We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History 
by John Lewis Gaddis.
Oxford, 425 pp., £25, April 1997, 0 19 878070 2
Show More
Show More

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.

Gaddis, a sturdy believer in the importance of personalities in history, emerges from his researches convinced that Stalin, more than anybody or anything, brought about the Cold War. He suggests that cold wars were in a way Stalin’s natural element – that his own personal and political relationships displayed the same combination of control-mania and a condition of static terror. The thought that perhaps Europe could have been peacefully and even consentingly divided into two zones of influence after 1945 is therefore vain. Stalin expected the states of East-Central Europe to welcome the Red Army and a condition of Soviet protectorate – the ‘people’s democracy’ pattern. When it became plain that they resented that condition, Stalin resorted to state terror and full dictatorship; compromise and trade-offs with allies were not in his toolbox. Bargaining and dealing, in contrast, were entirely in the American tradition of politics at home and abroad. Gaddis returns again and again to the assertion that, while there were certainly two ‘empires’, they were in no way equivalent. One allowed for a growing degree of co-decision making with its allies; the other moved in the opposite direction, symbolised by the Soviet Army’s move from initial fraternisation with Germans to segregation – exactly the reverse of the process in the American and British zones. The Anglo-American fear immediately after the war that ‘the Germans’ would opt voluntarily for the Soviet version of Communism – which was also Stalin’s hope at the time – never had substance. Gaddis puts great emphasis on the mass rape of some two million German women by Soviet soldiers as the war ended; the impact on public feeling, he claims, ensured that Soviet policies would never be voluntarily accepted. I am not so sure. A German socialist state, externally committed to a Soviet alliance but internally free of Soviet troops and governed by a freely elected Communist/Social Democrat coalition, might have anchored some genuine roots in public opinion. But such a Germany was not on offer.

Apart from Stalin’s personality, how did the Cold War begin? I have always had an affection for the revisionist historians of the Sixties, Louis Halle in particular, who infuriated the foreign policy establishments of the West by suggesting that the Cold War was not a cosmic conflict between good and evil but a mutual and avoidable misperception. Each side thought the other was about to unleash aggressive war against it, and both were quite wrong. Gaddis rather clouds the outlines of this fine old generalisation. Stalin certainly thought at times that America was planning war against him, but seems to have regarded such an onslaught as a fairly distant possibility, given credible Soviet deterrence. As for his intention to use Western Communist parties in a renewed offensive to extend his empire to the Atlantic, as many in the West firmly believed he would, there is no evidence that Stalin contemplated anything of the sort.

Gaddis rightly points out that Stalin did not, as Western propaganda has always insisted, say in a public speech that war between capitalism and Communism was inevitable. What he said was that war between capitalist states was inevitable – a prediction of Lenin’s. It is true that Stalin would have happily taken strategic advantage of a collapse of the capitalist system, if he could have done so without risk. The same is true of the Americans and the Communist system. But that does not alter the fact that neither side planned to attack the other. The basic perception which initiated the Cold War was, as Halle and his epigones used to point out, quite false.

Gaddis does not answer one question which has always interested me. Was it the Americans, rather than the Soviets, who took the decisive steps towards the division of Europe? Did they resolve, at a certain moment, to draw a broad, impassable firebreak right across the continent in order to secure its western half against the flying sparks of Communism? After all, it was in 1946, nearly two years before the Berlin Blockade started, that Secretary of State James Byrnes made his famous Stuttgart speech, offering pardon and partnership to the Germans and even implying that America would tolerate a German campaign to regain the eastern provinces acquired by Poland in 1945. As for the Marshall Plan, some at least of its planners appear to have deliberately designed it to be unacceptable to the Soviet Union; they foresaw and accepted that the scheme’s rejection by Stalin would be enforced on his satellites and clients and lead to an economic partition of Europe. Gaddis oddly does not mention the Stuttgart speech, though for the oppressed peoples of Eastern Europe it was the final proof that they had been deemed dispensable and were being cast adrift by the West. On the Marshall Plan, however, he reveals how nearly the calculation of George Kennan and others came unstuck. Stalin quite failed to see the commitment to free-trading capitalism implicit in the Plan and prepared to join it, mistaking it for a benevolent offer of American financial aid. Only later, after warnings from his diplomats and agents, did he change his mind.

