Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Cold War: A New History, by John Lewis Gaddis

Finished reading The Cold War: A New History by John Lewis Gaddis (Penguin Books, 2005).

As Gaddis notes, the students he now teaches at Yale were only five years old when the Berlin Wall came down. "Stalin and Truman, Reagan and Gorbachev, could as easily have been Napoleon or Caesar or Alexander the Great." I could relate in part as, being rather young myself, the significance of December 22, 1989 and other momentous events in that era failed to register. One of the best Cold-War memories I took from childhood was the incredible experience of watching a collective of high-schoolers fend off the Russian invasion of America in Red Dawn (1984) (a nostalgic cinematic pleasure which, incidentally, should never have re-made).

At any rate, it was with the intent of repairing my personal ignorance of those decades that I set out to acquire greater knowledge, and Gaddis being "the dean of Cold War historians" seemed a good place to start as any.

Gaddis' work is populated with some great insights -- for example how the Russian's anticipation of victory upon signing the Helsinki Accords (resolving postward boundaries) turned into dismay with the recognition that their signatures also committed them (if on paper) to certain standards of human rights:

Helsinki became, in short, a legal and moral trap. Having pressed the United States and its allies to commit themselves in writing to recognizing existing boundaries in Eastern Europe, Brezhnev could hardly repudiate what he had agreed to in the same document - also in writing - with respect to human rights. Without realizing the implications, he thereby handed his critics a standard, based on the universal principles of justice, rooted in international law, independent of Marxist-Leninist ideology, against which they could evaluate the behavior of his and other communist regimes. What this meant was that the people who lived under these systems -- at least the more courageous -- could claim official permission to say what they thought.

Or of the seldom-recognized role Ronald Reagan played to ending the arms race:

"[Reagan] was the only nuclear abolitionist ever to have been President of the United States. He made no secret of this, but the possibility that a right-wing Republican anti-communist pro-military chief executive could also be an anti-nuclear activist defies so many stereotypes that hardly anyone noticed Reagan's repeated promises, as he put it in the "evil empire" speech, "to keep America strong and free, while we negotiate real and verifiable reductions in the world's nuclear arsenals and one day, with God's help, their total elimination."

Or how the collapse of the Berlin Wall was instigated in part by a botched press conference:

After returning from Moscow [Egon] Krenze consulted his colleagues, and on November 9th they decided to try and relieve the mounting tension in East Germany by relaxing -- NOT eliminating -- the rules restricting travel to the West. The hastily drafted decree was handed to Gunger Schabowski, a Politburo member who had not been at the meeting but was about to brief the press. Schabowski glanced at it, also hastily , and then announced that citizens of the G.D.R. were free to leave "through any of the border crossings." The surprised reporters asked when the new ruling went into effect. Shuffling through his papers, Schabowski replied: "[A]ccording ot my new information, immediately." Were the rules valid for travel to West Berlin? Schabowski frowned, shrugged his shoulders, shuffled some more papers, and then replied: "Permanent exist can take place via all border crossings from the G.D.R. to [West Germany] and West Berlin, respectively. The next question was: "What is going to happen to the Berlin Wall now?" Schabowski mumbled an incoherent response, and closed the press conference. Within minutes, the word went out that the wall was open.

The final chapter, with the implosion of the Communist Empire under the weight of its own rule, the grudging recognition of its leaders of the hypocrisy and futility of the socialist dream in the face of one citizen uprising after another, and the cascading surrender of governments with a helpless shrug of from the party's leadership (Ceasescu complaining to Gorbachev about 'grave danger not just to socialism . . . but also the very existence of communist parties everywhere." Gorbachev: "You seem concerned about this.") makes for a thrilling and fast-paced conclusion after the plodding detente of the Nixon and Ford administrations.

Gaddis eschews a strictly chronological linear approach to history, highlighting the major events to bolster his personal reflections on why events unfolded. So it's helpful to come to the book with a preliminary knowledge of the timeline, and be attentive to Gaddis' jumping around.

He also indulges in some unique creative license, which took me by surprise: beginning chapter 2 with a straightforward account of the nuking of Korea . . . revealing in subsequent pages his indulgence in speculation of what MIGHT have happened had MacArthur actually gone forward with the President's promise to "employ every weapon we have" [including the atomic bomb] at a 1950 Presidential press conference. Which is entertaining perhaps, but not what I expected from a historian.

Still, with the voluminous amount of writing on the subject I wanted a concise, readable introduction to the subject which I could digest on my commute to work, and Gaddis delivers. (I am, as always, open to the additional recommendations from my readers).

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