The Church of American Power

Isn’t there something fishy about being the “most distinguished historian of postwar geopolitics,” to quote the kind of epithet currently in vogue when reviewers of the recently published book, The Cold War, refer to its author, the Robert A. Lovett Professor of History and Political Science at Yale University, John Lewis Gaddis?

After all, when commentators allude to the so-called “Cold War,” quite typically they have it in their heads that they are referring to an era of international relations or world history or life within the Soviet- and the American-led blocs that began, roughly, some time around the Yalta Conference, or the Allies’ capture of Berlin, or that speech by Winston Churchill in Fulton, Missouri, and ended (again roughly) with the breaching of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet bloc in late 1989, or the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union itself in very late 1991. For anyone possessed by this mental representation of the “Cold War,” the Cold War was a prolonged series of interconnected events during which the peoples of this world—but especially the peoples of the First and Second worlds—lived. Like a nasty wedding party at which the bride’s and the groom’s families don’t get along. Only much larger. Or, if you prefer, like a real war. Only unreal. (“Imaginary,” as they say.) Or a prolonged winter. An ice age. But one that observed historical niceties. And came not only with a beginning, a middle, and an end. But also with story tellers. Narrators. And even distinguished historians.

Quite the contrary. I have always suspected that the single most striking feature of the “Cold War” was its sheer unreality. Not even its imaginariness. Not the sense in which wasn’t a full-scale shooting war between the American and Soviet blocs. Nuclear Armageddon. The proverbial World War III.

But in the sense that while States and human actors were doing one thing in the real world (e.g., what the Americans were really doing in places such as Iran, Guatemala, and Vietnam), mentally (i.e., ideologically), they were representing what they did through a framework that was false to the actual events, but sounded a lot nicer in translation.

People can live during nasty wedding parties, shooting wars, and ice ages, because these events are real. But the Cold War was something else entirely. An inverted world of Great Power politics. An ideology. To me, it makes no sense to speak of the content of an ideology as real. Rather, the content of an ideology is unreal—which is one reason why we categorize it as ideology. (The other main reason being that it serves the interest of the powerful.) Therefore, it makes no sense to write about ideology except as ideology. This is the uncomfortable position in which historians of the “Cold War” find themselves—and the more distinguished the historian, the greater the discomfort. Sure. One may write about the “Cold War.” But, invariably, one will be writing about something unreal. Now. In order to write truthfully about a lie, one must be able to recognize that it is a lie; and one must be upfront with others about it, and share this truth with them. Historians who take up the “Cold War” and write about a real era of world history fall prey to this most fundamental of fallacies. Like the expositors of Christian doctrine, the expositors of Cold War ideology tend to believe it. Thus they fail to recognize that the “Cold War” era about which they exposit, becoming more or less distinguished for their expositions, is not to be confused with the Cold War as a system of propaganda. Were they to write about the latter—as, for example, fellow ZNet blogger Noam Chomsky has at length—their work may or may not be judged “distinguished.” But at least it wouldn’t be guilty of mistaking what is unreal for what is real—the worst category mistake imaginable. And yet the basis for the expositors of Christian doctrine. And for upwards of 100 percent of the expositors of Cold War doctrine, too.

I mean, in order for a writer to be counted among the most distinguished historians of the “Cold War Era,” is it not the case that he also must rank among the most successful purveyors of the Cold War System of Propaganda? Sort of like calling George Weigel a distinguished historian of the Church of Rome, and of the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, while failing to recognize that, before he is anything else, Weigel is a proselytizer for the Church of Rome.

Were John Lewis Gaddis instead as sharp a debunker of the Cold War as a system of propaganda as Gaddis is now a proselytizer of the “Cold War” era, I’ll bet you that Gaddis wouldn’t be regarded as a distinguished historian of anything. And this, notwithstanding the man’s immense scholarship and talent.

Any more than George Weigel could be regarded a distinguished historian of the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, were he their debunker, instead of their proselytizer. Along with the system of propaganda that sustains their worldly power.

Basically, both the Church of American Power and the Church of Rome work the same way.

If you know what I mean.

