John Lewis Gaddis

We Now Know

Rethinking Cold War History

Clarendon Press, 425 pp., $ 30

Since the 1960s, the American academy has been locked in a debate over the nature of U.S. foreign policy and the origins of the Cold War. The "orthodox" school characterized the roots of the Cold War as the "brave and essential response of free men to Communist aggression," as Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote in a seminal essay. But during the Vietnam War, a new generation of younger scholars who came to be known as "revisionists" instead portrayed the United States as a nation whose quest for hegemonic control of the postwar world was the sole cause of the Cold War.

The revisionists are still with us. On Memorial Day, the historian Ronald Steel argued in the New York Times that the American decision to rebuild Western Europe at the war's end actually reinforced the "very 'iron curtain' that officials had inveighed against." The result of the Marshall Plan, Steel wrote, was that "within months Stalin clamped down on Hungary, imposed a Communist regime on Czechoslovakia, and tried, through a blockade of West Berlin, to pressure the Western allies to give up their plans to create a West German state."

Carolyn Eisenberg, a diplomatic historian at Hofstra University, has argued that the recovery program for Western Europe locked the Soviets out "of the most populated and industrialized portions of the country" and deprived "the USSR of the fruits of its World War II victory." This led inevitably to "a Soviet crackdown in eastern Germany and eastern Europe." If only the hegemony- grasping United States had not angered the benign Stalin we would not have had the Cold War, as well as the "Soviet drain of $ 14 billion from Eastern Europe."

That such arguments can still be made in the 1990s shows the need for John Lewis Gaddis's important new study, We Now Know. Gaddis, America's leading diplomatic historian, is working from material recently found in Soviet archives -- material that allows us to put to rest once and for all the question of where responsibility for the Cold War lies. Gaddis is forthright and adamant: "Once Stalin wound up at the top in Moscow, and once it was clear his state would survive the war, then it looks equally clear that there was going to be a Cold War whatever the West did."

Gaddis has not always held this view. In 1972, in The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941-1947, he blamed both superpowers equally for the Cold War. And as late as 1987, he still argued that the orthodox school "absolved the United States of responsibility for the breakdown of wartime cooperation; it made any future relaxation of tensions dependent upon changes of heart in Moscow, not Washington." It is a mark of how serious a scholar Gaddis is -- and how honest a man he is -- that he is willing to publish a book that undercuts his own analysis. Unlike the revisionists, he does not trust the evidence to fit a pre-determined anti-American thesis.

Indeed, as Gaddis moves painstakingly through the major conflicts of the epoch of the Cold War, he continually offers new information that makes his conclusion irrefutable. Stalin, he reveals, met with German Communist leaders as early as June 1945 for the purpose of working out plans to create a reunified Germany to exist within Moscow's sphere of influence. Temporary partition of Germany would make reunification eventually possible on his terms alone, Stalin believed. But the behavior of the Red Army, for one, assured residents of the Russian zone that they would prefer anything to Soviet rule: New data show that 2 to 3 million women were raped as part of the Red Army's victory antics.

Stalin hoped that economic distress in western Germany would create a left- wing consensus and that parties of the Left under Moscow's control would win free elections. When that did not happen, he opted for creation of a Sovietized separate East German state. As Gaddis writes, even if his intentions for Germany were not at first clear, Stalin's "behavior elsewhere in Europe left little reason to assume their benevolence." The revisionists have it entirely backward: Major decisions that involved Germany were not the result of a Western grand design. Rather, they were responses to what Stalin had done: "his initial reluctance to reach a four-power agreement on Germany, his rejection of the Marshall Plan, his decision to blockade Berlin, his authorization to Kim Il-Sung to invade South Korea." In effect, Stalin's actions produced the opposite of what he intended -- a rearreed and pro- Western Germany.

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.

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