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.
I hoped also that Western societies and elites would take a look at their own past records, acknowledge the many terrible and unnecessary crimes committed by Western countries, and the frequent use of the rhetoric of fighting Communism to justify oppressive agendas. I hoped for this above all so that such crimes would not be committed in future. What a fool I was.
Gaddis himself is a pure product of the Cold War establishment, in which the lines between academics, bureaucrats and propagandists were blurred. He is both shaped and shaper, however, and his book will no doubt be a primer for a generation of American students, who will faithfully replicate its bland certainties and its monstrous omissions.
Gaddis is guilty of three main omissions, none of them fortuitous and all linked by a conscious or unconscious desire to exculpate his own side. He skates over its crimes; he is astonishingly indifferent to the experience of the Third World during the Cold War; and he doesn’t examine the continuing consequences for the world and for US behaviour. For him, the Cold War had a happy ending: the universal acceptance of capitalism, the ‘discrediting of dictatorships’ and the ‘globalisation of democratisation’ under benevolent American leadership. The actual nature of most of these new democracies, and the real experience of people living in them, is of no more interest to Gaddis than the nature of African socialism was to Soviet ideologues.
As a result, Gaddis barely touches on Central America, dealing with US actions there only as a legitimate response to Soviet expansionism. He makes no mention of El Salvador. The US-sponsored coup of 1954 in Guatemala is described as a mistake, but he doesn’t discuss the horrendous consequences for the indigenous people of the country of the civil wars which followed. Africa barely features. Soviet adventurism is again criticised (and rightly) but there is nothing about US support for odious and disastrous regimes like that of Mobutu in Zaire. Gaddis does admit that the US was forced to adopt some unpleasant tactics, but this is treated as a forced falling away from a state of noble innocence – as if the Latin American interventions had no precedent in US history.
Gaddis, who is an unofficial adviser to George W. Bush, explicitly refuses to examine the Cold War roots of contemporary problems – even when they are glaringly obvious. The overthrow in 1953 of the secular nationalist prime minister of Iran, Muhammad Mossadeq, is criticised – but there is no discussion of how its disastrous consequences continue.
Perhaps most depressing of all is that Gaddis assumes his US audience will barely know the views even of leading American commentators – and he is probably right. Thus he praises George Kennan as the intellectual architect of the ‘containment’ strategy – but other than a brief reference to Kennan’s alarm at the growth of covert operations, Gaddis fails to note his profound disillusionment with the militarisation of that strategy, the growth of anti-Communist hysteria in the US, and above all the messianic character of American nationalism.
Gaddis brings out the fact that, for all Eisenhower’s aw shucks manner, he was a far more profound strategic thinker than is generally realised; but he says nothing about Eisenhower’s concern over the deterioration in the US system brought about by the Cold War, and doesn’t cite his most famous phrase. It is in no small degree thanks to Gaddis and his like that so many American students, when asked who first warned against the ‘military industrial complex’ reply along the lines of ‘wasn’t it some Communist?’ And in part because of the refusal of such historians as Gaddis seriously to examine America’s own recent history, their country risks repeating old mistakes and crimes in new and more dangerous ways.
A vastly better account of the Cold War – which will doubtless attract vastly fewer readers – is Odd Arne Westad’s study of the struggle as it affected the Third World, The Global Cold War. In sharp contrast to Gaddis, Westad’s work combines sophisticated analysis, insight into the motivations and behaviour of non-Western actors, historical perspective, fair-mindedness and a sympathy for the victims on all sides. Westad’s pioneering work in Soviet archives means that his book illuminates better than any other work I have read in English the thinking and motivations of the Soviet leadership and its advisers when it came to the Third World.
Above all, Westad brings out the resemblances between US and Soviet approaches to the Third World. Their economic and social policies may have been very different, but both sides shared a belief in universal models of progress. Both were obsessed with technology, and with ‘scientific’ solutions to social, economic, political and cultural problems. As Westad makes clear, the Soviet leadership under Brezhnev pursued conservative and defensive strategies against the US in Europe, but remained committed to helping socialist revolutions elsewhere, as a matter not only of anti-US strategy, but of ideological conviction.
Their ideological fervour meant that both countries all too often failed to do any serious research into the nature of the societies that they were trying to change and dominate. As the Soviet commentator Dmitry Volsky remarked in 1988, ‘It happened more than once that some African or Asian state turned out to be completely different from the way many of our press organs depicted it.’ This is a lesson that the US, too, has been taught again and again, yet appears incapable of assimilating.
