A Feel-Good Version of History Salutes the Deserving Winners

010906 article book altschu A Feel Good Version of History  Salutes the Deserving WinnersIn this pungent and partisan book, John Lewis Gaddis, a professor of history at Yale University, comes not only to bury the Cold War but to praise it—as a conflict freighted with fear that “ended in a triumph of hope.” In the decades following World War II, communism seemed to be on the march and a nuclear clash between the superpowers a distinct possibility. By the time the (Berlin) walls came tumblin’ down in 1989, Marxism was a discredited ideology, and the world close to a consensus on the virtues of democracy and market economies. Although the Cold War was violent, repressive, wasteful and immoral, Mr. Gaddis is “quite sure” that humanity is better off because the conflict was “fought in the way that it was and won by the side that won it.”

His explanation of the origins of the Cold War is simple and structural: After 1945, two nations with incompatible systems pursued incompatible goals. The Soviet Union was the aggressor. In search of “security for himself, his regime, his country, and his ideology, in precisely that order,” Stalin demanded pliant client states in Eastern Europe, waited for capitalism to self-destruct in Western Europe, and tested the resolve of his adversaries in the Middle East and Asia. With the Soviet blockade of Berlin, the “fall” of China, A-bomb tests, the Korean War and the conviction of Klaus Fuchs, Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs, policymakers in the United States began to connect “a disturbing number of dots.” The Truman Doctrine was the opening salvo in a “long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.”

Although it was not always apparent, Mr. Gaddis emphasizes, the United States and its allies enjoyed enormous advantages throughout the Cold War. Through the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Marshall Plan, the Allies offered a positive alternative to communism—economic liberalization, collective security and, somewhat later, political self-determination. Pragmatic, flexible economies flourished during this period, but not where the communists were in charge. Perverted reason, smothered trust and repression were the only ways “in which Marxist-Leninists knew how to rule.” The construction of the Berlin Wall testified to the failure of the regime in East Germany. Mao’s Great Leap Forward was “the greatest single human calamity of the 20th century,” responsible for the death of about 30 million Chinese. By the 1960’s, according to Mr. Gaddis, the communist bloc “faced a stagnant, even declining standard of living.” That’s why the Soviets sought détente.

Within two decades, the U.S.S.R. “was a sandpile ready to slide.” And yet, Mr. Gaddis insists, it took great leaders to end the Cold War—by “pushing against an open door.” Power rested with figures who possessed a “mastery of the intangibles”: John Paul II, Lech Walesa, Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan. Actors all, they exposed the gaps between the illusions and realities of the Cold War.

Mr. Gaddis, who recently received a Humanities Medal from President Bush, is especially rhapsodic about Reagan: One of America’s “sharpest grand strategists ever,” Reagan understood that he should demolish détente, because it set in stone the status quo. With an ability to “see beyond complexity to simplicity,” the Great Communicator denounced the Soviet Union as “an evil empire” and predicted that before long the West would not contend with communism, “it will dismiss it.” With the Strategic Defense Initiative, he subverted strategic shibboleths, including the argument that “mutual assured destruction” provided security through deterrence. An advocate of massive increases in military spending and the abolition of all nuclear weapons, Reagan claimed to be a hawk and a dove. With their economy already in shambles, the Soviets panicked: They knew they couldn’t win an arms race. Mr. Gorbachev introduced perestroika and glasnost, but, still mired in Marxism, he “dithered in contradictions without resolving them.” Soon after Reagan left office, Mr. Gorbachev earned his Nobel Prize by giving up “an ideology, an empire, and his own country, in preference to using force.”

During the Cold War, Mr. Gaddis admits, the United States didn’t always live up to its own principles. In the early 1950’s, the C.I.A. spent close to $100 million a year on covert operations, helping overthrow leftist leaders in Iran and Guatemala. To foil the pernicious plots of the Politburo, policy planners proclaimed, “Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply.” Over time, “a kind of moral anesthesia settled in,” as compromises once thought regrettable were deemed necessary, even desirable. Richard Nixon became “the American president least inclined—ever—to respect constraints on his own authority.”

The United States, Mr. Gaddis emphasizes, never violated human rights on a scale comparable to the Soviet Union. The noxious Nixon, he believes, roused Americans to realign foreign policy with the nation’s legal and moral principles, and to insist that individuals and governments place the rule of law above the exercise of power. “Through a circuitous process involving its own constitutional checks and balances,” the United States began as well to hold other nations to a more clearly defined standard of human rights and decency.

The Cold War: A New History tells a story almost certain to make us feel good. As we should. Though many will surely argue with Mr. Gaddis about who deserves the credit, the better team did win. But by implying that our side, sooner or later, gets it right, Mr. Gaddis discourages serious scrutiny of our nation’s behavior, past and present. It would be useful to consider that in the Cold War, the United States came in second to last.

There’s ample evidence, sadly, of American moral amnesia just after (and long after) the resignation of Richard Nixon. Suppression of dissent, flouting of international norms on the treatment of prisoners, ubiquitous national-security justifications, a penchant for secrecy, a militarized foreign policy, and support of dictators who are the enemies of our enemies—all this constitutes evidence of Cold War lessons unlearned.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.