Reasoning the Cold War

Book Review: Gaddis, John Lewis, “The Cold War. A New History.” Penguin Press, NY. 2005.


I got the book from the Oak Cliff Dallas library. Gaddis had already written several earlier books on the period, so this one is sort of a compilation, he says.

What I liked about it was that he included some of the significant events of the Cold War period. It’s not chronological. He presents events in the order he wants in order to make the point he wants to make: that the Cold War was not so much a part of the long confrontation between labor and capital, but rather an historically isolated one of democracy versus totalitarianism. From the first, in his detached academic way, he cheers the American side.

Although it’s presented way out of order, he does talk about the 1948 CIA intervention to keep the Italian Communist Party from winning their national elections. He talks, a little bit, about America’s overthrow of the elected government of Chile and the installation of fascist terror. He mentions the CIA overthrows of the elected governments of Guatemala and Iran.

Like a lot of post-Soviet Union books, he gives his explanation for the failure of that government. He seems to think that Premier Gorbachev was confused and easily swayed by that smooth-talking Ronald Reagan. He says that the Soviets erred by trying to live up to their commitment to worldwide revolution by supporting the Cubans, the Angolans, the Vietnamese, and the many other peoples that tried to advance beyond capitalism and called to the Soviets for help. He says the Soviets couldn’t afford them.

But the fundamental problem, he says, was that the Soviets could not provide the standard of living that their people had been promised. When Khruschev said “We will bury you,” no matter how that was interpreted here, he meant that the Soviets had a superior economic system.

Over the years, I’ve heard a number of smart people talking about the mistakes of the Soviet Union. Some of them imply that those mistakes were also made by the worldwide socialist movement and, especially, by CPUSA here. I think this book nudges us toward an idea of what those mistakes might have been:

1) They mistakenly thought they could extend cooperation with the United States and other capitalist nations after Hitler was defeated.

2) They mistakenly thought that capitalist economies would resume their desperate pre-war economic depression after the war

3) They mistakenly thought that no single capitalist nation could unite the others against them

4) They underestimated the post-war prosperity phase.

Having lived through the Cold War, and after visiting the Soviet Union twice and doing some of my own studying, I have to agree with the book’s author on this important main point: I don’t know if the Soviets could have provided a superior standard of living for their citizens, but I am convinced that they didn’t.

Gaddis, the author, says that a market economy is fundamentally superior to a planned economy because it is more flexible. The Chinese economy, he says, succeeds because they embraced capitalism.

Certainly, the Korean War, the Missile Crisis, and the Vietnam war are covered.  But some things were not.

I just glanced at the book’s index to see if he included some of what I considered the most important aspects of the Cold War: The Taft-Hartley law that put America’s unions into a long downward spiral, the trial and execution of the Rosenbergs, Senator Joe McCarthy’s hearings, the McCarran Anti-Subversive Act(s) that sent American activists to prison, and the House Unamerican Activities Committee which destroyed so many lives. None of them are mentioned; none even made the index. If he had mentioned such things, I might have given more credibility to his thesis that the Soviets and Americans were equally to blame for having started and perpetuated the Cold War.

I don’t think that this “equal blame” idea can stand the test of history, because the wealthy capitalist countries opposed the Soviet Union in every possible way from its inception, 100 years ago. World War II provided only a brief interruption in attacks against the Soviets, and they did that only because Hitler had become such a threat to all of them. From 1917 to 1941, and again immediately after the war, the United States and the other imperialist nations did all they could to undermine and overthrow the Soviets.

I think that the Soviet Union fell as the result of an attack. The frontal attacks, although there were plenty of them, could not bring the Soviets down. But the long siege did.

World War II ended with a gigantic Soviet and American victory in 1945. The declaration of Cold War came from Winston Churchill, sharing a podium with President Truman,  in Fulton, Missouri, March 5, 1946 – less than a year after the hot war ended.

–Gene Lantz

I’m on KNON radio 89.3 FM from 9 to 10 every Saturday. Call in your opinions!

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