Books by John Lewis Gaddis discussed in this essay:

In the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, a Yale University student asked one of her instructors, "Would it be OK now for us to be patriotic?" The professor, John Lewis Gaddis, widely regarded as the dean of American Cold War historians, replied: "Yes, I think it would." 

Even allowing for the emotions of the moment, such a response from a prestigious Ivy League academic might seem a bit surprising in these politically correct times. Yale University was once home to Samuel Flagg Bemis, the preeminent U.S. diplomatic historian before World War II. Bemis is now widely ridiculed in the academy as "U.S. Flagg Bemis" for treating America as something other than a rapacious, racist, retrograde regime. Gaddis runs the same risk of professional ostracism. He told the story of his student in a controversial 2004 book, Surprise, Security, and the American Experience, in which he concluded that the Bush Administration's policy of strategic preemption, whatever its merits in the particular circumstances, did not depart radically from the American foreign policy tradition. Gaddis's latest work, The Cold War: A New History, intended for popular audiences, offers a conclusion that is equally guaranteed to set his colleagues' teeth on edge. "The world, I am quite sure, is a better place for that conflict being fought in the way that it was and won by the side that won it…. 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."

Beyond Orthodoxy and Revisionism

Gaddis, to be sure, is no political conservative, much less a cheerleader for the Bush Administration. He gained his professional reputation as the leading expositor of an interpretation of the Cold War known as post-revisionism, which emerged during the 1970s and 1980s. The traditional or orthodox school—always more of a popular or political viewpoint than an academically respectable one—had held that the Cold War was the result of unprovoked Soviet aggression, which left the Free World no choice but to organize in defense of civilization. The contrary view, revisionism, emerged during the Vietnam era as a variant of New Left history. The revisionists placed the blame squarely on the United States, which pressed relentlessly to take advantage of Soviet weakness after World War II in order to stave off what was perceived as the imminent collapse of capitalism.

Gaddis offered a nuanced alternative to both orthodoxy and revisionism, beginning with The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941-1947, published in 1972. He drew heavily, if not explicitly, on the modern international relations theory of structural realism. From this perspective, neither Washington nor Moscow was immediately responsible for the emergence of a security competition in the aftermath of World War II. The two new superpowers were driven naturally into opposition by the forces of international politics. Both sought security and the prevention of a new war, not ideological or economic dominance. Their views of security differed greatly, however, based on their distinct geographical situations and historical experiences, and as a result they found themselves caught up in a classic "security dilemma." Steps that one side took to increase its security, such as the formation of a defensive military alliance, were interpreted by the other side as threatening. The second side responded with its own defensively-intended measures, which in turn were interpreted as threatening by the first side; and so on. The security dilemma was intensified by the atomic bomb. Each side feared that the other would find a way to use that revolutionary weapon to gain a decisive strategic advantage. 

For Gaddis and the post-revisionists, the U.S.-Soviet competition was thus an objective structural phenomenon of international politics. But security competitions need not turn into war, cold or otherwise. Diplomatic arrangements—such as sphere-of-influence agreements—could have moderated if not resolved the underlying tensions created by the security dilemma. What, then, accounted for the degeneration into a bitter, all-encompassing, and apparently enduring Cold War? 

According to post-revisionist analysis, both sides were to blame. Domestic factors entered into the strategic equation and profoundly destabilized the superpower relationship. On the Soviet side, the regime's fundamental insecurity at home caused Moscow to project its fears outward and to adopt a belligerent and aggressive posture. The West could offer nothing in the way of concessions that would reassure Stalin. This was the great insight that George F. Kennan, then an obscure American diplomat, set forth in his Long Telegram from the Moscow embassy in February 1946 and later in the famous 1947 "X" article in Foreign Affairs magazine. The United States, according to Gaddis and the post-revisionists, also faced domestic pressures that warped its sense of security. Some of these were accidental. The death of the worldly-wise Franklin Roosevelt brought into office an inexperienced Harry Truman, who fell under the sway of FDR's harder-line advisers at a critical juncture. Other domestic roots of American assertiveness towards the Soviet Union were less benign. The Democratic Party, for electoral reasons, was unwilling gracefully to accede to Soviet control of Poland. Democrats also feared accusations of softness on Communism after revelations of Soviet spying under Roosevelt. American foreign policy elites in both parties consciously inflated the Soviet threat to frighten public opinion into abandoning its traditional isolationism.

Strategies of Containment

This post-revisionist approach suggested the importance of assigning the relative blame for the breakdown in U.S.-Soviet relations. If one side was principally responsible for turning a difficult security dilemma into an intractable ideological struggle, that side presumably should have taken—and might still take—the lead in moving the conflict onto a more moderate path. 

