Rdgs Seminar in US History
Rdgs Seminar in US History HIST 6393
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Date Created: 09/19/15
Stephanie Kelly HIST 6393 Post 45 US History John Lewis Gaddis We Now Know Rethinking Cold War History New York Oxford University Press 1997 Cold War historians have bene ted enormously in the last decade from new material coming out of foreign archives Many of these new documents have resulted in a true rethinking of Cold War history But simply having access to documents from the other side doesn t necessarily yield a more balanced or nuanced interpretation of history Indeed as John Gaddis shows us in We Now Know Rethinking Cold War History selective attention and omission can be as harmful to historical interpretation as not having those documents Drawing mostly on secondary material that uses newly discovered records Gaddis sites linguistic constraints for this We Now Know offers an interpretation of the origins and evolution of the Cold War that is reminiscent of the good versus evil orthodoxy that permeated Cold War mentality Gaddis s first chapter ponders the question given what we now know could the Cold War have been avoided and an alternate path forged To answer this question he writes at length on Stalin s despotic personality and malevolent disposition hardly revealing anything new to arrive at the conclusion that the Cold War could not have taken any other path so long as Stalin was in charge Not that the United States didn t try cooperating with and accommodating the Kremlin but given Stalin s commitment to world revolution and his expansionist tendencies the United States was left with no choice but to react to the aggressiveness Gaddis notes for example that the failure of the spheres of in uence arrangement can be attributed to Stalin s unilateral approach to security The Americans and the British were willing to persuade the Europeans who would have come under Soviet control to acquiesce if only Stalin would have cooperated and shown restraint How does Gaddis explain the apparent cautiousness of Soviet behavior under Stalin It was not due to the overwhelming disparity in strength and power between East and West as some scholars have noted but rather to a patient and plotting Kremlin boss that was willing to wait for the execution of his master plan until power disparities favored the Soviets Because Stalin s quest for territorial expansion represents a central place in Gaddis narrative there is a substantial discussion of Cold War empires The Soviet empire was a deliberate and purposely constructed one which was held together by coercion and military force According to Gaddis Stalin s insatiable appetite for imperial expansion coupled with his belief in inevitable war guided Soviet policy Hardly a mention is given to the issue of Soviet security concerns in the aftermath of a devastating war where Soviet losses in human lives and material destruction far exceeded that of any other ally Gaddis is not predisposed to give Stalin any leeway on this issue yet he does give considerable leeway to US concerns for security when the issue is Cuba The Soviet Empire failed in the end because it was managed poorly a fate unavoidable considering the authoritarian tradition it was built upon According to Gaddis the Soviets in particular Stalin did have unlimited ambitions but no timetable for achieving them The United States in contrast innocently stumbled upon its empire in the aftermath of World War II The American empire did not arise from an internal need for markets but rather from external factors The attack on Pearl Harbor exposed Americans to a vulnerability that required an acceptance of empire for security purposes In any event the American Empire was qualitatively different from the Soviets American democratic habits of compromise and negotiation enabled the US to construct a empire by invitation Force was not needed as the bene ts to client states would speak for themselves Gaddis uses Japan and Germany to exemplify this sanguine picture of empire Had he ventured to look at the US Empire in other areas of the world his tea party empire would not have held up to scrutiny After all wasn t it the US that invaded and occupied Haiti for nineteen years leaving only in 1934 Wasn t it the US that occupied Cuba after liberating it from Spain and then retained the right to intervene at whim The list could go on but suffice to say Gaddis is wrong about America s empire staring in 1945 Furthermore in suggesting the US had an empire by invitation he is overlooking substantial evidence to the contrary Gaddis coverage of the German Question highlights how the Soviets were obstructionists when it came to the idea of a uni ed Germany and the United States acted uncharacteristically passive on this issue Both sides appeared to have their advocates for a reunified Germany which would have perhaps led the Cold War in a different direction In the US George Kennan proposed Program A which argued for a neutral Germany that would constitute a third force in Europe However the magnet theory which envisioned a prosperous West Germany attracting East Germans and weakening Soviet control won out On the Soviet side sincere efforts to reunify Germany came about only after Stalin s death in 1953 These efforts were spearheaded by Lavrentii Beria who proposed that a unified and neutral Germany might actually balance American and Soviet in uence in Europe This Gaddis argues was the closest both parties ever came to compromise on the Germany issue But it was not to happen for a divided Germany was a convenient perhaps even a comfortable option for the Americans the Russians and their respective allies Altering the status quo seemed riskier than leaving things