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Decoding the Cold War, 20 Years Later

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As the years pass, the Cold War increasingly appears as an undifferentiated chunk of history that stretched across time and space, with a vast cast of characters and occasional moments of drama. It is presented as a curious concatenation of summits and negotiations, alliances and clients, spies and border posts, ideological dogmas and underground resistance, and a combination of arcane theories about deterrence and some nasty actual wars.

Because the most important feature of the Cold War was that it stayed cold -- and did not become the third in the twentieth century's series of world wars -- it is often recalled almost fondly as a time of calm and stability. The standoff between the West, led by the United States, and the Soviet Union and its satellites has taken on an institutionalized, ritualized quality that rarely seems to have posed any danger of giving way to the chaos and catastrophe of total war. It is now common to talk of the reassuring rationality and predictability of the old Soviet adversary, with unfavorable comparisons to Washington's current enemies.

Yet it did not always feel that way. The sense of danger and uncertainty ebbed and flowed. Besides the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, many of the Cold War's more alarming moments are fading from memory. Few remember, for example, that as late as 1983, the geriatric leadership of the Soviet Politburo began to panic that the United States was planning a surprise nuclear attack, and so they dangerously raised the alert level of their own forces.

The character of the confrontation was shaped by the shared fear of total war, which was reinforced by nuclear weapons and by sharp ideological and geopolitical divisions. As both sides searched beyond their core alliances for strategic advantage, the Cold War began to affect the trajectories of states and political movements across the globe. Since the Cold War touched on all aspects of human affairs, it came to define a whole epoch. In this way, the term "cold war" became a convenient label for more than four decades of international history.

Although convenient, this label is misleading. It exaggerates the importance of the superpower confrontation. The Cold War is a central part of the story of its time but not the whole story -- in retrospect, other parts, particularly the process of decolonization, may turn out to have had more of a long-lasting impact. At the same time that the two superpowers were vying for influence, Europe was dismantling its empires in Africa and Asia, Western Europe was beginning its long process of integration, Japan and South Korea were discovering economic growth, the oil-producing countries were joining together to influence supply, and Islam was developing new political forms.

The Cambridge History of the Cold War tends toward the epochal view. As Melvyn Leffler and Odd Arne Westad, the editors of The Cambridge History, write, their aim is to provide a "comprehensive, systematic, analytic overview of the conflict," with a study of social, intellectual, and economic history. The goal, they explain, is "to clarify what mattered to the greatest number of people during the Cold War." In such a course of study, they add, it is necessary to "discuss demography and consumption, women and youth, science and technology, culture and race" -- and indeed they do.

Such a broad scope reflects not only the wide range of human affairs that comes under the roomy heading "The Cold War" but also changing approaches to the Cold War's study. As Westad explains in his opening essay, during the early decades after World War II, the central questions of Cold War studies never went beyond making sense of Soviet expansionism: Was the Soviet empire a manifestation of Bolshevik ambition or a continuation of traditional Russian foreign policy? Then, fueled by anger over the Vietnam War, revisionists began to blame the dire state of international affairs on the United States, where the reactionary forces of anticommunism had combined with an aggressive capitalist agenda. Over time, historians stopped assigning blame and began to view the two superpowers as locked in a mutually reinforcing system. Westad shows how Cold War historiography has been influenced by changes in intellectual fashion and by distinctive regional perspectives.

Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that the editors decided to opt for an inclusive, maximalist approach. This encourages an admirable comprehensiveness in The Cambridge History, although such breadth at times can be overwhelming. The editors have gathered the top scholars on each topic, and many do not disappoint, even if only by offering succinct reprises of their own books. The contributions on diplomacy are consistently strong. But with so much to cover and 75 contributors, the editors seem to have struggled to cope. They opted for a light touch, accepting the impossibility of imposing a systematic and coherent framework. As a result, these are volumes to consult for illumination on particular topics rather than read from cover to cover. In the end, the Cold War does not come sharply into focus but instead remains a blur.

COLD WAR CREATION MYTHS

At first, "cold war" was quite specific in its meaning. Westad credits George Orwell with introducing the term in a 1945 essay on the meaning of the atomic bomb. Orwell wrote of the prospect "of two or three monstrous super-states, each possessed of a weapon by which millions of people can be wiped out in a few seconds, dividing the world between them." Although it was widely feared that these new weapons would lead to another great war, Orwell wondered whether it was not more likely "that surviving great nations make a tacit agreement never to use the bomb against one another? Suppose they only use it, or the threat of it, against people who are unable to retaliate?" This new form of supreme power would lead to an uneasy standoff between states, with each in "a permanent state of cold war with its neighbors." As he saw it, this would lead to more effective ways of controlling the world's exploited classes and "a peace that is no peace" between "horribly stable . . . slave empires."

