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  • Winning the World: Lessons for America’s Future from the Cold War
  • Derek Leebaert
Thomas M. Nichols , Winning the World: Lessons for America’s Future from the Cold War. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002.

Unlike all that went before, U.S. supremacy during the second half of the twentieth century was not a cumulative imperial darkening of the sun. It instead was the recognition by Europeans, Japanese, and other allies of the plain facts of international life. Britain's global role in the nineteenth century had been consciously established, whereas U.S. political, military, and industrial preeminence arose rather haphazardly. The U.S. position derived more from economic prowess, technology breakthroughs, and Hollywood's depiction of the American dream than from any expansionist yearnings in Washington. The optimistic, high-energy democracy found itself having to settle a problem, not build itself a monument.

What the United States undertook after the Second World War had at the outset neither a name nor a frame of reference. In retrospect, we may call it the preservation of a liberal world order—a loose term for constitutionalism, resistance to aggression, and cooperation as much as possible rather than coercion. Thereafter, however, the United States too often shamefully indulged dictatorships (think of Iraq), the recurring blunders of analysis by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the aborted CIA operations hidden behind codeword clearances, and the boondoggles of businessmen and professors abetted by tax dollars from grocers and stevedores. Too often the individuals who lined up against the threat from 1946 to 1991—not only mischief makers such as Senator Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover but all those enthusiasts who delighted in emergency and presumed to fine-tune the world—were unfortunate companions in a great cause.

To be faced with real danger by totalitarian forces in parallel with several concurrent technological revolutions decade after decade inevitably made crisis a way of life. Increasingly, quotidian activities were intruded on by politics, from which Americans have historically sought to keep their distance as a necessary condition of well-being. Yes, the Cold War was a struggle for hearts and minds—in the end, a struggle for sincere belief and the willingness that flows from it. But it nurtured an acute awareness and suspicion of decisions too often rationalized by "national security." Among the public, the Cold War years fostered not only resentment toward often-hypocritical allies [End Page 136] but also ambivalence toward Washington, no matter what the party or administration in power—as we see in polls and voter turnout.

The Cold War and the strange interregnum from 1991 to 2001 have brought us to the latest point of conflict, new years of "neither war nor peace"—a period that is certainly less dangerous than the era in which behemoth SS-18 missiles were targeted on New York and Los Angeles, but one that is nonetheless full of conflict likely to drag on interminably. Global trends of increasingly harsh economic inequalities mean it is unlikely we can return to that relatively tranquil ten-year interlude.

To offer "lessons for America's future from the Cold War"—in fact, insights about policy and the public's well-being drawn from the greatest drama of our age—is therefore an immense service. This is particularly true when coming from a serious student of Russia, Thomas Nichols, who wrote Winning the World from the vantage point of the strategy department at the U.S. Naval War College, where he acquainted mid-career officers with episodes such as Korea, Vietnam, détente, and the final showdown of the 1980s that to most Americans have become about as familiar as, say, the events at Delium or Pylos during the 27-year war between Athens and Sparta.. Although Nichols took up a new position at La Salle University in September 2005, one can only hope that he still has the ear of Pentagon officials.

To be sure, the lessons Nichols draws are necessarily selective. Examining the full breadth of the Cold War and its significance for today is not the intention of this tightly written, 250-page book. Nichols instead focuses on what can be learned from indirect warfare and what...