One important aspect of Westad’s book is the complex connection he makes between the US and Soviet modernising projects and racism. While both regimes insisted on their right to dictate values and solutions to the benighted peoples of the Third World, both also claimed that those peoples were capable of adopting them, doing so rapidly, and thereby joining the ‘socialist community’ or the ‘free world’. But because, in classic missionary style, both sides saw their truths as self-evident, their programmes as beneficial, and their own benevolence as beyond question, they often had no rational explanation to offer when their projects failed and their clients turned against them. In these cases, there was often an astonishingly rapid swing towards racist explanations. Currently, the neo-cons in America alternate between arguing that all Arab societies are capable of making rapid progress towards democracy (and that anyone who denies this is racist) and asserting that ‘Arabs understand only force.’
As Westad shows, the Soviet Union in the 1950s was extraordinarily generous in the aid it gave to Communist China, especially since the USSR was still recovering from the war. When the Chinese leadership nonetheless rejected Moscow’s lead in international and domestic policy, the Soviet leadership was left with no better explanation than that the Chinese were irrational, treacherous and hate-filled ‘Orientals’.
Similarly, in the 1990s, American promoters of the liberal capitalist revolution in Russia denounced as chauvinistic anyone who pointed to history and culture as reasons this was unlikely to work, at least in the short to medium term. Today, many of these former boosters describe Russians in quasi-racist terms as congenitally subservient and imperialist.
Westad fills in the gaps in Gaddis’s account. Where Gaddis sees the fall of Communism overwhelmingly in terms of the personal roles of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and the triumph of American democracy and capitalism, Westad points out that for a decade before the Soviet Union collapsed, the decision of the Chinese Communists to abandon socialist economics and move to a form of capitalism had been pushing other Communist elites to follow suit. Gaddis can’t draw attention to this, for to do so would imply recognition of three uncomfortable facts: the form of capitalism adopted by China is very different from that of the US; so far China has rejected American ‘democracy’ and successfully combined capitalism with an authoritarian nationalist (and redistributive) political order; and China has not become an obedient satellite of the US, something which is still widely assumed in Washington to be the ‘normal’ course for capitalist states.
Westad shows that Gorbachev’s decision in the mid-1980s radically to reduce and reshape Soviet involvement in the Third World was the result not only of growing weakness. It came after the Soviet leadership had recognised that weakness, but remained confident of their ability to compete with the US in key areas. Also critical to Gorbachev’s decision was the widespread disappointment in the record of Soviet-backed revolutions and client states in the Third World. For several years, Soviet analysts and journalists had been drawing attention to the gap between Soviet rhetoric and the miserable reality of the ‘peace-loving’, ‘socialist’ regimes in Addis Ababa, Luanda and elsewhere, and their gross misuse of Soviet aid. Today, an equally glaring gap exists between US rhetoric and the reality of the ‘democratic’ regimes in Baghdad, Kabul and elsewhere.
In 1987, the Soviet scholar Rachik Avakov wrote that ‘it has become practically a ritual to substitute such sacramental phrases as “they have encountered difficulties,” “they have to overcome the resistance of the internal reaction and the consequences of colonialism”’ and so forth, ‘for real analysis of crises and other negative processes occurring in the countries of socialist orientation’. Today, ‘freedom-loving American-backed’ governments are said to be encountering ‘challenges on the path to democracy’ and having to overcome the resistance of terrorists and other ‘enemies of freedom’.
Furthermore, as Westad points out, while capitalism in general has proved a vastly superior economic model to communism, the radical formulas of the ‘Washington Consensus’, preached and even imposed by the US in its moment of triumph, have proved unusable and even disastrous for most countries of the Third World – including Russia itself in the years after the Soviet collapse.
Gorbachev recognised the realities of Soviet weakness, and of the state’s failure to propagate its model. In 1988, he proposed to Reagan that the US and the Soviet Union sign a joint commitment not to intervene in the affairs of third countries, and not to resolve disputes by force. Reagan refused. As Westad remarks, Gorbachev had failed to see that ‘no American president could sign such an agreement without a basic re-evaluation of his country’s whole approach to the Third World, and that – unlike himself – neither Reagan nor Bush had any intention of fundamentally changing their approach.’
Eighteen years later, America may be following in Soviet footsteps in terms of its lack of ability to impose its will and its model on much of the rest of the world. The US is clearly too weak to maintain the role of global hegemony that it has assumed. Its elites refuse to pay taxes, crippling the fiscal basis of the empire; domestic political stability, and domestic support for the hegemonic project, are sustained by a consumer boom paid for by China; US client states are crumbling; American ground forces are too weak to hold down rebellious populations in those states; and strengthening their forces through conscription would lead to a domestic revolt against the costs of empire, and bring the empire itself to an early end.