George Creel, named by Wilson to head the Minute Men, told his workers that “fear was an important element to be bred in the civilian population” (my emphasis). Creel’s organization also advised citizens to spy on one another and “If you find a disloyal person in your search, give his name to the Department of Justice in Washington and tell them where to find him.”

Wilson’s government arrested union men for “disloyalty,” and put socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs in prison for ten years for “opposing the war.” Wisconsin Congressman Victor Berger, the first Socialist elected to Congress, was sentenced to twenty years under the Wilson-initiated Espionage Act for doing the same.

[The Espionage Act of June, 1917, made it a crime to “convey false reports or false statements with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces of the United States or to promote the success of its enemies when the United States is at war, to cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, refusal of duty, in the military or naval forces of the United States, or to willfully obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service of the United States.” The violator of this Act could be fined $10,000 and sentenced to twenty years in prison. In May 1918, Congress at Wilson’s request increased the government’s power to control opinion with the Sedition Act, which basically was a set of amendments to the Espionage Act. It added to the list of punishable crimes anyone who used “disloyal, scurrilous, profane or abusive language” about the U.S. government, the armed forces, the flag, or the Constitution. The Sedition Act was repealed on December 13, 1920, but the Espionage Act is still in force.]

It is also true that Wilson’s devotion to hope and liberty only extended to the “superior” white race. His response to seeing the racist movie “Birth of a Nation” is indicative of his attitude. [“The Birth of A Nation,” the highest grossing film of the silent film era, portrays black men (played by white actors in blackface) as unintelligent and sexually aggressive towards white women, and shows the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic force.] Reportedly Wilson said, “My only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” When the NAACP tried to have the movie banned, Wilson’s endorsement was used to promote the film for months, before political pressure caused him to dissociate himself from it. But Wilson of course is also the one who allowed his Cabinet leaders to extend segregation throughout the federal bureaucracy, telling black leaders that it would reduce friction and therefore “It is as far as possible from being a movement against the Negroes. I sincerely believe it to be in their interest.” (For more on Wilson, see The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I by Thomas Fleming).

Racism is also absent from Gaddis’s very brief coverage of the McCarthy Era during the Cold War, when Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy led a witch hunt against American citizens, and in particular those who had “leftist” sympathies. During the McCarthy era (lasting roughly from the late 1940s to the late 1950s), thousands of Americans were accused of being Communists or communist sympathizers and became the subject of aggressive investigations and questioning before government or private-industry panels, committees and agencies. In spite of inconclusive or questionable evidence, many people suffered loss of employment, destruction of their careers, and even imprisonment. Some committed suicide. Among those who lost their jobs was the brilliant J. Robert Oppenheimer, who helped develop the atomic bomb in World War II. His opposition to its continued use and to the development of the hydrogen bomb was seen as “proof” of his disloyalty.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, 1946

It also happened that many prominent blacks during this time were determined to have leftist sympathies, since vocalizing objections to the treatment of blacks in America was also considered disloyal. Among those attacked were Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Lena Horne, and W.E.B. DuBois.

This horrible period in American history merits a whole one and one half paragraphs in this book, with Gaddis’s summarizing it by commenting: “with the onset of McCarthyism in the United States and with irrefutable evidence that espionage had taken place on both sides of the Atlantic….” In other words, it wasn’t so bad, and anyway, McCarthy was right.

The entire orientation of this book is that the U.S. was a largely innocent force of good in the world, and the USSR wanted nothing more than to sabotage the American way of life. But the so-called American way of life was (1) only open to whites; (2) only free to the extent the government decided to allow it at any one time; and (3) characterized by organizations dedicated to spying and sabotage that were every bit as nefarious as those operating in the Soviet Union.

George Kennan, whose 1946 analysis of the Soviet Union became the basis for U.S. Cold War strategy, stated that he “believed that the American focus on the Russian military threat was a misguided American projection onto Russia of a danger that would confer legitimacy on the continued existence of the immense military establishment that the formerly isolationist United States had built up during the war.” (“Wise Men Against the Grain,” William Pfaff, NYReview of Books, June 9, 2011)

Credit: Richard Cole, in Z Magazine

Years after the fact, “tidbits” get admitted, such as:

  • The overthrow of the democratically-elected-but-leftist Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh in the 1950’s [this mission led by none other than Kermit Roosevelt, Jr., grandson of Theodore, and the blowback for which included the taking of American hostages in 1979];
  • Operation Northwoods, a 1962 plan drafted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, calling for terrorist attacks on Americans secretly committed by the U.S. but blamed on the Cubans to justify an attack on Cuba;
  • The CIA-backed ouster of the democratically elected leftist President Allende of Chile in 1973;
  • CIA-backed Contra invasions in Nicaragua directed by Reagan in the 1980’s; [In 1984 the CIA mined three Nicaraguan harbors. Nicaragua took this action to the World Court, for which an $18 billion judgment was rendered against the U.S. In response, the U.S. refused to recognize the Court’s jurisdiction in the case.]