The Cold War: A New History, John Lewis Gaddis (Penguin Press, 2005)

The United States and the Origins of the Cold War 1941-1947, John Lewis Gaddis (Columbia University Press, 1972)
Containment: Documents on American Policy and Strategy, 1945-1950, Thomas H. Etzold and John Lewis Gaddis (Columbia University Press, 1978)
The Long Peace: Inquiries into the History of the Cold War, John Lewis Gaddis (Oxford University Press, 1989)
Russia, the Soviet Union and the United States: An Interpretive History (2nd. Ed.), John Lewis Gaddis (McGraw-Hill, 1990)
The United States and the End of the Cold War : Implications, Reconsiderations, Provocations, John Lewis Gaddis (Oxford University Press, 1994)
The Landscape of History : How Historians Map the Past, John Lewis Gaddis (Oxford University Press, 2004)
Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy (Rev.), John Lewis Gaddis (Oxford University Press, 2005)

Grand Strategy in the Second Term,” John Lewis Gaddis, Foreign Affairs, January/February, 2005
After Containment,” John Lewis Gaddis, New Republic, April 25, 2005

Deterring Democracy, Noam Chomsky (Hill and Wang, 1992)

Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II, George Weigel (HarperCollins, 1999)
God’s Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church, George Weigel (HarperCollins, 2005)

Cold War: Why it’s all Greek to the US,” Gordon Brewer, Scotland on Sunday, December 18, 2005
The cold war: how it began, why it ended,” Jonathan Rosenberg, Christian Science Monitor, December 20, 2005
“Goodbye, Lenin,” Brendan Simms, Wall Street Journal, December 22, 2005
If You Must Have a War, Make Sure It’s a Cold One,” William Grimes, New York Times, December 28, 2005
The kiss of death,” Dominic Sandbrook, Daily Telegraph, December 31, 2005
How Ike kept the Cold War heat on the Kremlin,” Ian Bruce, The Herald, December 31, 2005
History: The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis,” Robert Service, The Times, January 1, 2006
In the age of armageddon,” Catherine Merridale, The Independent, January 6, 2006
The blinking and the blinkered,” The Economist, January 7, 2006
Uncle Sam’s history lesson,” Mark Mazower, The Times, January 7, 2006
You Need Enemies, Not Friends,” Ian Thompson, The Independent, January 8, 2006
When worlds collided,” Tim Gardam, The Observer, January 8, 2006
“This lucid history reminds Max Hastings how HIGH the stakes in the cold war were and just what a dirty war it was,” Max Hastings, Sunday Telegraph, January 8, 2005 [See below]
This Isn’t Called the [Blank] Era for Nothing,” Richard N. Haass, Washington Post, January 8, 2006
“Triumphant survivors of a sinister stalemate,” Michael Burleigh, Evening Standard, January 9, 2006 [See below]
The great divide,” Richard Gott, New Statesman, January 23, 2006 [Also see below]

FYA (“For your archives”): Am reproducing here copies of two of the reviews listed above for which I have been unable to provide working weblinks.

The Daily Telegraph (LONDON)
January 8, 2006 Sunday
HEADLINE: History This lucid history reminds Max Hastings how HIGH the stakes in the cold war were and just what a dirty war it was
BYLINE: Max Hastings

The Cold War
ALLEN LANE/PENGUIN pounds 20, 352 pp T pounds 18 ( pounds 1.25 p&p) 0870 428 411

We are leaving behind the generation of people in which some understanding of the Cold War could be taken for granted, because they lived it. John Lewis Gaddis, one of the struggle’s foremost American historians, has written his new book as a primer for those who did not.

His concise account also deserves an older audience. It reminds us of a host of things that threaten to become blurred: how indescribably bloody the Soviets were, and how vital it was for civilisation that they should not prevail; how many useful idiots in the West declined to recognise this; how recently the triumph of capitalism seemed doubtful.

Gaddis quotes his hero, the great Cold War strategist George F. Kennan, who perceived from the outset that Soviet hostility to the West was inescapable, because only foreign enemies could provide Moscow’s masters with excuses ‘for the dictatorship without which they do not know how to rule, for cruelties they do not dare not to inflict, for sacrifices they feel bound to demand’.

