Behind the Iron Curtain

A Review of The Cold War: A New History
by John Lewis Gaddis

Author Biography

John Lewis Gaddis received his Ph.D. from University of Texas in 1968 and has published numerous books on the Cold War, including The United States and the Origins of the Cold War 1947-1947 (1972) and Surprise, Security, and the American Experience (2004). The National Endowment rewarded him National Humanities Medal in 2005. He now lives in New Heaven, Connecticut and is a professor of history at Yale University.

Winston Churchill famously said, “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.”1 In his speech in 1947, addressing the tension between capitalist and communist countries. World War II ended with Allied victory when the Axis powers were defeated in 1945, and many were relieved and believed that peace would come at last after six long years of battle. Instead, the old Allies became suspicious of each other and the coalition broke up. The key, according to Professor Gaddis, is that the United States and the Soviet Union had different visions set for the postwar world.

On April 25, 1945, the two Allied armies met for the first time since World War II began at the eastern German city of Torgau on the Elbe, and successfully split the Nazi Germany into east and west. Both Americans and Russians were joyous to see each other but did not know what to expect from each other. Liubova Kozinchenka, of the Red Army 58th Guards Division, wrote, “We waited for them to come ashore. We could see their faces. They looked like ordinary people. We had imagined something different. Well, they were Americans!”2 Five days later, Adolf Hitler, Fascist leader of Germany suicides by shooting himself in the head beneath all that was left of bombarded Berlin; a week later, the Germans surrendered unconditionally. The leaders of the victorious Allies, Franklin D. Roosevelt of the United States, Winston Churchill of Great Britain, and Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union all hoped for a better postwar world. Unfortunately, the opposing ideology of capitalism and communism began to cause friction among the ex-allies. At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Stalin agreed to hold free election in Eastern Europe, but after the war, Stalin made Eastern Europe satellites of Soviet Union and imposed Communist governments there. Soviet expansion also seemed unstoppable with Roosevelt dead and Churchill voted out of office. Unlike other allies, Stalin’s postwar goals were security for himself, his regime, Soviet Union, and his ideology, all in that order. One reason Stalin believed that he could behave that way was his belief of wartime expenditures in blood and money determined power in the peace settlement. Even though he believed in that theory, he did not dare to push it too far since Soviet Union need peace, economic assistance, and diplomatic relationships with his old allies. Stalin also hoped that capitalists would begin fighting amongst themselves to gain control of economy and self-destruct. The United States realized that it could not serve as model for the rest of the world while existing in isolation as it had before the war. Roosevelt had three great priorities before he passed away: sustaining allies, securing allied cooperation in postwar settlement, and setting the nature of settlement. Unfortunately, the plans failed due to the fact that there was little trust between the allies, one of the examples was Stalin sending spies allied nations. Wars were mostly fought to gain security, but instead, Washington, London, and Moscow began to feel more insecure. As Soviet Union began seeking to expand, George F. Kennan proposed the Containment policy, which sought to contain Soviet influences by all means. President Truman helped support the containment by proposing the Truman Doctrine, which provided foreign nations with military aid against attempted takeovers by armed communist minorities or external pressure. The Marshall Plan was also committed by the United States to help all European nations to recover eventually and hopefully turn them away from communism. Keeping Soviet aggression in check would require a massive standing military; the cost of maintaining an army of that size would place an enormous strain on that country’s treasury. Surprisingly enough, building more atomic bombs would actually have the same effect as thousands of soldiers, and a lot cheaper too. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, commonly known as NATO, was created in order to provide a defensive measure against the Soviet Union. To counter the organization, the Soviet Union created the Warsaw Pact, which included the Soviet Union and all its satellites. The relationship between these two opponents came to a danger point at the spark of the Korean War on June 25, 1950, when North Korean troops attacked South Korea.

