A New History of the Cold War (2023)


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

In 1984, I spoke with British historian A.J. Pete Taylor, who had written a book called How Wars End, and I asked him how the Cold War might end. I have no idea, he told me, but I do know that when it does happen it will seem to have been obvious all along.

Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis, a prominent scholar of the Cold War, has now written a new history of the long conflict, his first since the Cold War actually did end, where he reexamines the role of ideology and leadership, the strengths and weaknesses of nuclear weapons, the management of alliances, why the West won, why that's important, and how the Cold War shaped our world today.

Later in the program we'll speak with two members of the Senate Judiciary Committee about this week's hearings on warrantless wiretaps, but first, the Cold War. If you have questions about what happened and why, our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. The email address is talk@npr.org.

John Lewis Gaddis is the Robert A. Lovett professor of history at Yale, and he joins us now from a studio on the campus in New Haven, Connecticut. And welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Professor JOHN LEWIS GADDIS (History, Yale University): Thank you. Good to talk to you, Neal.

CONAN: And I wanted to begin by asking you that same question that I put to A.J. Pete Taylor, 20 or 25 years ago. Did you have any idea how the Cold War would end?

Professor GADDIS: No, with all due respect to Professor Taylor, it was certainly not obvious to me in 1984 how the Cold War would end.

CONAN: Well, it wasn't obvious to him either. He just said when it happened, it would be obvious to everybody. It's one of those things.

Professor GADDIS: I'm not sure that's completely true, even to this point. And that's partly why I wrote this book, is to try to step back from that experience and look at what happened from the distance of some fifteen years or so. And I think it's always the case with history, when you back off of it, when time passes, it looks different from the way it looked at the time.

CONAN: And of course, knowing the outcome, it all seems inevitable. But one of the points you make at the beginning of your book was that in 1948 and 1949 it was far from clear which side was going to win this struggle.

Professor GADDIS: I think one of the great challenges for historians is to deny inevitability, because nothing is really inevitable. Things look inevitable after they've happened, but part of our challenge in writing about the past is to show that things could have happened in a quite different way.

CONAN: And indeed, in a couple of circumstances, had things happened in a different way, this world would be dramatically different.

Professor GADDIS: This world might not even be here as we know it if things had happened in a different way in a couple of circumstances.

CONAN: And that's one of the things I wanted to talk to you about. You say that, indeed, the experience of the Cold War goes against the entire history of human nature, which has always been that if you invent a new weapon, well, glory be, let's get to using it.

Professor GADDIS: That's right. I think there are very few instances in history that I can think of in which weapons have been developed and not used. Stones, bows and arrows, slingshots, coming all the way up through bombers and battleships, weapons developed have always been used fairly quickly after their development.

And what's distinctive about the Cold War is that the most powerful of all weapons, nuclear weapons, were developed, they were used twice to end World War II, but then they were not used again. And I think this is a remarkable and astonishing development.

CONAN: Before we get lots of emails, Professor Gaddis does include a caveat for the agreement not to use poison gas during the Second World War, but...

Professor GADDIS: Which was a tacit agreement, not a formal agreement. But it was just a mutual understanding on both sides, but that's the only exception that I can think of.

CONAN: And this is something, you give credit to somebody who is not generally regarded as a great strategist of the Cold War, Dwight David Eisenhower, for coming up with a solution to this problem of nuclear weapons, which was, you say, at the same time brutal and very subtle.

Professor GADDIS: Well by this, I mean Eisenhower, in presiding over war planning in the American government, simply said that the idea that we could fight the limited nuclear war, or a partial nuclear war, was ridiculous, that the only thing to do was to prepare to fight a total, all-out nuclear war. And his gamble was that the prospect of doing that would be sufficiently horrible that nobody on our side or on the other side would ever contemplate doing such a thing. And I think he turned out to be right.

CONAN: Do you, in the end, think that deterrents, in other words, this carefully balanced power between the United States and the Soviet Union in those days, and I'll throw the British and the French in on the American side, sort of, in terms of the French, but the, this great, you know, masses of arsenals. Did deterrents work? Or was it some other mechanism that prevented from blowing each other up?