Gaddis's most influential treatment of the question of relative blame came in Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of National Security Policy During the Cold War (1982; revised and enlarged, 2005), which immediately became the standard text on the subject. Gaddis followed sympathetically Kennan's analysis of the situation as it emerged during the critical years of the late 1940s and early 1950s. (The old diplomat and the rising young professor became friends and Gaddis is now writing a biography of Kennan.) Stalin had no grand strategy to dominate the world or Hitlerian desire for military conquest; he pursued rather an opportunistic strategy of filling power vacuums. The West was compelled to resist this Soviet campaign of subversion and intimidation through a counter-strategy of political and economic containment, which represented a sensible middle ground between an aggressive strategy of rollback and a return to isolationism or appeasement. Once the easy routes of expansion were closed to Moscow, Kennan concluded, the indirect pressure of containment and the forces of history would gradually transform the Soviet system. 

Containment, according to Kennan and Gaddis, should have been limited geographically as well as instrumentally. It went askew, Kennan argued, when the United States grossly overreacted to a series of apparent strategic setbacks in 1949, most notably Mao's victory in China and the unexpectedly early detonation of the first Soviet atomic bomb. Paul Nitze, Kennan's successor in the State Department, was the villain of the piece. Nitze and other hardliners seized the moment to advocate, in a famous internal document (NSC 68), the pursuit of an aggressive political counteroffensive supported by a massive American military buildup and the expansion of the containment perimeter to encompass the entire globe. The United States, by the post-revisionist line of analysis, became a victim of the classic mistake of all empires, strategic overextension, caused by an inability to distinguish vital from peripheral interests. Gaddis was hardly the first scholar to see a decisive shift in containment taking place around the time of the Korean War, but he offered the clearest account of what post-revisionist scholarship generally delineated as the dark and unnecessary transformation of American national security policy. If the Soviet Union had been principally responsible for the origins of the Cold War, the United States seemed to bear the onus for having radicalized, militarized, and globalized the conflict.

Gaddis did not ride this hobby horse as hard as did some other Cold War scholars. In Strategies of Containment he was interested primarily in evaluating the internal consistency of the various Cold War strategies. He discerned two basic strategic approaches: one sought to apply American strengths to Soviet weaknesses (asymmetrical containment); the other sought to match the Soviets across the board (symmetrical containment). Gaddis acknowledged that both approaches had advantages and disadvantages, but he tended to favor asymmetrical containment because it best matched cost-effective means with achievable foreign policy ends. If that framework of analysis led Gaddis to prefer Kennan over Nitze, it also produced more surprising judgments, such as a clear sympathy for Eisenhower's strategy of massive retaliation over Kennedy's flexible response approach. 

The American foreign policy establishment, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, happily embraced Gaddis's structuralist explanation of the Cold War and shared his taste for asymmetrical containment. Officials and think-tank policy analysts were relieved to learn from academic authority that they were not unconscious agents of American economic imperialism and that containment, rightly understood, was a legitimate means to legitimate ends. With appropriate adjustments in U.S. national security policy—more Kennan and less Nitze—they presumed that the "competition" with Moscow could be "managed" successfully. The national security community continued a process that had begun in the 1960s, turning to international relations theorists, social scientists, and economists for tools with which to alleviate the security dilemma. Predictability, transparency, and stability became the watchwords of the day. Viewed in this light the Cold War was not only natural and enduring—it was, in a perverse way, desirable. It was a means of keeping the United States engaged in the world and able to manage the global balance of power without war. Gaddis himself contributed to this line of argument with a 1987 book, The Long Peace: Inquiries Into the History of the Cold War, in which he predicted that historians of the next century might well look back upon the Cold War as a time of general peace and stability. 

Reagan and the Cold War's End

Of course, the bête noire of the Cold War school of competition management and stability was Ronald Reagan. Reagan disdained détente, warned of evil empires, spoke of transcending both Communism and nuclear deterrence; yet he wanted to build more missiles on the ground and defenses in the sky. The academic community, along with the majority of the foreign policy establishment, was appalled. Reagan's strategy seemed a radicalized version of Paul Nitze's NSC 68. Even Nitze, who served in the Reagan Administration, was clearly uncomfortable with the new American assertiveness. Gaddis, surprisingly—though running as usual against the common wisdom—wrote favorably of Reagan, who he thought was pursuing a promising combination of symmetrical and asymmetrical strategies.

