Review of The Cold War: A New History

While I normally avoid mass-market history books, as it’d been assigned to one of the IB classes I was assigned to teach the year before I read The Cold War: A New History by John Lewis Gaddis. What can I say about it that wasn’t already written in this eight pageNew York Review of Books article that gives it the proper criticism that it deserves? Not much, really. As Tony Judt notes, it’s aligned with the type of liberal triumphalism that Francis Fukuyama and others used to crow about prior to the numerous crises which liberal capitalist societies have experienced since 2008. It’s not just that the subsequent crises make the tone of capitalist banner-waving seem quaint but that the tone and outlines of historical development is idealistic to a fault, disturbingly uneven in it’s treatment of events and naïve.

How so naïve? Well, for one there are now a number of research articles (1, 2, 3) that attest to the fact that it was only a result of the Soviet state’s existence that workers in the West were able to obtain the gains that they did and that as soon as Socialism/Communism was no longer an ideological threat the attacks against workers rights and wages were accelerated. Additionally element of naivety is the fact that a number of major social repressions that occurred in the U.S.A. and other countries for ideological purposes is not, seemingly, worthy of mention. The numerous domestic Red Scares with the help of the FBI and the liquidations of Communist Party members abroad that were accomplished with the help of the CIA do not even get a footnote in Gaddis’ book. While the overthrow of Guatemala, Iran and Chile are mentioned the first two are glossed over as excesses excused by zealousness to protect those regions from Soviet influence while the last one is justified.

Additionally naïve is the manner in which, as Judt points out, Gaddis depicts the manner with which power operates in the United States. On page 168 he states, “The idea that their leaders might lie was new to the American people.” as if prior to the Cold War was a halcyon age wherein American politicians always kept their word. Not only that Gaddis frames such a claim such that it was the fault of the Soviets to cause such dissimulation. If only those people over there weren’t so evil and untrustworthy, he seems to state, then American politicians would never stoop to such behavior.

The lack of political economy in explaining material conditions of the combatant nations is also disturbing. It’s absence means that instead of macroeconomic issues creating social pressures and changes it is simply the whims of major actors that determined the direction and pace of historical development. The Soviet Union’s demise is due to moral failings of godless Communists rather than other historical, secular circumstances. This is not to say that Gaddis ignores political economy completely – but he does not do so in a way that is genuinely comparative. What this means is that while he will mention the large number of Russians killed fighting the Nazi’s during World War Two, the effects of this and the destruction of a large number of factories in Nazi Occupied countries that would soon fall under the influence of Stalin have almost no effect on the country’s ability to manufacture goods for the international marketplace. Because of this and a number of other omissions the criticism he makes – that the Soviet’s simply produced poor quality goods – lose some of the bite. While such a criticism is deserving – it is unfortunately lacking a full depiction in a political-economy constellation and thus the moralistic imprecations that follow which laud liberal capitalism.

In the end Gaddis’s view of the Cold War does not include the perspective of any people of any country affected by police or military conflict with the exception of those regions that sought to rebuff encroaching or existent Soviet influence. It is thus the perfect book for Americans looking to legitimize the notion that they won a moralistic war and that they can kick up their feet knowing that America is the epitome of ethical goodness.