Professor GADDIS: Well deterrents worked in the sense that we didn't have a Third World War. Part of the problem in assessing this is, did anybody have a plan to start a Third World War in the first place?

I think the evidence on that is still inclusive from the Soviet side. The answer is probably not, but accidents can happen, of course. What strikes me as really significant is that whereas deterrents set out to be something that the Soviets were trying to do to the Americans and the Americans were trying to do to the Soviets, the instruments by which they were doing this, nuclear weapons, wound up deterring both of them. So there was a third party involved, which was the technology itself.

CONAN: There were, for example during the war, and you point out this, you know, mirror-like world where logic didn't seem to obtain very well, and the whole idea of mutual-assured destruction, but the Americans at various points said, we will only target military targets, and as you point out from the receivers end, it would have been hard to tell the difference.

Professor GADDIS: Absolutely. I think it was a totally false distinction, and it was back to this idea that somehow you could fight a controlled nuclear war. It's the idea that Eisenhower simply never bought.

CONAN: And, at the end of the day, you conclude that somehow, by this mutual decision not to use these most terrible of all weapons, that the nature of power was changed by this, by the Cold War.

Professor GADDIS: Well, I think that's right, because, look at the Soviet Union. It collapses with all of its military power, all of its nuclear weapons intact. And yet, it goes down the tubes. So, that kind of power obviously was not very effective. Power is supposed to sustain and support the state, and this kind of power did not.

CONAN: If you'd like to join our conversation with Professor John Lewis Gaddis, the author most recently of The Cold War: A New History, give us a phone call. Our number 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our email address is totn@npr.org. Excuse me, I got that wrong. Our new e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And, lets talk with Terry. Terry calling us from Mankato, Minnesota.

TERRY (Caller): Hey. Hi, Neal.

CONAN: How are you doing?

TERRY: I love your show. I had a question. I was stationed in Wiesbaden, Germany, during the Cold War in 1979 and 1980. And we deployed, we had a deployment of the Folda Gap, where, you know, that's where the big Soviet invasion was supposed to come through the Folda Gap.

Anyway, two people in my platoon, of my company, were killed in a training accident, and just an accident in the billets, and those would be two casualties that were not brought about by any gunfire or any bombs dropping. Now I was just wondering, is there any way of knowing, you know, the total casualties that can be attributed to the Cold War? In a whole.

Professor GADDIS: No, I don't think there is, because when you're deploying military forces, as you know very well, there are all kinds of accidents that happen along the way.

TERRY: Oh, sure.

Professor GADDIS: So, I don't think we have anything close to an accurate figure of the number of people who might otherwise have lived if the Cold War had not been fought. I think all we can say is that a lot more people lived for the fact that the Cold War did not somehow get into a hot war.

TERRY: Yes, indeed. I agree with that.

CONAN: And any calculation of casualties, thanks for the call Terry, any calculation of casualties would of course have to include all those killed in the wars in Korea and Vietnam as well,as well as interventions in Afghanistan, in Czechoslovakia, in Hungary.

Professor GADDIS: But you would also have to count the casualties, it seems to me, of the internal repression that came from internal repression during the Cold War, or it came from mismanagement during the Cold War. So it's not just battlefield casualties, but it's death by government, and the hugest death toll of all, which is something like 30 million, comes as a result of Mao's policies in China, the Great Leap Forward, which itself was a Cold War development.

CONAN: A Cold War development and in what sense?

Professor GADDIS:A Cold War development and in the sense that Mao is trying to overtake the Soviet Union and, ultimately, to overtake Britain and the United States. And he believed that he could crash industrialization, crash collectivization of agriculture. He believed that he could accelerate economic development, accelerate history itself, and the results were horrendous.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation. This is Jim. Jim calling from Canton, Ohio.

