Despite frosty relations, the A-bombs were never dropped

The Cold War
March 31, 2006

This book is about my life. My father was a Communist, and we fought the Cold War daily at home. He told me that Stalin and Mao Tse Tung (that is how we pronounced his name in those days) were intellectual giants, good men, and that Mao was also a great poet and artist. Father used to say that the principle behind capitalism was to reward greed, and that behind Communism was: "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs."

When the Korean War broke out in 1950, I was 13. My dad and I had a big row. He said the American General Douglas MacArthur was about to use the atom bomb to defeat the North Koreans and their ally, China - and thus start the Third World War. To prevent this disaster, Britain's Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, flew to Washington. That's a fact. According to my family's version, he persuaded President Truman to overrule MacArthur.

We lived in London, but I had begun to meet some Americans and liked them. I concluded that Harry Truman could not be - as my father held all US presidents to be - simply an imperialist aggressor. In The Cold War , John Lewis Gaddis does not mention Attlee's trip to Washington. Perhaps he thinks we Brits exaggerate our prime ministers' influence in the White House. But his account of the Truman/ MacArthur episode is a disgrace.

He quotes Truman: "The military commander in the field [MacArthur] will have charge of the use of the [atomic] weapons..." Then, without giving his readers any warning, Gaddis jettisons history: "MacArthur ordered the US Air Force to drop five Hiroshima-sized A-bombs... Some 150,000 Chinese troops were killed... To retaliate, Soviet bombers dropped atomic bombs on the South Korean cities of Pusan and Inchon, both critical ports supplying US forces... MacArthur then ordered American bombers to drop atomic bombs on Vladivostok as well as the Chinese cities of Shenyang and Harbin...

Britain, France and the Benelux countries announced their withdrawal from Nato... mushroom clouds over Frankfurt and Hamburg..."

After he has dazzled (or puzzled) his readers with two paragraphs of this garbage, Gaddis belatedly reveals that the sentences I have quoted "are fiction". Gaddis is a professor of history at Yale University. His job is to help his readers understand what really happened. Were A-bombs in MacArthur's kitbag? How exactly did Truman control or prevent their use? A historian should pick the plums from the archives. Scaring readers under their duvets is a task he should leave to ghosts.

In 1956, the Cold War was again fought in my home. When British and French troops invaded Suez, my dad and I agreed that Prime Minister Anthony Eden had gone insane. But we disagreed about what made him reverse engines and pull the troops out a few days later. I concluded that it was President Dwight Eisenhower's threat to cut off Britain's money. Dad said it was Nikita Khrushchev's threat to use "rocket weapons". Gaddis writes that the withdrawal of the troops was "not in response to Khrushchev's warning".

Since he agrees with me, I want to praise him. But, as over Truman/MacArthur, I am keen to read the quotes from the archives that would prove Gaddis (and me) right, yet he fails to produce any.

On my next row with my dad, Gaddis is brilliant. Cold War freaks, like me, know the episode as - wait for it, this title is really sexy - "The Jackson-Vanik Amendment". Congress passed it into law in 1972, when Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were busy creating detente - the acceptance of Soviet authority over half the world in return for deals on big issues such as strategic arms limitation. Detente ruled out interfering with what the Soviets did at home. But when Russia imposed a tax on emigrants leaving the USSR, Henry Jackson and Charles Vanik persuaded Congress to deny the Kremlin most-favoured nation status and credits. The law was passed over Kissinger's protests.

I thought Jackson and Vanik were right: Moscow should not be allowed a free hand. My dad backed Nixon and Kissinger because, he said, accepting Soviet power secured peace. The real reason he was so keen on detente, Itold him, was that it protected the oppressive system of his Communist friends.

Father-son dialogue ceased.

Gaddis sums up the issue: "A basic standard of human decency ought to take precedence, even over efforts to stabilise the Cold War." Hooray. Up there in heaven, Dad, what answer do you have to that?

On the cover, Henry Kissinger recommends the book. That is odd, as Gaddis has his guns trained on Kissinger. In the face of Kissinger's biggest achievement - taming the visceral anti-Communism of Richard Nixon and building detente - Gaddis is cold and critical. He piles praise instead on the destroyer of detente, Ronald Reagan, for his "evil empire" speech and his Strategic Defence Initiative ("Star Wars"), which drove Mikhail Gorbachev to throw in the sponge. Did Kissinger puff the book without reading it? Is he signalling that he now thinks his policy was wrong? Here is a new Cold War puzzle.

In one of the great dramas of history, two superpowers made and threatened to use the ultimate weapon; the world's first secular religion was crushed.

The subject merits a masterpiece. Gaddis has not written it. In his prologue, he tries to use George Orwell to tickle readers' interest. A good idea. But he clutters the opening paragraph with irrelevant details - about the Scottish island of Jura to which Orwell retreated and the distance to the nearest shop - so that the theme, the Cold War, is promptly lost.

This is a useful reference book for teachers, but when Gaddis tries something imaginative - as with Truman/MacArthur or Orwell - he reveals, unfortunately, the creative touch of a bureaucrat.

Brian Lapping's television series about the Cold War include Nixon's China Card , The Second Russian Revolution , Breakthrough at Reykjavik , Fall of the Wall and The Death of Yugoslavia .

The Cold War

Author - John Lewis Gaddis
Publisher - Allen Lane
Pages - 333
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 7139 9912 8

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