Did Reagan win the Cold War?

John Lewis Gaddis' history succinctly captures the long faceoff that shaped our world. But his analysis is marred by Reagan worship.

Published January 25, 2006 12:50PM (EST)

Like the fashions of the late 1980s, the Cold War is a phenomenon both too recent to have retro appeal and too distant to strike anyone as relevant. We rarely talk about it or what it meant; it won't quite come into focus. When John Lewis Gaddis, a history professor and expert on the conflict, teaches Yale undergraduates about the Cold War, "hardly any of them remember any of the events I'm describing." His students, he reports, "have very little sense of how the Cold War started, what it was about or why it ended in the way that it did." A worldview and way of life that once seemed permanent have melted away.

But the Cold War is still with us. It shaped the world we live in and lies coiled at the roots of most of the international problems we face today. Bits and pieces of its legacy turn up regularly in the course of current political debates like the outmoded yet indestructible junk of a geopolitical yard sale. I recently overheard a scornful college student in a cafe explaining to a friend that the CIA used to supply arms to Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in the 1970s. And then there's the famous photograph, snapped in Baghdad in 1983, of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein. All the flotsam and jetsam of the Cold War.

The only message some people get from these isolated factlets about yesterday's alliances with today's enemies is that political allegiances are highly subject to change. But to cynically conclude from this that all foreign policy is driven by amoral self-interest is to misread history -- always a bad idea. Americans once saw Osama and Saddam as bit players in a larger drama, and even when they knew they were consorting with bad guys (which was the case with Saddam; less so with bin Laden -- since the aid went through Pakistani intelligence), they believed this was necessary to defeat a greater evil. And that's exactly the kind of mistake that we're likely to repeat if we don't keep reminding ourselves of why we made it in the first place.

For those of us who remember some or all of the Cold War, it was surprisingly like hot wars in one way. Soldiers like to describe war as long periods of crushing boredom punctuated by interludes of total fear. In the Cold War, as Gaddis points out, the civilian populations of both superpowers, their allies, and eventually the rest of the human race learned to live under the continuous threat of utter destruction, but there were moments -- the Cuban missile crisis and some parts of Ronald Reagan's presidency -- when oblivion seemed particularly close at hand. For the average citizen, the fact that you knew that you didn't know what was really going on fueled the terror. The rest of the time, trying to follow the Byzantine diplomatic minuets of the SALT talks or recall who was who among the gray ranks of the aged, identical members of the Soviet leadership was likely to put you to sleep.

Gaddis' miraculously lucid and comprehensible book is, therefore, a boon even to those who lived through the events he describes. In recent years, the unsealing of records kept by both sides has added a lot to historians' understanding of the Cold War, and if this book offers nothing new, it presents what we have learned in a very readable form. That the whole saga looks very different from the outside is an understatement to say the least.

Gaddis begins his book with a description of the tubercular, dying George Orwell struggling to finish his dystopian masterpiece "1984" on a remote Scottish island in 1946. What a modern readership can't feel as immediately as Orwell's contemporaries did is the urgency of the novel's warnings about the threat of totalitarianism. Orwell's book became, writes Gaddis, "the single most compelling vision in the post-World War II era of what might follow it," and that vision of the future was, in Orwell's words, "a boot stamping down on a human face -- forever."

"It was as easy to believe, in 1945, that authoritarian communism was the wave of the future as that democratic capitalism was," Gaddis writes. The ideological assurance of the Soviets was still untarnished by history. Stalin was convinced that capitalist states could never cooperate for long and if he could manage to hold onto the advantages he acquired at the end of the war, he had only to bide his time until the West fell apart. John F. Kennedy after a 1961 summit in Vienna, confessed to being "intimidated" by the confidence Nikita Khrushchev had in the world's inevitable turn toward communism.

Meanwhile, the advent of fantastically powerful and devastating new weapons changed the face of war as human beings had known it for millennia. A whole series of grotesquely absurd principles came into play. Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) as a means of preventing the use of nuclear weapons lived up to its acronym -- only the likely eradication of civilization could save it.