JIM (Caller): Yes, I disagree with the precept that the Cold War has ended. I believe it's more of a truce. And I think the evidence of that is that when the Warsaw Pact disbanded in Europe, NATO remained, and not only remained but is expanding. We're expanding into the Baltic States, the caucuses, Central Asia. And in a global perspective, we're surrounding the Soviets, I mean, Russia. And, you know, our power has greatly increased since the so-called end to the Cold War. And further evidence would be the existence of FDI. We're going forward with that. We're going forward with MX missile. There's no nuclear disarmament and we have a militarist government.

CONAN: Is the Cold War really over, John Lewis Gaddis?

Professor GADDIS: Well, that's about five different provocations in that question, it seems to me. Let me deal with the main one, which is the question, is the Cold War over? It depends on whether you capitalize those words Cold War or not.

If you put it in lowercase and say cold war in the sense of rivalries between nations, no, the cold war is still going on. And the cold war went on long before the events of 1945 to 1991.

If you put it in capital letters and say the Cold War as the confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States, the confrontation between capitalism and communism, that's over. The Soviet Union no longer exists. Communism is no longer a sustainable ideology. That's history, and that was the history that I was writing about in the book.

JIM: Why is NATO still in existence? I mean, we lost the reason for that existence after the Warsaw Pact disbanded. And the fact that it's still there tells me that we are on a militaristic aggressive footing. In other words, our presence in Europe is closer to the Russian border than Hitler got at the start of the Second World War.

Professor GADDIS: Well, I think NATO is still there chiefly because the Europeans wish for it to be there. So I think that's a little bit different proposition from saying that it's purely an American aggressive initiative. NATO has come to be, not only convenient, but in many ways, a vital interest for the Europeans as a way of sustaining stability in that part of the world. So if we try to disband it, they would oppose our doing it.

CONAN: Jim, thanks very much for the call.

JIM: All right.

CONAN: And if you'd like to join our conversation, the number is 800-989-8255 or send us e-mail, talk@npr.org. We'll be back after a short break.

I'm Neil Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, I'm Neil Conan in Washington. Historian John Lewis Gaddis is with us today from Yale University. His new book is The Cold War, a New History. You're invited to join us, of course. Give us a call. 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address, talk@npr.org.

And, Professor Gaddis, you were talking a few minutes earlier about the role of ideology. And this is something really, you trace back in terms of the ideological struggle between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Not necessarily just beginning with the Cold War, but beginning with Woodrow Wilson and the Fourteen Points.

Professor GADDIS: Well I would even trace it back earlier than that. I would trace it back to Karl Marx in the middle of the 19th century because there really was a contest over how to organize an economy and from that how to organize a civil society.

And it seems to me much of the question revolved around the issue of whether society is better organized from the top down, in a command economy method, or spontaneously from the bottom up in a way that allows a considerable amount of autonomy for politics and for economic development. And that argument goes all the way back to the middle of the 19th Century, although you're sort of right, it became dramatically intensified with Woodrow Wilson and Lenin and the Bolshevik Revolution.

CONAN: And as late as Nikita Khrushchev's time, when he made his we will bury you speech. This was still, communism still represented an economic challenge to the West. Everybody remembered the failures of the Great Depression.

Professor GADDIS: Well, that's correct and that's part of my challenge in teaching this subject to my students because they can't figure out, can't understand how communism could ever have had any significant appeal. So I have to go back to the events of World War I. I have to go back to the events of the Great Depression. I have to go back to the collapse of the democracies in the 1930s that led to World War II, to show them that for anybody who came out of those experiences, both capitalism and democracy could have seemed like very flawed doctrines. And so a more authoritarian solution could have had, and did have, a considerable amount of appeal.

What's interesting about the Cold War is that trend was reversed and some how by about the time that Khrushchev made his we will bury you statement, it was clear that, in fact, that was not going to happen.

CONAN: Let's get some more listeners involved in the conversation. Again 800-989-8255 and why don't we turn to Peter. Peter's with us from Berkeley, California.

PETER (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Peter, are you there?

PETER: Hello?

