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“The Cold War: A New History” by John Lewis Gaddis Report

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Updated: Oct 20th, 2021


The Cold War ended in 1991 with a fall of Soviet Union. Since then, one full generation has grown up who have no personal recollection of that era. The libraries are full of scholarly tomes covering the Cold War period, which tell the whole story. However, it is rare to find a book which captures the essence of the Cold War in one concise volume, readable by students and the general public. John Lewis Gaddis, a professor of history at Yale University has filled up that gap by writing his treatise “The Cold War: A New History” especially aimed at students and the laymen. This book review covers the various facets of Lewis’s book giving the strengths and weaknesses of the author’s treatment of the subject.


Gaddis builds the story of the Cold War in a unique way of focusing each chapter on a particular theme. Gaddis explains this deliberate omission of following standard chronological method by stating that “any attempt to capture” the Cold War “within a simple chronological narrative could only produce mush” (Gaddis xi). In Chapter 1 “Return of Fear”, Gaddis states that the Cold War was caused due to the competing and divergent ideologies of the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States emphasized individual liberty as its highest ideal and that capitalism afforded a way to attain that liberty. The Soviets on the other hand held that the workers of the world needed to unite to overthrow the exploitative capitalists. Chapter1 explains the build up of distrust, the fear of each others intentions and the opening moves of the prominent leaders of the period immediately after the Second World War squarely blaming Stalin for spreading the fear psychosis. According to Gaddis, “Stalin’s postwar goals were security for himself, his regime, his country, and his ideology, in precisely that order”. Gaddis informs the lay reader that the effect of Stalin’s various moves caused George Kennan, the US Moscow Foreign Service officer in 1946 to send the ‘Long Telegram’ that postulated that aggression and expansion was the characteristic of the Soviet Union and called for an American response of containment (Gaddis, p. 29). This was a seminal event, which shaped the basic contours of American strategy during the Cold War era.

Chapter II “Deathboats and Lifeboats”, sums up the various perceptions of the leaders on both the sides with regard to the unfolding events and the specter of a nuclear war. In this chapter Gaddis brings out clearly the differing attitudes of President Truman and Eisenhower with regards to the use of Atomic weapons. Truman would not allow the military to have unfettered control over the use of atomic weapons and laid down the rule that their use would be authorized only by the President (Gaddis, p. 50). However, Gaddis surmises that though Truman was chary of atomic weapons, he allowed them to be built only because he feared that the Soviets would get it first. Unlike Truman, Eisenhower was an ex-general who clearly understood the potency of the weapon as also the horrors of war. Across the Iron Curtain, Nikita Khrushchev too had a similar background. Both sought to leverage the threat of use of weapons through competing nuclear strategy. Eisenhower’s Single War plan of using 3000 nuclear weapons simultaneously against all communist countries shocked the next President – Kennedy to rationalize the strategy from Massive Retaliation to Mutually Assured Destruction (Gaddis, p. 80). Gaddis explains the significance of the 1962 Cuban Missile crisis in this chapter and concludes that though Khrushchev’s strategic gamble of placing nuclear tipped missiles in Cuba to foster Communism in Americas failed, it did achieve some successes. “Deathboats and Lifeboats” thus alludes to the dangerous moves made by both the sides as also the subsequent moves carried out to defuse tensions and manage the Cold War at less than Armageddon level.

Chapter III of Gaddis’s book “Command versus Spontaneity” deals more with the ideology of that era and less with the historical rendition. The reader here is given a treatment of Marxist-Leninist ideology and the reasons for its failures. According to Gaddis, the fundamental failure of Communism lay in the presumption of the original theory; that of inevitable class struggle, necessity for dictatorship to achieve revolutionary ends and the inflexibility of a system which did not learn from its mistakes. The author recounts the efforts of various personalities who try to change the system and fail. The tragic account of Beria whose attempt to reverse the worst of Stalinist rule ending with his execution is recounted with finesse (Gaddis, pp. 104-106). This chapter posits that the Cold War was also a ‘war of ideas’ concerned with organization of the society as well as the rights of the individuals. ‘Command’ became central to the Soviet ideology which led to brutal suppression of its peoples. This also led to spontaneous riots in East Germany in 1953 and later the centrality of ‘Command’ was responsible for erecting the Berlin wall on 12-13 August 1961.

In Chapter Four, Gaddis examines what he calls ‘The Emergence of Autonomy”.

