John Lewis Gaddis has written a provocative update of a familiar view of Cold War history. Virtues of his earlier work reappear here: a keen ability to structure materials and stories, an impressive volume of primary and secondary sources that support but do not intrude on his account, a sharp analytical eye for the calculations of leaders, a richly detailed narrative, a competent if rarely soaring prose style. This is high-quality scholarship. What separates it from his earlier work is his use in English translation of the “substantial inundation” (p. vii) of sources from the “‘other side’” (p. vii) that has emerged in the 1990s.
What “We Now Know,” Gaddis suggests, is what defenders of American policy have claimed since the Cold War began: the Soviets, in particular Stalin, caused it. “Would there have been a Cold War without Stalin? Perhaps. Nobody in history is indispensable.” But after 1945 Stalin’s “characteristics” were unique. “He alone pursued personal security by depriving everyone else of it. . . . He alone had transformed his country into an extension of himself. . . . He alone saw war and revolution as acceptable means with which to pursue ultimate ends” (p. 25). At least at the Cold War’s start, the United States erred only through excessive caution, not undue provocation. Echoing Republican charges against Democratic presidents, Gaddis wonders “what would have happened had the West tried containment earlier. To the extent that it bears partial responsibility for the coming of the Cold War, the historian Vojtech Mastny has argued, that responsibility lies in its failure to do just that” (p. 31). Gaddis appears to make Mastny’s claim his own.
To be sure, this familiar view of the Cold War is given fresh, complex treatment. Stalin, whose monstrousness Gaddis details and emphasizes, is no cardboard figure. For example, Gaddis finds evidence that Stalin authorized Kim Il-sung to attack the South in 1950. But Stalin did so because he was playing and trapped in a complicated game of challenges and weaknesses carried on also by Kim and Mao Zedong—some of the juiciest material here [End Page 531] details the personal meetings and negotiations involving these three grasping rulers. Stalin was also cautious about the Soviet role in the Korean War—clever at having North Koreans and Chinese (and United Nations forces) bear its brunt, careful not to provoke the Truman administration too much, as attuned as Harry Truman and his advisers to the benefits and perils of controlled escalation and limited conflict. No mere ruthless calculator of risk, however, Stalin, like Mao and Nikita Khrushchev, also fell prey to “ideological romanticism” (p. 291), which often led aging rulers to fawn over and misjudge younger revolutionary upstarts like Fidel Castro.
Indeed, saying that Stalin caused the Cold War does not keep Gaddis from finding caution, foolishness, and wisdom on both sides. In a typically balanced judgment, this one on American success in overthrowing Guatemala’s Arbenz regime in 1954, he concludes: “The CIA’s intervention was a massive overreaction to a minor irritant” (p. 178). Likewise, he describes an “ambitiously ill-conceived campaign” by American leaders in the early 1960s “somehow to ‘immunize’ the modernization process in Asia, Africa, and Latin America against the possibility that Marxism-Leninism might infect it” (p. 189). Exploring the scale and dangers of the nuclear arms race, he finds Khrushchev more impetuous and less wise than President Dwight Eisenhower, but sees both acquiring hard-won wisdom in the face of technological revolution. In that evenhanded vein, Gaddis offers a fascinating final chapter on the Cuban missile crisis, amid which Khrushchev instructed a trigger-happy Castro, “we are not struggling against imperialism in order to die” (p. 277). Gaddis is also convincing about how the tail often wagged the dog in the Cold War, as when West Germany’s Konrad Adenauer and East Germany’s Walter Ulbricht guided or manipulated Washington and Moscow.
In fact, various attractive and malign qualities are doled out evenly enough to both sides as to move the reader away...