The central fact of the Cold War, as most of us experienced it, was the ‘balance of terror’, the ‘culture of exterminism’, Mutual Assured Destruction, the nukes. Here Gaddis is able to throw a great deal of new light, much of it – this time – from Western rather than Soviet sources. Why, for example, did the United States fail to use its brief monopoly of the atomic bomb to force the Soviet Union into concessions? There is no single answer, but the Americans spent much of that window of opportunity in a noble but unsuccessful attempt to get atomic energy – civil and military – locked into an international control regime. Beyond that lay a deep reluctance, moral in its origins, to use the new bomb for political coercion – and, in any case, the United States only possessed 14 atomic bombs when Truman proclaimed his ‘doctrine’ of containment in March 1947. Were they enough to ensure the defeat of the USSR? It was far from certain.

Much later, after both superpowers had taken the decision to develop the hydrogen bomb, came the grotesque affair of the ‘missile gap’. This was the supposition that Nikita Khrushchev already possessed a nuclear strike capacity in the mid-Fifties which rivalled or even outstripped that of the United States. By then, Eisenhower and Khrushchev had both evolved their own approaches to managing nuclear weapons, each made aware by their stupendous H-bomb tests that they now possessed weapons whose use would endanger the survival of the human race. Eisenhower, who as Gaddis reminds us had read and absorbed his Clausewitz, diverted all his military resources into increasing his H-bomb stockpile in order to ensure that any war would at once become total – and therefore could not be risked. Khrushchev, in contrast, adopted an offensive, super-confident strategy, boasting of the Soviet Union’s nuclear strength but guarding the awful secret that at this stage the USSR possessed only a handful of H-bombs and practically no means of delivering them.

This strategy could only work if the secret of Soviet nuclear weakness could be kept. But in 1956 the first U-2 flights began over Soviet territory. At once the Americans became aware that the Soviet bomber capacity was far weaker than that of the United States, and by 1959 the air surveillance established that there was no missile gap either. During the Eisenhower presidency, the true total of Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles in operational deployment did not exceed four.

There ensued the most absurd of all Cold War situations – brilliantly related in this book. Khrushchev was instantly aware that the Americans had penetrated both his air space and his secret. Yet he continued to boast about the power of his nuclear strike force, and gained huge prestige in late 1956 by threatening Britain and France with missile attack if they did not call off the Suez operation. And the Americans did not betray Khrushchev’s deception. Even Gaddis cannot quite explain why Eisenhower never called his bluff in public, but he never did. The result was that Khrushchev’s allies – the Chinese, the East German regime, above all Castro in Cuba – continued to believe blindly in the overwhelming military strength of the Soviet Union, and to treat the ‘imperialist camp’ with reckless contempt in the belief that their protection by Soviet nuclear weapons was unchallengeable. Only Khrushchev and the American Administration knew better – and of course each knew that the other knew. It was almost comic, but in 1962 Fidel Castro’s illusions about the balance of nuclear strength nearly destroyed the world.

Incredibly, Castro could have known better. In late 1961, Khrushchev’s boasts about his missile strength, his untruthful bragging about a new 100-megaton Soviet bomb and his preparations to detonate a 50-mega-ton weapon in the Novaya Zemlya testing ground induced the Kennedy Administration to let the secret out. Roswell Gilpatric, the Secretary for Defence, stated in October 1961 that no missile gap existed and that American nuclear strike capacity was far greater than that of the USSR.

But nobody except those already in the know realised what was being said. The Kremlin, stung in its most tender crevice, reacted furiously. Castro, in contrast, never picked up Gilpatric’s message. The Soviet bluff had been called, but few were listening – and by then a new sort of assessment was growing fashionable in the West. Comparing missile and warhead totals, Robert McNamara warned, was no longer useful; the point was that overwhelming slaughter and destruction would be caused if only a tiny fraction of an enemy’s missiles got through.

How do you use a weapon which can neither be fired against an enemy nor abandoned? How do you gauge the strength of an adversary when the term ‘parity’ means that the impact of one of his missiles is as devastating as the impact of a hundred of yours? What has become of traditional military thinking when the most dangerous and aggressive act is to devise an effective means of defence? Wisely, Gaddis is less interested in the old theologies of nuclear deterrence than in what human beings thought they were doing when handling a Cold War crisis. Nuclear weapons, he observes, ‘required statesmen to become actors: success or failure depended ... not on what one was really doing but on what one appeared to be doing’.

This is true as far as it goes, but success (i.e. avoiding the incineration of continents) also depended on the right balance between pretence and reality. The Cuba crisis, above all on the Soviet side, suffered from acting so incompetent and erratic that at times the actors themselves lost touch with the realities they were trying to conceal.

