John Lewis Gaddis: What a Cold War realist can teach us about winning a "long war"

Historians in the News

[Patrick Garrity is a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute. This article first appeared in the Claremont Review of Books.]

In the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, a Yale University student asked one of her instructors, "Would it be OK now for us to be patriotic?" The professor, John Lewis Gaddis, widely regarded as the dean of American Cold War historians, replied: "Yes, I think it would."

Even allowing for the emotions of the moment, such a response from a prestigious Ivy League academic might seem a bit surprising in these politically correct times. Yale University was once home to Samuel Flagg Bemis, the pre-eminent U.S. diplomatic historian before World War II. Bemis is now widely ridiculed in the academy as "U.S. Flagg Bemis" for treating America as something other than a rapacious, racist, retrograde regime. Gaddis runs the same risk of professional ostracism. He told the story of his student in a controversial 2004 book, "Surprise, Security, and the American Experience," in which he concluded that the Bush administration's policy of strategic pre-emption, whatever its merits in the particular circumstances, did not depart radically from the American foreign policy tradition. Gaddis's latest work, "The Cold War: A New History," intended for popular audiences, offers a conclusion that is equally guaranteed to set his colleagues' teeth on edge. "The world, I am quite sure, is a better place for that conflict being fought in the way that it was and won by the side that won it. . . . For all its dangers, atrocities, costs, distractions, and moral compromises, the Cold War--like the American Civil War--was a necessary contest that settled fundamental issues once and for all."

Gaddis, to be sure, is no political conservative, much less a cheerleader for the Bush administration. He gained his professional reputation as the leading expositor of an interpretation of the Cold War known as post-revisionism, which emerged during the 1970s and 1980s. The traditional or orthodox school--always more of a popular or political viewpoint than an academically respectable one--had held that the Cold War was the result of unprovoked Soviet aggression, which left the Free World no choice but to organize in defense of civilization. The contrary view, revisionism, emerged during the Vietnam era as a variant of New Left history. The revisionists placed the blame squarely on the United States, which pressed relentlessly to take advantage of Soviet weakness after World War II in order to stave off what was perceived as the imminent collapse of capitalism.

Gaddis offered a nuanced alternative to both orthodoxy and revisionism, beginning with "The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941-1947," published in 1972. He drew heavily, if not explicitly, on the modern international relations theory of structural realism. From this perspective, neither Washington nor Moscow was immediately responsible for the emergence of a security competition in the aftermath of World War II. The two new superpowers were driven naturally into opposition by the forces of international politics. Both sought security and the prevention of a new war, not ideological or economic dominance. Their views of security differed greatly, however, based on their distinct geographical situations and historical experiences, and as a result they found themselves caught up in a classic "security dilemma." Steps that one side took to increase its security, such as the formation of a defensive military alliance, were interpreted by the other side as threatening. The second side responded with its own defensively-intended measures, which in turn were interpreted as threatening by the first side; and so on. The security dilemma was intensified by the atomic bomb. Each side feared that the other would find a way to use that revolutionary weapon to gain a decisive strategic advantage....

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