Orwell feared that such an order could result in a system of universal totalitarianism like that in his dystopia, 1984. The idea that atomic bombs would rob the exploited "of all power to revolt" may not have appeared so far-fetched at the time given the totalitarianism seen in Nazi Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union. He was also sensitive to how a country's elites could use national security to justify their power, either by turning dissent into treason or by propagating the "big lie" and the "doublespeak" of 1984.

Despite the similarities between the competing states in his novel, in practice Orwell understood the contrasts between state socialism and liberal capitalism as political forms. Like so many leftist intellectuals of his generation, Orwell realized that he had to live with one of these two competing ideologies -- neither of which he really wished to embrace, but whose differences could not be ignored. He concluded that the challenge of communism could not be ducked, and so he would prefer to be part of the U.S. empire rather than the Soviet one. As a result, he spent his final creative years coping with the dilemma of having to take sides in a conflict that he assumed would lead to deepening oppression.

Although Orwell conceived of a "cold war" as a combination of institutionalized conflict and internal repression, the original use of the term in the United States was much more prosaic. The journalists Walter Lippmann and Herbert Bayard Swope put forth rival claims on who was first to invent the term "cold war." Lippmann undoubtedly popularized it when a series of his newspaper columns on the developing confrontation with the Soviet Union were brought together in a 1947 book called The Cold War (although, oddly, the term was not used in the text itself). Swope first introduced the phrase to the American public as a speechwriter for Bernard Baruch, the high-profile financier and political adviser. Swope suggested it for a speech in 1946, but the tone was thought too harsh for that time; it was only in April of the next year that Baruch embraced the coinage, saying in a speech in South Carolina, "Let us not be deceived -- we are today in the midst of a cold war."

In his New Political Dictionary, William Safire explores the rival claims of the two men. Both said they had the term in mind as early as the beginning of the 1940s. Lippmann referred to France of the late 1930s, where la guerre froide was used to characterize Adolf Hitler's intimidation of France. Swope said the idea occurred to him when he heard the question about whether the United States would become involved in a "shooting war" in Europe. He was struck by the oddity of the phrase -- it was hard to imagine a war without shooting -- and began to use "cold war" to describe such a seemingly paradoxical conflict. Swope also thought that he might have gotten the idea for the term from the Nazi policy of "cold pogroms" against the Jews in the mid-1930s. This particular usage appears to have occurred to others: in 1938, The Nation wrote of "Hitler's Cold War."

Both Lippmann and Swope saw the tension between the United States and the Soviet Union that was emerging in the late 1940s not as a completely new phenomenon deserving of a special name but merely as a new example of a phenomenon they had observed not long before. It was not necessarily a durable situation; unless the United States adopted more sensible policies, the tentative standoff might lead to a full-blown "hot war." Lippmann was interested in avoiding the fight and criticized the doctrine of containment, as espoused by George Kennan's 1947 "X" article in these pages. He took exception to what he saw as Kennan's exaggerated stress on ideology to explain Soviet actions and to the dangerous notion that Moscow should be confronted at every spot around the globe. In The Cold War, Lippmann presciently warned that this could lead the United States to depend on dictatorial regimes. He preferred to keep the conflict confined to Europe, where deals could be struck: "For a diplomat to think that rival and unfriendly powers cannot be brought to a settlement is to forget what diplomacy is about."

These early uses suggest a serviceable definition of "cold war": a state of affairs in which relations between two antagonists are governed by the possibility of a hot war that both wish to avoid. Such a state can last until either the antagonism subsides or the hot war begins. Just as soldiers and statesmen had no idea they were embarking on what would become the Seven Years' War, let alone the Hundred Years' War, those who saw the early days of the Cold War did not imagine that this would be how their epoch would be defined. This was "a cold war," a stage to pass through, rather than "the Cold War," the defining feature of 40-plus years of international relations.

