Review of What We Now Know by John Lewis Gaddis Essay

“Review of What We Now Know by John Lewis Gaddis”

The book What We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History by John Lewis Gaddis evaluates the Cold War from a new found perspective that previously unavailable and now declassified artifacts reveal.  He nicely illustrates and analyzes the major causes of the Cold War and how it fits into the greater context of history, while exposing previously inaccurate information.  Below, is a summary of the book and its relevant information.

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The new wave of technological improvements that sweep through the world worsened the already strained Russian and American relationship (Gaddis 4).  Both countries learned more about each other during that time, but this in turn caused the level of distrust to grow between them (Gaddis 4).  As the war drew more eminent, the leaders of America and Russia realized that they could not control what was happening in the world (Gaddis 9).  There also seemed to be little hope that both these super powers would cooperate with each other in the future.  Despite these issues, Russia and America still had the greatest potential power than any other European state and it was Hitler’s declarations of war that caused both these countries to exhibit the extent of their power (Gaddis 11).

The differing policies of America and Russia greatly influenced how they were received by their allies during the Cold War.  America strived for a security that would be a collective good, while Russia’s idea of security came from “intimidating or eliminating potential challengers” (Gaddis 15).  Stalin equated the advance of world revolution with the expanding influence of the Soviet State because of his tsarist imperialism and Marxist

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internationalism (Gaddis 29).  Stalin’s attempts to secure his empire made it more insecure and repressive (Gaddis 33).  Conversely, America did not truly think of itself as an imperial power because it did not “find it necessary, in building a sphere of influence, to impose unrepresentative governments or brutal treatment upon the peoples that fell within it” (Gaddis 45).  This difference allowed America’s influence to be widely accepted in Europe, while Russia was forced to use coercion to maintain its influence (Gaddis 17).  Thus, the American empire rose by invitation while the Russian empire rose by imposition, and this was dependent on European choice because it became evident that: “an American empire would accommodate far greater diversity than one by the Soviet Union” (Gaddis 53).

Different countries in Asia, especially China found it necessary to “harden Cold War alignments” (Gaddis 55).  China decided to turn from a Nationalist nation to Communist one (Gaddis 55).  Mao’s decision to team up with Russia stemmed from the fear of an American attack and also because of his shared ideological ideals with Russia (Gaddis 55).  America was unsure if is should turn China away from Russia or encourage the people of China to overthrow their government (Gaddis 62). Simultaneously, Korea was just beginning its Hot War during the Cold War era (Gaddis 55).

Elsewhere in the world, Western Europeans invited Americans to participate in the North Atlantic treaty of April 1959, mainly in order to safeguard their security against Russia.  It also seemed that at the same time China turned its attention away from Korea, so when the North Korean attack occurred, it greatly surprised South Korea, Japan and the U.S. (Gaddis 77).  The U.S. feared that the attack was the beginning of a larger

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military offensive in Europe or the Middle East, so the U.S. “implemented NSC 68’s recommendation to triple the American defense budget (Gaddis 84).  The U.S. also decided to rearm the West Germans which turned out to be Stalin’s greatest fear (Gaddis 84).

When the U.S. acquired nuclear power it used it against Japan in order to achieve a quick victory (Gaddis 87).  The attainment of nuclear power was far from a simple solution and became a catalyst for bigger problems. It has been questioned whether the actions of the U.S. set off a lethal arms race (Gaddis 101).  The U.S. felt it needed nuclear power to deter the Russians because of the “weakness of American conventional forces, brought about by the extraordinarily tight budgets within which the President had forced the Pentagon to operate” (Gaddis 91).

The Soviets responded by allowing its physicists the freedom to construct the hydrogen bomb (Gaddis 96).  Because Stalin was used to intimidation tactics he appeared unintimidated by America’s nuclear power (Gaddis 99).  It seems that if the U.S. continued to develop their nuclear power or if they decided to abandon it, the Soviet response would have been the same. But it is interesting to ponder if the first nuclear power did not come from a democratic state, would it have made any difference in how it was received by Stalin (Gaddis 99)?   Regardless of these factors, Russia’s game plan would have been “to avoid a possible trap, and to exploit the adversary’s folly at the earliest opportunity” (Gaddis 101).  Russia soon discovered that its attainment of nuclear power did little to reassure their security against America, because America had a fast growing nuclear collection and outnumbered Russia approximately from 17-1 ( Gaddis

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103).  During the Korean War, the U.S. used nuclear weapons to justify boosting “American nuclear and conventional capabilities” (Gaddis 107).  It also deployed “B29s—atomic-capable this time, but without atomic bombs—to British bases as well as to American facilities on Guam” (Gaddis 107).  The power of these new weapons seemed to scare the U.S. and Russia into thinking twice about escalating the war further and actually executing their weapons at the cost of the rest of the world (Gaddis 110).

