The Cold War, by John Lewis Gaddis

Loved this book — just loved it. It’s an extremely readable account of the Cold War, written by one of the foremost historians of the period. I find myself forgetting what it felt like to grow up in the 70s and 80s sometimes — but have memories of very worried feelings about nuclear war, even when I was an early teenager. Reading the book really helped me understand the concreteness of what was going on — helped me to defuzz some of the boundaries of the war — makes it really clear that it was a war.

What I particularly like about the book is that it talks not only about the events and the context, but the ideologies that were underlying the conflict.

I’m struck by a few things:

– At root, the difference between communism (small “c” communism) and capitalism and socialism isn’t so much about end goals — by and large, the end goals are centered around improving the quality of human life. The difference is, I think, in the nature of how to effect that improvement.

– There’s another fundamental difference that the book points out: liberty is not the same as equality. And that while communism & socialism were never unclear about this point, the United States really struggled during the Fifties with which was more important.

– The Soviet Union really gained legitimacy with victory in World War 2 — for lots of reasons, but really, I think that the price that they paid for this legitimacy was the blood of their people, shed by the Nazis. And, of course, the nuclear capability that came just a few years later.

– Stalin was a bad guy. Truly.

– Korea could have gone much, much worse. As it was, a lot of things happened in Korea that really screwed up the world for the next 50 years, setting up the idea of “dominoes” falling and wars by proxy fought in regions that were increasingly irrelevant to the principals (US & USSR).

– Grand social experiments will often have unacceptably high costs. Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Stalin’s forced transformation to an industrial proletariat. Millions upon millions died because they believed in theories that couldn’t work in practice. Sometimes, of course, these experiments work: the US Revolution comes to mind, with them trying a whole new level of democracy. I think, maybe, that the difference is that in the first the experiment and responsibility for success all comes from the top, the government. In the second, the burden is placed on everyone, but they’ve got the tools — the vote — to do something meaningful. I think a lot about popular power these days during my time at Mozilla. The aggregate power of millions of people who are motived to do something, to support something, to be something — probably no other force is stronger.

– Once Stalin died, Mao really took the mantle of the soul of Marxism, even as Kruschev and the Soviets built their Communist empire.

– Deng Xiaopeng is someone that I’d like to know more about. He was the first Chinese leader to exhort Chinese citizens to “get rich.” Purged multiple times by Mao, he put China onto a capitalist road without giving up absolute government control — without introducing democracy. This would appear to me to be unique — certainly it’s difficult to tell the difference in Russia over the last 10 years between the effects of democracy and the effects of capitalism. If Putin hangs onto power for a while longer, maybe we’ll figure that out.

– Because of the threat of nuclear war between (among?) superpowers, during the last 50 years of the 20th century, stability became the single most important factor in all geopolitics. Mutually Assured Destruction is an example of that. Eisenhower explicitly had no contingency plan other than total war — because having plans for “lighter war” might make it easier to go to war and have inevitable escalation to nuclear war.

– Words matter. Symbols matter. And Gaddis points out that in this case, Actors matter. Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul, both former actors, along with Margaret Thatcher, acted like the Soviet Union was not legitimate — that it did not have an equal ethical footing to the West. “The Evil Empire.” “Tear down that wall.” More than that, though, it seems that these 3 leaders did not accept that preserving the status quo was the most important thing, that détente represented an acceptable state of affairs.

– Rejecting the doctrine of mutually assured destruction probably hastened the end of the Cold War by years. While SDI was decades away from being achievable, the idea that one side could withstand a nuclear war in an asymmetric was a revelation. It made the idea of war much more real, and much scarier.

– The Soviet Union would have crumbled sooner or later, but actions during the 80s clearly made it happen more quickly.

Anyway, I could go on and on (already have, I suppose) — very good read, and at only about 250 pages, an easy one to digest.


  1. Just want you to know that my Want to Read list comes mainly from Terry Gross, and Marty Moss-Cowain (Radio Times), and you. Just finished the Victorian Internet; Al is reading it now. 🙂

  2. Just want you to know that my Want to Read list comes mainly from Terry Gross, and Marty Moss-Cowain (Radio Times), and you. Just finished the Victorian Internet; Al is reading it now. 🙂