Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Mixed History

The Cold War, by John Lewis Gaddis, Read by Jay Gregory and Alan Sklar, Highbridge Audio, 2005

2005 National Humanities Medal recipient John Lewis Gaddis is definitely someone who has made his bones on the Cold War being the author of The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, Strategies of Containment, The Long Peace, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History, among others, while at the same time lecturing at Yale on the exact same topic. That he could encapsulate the entirety of his life’s study into one short volume is impressive in and of itself. I’m apt to give him a little credit too for the small fact that he taught at my alma mater Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, where he founded and directed the Contemporary History Institute.

Even though I lived through the tail end of the Cold War, something coming generations only vaguely understand, there was something about the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union that constructed almost the entire world in its image. The bi-polarity of the world with our long-familiar enemy gave Americans a touchstone comparison for their sense of their own geopolitical morality (as well as provided no end to ridiculous films along the lines of Rocky IV). Even if this vision we had of ourselves as a nation was almost assuredly erroneous, it mattered as a kind of perception.

Of course, as young as I am, I was only barely approaching my twenties when Communism collapsed and as such was only truly starting to become much more fully politically cognizant. Unlike my parents’ generation, I never actually believed in some huge Soviet threat, mostly because the logic of mutually assured destruction seemed pretty damn compelling and because I couldn’t imagine that the Soviet government would be so irrational as to engage in that kind of zero-sum game.

And so with my fairly wide reaching ignorance about much of recent history, a particularly American trait, I decided when I saw Gaddis’ book that a short venture into the last great geopolitical struggle might be an interesting and worthwhile venture. Someone who had made a lifetime profession out of the study of this period seemed like a good choice.

However, there is a tendency among American historians (and historians elsewhere and basically everyone else) to see the world through a prism of belief that comes out in subtle shades. For example, Gaddis, a Naval historian, mentions that during World War II, while we were aligned with the Soviets to defeat Germany, Stalin gave the order for Russian spies to try to penetrate the Manhattan Project. He then goes on to tsk-tsk that the man might spy on his allies with whom he is fighting against a third party. Which is to say, Gaddis mentions one side’s sneakiness, but fails to mention that such things were common among all parties. Does he really expect us to believe that there was never a British or American spy in all of the Soviet Union during World War II? Does he really think it so beyond the pale, when allies spying on allies is about (if not more) common than countries spying on their enemies?

Now, let’s get something clear — I’d have no interest in living in a world ruled under Stalinist style authoritarianism, so I don’t see the Russians as some kind of moral force against underhanded capitalism, but to be a fair accounting of history we should be exposed to our faults and failings too. Poor Roosevelt is crushed by Stalin breaking his promises made at Yalta, and the Russian premier is painted as paranoid, vicious, calculating, etc. while Truman’s worst flaw seems to be his lack of experience. It’s understandable that a Naval veteran might see things through a certain us-versus-them mentality, but does Gaddis not understand the transparency of his portraiture?

This portrait of American paragon status seems to taint a bit later in the book (and in history), when Gaddis discusses how in the battle against Communist expansion American presidents began to embrace a repugnant philosophy of machiavellian involvement in various quarters. Overthrowing elected governments who happened to vote commie, deposing heads of state who aren’t sufficiently loyal, that sort of thing. Better late than never, this sudden noticing the feet of clay, the all-too human status of the men who sat in the Oval Office.

Yet whatever you may feel of American foreign policy, to look at things from the perspective of history, to see things as moves on a grand chessboard, is to see wily intelligent American moves to blundering Soviet ones in the greater scheme of things. The attempt to crush the Yugoslav Prime MinisterTito backfires for Kruschev and the Americans court the dictator resulting in semi-alignment; the 1948-9 Soviet blockade of Berlin relieved by the American airlift makes the hero-villain interpretation impossible to avoid. If there is an overwhelming feeling you get in hearing these stories, it is of longing for learned and capable policy heads in government, for those who learn from mistakes, who aren’t afraid to try unpredictable stratagems, and who more than anything think. Likewise, we see as in a mirror, how the Soviet’s devotion to ideology over reality lead their government into costly error after error.

On the topic of costly errors, as bad a view as one might hold of Truman for his decision (in some ignorance, it must be argued) to drop the bomb on Japan, consider even worse Eisenhower who, even with hindsight, urged the Pentagon to figure out how there might be just some way, just some possible way to use the weapons on military targets. Truman himself did something rather amazing as far as the history of human behavior went. Weapons, once created, had always been used and always proliferated and their use continued and lead to yet a greater weapon down the road. While one may argue that our refinement from atomic bomb to hydrogen bomb as well as the ever-increasing magnitude of the bombs themselves constitutes “greater weapons,” I hold that the major development of armaments essentially dead-ended at atomic bombs and began to rework smaller, less large-scale lethality. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it has become almost unthinkable, taboo in fact, to actually use an atomic bomb again despite certain military hawks’ itching to do just that. It has become nearly unthinkable in the public mind, whereas there was hardly organized campaigns against the Gatling Gun circa 1863.

Perhaps the most useful function Gaddis’ writing has is the illumination of why things occurred; why did North Korea and South Korea begin fighting? why did America align itself so strongly to a Pakistani dictatorship and not the world’s largest democracy in India? why did the USSR invade Afghanistan? Gaddis makes things simple and clear, though I tend to be suspicious of easy pat answers. As far as pat answers goes, the historian seems to have fallen in love with Reagan and tends toward an overly worshipful stance here, almost coming close to suggesting that he alone, as his mythologizers would hold, single-handedly defeated Communism.

I find Gaddis’ love for Reagan rather curious and his attribution to the former President of an intellectual heft that seemed rather lacking as far as most anecdotal data suggest. That Reagan pushed for SDI or “Star Wars Missile Defense” as a way to bankrupt the USSR or as an aggressive new development in the standoff of mutually assured destruction is a theory that finds its greatest support these days among those who seek such goofy ideas as replacing Roosevelt with Reagan on the dime, though Gaddis still seems to cling to it. The slow moving economic collapse of the Soviet economy was in place long before Reagan’s inauguration brought about by the general stagnation of Russia as a matter of historical course as well as factors such as the space race, the arms race, and the populaces’ unwillingness to strive too hard lest they attract unsavory attention. The shortages of essentials were epidemic even without new defense spending, and the USSR would have fallen whether Reagan had been elected or Bush or Carter re-elected or even friggin Mondale, for that matter.

In the end, Gaddis’ work is essential, timely, but falls prey to a too one-sided view of history. It is my suspicion that an account of the Cold War written from either the outside fringes (say a South African historian) or from a nation caught in between the two (say an Italian or French historian) or even from non-military personnel might shed a more piercing light on this time in the twentieth century. Gaddis’ book is a good place as any to start, but it is far from the last word.

Jay Gregory does a decent job of making what might have been dry historical reading lively and interesting though the production lost me with its second billing. Why they brought in Alan Sklar as a reader I can’t begin to imagine. His entire readership in the book is to voice the various quotes that pop up from time to time. Should we lift a sizable passage from Kruschyev’s biography, Sklar is on hand to lend it voice, just as he reads the epigraphical pieces read at the beginning of each chapter. Were Sklar a crackerjack impersonator, this might add some value, but he’s not, and it doesn’t. The whole thing comes off as strange, a make-work assignment to keep Sklar on payroll. Odd that.

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