Then the Cold War came to a sudden and decisive end, flabbergasting diplomatic historians and international relations theorists. Gaddis, taking advantage of the wave of archival evidence flowing out of the former Eastern bloc and being translated and summarized by other scholars, staked out a landmark post-Cold War interpretation of the origins of the Cold War. In We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (accent on "now," rather than "know"), published in 1997, Gaddis put the blame for the worst of the Cold War on Stalin. Although Stalin did not have a master plan for a global Communist empire, he was a despicable tyrant who saw the world through the ideological lenses of Marxism-Leninism. Stalin sought to dominate Europe as thoroughly as Hitler had wanted to do. Stalin assumed initially that the forces of history would bring this about naturally, as the capitalists fell out among themselves. But when the capitalists actually united in resistance, Stalin was perfectly capable of helping history along if the opportunity presented itself, as when he gave Kim Il Sung a "green light" for the invasion of South Korea. Stalin—and, to a lesser extent, his successors—had a strong streak of revolutionary romanticism that might well have led to strategic disaster had the United States not responded appropriately. The United States, of course, often did not respond appropriately or wisely, but this was the distinctly minor theme of Gaddis's analysis.

The Cold War: A New History goes even further. Gaddis does not abandon his structuralist argument or withdraw the conclusion that the United States overreacted in 1949-1950. He also celebrates the fact that the Cold War did not turn hot. But as he now sees it, the stable Long Peace—especially as manifested in détente—actually proved to be unstable. The structural determinants of international relations, it turns out, include not only the pursuit of power and security but a sense of justice. National and popular frustrations grew because unfair arrangements once deemed temporary (such as a divided Europe) had become permanent. Public fear of nuclear war challenged the elites' reliance on nuclear deterrence as a tool of Cold War management. Those living in command economies resented the manifest failure to improve living standards. There was a slow shift of influence from the supposedly powerful to the seemingly powerless, through the nonaligned movement, human rights organizations, and the like. The populations of captive nations were unexpectedly emboldened by new international standards for making moral judgments, such as the human rights provisions of the Helsinki Accords (1975).

Sensing these deeper historical trends, a few great "actor-leaders" found ways to dramatize them to make the point that the Cold War need not last forever. For Gaddis the greatest actor-leader (literally) was Ronald Reagan. "Reagan was as skillful a politician as the nation had seen for many years, and one of its sharpest grand strategists ever," Gaddis writes. "His strength lay in his ability to see beyond complexity to simplicity. And what he saw was simply this: that because détente perpetuated—and had been meant to perpetuate—the Cold War, only killing détente could end the Cold War." Others joined Reagan on stage, even though they were not all reading from the same script—Pope John Paul II (himself an actor as a young man), Margaret Thatcher, Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, and Deng Xiaoping. Finally there was poor Mikhail Gorbachev—completely at a loss to understand what fundamental change truly meant for his Soviet Union but aware that things could not go on as they were and, to his everlasting credit, willing to eschew violence and accept the verdict of history. Reagan, through decidedly un-Kennanesque means, had found a way to transform the Soviet regime. 

According to Gaddis, not even these visionaries foresaw how soon and how decisively the Cold War would end. The final impetus was provided by ordinary people with simple priorities who saw, seized, and sometimes stumbled into opportunities to seek freedom (the East Germans, for example, who reached the West through Hungary when leaders there opened up the border). In doing so they caused a collapse no one could stop. Leaders had little choice but to follow, even if—like President George H.W. Bush, a confirmed member of the Cold War country club—they did so with great reluctance.

A Damned Close-Run Thing

The Cold War: a New History, following on We Now Know, has been generally well received by the American foreign policy establishment, anxious to put itself on record as favoring the Right Side of History. But Gaddis has scandalized much of the historical profession by migrating, as they see it, from cutting-edge scholarship to iconoclasm to, of all things, orthodoxy. Beyond that, he now stands accused, by critics of current American foreign policy, of becoming a fellow traveler and tool of the triumphalists, those who celebrate victory in the Cold War as the vindication of American exceptionalism and of peace-through-excessive-strength. 

Tony Judt sums up this case in the New York Review of Books (March 23, 2006): the untold story of the Cold War is not that of America's victory but of the costs imposed on unwilling bystanders caught up in the superpowers' struggle. America encouraged destructive civil and proxy wars such as Vietnam and Afghanistan; supported friendly dictators and brutal regimes, especially those in the Arab world; and brushed aside unfriendly democracies or progressive regimes, such as Chile and Guatemala. Gaddis says little or nothing of the tremendous collateral damage of the Cold War. The Soviets, of course, were equal partners in these crimes but at least they did not attempt to veil their brutality with hypocrisy. According to this anti-triumphal view, American triumphalists are oblivious to the deep-seated resentment and hostility to the United States that its Cold War policies generated, especially when coupled with the culture-destroying promotion of globalization. These worldwide grievances have grown into outright hatred as the Bush Administration applies the Reaganite/NSC 68 template to the so-called War on Terrorism, symbolized for the world by the disastrous war in Iraq and the abuses of Abu Ghraib. President George W. Bush acts in precisely the wrong way towards peoples already weary of American hubris and power. Wisdom lies in shaking free of the comfortable illusions, promoted by Gaddis and the neoconservatives, of a triumphant and virtuous America marching to a universally welcome victory in the war over terrorism, as it supposedly did over Communism.