One could go on and on. (See, for example, this New York Times editorial “Russia Isn’t the Only One Meddling in Elections. We Do It, Too.”)

None of these episodes are explored by Gaddis. His recital of Cold War crimes is almost exclusively limited to those committed by the USSR.

Gaddis continues his biased reporting into the modern era. He devotes considerable verbiage to the multiple crises in the early 1960’s, attributing blame on Krushchev for bringing us to the brink of nuclear war. Yet Frederick Kempe, in his convincing analysis of John F. Kennedy’s contributions to the Cold War (Berlin 1961), concludes that:

“Kennedy’s indecisiveness in the early states of the [Berlin wall] crisis produced the wall itself, an exponential increase in East-West tension, and, in the half-century that followed, other fateful consequences that included the Cuban missile crisis…”

Yes, it was Krushchev who sent the missiles to Cuba. But Krushchev also needed to restore his prestige after Kennedy approved “The Bay of Pigs Invasion.” The Bay of Pigs Invasion was an unsuccessful invasion of Cuba by a CIA-trained force of Cuban exiles, with support and encouragement from the US government, in an attempt to overthrow the Cuban government of Fidel Castro. The invasion was launched in April 1961, less than three months after John F. Kennedy assumed the presidency in the United States. (Nixon proposed it, Eisenhower planned it, and Kennedy approved it.)

Gaddis, however, claims that all the blame should be laid on the door of Krushchev; it was he who did not think things through, and “allowed his ideological romanticism to overrun whatever capacity he had for strategic analysis.” [Sounds to me like an analysis of The Bay of Pigs invasion….] “He was like a petulant child,” Gaddis asserts, and claims that Khrushchev got some of what he wanted “as children sometimes do.” There was no suggestion whatsoever that the fault was at least in part due to Kennedy’s blunders rather than Krushchev’s tantrums.

(Gaddis claims that the Cuban missile crisis is “universally regarded now as the closest the world came, during the second half of the 20th century, to a third world war…” This is patently untrue, however, and represents yet another attempt by Gaddis to put the onus for irrationally risky behavior on the Soviets. In 1983, a nine-day NATO military exercise designated ABLE ARCHER 83 came closer. The drill turned out to be different from previous ones, and a bit too realistic. Robert Gates is among those who observes that the KGB was convinced American forces had begun a countdown to nuclear war. The Soviets took a number of steps to enhance their military readiness short of mobilization. Afterwards, Reagan was “surprised and shocked that the Soviets had taken his years of militant rhetoric and his massive arms buildup seriously.” (Gates, Robert M., From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War, 1996, and Rhodes, Arsenals of Folly.) As British author Fred Inglis points out (The Cruel Peace: Everyday Life and the Cold War):

“The foreign policy of the Reagan years turned out to be an unappetizing mixture of grudging hypercaution at the arms limitation negotiating tables, reckless and unendearing braggartry in front of the microphones, and minor acts of war that combined bullying and cowardice in about equal proportions.”

Mikhail Gorbachev, Time's Man of the Decade

As for Gorbachev, whose brilliance and vision is noted by other historians, Gaddis is condescending, charging that U.S. Secretary of State Shultz had to “educate” Gorbachev on economics. (Here he footnotes Shultz’s self-serving memoirs.) Gaddis even goes so far as to aver that when Gorbechev made a dramatic speech, he was “borrowing a trick from Reagan.” Good grief! And finally, he holds that Gorbachev, who was was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his role in ending the Cold War, “was never a leader in the manner of Vaclav Havel, John Paul II, Deng Xiaoping, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Lech Walesa – even Boris Yeltsin.” Boris YELTSIN? Come on! As Neil MacFarlane, professor of international relations at Oxford says of Yeltsin, “his record of governance is pretty mixed, and the government was substantially weakened during his time.” It was also Yeltsin who failed to control the growing political influence of wealthy oligarchs who still wield inordinate power in Russia. After Yeltsin’s death, the Economist reported that:

“Mr Yeltsin’s great rival, Mikhail Gorbachev, reflected the mood of most Russians when, amid the polite tributes and saccharine television montages, he alluded to the dead man’s ‘serious mistakes.’ Mr. Yeltsin’s had been a ‘tragic fate,’ said Mr Gorbachev. Even before he left office, a majority of Russians, from Kaliningrad to Kamchatka, despised him, partly on account of the raging inflation, unpaid salaries and oligarchic larceny of his rule, but even more for the shame many thought he brought on Russia through his clownish drunkenness.”

