We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History. – Review

We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History. – Review – book reviews

William O. III Walker

We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History. By John Lewis Gaddis. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Pp. xi, 425. $30.00.)

This book does not substantially rethink Cold War history despite the contrary assertion in the subtitle. Instead, John Lewis Gaddis skillfully draws upon the stream of non-Western documentation and the torrent of scholarly monographs of the last two decades to present what he now thinks about the contours of American-Soviet relations from 1945 through the Cuban missile crisis. The result differs little from the conclusions of his earlier books and essays.

Gaddis has nevertheless written an often insightful book. Graduate students and his peers will devour its copious notes, either to prepare for doctoral examinations or to see the way in which he incorporates their work into his own. Notwithstanding its historiographical utility, We Now Know, like the work of all senior scholars, should also be judged not only by its strengths but by its limitations as well. Of that, more will be said later.

Despite the relative consistency of his analysis for some 25 years, Gaddis has never refrained from offering provocative ideas to his readers, which makes his scholarship worth reading while maddening to some critics. The present book contends that the Cold War arose and endured as a result of the emotional, ideological communism of Josef Stalin and like-minded brethren, including Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, and Fidel Castro. Accordingly, the deterministic imperatives of Communist ideology produced Cold War tensions in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. Gaddis partly leavens this monocausal explanation with reference to misperceptions on the part of U.S. officials about the Soviet Union’s global intentions. Indeed, he describes the great villain of the Cold War, Stalin, as “normally cautious” (71). Mutual misperception and the need to maintain credibility led both sides to accelerate the arms race, the logical outcome of which brought on the Cuban missile crisis.

It would be wrong to assess the cleverly, if inaptly titled, We Now Know as a triumphalist tract masquerading as scholarship. Gaddis, not known for his reflections on economic foreign policy, is particularly insightful in writing about the ideological blinders that Marxist-Leninists wore regarding the durability of capitalism. Likewise, he is on solid ground in observing that U.S.-style capitalism had to accommodate itself to a diverse constituency in order to promote the growth of representative institutions in areas deemed vital to U.S. foreign policy goals. He deems the war in Indochina as “the single greatest error the United States made in fighting the Cold War” (189).

As evenhanded as Gaddis’s narrative seems, an aura of smugness suffuses We Now Know. Gaddis infrequently engages his critics. When he does, his spirit is not kind. For example, one notes attacks on unnamed scholars for committing the “sin” of moral equivalency in writing about U.S. and Soviet spheres of influence in Europe after 1945 (51). Disturbing, too, is the disappearance of the sustained discussion about U.S. ideology that informs early sections of the book. The United States in the Cold War did more than react to the unfolding of events. Other scholars have ably shown that its own ideological imperatives helped to generate and sustain the tensions of that era.

William O. Walker III

Florida International University

COPYRIGHT 1999 Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc.

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