The Forty Years’ Peace

Keith Kyle

  • The United States and the End of the Cold War: Implications, Reconsiderations and Provocations by John Lewis Gaddis
    Oxford, 301 pp, £19.50, July 1992, ISBN 0 19 505201 3
  • Dean Acheson: The Cold War Years, 1953-71 by Douglas Brinkley
    Yale, 429 pp, £22.00, February 1993, ISBN 0 300 04773 8
  • The Quest for Stability: Problems of West European Security 1918-1957 edited by Rolf Ahmann, A.M. Birke and Michael Howard
    Oxford, 546 pp, £50.00, June 1993, ISBN 0 19 920503 5

Early in 1983, when the newly founded Social Democratic Party was acquiring policies by holding study groups, one of these was devoted to East-West relations. At its first session a musty-looking gentleman called Sir John Lawrence proposed that we begin from the assumption that the decline of the Soviet economic system had passed the point of no-return. Any policy recommendations must therefore reckon with the consequences of its collapse within the next few years and the implications of its replacement. Either from genuine scepticism or out of a primitive dread of hubris and what follows from it, the panel did not swallow Lawrence neat. We thus lost the full benefit of almost the only accurate prediction then to be heard concerning the future of the Eastern bloc.

The great mass of politicians, professional policy-makers, specialist commentators and academic observers were stunned by the speed and completeness of the Soviet meltdown. It was, for example, disconcerting to find that one’s own arguments about the future of Germany proved in retrospect to have been sincere and honest when one had for so long assumed them to be hypocritical. To hold that West Germany could both remain a full member of Nato and the European Community and expect to be reunited with East Germany had been felt to be wishing for the impossible. Konrad Adenauer, under whose auspices this combination of policies was adopted, was often supposed to be the more reconciled to its impossibility by his distaste for the culture and politics of Germany east of the Rhineland. But the sudden speed-up of history in 1989-91 has made this strategy seem, on the one hand, more farsighted and, on the other, less Machiavellian than hitherto, while the thought was bound to occur to academics that now was the ideal opportunity to look afresh at the Cold War as a finite historical era.

Some things can now be stated with assurance, such as that the ‘balance of terror’ between the United States and the Soviet Union did not result in nuclear war or, in Europe, in conventional war either. This point deserves to be made so that we can give credit to the leaders who, often in the face of intense criticism, adhered to policies that brought us safely through. Yet John Lewis Gaddis’s book prompts the thought that perhaps the time of the historian is not yet. To be fair, Gaddis makes much of the risks of writing contemporary history, but adds that if historians are not willing to run them ‘political scientists and journalists surely will’. On the evidence of The United States and the End of the Cold War perhaps they should be allowed to do so. With the exception of some sections of it – an admirable chapter on Dulles is the outstanding example – a journalist (though not perhaps a political scientist) would surely have done as well.

Very occasionally we benefit from the special insight of the historian, as when Gaddis writes that Reagan’s chaotic encounter with Gorbachev at Reykjavik ‘resembled as nothing else the 1905 meeting between Tsar Nicholas II and Kaiser William II’. But the real difficulty is that to get at the kind of answers a historian of the Cold War now requires calls for access to the Russian archives. Before the war ended it was reasonable to act as if that day would never come. Now, to everyone’s enormous surprise, the possibility of unparalleled access to those archives exists, though more in principle than in practice, and in any case an immense task of sorting, translating, and analysing lies ahead. Michael Howard, for instance, in a characteristically crisp introduction to The Quest for Stability, asks the basic question whether at the end of the Second World War Stalin actually aspired to global hegemony. This, he says, ‘we shall be able to tell only when the Soviet archives have been explored, if indeed then.’

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