It is apparent that for Gaddis to elevate the role of Gorbachev, even over Yeltsin, would be to diminish the role of Reagan, a path the author wants to avoid. In Rhodes’s history of the Cold War, however, Gorbachev is the incontrovertible hero of the situation.

Gaddis begins and ends his book with a discussion of the nature of war, as part of his eventual argument that the Cold War changed that nature forever. He cites Thucydides who predicted that there would always be a propensity for violence, “human nature being what it is.” Gaddis draws the ridiculous conclusion, however, that because of the success of the political game strategy Mutual Assured Destruction (or MAD), “Contrary to the lesson Thucydides drew from the greatest war of his time, human nature did change – and the shock of Hiroshima and Nagasaki began the process by which it did so.” What?!!! MAD is a strategy that in fact is based on the inevitability of violence, that posits that only by each side holding a gun to each other’s head simultaneously (and assuming participation by rational actors), would that violence be deterred. Note: the violence is deterred by a rational calculation of odds. There is no change in propensity! The relentless continuation of wars and skirmishes since the Cold War make manifest the utter absurdity of Gaddis’s argument.

Raytheon's AMRAAM Missiles

Gaddis has two main conclusions about the Cold War in general. One is that the Cold War is “the point at which military strength, a defining characteristic of ‘power’ itself for the past five centuries, ceased to be that.” Gosh, that’s not what the military-industrial complex thinks. I wonder if Raytheon, Boeing, Northrup Grumman, General Dynamics, and so on have heard the news…. The second is that the Cold War “disproved Marx’s indictment of capitalism as elevating greed above all else.” I’m glad to hear that. All those CEOs making millions and the bankers taking advantage of the poor’s desire for housing in order to ensure their own enrichment are just aberrations. Thank heavens!

Evaluation: Beware of books claiming to be history books! This one doesn’t meet the most basic criteria of objective reporting of the facts.

Rating: 1.5/5

Published by Penguin Press, 2005


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20 Responses to Review of “The Cold War: A New History” by John Lewis Gaddis

  1. Very interesting. This one one of my main focuses in school as a political science major and daughter of Russian immigrants. I wonder if I’d end up getting anything out of this or throwing it across the room!

  2. Sandy says:

    I think this could be a springboard to a doctorate thesis! And WHO picked this book for your book club??? (hee hee) Totally on Team Jill here. You definitely made your case, and spent much effort in doing so. I don’t claim to be a student of this period in history, but even I know that this man’s claims are way over-simplified and show just a tad bit too much of hero worship for someone pretending to write a history book.

  3. Barbara says:

    Boy, I hope you have air conditioning! This book really wound you up. It would have me frothing at the mouth. I always thought Reagan saw the presidency as another movie role. He nodded off when the camera was on someone else, and he couldn’t function without his lines and prompter. Toward the end, I think part of that was very early Alzheimer’s.

    This is so simplistic. U.S.A. = good. U.S.S.R. = evil. Too bad seeing world history in black and white misses the point entirely. I looked like a bobble-head doll reading your post; I agreed with your entire post.

  4. Wow, that was a long post! Books purporting to be history books should not be so overtly biased. I love how the “new” history is actually more like retro propaganda history. Safe to say this is not a book I’ll be adding to my reading list.

  5. zibilee says:

    Wow! I always thought that Ronald Reagan was a pretty good leader, and had no idea that in reality he was pretty much clueless and inept. I have to agree with Sandy here. It sounds like this author used a platform of hero worship to dole out an historical viewpoint that is just this side of crazy. I bet he considers himself an expert as well, which I think is a little funny. This was a really great and comprehensive review, Jill, and I enjoyed reading it.

  6. BermudaOnion says:

    I figured I wasn’t smart enough for this one, so I was kind of relieved to see it’s a stinker.

  7. Alyce says:

    You weren’t kidding about the length. I was totally surprised to read what you said about Reagan – he’s always portrayed as such a hero in retrospect. As far as everything else, there’s just too much to comment on. 🙂 I admire that you put so much time and effort into this post!

  8. So,I guess you did not like it. 😉
    I have some points I would agree with you on…and a few I would disagree..but hey, at least the book was thought provoking for you!