By taking an epochal view, The Cambridge History makes it harder to keep U.S.-Soviet competition in perspective. In his essay, Adam Roberts makes the case for this epochal view by citing the durability of the conflict between the two great powers over more than four decades. But he also acknowledges that the level of antagonism between the United States and the Soviet Union did not remain uniform over time. In fact, the idea of a "cold" war (as opposed to a "hot" one) almost passed into obsolescence as a result of the communist victory in the Chinese Civil War in 1949 and North Korea's push into the South in 1950. The confrontation went global with unexpected speed, and U.S. soldiers were soon fighting communist forces in Southeast Asia.

Ultimately, the stalemate in Korea and the evidence that neither Washington nor Moscow had the stomach for an apocalyptic reckoning gave the term new relevance. Having been adopted earlier by the Truman administration as a way to describe the malign consequences of Soviet grand strategy, "the Cold War" was soon accepted by both sides as a description of the post-Korean stalemate.

After the crises in Berlin and Cuba in the early 1960s, the sense of danger subsided. What followed was an effort to regularize the postwar European order through a series of treaties and arms control negotiations, culminating in the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, proclaimed in Helsinki in 1975, which ratified the postwar status quo in Europe and set out principles for peaceful coexistence between Europe's two ideological blocs.

Now, the Cold War was spoken of in the past tense, as the superpowers proclaimed an era of détente. This, however, only set the stage for disillusionment when tensions returned in the late 1970s over the Soviet nuclear buildup and Soviet interventionism in the Third World. In 1983, with the Reagan administration at its most reactionary and bellicose, Fred Halliday, a British political scientist, wrote about a "second Cold War."

The advantage of a more restrictive approach to studying the Cold War lies in keeping the conflict in perspective and in identifying the particular factors that turned what might otherwise have been an unstable relationship into something so durable.

THE ICE AGE

One reason why the deadlock lasted so long is ideology. For all the differences between liberal capitalism and state socialism, there was something similar in how the United States and the Soviet Union embraced their respective national ideologies. These ideologies, Robert Jervis argues in his essay in The Cambridge History, shaped the identities of the two superpowers far more than geography or the structure of international politics. Ideology allowed each to present itself as defining the path of human progress and gave each side confidence in the power of transformational ideas. Both the United States and the Soviet Union were born of revolutions that took on universal, rather than nationalist, values. These similarities in approach, Jervis suggests, made their confrontation particularly dangerous -- there could be no resolution until one side was transformed into something closer to the other. This danger was mitigated by each side's conviction that because it was on the right side of history, it could afford to be patient. Nonetheless, as Jervis explains, U.S. ideology was less in need of outside validation than Soviet ideology: the latter lacked deep roots and relied on the promise of good things to come, which looked increasingly empty as the Soviet Union's economy and society stagnated. But in the United States, Americans were largely satisfied with the consumer pleasures and political freedoms they enjoyed in the decades after World War II. Their ideology had already demonstrated its worth.

Similarly, David Engerman writes in his chapter that the Cold War was "at its root a battle of ideas." He traces American liberalism and Soviet communism back to their origins, noting that after World War I, both Woodrow Wilson and Vladimir Lenin made premature claims of victory over the old order. The eventual demise of capitalism was the fundamental message of communism, and vice versa. "No other value system is so wholly irreconcilable with ours," NSC-68, the April 1950 manifesto issued by hard-liners in the Truman administration, said of communism. "With such broad aspirations," Engerman argues, "permanent coexistence was impossible." The manner of the Cold War's end only confirms the point. When Mikhail Gorbachev tried to recast the doctrinaire and sclerotic Soviet system, it simply broke.

Yet the battle of ideas was not truly fought within the United States, other than in the fevered imagination of McCarthyists. The U.S. debate was instead about the relevance and meaning of "liberal capitalism," a term that had become more confusing as liberalism was explicitly disavowed by many who, at least in the realm of economics, remained close to its classical precepts. At the same time, many of those who did consider themselves liberals criticized U.S. foreign policy for being an inadequate expression of core liberal values, subordinating as it did issues such as human rights to "realist" appraisals of power relationships.

In the Soviet Union and its satellite states, where Marxism-Leninism was the only approved form of discourse, open intellectual warfare was suppressed. But challenges to the official ideological line did emerge -- often in coded and subterranean forms -- and are well covered in this collection's various chapters on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Michael Latham also does an excellent job describing the deeply damaging and contorted efforts of both superpowers, along with China, to make the countries of the Third World fit into their ideological schemata. He stresses the fundamentally ideological nature of the struggle over "the direction of global history and the definition of modernity itself." He describes how local elites made their choices, with some struggling to uphold the banner of nonalignment and often proclaiming their own distinctive philosophies.

