Thursday, March 9, 2017

We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History

In We Now Know, John Gaddis uses traditional sources and new documents recently available from Russian and Chinese archives to make the case that the Cold War grew out of the idiosyncrasies of Joseph Stalin’s personality, and was continued, or worsened, by the character flaws of Mao Zedong, Nikita Khrushchev, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy. In essence, Gaddis adheres primarily to the traditionalist pro-American stance that the Cold War began with Stalin’s requirements for territory to act as a buffer for the Soviet state against future German aggression. Further, he believes that the Cold War would have occurred regardless of the existence of individual Western leaders, but would not have existed at all without Stalin. To support this claim he provides a brief summary of relations between the Russian Empire and the United States until the end of World War I and then launches into a much more detailed discussion of U.S.-Soviet relations during and after World War II, which the two nations fought as allies against the Axis Powers. Gaddis closes the volume with a discussion of eight “hypotheses” or “impressions” of what he calls “new” Cold War history.

Organizationally, We Now Know is not strictly chronological. Instead, it is arranged by broad subject area. In some respects the subjects are arranged in more or less chronological order, with the division of Europe first and the Cuban Missile Crisis last, but the subject areas range back in forth in time as necessary to support Gaddis’ thesis. The whole is capped off with over one hundred pages of end notes and bibliographic material.

Gaddis places the blame for the start of the Cold War on two related issues: territorial claims and differences over security issues. Stalin began making territorial claims in 1941, in which he sought to maintain all of the territorial concessions received from the Nazis (The Baltic States, part of Finland, Romania, and Poland). After the war, Stalin made additional territorial demands that included Germany, and then further insisted on having his expanded borders surrounded by “friendly” nations that were under his domination. Stalin’s security concerns played into his territorial demands as much as any desire to expand the Communist Revolution into Europe. Part of this was summed up by Soviet Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov’s comment that Russia had returned to the old method of equating additional territory with enhanced security, which combined with Stalin’s dual conceptions that his personal security and that of the State were one and the same, and that the way to ensure his own security was to deny security to others. These are only the first examples of Stalin’s personality and psychological issues that Gaddis believes were the cause of the Cold War.

Another major aspect of Stalin’s personality contributing to the development and continuation of the Cold War, according to Gaddis, was his regular tendency to underestimate American responses to his own political and territorial maneuvering. Gaddis’ first example is the Communist coup d’etat in Czechoslovakia before its democratic elections in 1948. The Communists were not assured of victory in the elections, despite the warmth Czech leaders felt toward Moscow, because of Stalin’s refusal to allow Eastern European countries to participate in the Marshall Plan. The American reaction was to propose a permanent West German state and U.S. leadership in the military defense of Western Europe. In an effort to head off this development, Stalin implemented the now infamous Berlin Blockade, which was not only unsuccessful in forcing the Americans, British, and French from abandoning the city, but further demonstrated to Western Europe the need for collective security arrangements.

Another example of Stalin’s capacity to underestimate American responses is clearly demonstrated by the Korean War, which he authorized Kim Il-Sung to launch based on the belief that the United States would stand aside and allow the North Korean invasion. This misperception on the part of Stalin and Kim Il-Sung was based primarily on a statement by Dean Acheson that South Korea and Taiwan would have to rely on the United Nations for defensive assistance if attacked. While Gaddis claims this was merely careless wording in a statement meant to ease Mao’s fears of American aggression in mainland China, it had the same effect of U.S. diplomacy immediately before the Persian Gulf War in 1990: it gave an aggressor the impression that they could safely invade a neighbor without U.S. intervention.

A third example from Gaddis that shows the impact of Stalin’s personality quirks on the development of the Cold War is his reaction to the advent of atomic weapons. In a move that ensured Western nervousness, Stalin (and Mao) totally discounted the impact of atomic weapons on the balance of power, focusing instead on the strength of conventional forces when dealing with the United States. Given the manner that Harry S. Truman had reduced American forces, this attitude was sure to increase tensions between the superpowers.

Although the focus of Gaddis’ argument is most definitely the impact Stalin had on the creation of the Cold War, the entirety of _We Now Know_ is not devoted to Stalin, his policies, and character traits. Gaddis carefully looks at the policies and personalities of all of the major political players during the Cold War era, which for Gaddis seems to end in 1963. Truman and Khrushchev in particular provide grist for Gaddis’ personality mill. Truman’s policies seem open to particular ridicule. Due to Truman’s domestic priorities, the United States’ conventional forces had been allowed to decline to the point that it was required to rely on atomic arms to project power and for deterrence. Gaddis’ issue with this turn of events is not so much that it happened, but that at a time when the defense of the United States and Europe depended on atomic arms, Truman would not allow planners at the Pentagon to have information regarding the number of weapons available or the capabilities of those weapons.