  9. LOL – this is a big post! I had to skim it as I am on my break, but will stop back later to read in full.

  10. Valerie says:

    Wow, this “history” book really does seem like a very biased account of an era! Did Jim agree with your opinions :-)? For that matter, did the rest of the book club? I guess Reagan still has teflon tendencies even to this day. I’ve been around long enough to remember what Reagan was like and also all the anti-Communism fervor. People who currently are in their twenties and early thirties have to rely on history books or the often biased opinions of media people. But I suppose it’s nothing new, that historical perspectives are constantly being reshaped.

    How did this book earn a 1.5 rating? Why not an 1 ;-)?

    • Valerie,
      Jim liked the book; he doesn’t get as incensed over some things as I do! :–) But he has read a lot of history and is able to put different accounts into context. For most of the bookclub, however, “nonfiction” means “truth”, and their reactions were more along the lines of “oh, I didn’t know that…” rather than wondering what other historians say, or wondering if there might be bias or omission in the account. I think that the idea that “history” is contingent on a lot of other things, such as the color and focus of ones’ perceptual lenses, political agenda, etc. is foreign to many people.

  11. Margot says:

    Very well done post, Jill. I was very much alive during this time period and I remember the general gist of it. I can’t believe this Gaddis guy could get away with such a bizarre distortion of the facts. In addition, the hero worship of Reagan (and two terms in office) has always amazed me.

    I’ll bet this was a lively discussion at your book club. Don’t be too rough on Jim. I’m sure he was going for the discussion factor.

  12. Emily says:

    It’s probably because I was raised in the land of environmental freaks and quiche eaters (hilarious map, btw), but it came as such a shock to me when the Reagan nostalgia machine started up after his death. Everyone I knew used his name as a byword for shallow ineptitude and warmongering—I was like, wait, “The Great Communicator??? You’re kidding, Time Magazine!”

    In any case, it sounds like this book is infuriating, and you rebut Gaddis’s flimsy-sounding arguments with such panache! I particularly enjoyed your line about how black folks were often found “disloyal” during McCarthyism for objecting to the conditions of blacks—reminded me of the antebellum diagnoses of “drapetomania” with which white doctors saddled slaves who tried to escape. Surely something must be wrong with their psyches if they’re trying to ESCAPE SLAVERY.

    • Thanks so much for your quiche-eaterish comment! Yes, drapetomania! Love those variations on blaming the victim! Amazing how often they seem to convince others (i.e., not only those who are invested in believing it).

  13. stacybuckeye says:

    I enjoyed this review! It took me so long to read that I don’t have time to come up with anything witty to say 🙂

  14. Serena says:

    I imagine that this book club discussion could have become heated depending upon the ideals and perspectives held by members of the group! I can imagine some Ronald Reagan lovers I know discussing this book with happiness…lol

    First, how on earth could the Joseph McCarthy “debacle” get only 1.5 paragraphs! And I can tell you from academic experience of declassified material on the Cuban Missile crisis that Kennedy is to blame for much of it because he was indecisive given the advice of his brother and the “hawk” military personnel in power at the time. He was caught in the middle and unable to make a decision until the last minute on Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile crisis…It was his brother who pushed for diplomatic solutions when we “nearly” went to nuclear war with the USSR.

    Second, I took an interest in this “war” during my college days and loved learning about The Great Communicator and his penchant for note cards and teleprompters to do his job. He communicated well, but not his own ideas or thoughts. I’ve always considered him one of our “puppet” presidents because he was clearly just the face of an administration interested in continuing the war complex beyond WWII with its fight against communism.

    This time in history is a lot of cloak and dagger in the U.S. especially with certain information given to the public and other information hidden from sight. The investigations into communism to me smack of fear-mongering, that Gaddis seems to attribute only to the USSR. Hmm, perhaps he needs to re-read those investigations and see the truth of how many of those people were railroaded and brow-beaten.

    As you can see this book would have gotten my dander up as well. It’s obvious that this should not be a HISTORY book at all, but a puff piece about how Reagan was an awesome actor….I mean president!

  15. Serena says:

    sorry for the long tirade…I would’ve given this a 0.

  16. Richard says:

    Jill, your idea of “cold war food” alone is brilliant. Had me laughing out loud! Especially in juxtaposition with the concept of “Eisenhower food,” comfort food that my dad would always brand as “Eisenhower food!” (often mockingly but sometimes approvingly) if we ate at a diner or had steak and mashed potatoes or something like that at home. Lost interest in the book you were reviewing as soon as I saw the author was a Reagan-booster–can’t take a “thinker” like that seriously considering that Reagan was my most-hated American president till little Bush came along in his aviator suit. “Mission accomplished” and all that. Cheers!

  17. Care says:

    Yowza. I am awed and humbled by this post. I was never impressed with Reagan. As in these times, it is so damn difficult to find the rational viewpoint.

  18. Pingback: The Cold War New

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