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.

The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925 by David Montgomery

David Montgomery had a unique perspective from which to write The Fall of the House of Labor. Having spent several years in the workforce and involved in labor politics during the 1950s, he saw the culture and the challenges of labor movements first hand. Montgomery continued his activism for worker’s rights even after he established himself as a respected academic.[1] Montgomery’s time in the Communist Party also contributed to his view on Labor issues.[2] In creating the school known as “New Labor History”, along with historians E.P. Thompson, David Brody, and Herbert G. Gutman, Montgomery moved labor history from economic history to social history. He further cemented that position by writing The Fall of the House of Labor.

Montgomery states in his introduction, “The human relationships structured by commodity production in large collective enterprises…generated bondings and antagonisms that were…the daily experience of everyone involved.”[3] To study labor history is not only to study the economics of production, but the individuals who produced. The daily lives of workers both at work and at home are integral to the history of labor in the United States. Montgomery never separated the two. He also insisted that it is not only important to see the individual, but to heed the wide variety of individuals as well, “Before the 1920s, the house of labor had many mansions.”[4] From the lowest unskilled labor to the highly skilled artisans, “labor” encompassed a diverse array of characters and types alike. In some cases, this diversity could be wielded as strength, but in many ways, it was what caused the downfall of organized labor after 1920.

The first third of the book examined the different classes of laborers through individual positions. In so doing, he gave the reader an invaluable insight into the lives of the workers, while also demonstrating the importance of those lives to his work. Though workers of all levels came together briefly enough to give the Socialist Party some prominence in the 1916 election, they could not hold long enough to institute true lasting political change.[5] By the time of the 1920 Presidential election, the fervent patriotism that grew from World War I, coupled with a growing fear of Bolshevism created an atmosphere of distrust of the labor unions, and they were not able to unite against the growing tide of anti-unionism. The organizations fell to open-shop drives and nativist propaganda.

Additionally, the institution of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s “scientific management” created further divisions. Taylor studied organization of production and sought to increase industrial efficiency. His ideas were implemented with the addition of a new layer of management on the factory and shop floors. This new layer created yet another class within the working class.[6] Later in the book, Montgomery shifts from the individual to the whole, arguing that “social engineering had to be applied to the whole matrix” of the workers’ lives in order to “do more than simply increase the operative’s productivity.”[7]

With all of the various components arrayed against Labor, it is no wonder that the “House of Labor” fell after the 1920s. The only surprise might lie in that it held out as long as it did against a prolonged and profound assault that one reviewer called “the protracted socio-economic equivalent of a nuclear attack.” The combined power of industro-capitalists coupled with public perception and fear of Communism/Socialism/Bolshevism all but doomed the Labor movement. Governmental repression and strong anti-immigration legislation also played a part. “In the tight repression of the Coolidge era, all but a radicalized handful of workers reported quietly to whatever jobs they managed to hold, discarding wartime aspirations as the folly of youth,” and concentrating their efforts on their home lives instead of their working conditions.[8]

[1] “In Memoriam: David Montgomery,” Yale News, December 8, 2011, accessed March 22, 2012, http://news.yale.edu/2011/12/08/memoriam-david-montgomery.

[2] Jon Wiener, “David Montgomery, 1927-2011 | The Nation,” David Montgomery, 1927-2011, December 2, 2011, accessed March 22, 2012, http://www.thenation.com/blog/164954/david-montgomery-1927-2011.

[3] David Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 1.

[4] Montgomery, 6.

[5] Ibid, 254.

[6] Ibid, 178-179.

[7] Ibid, 170.

[8] Ibid, 464.