The Magazine


Jun 30, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 41 • By RONALD RADOSH
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Nor does Gaddis let those who have blamed the Korean War on the Truman administration and the South Korean leader Syngman Rhee off the hook. The leading American historian of the Korean War, Bruce Cumings, has recently written that "no one and everyone" was responsible for the war and that the question of which power started it should not even be asked. Gaddis does not agree. In his reckoning, it was the USSR, and the USSR alone, that took active measures by backing North Korea in its effort to unify the peninsula by force. Indeed, Gaddis reveals that as Europe seemed impervious to the Soviet push, Asia looked more promising. Stalin showed a new aggressiveness, telling Mao that he was "reconciled" to a struggle with the United States. In a telegram sent by Stalin to Mao, we learn that Mao was in fact hesitant to send his troops to defend the North, but Stalin insisted. Indeed, even if intervention meant war between the Communist bloc and the United States, Stalin argued that such a result should not be feared. "Together," Stalin wrote, "we will be stronger than the USA and England . . . If a war is inevitable, then let it be waged now." Without Mao's army, Stalin said, North Korea would collapse, and the Communist dominoes would fall. "We must enter the war," Stalin demanded. And so Mao did.

The true story of the origins of the Cold War, Gaddis writes, is that " democratic capitalism proved during the critical decade of the 1950s that it could build societies based on sustained popular support as well as alliances capable of coordinated military action." In contrast, Communist societies " shattered one alliance and held together another only by force," its supposed economic achievements lying in ruin and held together on the graves of its murdered citizens. Containment -- the brilliant strategy proposed by George E Kennan in the late 1940s -- did its job. The West countered Soviet expansion with firmness and measure, all the while avoiding war, and in the end the totalitarian monolith crumbled.

We Now Know appears at a particularly propitious time, because a new generation of revisionists is at work in the academy. In his prize-winning book A Preponderance of Power, Melvyn P. Leffler of the University of Virginia argues that U.S. officials "chose to contain and deter the Russians rather than to reassure and placate them." The new revisionists are unwilling to abandon their ideological orthodoxy despite all available evidence. Leffler, for example, explains that "rather than dwell on Soviet aims and motives that remain unknowable, I have chosen to focus on the U.S. side of the cold war equation." With the fall of the Soviet Union, Leffler's brand of history is exposed as entirely specious. Gaddis's striking and bold synthesis of Cold War history stands as a powerful antidote to those who persist in portraying America's efforts to save the world from Soviet communism as a form of malevolent imperialism.

Ronald Radosh is senior research associate at George Washington University's Center for Communication Policy Studies and co-author of The Rosenberg File.