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The Cold War: A New History by John Lewis Gaddis

By 1945, World War II came to an end, but there was no victorious celebration or a promising future of hope for peace. The members of the Grand Alliance had already toasted their success in winning the war. However, the United States and the Soviet Union became wary of each other as they had very different goals regarding how to deal with Germany and eastern Europe. The competing visions of the two countries had led the world to fall under the shadow of the Cold War. In his one-volume-book “The Cold War: A New History,” John Lewis Gaddis examines the dynamics of the political conflicts that dominated the world from the end of World War II to the late 1980s. John Lewis Gaddis is currently the Robert A. Lowett professor of history at Yale University. He is a distinguished historian who had written six other books on the subject of the cold war. In 2005, he was also rewarded a National Humanities Medal by the National Endowment for the humanities (Gaddis, back of front cover). Unlike his previous six books, Gaddis was convinced by his students and agent to write a “short, comprehensive, and accessible” (Gaddis, pg x). He had intended to write his book “for a new generation of readers for whom the Cold War was never ‘current events’” (Gaddis, pg x). From many research from the works other Cold War historians and as well as his own analysis, Gaddis created a masterpiece of work that leads his reader through the history of a fearful era and behind-the-scene strategies and thoughts on both sides of the “war.” His objectives were to reveal the underlying dynamics of the political struggles of the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union that “shaped, and threatened to end, our lives” (Gaddis, back of front cover) while intertwining with his own judgments of the historical events.

The superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, may have collaborated together to end the World War II; however, their visions of shaping the postwar settlement of Germany and eastern Europe could not have been more different. As Gaddis had stated in his book, “The tragedy was this: that victory would require the victors either to cease to be who they were, or to give up much of what they had hoped, by fighting the war, to attain” (Gaddis, pg 6). Stalin of the Soviet Union desired “security for himself, his regime, his country, and his ideology, in precisely that order (Gaddis, pg 6). He solely believed that his country deserved a lot of territories because of the wartime expenditures that caused the country’s land to be ravaged and the notorious, bloody casualties of an approximate of 27 million civilians that died as a result of World War II (Gaddis, pg 9). He also had a zealous dream which was influenced by the Marxist-Leninist ideology that communists would soon dominate Europe through patience because capitalists cannot comply with one another for long. On the other hand, unlike Stalin, the Americans had a less determined goal of grasping security and global influence of their democratic ideas. Most part of America’s history was isolated from the rest of the world until its involvement in World War I. Americans did not have to worry much about security since they were apart from the other continents up until their involvement in the world wars.

Within time, the distrust between the United States and the Soviet Union intensified by major issues such as the Truman Doctrine, Marshall Plan, and especially the fear of the atomic bomb. President Truman announced to provide military and economic aid to Greece and Turkey along with a speech that publicized the aid program in supporting the free people to make their own destinies (which became known as the Truman Doctrine). As the Americans searched for an explanation of the Soviet behavior, George F. Kennan, a Foreign Service officer who served in the American embassy, found the problem that “the Soviet Union’s internally driven hostility toward the outside world” (Gaddis, pg 31). After the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan was devised as a solution to Kennan’s identification of problem, which was committing the United States to provide economic aid for the reconstruction of Europe. The Marshall Plan was intended to produce “psychological benefits” that would prevent Europeans to not turn towards communism as a solution for their hunger and poverty. According to Gaddis, the Marshall Plan was a trap to get Stalin to “build the wall that would divide Europe,” which was the blockade of Berlin (Gaddis, pg 32).

The fear of the atomic bomb was probably most intensifying cause of the distrust between the two superpowers. The atomic bomb was developed by the Americans and British (without telling the Soviet), called the Manhattan Project, to use against Germany. When the bomb was used on Japan, Stalin reacted strongly, “War is barbaric, but using the A-bomb is a superbarbarity” (qtd. by Gaddis, pg 25). Not soon after, Soviet scientists devised atomic bombs in August 1949 to Stalin’s relief. Silently, Stalin and Truman both knew well enough how the atomic weapons can hardly be used without destroying the world. Gaddis analyzed how the two sides did not go into war, especially with the nuclear weapons involved because those weapons could very well end the world.

