The Cold War: A New History

The Cold War: A New History

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by John Lewis Gaddis

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In 1950, when Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh and Kim Il-Sung met in Moscow to discuss the future, they had reason to feel optimistic. International communism seemed everywhere on the offensive: Stalin was at the height of his power; all of Eastern Europe was securely in the Soviet camp; America's monopoly on nuclear weapons was a thing of the past; and Mao's…  See more details below


In 1950, when Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh and Kim Il-Sung met in Moscow to discuss the future, they had reason to feel optimistic. International communism seemed everywhere on the offensive: Stalin was at the height of his power; all of Eastern Europe was securely in the Soviet camp; America's monopoly on nuclear weapons was a thing of the past; and Mao's forces had assumed control over the world's most populous country. Everywhere on the globe, colonialism left the West morally compromised. The story of the previous five decades, which saw severe economic depression, two world wars, a nearly successful attempt to wipe out the Jews, and the invention of weapons capable of wiping out everyone, was one of worst fears confirmed, and there seemed as of 1950 little sign, at least to the West, that the next fifty years would be any less dark.

In fact, of course, the century's end brought the widespread triumph of political and economic freedom over its ideological enemies. How did this happen? How did fear become hope? In The Cold War, John Lewis Gaddis makes a major contribution to our understanding of this epochal story. Beginning with World War II and ending with the collapse of the Soviet Union, he provides a thrilling account of the strategic dynamics that drove the age, rich with illuminating portraits of its major personalities and much fresh insight into its most crucial events. The first significant distillation of cold war scholarship for a general readership, The Cold War contains much new and often startling information drawn from newly opened Soviet, East European, and Chinese archives. Now, as America once again finds itself in a global confrontation with an implacable ideological enemy, The Cold War tells a story whose lessons it is vitally necessary to understand.

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Editorial Reviews

James Mann
Gaddis's latest book boils down the history of the entire Cold War to a sometimes brilliant 266 pages of text, in trenchant, lucid prose intended not for historians and specialists but for ordinary readers. He has not done much new archival field work to produce this new synthesis, and, at times, he relies heavily on his previous work. Yet to Gaddis's credit, he does not merely rewrite himself or retrace the main events from 1946 to 1991. Instead, he stretches to find new ways … to cover the subject, stepping back and looking at the entire period with distance and perspective.
— The Washington Post
William Grimes
In The Cold War: A New History, he offers a succinct, crisply argued account of the Soviet-American conflict that draws on his previous work and synthesizes the mountain of archival material that began appearing in the 1990's. Energetically written and lucid, it makes an ideal introduction to the subject.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Gregory and Sklar, reading Yale history professor Gaddis's study of the American-Soviet standoff, give voice to their inner television announcer, their twin brands of masculine sonorousness verging on virile parody before settling comfortably on the side of familiar voice-over solidity. Gaddis's work unravels the tangled threads of the Cold War, from the tense Allied conferences at the end of WWII to the Korean War and onward, and his book's readers give it the sensation of every word being carefully cultivated and primped before being spoken. If this leads to some of the immediacy, the heart-in-throat sensation, of the events described being diluted, so be it, for Gregory and Sklar give Gaddis's book the grandeur its subject matter so richly deserves. Sounding more professorial, in the I-play-an-Ivy-League-professor-on-television sort of way, than the good professor himself, Gregory and Sklar do an admirable job of making Gaddis's learned words their own. Simultaneous release with the Penguin Press hardcover (Reviews, Nov. 14). (Jan.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Foreign Affairs
In this beautifully written panoramic view of the Cold War, full of illuminations and shrewd judgments, the distinguished diplomatic historian Gaddis brings the half-century U.S.-Soviet struggle to life for a general audience. Seen in retrospect, the Cold War — from the Truman Doctrine and the Korean War to the Cuban missile crisis, détente, and the fall of the Berlin Wall — appears to lead inexorably to a Western triumph. Gaddis seeks to show otherwise: the contingencies of individuals, ideas, critical decisions, narrow escapes, lost opportunities, and lurking dangers all intervened to give the great contest its character and trajectory. Drawing on his own earlier work and a synthesis of post-Cold War scholarship, Gaddis sees the conflict less as an inherent element in the bipolar postwar world than as a result of Soviet impulses toward domination, driven by ideology and dictatorship. He is best in depicting the ethical and strategic dilemmas that faced American presidents: the Cold War may have been a global struggle, but leaders such as Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon struggled at home to square foreign policy with principles of morality, law, and democratic accountability. Gaddis gives credit for the end of the Cold War to visionaries and "saboteurs of the status quo" such as Pope John Paul II, Lech Walesa, and Deng Xiaoping, as well as Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher. That Gaddis is now able to see this fifty-year conflict in its totality as a positive, progressive, and necessary struggle is a sign of how far into the past the Cold War era has receded.
Library Journal
Yale University historian Gaddis brings a depth of knowledge-six previous books on the subject-and lucidity of language to a sweeping overview of the Cold War, mostly from the end of World War II to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Personalities are among the dominant features here: Mikhail Gorbachev, for example, was "the most deserving recipient ever of the Nobel Peace Prize." This is because Gorbachev did not unleash the might of the Soviet military machine even as the Communist government crumbled around him. In this highly significant way, the Cold War can be considered as much for what did not happen as for what did. Among the other notables due praise, many but not all primarily in the realm of ideas, are Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, George Orwell, and Pope John Paul II. Totalitarian systems flourished in the early postwar stages of the Cold War, but curiously they began to fade. By the time of the Soviet collapse, authoritarian regimes worldwide were losing control. Narrators Jay Gregory and Alan Sklar are lucid, but they sound much the same. There is no doubt that the book is a classic, sure to be heavily used by students of recent history.-Don Wismer, Cary Memorial Lib., Wayne, ME Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Cold War scholar Gaddis fashions a short but comprehensive account of what JFK called our "long twilight struggle."Following the defeat of the Axis powers in WWII, the western democracies faced off against their former ally, the totalitarian Soviet Union, in a global contest to determine the shape of the future. Each side's nuclear arsenal made total war unthinkable, but neither could afford to back down. Gaddis (History/Yale; The Landscape of History, 2002, etc.) condenses this sprawling story for a new generation of readers. He resuscitates such almost-forgotten acronyms as SALT, START, SEATO, NATO and MAD, and he places the wars in Korea and Vietnam within the context of the larger struggle and reminds us how lesser tussles over the Chinese offshore islands Quemoy and Matsu, the African nation of Angola, Cuba's Bay of Pigs and Afghanistan before al-Qaeda also affected superpower relations. He discusses the impact of the Berlin Wall, the Cultural Revolution and the Marshall Plan, as well as the Berlin airlift, the Cuban missile crisis, the downing of Gary Powers's U-2 spy plane, Solidarity's Gdansk shipyard strike and Nixon's trip to China. The Cold War's surprisingly peaceful outcome was by no means assured. The democracies forged many an unseemly compromise, suffering frequent setbacks and not a few outright defeats before prevailing. In the end, however, as Gaddis demonstrates, Marxism, which failed to ensure economic success even as it stifled political and social justice, proved no match for the vision of George Kennan or the stirring rhetoric of Kennedy and Reagan in Berlin, Churchill at Westminster College and John Paul II in Krakow. A superb introduction to a complex period inworld history.
From the Publisher
Outstanding ... The most accessible distillation of that conflict yet written. (The Boston Globe)

Energetically written and lucid, it makes an ideal introduction to the subject. (The New York Times)

A fresh and admirably concise history . . . Gaddis’s mastery of the material, his fluent style and eye for the telling anecdote make his new work a pleasure. (The Economist)

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Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page



















The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941–1947


Russia, the Soviet Union, and the United States: An Interpretive History


Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of
American National Security Policy During the Cold War


The Long Peace: Inquiries into the History of the Cold War


The United States and the End of the Cold War: Implications,
Reconsiderations, Provocations


We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History


The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past


Surprise, Security, and the American Experience

Published by the Penguin Group
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First published in 2005 by The Penguin Press,
a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.


Copyright © John Lewis Gaddis, 2005

All rights reserved


Photograph credits appear on page 315.


Map sources appear on page 316.


Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data


Gaddis, John Lewis.
The Cold War : a new history / John Lewis Gaddis.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.

eISBN : 978-1-440-68450-0

1. Cold War. 2. World politics—1945–1989. I. Title.
D843.G22 2005






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EVERY MONDAY AND WEDNESDAY afternoon each fall semester I lecture to several hundred Yale undergraduates on the subject of Cold War history. As I do this, I have to keep reminding myself that hardly any of them remember any of the events I’m describing. When I talk about Stalin and Truman, even Reagan and Gorbachev, it could as easily be Napoleon, Caesar, or Alexander the Great. Most members of the Class of 2005, for example, were only five years old when the Berlin Wall came down. They know that the Cold War in various ways shaped their lives, because they’ve been told how it affected their families. Some of them—by no means all—understand that if a few decisions had been made differently at a few critical moments during that conflict, they might not even have had a life. But my students sign up for this course with very little sense of how the Cold War started, what it was about, or why it ended in the way that it did. For them it’s history: not all that different from the Peloponnesian War.

And yet, as they learn more about the great rivalry that dominated the last half of the last century, most of my students are fascinated, many are appalled, and a few—usually after the lecture on the Cuban missile crisis—leave class trembling. “Yikes!” they exclaim (I sanitize somewhat). “We had no idea that we came that close!” And then they invariably add: “Awesome!” For this first post–Cold War generation, then, the Cold War is at once distant and dangerous. What could anyone ever have had to fear, they wonder, from a state that turned out to be as weak, as bumbling, and as temporary as the Soviet Union? But they also ask themselves and me: how did we ever make it out of the Cold War alive?

I’ve written this book to try to answer these questions, but also to respond—at a much less cosmic level—to another my students regularly pose. It has not escaped their attention that I’ve written several earlier books on Cold War history; indeed, I regularly assign them one that takes almost 300 pages just to get up to 1962. “Can’t you cover more years with fewer words?” some of them have politely asked. It’s a reasonable question, and it came to seem even more so when my formidably persuasive agent, Andrew Wylie, set out to convince me of the need for a short, comprehensive, and accessible book on the Cold War—a tactful way of suggesting that my previous ones had not been. Since I regard listening to my students and my agent as only slightly less important than listening to my wife (who also liked the idea), the project seemed worth taking on.

The Cold War: A New History is meant chiefly, therefore, for a new generation of readers for whom the Cold War was never “current events.” I hope readers who lived through the Cold War will also find the volume useful, because as Marx once said (Groucho, not Karl), “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside a dog, it’s too dark to read.” While the Cold War was going on it was hard to know what was happening. Now that it’s over—and now that Soviet, East European, and Chinese archives have begun to open—we know much more: so much, in fact, that it’s easy to get overwhelmed. That’s yet another reason for writing a short book. It’s forced me to apply, to all this new information, the simple test of significance made famous by my late Yale colleague Robin Winks: “So what?”

A word as well about what this book is not meant to be. It’s not a work of original scholarship. Cold War historians will find much of what I say familiar, partly because I’ve drawn a lot of it from their work, partly because I’ve repeated some things I’ve said in my own. Nor does the book attempt to locate roots, within the Cold War, of such post–Cold War phenomena as globalization, ethnic cleansing, religious extremism, terrorism, or the information revolution. Nor does it make any contribution whatever to international relations theory, a field that has troubles enough of its own without my adding to them.

I will be pleased, though, if this view of the Cold War as a whole produces some new ways of looking at its parts. One that has especially struck me is optimism, a quality not generally associated with the Cold War. The world, I am quite sure, is a better place for that conflict having been fought in the way that it was and won by the side that won it. No one today worries about a new global war, or a total triumph of dictators, or the prospect that civilization itself might end. That was not the case when the Cold War began. For all its dangers, atrocities, costs, distractions, and moral compromises, the Cold War—like the American Civil War—was a necessary contest that settled fundamental issues once and for all. We have no reason to miss it. But given the alternatives, we have little reason either to regret its having occurred.

The Cold War was fought at different levels in dissimilar ways in multiple places over a very long time. Any attempt to reduce its history exclusively to the role of great forces, great powers, or great leaders would fail to do it justice. Any effort to capture it within a simple chronological narrative could only produce mush. I’ve chosen instead to focus each chapter on a significant theme: as a result, they overlap in time and move across space. I’ve felt free to zoom in from the general to the particular, and then back out again. And I’ve not hesitated to write from a perspective that takes fully into account how the Cold War came out: I know no other way.

Finally, I want to express my appreciation to the people who inspired, facilitated, and patiently waited for this book. They certainly include my students, whose continuing interest in the Cold War sustains my own. I’m grateful also to Andrew Wylie, as I know future students will be, for having suggested this method of covering more years with fewer words—and for having since helped several of my former students publish their own books. Scott Moilers, Stuart Proffitt, Janie Fleming, Victoria Klose, Maureen Clark, Bruce Giffords, Samantha Johnson, and their colleagues at Penguin showed admirable equanimity in the face of missed deadlines, and exemplary efficiency in producing this overdue book once it was done. It could hardly have been written at all without Christian Ostermann and his colleagues at the Cold War International History Project, whose energy and thoroughness in collecting documents from all over the world (on the day I write this the latest stash from the Albanian archives has arrived) have placed all Cold War historians in their debt. Last, but hardly least, I thank Toni Dorfman, who is the world’s best copy editor/proofreader and the world’s most loving wife.

The dedication commemorates one of the greatest figures in Cold War history—and a long-time friend—whose biography it will now be my responsibility to write.

New Haven



IN 1946 a forty-three-year-old Englishman named Eric Blair rented a house at the edge of the world—a house in which he expected to die. It was on the northern tip of the Scottish island of Jura, at the end of a dirt track, inaccessible by automobile, with no telephone or electricity. The nearest shop, the only one on the island, was some twenty-five miles to the south. Blair had reasons to want remoteness. Dejected by the recent death of his wife, he was suffering from tuberculosis and would soon begin coughing up blood. His country was reeling from the costs of a military victory that had brought neither security, nor prosperity, nor even the assurance that freedom would survive. Europe was dividing into two hostile camps, and the world seemed set to follow. With atomic bombs likely to be used, any new war would be apocalyptic. And he needed to finish a novel.

Its title was 1984, an inversion of the year in which he completed it, and it appeared in Great Britain and the United States in 1949 under Blair’s pen name, George Orwell. The reviews, the New York Times noted, were “overwhelmingly admiring,” but “with cries of terror rising above the applause.”1 This was hardly surprising because 1984 evoked an age, only three and a half decades distant, in which totalitarianism has triumphed everywhere. Individuality is smothered, along with law, ethics, creativity, linguistic clarity, honesty about history, and even love—apart, of course, from the love everyone is forced to feel for the Stalin-like dictator “Big Brother” and his counterparts, who run a world permanently at war. “If you want a picture of the future,” Orwell’s hero Winston Smith is told, as he undergoes yet another session of relentless torture, “imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”2

Orwell did die early in 1950—in a London hospital, not on his island—knowing only that his book had impressed and frightened its first readers. Subsequent readers responded similarly: 1984 became the single most compelling vision in the post–World War II era of what might follow it. As the real year 1984 approached, therefore, comparisons with Orwell’s imaginary year became inescapable. The world was not yet totalitarian, but dictators dominated large parts of it. The danger of war between the United States and the Soviet Union—two superpowers instead of the three Orwell had anticipated—seemed greater than it had for many years. And the apparently permanent conflict known as the “Cold War,” which began while Orwell was still alive, showed not the slightest signs of ending.

But then, on the evening of January 16, 1984, an actor Orwell would have recognized from his years as a film reviewer appeared on television in his more recent role as president of the United States. Ronald Reagan’s reputation until this moment had been that of an ardent Cold Warrior. Now, though, he envisaged a different future:

Just suppose with me for a moment that an Ivan and an Anya could find themselves, say, in a waiting room, or sharing a shelter from the rain or a storm with a Jim and Sally, and that there was no language barrier to keep them from getting acquainted. Would they then deliberate the differences between their respective governments? Or would they find themselves comparing notes about their children and what each other did for a living? . . . They might even have decided that they were all going to get together for dinner some evening soon. Above all, they would have proven that people don’t make wars.3

It was an unexpectedly gentle invitation for human faces to prevail over boots, dictators, and the mechanisms of war. It set in motion, in Orwell’s year 1984, the sequence of events by which they would do so. Just over a year after Reagan’s speech, an ardent enemy of totalitarianism took power in the Soviet Union. Within six years, that country’s control over half of Europe had collapsed. Within eight, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—the country that had provoked Orwell’s great gloomy prophecy in the first place—had itself ceased to exist.

These things did not happen simply because Reagan gave a speech or because Orwell wrote a book: the remainder of this book complicates the causation. It is worth starting with visions, though, because they establish hopes and fears. History then determines which prevail.



We waited for them to come ashore. We could see their faces. They looked like ordinary people. We had imagined something different. Well, they were Americans!

Red Army, 58th Guards Division



I guess we didn’t know what to expect from the Russians, but when you looked at them and examined them, you couldn’t tell whether, you know? If you put an American uniform on them, they could have been American!

U.S. Army, 69th Infantry Division1

THIS WAS THE WAY the war was supposed to end: with cheers, handshakes, dancing, drinking, and hope. The date was April 25, 1945, the place the eastern German city of Torgau on the Elbe, the event the first meeting of the armies, converging from opposite ends of the earth, that had cut Nazi Germany in two. Five days later Adolf Hitler blew his brains out beneath the rubble that was all that was left of Berlin. Just over a week after that, the Germans surrendered unconditionally. The leaders of the victorious Grand Alliance, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Josef Stalin, had already exchanged their own handshakes, toasts, and hopes for a better world at two wartime summits—Teheran in November, 1943, and Yalta in February, 1945. These gestures would have meant little, though, had the troops they commanded not been able to stage their own more boisterous celebration where it really counted: on the front lines of a battlefield from which the enemy was now disappearing.

Why, then, did the armies at Torgau approach one another warily, as if they’d been expecting interplanetary visitors? Why did the resemblances they saw seem so surprising—and so reassuring? Why, despite these, did their commanders insist on separate surrender ceremonies, one for the western front at Reims, in France, on May 7th, another for the eastern front in Berlin on May 8th? Why did the Soviet authorities try to break up spontaneous pro-American demonstrations that erupted in Moscow following the official announcement of the German capitulation? Why did the American authorities, during the week that followed, abruptly suspend critical shipments of Lend-Lease aid to the U.S.S.R., and then resume them? Why did Roosevelt’s key aide Harry Hopkins, who had played a decisive role in crafting the Grand Alliance in 1941, have to rush to Moscow six weeks after his boss’s death to try to save it? Why for that matter, years later, would Churchill title his memoir of these events Triumph and Tragedy?

The answer to all of these questions is much the same: that the war had been won by a coalition whose principal members were already at war—ideologically and geopolitically if not militarily—with one another. Whatever the Grand Alliance’s triumphs in the spring of 1945, its success had always depended upon the pursuit of compatible objectives by incompatible systems. The tragedy was this: that victory would require the victors either to cease to be who they were, or to give up much of what they had hoped, by fighting the war, to attain.


HAD THERE really been an alien visitor on the banks of the Elbe in April, 1945, he, she, or it might indeed have detected superficial resemblances in the Russian and American armies that met there, as well as in the societies from which they had come. Both the United States and the Soviet Union had been born in revolution. Both embraced ideologies with global aspirations: what worked at home, their leaders assumed, would also do so for the rest of the world. Both, as continental states, had advanced across vast frontiers: they were at the time the first and third largest countries in the world. And both had entered the war as the result of surprise attack: the German invasion of the Soviet Union, which began on June 22, 1941, and the Japanese strike against Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which Hitler used as an excuse to declare war on the United States four days later. That would have been the extent of the similarities, though. The differences, as any terrestrial observer could have quickly pointed out, were much greater.

The American Revolution, which had happened over a century and a half earlier, reflected a deep distrust of concentrated authority. Liberty and justice, the Founding Fathers had insisted, could come only through constraining power. Thanks to an ingenious constitution, their geographical isolation from potential rivals, and a magnificent endowment of natural resources, the Americans managed to build an extraordinarily powerful state, a fact that became obvious during World War II. They accomplished this, however, by severely restricting their government’s capacity to control everyday life, whether through the dissemination of ideas, the organization of the economy, or the conduct of politics. Despite the legacy of slavery, the near extermination of native Americans, and persistent racial, sexual, and social discrimination, the citizens of the United States could plausibly claim, in 1945, to live in the freest society on the face of the earth.

The Bolshevik Revolution, which had happened only a quarter century earlier, had in contrast involved the embrace of concentrated authority as a means of overthrowing class enemies and consolidating a base from which a proletarian revolution would spread throughout the world. Karl Marx claimed, in the Communist Manifesto of 1848, that the industrialization capitalists had set in motion was simultaneously expanding and exploiting the working class, which would sooner or later liberate itself. Not content to wait for this to happen, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin sought to accelerate history in 1917 by seizing control of Russia and imposing Marxism on it, even though that state failed to fit Marx’s prediction that the revolution could only occur in an advanced industrial society. Stalin in turn fixed that problem by redesigning Russia to fit Marxist-Leninist ideology: he forced a largely agrarian nation with few traditions of liberty to become a heavily industrialized nation with no liberty at all. As a consequence, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was, at the end of World War II, the most authoritarian society anywhere on the face of the earth.

If the victorious nations could hardly have been more different, the same was true of the wars they had fought from 1941 to 1945. The United States waged separate wars simultaneously—against the Japanese in the Pacific and the Germans in Europe—but suffered remarkably few casualties: just under 300,000 Americans died in all combat theaters. Geographically distant from where the fighting was taking place, their country experienced no significant attacks apart from the initial one at Pearl Harbor. With its ally Great Britain (which suffered about 357,000 war deaths), the United States was able to choose where, when, and in what circumstances it would fight, a fact that greatly minimized the costs and risks of fighting. But unlike the British, the Americans emerged from the war with their economy thriving: wartime spending had caused their gross domestic product almost to double in less than four years. If there could ever be such a thing as a “good” war, then this one, for the United States, came close.

The Soviet Union enjoyed no such advantages. It waged only one war, but it was arguably the most terrible one in all of history. With its cities, towns, and countryside ravaged, its industries ruined or hurriedly relocated beyond the Urals, the only option apart from surrender was desperate resistance, on terrain and in circumstances chosen by its enemy. Estimates of casualties, civilian and military, are notoriously inexact, but it is likely that some 27 million Soviet citizens died as a direct result of the war—roughly 90 times the number of Americans who died. Victory could hardly have been purchased at greater cost: the U.S.S.R. in 1945 was a shattered state, fortunate to have survived. The war, a contemporary observer recalled, was “both the most fearful and the proudest memory of the Russian people.”2

When it came to shaping the postwar settlement, however, the victors were more evenly matched than these asymmetries might suggest. The United States had made no commitment to reverse its long-standing tradition of remaining aloof from European affairs—Roosevelt had even assured Stalin, at Teheran, that American troops would return home within two years after the end of the war.3 Nor, given the depressing record of the 1930s, could there be any assurance that the wartime economic boom would continue, or that democracy would again take root beyond the relatively few countries in which it still existed. The stark fact that the Americans and the British could not have defeated Hitler without Stalin’s help meant that World War II was a victory over fascism only—not over authoritarianism and its prospects for the future.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union had significant assets, despite the immense losses it had suffered. Because it was part of Europe, its military forces would not be withdrawing from Europe. Its command economy had shown itself capable of sustaining full employment when the capitalist democracies had failed, during the prewar years, to do so. Its ideology enjoyed widespread respect in Europe because communists there had largely led the resistance against the Germans. Finally, the disproportionate burden the Red Army had borne in defeating Hitler gave the U.S.S.R. a moral claim to substantial, perhaps even preponderant, influence in shaping the postwar settlement. It was at least as easy to believe, in 1945, that authoritarian communism was the wave of the future as that democratic capitalism was.

The Soviet Union had one other advantage as well, which was that it alone among the victors emerged from the war with tested leadership. Roosevelt’s death on April 12, 1945, had catapulted his inexperienced and ill-informed vice president, Harry S. Truman, into the White House. Three months later, Churchill’s unexpected defeat in the British general election made the far less formidable Labour Party leader, Clement Attlee, prime minister. The Soviet Union, in contrast, had Stalin, its unchallenged ruler since 1929, the man who remade his country and then led it to victory in World War II. Crafty, formidable, and to all appearances calmly purposeful, the Kremlin dictator knew what he wanted in the postwar era. Truman, Attlee, and the nations they led seemed much less certain.


SO WHAT did Stalin want? It makes sense to start with him, because only he of the three postwar leaders had had the time, while retaining the authority, to consider and rank his priorities. Sixty-five at the end of the war, the man who ran the Soviet Union was physically exhausted, surrounded by sycophants, personally lonely—but still firmly, even terrifyingly, in control. His scrawny mustache, discolored teeth, pock-marked face, and yellow eyes, an American diplomat recalled, “gave him the aspect of an old battle-scarred tiger. . . . An unforewarned visitor would never have guessed what depths of calculation, ambition, love of power, jealousy, cruelty, and sly vindictiveness lurked behind this unpretentious façade.”4 Through a series of purges during the 1930s, Stalin had long since eliminated all his rivals. The raising of an eyebrow or the flick of a finger, subordinates knew, could mean the difference between life and death. Strikingly short—only five feet four inches—this paunchy little old man was nonetheless a colossus, bestriding a colossal state.

Stalin’s postwar goals were security for himself, his regime, his country, and his ideology, in precisely that order. He sought to make sure that no internal challenges could ever again endanger his personal rule, and that no external threats would ever again place his country at risk. The interests of communists elsewhere in the world, admirable though those might be, would never outweigh the priorities of the Soviet state as he had determined them. Narcissism, paranoia, and absolute power came together in Stalin:5 he was, within the Soviet Union and the international communist movement, enormously feared—but also widely worshipped.

Wartime expenditures in blood and treasure, Stalin believed, should largely determine who got what after the war: the Soviet Union, therefore, would get a lot.6 Not only would it regain the territories it had lost to the Germans during World War II; it would also retain the territories it had taken as a result of the opportunistic but shortsighted “nonaggression” pact Stalin had concluded with Hitler in August, 1939—portions of Finland, Poland, and Romania, all of the Baltic States. It would require that states beyond these expanded borders remain within Moscow’s sphere of influence. It would seek territorial concessions at the expense of Iran and Turkey (including control of the Turkish Straits), as well as naval bases in the Mediterranean. Finally, it would punish a defeated and devastated Germany through military occupation, property expropriations, reparations payments, and ideological transformation.

Herein there lay, however, a painful dilemma for Stalin. Disproportionate losses during the war may well have entitled the Soviet Union to disproportionate postwar gains, but they had also robbed that country of the power required to secure those benefits unilaterally. The U.S.S.R. needed peace, economic assistance, and the diplomatic acquiescence of its former allies. There was no choice for the moment, then, but to continue to seek the cooperation of the Americans and the British: just as they had depended on Stalin to defeat Hitler, so Stalin now depended on continued Anglo-American goodwill if he was to obtain his postwar objectives at a reasonable cost. He therefore wanted neither a hot war nor a cold war.7 Whether he would be skillful enough to avoid these alternatives, however, was quite a different matter.

For Stalin’s understanding of his wartime allies and their postwar objectives was based more on wishful thinking than on an accurate assessment of priorities as seen from Washington and London. It was here that Marxist-Leninist ideology influenced Stalin, because his illusions arose from it. The most important one was the belief, which went back to Lenin, that capitalists would never be able to cooperate with one another for very long. Their inherent greediness—the irresistible urge to place profits above politics—would sooner or later prevail, leaving communists with the need only for patience as they awaited their adversaries’ self-destruction. “The alliance between ourselves and the democratic faction of the capitalists succeeds because the latter had an interest in preventing Hitler’s domination,” Stalin commented as the war was coming to a close. “[I]n the future we shall be against this faction of the capitalists as well.”8

This idea of a crisis within capitalism did have some plausibility. World War I, after all, had been a war among capitalists; it thereby provided the opportunity for the world’s first communist state to emerge. The Great Depression left the remaining capitalist states scrambling to save themselves rather than cooperating to rescue the global economy or to maintain the postwar settlement: Nazi Germany arose as a result. With the end of World War II, Stalin believed, the economic crisis was bound to return. Capitalists would then need the Soviet Union, rather than the other way around. That is why he fully expected the United States to lend the Soviet Union several billion dollars for re-construction: because the Americans would otherwise be unable to find markets for their products during the coming global crash.9


It followed as well that the other capitalist superpower, Great Britain—whose weakness Stalin consistently underestimated—would sooner or later break with its American ally over economic rivalries: “[T]he inevitability of wars between capitalist countries remains in force,” he insisted, as late as 1952.10 From Stalin’s perspective, then, the long-term forces of history would compensate for the catastrophe World War II had inflicted upon the Soviet Union. It would not be necessary to confront the Americans and British directly in order to achieve his objectives. He could simply wait for the capitalists to begin quarreling with one another, and for the disgusted Europeans to embrace communism as an alternative.

Stalin’s goal, therefore, was not to restore a balance of power in Europe, but rather to dominate that continent as thoroughly as Hitler had sought to do. He acknowledged, in a wistful but revealing comment in 1947, that “[h]ad Churchill delayed opening the second front in northern France by a year, the Red Army would have come to France. . . . [W]e toyed with the idea of reaching Paris.”11 Unlike Hitler, however, Stalin followed no fixed timetable. He had welcomed the D-Day landings, despite the fact that they would preclude the Red Army from reaching western Europe anytime soon: Germany’s defeat was the first priority. Nor would he write off diplomacy in securing his objective, not least because he expected—for a time at least—American cooperation in achieving it. Had not Roosevelt indicated that the United States would refrain from seeking its own sphere of influence in Europe? Stalin’s was, therefore, a grand vision: the peacefully accomplished but historically determined domination of Europe. It was also a flawed vision, for it failed to take into account the evolving postwar objectives of the United States.


WHAT DID the Americans want after the war? Unquestionably also security, but in contrast to Stalin, they were much less certain of what they would have to do to obtain it. The reason had to do with the dilemma World War II had posed for them: that the United States could not continue to serve as a model for the rest of the world while remaining apart from the rest of the world.

Throughout most of their history Americans had tried to do just this. They had not had to worry much about security because oceans separated them from all other states that might conceivably do them harm. Their very independence from Great Britain resulted, as Thomas Paine had predicted it would in 1776, from the implausibility that “a Continent [could] be perpetually governed by an island.”12 Despite their naval superiority, the British were never able to project sufficient military power across some 3,000 miles of water to keep the Americans within the empire, or to prevent them from dominating the North American continent. The prospect that other Europeans might do so was even more remote, because successive governments in London came to agree with the Americans that there should be no further colonization in the western hemisphere. The United States enjoyed the luxury, therefore, of maintaining a vast sphere of influence without the risk that by doing so it would challenge the interests of any other great power.

The Americans did seek global influence in the realm of ideas: their Declaration of Independence had, after all, advanced the radical claim that all men are created equal. But they made no effort, during their first fourteen decades of independence, to make good on that assertion. The United States would serve as an example; the rest of the world would have to decide how and under what circumstances to embrace it. “She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all,” Secretary of State John Quincy Adams proclaimed in 1821, but “[s]he is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”13 Despite an international ideology, therefore, American practices were isolationist: the nation had not yet concluded that its security required transplanting its principles. Its foreign and military policy was much less ambitious than one might have expected from a nation of such size and strength.

Only with World War I did the United States break out of this pattern. Worried that Imperial Germany might defeat Great Britain and France, Woodrow Wilson persuaded his countrymen that American military might was needed to restore the European balance of power—but even he justified this geopolitical objective in ideological terms. The world, he insisted, had to be made “safe for democracy.”14 Wilson went on to propose, as the basis for a peace settlement, a League of Nations that would impose on states something like the rule of law that states—at least enlightened ones—imposed on individuals. The idea that might alone makes right would, he hoped, disappear.

Both the vision and the restored balance, however, proved premature. Victory in World War I did not make the United States a global power; instead it confirmed, for most Americans, the dangers of overcommitment. Wilson’s plans for a postwar collective security organization went well beyond where his countrymen were ready to go. Meanwhile, disillusionment with allies—together with Wilson’s ill-conceived and half-hearted military intervention against the Bolsheviks in Siberia and North Russia in 1918–20—turned the fruits of victory sour. Conditions abroad encouraged a return to isolationism: the perceived inequities of the Versailles peace treaty, the onset of a global depression, and then the rise of aggressor states in Europe and East Asia all had the effect of convincing Americans that they would be better off avoiding international involvements altogether. It was a rare withdrawal of a powerful state from responsibilities beyond its borders.

After entering the White House in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt worked persistently—if often circuitously—to bring the United States into a more active role in world politics. It was not easy: “I feel very much as if I were groping for a door in a blank wall.”15 Even after Japan had gone to war with China in 1937 and World War II had broken out in Europe in 1939, F.D.R. had made only minimal progress in persuading the nation that Wilson had been right: that its security could be threatened by what happened halfway around the world. It would take the shattering events of 1940–41—the fall of France, the battle of Britain, and ultimately the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—to bring about an American recommitment to the task of restoring a balance of power beyond the western hemisphere. “We have profited by our past mistakes,” the president promised in 1942. “This time we shall know how to make full use of victory.”16

Roosevelt had four great wartime priorities. The first was to sustain allies—chiefly Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and (less successfully) Nationalist China—because there was no other way to achieve victory: the United States could not fight Germany and Japan alone. The second was to secure allied cooperation in shaping the postwar settlement, for without it there would be little prospect for lasting peace. The third had to do with the nature of that settlement. Roosevelt expected his allies to endorse one that would remove the most probable causes of future wars. That meant a new collective security organization with the power to deter and if necessary punish aggression, as well as a revived global economic system equipped to prevent a new global depression. Finally, the settlement would have to be “sellable” to the American people: F.D.R. was not about to repeat Wilson’s mistake of taking the nation beyond where it was prepared to go. There would be no reversion to isolationism, then, after World War II. But the United States would not be prepared either—any more than the Soviet Union would be—to accept a postwar world that resembled its prewar predecessor.

Finally, a word about British objectives. They were, as Churchill defined them, much simpler: to survive at all costs, even if this meant relinquishing leadership of the Anglo-American coalition to Washington, even if it meant weakening the British empire, even if it also meant collaborating with the Soviet Union, a regime the younger Churchill had hoped, in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, to crush.17 The British would attempt to influence the Americans as much as possible—they aspired to the role of Greeks, tutoring the new Romans—but under no circumstances would they get at odds with the Americans. Stalin’s expectation of an independent Britain, capable of resisting the United States and even going to war with it, would have seemed strange indeed to those who actually shaped British wartime and postwar grand strategy.


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From the Publisher

Outstanding ... The most accessible distillation of that conflict yet written. (The Boston Globe)

Energetically written and lucid, it makes an ideal introduction to the subject. (The New York Times)

A fresh and admirably concise history . . . Gaddis’s mastery of the material, his fluent style and eye for the telling anecdote make his new work a pleasure. (The Economist)

Meet the Author

John Lewis Gaddis is the Robert A. Lovett Professor of History of Yale University. He is the author of numerous books, including The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941-1947 (1972); Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security (1982); The Long Peace: Inquiries into the History of the Cold War (1987); We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (1997); The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (2002); and Surprise, Security, and the American Experience (2004).

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The Cold War 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 27 reviews.
melissagalatas More than 1 year ago
I really love the thematic layout of the book. Rather than trying to explain the cold war chronologically, Gaddis does a wonderful job in separating each aspect of the cold war so that the big picture, along with each aspect of events, is easier to understand. He really captures the mood and thoughts of both sides of the war. I particularly liked his "alternate ending" of the conflict in Korea that put into perspective how close we really were to a third World War. Great read, great cold war "crash course". Also, great citations in the back for further study. Highly recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Cold War is a great book for those who have no memory of the Cold War, and for those who do, it is a well written and engaging synopsis. Although it is a "history" book, it is a fast read. Bring along a pencil and paper however; the book is not written in chronological order. A great introduction to post World War II history for High Schoolers or a 100-200 level college history class.
JardaJU More than 1 year ago
The graetest asset of this work by Professor Gaddis is in that it does not limit itself to a simple narrative of events but it seeks, and reveals causal relationships across the time horizon. I find it, however, misleading to maintain that the Cold War was purely a struggle between two competing ideologies, authoritative regime against democracy, command economy against free markets. I believe that the underlying cause was Russian grab for power, the classic Russian imperialism that remains the same whether wearing a White coat, a Red coat, or, at present, a Putin-coat. After all, the Red Tzars in Kremlin enjoyed a large popular support only because no other Tzars before achieved Russian superpower status. As for China, the underlying causes were similar. Thus, the ideology was a convenient tool, an effective weapon, but not the cause itself.
infp More than 1 year ago
When you try to cover the entire Cold War in 352 pages, the author has to make choices what to include and what to omit. I found some of the choices strange, e.g., little on the Cuban Missile Crisis and more on Watergate. That said, there was a considerable amount of new information included in the book. The organization is more theme-based than chronological which sometimes makes it more difficult to parse out the sequence of events.
bossister More than 1 year ago
I came of age during the late 70's and early 80's. I studied the Cold War during that time in college, so it was wonderful (and a bit alarming!) to read about it as "history". It was very insightful to go back to the "start" of the Cold War- the end of WW II. I recommend this book to anyone who has read about WW II. It enlightens one on the continuation of that conflict, and how exhausted politicians and nations can inadvertantly precipatate further problems once they've "won" a war.
pm4315 More than 1 year ago
I bought this book for my 15 year old daughter who loves History and specifically asked for it for Christmas. She plans to major in History and loved this book. Highly recommend it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
You can tell that the author is an expert in cold war history, and one appreciates being able to get such a masterful telling of the history in such a condensed way. Even though it is relatively short, you do not feel as if you are missing anything important.
Guest More than 1 year ago
OVERVIEW. A fascinating and scholarly narrative of that traumatic period¿fascinating in what it discerns about individual ¿actors¿ on the precarious world stage, and scholarly in its inclusion of relevant historical factors. Yet, being fascinating and scholarly¿rather than comprehensive and analytical¿poses enough systematic flaws to make it only one of many books, now or yet to be, about the Cold War. The book is a cornucopia of useful information about excruciating events during nearly a half-century of near worldwide disaster. _____ ATOMIC BOMBINGS. Professor Gaddis sets the scene rightfully with the conditions that led to, evolved with, and ended World War II, including the atomic bombings of Japan. (Gaddis, though, does not demonstrate that war might have been ended just as quickly without the bombings.) _____ COLD WAR. For nearly the half-century that followed, much of humanity was indeed impacted with struggles over national boundaries, ideological politicization, grand scheming, and simple survival. Gaddis tracks the Cold War evolution by focusing on key personalities, such as Stalin, Churchill, Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy. He recalls the influence of Marx, Lenin, Roosevelt, and Wilson. Khrushchev and Gorbachev both had major roles on the big stage, as did Chang and Mao, Johnson and Nixon, Kennan and Kissinger. Lesser appearances were by Castro, De Gaulle, Sadat, Walesa, Thatcher, and Havel. In fact, roles for many leaders are highlighted. _____ THE POPE AND REAGAN. One reservation would be about disproportional credit given to Pope John Paul II and President Reagan in terms of reversing Cold War trends. As pictured by Gaddis, the Pope¿s appearances are likely to be gratifying to Catholics, and Reagan¿s role will satisfy neoconservatives. _____ REAGAN¿S BELLICOSITY. While some of Reagan¿s recitals and visions as President were conciliatory, his words were more than offset by bellicose and risky governmental directives. He brandished weapons and threats, along with unfounded accusations that the Soviets were violating international treaties. Reagan decided to store neutron weapons in Europe and repeated his controversial opinion that tactical nuclear weapons could be used in Europe without igniting an all-out nuclear war. He pushed for Pershing-II and nuclear-armed cruise-missile deployment in Western Europe. Although he resumed START-I negotiations, no appreciable progress was made during his eight years in office. Early in his presidency, Reagan publicly labeled the Soviet Union an ¿evil empire,¿ and exhibited a righteous contempt of the antiauthoritarian nuclear ¿Freeze¿ movement. He was sold on unilateral ballistic missile defense (SDI), a nearly impossible dream. In 1983, he asked Congress to support the destabilizing MX multiple-warhead missile program. Reagan rejected an opportunity for a nuclear-test moratorium, and he presided over a massive increase in U.S. military expenditures. _____ THE ILLUSIONIST. It is very difficult to reconcile those Presidential actions (in contrast to facile words or divined intentions) with Gaddis¿s position that Reagan ¿was the only nuclear abolitionist ever to have been president of the United States,¿ and that Reagan was ¿one of the sharpest grand strategists ever.¿ Perhaps it would be better to describe Reagan as `one of the sharpest grand illusionists ever.¿ Therein lies an analytical flaw in ¿A New History.¿ Despite the book¿s constructive contributions, it seems more like a general¿s view, not one from the trenches and battlegrounds. The massive public and intellectual protests against Reaganite policies and self-indulgences are kept in the distant background. _____ TOP-CENTRIC. As you might also observe, Gaddis¿s treatment of Cold War history is top-centric (which, for me, was frankly the most interesting and insightful aspect of his book). But such emphasis on the cult of leadership results in little or no attention to sociological and in
GeorgeMShaw 5 months ago
In this time of 'Putin ascendant,' it is time to revisit the Cold War and review the lessons of this era as we look for similarities and differences with it, now. I have to agree with Henry Kissinger, however, in his assessment of this book as a succinct yet comprehensive scholarly survey of the period from World War II to the collapse of the Soviet Union even though I do not agree with all its judgements.
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JNYC More than 1 year ago
Bought for my six-yr-old, who has some history background but had some gaps in his education. He loved the book, and when he recognized gaps he looked various items up. The book worked well for him. (I personally haven't gotten to it yet ...). Other books and DVDs recommended by the Man are listed below.
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