CONAN: Hello, Peter, can you hear us?

PETER: Yes, can you hear me okay?

CONAN: Yes, you're on the air, please go ahead.

PETER: Had a little bit of a technological glitch. You know, I just wanted to perhaps offer the opinion and it seems that, to some large degree, history depends on who won or who perceives themself to have won and who does the writing.

You know, last year when President Reagan died, there was an awful lot of press coverage to the effect of, you know, how he won the Cold War. And I don't really think that's supported by the historical record, which I think indicates much more strongly that Gorbachev initiated some reforms and he was very interested in, you know, recognized weaknesses in the Soviet system. But that you know in a large part those reforms kind of spun out of control. But, you know, the initiative goes there. Where President Reagan deserves credit, I think, is that he was able to step away from his ideological rigidity and see a bit of an opportunity there.

But now, some years later, we see the Reagan won the Cold War kind of perspective used as kind of an ideological argument for, you know, a great deal of military buildup and militarism. When it's not really, I think, what happened.

CONAN: Professor Gaddis.

Professor GADDIS: Well, I am not going to say that Reagan won the Cold War, but I am going to say that he came close, because it seems to me he played a very important role in this in a couple of different ways. First of all, he was the first major American leader, in my opinion, to ask the question, why did we continue to need to have a Cold War in the first place? The Cold War had become conventional wisdom at the time that he came into office. And he actually looked forward to the possibility that it might end. And he was doing it long before Gorbachev came into power.

As far as military spending is concerned, you're right. He does accelerate military spending somewhat. It had already been accelerated in the Carter Administration, but many people fail to realize that Ronald Reagan was also the only nuclear abolitionist ever to be president of the United States. So he was dedicated to the idea of minimizing the danger of nuclear war. And what he saw was that a military buildup could put the Soviet system under sufficient strain that it would have to choose a leader like Gorbachev. So I do not downplay his role at all. I think it was enormously important.

PETER: Well, I think that, if I may, we were very fortunate that it ended up kind of going the Gorbachev route when it could have gone a very different route, which might have been the same outcome of that approach. But if I might make one other comment. You know, I think, call it divine intervention, you know, we really have little to credit the fact that nuclear weapons haven't been used thus far.

And, you know, I think we count our chickens before they hatch when we say, well, it's remarkable that they haven't been used, because, you know, listeners may or may not know that there's still several thousand nuclear weapons pointed at the United States with a flight time of about 20 minutes, and many of them in a launch on warning footing.

And, you know, there's been some recent articles to the effect that the nuclear situation is being destabilized by some efforts on the part of the Bush Administration to kind of capitalize on a moment of opportunity and put themselves in an even stronger first strike position. So, you know, in a lot of ways the jury's regrettably very out on the use of nuclear weapons. And I think it's more likely a probability than the other way too.

Professor GADDIS: Well, the jury is always out as far as that goes. When it comes to something like this, nuclear weapons are not going to be de-invented, regrettably. But there are two facts that are important here. There are a lot fewer nuclear weapons than there were at the height of the Cold War. There is much less of a deliberate hair trigger strategy of targeting each side, Russians against Americans.

I would agree with you that the likelihood that a nuclear weapon could be used has probably gone up since the Cold War ended. But I think that likelihood resides with the possibility of a terrorist or a rogue state getting hold of one or two nuclear weapons and using them in that way.

The likelihood of a nuclear exchange involving some six or seven thousand nuclear weapons, which is what could have happened in the Cold War, simply is not going to happen in the post-Cold War era.

CONAN: Peter, thanks very much.

PETER: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an e-mail question from John Milligan(ph) in Washington D.C. He would ask Mr. Gaddis if you would elaborate on the key role of George Kennan and his brilliant containment strategy.

Professor GADDIS: Well I have to say I'm slightly biased, since I am Kennan's biographer, but I think there was one big idea that Kennan articulated. He did this as early as 1947. And it seems to me it's the idea that came closest to defining American strategy in the Cold War. And that idea was simply that we did not have to have a world war with the Soviet Union. We didn't need to fight World War III.