Like millions of my generation, I have a very specific memory of a particular day in October 1962, of watching the light begin to fade, staring at the hands of the clock, listening to the radio bulletins, looking at the face of a sleeping child. It was in some ways less dangerous than we thought then, but in other ways more.

Kennedy, far from winning an implacable game of chicken which drove Khrushchev to swerve aside at the very lip of the abyss, sought compromise after compromise until one dead-secret package – you take the rockets out of Cuba, we take the rockets out of Turkey, we engage not to invade Cuba – finally proved acceptable to Khrushchev. On the Soviet-Cuban side, the Soviet force landed on the island was much bigger than the West realised at the time, up to ten times as numerous as Washington’s estimate. But there was great confusion about ends and means. Castro, who still had not realised that Khrushchev was lying about Soviet nuclear strength, saw no need for compromise and was baffled by the Soviet leader’s readiness to settle with the Americans and take the missiles back home. Reasonably, he wanted the presence of the Soviet missiles made public. How could they deter an American attack if the Americans did not know about them? Khrushchev thought otherwise, leaving the Kennedy Administration to discover the missiles by U-2.

Worst of all was the presence not only of the strategic missiles but of Soviet tactical nuclear weapons as well – worst, because nobody else but Castro knew they were there. They were intended to protect the beaches against invasion until the Baltic Fleet arrived. This created a situation of fearful danger. Had a US force landed, it would probably have been incinerated by weapons of whose presence the Americans had not an inkling. Kennedy’s response in kind might have set off an escalation into total thermonuclear war.

Who won? It used to seem obvious that Kennedy had won, forcing Khrushchev into humiliating withdrawal. Gaddis assembles the new evidence, and concludes that the United States settled the crisis at the cost of such concessions that it makes more sense to talk of a deal rather than a victory. Khrushchev and his military men were certainly humiliated in public, although they pretended not to be. But America’s pledge not to invade Cuba endured, and Castro is still in charge in 1997. The Jupiter missiles were pulled out of Turkey. And the Soviet Union itself survived for another thirty years – arguably, because of Cuba.

Here begins one of Gaddis’s most interesting arguments. By the Fifties, he maintains, the Soviet system was entering a steep and potentially fatal decline. Borrowing Leninist terminology, he asserts that during the Fifties ‘the internal contradictions within Khrushchev’s ideology exceeded those of the one he had sought to overthrow. It became clear for the first time that the Soviet Union and its allies could maintain authoritarian leadership ... only by means that ensured economic obsolescence.’ The empire was dying – except that it did not die but maintained itself as a global superpower for another generation. How?

For Gaddis, the answer is in large measure the confrontation of 1962. After the Cuban drama, the West ceased to harry the Soviet Union on its weakest surfaces – the economy, the decay of ideology, the suppression of human freedom and creativity – and concentrated almost to exclusion on the USSR as a military power; in otherwords, on the one area where the Soviet Union was genuinely strong, for Cuba was followed by a rapid and very real build-up of Soviet nuclear strength and missile technology. Gaddis observes that military credibility now became the only Cold War criterion. After Cuba came the main arms race and the accompanying ‘long peace’, during which the two main adversaries laid down the rules for managing their confrontation in the form of the sequence of treaties – Test Ban, Non-Proliferation and so on – which was still being added to when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Is this a fair judgment? Gaddis is right to point out that military pressure had nothing to do with the ultimate fate of the USSR, which fell with all its terrifying weaponry intact. But it would be much too sweeping to say that the West ceased to exploit the economic, social and political weaknesses of the Soviet Union and its satellites. President Carter’s campaign for human rights, the effective way the Helsinki process in the Seventies and Eighties targeted individual and collective liberties, the deadly export of inflation into the Communist systems after the 1973 oil price rises, the Reagan Administration’s investment in the sort of arms race which would burst the heart of the Soviet industrial economy and create intolerable consumer shortages: all these episodes, admittedly, belong to a period beyond the scope of this book, but they happened, and the problem for Gaddis’s argument is that none of them, singly or collectively, cultural or social, killed the Soviet system any more than military competition did. They hurt the great beast in many ways, but the disease which brought it down in 1991 was endogenous. The West only won the Cold War by default. One dueller unexpectedly laid down his pistol, went home and died.

At the end, Gaddis draws some conclusions. Rather to my disappointment, he does not take up the melodramatic challenge issued to Cold War historians by Immanuel Wallerstein as early as 1990. Wallerstein declared that it was nonsense to describe the Cold War system as bipolar. The image of a dualistic system, of a global balance between two superpowers, was a sham: in reality this had been the period when the United States ruled the world alone, without any effective rival. The Soviet Union, inflated by the Americans to fulfil their need for an apparently mighty adversary, amounted to no more than an impotent, ineffectual local dictatorship which offered no threat to anyone after about 1946. When this pantomime horse fell apart in 1991, the global power monopoly of the United States also disintegrated and was replaced by the multipolar chaos of the ‘New World Disorder’.

