Lit. Am. Hist II -- Professor K.C. Johnson                                         March 20, 2006

Short Review of Gaddis                                                                     Gwynneth Malin


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


In The Cold War: A New History, John Lewis Gaddis, the leading American Cold War historian, traces relations between the Soviet Union and the United States from World War II until the fall of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).  Gaddis designed this book to serve as a concise and readable synthesis of Cold War history for his undergraduate students at Yale University, most of who were young children when the Berlin Wall came down.  “…My students,” writes Gaddis, “ [have] very little sense of how the Cold War started, what it was about, or why it ended the way it did.  For them it’s history: not all that different from the Peloponnesian War.”[1]   Gaddis has channeled this insight into the writing of this book, which provides a valuable overview, regardless of one’s proximity to the Cold War.

Gaddis outlines three important lessons of the Cold War.  First, it was during the Cold War that military strength ceased to be the defining characteristic of power itself, which it had been for the past five centuries.  Gaddis’ clearest illustration of this phenomenon is the fact that when the USSR collapsed, it still had its military and its nuclear power in place.[2]  Gaddis explains:

Prior to 1945, great powers fought great wars so frequently that they seemed to be permanent features of the international landscape: Lenin even relied on them to provide the mechanisms by which capitalism would self-destruct.  After 1945, however, wars were limited to those between superpowers and smaller powers, as in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan, or to wars among smaller powers …What never happened, despite universal fears that it might, was a full-scale war involving the United States, the Soviet Union, and their respective allies…For the first time in history no one could be sure of winning, or even surviving, a great war. [3]


Second, the Cold War discredited dictatorships.  Gaddis points out that although the USSR, China, and several countries in Europe had authoritarian governments in 1948 when George Orwell’s famous book about a totalitarian world, 1984, was published, these regimes did not spread to other countries.  During the latter part of the 20th century, communism, having failed to deliver on its promise of providing workers with a better life, fell out of favor.  Third, the Cold War era witnessed the globalization of democracy, illustrated by the quintupling of the number of democracies by the end of the 20th century.  Gaddis posits that the lack of both great wars and economic depressions coupled with increased levels of literacy worldwide and policy decisions to promote democracy contributed to the spread of democracy.[4] 

For Gaddis, ideology, both Marxist-Leninist and democratic, played a significant role in the Cold War, a role traditionally underestimated by Cold War historians.  With regard to historiography, the first cohort of Cold War historians viewed Stalin and his desire to dominate Europe as the central cause of Cold War.  Revisionist Cold War scholars of 1950’s and 1960’s argued that the Cold War came about because the extension of American economic interests caused the USSR to adopt a defensive stance.  In the 1970’s, Gaddis, a “post-revisionist” Cold War scholar, viewed the origins of the Cold War as a result of misperceptions and conflicting interests between the two superpowers.  In his book, We Now Know (1997), Gaddis emphasized the role of democratic values and the disparity between how the United States treated its allies and how the Soviet Union dealt with Eastern Europe as important factors in the outcome of the Cold War.[5] 

Gaddis explains that The Cold War: A History does not provide any new sources or interpretations that depart from his prior six books on the Cold War, but he does adopt a new approach, which integrates anecdotes and creative writing, with the aim of making the text readable and fresh.[6]  For example, Gaddis opens his narrative with an anecdote about George Orwell writing 1984 in 1946 while staying at a remote cabin on a Scottish isle.  Also, Gaddis includes a fictional account of the Korean War which involves massive nuclear attacks on many fronts in order to demonstrate what could have been.[7]

Gaddis’ account of the Cold War in this new book addresses the contribution of world leaders, like Pope John Paul II and Margaret Thatcher, with Ronald Reagan as the story’s hero and Mikhail Gorbachev as a minor character.  Yet, Gaddis is careful to point out that ordinary people, such as the Hungarians, the Poles and the East Germans, played a crucial part in the ending of the Cold War.[8]  His sources include translated documents drawn from the Soviet Archives opened in the 1990’s, but he did not visit these archives nor did he use any foreign language sources, and he has been criticized for these two shortcomings.[9]

Gaddis’ approach in The Cold War: A History illuminates how we are subject to the experience and viewpoints of our own generation and how important it is to be cognizant of recent history.  Gaddis is probably being facetious in his comment that his undergraduate students view the Cold War as history equal to that of the Peloponnesian War, but it does bear mentioning that, unlike that of the Peloponnesian War, the legacy of the Cold War is still very much with us today.  The “greater evil” of the Cold War has been replaced by the “axis of evil” under the administration of George W. Bush.  The fact that the United States previously backed leaders such as Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden during the Cold War era cannot be overlooked in light of our present landscape.  Ironically, the Bush administration, having alienated America’s allies in old Europe, has gained popularity in the “new Europe” of Eastern Europe. It should also be noted that Gaddis has become a favorite historian of G.W. Bush’s, consulting with the President in preparation for his second inaugural address about supporting democracy in the Middle East during this new age of global terrorism. Clearly, the Cold War’s legacy is still present. 



[1] Gaddis, John Lewis. The Cold War: A New History. (New York: The Penguin Press, 2005): ix.

[2] Gaddis, 263. 

[3] Gaddis, 261-262.

[4] Gaddis, 263-265.

[5]James Mann, “Long Twilight Struggle: We Now Know Why the Superpowers’ Terrifying Standoff Never Turned Hot, Argues a Leading Historian”, Washington Post, January 29, 2006.

[6] Gaddis, xi.

[7] Gaddis, 48-49.

[8] Gaddis, 259.

[9] Carolyn Eisenberg, “We Now Know: Revisiting Cold War History,” Journal of American History, (March 1998): 1462-1464.