Cold War, Politics; Continents: Asia, North America

The Cold War; A New History by John Lewis Gaddis

  • A densely packed book spanning the end of World War II through Bush and Gorbachev meeting at Malta
  • 333 pages (266 pages to complete the epilogue)

The night I stayed over at my grandma’s house so Mom and Dad could see Red Dawn (1984) in the theater, I eventually dropped off to sleep thinking that if the Russians blew up Pittsburgh with their nuclear missiles that it wouldn’t really hurt because it would be over too fast. I was twelve.

Twelve-year-old me would have been astonished by the suggestion that adult-me wouldn’t be worried about nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The Cold War stalemate of Mutually Assured Destruction seemed to have no end in sight some thirty years ago. So how did it end? How did the political landscape change so much that my own kid doesn’t have nightmares about nuclear destruction? How did we even get into the Cold War in the first place?

Big Picture, Smallish Book

Author John Lewis Gaddis distills about half a century of world history pertaining to the subject into a touch over 260 pages (in paperback). In fact, more history than I would have guessed had Cold War superpower motives behind it, and Gaddis does a wonderfully succinct job of tying events together. As a price for succinctness, however, this book assumes at least a nodding familiarity with certain events and names in world history. Consequently, it’s probably not the book to drop into your teenager’s lap as light summer reading. If you were stuck listening to the evening news when you were a kid, and a little bit of what you heard then still sounds familiar, then this book has just enough detail about the salient events to make sense of what you heard back then. The other point about this book’s information density is that it may not be ideal for the commute or the last ten minutes of the day before bed. Once you can sit quietly with it for a bit, you’ll get into it pretty comfortably. Gaddis’ writing style is very accessible: he just has a lot to say and doesn’t want to give it to you in 500 pages (thank you, sir).

Point of View

My favorite aspect of this book is that Gaddis does a wonderful job of filling in details that I didn’t get from American-perspective history or news coverage of the day. For example, he describes the human cost for Russia in WWII, and why Stalin didn’t entirely trust the Americans and British, who were nominally his allies. As far as divvying up defeated postwar Germany, Stalin thought he got a pretty raw deal, and Gaddis explains why. But Gaddis is hardly Stalin’s apologist: he just isn’t playing favorites in a bid to give his readers a more complete view of how we got into a Cold War to begin with.

Gaddis also doesn’t use a soft filter on his picture of Mikhail Gorbachev, which would have been easy to do if he had drawn only from Western resources. Gorby was well-liked by the Western press: warm and well-educated, he presented a more accessible, friendly image than his predecessors. However, he was not especially popular with Russians, who were, by and large, just as glad to see Boris Yeltsin step up and take over Russia when the Soviet Union fell apart. There, people regard Gorby as having given away the store to Reagan and turned whatever they thought they knew about the economy or national security inside out. Gaddis is careful not to assign him the kind of rock-star status he enjoyed among Western journalists of the 1980s.

Overall, Gaddis’ The Cold War has filled in some important gaps for me, making some events dimly remembered more clear. It is not a textbook, but the author’s voice does have a very omniscient, distant third-party timbre. The history in these pages doesn’t cover the USSR more extensively than the USA, but I feel like I absorbed more new information about Soviet leadership than about their American counterparts. Gaddis also places other leaders, like Pope John Paul II and Lech Walesa, into the context of the larger Cold War story.

Taking a solid look at the Cold War also gives me a better sense of Vladimir Putin than I get from the evening news, even though Gaddis doesn’t particularly discuss him. Rather, Gaddis makes sure we understand which sort of Russian leaders could sustain some popularity. Putin fits the mold of bold, unapologetic leaders: Russians don’t need or want someone likeable to be in charge. If Russians really did feel like Gorbachev allowed the wheels to fall off the chariot, leaving them stranded and less relevant, then the recent hacked U.S. Democratic Party email story makes sense not so much because they hoped to gain any actionable intelligence as just to prove they could do it. After all, what is more relevant (and cost-effective compared to nukes) in this century than cyber attack? Gaddis’ book gives me a different lens through which to assess modern Russia and U.S. foreign policy.

Image: Me with Gorby’s wax likeness at Madam Tussaud’s of New York. Source: John Jancarik, 2016. All rights reserved.

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