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We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History by John Lewis Gaddis

The Cold War has hung like a spectre over the latter half of the twentieth century. John Lewis Gaddis is one of the foremost historians of the Cold War and has written extensively on the subject. Prior works specific to the Cold War include The United States and the Origins of the Cold War (1972), The Long Peace: Inquiries into the History of the Cold War (1987) and 2005’s The Cold War: A New History. Though all of his works were very well-received, We Now Know is and important work in its own right for a variety of reasons. This work from 1997 was the first of his Cold War histories to be written after the end of the Cold War. Most importantly, the closing of the Cold War led to the opening of previously unassailable archives behind the Iron Curtain. Gaddis utilized those archives and the sources within give a depth to his analysis that was not available when he wrote his earlier works.

One of the examples of this depth and benefits of the greater access is that it afforded Lewis the opportunity to tell the story of the conflict through the thoughts and actions of individual leaders of the time. He paid particular attention to Stalin in this regard. Indeed, Gaddis’ conclusion was that if blame for the outbreak of the Cold War were to be laid at anyone’s feet, that blame would have to go to Josef Stalin, “as long as Stalin was running the Soviet Union a cold war was unavoidable.”[1] Gaddis argued that it was Stalin’s own personality and paranoia that made it so.

Additionally, Gaddis used the personalities not only of the leaders, but of the lands they governed to show that the conflict was as much, if not more, about ideology as it was about global power and territory. He contrasted the bombastic demands of Stalin with the quiet behind-the-scenes pressure that United States President Harry S. Truman was exerting on Western Allies to quit their empires and grant independence to India and Indonesia, as the United States was doing in the Philippines.[2] He characterized this as the “authoritarian romanticism” of the Communist Bloc as opposed to the “democratic realism” of the West.[3] For Gaddis, Stalin spoke, while Truman listened.

This is not to say that Gaddis finds no fault with the United States’ actions during the period. Indeed, he criticizes the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and its involvement in Latin American regime change.[4] Likewise, he levels criticism at American policy designed to prevent Communist influence in the modernizing economies of third world countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.[5]

While very well researched and argued, there are a few issues one could take with Gaddis’ work. Chief among these is insisting on choosing where to lay blame. While he certainly made a compelling case for Stalin’s culpability in the conflict, it is also possible that in so doing, he perhaps missed some other angles. By doing so, Gaddis chose to forego the opportunity to step completely outside of the event, and instead continued the same path he had laid down in other books. If he were to truly “rethinking” the era, one might think that this work would have been less about blame for the inception and more about analysis of the outcome. This, in turn leads to a second, minor fault, that being that the book only covers through the early 1960s, or roughly, through the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, by CIA-paid defectors and operatives. It would certainly have benefitted the scholarship had he looked at the Cold War in its entirety, which one could reasonably expect from the subtitle.

[1] John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 23-25, 292.
[2] Ibid, 58.
[3] Ibid, 288-91.
[4] Ibid, 177-79.
[5] Ibid, 189.

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