Gaddis explains how some of these principles were formed when Eisenhower rejected the suggestions of his advisors that the U.S. formulate a plan for a war involving a "limited" use of nuclear weapons. If you've ever wondered why military service should be considered an asset in a president, here's an excellent example of how it helped. The former general knew better than his policy wonks "how easily the irrationalities of emotion, friction and fear can cause wars to escalate into meaningless violence" and preferred scaring statesmen out of even considering the possibility of a shooting war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Eisenhower "insisted on planning only for total war" as a way "to make sure that no war at all would take place." Thus he was, in Gaddis' estimation, "at once the most subtle and brutal strategist of the nuclear age."

Strategy, however, could easily run amok. When, in 1956, Britain, France and Israel seized the Suez Canal from Egypt, Khrushchev threatened them with "rocket weapons." They withdrew, but only in response to back-channel threats of economic sanctions from Eisenhower. Khrushchev, however, believed his saber-rattling had done the trick, and as a result, "this practice became a strategy ... From 1957 to 1961, Khrushchev openly, repeatedly and blood-curdlingly threatened the West" with nuclear weapons. It was a diplomatic technique that led the superpowers, during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, to the brink of World War III.

The upside-down logic of the Cold War also meant that small, weak nations could "wag the dog" by playing the superpowers off against each other. Skilled players, like Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, perfected the subtle art of "nonalignment," tilting right or left as the advantage shifted. "There were limits," Gaddis writes, "to how much either Moscow or Washington could order smaller powers around, because they could always defect to the other side." And as a result, the U.S. found itself backing risible authoritarian regimes in Asia and Latin America simply because they were reliably anti-communist, while in Africa the Soviets allowed themselves to be suckered into supporting opportunistic local factions posing as leftist nationalist movements. Sometimes it behooved the leadership of small nations to seem a lot weaker -- and likelier to topple -- than they actually were.

Many of today's foreign policy messes, big and small, arise from the unintended consequences of these proxy wars -- a phenomenon known as "blowback." Rumsfeld was sent by President Reagan to shake hands with Saddam because Saddam was fighting Iran, whose fundamentalist government had overthrown the Shah, a tyrant who was installed and supported by the U.S. after the U.S. overthrew the previous government for showing socialist tendencies. The CIA supplied aid to the mujahedin because they were fighting the Soviets who were trying to maintain a pro-communist government in Afghanistan.

Today, suffering the blowback from these and other short-sighted interventions, it's easy to write off such foreign adventures as stupid mistakes. Most of them were. But as Gaddis reminds us, the authoritarian governments of the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China were truly monstrous; each killed millions of their own citizens through outright repression or atrocious mismanagement. The quantity of human suffering they caused is unimaginable. Knowing what we know now -- that the credibility and appeal of authoritarian communism would eventually wither away and the Soviet Union disintegrate from within -- it's easy to dismiss the threat as illusory, but people then did not know what we know now.

And, it should be said, we do not know now what we will know 50 years from now, which brings us to some of the shortcomings of "The Cold War: A New History." In describing the end -- the petering out, really -- of the Cold War, Gaddis makes the same mistake that he detects in the international strategists of the 1970s, with their principle of ditente. The problem with ditente, Gaddis writes, is that it accepted the idea that a "superpower stalemate" was going to be "the natural order of things" for the foreseeable future. This bought international stability at the cost of furthering the internal stability of the Soviet Union -- and conceded that "certain nations would continue to live under authoritarian rule while others could elect and remove their governments by constitutional means."

Gaddis points to several figures from the 1980s as heroes and "visionaries" who challenged this status quo: Pope John Paul II, Lech Walesa, Deng Xiaoping, Margaret Thatcher and, first and foremost, Ronald Reagan, whom Gaddis admires extravagantly. His view of Reagan as "as skillful a politician as the nation had seen for many years, and one of its sharpest grand strategists ever" will surely aggravate a significant number of readers. But perhaps more egregious is Gaddis' willingness to accept the current, post-Cold War world situation as more or less "the natural order of things."

Gaddis' valorization of Reagan relies on a highly selective view of the facts. Where he portrays Mikhail Gorbachev as a leader who "dithered in contradictions without resolving them," and "chose not to act, but rather to be acted upon," as the course of history rolled on, Reagan he sees as almost superhumanly in control of events. It's hard to see why we should believe that Reagan somehow precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union, while Gorbachev -- who was actually in charge of the nation at the time -- deserves credit only for getting out of the way as decades of poor economic and political management came to fruition.