Korea was divided into North and South after World War II between the Soviet Union and the United States, with the Soviet Union controlling the Communist North and United States providing aid to the democratic South. South Korea’s defeat seemed inevitable until the U.N. troops, comprised mostly of Americans, countered attacked and pushed the North Koreans almost to the Yalu River, near the Chinese border. In mid-October, the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army began to fulfill its promise by attacking United Nation troops in Korea. By late November, Chinese troops stopped the U.N.’s advance and began to push further south. On November 30, 1950, as the Korean War worsened for the U.S., President Truman declared in a press conference, “We will take whatever steps are necessary to meet the military situation, just as we always have. That includes every weapon we have…”3 Even though Truman threatened to use atomic weapons, he was horrified by the destructions he had unleashed on Japan. Truman, unlike past political leaders, who had always let their military commanders to decide what weapons to be used, insisted that civilian agency control access to atomic bomb and their development. Truman explained his desire, “The human animal and his emotions change not from age to age. He must change now or he faces absolute and complete destruction and maybe the insect age or an atmosphere less planet will succeed him.”4 Thus, rather than deploying atomic weapons, Truman used the possibility of atomic retaliation as a deterrent threat.

Harry Truman was not the only person worried about the destruction an atomic bomb could unleash. Stalin’s anxiety led him to initiate a massive atomic program that imposed a tremendous stress on Soviet’s already weakened economy. Because of that fear, Stalin did not dare to shoot down American supply planes during the Berlin Blockade. Even though the Soviet Union developed their own atomic bombs only a few years after the war, both the United States and the Soviet Union were extremely reluctant to use them for fear of an extended war. The fear of nuclear weapons reached its highest peak when the United States developed the thermonuclear bomb, also known as the H-Bomb. The first H-bomb was tested on March 1, 1954 in a Pacific Island; the blast contained fifteen megatons of power, almost seven hundred and seventy five times the power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. In November 1955, merely a year later, the Soviet Union raised the stakes by successfully testing its own H-bomb. The Cuban Missile Crisis heated the Cold War on October, 1962, when the U.S. intelligence discovered nuclear missile launch site on Cuba, the crisis only resolved when both sides compromise. Surprisingly enough, both the United States and the Soviet Union did not have any defensive planes against nuclear strikes; both countries relied on the theory of Mutual Assured Destruction.

Though powerful, both the Soviet Union and the United States began to face difficulty controlling their own allies; despite their annoyance, however, both superpowers dared not lose their international ties. In 1954, Eisenhower explained, “You have a row of dominos set up, you knock over the first one, and… the last one… will go over very quickly. So you could have … a disintegration [of alliances] that would have the most profound influences.”5 Both France and China benefited from their relationship with the world powers, while enjoying a high degree of national sovereignty. De Gaulle became the leader of the French Fifth Republic in 1958, and he was determined to thwart both United States and Soviet Union. France withdrew from NATO in 1966 when de Gaulle calculated that the U.S. would still give economic aide. Mao Zedong respected Stalin as an ally and friend, but when Khrushchev became leader of Soviet Union at the death of Stalin and began to de-Stalinize Soviet Union, the relationship between the U.S.S.R. and China began to deteriorate. Other third world countries, such as Egypt, also used non-alignment to gain aide from both U.S. and Soviet Union. Even as the Soviet Union’s relationship with China worsened, the United States’ relationship with China improved remarkably during Nixon’s presidency. In March 1969, war broke out between Soviet and Chinese troops along their border. Fearing Soviet nuclear attack, Mao seeked United States’ help, remarking, “Didn’t our ancestors counsel negotiating with faraway countries while fighting with those that is near?”6 On July 1971, Nixon became the first U.S. president visiting China, and took unprecedented steps to diplomatic relations between the two nations.

Succeeding leaders changed theface of the War by bringing new views to their countries: Deng Xiaoping of China applied capitalist economic system to China, Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain challenged the social welfare of Western Europe, President Reagan of the United States continued arms buildup, Pope John Paul II helped renewed religious faith in Eastern Europe, and Gorbachev of Soviet Union, introduced the concept of ruling by love rather than violence. Gorbachev was getting tired of the Cold War, which was ruining Soviet economy, lamenting “We can’t go on living like this.”7 When Eastern Europe began to revolt against their communist governments and Soviet influence, Gorbachev, unlike his predecessors, did not send troops to crush the rebellion. Additionally, Gorbachev proposed to Reagan a ban on nuclear weapons. By December 1987, both Gorbachev and Reagan began to dismantle all their missiles in Europe. Boris Yeltsin began to gain popular support and replaced Gorbachev as the dominant leader in Moscow. In a stunning turn of events, Yeltsin quickly abolished the Communist Party and confiscated all the properties belong to it. President George H.W. Bush would later recall, “Yeltsin had just told me that he… had decided to dissolve the Soviet Union.”8 The call was a surprise, and on December 25 1991, about seventy-four years after the Bolshevik Revolution, Gorbachev transferred all powers to Yeltsin. The Cold War came to an end.

