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Classic review: The Cold War – A New History

The cold war: how it began, why it ended

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The key, Gaddis argues, is that the United States and the Soviet Union had fundamentally different visions for the postwar world. The Americans possessed a multilateral vision that sought to avoid war by encouraging cooperation among the great powers, fostering political self-determination and economic integration, and relying on the United Nations to enhance the security of all states.

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But Stalin's postwar vision could not have been more different. The Soviet dictator sought to advance Russian interests by establishing a ring of subservient (nondemocratic) states around his country's vulnerable western flank, while awaiting the inevitable rivalries that he believed would cause fissures and perhaps even war among capitalist nations.

As Gaddis observes, Stalin was convinced that "capitalist fratricide" would eventually allow the Soviets to dominate Europe.

Beyond exploring the conflict's origins, Gaddis superbly evaluates how nuclear weapons and ideology influenced the struggle. The bomb helped keep the peace between Moscow and Washington because using it first meant a certain, cataclysmic response. Thus, it was not a legitimate option for rational policymakers.

In the ideological realm, Gaddis writes that each state's ideology was "meant to offer hope" (as do all ideologies). But while one ideology depended upon "the creation of fear" to function, the other had no "need to do so." And that, he asserts, explains the cold war's "basic ideological asymmetry."

To the surprise of even the most astute observers, the cold war came to a swift end between 1989 and 1991. While the actions of Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, and Pope John Paul II each contributed to the conflict's peaceful conclusion, world leaders were not central to ending the competition. The actions of "ordinary people" were crucial, Gaddis believes, for it was citizens in Budapest, Warsaw, Leipzig, Prague, and Bucharest who boldly threw off the shackles that had bound them for so long.

To be sure, Gorbachev decided Moscow was no longer prepared to maintain the old repressive order. But the liberation of millions was catalyzed by regular men and women who had the capacity to envision a better existence and the will to achieve it.

There were few more uplifting moments in 20th-century history, and it is easy to reflect on those heroic days with a certain wistfulness.

Jonathan Rosenberg teaches American history at Hunter College, the City University of New York.

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