alone Another topic that Gaddis gives considerable time to is nuclear weapons and their impact on the evolution of the Cold War Nuclear weapons changed the history of warfare in that they became an instrument of peace rather than war Gaddis makes no apologies for the use of atomic bombs on Japan arguing that the primary objective was to achieve a quick victory not to scare the Russians He states in the context of the existing warfare paradigm the decision to use the atomic bomb made sense Gaddis unconvincingly argues that the Unites States made a concerted and sincere effort at proposing international control but once again Stalin undermined any compromise Much is made of Stalin s underhanded maneuvering to infiltrate the Manhattan Project even before the war was over but little is said about the American s decision to withhold information about the bomb from their ally and how this may have contributed to suspicion Why was the American nuclear monopoly ineffective Gaddis points to democratic traditions once again Domestic concerns civilmilitary relations how things looked to our allies and moral qualms all placed restraints on American leaders These restraints were not present in the Soviet Union and had they had the monopoly first no one knows what they may have done with it Once the monopoly was broken the arms race that ensued masked the political and economic failures in the Soviet system that was becoming evident by the 1960 s thereby allowing the cold war to rage on for two more decades The Soviet s technological and military achievements allowed them to hide a system in decline from the world The arms race appears now to have been a product of Khrushchev s intoxication with missiles and the subsequent missile dependency it created More than any other factor Khrushchev s bluffs on missile superiority led to the arms race Khrushchev is depicted as somewhat less culpable than Stalin but this point is irrelevant to the outcome The authoritarian structures and processes that brought down the Soviet system were already entrenched and Khrushchev could hardly have veered to far from them Gaddis s treatment of the third world is altogether inadequate considering this is where a substantial part of the Cold War was fought It is not surprising however that he spend less time on the topic that most refutes his claims to America s pluralistic democratic and benign behavior Where Asia is concerned Gaddis argues the new documents point to a closer relationship than previously thought between Stalin Mao and Kim IllSung and a more decisive role for the Soviets in the Korean War Once again it was the Russians engaging in both risk taking and risk aversion simultaneously who were to blame After all they gave Kim the go ahead while Washington s instructions to South Korea were yellow lights shading over to red Vietnam is passed over as a regrettable mistake Gaddis argues that the Chinese communists played a major role in the events in Vietnam Overall Southeast Asia did represent an understandable threat at the time and Western fears of a campaign directed by the Soviets and the Chinese did have some basis In Latin America Gaddis mentions the overreaction to Arbenz in Guatemala a CIA coup to topple the democratically elected president but brushes it off as inconsequential because Arbenz probably would not have lasted in any even Castro was the biggest threat to stability in Latin America because of Cuba s close proximity and Castro s revolutionary ideology The Cuban missile crisis which brought home the reality of the nuclear age resulted in the long peace The settlement was a compromise in which both sides could claim a piece of victory Gaddis is right when he claims the United States was handicapped in the third world because of its association with colonialism and capitalism which gave Marxist ideology the upper hand He doesn t however attempt to explain how America overcame that handicap Any such attempt would belie his heroic portrait of America s leaders and policy makers In the end Gaddis arrives at his main argument which posits that not only did the brutal authoritarianism of the Soviet Union cause and perpetuate the cold war but that America s democratic traditions stabilized and bene ted the world While Gaddis might have a point that America s democratic traditions meant leaders and policy makers were more responsive to popular opinion than in the Soviet Union this doesn t mean the US was restrained from committing its own atrocities These atrocities were often covert out of the eye of the public or as in the case with Vietnam public support was gained by using propaganda and lies So in one sense Gaddis is right that democratic habits restrained America from committing the type of atrocities that Stalin perpetrated but what US covert operations and the manipulation of public opinion managed to accomplish is just as disturbing A nal word on Gaddis s rethinking of Cold War history addresses the role of ideology so central to his interpretation If the Cold War was about communism versus capitalism or authoritarianism versus democracy as Gaddis prefers shouldn t a well researched account give proper weight to the ideology of both sides Gaddis writes at length on the effects of MarxistLeninist ideology on Soviet actions but the effects of capitalist ideology on US actions is downplayed if not completely disregarded Is Gaddis suggesting that the United States would have accommodated unlimited communist states into the world system as long as Stalin wasn t leading them Once again a re ection on what Gaddis omits seriously questions his whole thesis Unfortunately the only thing we now know after reading this narrative is that the myth of American moral superiority is still alive and well