Gaddis also assures us that Reagan had "long worried about the danger of nuclear war," which is hard to reconcile with the infamous incident (unmentioned in "The Cold War") during which, on live radio, Reagan joked that he had "outlawed Russia" and "we begin bombing in five minutes." This was one of several chilling indications the president gave that he had a somewhat tenuous grasp on the reality of the threat in the early 1980s. (Some experts have argued that it was only after a viewing of the TV movie "The Day After" that Reagan realized just how catastrophic nuclear war would be, movies being more real to him than real life.)

Gaddis sees Reagan's skills as largely theatrical and symbolic, but he does view the president's announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983 as a brilliant strategic blow struck at the heart of Mutual Assured Destruction. While it's true that the Soviets greatly overestimated the Americans' ability to follow through on the program and this threw them into a demoralizing panic about their ability to keep up, that seems as much a stroke of luck as any of Gorbachev's successes. Somehow, the formidable espionage agencies of the USSR let it down, but who could count on that? If SDI (which Gaddis doesn't deign to identify by its telling popular moniker "Star Wars") was only a bluff, the announcement would have been a stroke of genius. But he insists that Reagan was "deeply committed" to the program -- which is still considered a boondoggle by virtually everyone not in a position to profit from it.

In a particularly strange passage, Gaddis describes the Abel-Archer crisis of 1983, in which NATO military exercises were misinterpreted by the Soviets as preparations for a nuclear attack. The result was "the most dangerous moment since the Cuban missile crisis." Washington was oblivious to the situation until a British spy in the KGB's London headquarters sounded the alarm. "That definitely got Reagan's attention," Gaddis writes, and "convinced him that he had pushed the Russians far enough," a characterization that suggests a president who was reckless and out of touch, not a shrewd provocateur, as Gaddis seems to think.

Gaddis also barely touches on what was unquestionably Reagan's greatest talent -- his ability to persuade people using television. The role of the new medium in the apotheosis of a new kind of highly symbolic, intensely emotional and morally simplistic form of political communication seems to be a factor he'd prefer not to examine too closely. Perhaps that's because it furthers the case that Reagan was as much the beneficiary of historical circumstances as Gorbachev.

Most mystifying in an otherwise incisive writer is the way Gaddis' sense of the flux of history falls off toward the book's end. Having persuasively shown us how the Cold War shaped and dismantled communism, he doesn't consider asking how the absence of the Cold War and a viable communist alternative is changing democratic capitalism. Early in the book, Gaddis describes 20th century capitalist elites as so worried about a popular groundswell of communism that they instituted a series of reforms. The result was the social welfare state, an effort to "preserve capitalism by mitigating its harshness."

Now that the fear of communist revolution is gone, why should the harshness of capitalism be mitigated? Sure enough, the protections offered by the social welfare state are slowly but steadily being trimmed back across the industrialized world. People are starting to complain, and even the once comfortable middle class is feeling the pinch in housing, retirement and healthcare costs. The world seems an increasingly ruthless place for those who aren't lucky enough to be rich.

Gaddis begins his book with George Orwell writing "1984," a book that captured the fears of a generation of Westerners. I write this at a time when the highest-grossing movie in America is the considerably less highbrow but also horrifying "Hostel," a film set in a post-Soviet Eastern Europe where, as one reviewer put it, "everything is for sale," including the opportunity to torture and kill another human being with impunity. In the popular imagination, the brutality of totalitarianism has been seamlessly replaced by the brutality of free-market capitalism. It hardly skipped a beat.

Of course, "Hostel" is just a dumb movie, but it's often the humblest forms of pop culture that most closely track the national subconscious. We know what's going on in the former Soviet Union, the place, it seems, where all our nightmares come true. In the 1950s, moviegoers feared alien pod people; now it's the dog-eat-dog amorality of free-market capitalism unbound.

Just because communism has been discredited doesn't mean that people aren't looking for something else. In fact, the rise of fundamentalist religious movements suggests that they're desperately casting about for a moral center in the post-Cold War environment that Gaddis heralds in a chapter blithely titled "The Triumph of Hope." Gaddis' book should provide lots of Americans with an understanding of the past that will help them better grasp how the world got to be the way it is today, but for a historian he seems to have missed one crucial point. History is, as the saying goes, one damn thing after another, and it ain't over yet.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

MORE FROM Laura Miller

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Cia Ronald Reagan Russia