Those who don't object to American strength and even the occasional triumph will also have some bones to pick with Gaddis. In The Cold War (although less so in his scholarly writings) he makes the process of waging the Cold War seem too easy, the outcome a bit too predictable. For those in the arena during the late 1970s, history seemed far from turning decisively in our favor. The West appeared in systematic decline if not on the verge of failure—even if one took a relaxed view of the Soviet military buildup and geopolitical gains during that decade. Capitalist economies stalled or declined in the face of apparently permanent high inflation. Oil was hideously expensive, in short and uncertain supply, without obvious alternatives. A popular novel was built around the "Crash of 1979." Jimmy Carter and the Club of Rome proclaimed eras of malaise and limited resources. Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul II did not come on the scene with unambiguous mandates to fix things. Reagan was elected overwhelmingly in the electoral college, but he barely received a popular majority and was widely denounced by the best and the brightest as a reactionary dunce. His popularity plunged sharply in the midst of a brutal recession in 1982, which threatened not only his reelection but his ability to sustain an assertive foreign policy. Millions took to the streets in Europe to protest American militarism and oppose the deployment of intermediate-range nuclear forces. The NATO alliance nearly buckled under the pressure. 

Sometimes, statesmen at the highest level must stand up to the apparently inexorable currents of history rather than looking to ride them. These statesmen accept the risk of failure, even as they strive to deserve success. The successful end of the Cold War was actually a damned close-run thing, subject to a variety of unpredictable factors. Consider one of those historical counterfactuals of which Gaddis is so fond: suppose Reagan and the Pope had not survived their assassination attempts? Nor was a peaceful end of the Soviet empire foreordained by Soviet weakness. Sophisticated American observers at the time understood that the Kremlin was plagued by economic inefficiency, declining standards of living, ethnic unrest, the demoralization of the nomenklatura, and the lack of political legitimacy. But there was certainly enough slack in the system to make one final push against collapse if a vigorous, aggressive Soviet leader had emerged and played cleverly upon the deep divisions in the West—or was prepared to turn the Cold War hot. Conservatives feared that Gorbachev might be such a genius. Reagan, to his credit, realized that Gorbachev was actually another kind of genius, or fool. 

Gaddis also reaches too easily the conclusion that the Cold War marked a radical, permanent devaluation of military power as an active ingredient in great power politics. He believes that nuclear weapons ended the era of great power wars because leaders on both sides slowly (too slowly) came to the realization that the Clausewitzian relationship between war and politics was no longer rational when humanity itself would be destroyed by war. But the Cold War was marked by an intense military-technical competition—a qualitative arms race—that served as the functional equivalent of war, especially when that competition meshed with hot wars fought by proxies or by proxies against one of the superpowers. Nuclear weapons, and the policies surrounding them, came to function as the queens of the geopolitical chessboard. The U.S. military buildup of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when coupled with Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (meant sincerely by him as a step towards nuclear abolition) and with related efforts to subvert the Soviets' economy and political legitimacy, was designed, after all, to force the Kremlin to choose between retrenchment and collapse.

Reagan's strategy was risky because the Soviets had a third option. Although an assertive U.S. strategy was necessary to compel a dramatic and favorable shift in the strategic environment, this strategy accepted, and indeed encouraged, a dramatic short-term increase in tension. War was always a last-ditch option for the Kremlin—one that a faction of Soviet leaders actually advocated at the last moment to prevent the re-unification of Germany. It was not at all clear that public opinion in America or overseas would support American assertiveness; nor was it clear how the peoples of the Soviet bloc would weigh the prospects of liberation against those of a devastating crackdown or superpower conflict fought on their soil. The political stagecraft associated with the end of the Cold War, about which Gaddis rightly makes much, had a heavy military dimension that manipulated the fear of war even as it reassured public opinion and the allies. In the future, military power, and great power war itself, may matter in equally unexpected ways.

As the Cold War recedes into history, arguments about its causes and consequences will certainly continue, just as they have over the American Civil War. John Lewis Gaddis is a thoughtful, knowledgeable guide through these arguments. He does precisely what a good scholar should do. He hews to his own path. He offers broad yet serious interpretations that provoke as well as instruct. He changes his mind or at least modifies his argument as new evidence emerges. One may disagree with him, but only by clarifying one's own thinking. And in our world, it is greatly to his credit that he knows how a serious professor should answer a serious student's question.