Khrushchev gets Gaddis’ special blame for escalating the Cold War to new levels with his public inflation of Soviet missile and bomber capability, his emotional responses to events, and his precipitation of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The public inflation of Soviet nuclear capabilities grew out of Khrushchev’s belief that the only way to maintain Soviet defenses and prestige in the face of their glaring inferiority to those the Americans maintained. The problems here are obvious. First, given the true strength of Soviet nuclear arms, the Soviets were at great pains to keep their capabilities a secret. If the truth got out, it would be obvious that Khrushchev was bluffing the world. Second, Soviet allies like Mao Zedong and Fidel Castro might take his claims at face value and precipitate a nuclear conflict the Soviets could not win.

Eisenhower’s authorization of U-2 flights over the Soviet Union quickly disproved the existence of a bomber gap as well as the Soviet lack of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) with which to threaten the United States. The Eisenhower Administration chose to keep this information secret, which protected Khrushchev’s prestige, but also encouraged Chinese and Cuban adventurism. This combined with Khrushchev’s emotional response to the Jupiter Medium Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBM) based in Turkey to precipitate the Cuban Missile Crisis. Castro admitted that he believed the Soviets had an inventory of several hundred ICBMs, he did not believe the installation of Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBM) and MRBMs in Cuba would provoke the string American response that it did. If he had understood that state of the Soviet inventory, it is possible that he would have chosen a more “prudent” course.

Despite the obvious quality of the research involved in We Now Know, it does have what appear to be some glaring deficiencies. The first and most obvious, although this may be nothing more than a pet peeve, is the gratuitous use and re-use of the phrase “We Now Know” whenever Gaddis makes use of new materials from previously closed archives. It is entirely possible that this phrase stuck out so clearly because it is also the title chosen for the work. Other issues are a much larger problem.

Gaddis maintains the traditional Western interpretation that: the Cold War started at the end of World War II, the Cold War was entirely the result of Stalin’s attempts to dominate Europe in the aftermath of the War, and Western reactions to Stalin and the creation of NATO were entirely in response to fears of renewed warfare in Europe and Communist domination. The first two of these issues are the most problematic. Dating the start of the Cold War is a new and ongoing debate, with dates ranging from the Communist Revolution in 1917 to the aftermath of World War II in 1948. Gaddis’ only attempt at addressing earlier sources of conflict focus on Russian immigration to the United States dating from the 1880s, American support for Great Britain and Japan during the Russo-Japanese War at the beginning of the 20th century, and the potential for symbolic conflict between Lenin’s Bolsheviks and the United States based on ideology. He leaves out entirely Allied fighting near Archangel in 1918-1919, which resulted in the Soviets keeping Allied POWs, including Americans prisoner. The POW issue continued to appear for another fifteen years, and has never been completely resolved. How did this impact Soviet-American relations? The Soviets attempted to use them as a bargaining chip to gain formal recognition from the United States, even threatening that the POWs would be executed if recognition and concession were not extended. This brings up the issue of diplomatic recognition, which the United States did not extend until 1933. Even this did not fully resolve the POW issue, although additional sets of Allied remains were recovered as a result. Finally the United States used diplomatic means during the 1920s to maintain the boundaries of Poland against Soviet incursion, and insisted that other nations not grant them diplomatic recognition.

The ongoing issues do not necessarily indicate that the Cold War started earlier than Gaddis’ proposed date, but they are all issues that affected the American-Soviet relationship in ways that Gaddis does not address. Indeed, he does not even acknowledge them at all. Given his claim that the Cold War is entirely a creation of Joseph Stalin, these issues should have at least been mentioned. This may appear a quibble to some, but by leaving this out of his discussion or previous American-Russian antagonism allows critics to question his impartiality.

That said, Gaddis provides a refreshing look at the major personalities and events of the Cold War era, and includes much data that has not been available to earlier scholars. He also provides an interesting proposal that the Cold War was essentially lost by the Soviets by 1963, based on the idea that economic and military indicators other than merely nuclear strength indicate a vast U.S. preponderance.

This belief is why Gaddis essentially ends his work at the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and does not deal with the Brezhnev era including the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or issues surrounding the fall of Communism and the break-up of the Soviet Union. This is deliberate on his part due to his belief that the Cold War was decided by that point, and therefore not significant to his arguments.

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