The gap in The Cambridge History's study of ideology -- notable in Engerman's chapter -- lies in its treatment of Western Europe. This, after all, was the cradle of Marxism and the staging ground for deep divisions between Social Democrats and vanguard Communists. Following World War II, communism remained a powerful force in Western Europe and enjoyed further credibility because of the role of local communist parties in resisting the Nazis. It was represented by established political movements and was thoroughly embedded in the trade unions.

For this reason, the contest in Western Europe may at its root have been about ideas, but in practice it turned on industrial confrontations, bitter election struggles, and the control of peace movements. Orwell was so suspicious of the communist political machine, which he had seen firsthand in Spain, that he kept a list of prominent people he suspected of being fellow travelers, which he handed over to the British intelligence services. William Hitchcock makes a passing reference in his chapter to "crude" U.S. tactics in financing the Christian Democrats during the 1948 Italian elections. This momentous election -- in which the Catholic Church reminded its flock that although Stalin could not see how they voted, God could -- demonstrated just how rough these battles could be. They deserve far more attention.

Hitchcock at least provides a context for this crucial period in his analysis of the Marshall Plan, which demonstrated how much the wealth of the United States gave it a head start in the battle for European hearts and minds. Moscow's attempts to thwart U.S.-sponsored reconstruction by ordering Communists to strike and to disrupt the delivery of vital supplies alienated ordinary people and deepened the division between Communists and Social Democrats.

Other contributors see different points as crucial. Engerman seems to think that the defining moment in Europe did not come until August 1961: the construction of the Berlin Wall demonstrated that communist rule lacked legitimacy and that only physical barriers could stop people from leaving the Eastern bloc.

By this time, however, mass communist parties in Western Europe were already marginalized. Even many European communist supporters who had continued to mouth party slogans in the years after World War II had largely given up by 1956, a year that was marked not only by an insurrection in Poland and a full-scale revolution in Hungary but also by Nikita Khrushchev's speech to the 20th Party Congress that acknowledged the depravities of Stalinism. The passion and intensity of these early struggles -- and their interaction with the intellectual currents of the time -- are strangely missing from these volumes.

As for the 1960s, Jeremi Suri's examination of the Cold War-era counterculture feels contrived and is unconvincing. The progressive counterculture in the United States was opposed to the Vietnam War rather than the underlying Cold War -- even if the latter had provided a specious rationale for the former. The U.S. civil rights movement provided the initial impulse for the era's radicals; Suri's claim that an "international counter-culture developed in response to dissatisfaction with the dominant culture of the Cold War" just does not ring true. This emerging culture was a response to social mores that had been in place from well before World War II and that were widely seen as narrow, conformist, and stultifying. Rather than joining political struggles being fought around the world, this was a generation that was bound to want fewer rules, more sex, and louder music.

The sort of treatment needed on such topics is demonstrated in a brilliant chapter on the 1970s and 1980s by Jan-Werner Müller, who examines how the radical intelligentsia in the West was affected by no longer being able to take inspiration from China, Cuba, or the Soviet Union -- all of which by that time were showing signs of ideological fatigue and confusion. At the same time, neoconservatism was on the rise in the United States; rhetorically antiliberal, neoconservatives pushed hard on the traditionally liberal antistatist theme of individual freedom. This political strain helped confirm the sense of ideological victory once communism finally imploded.

THE NUCLEAR OPTION

The centrality of the nuclear issue for the Cold War means that it gets due prominence in The Cambridge History. In volume 1, David Holloway explains how nuclear weapons made the postwar relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union even more tense and contentious than it otherwise would have been. Yet as more powerful thermonuclear weapons were developed in the early 1950s, it became harder to imagine circumstances in which they could actually be used. By the start of 1953, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, were worrying about the debilitating effect of the "nuclear taboo," the natural reluctance to use nuclear weapons had become embedded as an unbreakable norm. Eisenhower and Dulles tried to overcome this effect by hinting that they were ready to use nuclear weapons in Korea in an attempt to spur armistice talks -- although they believed this maneuver proved successful, the death of Stalin in March 1953 was probably more influential. By the Geneva summit in July 1955, the "Big Four" powers -- France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States -- had all acknowledged the danger of nuclear war. Khrushchev, who was then emerging as the next leader of the Soviet Union, left the summit encouraged, realizing that "our enemies probably feared us as much as we feared them." In their contribution, William Burr and David Rosenberg do a thorough job covering the nuclear postures and policies of the 1960s that flowed from this realization and then move on to the strategic arms negotiations of the 1970s. The perverse logic of the nuclear age was summed up in the notion of "mutual assured destruction," which so long as it was accepted by all sides ensured a certain kind of stability.