He begins by explaining the overthrow of Nikita Khrushchev on 13 October 1964. Gaddis explains that the period from late 1950 to early 1970 was an era of bipolarity where both the parties favored decolonization of the world. In this chapter, Gaddis attempts a broad sweep of all the freedom movements that spread from Africa to Asia. The concept of non-alignment is given a Machiavellian twist by Gaddis who claims that it was a strategy adopted by some to keep their allegiance ambiguous so that either super power could be played off against the other depending upon the circumstances by the non-aligned nations.

In Chapter V, “Recovery of Equity” Gaddis expounds on the hopes and aspirations of the people on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The ‘Equity’ recovery that the author alludes to is that in the 1970s, both the peoples (West and the Soviet Bloc) showed greater resistance to the authoritarian policies of their respective governments. This is reflected in the Watergate gate scandal which led to fall of President Nixon. It also showed to the world including the Soviets that democratic principles desired the Rule of Law and the fact that popular will could not be stifled. The ‘recovery of equity’ also points to the fact that since the late 1940s the CIA had been running a secret global war to undermine the Soviets. The will of the Iranian people and their resistance to the CIA backed regime of Mohammad Reza Shah leading to his overthrow in 1979 is an expression of popular will. The equity also alludes to the concept of ‘Détente’ which Gaddis says was implemented under Nixon “to lower the risks of war and encourage a more predictable relationship among the Cold War rivals (181). Détente, according to Gaddis helped freeze Cold War in place., but ’not end it”(198).

Chapter VI deals with powerful personalities who shaped the Cold War policies. These ‘actors’ such as Carter and Reagan on the American side, Brezhnev in USSR, Deng Xiao Peng in China and Thatcher in Britain shaped the Cold War policies in the 1980s. Gaddis is generous in his praise of Ronald Reagan whom he credits with understanding that the Soviet Union was close to collapse. Gaddis claims that Reagan knew that his ‘Strategic Defense Initiative’ (SDI) popularly known as ‘Stars Wars’ program was decades away from fructifying but the Soviets did not know that and thus Reagan used the SDI as a bargaining chip for the various arms reduction talks. Gaddis is also dismissive about Gorbachev whom he labels as lacking in strength of personality and vision as compared to Reagan.

In Chapter VII, Gaddis covers the end game of the Cold war and aptly names the chapter as “Triumph of Hope”. This chapter covers mostly the events of the period 1989 to 1991 wherein the decline and collapse of the Soviet Union seemed inevitable. The ‘Triumph of Hope’ is reflective in the return of elections and democracy in Poland in 1989, the hope for democracy in China cut short by the massacre of Tiananmen Square in 1989 and the fall of Communism in Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia also in the same period. The fall of the Berlin Wall and German unification on 3 October 1991 echoes this hope. The ‘hope’ is further elaborated with the dynamics of unfolding events in a rapidly crumbling Soviet Union with growing domestic unpopularity of Gorbachev, the failed communist coup of August 1991 and the rise of Boris Yeltsin as the leader of Russia. The’ Triumph of Hope’ stamps its recognition on world history when Gorbachev officially abolishes the Soviet Union on Christmas day 1991.

In the epilogue the author concludes that the Cold War had many important facts. The author reasons that before the Cold War, major powers fought many direct conflicts, but during the Cold War, they did not fight a single war directly. The primary reason for this to happen, was that the presence of nuclear weapons made it impossible to win major wars. The Cold War helped democracy to bloom the world over as people saw the relative merits of Democracy versus the stifling control and disadvantages of Communism. Gaddis posits that the Cold War also discredited authoritarianism, Marxist-Leninism, and Communism. In the final analysis, Gaddis concludes that the Soviets failed to win the Cold War because the basic premises of Marx were incorrect and that “dissatisfaction with capitalism never reached the point at which ‘proletariatans of all countries’ felt it necessary to unite to throw off their ‘chains.’” (Gaddis, p. 264).


John Lewis Gaddis’s book makes excellent reading for the uninitiated. The book gives a factual overview of the events of the Cold War albeit, with a distinct pro-American bias. Democratic triumphalism is evident throughout the book with Gaddis observing that democratic ideals were superior to the poorly constructed Marxist ideology. Such pronouncements can best be considered as half truths as the reasons and causes for the fall of the Soviet Union are far more complex than the simplistic view that Gaddis would want his readers to believe. The book attempts to broad brush the contributions of the Third World countries to global geopolitics during the Cold War era. The book is obviously written for a western audience in its negative portrayal of the non-aligned movement and thus loses objectivity in parts. The book though eminently readable would have benefited had the author provided a chronological timeline as an appendix for those who prefer to study and understand the Cold War in a more traditional scholastic manner.

Works Cited

Gaddis, John Lewis. The Cold War: A New History. NY: Penguin, 2005.

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