Khrushchev’s Secret

Neal Ascherson

  • We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History by John Lewis Gaddis
    Oxford, 425 pp, £25.00, April 1997, ISBN 0 19 878070 2

Most of us grew up – or were born – during the Cold War. We were formed by a quite extraordinary period, by events which did not take place rather then events which did. We never ceased to feel horror at the period’s architecture, ending in a wall of fire which we could at moments see quite plainly ahead of us. But over time we lost much of our sense of abnormality, imagining that there had been similar intervals in history when the known world had been partitioned between adversaries heavily armed but reluctant to shoot first. Perhaps the Roman Empire had known such situations; perhaps the Peace of Westphalia had ushered in such a stable confrontation. But all these reachings for precedents were abuses of the past. There has never been anything like the Cold War, and its very texture was so unfamiliar that many of the old methods of politics and military pressure twisted in the hand of their users, or produced terrifyingly unfamiliar results. In consequence, quite new maxims for diplomacy and influence had to be invented. It is only now, nearly a decade on and back in the primal soup of big and little nation-states jostling for nourishment and security, that we can recognise how weird those years really were.

The importance of John Lewis Gaddis’s book is that it is the first coherent and sustained attempt to write the Cold War’s history since it ended. That alone makes it hard to resist, but it is also wise and imaginative and written in a vigorous, simple English which is a pleasure to consume. Having said that, the very title presents several problems at once. ‘We Now Know’ is cheerful hype which would be better rendered as ‘We Now Know More, But Not Nearly Enough’. Some of the Soviet archives have been opened to almost general inspection. Others have been seen only by a select few, Russian or foreign historians and journalists, some of whom are apt to exaggerate what they may have read. Others again are either closed or not even known to exist (it is clear that, all over Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, officials carried off bundles of documents to serve as an investment against an uncertain future). And, as Gaddis remarks, what ‘we now know’ is what we know from Soviet and other Communist sources. The West, as the effective victor of the Cold War, still keeps most of its secrets. So does China.

With those cautions, the new material from Moscow – especially – is absorbing. Gaddis and his research team have used to the full the great Cold War International History Project, which issues its slabs of secret Communist documentation from the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. Do ‘the Soviet archives’ contain information which turns our whole view of the Cold War upside down? In my experience of reading the Cold War Project material, they do not. For example, the question of whether Stalin seriously wanted to reach the Atlantic through a Communist France is still unresolved – probably because it is unresolvable because, in turn, Stalin had no fixed resolve about it. What the archives do is to cross ‘t’s and dot ‘i’s in the most satisfactory way possible. You find out at last who did make that rumoured outburst at the umpteenth Plenum of the Polish United Workers’ Party. Professor Gaddis can establish at last that Kim Il Sung really did attack South Korea first, in 1950, and that Stalin really did give him the green light to do so. He can provide a far clearer and much more astonishing picture of the relationship between Stalin and Khrushchev and the Communist regimes of what was then called the Third World: it would be fair to call his handling of this new material the tour de force of the whole book. And he gives us, one more time but to the tune of new documents and fresh confessions by the participants, the Cuba crisis of 1962. That near-apocalypse looks very different after his revelations; better handled by the statesmen than we realised, but glittering with other, previously unsuspected dangers about which – thank God! – we knew nothing at the time.

The second difficulty with the title, or subtitle, is that this is a ‘Cold War History’ which stops in 1962. Gaddis considers that the Cuba crisis completed a pattern of mutual management, a set of rules for a relationship between the two superpowers, which endured without major change for more than twenty years, until it was finally and (for the USSR) fatally challenged by Reagan and Gorbachev. This may be true, as a generalisation. But post-Cuba events like America’s Vietnam intervention, the Prague Spring, the drama in the Horn of Africa, the Cuban appearance in Angola, the Soviet reach towards the status of a global naval power, Solidarity in Poland, Afghanistan and Nato’s ‘dual-track’ decision to deploy new missiles in Europe – to downgrade all that to the category of minor variations in an established pattern is simply bad history. What Gaddis has done – a perfectly defensible and excellent achievement – is to explain how the Cold War took its enduring shape. What he should also have done is to adjust his subtitle to ‘Rethinking the Formation of the Cold War’, and to promise us a second or even a third volume for the future.

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