The Cold War spends a good amount of time in examining the emergence of autonomy during the Cold War. However, Gaddis was not focusing on the decolonization of the various countries. Instead, the author dove into what was beneath the surface by showing how the non-alignment of independent countries had an advantage by not committing to either side of the Cold War. As Gaddis writes, “if one superpower became too great, a smaller power could defend itself by threatening to align with the other superpower” (pg. 124). Other countries such as North and South Korea, North and South Korea, and East and West German kept the two superpowers on their hooks. The weaknesses of those countries became their strength because if their countries collapsed, the countries may turn to communism (which is what the United States does not want) or capitalism (which is what the Soviet Union does not want). The best way to put to is in Gaddis’ words, “a compelling form of Cold War blackmail: if you push me too hard, my government will fall, and you’ll be sorry” (pg. 130).

In this “short, comprehensive, and accessible” book, Gaddis did an impressive job to discuss and condense down his judgments and the history of the entire era of the Cold War in a fewer than 300-pages of text. Gaddis divided his book into nine different chapters, in which each chapter covers a different topic that were occurring on both sides of the Cold War. Although each chapter covers a different topic, Gaddis subdivided each chapter into smaller sections, yet still able to compel the events or topics in a sequenced manner – which allows the reader to follow along without confusion. In each topic, Gaddis does not only provide the hard facts that happen but examines and provides insightful analysis of how the events or ideologies influenced the leaders of the superpowers. This made it difficult to summarize and capture everything of what the author has to offer to the reader about an era that is commonly written about.

In the center of the book, Gaddis provided sixteen pages of black-and-white photos that are organized in chronological order of the important people that made up the history of the Cold War as well as events. In addition, there were maps of Europe that added as a visual aid for the reader as the author explains territorial changes, bases, and alliances of the two superpowers. The author was very straightforward with what he had to say, which makes it easy to read and understand, and revealing to his audiences of what the superpower leaders were truly thinking of and their strategies in reaching their ambitions. However, there are flaws or bad choices of events that the author decided to take time to talk about. For instance, Gaddis spent two to three pages on the Watergate crisis, which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. As a reader, one may find how such an event is irrelevant to the Cold War. Overall, it was impressive of how the author organized the numerous events of the Cold War into a one-volume book.

The writing style of Gaddis is very absorbing, which makes the book to be enjoyable to read. He chose great quotes from leaders and other people during that time that backs the judgments he makes. Also, he included little anecdotes that supplement his grand narrative of analysis of the various events of the Cold War. For example, every person who has some background knowledge of the Cold War knows that the atomic bombs were not used since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, he started out on the second chapter telling the reader how “General MacArthur commanded five atomic bombs to be dropped on the Chinese advancing  down the Korean peninsula” and “two Soviet bombers took off from Vladivostok” (Gaddis, pg. 48-49). I was momentarily fooled by this little fiction Gaddis created. The purpose of the story was to show how close the world was to have a nuclear-violent war that could virtually destroy the entire planet.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who anyone who is interested in the Cold War because the book is not just a history book that provides hard facts about events, but also deep analysis of how the events influenced leaders during that era and the future of today. The book is not difficult to read but it would be better if the reader already had some background knowledge of the World War II and the Cold War. The book is worthy for a reader to take their time and absorb the analytical thoughts, examples, and anecdotes that the author conveys. Gaddis examines the different aspects of the events switching and back and forth between the perspectives of the two superpowers. While doing so, he guides the reader through the history of the Cold War without missing any of the commonly-known landmarks of the era – providing a well-written narrative of the author’s own interpretation and the history itself.

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