The United States’ most enlightened response was, of course, the Marshall Plan – economic aid on a vast scale, to revive the ruined nations of Europe. Its architects understood that, since Soviet hopes were pinned upon the failure of capitalism, it was essential to promote its success.

Much less enlightened was the commitment of both protagonists to vile local regimes around the world, merely because they professed adherence to the Eastern or Western camp. To a remarkable degree, small client states such as the two Vietnams and Koreas, not to mention a string of banana republics, grew tails which wagged dogs in Moscow and Washington.

Gaddis vividly identifies the tensions between America’s desire to be a ‘good’ society at home and its perceived need to do ‘bad’ things abroad – chiefly through the CIA – to assist its cause in the Cold War. He cites Johnson’s deceits over Vietnam and Nixon’s pursuit of domestic enemies culminating in Watergate as representing a dangerous moral descent. They put at risk the very values for which the struggle was being waged. In the Johnson-Nixon era, a host of young people, alienated by Vietnam, questioned whether the West was indeed the ‘right’ side in the global ideological struggle.

Gaddis argues that a few remarkable leaders – Reagan, Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, Gorbachev, Havel, Walesa – and a host of ordinary people broke the logjam of East-West confrontation. In the 1980s, he says, on both sides of the Iron Curtain there developed ‘a growing insistence that the rule of law – or at least basic standards of human decency – should govern the actions of states, as well as those of the individuals who resided within them’. This was manifested in the East by Soviet dissidents led by Sakharov and Solzhenitzyn, by Polish Solidarity and the intellectual rebels in Czechoslovakia. Moscow’s leadership discovered, to its bewilderment, that tanks were impotent against such forces.

Prominent in Gaddis’s pantheon of Western heroes are Margaret Thatcher, who restored the reputation of European capitalism, and Ronald Reagan, who shattered what the author sees as a pernicious Western consensus, that Soviet tyranny might be tolerated in Eastern Europe, as long as the West was left in peace.

He applauds Reagan’s role as the first post-war president to demand an escape from Mutually Assured Destruction. Yet Reagan’s cherished ballistic missile defence, SDI, was a technological fantasy which frightened the Kremlin’s geriatrics to the brink of potentially calamitous recklessness. They were already spending three times as much on arms as the US, with a gross domestic product one-sixth its size. They were appalled by the prospect of a further escalation.

It is hard to accept that Reagan’s huge military spending programme achieved anything useful. It was events, above all the revelation of Soviet economic bankruptcy, which prompted the collapse of the ‘evil empire’. Reagan lived in great times, rather than laying any plausible claim to greatness for his own presidency.

Gaddis says in his peroration: ‘The Cold War began with a return of fear’ – in 1945 – ‘and ended in a triumph of hope, an unusual trajectory for great historical upheavals. It could easily have been otherwise: the world spent the last half of the 20th century having its deepest anxieties not confirmed.’

This book provides a crisp, salutary reminder of how vast were the stakes in the East-West conflict. Gaddis does not flinch from acknowledging the degree to which the Western cause was morally compromised by such bloody mistakes as Vietnam and Washington’s Latin-American adventures. But history is about relative judgements. Many Western socialists continued to assert the virtues of the communist ‘people’s democracies’ even into the 1980s. Posterity should be unsparing in its contempt for the apologists. The West did some wretched things in the Cold War. At the last, however, our side represented the forces of good, and the world has lasting cause to be thankful for their triumph.

The Evening Standard (London)
January 9, 2006 Monday
SECTION: A 04; Pg. 33
HEADLINE: Triumphant survivors of a sinister stalemate

The Cold War
by John Lewis Gaddis
(Allen Lane, Pounds 20)

THE advent of 2006 gives few grounds for optimism in international affairs.

While we were putting on excess pounds, Iraqi policemen and soldiers were being blown up with a mindnumbing frequency. People across Europe resumed work in a new era in which a former KGB officer could cut off natural gas supplies because of a politicised price war with the Ukraine. A maniac in Iran makes insane threats involving nuclear bombs. No, it’s not looking good out there.

If you need cheering up in January, you should certainly get hold of John Lewis Gaddis’s gripping and lucid account of the Cold War.

Gaddis writes: “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.” Such lack of equivocation makes this such an exhilarating book.