Although there are mentions in volume 3 of arms control and other major issues, such as the Strategic Defense Initiative, the increasing burden of military expenditures on the Soviet economy, and the debates on deploying intermediate-range nuclear forces in Europe, nowhere are all these episodes pulled together.

The most original piece of work in this volume is Matthew Evangelista's fascinating analysis of the transnational organizations -- such as Pugwash and the Palme Commission -- that kept dialogue alive during the more uncommunicative days of the Cold War. These groups were often concerned with nuclear issues; notably, only here is there any extended discussion of the Cold War's antinuclear movements, such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which achieved wide popularity in the United Kingdom in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Meanwhile, the role of U.S. nuclear scientists in shaping the public debate over nuclear weapons is hardly mentioned anywhere, with neither Robert Oppenheimer nor Edward Teller appearing in the index.

The biggest gap in The Cambridge History, however, comes in the discussion of nonnuclear forces. There is no individual treatment of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and the development of conventional forces and their numbers, equipment, doctrines, and cost are simply ignored. No attention is given to the arrival of precision-guided munitions, the Warsaw Pact's "operational maneuver groups" (designed to overwhelm Western defenses in Europe) or NATO's "follow-on forces attack" (meant to stop them), the development of the Soviet oceangoing navy and the massive U.S. response, or the tedious negotiations on mutual force reductions in Europe. With so much to cover on the conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan, the authors end up with little space to consider tactical debates and operational performance.

HISTORY, UNTANGLED

The implosion of communism in Europe in 1989 recast the European order. Germany was reunited, healing the fracture along Europe's center. An era, described as "the Cold War," had come to an end. As the Soviet spokesperson Gennadi Gerasimov quipped, this era had lasted from "Yalta to Malta," a reference to the time between the famous 1945 summit and a brief meeting between U.S. President George H. W. Bush and Gorbachev off the coast of the neutral island of Malta in December 1989. At that latter summit, Gorbachev announced the end of an era and the start of a new one, a lasting and peaceful one, promising that he would "never start a hot war" against the United States. For his part, Bush said that he looked forward to "enduring cooperation." The real end to the period would come two years later, when the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

The Cold War's conclusion appeared to vindicate the early policy of containment. Leffler concludes his chapter with a quote from Harry Truman's last State of the Union speech, in which Truman expressed the basic hope behind containment. If "the communist rulers understand they cannot win by war, and if we frustrate their attempts to win by subversion," Truman said, they might take on more moderate aims and thus become "more realistic and less implacable and recede from the cold war they began."

There was nothing inevitable, however, about the gracefulness of the conclusion of the Cold War. Most alternative endings would have been catastrophic. "The avoidance of major war in a process as vast and traumatic as the collapse of the USSR was astonishing," notes Roberts in his essay. The same, he adds, also applied to "the subsequent consolidation of democratic forms of government in many East European countries." But this peaceful climax was no accident: it merely confirmed the scale of the West's ideological victory.

It was this definitive conclusion in Europe -- although communist parties held on in Asia, they paid scant regard to the tenets of Marxism-Leninism -- that encourages the idea of the Cold War as an epoch. With such a view, it is possible to discuss almost everything that happened everywhere between 1945 and 1991 as part of one event. But this is ultimately a misdirected approach. Although the U.S.-Soviet confrontation set the terms for international politics over this period -- especially during the immediate aftermath of World War II -- as time passed, communism lost its credibility as a source of inspiration and as a guide to the good life, and the presumption that the Cold War would not turn hot seemed increasingly certain. By taking such a broad view of the Cold War, The Cambridge History covers a lot of important ground in interesting ways but leaves the reader struggling to get a grip on what the Cold War was really all about. There is a need, left unfulfilled here, to untangle the Cold War from all the other strands of twentieth-century history, work out what was distinctive and special about it, and then assess how it interacted with all the other strands.

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