Despite numerous negotiations the cold war persisted because the main issue was not being addressed (Gaddis114).  These negotiations “failed to dismantle Soviet and American spheres of influence in Europe, or to slow the intensifying nuclear arms race, or to restrain competition in what was coming to be called the “third world” (Gaddis 114).  And lastly, Germany was left divided and although may have not directly caused the Cold War, it “did more than anything else to delay its settlement” (Gaddis 114).

Because of the Cold War, West Germany in turn was greatly shaped in response to Stalin’s actions (Gaddis 125). His decision caused the allies to develop “zonal consolidation, the London Conference program, the European Coal and Steel Community, [and] the Pleven Plan” (Gaddis 125).  Stalin’s agenda seemed to be based on the idea that “only a Germany under Moscow’s control could, with any reliability, ensure the Soviet Union’s safety” (Gaddis 128). The Marshall plan was then created by the U.S. in response to Stalin, to try to reverse the perception of Stalin’s and European confidence in Germany (Gaddis 118).  The Western allies also helped bring the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) in effect on May 1949 (Gaddis 121).  The Soviet government then helped to establish the German Democratic Republic (GDR) (Gaddis 121).  Differing and

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conflicting agendas from the American and Russian camps caused both sides to be disinterested in reuniting Germany; it seemed a larger risk to reunite Germany without determining who would benefit from the outcome (Gaddis 138).  Soon, both America and Russia reached their limits in aiding Germany and were facing the reality that their own countries were now in jeopardy (Gaddis 149).

Previous involvement is conflicts in East Asia caused the “Cold War empires” to now turn their attention to the “Third World” (Gaddis 84). The “third world” also had the chance to choose sides during the Cold War (Gaddis 154).  America was at a disadvantage in this situation because of its connections with colonialism (Gaddis 154).  America then became “accomplices in colonialism” when it was certain that instability elsewhere could result in the expansion of Russian influence (Gaddis 158).  Russia also had the advantage “that industrialization in the USSR had proceeded much more rapidly than in the capitalist west” (Gaddis 154).  In regards to the Cuba and America relationship, a major component of the breakdown occurred because of Castro himself (Gaddis 180).  Castro made an unforgettable impression when he spoke:  “we will do our best to be brief, he assured the delegates, and then he proceeded to harangue them on the evils of American imperialism for some four and a half hours, the longest oration ever given at the United Nations” (Gaddis 183).  It made sense that the U.S. and its allies would have been concerned about the “third world” because revolutionary ideas have spread quickly throughout history and Russia was already having a large impact in that area (Gaddis 188).

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The main differences between the U.S and Russia did not lessen after the fall of Stalin (Gaddis 207).  America on one hand, did not see much contradiction in “pursuing independence and integration simultaneously” and was imperialistic to the extent that it strived to play the balancing act to the rest of the world (Gaddis 203).  But because the rest of the world did not view the U.S. in this light, the U.S was not as successful as it would have liked to have been (Gaddis 203).  Regardless of this fact, democratic capitalism showed that it was able to create societies build on mutual support and alliances “capable of coordinated military action” (Gaddis 220).  This was achievable able mainly because Western democracies relied on “two laterally organized and largely self-regulation mechanisms—market economics and democratic policies—which made a point of not assuming total wisdom and absolute competence at the top” (Gaddis 220).  These mechanisms showed a more willingness to trust “the masses” than Marxist-Leninist system (Gaddis 220).  On the flip-side, Marxism-Leninism had destroyed one alliance and kept the other one by force and its “economic achievements had been reduced” (Gaddis 220).  This occurred after Stalin death because “Krushchev had to be ruthless to hold his alliances together” (Gaddis 211).  He had hoped to make Marxism-Leninism attractive enough that Stalinist methods would not be needed to ensure its unity, but he was failing nonetheless (Gaddis 211).

The end result of the attainment of nuclear power shifted the ideas of war from a contest to that of complete destruction (Gaddis 226).  By 1956, the world recognized the ecological consequences of an atomic war: “the entire northern hemisphere might well become unliveable” (Gaddis 230).  Instead of cooperation because of this information,

