US/USSR

Anatol Lieven

  • The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis
    Allen Lane, 333 pp, £20.00, January 2006, ISBN 0 7139 9912 8
  • The Global Cold War by Odd Arne Westad
    Cambridge, 484 pp, £25.00, January 2006, ISBN 0 521 85364 8

America’s struggle with the Soviet Union and Communism during the Cold War is the key founding myth of the modern American state – a state in many ways utterly different from the one that existed before the 1940s. The Cold War ended in what has generally been portrayed in the US as absolute victory, involving not just the crushing defeat of the enemy and the disappearance of its ideology, but the dissolution of the Soviet Union as a state. The extent of this perceived victory has been responsible for much of the subsequent pathological behaviour of the US political establishment, from blind adherence to the doctrinaire capitalist pieties – moral as well as economic – of the ‘Washington Consensus’ in the 1990s, to the almost universally shared belief in a ‘unipolar world’ dominated by the US. Victory in the Cold War confirmed in the minds of most Americans much deeper nationalist myths about the inevitable triumph of American power and goodness, and so its effects have survived the deepening disillusionment with the Iraqi and Afghan interventions.

John Lewis Gaddis is a true product of this nationalist ideology and the imperial establishment it supports. Take this statement, from his short history of the Cold War: Americans, he writes, are ‘impatient with hierarchy, at ease with flexibility, and profoundly distrustful of the notion that theory should determine practice rather than the other way around’. In his view, these qualities eventually brought victory in the Cold War, and ushered in an unprecedented era in which democracy and prosperity have been spreading around the globe.

Gaddis’s book is important not so much because it contributes to our thinking about the Cold War, but rather because it gives a picture of the way the majority of the US establishment and the country’s educated classes see that conflict. The notion of America’s leadership and triumph in that struggle continues to shape the way Americans perceive their country’s role in the world, and so has had a considerable impact on the War on Terror. Both the Bush administration and most of the leadership of the Democratic Party have drawn almost precisely the wrong lessons from America’s experience during the Cold War; and semi-official chroniclers and celebrants like Gaddis must take some of the blame.

Gaddis provides an adequate short narrative of the Cold War in Europe, and what the Germans used to call the Grosswetterlage between Washington and Moscow. His account of the Soviet side is also accurate enough as far as it goes. For example, he, like others, corrects the (deliberately cultivated) US myth that the invasion of Afghanistan was part of an aggressive strategy, showing instead that it was a defensive reaction to the threatened collapse of a client state. But Gaddis’s description of how the US was transformed by the Cold War, and of how the baleful effects of that transformation continue to haunt the world has gross deficiencies. Had the Cold War not perpetuated the effects of World War Two, it would have been impossible for the US to produce a figure like Dick Cheney, because the nexus of security, political and business institutions that he represents would not have existed.

Fifteen years ago, when I was young and naive, I thought that the end of the Cold War would allow us, if not to get rid of our own Cold War institutions, then at least radically to reduce their influence, and that of the attitudes they helped generate. I was encouraged to think this by the collapse – contrary to everyone’s expectations – of Soviet Communism, followed by the astonishingly peaceful disintegration of the Soviet Union itself.

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