Gaddis expresses the view that the Cold War was started because United States and Soviet Union held different views in the postwar world, with both sides striving to influence Europe as much as possible. By influencing Europe, both United States and Soviet Union gained more economic and military powers. Besides gaining influence, both sides mistrusted each other since the beginning due to their opposite economic philosophies. This book was published in late 2005, which suggests the influence by many recent events such as the terrorist attacks of September 11 in 2001 and the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Like the Cold War, the attacks and invasion caused intense fear and the deployment of troops stirred mass protests. One could argue that Professor Gaddis might be hinting at the possibility of a second wave of Vietnam-esque revolt if the world continues on its present course.

Professional critics gave largely positive reviews on The Cold War: A New History. One reason for their high recommendation is the fact that Professor Gaddis does not pretend all his past judgments were correct, by contradicting theories of his old works before the Cold War ended in 1991. Unlike many other Cold War historians, who lay blame for the Cold War on the Soviet Union or the United States, Professor Gaddis does not make the mistake of restricting his point of view to the rulers. On the contrary, he demonstrates that it was minor players and not the iconic Cold War leaders who caused the revolutions in Eastern Europe and Soviet Union, which made a major contribution to the end of Cold War.

Gaddis organizes the book as a sequence of events that helps readers understand the chronology of events that was taking place throughout the decades. Unlike his other works, this one is intended for a broader audience; by compressing all the important topics in the Cold War into a book as succinctly as possible, Gaddis keeps the attention of the postwar generation, and helps them understand how close the world came to an all-out nuclear war. The book is also organized by the sequence of events instead of time period, which is useful in finding connections, but gets confusing sometimes. Gaddis truly achieved his goal of a book designed specially for the post Cold War generations.

According to the author, the Cold War during the late sixties and early seventies was a great crisis in America. Many Americans were stricken with constant fear during the period and expected World War III to begin at any moment. The Cuban Missile Crisis almost brought an all out war between United States and Soviet Union. President Johnson’s decision to send U.S. Marines to fight in Vietnam in 1964, which caused massive demonstrations in the home front. America’s growing disillusionment with the once-incorruptible seat of President worsened when Nixon’s scandal at Watergate was revealed in 1974. Had Nixon not resigned, he would have been the first president in the American history to be kicked out of office. When United States extended diplomatic relations to the Chinese, it brought outraged response from the Soviet Union, who threatened to use nuclear retaliations.

Unlike post World War I, Americans dramatically increased their role in the world affair and did not hide behind theory of isolationism. When President Roosevelt adopted Wilson’s ideas and pushed America to the world stage by placing America into newly created world organizations such as United Nations, it became inevitable that United States would be in future conflicts. The United States was never ready for wars before the Cold War; because of the massive arms buildup during the period, it became possible for the United States to dominate the world both militarily and economically, and to prepare for recent wars such as the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Also, outlasting the Soviet Union brought great national pride to the American people.

In conclusion, John Lewis Gaddis places the responsibility of the Cold War on both the United States and the Soviet Union. Millions of people’s lives were changed by the start and end of the Cold War. When the Cold War started, everyone around the globe feared the death of civilization by atomic bomb. When the Cold War ended much more abruptly than it had begun, many people simply refused to believe it.

review by Kevin Lin

  1. Gaddis, John L. The Cold War: A New History. New York: The Penguin Press, 2005, 90.
  2. Gaddis, John L. 5.
  3. Gaddis, John L. 48.
  4. Gaddis, John L. 53.
  5. Gaddis, John L. 123.
  6. Gaddis, John L.149.
  7. Gaddis, John L. 195.
  8. Gaddis, John L. 257.

© 2006 Irvine High School

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