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the weapons and crisis continued to increased (Gaddis 230).  The U.S came up with the “flexible response” alternative, but Eisenhower thought it would lead toward wars and not away from them (Gaddis 234).  This plan would run up costs to increase conventional forces, but it would not provide any safeguards if Russia or China strained American resources or alliances, and lastly in a worst case scenario it would exchange many nuclear weapons for few nuclear bombs (Gaddis 234).  Russia took the position that nuclear inferiority required for them to take the offensive (222).  This translated into Khrushchev believing that threatening long and loud enough to the U.S. about using his limited nuclear store, would compensate for America’s larger nuclear collection (Gaddis 222).  Surprisingly, in 1959, Russia actually pulled ahead of the U.S in missile capabilities, but they also followed the idea that creating an illusion was as powerful as actually having what the illusion portrayed (Gaddis 249).  Russia’s main strategy depended on “its ability to bluff and bully” (Gaddis 259).  Although Eisenhower showed great restraint during Russia’s bluffs, he “did nothing to control the number of nuclear weapons accumulating in the American arsenal” (Gaddis 259).  In 1961, the U.S. realized that it had greatly overestimated Russian nuclear power (Gaddis 248).  China, in turn had a good reason to break ties with Russia when they believed Russia’s timid dealing with the U.S. meant they were abandoning Marxism-Leninism (Gaddis 235).

A different type of Cold War thus developed that changed into a “long peace” but was far from being tension free (Gaddis 26).  In 1989, the U.S. and Russia found a reason to alter that peace (Gaddis 261).  Russia sent missiles to aid Cuba because both Russia and Cuba were too polite to probe into each other’s affairs, but both wanted to find a

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common cause to unite over (Gaddis 266).  The main difference between the missiles sent to Cuba and those sent by the U.S. to Turkey is that Cuban missiles were sent in secret while the Turkish missiles were just not widely publicized (Gaddis 269).  We now know that Fidel Castro did not “think through the obvious consequences of a proposal that placed the planet on the brink of extinction” (Gaddis 277).  Russia on the other hand, did not match its “strategic behavior” with its “strategic claims” (Gaddis 277).  Russia discouraged challenges from external opponents and displayed an “Oz-like Image” and along with its nuclear weapons, the fall of Russia was delayed, but could not be stopped (Gaddis 280).  Russia was ultimately destroyed by its “non-military weaknesses” and if Russia would have informed its allies and maintained more of a balance, things may have ended up differently for this nation (Gaddis 280).  We now know that the “long peace” was temporary and Russia’s military strength could not save it (Gaddis 280).

 In relation to the U.S., we now know that John F. Kennedy pushed strongly for a compromise during the Cuban missile crisis (Gaddis 272).   Kennedy tried to rely less on nuclear power and more on the threat of using them (Gaddis 259).  He bypassed the Ex Comm at critical times and may have viewed it more for “consensus building than for decision making” (Gaddis 272)  There were many close calls during the Cuban-missile crisis, many in Kennedy’s camp probably did not know about these “close calls” other than the Siberian U-2 incident (Gaddis 274).  Those who did know most likely did not report up the chain of command (Gaddis 274).

In conclusion, the end of the Cold War taught us that “military strength does not always determine the course of great events: the Soviet Union collapsed, after all, with is

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arms and armed forces fully intact” (Gaddis 284).  The problem in Russia was the deterioration in other forms of power such as its economical, ideological, cultural, and moral systems (Gaddis 284).  There was a failure at that time, to realize that power exists in multiple forms (Gaddis 284).  The use of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, helped to “pressure the image of a formidable Soviet Union long after it had entered into its terminal decline” (Gaddis 292). In order to guarantee its survival the U.S. responded by avoiding destruction, but “ the Cold War went on much longer than it might have had nuclear weapons never been invented” (Gaddis 292).

Different forms of brutality such as rape from Russia played a role in deciding which way Germany would affect the Cold War (Gaddis 287).  Democratic policies “made the humanitarian treatment of defeated enemies natural to the Western allies” (Gaddis 287).  Russian troops did not see anything wrong with brutalizing others because they had been brutalized in the past (Gaddis 287).  The brutality from the Russian soldiers shaped the views and showcased the differences between authoritarianism and democracy (Gaddis 287).

Those marked differences between the U.S. and Russia caused the “new kind of empire” that America created to spread more easily than Russia’s influence.  Americans “were used to the deal making, the coercion and conciliation, that routinely takes place within such a system” (Gaddis 289).  Resistance was not automatically viewed as treason by American standards and this type of democracy also easily coexisted with other democracies (Gaddis 289).

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Russia on the other hand tried to eradicate ideals that differed from them (Gaddis 289).  New information now suggests that Kissinger was right about Hitler and may be right about Stalin and Mao: “For there seems to have been something about authoritarians that caused them to lose touch with reality” (Gaddis 291).

Lastly, it is important to note that “triumphalism” can be misleading.  “Just because market capitalism and democratic policies triumphed during the Cold War [there] is no guarantee that they will continue to do so” (Gaddis 295).  It is also too soon to assume that authoritarianism is ineffective and dead because it failed during the Cold War (Gaddis 295).

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“Work Cited”
Gaddis, John Lewis. We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Questia. 10 Dec. 2006 ;http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o;d=22791482;.

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