The Second World War was won by a coalition whose partners agreed on one thing – to defeat Nazism – an objective that concealed the latent war triggered by the Bolshevik coup in 1917.

As George Kennan recognised in his famous 1946 “long telegram”, Stalin’s USSR had to see the world in paranoid terms as the only means of justifying the hecatombs of dead – and the total would rise to more than 100 million – that Communism had created.

The Cold War represented the continuation and extension of this struggle, but in a postwar context in which nuclear bombs cancelled out war as a viable instrument of policy.

The reason why the US and the USSR conspired to keep quiet about the only time they ever directly clashed – in dogfights over Korea – was that presidents Truman and Eisenhower thought that weapons technology had made total war futile.

This was despite the fact that during the early 1950s the US enjoyed a 74:1 superiority in nuclear bombs over a Soviet Union that had licensed Mao’s China to militarily intervene on the peninsula, one of many wilful provocations by a Soviet leadership that emerges with little or no credit in this book. The brains of some were soused in vodka; others seemed to lack a pulse.

Much of the history of the Cold War concerned how to manage international relations in the shadow of what by the early 1960s was known as Mutual Assured Destruction. For on 1 March 1954 the US successfully tested a thermonuclear bomb that was 750 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

The Cold War led to such surrealities as both superpowers forgoing antimissile defence systems, so that they would have to make decisions conscious that the wrong choice would bring global annihilation. It led to proxy wars fought with clients, who sometimes mutated into the tail that wagged the dog.

It led to the era of “detente” – or what Ronald Reagan memorably called “what a farmer has with his turkey until Thanksgiving Day” – in which irresolute Western leaders appeared to tolerate the enslavement of half a continent.

It was fought in the mind, perhaps the only area where Gaddis’s account is weak, for during the Cold War the West was better at public diplomacy than it is now.

A sinister stalemate ended in the 1980s with the arrival of leaders with the imagination to see that the Cold War could be won. A fully paid-up US liberal, Gaddis nevertheless has warm words for Reagan, Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, and more questionably, Deng Xiaoping and Mikhail Gorbachev.

Millions of ordinary people throughout Eastern Europe followed John Paul II’s call to cease being afraid, and the Soviet Empire imploded. The Cold War had been won and the world we inhabit had been born. Compared to what might have happened in the previous 50 years, the world in January 2006 doesn’t look too bad.

[Michael Burleigh presents Dark Enlightenment on More4 on 16 January at 10pm]

New Statesman
January 23, 2006
HEADLINE: The great divide. Richard Gott on an unashamedly biased account of the US-Soviet stand-off
BYLINE: Richard Gott

The Cold War
John Lewis Gaddis Allen Lane, the Penguin Press, 352pp, £20
ISBN 0713999128

It was suggested over Christmas that Adolf Hitler gets too much attention in schools, and that history teaching might now move forward to the cold war. Such a notion seems eminently reasonable, and right on cue comes a book on the topic from an American historian who knows more than most. John Lewis Gaddis is a specialist who has published many large works on the cold war, and his publisher has persuaded him to write a concise guide to international history since 1945, designed for a generation not around at the time.

His book is a handy synthesis, yet it would be a mistake for it to be used as a textbook in British schools, because it is an unashamedly American and triumphalist version of the long US-Soviet quarrel that broke out after the Second World War. Few British historians would accept it un-critically, even with the carefully phrased puff from Peter Hennessy on the jacket.

No consensus exists today about the cold war, although the powerful revisionist school that existed in the US during the Vietnam war has been largely obliterated by the post-1989 euphoria. Few of those who lived through the whole of the cold war (you have to be over 60) have changed the opinions they formed at the time. Some thought the west, led by the US, was confronted by an expansionist Soviet state, held in check only by armed force and nuclear weapons. Others believed the exact opposite, arguing that an expansionist US, armed with nuclear weapons, was intent on rolling back the frontiers of the communist world.

A third group, to which I have long belonged, thought that the entire contest was a huge mistake, totally misconceived and possibly fabricated, both expensive and dangerous. So problematic is the topic that New Statesman readers, even today, can almost certainly be found in each category, sometimes holding at least two opinions at the same time.