CONAN: Mm hmmm.

Professor GADDIS: We did not need to appease them either as the democracies did Hitler in the 1930s, but there was a middle way. We could simply build up Western strength, which in his mind, meant chiefly European and Japanese strength. We could build self-confident societies that could sustain themselves and, ultimately, the ambitions and the desires of the Soviet leadership to expend their influence would be frustrated.

And if they met with repeated frustration, they would eventually change their policies, they would change their system, they would change their leaders. And it seems to me this is precisely what happened in the 1980s. So Kennan looks, in retrospect, very prophetic in that regard.

CONAN: Kennan also was someone who endorsed activities by the Central Intelligence Agency. These were basically operations where, as you put it, the United States seemingly had felt it had to act as ruthlessly as its opponents. And as you quote Mr. Kennan much later admitting, It did not work out at all the way I had conceived it.

Professor GADDIS: Well, Kennan did not and would never have made the argument that the United States had to act as ruthlessly as its opponents did. What he did advocate and was the first to advocate was that the CIA should be given some covert action capability, but he favored keeping it extremely limited. He favored keeping it rarely used, and he favored keeping it under the tight control of the State Department.

What happened was that once established, the CIA took on a life of its own, covert operations, took on a momentum of their own, and they very quickly went in to realms and into procedures that horrified Kennan. So while it's accurate to say that he first originated the idea that the CIA should have a covert action capability, it's not right to say that he favored using any and all means in that capacity.

CONAN: But talk a little bit more about that fear that many had during the Cold War that by opposing them at every turn, we would in turn become them.

Professor GADDIS: Well, he said this himself, Kennan in his famous 1947 ex-article on sources of Soviet conduct published in Foreign Affairs, said that the worst fate that could befall us could be that in countering the Soviet Union, we would embrace their own tactics and we would wind up being like them, and he even said in another speech in that period that there is a little bit of a totalitarian inside all of us waiting to come out.

What I think is encouraging about the history of the Cold War is that, in fact, that never happened. The United States never came close to being like the Soviet Union and that little bit of totalitarian that is within all of us never came out on our side to the extent that Kennon(ph) worried that it might.

CONAN: Let's talk now with Frank, Frank calling us from New York City.

FRANK (Caller): Hello, I was wondering concerning the Cold War, that the Allies, perhaps they should have adopted a Japan-first strategy to allow the Nazis and Soviets to fight against each other to further weaken both sides, or perhaps should the Allies have invaded through the Balkans as Churchill had suggested. I was wondering what your opinion in that regard would be, in the sense...

Professor GADDIS: Well, my opinion, my opinion is that it might have worked, but I think it was too risky to try because, first of all, if you say the Soviets and the Germans fight each other, you have no guarantee as to who's going to win, and I think it was better that the Germans be defeated under that circumstance, they were an even more brutal regime than the Soviets were at that point. Secondly, it seems to me that the invasion of the Balkans risked bogging down in the Balkans and had that happened, it might have been possible for the Red Army to sweep unopposed all the way to the English Channel, so I'm not too unhappy with the military strategy that, in fact, was embraced in World War II.

CONAN: Frank?

FRANK: Because it was also a bad case where the Russians had thoroughly penetrated the U.S. government, especially through the figure of, I guess, through Alger Hess so that they, so that the Soviets had a advantage in terms of they, they knew how hard to, or they knew to take, I guess, to take up...

CONAN: They knew the negotiating positions...

FRANK: Mm-hmm, yeah that...

Professor GADDIS: Well, I wouldn't even put it quite that far. They had thoroughly penetrated the top ranks of the British intelligence establishment and what that meant is that they knew some important secrets. I say in the book that they probably had a more accurate sense of the number of atomic weapons that the United States had in 1947 than the American Joint Chiefs of Staff did. On the other hand, they did not have detailed knowledge of American planning, they missed a lot, simply because of their ideological preconceptions.