Wallerstein’s thesis, which I have paraphrased in rather lurid terms, is much too dazzling and sweeping to be true but also much too clever to forget. Gaddis does not mention it, but his book does portray the Soviet Union as so decrepit by about 1960, and so violently unpopular wherever people were free to express opinions, that it almost requires a Wallersteinian conspiracy theory to explain why the West was afraid of it. My own experiences in that vanished tract which was Communist Europe do not quite bear out the views of either historian. There was nothing illusory about those tanks, or about the massive confidence of many Soviet citizens in the superiority of their system. Well into the Seventies, many Europeans continued to respect the low-level stability and security of Soviet life, even though they found the political dictatorship stifling. The economy malfunctioned for decades but in a rather predictable pattern – shortages, harvest failures, gigantic industrial and transport bottlenecks – which did not seem cumulative. Real economic breakdown did not begin until the Eighties, although Gaddis is entirely correct to say that the successive Soviet failures of nerve over economic reform which began in the Fifties made that breakdown inevitable.

Ideology is back in fashion among historians. While the Cold War lasted, the convention among Western politicians and journalists was to harp on about the decay of ideology in the other camp: Communist leaders were depicted as ambitious pragmatists who had long ago buried Leninism and dreaded authentic revolution. They still used the old language and referred to dialectical materialism and iron laws of history, but it was bad form to suggest that they might believe what they were saying.

Now the pressures supporting this nervous, reductionist view are off. Some ruling Party figures were certainly cynical scoundrels, whose real guru was Al Capone rather than Karl Marx. Others, however, remained true believers – a condition which came to be much more common on the reforming, ‘revisionist’ wings of these parties than among the hard-line conservatives usually in charge of a Politburo. One of Gaddis’s most engaging achievements here is his discovery that ideology did matter enormously, especially in the 1945-62 period covered by this book. ‘The new sources suggest the need to reconsider, for they seem to suggest that ideology often determined the behaviour of Marxist-Leninist regimes: it was not simply a justification for actions already decided upon.’

Even Stalin was so preoccupied by Lenin’s prophecy of war between capitalist states that he was slow to recognise the coalition of capitalist states building up not against one another but against the Soviet Union. Stalin was so touched and thrilled by Mao’s victory over Chiang in 1949 that he lost much of his usual caution and egged on Mao and Kim to take shocking risks with the Americans. Khrushchev let his heart rule his head over Fidel Castro’s revolution, in much the same spirit. Gaddis finds that the only halfway sane explanation for the deployment of missiles in Cuba was the older man’s passionate ideological commitment to a young leader who gave him hope that the Bolshevik spirit of 1917 was still alive in the world. And only ideology – the irrational faith in the primacy of the Soviet experience – explains why Mao Zedong subordinated national to doctrinal interests for so long and, up to 1960, remained docile and respectful to his Soviet manipulators.

If Gaddis were pressed to give one single reason, above all others, for the failure of Communism in the fifty-year confrontation after 1945, I think he would say: ‘authoritarian romanticism’. Stalin used to be counter-posed to Hitler, the cunning and flexible realist contrasted to the fanatic who twisted and selected reality to fit his ideology. Now, after the opening of some of the Soviet archives, it turns out that Stalin was not so different after all. The shrewd, pipe-smoking cynic whose cast of mind seemed at least accessible to a Western statesman like Churchill was in fact living in a very remote mental world, akin to that of an extreme Christian sectary who acknowledges facts only when they can be accommodated to the demands of prophecy.

Gaddis credits the Americans, and perhaps the West collectively, with the quality of ‘democratic realism’. They got things right more often; the impersonal free market in understanding worked better than the command system which demanded a correctness certificate from evidence before it was admitted. And yet this huge superiority was not decisive in the Cold War. The vices of one system, rather than the virtues of the other, determined the outcome. As Gaddis reflects in the closing paragraph, ‘it may be that the West prevailed during the Cold War not so much because of the success of its institutions or the wisdom of its leaders ... as because that conflict just happened to take place at the moment in history when the conditions that had for thousands of years favoured authoritarianism suddenly ceased to do so.’

The humility of that is timely. And for guiding the West’s approach to modern Russia, child of that vast change in the world’s political ecology, there could be no more useful slice of wisdom.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences