We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History / Edition 1

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Overview

Did the Soviet Union want world revolution? Why did the USSR send missiles to Cuba? What made the Cold War last as long as it did? The end of the Cold War makes it possible, for the first time, to begin writing its history from a truly international perspective. Based on the latest findings of Cold War historians and extensive research in American archives as well as the recently opened archives in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and China, We Now Know provides a vividly written, eye-opening account of the Cold War during the years from the end of World War II to its most dangerous moment, the Cuban missile crisis.
We Now Know stands as a powerful vindication of US policy throughout the period, and as a thought-provoking reassessment of the Cold War by one of its most distinguished historians.

One of America's leading historians offers the first major history of the Cold War. Packed with new information drawn from previously unavailable sources, the book offers major reassessments of Stalin, Mao, Khrushchev, Kennedy, Eisenhower, and Truman. 420 pp. 7,500 print.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A lively, deeply informed summary, the most accessible and compelling guide to the international conflicts, issues, and dominant ideologies of the early Cold War era."—Kirkus

"A magisterial overview that clarifies all issues of the cold war's origins."—Booklist

Kirkus Reviews
An elegantly written, vivid history of the early years of the Cold War, culminating with the Bay of Pigs crisis.

Noting that the flood of materials from archives in this country and abroad has substantially deepened, and sometimes considerably altered, scholars' view of events, veteran Cold War historian Gaddis (The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1972, etc.) has set out to provide an overview for a general audience of the leaders, policies, and international crises that shaped the late 1940s to the early '60s, concentrating on the two great antagonists, the US and the Soviet Union, and their leaders. While no one figure shaped the Cold War, Stalin came closest, injecting an obsessive paranoia, duplicity, and an aura of menace into the relations among postWW II states. "Suspicion, distrust, and an abiding cynicism were," Gaddis observes, "not only his preferred but his necessary environment." And while these qualities, along with an extraordinary capacity for cruelty, extended and preserved the USSR, they also, Gaddis argues, ensured its downfall. "The killings Stalin authorized, the states he seized . . . the sphere of influence he imposed provided no lasting security for the Soviet Union." They inspired resistance that, when Soviet leaders lost the taste for repression, could not be contained. In a series of chapters on American and Russian conflicts in the third world, on the place of nuclear weapons in the uncertain balance of power, and on the increasingly uncomfortable relations between America and Russia and their respective allies, he does a superb job of synthesizing a wide range of sources, drawing clear and persuasive lessons from events. His reading of the motivations of figures as diverse as John F. Kennedy and Chairman Mao seems balanced and acute.

Gaddis has written a lively, deeply informed summary, the most accessible and compelling guide to the international conflicts, issues, and dominant ideologies of the early Cold War era.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780198780717
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 7/9/1998
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 846,617
  • Lexile: 1550L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 9.20 (w) x 6.10 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

John Lewis Gaddis is Robert Lovett Professor of History at Yale University. His many books include Strategies of Containment, The Long Peace, and The United States and the End of the Cold War.

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Read an Excerpt



Chapter One


Dividing the World

There are now two great nations in the world, which starting from different points, seem to be advancing toward the same goal: the Russians and the Anglo-Americans....[E]ach seems called by some secret design of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world.

Alexis de Tocqueville, 1835

With the defeat of the Reich and pending the emergence of the Asiatic, the African, and perhaps the South American nationalisms, there will remain in the world only two Great Powers capable of confronting each other—the United States and Soviet Russia. The laws of both history and geography will compel these two Powers to a trial of strength, either military or in the fields of economics and ideology. These same laws make it inevitable that both Powers should become enemies of Europe. And it is equally certain that both these Powers will sooner or later find it desirable to seek the support of the sole surviving great nation in Europe, the German people.

Adolf Hitler, 1945

It has become almost obligatory to begin histories of the Cold War with Tocqueville's famous prophecy, made more than a century before the events it foresaw had come to pass. Hitler's prediction, advanced even as these events were happening, is deservedly less well known. Still, the similarity in these two visions of the future, put forward 110 years apart by the greatest student of democracy and the vilest practitioner of autocracy, is striking: it is rare enough for anyone to anticipate what lies ahead, even in the most general terms. Was the division of the worldthat began in 1945 really the result of "some secret design of Providence," or, if one prefers the Fuhrer's more secular formulation, of a set of laws derived from history and geography? Or was it an improbable accident? Or was it, as great events most often are, something in between?

Tocqueville made his forecast the way most people do: by projecting the past and the present into the future. At the time he wrote the United States and Russia occupied vast expanses of thinly populated but resource-rich continents. Each had a high birth rate, and therefore the potential for rapid growth. Each had been expanding across successive frontiers; neither faced rivals capable of impeding that process. But there the similarities ended. The United States was already, in 1835, the world's most democratic republic, and the Russian empire its most prominent example of monarchical authoritarianism. Tocqueville saw the contrast clearly: Americans relied "on personal interest and [gave] free scope to the unguided strength and common sense of individuals," while Russians concentrated "the whole power of society in one man." Significantly, though, he said nothing about how this difference in systems of government might affect relations between the two countries or their dealings with the rest of the world. What a subsequent generation would call "bipolarity" would not have surprised Tocqueville, but whether conflict—hot or cold—would result from that condition remained shrouded, even from this most clairvoyant of observers.

Today it is for historians, not clairvoyants, to account for the rise, flourishing, and decline of Russian-American global hegemony. We are well beyond the distant horizon Tocqueville could only barely discern. We know that his prophecy did come to pass, in such a way as to exceed even Hitler's expectations: enormous power did combine with intense hostility, to the point of encompassing not just all of Europe and much of the rest of the world, but—some would say—the future of civilization itself. We are in a position now to see how this happened, to trace the process by which the Russian-American predominance Tocqueville and Hitler anticipated became the Cold War the world so greatly feared. We are also free to speculate on whether this had to happen: whether there might have been alternative paths from 1835—or even from 1945—to where we are today.

I

At the time Tocqueville wrote, the United States and Russia had about as many connections as exist now, say, between Paraguay and Mongolia. The Americans had attempted, after the Napoleonic wars and their own nearly disastrous War of 1812, to exclude themselves from further involvement in European affairs: the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 was as much a welcome withdrawal from an old continent as a brash assertion of authority over a new one. Russia issued no such self-denying ordinance, but it too turned inward after the death of Tsar Alexander I in 1825, playing only an occasional role in the maintenance of a European order that seemed stable enough in any event. The simultaneous shift of American and Russian concerns away from Europe and toward the development of continental empires meant that for decades to come citizens of the two countries would have little to do with one another. The world was still empty enough for empires to expand without intersecting.

Some contacts, to be sure, did take place. There had been a thin trickle of trade and travel since the days of the American Revolution, and this in turn had given rise, among educated minorities in both the United States and Russia, to a modest interest in each other's culture and institutions. Both states shared the parallel but not equivalent problem of managing conquered peoples within their territories. Both abolished involuntary servitude at almost the same time—Russian serfs won emancipation in 1861 and American slaves in 1863—although under very different sets of circumstances. Both strongly distrusted that era's most visible hegemon, Great Britain, an attitude reflected in American sympathy for the Russians during the Crimean War and in a Russian "tilt" toward the North during the American Civil War. And both cooperated in resolving a long series of disputes over territory and fisheries in the Pacific Northwest, a process that culminated in Russia's sale of Alaska to the Americans in 1867.

Russia became no less authoritarian and the United States no less democratic during those years, but in the nineteenth century diplomacy rarely reflected the compatibility, or lack thereof, of domestic institutions. Otherwise, the United States would have had its most amicable relationship with Great Britain and its most antagonistic with tsarist Russia; the reality, however, was just the opposite. One reason was that Britain's naval superiority and remaining North American possessions threatened interests as seen from Washington. But there was also, in the early relationship between the United States and Russia, a mutually acknowledged tradition of non-interference in each other's internal affairs. It simply did not occur to Americans or Russians that either country might gain by attempting to alter the other, distinctly dissimilar though they were.

The first departures from this pattern arose from the remarkable improvements in transportation and communication that took place during the final decades of the nineteenth century. The Russians built the Trans-Siberian railroad just as the Americans were modernizing their navy, a technological coincidence that allowed both states to project influence into northeast Asia at a time when China, the ancient empire that had long dominated that part of the world, seemed on the verge of collapse. Expansionist impulses directed toward opposite ends of the earth suddenly converged at a time and in a place where the major European powers, as well as an increasingly assertive Japan, also had important interests. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 eventually followed, and President Theodore Roosevelt helped settle it in such a way as to preserve a diminished presence for the defeated Russians in Manchuria. But the United States had, during that conflict, openly aligned itself alongside its old adversary Great Britain in support of Japan and in opposition to tsarist imperial aspirations.

A second source of Russian-American antagonism also grew out of the transportation and communication revolutions of that era. Cheap steamship fares greatly increased the flow of emigrants from Russia to the United States—the figures went from about 19,000 annually during the 1880s to around 200,000 a year during the decade preceding World War I—and with them came gruesome tales of privation and officially sanctioned oppression. Meanwhile, Americans had begun travelling to Russia, albeit in far smaller numbers, to satisfy their curiosity about that still mysterious empire; some of them revealed what they found in lurid detail on the lecture circuit and in the mass circulation newspapers and magazines that had recently begun to flourish. The American public therefore became more aware of the tsarist government's repressive character just as that regime, following the assassination of Alexander II in 1881, seemed determined to confirm it. No one did more to shift American attitudes about Russia than the explorer and author George Kennan with his vivid expose of the Siberian exile system. He was by no means alone, however, in questioning whether a democracy could ever have "normal" relations with a government that treated its people as harshly as Russia did. The issue would have seemed hypothetical to Americans in Tocqueville's day, when the number of constitutional democracies could have been counted on the fingers of one hand. But that situation too was changing: by the beginning of the twentieth century democratic institutions had spread sufficiently that Russia and not the United States stood out as the anomaly.

The conquest of distance, therefore, did not strengthen Russian-American friendship; instead it worsened matters by injecting disputes over geopolitics and human rights into a relationship in which remoteness had heretofore encouraged the appearance of complementary interests. Technology allowed Russians and Americans to get to know one another better; but in defiance of the conventional wisdom that communications ease conflicts, their governments found it more difficult to deal with one another as a result. By the time World War I broke out, official contacts had fallen into a pattern of deep distrust, despite the fact that American financiers indirectly—through the British and the French—supported Russian military operations. And although the United States would have entered the war on the side of Great Britain, France, and Russia in 1917 even if the February Revolution in Petrograd had not deposed the Tsar, American involvement alongside the Romanovs in a fight "to make the world safe for democracy" would have been difficult to justify. As he himself knew, Woodrow Wilson was fortunate in not having had to make the effort.

II

If, as is often said, World War II created a vacuum of power in Europe, then surely World War I left a vacuum of legitimacy. For not only did that cataclysm sweep away entire empires—the German, the Austro-Hungarian, the Ottoman, the Russian—it also discredited the old forms of diplomacy that allowed war to break out in the first place and that proved so ineffective in ending it. Neither imperial regimes nor imperial methods had many defenders left by time the Bolsheviks staged their coup d'etat late in 1917. And much as the military strength of the United States and the Soviet Union would fill the European vacuum in 1945, so American and Russian ideologies did in 1918. These emerged, though, at least as much from individuals as from institutions and traditions. For the first time, personalities shaped the course of Russian-American relations, in such a way as to magnify vastly the differences contrasting national experiences had already produced.

The United States and the new Provisional Government in Russia fought on the same side, but only briefly. For the October Revolution soon replaced that indecisive regime with one committed, not just to a separate peace, but to nothing less than ending capitalism throughout the world. The new Soviet government drew its legitimacy neither from God nor from free elections but from science: it claimed to have identified the class struggle as the ultimate engine of history and to have harnessed its policies to that mechanism, thereby ensuring their success. It was, therefore, as confident as any government has ever been about reaching its intended objective, which was in this instance—however improbable the odds—world revolution. What Lenin promised was the ultimate form of interference in other states internal affairs: overthrowing not just their governments, but their societies.

He did so, though, just as a gentler revolution was transforming the foreign policy of the United States. Wilson had not been content to justify American entry into the war for what it was—an effort to restore the European balance of power. Instead, he too imposed an ideological framework by proclaiming as war aims self-determination, open markets, and collective security. His purpose was not to spread revolution, as was Lenin's; but Wilson did seek to alter world politics by removing what he thought to be the causes of injustice, and hence of war. This was, in its own way then, as ambitious an agenda as that of the Bolsheviks. Much of the subsequent history of the twentieth century grew out of the clash between these ideologies—Wilson's versus Lenin's—both of them injected into world politics within the two and a half months that separated the Bolshevik coup of November 1917 from the President's January 1918 Fourteen Points address.

Despite their apparent novelty, these ideas reflected deeply-rooted national characteristics. Tocqueville would have found Wilson's liberal-capitalism familiar, and Lenin ran his party and his government with an authoritarianism at least as firm as that of the Russian tsars. The universalism in Wilson's and Lenin's proclamations might well have surprised Tocqueville or any other nineteenth century observer, though: they were meant not just for internal application or external emulation, but for the widest possible implementation. They constituted, albeit in wholly different ways, fundamental challenges to the international state system itself: in Wilson's case through the appeal for a supranational League of Nations, and in Lenin's by way of his call for proletarians in all countries to arise and overthrow their oppressors. Nothing like this had happened since the most militant days of the French Revolution; certainly there was no precedent for such sweeping and urgent pronouncements in the prior record of either American or Russian foreign policy.

An important feature of ideological thinking is its determinism. Ideologists convince themselves, and seek to convince others, that history is on their side, that progress toward the goal they have chosen is inevitable and therefore irresistible. And yet the ideological confrontation between Wilson and Lenin arose more from coincidence than from predestination: for this, bumbling German diplomacy was largely responsible. Wilson took the United States into the war only because the Kaiser's government had unwisely resumed all-out submarine warfare and then even more foolishly proposed an alliance with Mexico—an offer the British intercepted and quickly leaked to the Americans—promising the return of "lost provinces" extending from Texas to California. Meanwhile, and with equal imprudence, the Germans had arranged for Lenin to travel from his exile in Switzerland back to Petrograd, thus setting in motion the astonishing sequence of events that would so quickly place a tiny band of quarreling conspirators in charge of the largest nation on the face of the earth.

Wilson and Lenin responded to the situations in which they found themselves with a combination of improvisation, eloquence, purposefulness, and sheer audacity that would have been striking enough in either of them but that seems remarkable for having occurred, simultaneously, in both. We cannot know what course events would have taken had the great reformer and the great revolutionary not reached their respective preeminences—from which they proclaimed their respective messages to the world—at just the same time. History could hardly have happened as it did, though, without these two most messianic of twentieth century leaders. The moment was one of what chaos theorists call "sensitive dependence on initial conditions:" had things occurred differently on a personal scale at this particular time, vast differences on a collective scale would have followed from them. Contingency created circumstances in which Wilson and Lenin defined mutually hostile ideological visions, imposed them upon the countries they led, and then departed from their positions of leadership, leaving it to less visionary successors to determine what their legacies were to be.

III

The events of 1917-18 created a symbolic basis for conflict between communism and capitalism by setting the self-proclaimed objectives of the United States and Soviet Russia against one another in the most fundamental way. But this clash of ideas brought few actual conflicts over the next quarter-century. International rivalries aligned themselves less than one might have anticipated along the ideological polarities Wilson and Lenin had left behind.

Instead of leading the movement to eliminate the causes of war, as Wilson had hoped, Americans relinquished the global predominance their military exertions had earned them; they thereby violated a basic premise of international relations theory, which is that great powers, having attained that status, do not willingly give it up. Instead of provoking world revolution, as Lenin had desired, his government began its transformation into a stifling and bureaucratized tyranny, thereby violating Marxist theories about the withering away of the state and the liberation of the masses who lived within it. Europe was again left, for the most part, to its own devices, with neither Washington nor Moscow exerting influence commensurate with the globalist pretensions each had earlier advanced.

Americans by no means isolated themselves from Europe after World War I. The United States participated, along with the British, the French, and the Japanese, in a half-hearted occupation of Russian territory that lasted from 1918 to 1920; but the motives behind that enterprise were a confused muddle, and its results were correspondingly ineffective. Intervention may even have helped the Bolsheviks by allowing them to pose as defenders of Russian nationalism. There is little reason to think that they would have been any less hostile toward the capitalist world if it had never taken place. The United States also retained the expanded economic ties with Europe that grew out of its shift, during the war, from international debtor to creditor. American private capital, it is now clear, was almost as important to the Europeans' recovery during the 1920s as was the much more visible Marshall Plan after World War II. But economic influence alone can neither reshape an international system nor determine everything that happens within it, and it was in the non-economic sphere that American actions fell short of Wilsonian aspirations.

The most significant geopolitical development of the early postwar years was surely the fact that the United States, despite its abortive intervention in Russia and its involvement in European economic stabilization, made no significant attempts after 1920 to shape political-military developments on the Continent. It chose this self-effacing path, historians have variously argued, because the nation's long-standing tradition of peacetime isolationism reasserted itself, or because Wilson had asked too much of the American people during the war, or because he had obtained too little of his visionary plan for peace in the Versailles Treaty. But there was a deeper reason as well: the United States withdrew from Europe's politics because it saw no obvious challenge to the balance of power there, and thus no threat to its own security. Germany had been defeated; Soviet Russia was torn by civil war and factional disputes; Great Britain and France had been "associates" during the war and could hardly, in the future, be enemies. To the extent that there was any perceived danger in the 1920s it came from Japan's growing navy, and inasmuch as Washington had a coherent national security policy during that decade, it focused on handling that problem.

The consequences of this disengagement from Europe are bound to have been important, although scholars disagree as to what they were. Some have maintained that the United States's failure to assume Britain's role as global economic hegemon left an absence of managerial authority that intensified and prolonged the Great Depression. Others have insisted that greater American assertiveness would have bolstered the European democracies' determination to resist Adolf Hitler, and hence might have prevented World War II. One pattern is definite, though: Americans were reluctant to assume world responsibilities in the absence of clear and present danger. Despite the alarms suspected subversive activities set off inside the United States, most notoriously during the "Red Scare" of 1919-20, the Soviet Union in the interwar years failed to meet that standard. Indeed, the most significant Soviet American contacts during this period involved the efforts of American corporations—all of them reliable bastions of capitalism—to increase trade with and investment in the world's only communist state.

The Soviet Union too, in a sense, withdrew from Europe after World War I, but for a different set of reasons. Lenin was no isolationist: his internationalism combined conventional diplomacy with what were, at the time, the highly unconventional methods of the Comintern, the agency he created in 1919 to spread revolution throughout the world. But these approaches undercut more than they reinforced one another. Barely concealed attempts to overthrow capitalist governments made it difficult for Soviet diplomats to negotiate with them. Chilled relations, in turn, did little to discourage efforts to root out Comintern agents. Nor did the Bolsheviks free their proletarian internationalism from the parochial habits of Russian radicalism, a deficiency that made their appeal to European workers less successful than it might otherwise have been. Meanwhile, as with most revolutions, the passage of time was shifting the goals of this one from the immediately attainable to the ultimately desirable. As Lenin's successor, Josef Stalin, consolidated his power during the latter half of the 1920s, he by no means abandoned the goal of world revolution, but he did place increasing emphasis on first building up the strength and security of the Soviet state.

The USSR would probably have become a great power even if Stalin had followed his mother's advice and become a Georgian priest, but the fact that he did not—that this deceptively unimpressive figure succeeded in outmaneuvering all other aspirants to the succession as well as Lenin's own attempts to deny it to him—very much affected the way in which that happened. It is possible to imagine a Trotsky or a Bukharin ordering the collectivization of agriculture and the large-scale industrialization this was to have made possible. It is not at all clear, though, that they or anyone else would have implemented these measures with the brutality Stalin relied upon, or that they would have followed them with massive purges against mostly imaginary enemies. Paranoia—the tendency to "place sinister interpretations on events that may have no sinister bearing, and attribute hostile motives to acts that may have no hostile intent"—need not be incapacitating: in Stalin's case it coexisted with, and no doubt also inspired, a most extraordinary administrative performance. The number of deaths resulting from Stalin's policies before World War II, it is now agreed in both Russia and the West, was between 17 and 22 million—substantially more than twice the number of Hitler's victims in the Holocaust.

The scale of this disaster makes the words that characterize it seem bleached, like the bones of the dead. But one way of putting it is that Stalin had conflated the requirements of national with personal security in a completely unprecedented way. It is revealing that the historical figure he most sought to emulate was not Lenin—whose experiments with terror were bad enough—but Ivan the Terrible. Years later Stalin's successor, Nikita Khrushchev, would recall his old boss's "utter irresponsibility and complete lack of respect for anyone other than himself." Stalin's choices, as much as Lenin's legacy or the requirements of Marxist ideology, transformed the government he ran and even the country he ruled, during the 1930s, into a gargantuan extension of his own pathologically suspicious personality. This supreme act of egoism spawned innumerable tragedies: one was that it constrained the Soviet Union's ability to counter the bid of another great authoritarian egoist, Hitler, for dominance in Europe.

It did so, first, by undercutting potential resistance within Germany itself. Stalin's distrust of European socialism was so great that he forbade the German Communist Party from collaborating with the Social Democrats to oppose the Nazi assumption of power in 1933. Alarmed by the results of this policy, he then allowed his foreign minister, Maxim Litvinov, to advocate collective security through the League of Nations, but just as the highly visible Moscow purge trials were getting underway. Stalin put his own terror on public display, therefore, at a time when Hitler's, for the most part, was still hidden: no wonder the European democracies, themselves ambivalent over whether to resist or appease fascism, responded tepidly to Litvinov's efforts. Nor did they monopolize short-sightedness: Stalin himself had long hoped for some kind of cooperation with Nazi Germany, despite the ideological inconsistencies this would have involved. His decision to sign a non-aggression pact with Hitler in August 1939, just days before Germany invaded Poland and less than two years before it would attack the Soviet Union itself, was entirely in keeping with the spirit, and the characteristic competence, of Stalinist diplomacy.

The eve of World War II, then, found the United States and the Soviet Union on the sidelines: they had chosen to exclude themselves, or had found themselves excluded, from the role their size and strength should have given them in European affairs. Despite a contrast in forms of government that could hardly have been greater, Soviet and American leaders shared a sense of impotence as war again approached. Neither country could control what was happening, nor did there seem to be the slightest prospect that they might in the future cooperate. An informed observer, as late as the end of 1939, would have had every reason to regard Tocqueville's 1835 prophecy about an eventual Russian and American domination of the world as, still, a wild improbability.

IV

There were important parallels, but equally important differences, in the careers of Hitler and Stalin. Both had risen from being outsiders in their respective societies to positions of unchallenged authority over them; both had been underestimated by potential rivals; both were prepared to use whatever methods were available—including terror—to achieve their purposes. Both exploited the fact that a harsh peace and the onset of a global economic crisis had stalled the advance of democracy in Europe, but not the technological means of controlling large populations; both made full use of the opportunities for propaganda, surveillance, and swift action provided by such innovations as the telephone, radio, motion pictures, automobiles, and airplanes. Both benefited, as a consequence, from the conviction of many Europeans that authoritarianism was the wave of the future. Both merged personal with national interests; both dedicated themselves to implementing internationalist ideologies.

But where Stalin looked toward an eventual world proletarian revolution, Hitler sought immediate racial purification. Where Stalin was cautiously flexible, Hitler stuck to his perverse principles through thick and thin: he never placed the security of his state or even himself above the task of achieving literally, and at whatever cost, his goals of Aryan supremacy and Jewish annihilation. Where Stalin was patient, prepared to take as long as necessary to achieve his ambitions, Hitler was frenetic, determined to meet deadlines he himself had imposed. Where Stalin sought desperately to stay out of war, Hitler set out quite deliberately to provoke it.

Both authoritarians wanted to dominate Europe, a fact that placed them at odds with the traditional American interest in maintaining a balance of power there. But only Hitler was in a position to attempt domination: he therefore created, for the United States, the European democracies, and even the Soviet Union itself, a threat whose urgency, one might have thought, would have transcended whatever differences divided his potential victims.

It certainly did so in Washington and London. Franklin D. Roosevelt had long regarded Nazi Germany as the primary danger to American security and had sought, ever since extending diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union in 1933, to leave the way open for cooperation with Moscow. Winston Churchill loathed Marxism-Leninism at least as much as his predecessor Neville Chamberlain, but he shared Roosevelt's view that geopolitics was more important than ideology. Both leaders foresaw the fragility of the Nazi-Soviet alliance and were prepared to accept Soviet help in containing Hitler whenever that became possible. They also repeatedly warned Stalin of the impending German attack in the winter and spring of 1941. Only the Soviet dictator's misplaced faith in a fellow authoritarian—a kind of brutal romanticism, to which his own temperament and style of governing would allow no challenge—prevented the necessary defensive measures and made Hitler's invasion in June of that year such a devastating surprise. "My people and I, Iosif Vissarionovich, firmly remember your wise prediction," NKVD chief Lavrentii Beria wrote to Stalin on the day before the invasion: "Hitler will not attack us in 1941!"

The German Fuhrer had no comparable illusions about his Soviet counterpart, but he too subordinated geopolitical logic to authoritarian romanticism. He struck because he had always believed German racial interests required Lebensraum in the east; but he paid little attention to what Napoleon's precedent suggested about the imprudence of invading Russia while Great Britain remained undefeated. It is even more difficult to account for Hitler's declaration of war on the United States the following December, four days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Had he not acted, Roosevelt would have found himself under immense pressure to divert American resources—including the Lend Lease aid already flowing to Great Britain and even by then to the Soviet Union—to the Pacific. The best explanation of Hitler's behavior appears to be that excitement over Japan's entry into the war impaired his ability to think clearly, and in an autocratic system no mechanisms existed to repair the damage.

Both Stalin and Hitler made foolish mistakes in 1941, and for much the same reason: their systems of government reflected and reinforced their own romanticism, providing few safeguards against incompetence at the top. The effect turned out to be a fortunate one, because it eliminated any possibility of an authoritarian coalition directed against the United States and its democratic allies; instead, the democracies now aligned themselves, however uneasily, with one authoritarian state against the other. German statecraft had once again drawn Americans and Russians into Europe, but this time in such a way as to throw them, despite deep ideological differences, into positions of desperate dependence upon one another. For without the Soviet Union's immense expenditure of manpower against the Germans, it is difficult to see how the Americans and British could ever have launched a successful second front. But without the United States' material assistance in the form of Lend Lease, together with its role in holding the Japanese at bay in the Pacific, the Red Army might never have repelled the Nazi invasion in the first place.

Tocqueville had long ago foreseen that the United States and Russia, if ever moved to do so, would command human and material resources on an enormous scale: their potential power exceeded that of any European state he could envisage. What neither Tocqueville nor anyone else could have anticipated were the circumstances that might cause Americans and Russians to apply this strength, simultaneously, beyond their borders, and in a common cause. Hitler's twin declarations of war accomplished that, giving the Soviet Union and the United States compelling reasons to re-enter the European arena with, quite literally, a shared sense of vengeance. Through these unexpectedly unwise acts, therefore, this most improbable of historical agents at last brought Tocqueville's old prophecy within sight of fulfillment.

V

When a power vacuum separates great powers, as one did the United States and the Soviet Union at the end of World War II, they are unlikely to fill it without bumping up against and bruising each other's interests. This would have happened if the two postwar hegemons had been constitutional democracies: historians of the wartime Anglo-American relationship have long since exposed the bumping and bruising that did take place, even among these closest of allies. Victory would require more difficult adjustments for Russians and Americans because so many legacies of distrust now divided them: the distinction between authoritarian and democratic traditions; the challenge communism and capitalism posed to one another; Soviet memories of allied intervention in Russia after World War I; more recent American memories of Stalin's purges and his opportunistic pact with Hitler. It was too much to expect a few years of wartime cooperation to sweep all of this away.

At the same time, though, these legacies need not have produced almost half a century of Soviet-American confrontation. The leaders of great nations are never entirely bound by the past: new situations continually arise, and they are free to reject old methods in attempting to deal with them. Alliance in a common cause was as new a situation as one can imagine in the Russian-American relationship. Much would depend, therefore, upon the extent to which Roosevelt and Stalin could—in effect—liberate their nations' futures from a difficult past.

The American President and his key advisers were determined to secure the United States against whatever dangers might confront it after victory, but they lacked a clear sense of what those might be or where they might arise. Their thinking about postwar security was, as a consequence, more general than specific. They certainly saw a vital interest in preventing any hostile power from again attempting to dominate the European continent. They were not prepared to see military capabilities reduced to anything like the inadequate levels of the interwar era, nor would they resist opportunities to reshape the international economy in ways that would benefit American capitalism. They resolved to resist any return to isolationism, and they optimistically embraced the "second chance" the war had provided to build a global security organization in which the United States would play the leading role.

But these priorities reflected no unilateral conception of vital interests. A quarter century earlier, Wilson had linked American war aims to reform of the international system as a whole; and although his ideas had not then taken hold, the coming of a second world war revived a widespread and even guilt-ridden interest in them as a means of avoiding a third such conflict. Roosevelt persuaded a skeptical Churchill to endorse Wilson's thinking in August, 1941, when they jointly proclaimed, in the Atlantic Charter, three postwar objectives: self-determination-the idea here was that people who could choose their own forms of government would not want to overthrow them, hence they would achieve, to use a Rooseveltian term, freedom from fear; open markets—the assumption was that an unrestricted flow of commodities and capital would ensure economic prosperity, hence freedom from want; and collective security—the conviction that nations had to act together rather than separately if they were ever to achieve safety. To put it in language Mikhail Gorbachev would employ decades later, security would have to be a condition common to all, not one granted to some and withheld from others.

Despite this public commitment to Wilsonian principles, neither Roosevelt nor Churchill ruled out more realistic practices. Had postwar planning been left to them alone, as in democracies it could not be, they might well have come up with something like what Roosevelt occasionally talked about: the idea of four great powers—the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and Nationalist China—operating as world policemen, using force or the prospect of it to keep smaller states in line. But even this cold-blooded approach, like the Wilsonian constraints that kept the politically sensitive Roosevelt from insisting on it, implied a sense of collective security among the four: it would not have worked if any one of them had sought to maximize security for itself, while attempting to deny it to others. There was, thus, little unilateralism in F.D.R.'s thinking, whether he was operating in his idealistic or his realistic mode.

The United States would seek power in the postwar world, not shy away from it as it had done after World War I. It would do so in the belief that only it had the strength to build a peace based on Wilsonian principles of self-determination, open markets, and collective security. It would administer that peace neither for its exclusive advantage nor in such a way as to provide equal benefits to all: many as yet ill-defined possibilities lay in between these extremes. Nor would Roosevelt assume, as Wilson had, public and Congressional approval; rather, the administration would make careful efforts to ensure domestic support for the postwar settlement at every step of the way. There would be another attempt at a Wilsonian peace, but this time by the un-Wilsonian method of offering each of the great powers as well as the American people a vested interest in making it work. It was within this framework of pragmatism mixed with principle that Roosevelt hoped to deal with Stalin.

The Soviet leader, too, sought security after World War II: his country lost at least 27 million of its citizens in that conflict; he could hardly have done otherwise. But no tradition of common or collective security shaped postwar priorities as viewed from Moscow, for the very good reason that it was no longer permitted there to distinguish between state interests, party interests, and those of Stalin himself. National security had come to mean personal security, and the Kremlin boss saw so many threats to it that he had already resorted to murder on a mass scale in order to remove all conceivable challengers to his regime. It would be hard to imagine a more unilateral approach to security than the internal practices Stalin had set in motion during the 1930s. Cooperation with external allies was obviously to his advantage when the Germans were within sight of his capital, but whether that cooperation would extend beyond Hitler's defeat was another matter. It would depend upon the ability of an aging and authoritarian ruler to shift his own thinking about security to a multilateral basis, and to restructure the government he had made into a reflection of himself.

It is sometimes said of Stalin that he had long since given up the Lenin-Trotsky goal of world revolution in favor of "socialism in one country," a doctrine that seemed to imply peaceful coexistence with states of differing social systems. But that is a misunderstanding of Stalin's position. What he really did in the late 1920s was to drop Lenin's prediction that revolutions would arise spontaneously in other advanced industrial countries; instead he came to see the Soviet Union itself as the center from which socialism would spread and eventually defeat capitalism. The effect was to switch the principal instrument for advancing revolution from Marx's idea of a historically determined class struggle to a process of territorial acquisition Stalin could control. "The idea of propagating world Communist revolution was an ideological screen to hide our desire for world domination," one of his secret agents recalled decades later. "This war is not as in the past," Stalin himself explained to the Yugoslav communist Milovan Djilas in 1945: "whoever occupies a territory also imposes his own social system....It cannot be otherwise."

Stalin was fully prepared to use unconventional means to promote Soviet interests beyond the territories he ruled. He kept Lenin's Comintern in place but turned it to his own purposes: this became clear during the Spanish Civil War, when Stalin used Comintern agents as much to wipe out Trotskyists as to fight fascists. One of his most far-sighted initiatives involved the recruitment of an elaborate network of youthful spies in Great Britain and the United States during the 1930s—most of them anti-fascist intellectuals—years before they could have risen to positions that would have given them anything significant to spy upon. Nor did Stalin rule out war itself as a means of advancing the revolutionary cause. He would not, like Hitler, risk military conflict to meet some predetermined timetable. But he did see wars among capitalists as likely to weaken them and therefore speed "socialist encirclement:" that may be one reason why he failed to foresee the German attack in 1941. And he by no means excluded the possibility of an eventual war with capitalism involving the Soviet Union itself. "Stalin looked at it this way," his foreign minister, Viacheslav Molotov recalled: "World War I has wrested one country from capitalist slavery; World War II has created a socialist system; and the third will finish off imperialism forever."

It would be easy to make too much of Stalin's words, for reality always seperates what people say from what they are able to do. What is striking about Stalin, though, is how small that separation was. To a degree we are only now coming to realize, Stalin literally imposed his rhetoric upon the country he ran: this was a dictator whose subordinates scrutinized his every comment, indeed his every gesture, and attempted to implement policies—even the most implausible scientific doctrines—on the basis of them. Not even Hitler ran so autocratic a system. The result was a kind of self-similarity across scale, in which the tyrant at the top spawned smaller tyrants at each level throughout the party and state bureaucracy: their activities extended down to the level of scrutinizing stamp collections for evidence that their owners might value the images of foreign potentates more than those of Lenin and Stalin. It was typical of the Kremlin boss, the most consummate of narcissists, that he thought very far ahead indeed about security. But it was always and only his own security that he was thinking about.

Here, then, was the difficulty. The Western democracies sought a form of security that would reject violence or the threat of it: security was to be a collective good, not a benefit denied to some in order to provide it to others. Stalin saw things very differently: security came only by intimidating or eliminating potential challengers. World politics was an extension of Soviet politics, which was in turn an extension of Stalin's preferred personal environment: a zero-sum game, in which achieving security for one meant depriving everyone else of it. The contrast, or so it would seem, made conflict unavoidable.

VI

But is this not putting things too starkly? The United States and its democratic allies found ways to cooperate with the Soviet Union, after all, in fighting Germany and Japan. Could they not have managed their postwar relationship similarly, so that the safety Stalin demanded could have been made to correspond with the security the West required? Could there not have been a division of Europe into spheres of influence which, while they would hardly have pleased everybody, might have prevented an ensuing four and a half decades of superpower rivalry?

Stalin appears to have relished his role, along with Roosevelt and Churchill, as one of the wartime Big Three. Such evidence as has surfaced from Soviet archives suggests that he received reassuring reports about Washington's intentions: "Roosevelt is more friendly to us than any other prominent American," Ambassador Litvinov commented in June 1943, "and it is quite obvious that he wishes to cooperate with us." Whoever was in the White House, Litvinov's successor Andrei Gromyko predicted a year later, the Soviet Union and the United States would "manage to find common issues for the solution of ... problems emerging in the future and of interest to both countries." Even if Stalin's long-range thinking about security did clash with that of his Anglo-American allies, common military purposes provided the strongest possible inducements to smooth over such differences. It is worth asking why this practice of wartime cooperation did not become a habit that would extend into the postwar era.

The principal reason, it now appears, was Stalin's insistence on equating security with territory. Western diplomats had been surprised, upon arriving in Moscow soon after the German attack in the summer of 1941, to find the Soviet leader already demanding a postwar settlement that would retain what his pact with Hitler had yielded: the Baltic states, together with portions of Finland, Poland, and Romania. Stalin showed no sense of shame or even embarrassment about this, no awareness that the methods by which he had obtained these concessions could conceivably render them illegitimate in the eyes of anyone else. When it came to territorial aspirations, he made no distinction between adversaries and allies: what one had provided the other was expected to endorse.

Stalin coupled his claims with repeated requests for a second front, quite without regard to the fact that his own policies had left the British to fight Germany alone for a year, so that they were hardly in a position to comply. He reiterated his military and territorial demands after the Americans entered the war in December, despite the fact that they were desperately trying to hang on in the Pacific against a Japanese adversary against whom the Soviet Union—admittedly for good strategic reasons—had elected not to fight. This linkage of postwar requirements with wartime assistance was, as the Russians used to like to say, "no accident." A second front in Europe in 1942 would have been "a completely impossible operation for them," Molotov later acknowledged. "But our demand was politically necessary, and we had to press them for everything."

On the surface, this strategy succeeded. After strong initial objections, Roosevelt and Churchill did eventually acknowledge the Soviet Union's right to the expanded borders it claimed; they also made it clear that they would not oppose the installation of "friendly" governments in adjoining states. This meant accepting a Soviet sphere of influence from the Baltic to the Adriatic, a concession not easily reconciled with the Atlantic Charter. But the authors of that document saw no feasible way to avoid that outcome: military necessity required continued Soviet cooperation against the Germans. Nor were they themselves prepared to relinquish spheres of influence in Western Europe and the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Latin America, and East Asia. Self-determination was a sufficiently malleable concept that each of the Big Three could have endorsed, without sleepless nights, what the Soviet government had said about the Atlantic Charter: "practical application of these principles will necessarily adapt itself to the circumstances, needs, and historic peculiarities of particular countries."

That, though, was precisely the problem. For unlike Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill would have to defend their decisions before domestic constituencies. The manner in which Soviet influence expanded was therefore, for them, of no small significance. Stalin showed little understanding of this. Having no experience himself with democratic procedures, he dismissed requests that he respect democratic proprieties. "[S]ome propaganda work should be done," he advised Roosevelt at the Tehran conference after the president had hinted that the American public would welcome a plebiscite in the Baltic States. "It is all nonsense!" Stalin complained to Molotov. "[Roosevelt] is their military leader and commander in chief. Who would dare object to him?" When at Yalta F.D.R. stressed the need for the first Polish election to be as pure as "Caesar's wife," Stalin responded with a joke: "They said that about her, but in fact she had her sins." Molotov warned his boss, on that occasion, that the Americans' insistence on free elections elsewhere in Eastern Europe was "going too far." "Don't worry," he recalls Stalin as replying, "work it out. We can deal with it in our own way later. The point is the correlation of forces."

The Soviet leader was, in one sense, right. Military strength would determine what happened in that part of the world, not the enunciation of lofty principles. But unilateral methods carried long-term costs Stalin did not foresee: the most significant of these was to ruin whatever prospects existed for a Soviet sphere of influence the East Europeans themselves might have accepted. This possibility was not as far-fetched as it would later seem. The Czechoslovak president, Eduard Benes, spoke openly of a "Czech solution" that would exchange internal autonomy for Soviet control over foreign and military policy. W. Averell Harriman, one of Roosevelt's closest advisers and his ambassador to the Soviet Union after 1943, was keenly interested in such an arrangement and hoped to persuade the Poles of its merits.' F.D.R. and Churchill—concerned with finding a way to respect both Soviet security interests and democratic procedures in Eastern Europe—would almost certainly have gone along.

Nor was the idea out of the question from Stalin's point of view. He would, after all, approve such a compromise as the basis for a permanent settlement with Finland. He would initially allow free elections in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet occupation zone in Germany. He may even have anticipated an enthusiastic response as he took over Eastern Europe. "He was, I think, surprised and hurt," Harriman recalled, "when the Red Army was not welcomed in all the neighboring countries as an army of liberation." "We still had our hopes," Khrushchev remembered, that "after the catastrophe of World War II, Europe too might become Soviet. Everyone would take the path from capitalism to socialism." It could be that there was another form of romanticism at work here, quite apart from Stalin's affinity for fellow authoritarians: that he was unrealistic enough to expect ideological solidarity and gratitude for liberation to override old fears of Russian expansionism as well as remaining manifestations of nationalism among the Soviet Union's neighbors, perhaps as easily as he himself had overridden the latter—or so it then appeared—within the multinational empire that was the Soviet Union itself.

If the Red Army could have been welcomed in Poland and the rest of the countries it liberated with the same enthusiasm American, British, and Free French forces encountered when they landed in Italy and France in 1943 and 1944, then some kind of Czech-Finnish compromise might have been feasible. Whatever Stalin's expectations, though, this did not happen. That non-event, in turn, removed any possibility of a division of Europe all members of the Grand Alliance could have endorsed. It ensured that an American sphere of influence would arise there largely by consent, but that its Soviet counterpart could sustain itself only by coercion. The resulting asymmetry would account, more than anything else, for the origins, escalation, and ultimate outcome of the Cold War.

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Table of Contents

1. Dividing the World
2. Cold War Empires: Europe
3. Cold War Empires: Asia
4. Nuclear Weapons and the Early Cold War
5. The German Question
6. The Third World
7. Economics, Ideology, and Alliance Solidarity
8. Nuclear Weapons and the Escalation of the Cold War
9. The Cuban Missile Crisis
10. The New Cold War History: First Impressions
Notes, Bibliography, Index

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 21, 2001

    Exceptional Work

    Gaddis is one of the few Cold War historians who is grown up enough to alter his opinions of certain issues in line of new information becoming available. There are very few like him. It is possible to use this book in conjunction with studies of both U.S. and Soviet involvement. His account of Khruschev's visit to the U.S. is absolutely vivid and humour, which encapsulated the character that Khruschev was, is not lost. I have just two criticisms. First, he still relies too much on the memoirs of Soviet officials such as Khruschev's (Though it was exceptional for a Soviet leader to publish his memoirs in the West) and that of Molotov's (For whom lying was not bad, just an art form).

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    Posted July 13, 2009

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