They did not see the Marshall Plan coming and there was nothing secret about the Marshall Plan. But because of their own ideological preoccupations, their own ideological conviction that capitalists are so greedy that they can never cooperate with one another, they simply failed to foresee that the Marshall Plan could be developed or was being developed, so there were failures of intelligence definitely on both sides.

CONAN: Frank, thanks very much for the call.

FRANK: Okay, thanks.

CONAN: And we're talking today with John Lewis Gaddis, the author of The Cold War: A New History. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

I wanted to ask you, your book does take advantage of the archival material that's become available since the end of the Cold War, much of it from Moscow, as well. What, in retrospect, surprised you?

Professor GADDIS: Well, I would say my book takes advantage of the energies of my students who have used the archival materials that have appeared in Moscow, that's the more accurate way to put it. What has surprised me? I think what has surprised a lot of us who worked in this field is precisely what I was alluding to in the last question, which was that ideology really did matter. When the Marxist-Leninists used the jargon of Marxist-Leninism, when they talked about a proletarian society, when they talked about the internal conflicts of capitalism, they really did believe this. They talked in much the same way to themselves as they did to us in public at the time.

We had always had the idea that the public language and their own private language were two different things and that they had a more realistic sense of the world. That has pretty much been knocked out of the water now by the still-limited access that we have to the Soviet and East European and some Chinese material, as well.

CONAN: One of the things that interested me of the, going back to the intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968, at the time, this was seen in the West as, well, ruthless but a great success by the Soviet Union, and thus the source of the famous Brezhnev Doctrine that socialism would not be turned back, be allowed to be turned back. Yet you say, looking at their materials, they saw it as a failure.

Professor GADDIS: This is pretty clear, they saw it as a failure in a couple of different senses. First of all, they came close to losing control of their own troops in doing this because the troops had been told they would be liberating Czechoslovakia, and the Czechs made it very clear that that was not happening. Secondly, the price they paid, the price the Russians paid in loss of influence, particularly among European intellectuals as a result of having invaded Czechoslovakia, the growth of dissidence against them was a pretty high price.

But even further, it was just at this point that Eastern Europe and ultimately the Soviet Union itself is, it's becoming clear, that these economies can no longer be self-sufficient, that they are dependent on Western investments and technology and even food shipments, and so it became absolutely clear with the Polish Riots of 1970 that the Soviets could never again use military force in Eastern Europe because the result of that would be to make impossible any kind of Western economic assistance to Eastern Europe, and that economic assistance was what was keeping the Soviet system afloat in Eastern Europe. So the whole Brezhnev Doctrine now looks to have been a gigantic Potemkin village.

CONAN: A bluff.

Professor GADDIS: A bluff.

CONAN: Hmm. It worked.

Professor GADDIS: Yes, it did.

CONAN: And you go back, it's interesting, the threat to use nuclear weapons at various points, going back earlier, for example, Khrushchev, Nikita Khrushchev, you say, was convinced that the Suez intervention in 1956 ended because the Soviet Union threatened the use of nuclear weapons.

Professor GADDIS: Well, he was convinced of this. I think Eisenhower had a rather different view, but Eisenhower's pressure on the British, the French, and the Israelis was financial, and it was behind the scenes. Khrushchev did some public huffing and puffing, which made it look as though he had had an effect on the decision of the British and the French and the Israelis to withdraw, and I do argue in the book that he drew some lessons from this and believed that he could make these claims to have missiles, to be willing to use them, and could extract political advantages from them. Ultimately, this is probably what led to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

CONAN: Another story told in The Cold War: A New History, by John Lewis Gaddis. John Lewis Gaddis is the Robert A. Lovett professor of history at Yale University and joined us today from a studio on the campus there. Professor Gaddis, thanks so much for being with us.

Professor GADDIS: Thanks to you. Enjoyed it.

CONAN: When we come back from a short break, we'll give you a chance to ask Senators Dick Durbin and Sam Brownback about what they asked during the NSA Domestic Surveillance Program earlier this week. I'm Neal Conan, it's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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