The cold war took place over nearly half a century, from the Berlin Airlift, which began in April 1948, to the final extinction of the Soviet Union in December 1991. (Some might think, judging by the attitude of most western chancelleries and media outlets towards Vladimir Putin, that it continues to this day.) The Americans and the Russians fought each other, often at one remove, with every dirty weapon except the nuclear bomb. First presided over by Stalin and Harry Truman, and in effect concluded by Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, the end of their icy struggle looked very different from its early beginnings.

Gaddis tries to provide a continuous storyline that encompasses its many twists and turns, but in practice the cold war years were unified solely by the existence of a permanent nuclear threat, a promise to commit suicide that appeared to make conventional war between great states impossible. Today we tend to ignore the fact that this terrible menace is still there, although since the collapse of the Soviet Union no powerful country has felt able to contemplate even a verbal confrontation with the United States.

The first period of the cold war, the 13 years from the start of the Berlin Airlift to the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, was largely dominated by the German Question, a hardy perennial of European history. The much-derided wall brought a measure of stability to the European scene, and many people in the west – strange now to recall – thoroughly approved of it. I remember Richard Crossman, when editor of this paper in the early 1970s, defending it vigorously to his staff of astonished young Trotskyists.

Berlin, a problem left over at the end of the Second World War, gets its fair share of attention in Gaddis’s book, yet in retrospect, not much emphasised here, it was the Chinese revolution in 1949 that really caused the US to panic, and gave the cold war its atmosphere of deadly menace. For several years the Yellow Peril, another ancient formulation, grew more alarming than the German Question, and provoked an often neglected war in Korea.

The 1950s, the classic years of cold war mythology, gave the conflict a special hold on the popular imagination. In a decade replete with spies, the activities of the parallel secret services have been well chronicled in fiction, and it is appropriate that Len Deighton provides an encomium for Gaddis’s book. More relevantly, the period also witnessed the twin episodes of internal suppression in each camp – Iran and Guatemala on the western side, East Germany and Hungary on the part of the Soviets – that so discredited the cold warriors’ claims to moral superiority.

The second period, which lasted through the 1960s and 1970s, was dominated by the mayhem and havoc of wars in the third world that arose after the collapse of Europe’s colonial empires. This particular cold war development, arguably of more historical consequence than the stale east-west conflict in Europe, gets little space in Gaddis’s book, perhaps because it led to the crushing US defeat in Vietnam. As a result of that US disaster, which did not affect the peace and prosperity of western Europe, the Americans began to talk of detente and disarmament, of strategic arms limitations and human rights. Urged on by European social democrats, the global conflict settled into a cosy and manageable routine that continued to keep wars far from the European heartland.

Finally, in the 1980s, this apparent stability was shown to have been built on shaky foundations. When the US took up the Soviet challenge in Afghanistan, when the Hungarians and the Poles began to chart their separate paths towards a fresh settlement with Moscow, and when a new generation of nuclear weapons was deployed in Europe, the old verities began to collapse.

Gaddis makes much of the role of Pope John Paul II, a deus ex machina who threw his weight behind the emerging opposition forces in central Europe, but the real cause of Gorbachev’s internal reforms that detonated the final crisis was the lamentable state of the Soviet economy, a subject to which Gaddis gives scant attention.

The Americans emerge from Gaddis’s account smelling of roses, yet, in the wake of the US seizure of Iraq and the unfolding of a fresh imperial agenda, future historians may look less benignly on America’s role in the cold war. They might well conclude that the Russians were right to be alarmed by American power, given that while Soviet forces had advanced a few hundred miles into central Europe in 1945, and stayed there until 1989, the Americans had leap- frogged over oceans to put their troops into western Europe and Japan – and have kept them there to this day.

French philosophers might argue that the cold war did not actually take place, yet under its imagined threat the US was able to extend its ideological and cultural control over western Europe, effectively undermining and eventually destroying the old leftist and working-class movements built up since the 19th century – the cold war’s most lasting and pernicious legacy. Gaddis’s book plays the old tunes well, but some readers may still find it less riveting than the story of the unfolding of the Third Reich. If history teachers want to hold the attention of their students, they will probably be justified in continuing with Hitler for a while longer.

Richard Gott is writing a book about imperial rebellions


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