Cold-war topiary

We Now Know
July 25, 1997

That great parablist George Kennan once told this parable of the cold war: "We are like a man who has let himself into a walled garden and finds himself alone there with a dog with very big teeth. The best thing for us to do is surely to try to establish, as between the two of us, that the teeth have nothing whatsoever to do with our mutual relationship - that they are neither here nor there. If the dog shows no disposition to assume that it is otherwise, why should we raise the subject and invite attention to the disparity?" Now that the Berlin wall has been demolished, the dog sedated, and the incisors removed, it is John Lewis Gaddis's appointed task to explore the garden: not only the parts that have been well photographed already, but also the farther reaches, where light never penetrates and strange things rot quietly in dank corners. This he does with great dispatch and even greater aplomb, in what he calls, aptly, "a series of overlapping and interconnected narratives extending through the Cuban missile crisis", capped with a ruminative retrospective on "The new cold war history". But he does more than merely explore. Gaddis is the chief topiarist of the cold war, snipping the trees into recognisable shapes - a looking glass, a spy plane - and showing us the warp of the wood.

We Now Know is a cold-war cornucopia. All of life is here. There are cold-war witticisms (some of them risque). Khrushchev's characterisation of Adenauer: "If you look at Mr Adenauer naked from behind, he shows Germany divided. If you look at him from the front, he demonstrates that Germany cannot stand." Cold war neologisms. "Potemkinism" (building up just enough capability to create the illusion that more lay behind it), "Strangelovian" (after the good doctor). Cold war aphorisms. Khrushchev to Harriman: "You may have millions, but I have grandsons." Cold-war equations. IRBM + NATO = ICBM (Time magazine, 1959). IRBM + Cuba = ICBM (Gaddis, 1997). Cold-war psychologisms. Khrushchev to hapless visitor using binoculars at his Black Sea dacha: "What do you see?" "Nothing." "I see US missiles in Turkey, aimed at my dacha." Cold-war small talk c.1956. Khrushchev comes to dinner. Lady Eden, stumped, enquires politely about the capability of Soviet missiles. Krushchev boasts proudly: "They have a very long range. They could easily reach your island and a bit further."

This wit and wisdom is woven deftly into a number of master theses on the cold war which bid to govern its interpretation for some time to come. If a label is required, they might be called post-post-revisionist.

In Gaddis's words, the diversification of power did more to shape the course of the cold war than did the balance of power. That is to say, bipolarity was a product of the second world war, not a fundamental change in the international system.

"That system remained multidimensional throughout the cold war, and the Soviet Union's slow descent into monodimensionality is what eventually killed it. Multidimensionality may be multipolarity more accurately conceived." Second, the United States and the Soviet Union built empires after the second world war, although not the same kind.

One of Gaddis's prime sources (generously acknowledged) is Geir Lundestad; one of his key themes is the contrast and consequence of "empire by invitation" and "empire by imposition", interestingly developed in terms of "collaboration" and "resistance". Third, many people then saw the cold war as a contest between good and evil, even if historians since have rarely done so. Those who experienced Soviet brutality did not forgive or forget - the alleged two million German women raped by the Red Army in 1945-46, for example. Fourth, democracy proved superior to autocracy in maintaining coalitions. Marshall's plan, one might say, was better than Molotov's. Fifth, Marxism-Leninism fostered authoritarian romanticism, tilting at windmills (in Korea, for instance), compared to a sturdy "democratic realism". Sixth, nuclear weapons exchanged destructiveness for duration.

There was a trade-off: we avoided Armageddon at the price of asphyxiation. The cold war was an extra-long war. Nuclear weapons simultaneously tempered and extended it. "The cold war could have ended with a bang at just about any point. It took decades to arrange a whimper." Seventh, as long as Stalin was running the Soviet Union, a cold war was unavoidable. If we are to ask who started it (and continued it), Gaddis is almost unequivocal. "The answer, I think, is authoritarianism in general, and Stalin in particular." Eighth and last, cold-war historians should retain the capacity to be surprised. One of the most civilised and encouraging features of this book is the author's wry self-correction. A notably even-handed assessment of the outcome of the Cuban missile crisis neatly undermines those historians who wrote so confidently, so recently, of winners and losers - citing himself. "The long peace", perhaps his most resonant coinage, is dubbed short-sighted. "Revisionism is a healthy histiographical process, and no one, not even revisionists, should be exempt from it."

Humility is the mark of the master. Gaddis is the Acton of our time. We Now Know is the Long Telegram of the inquest on the cold war, as George Kennan's original was the tocsin of its prolegomena. The book was born in a course of lectures at Oxford. A hundred years ago, in another lecture at another place, Acton made a declaration magnificently appropriate to Gaddis's inspirational project. "Modern history touches us so nearly", said Acton, "it is so deep a question of life and death, that we are bound to find our own way through it, and to owe our insight to ourselves. The historians of former ages, unapproachable for us in knowledge and in talent, cannot be our limit. We have the power to be more rigidly impersonal, disinterested and just than they; and to learn from undisguised and genuine records to look with remorse upon the past, and to the future with assured hope of better things."

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.

We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History

Author - John Lewis Gaddis
ISBN - 0 19 878070 2
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 425

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