Biden May Not Follow John L. Gaddis’ Rulebook ‘The Cold War’

As President Joe Biden officially assumed the highest office of the land and entered the White House, it marked the beginning of an era in American politics and International Relations whose full significance can only be comprehended in retrospect decades into the future. But history can help us ascertain the direction the new epoch is likely to take. An existing superpower is threatened by a putative rising star and the entire globe (or the parts of it that really matter) calibrates its actions to secure its self-interest in the resulting world order. The two main rivals vie for supremacy on a variety of domains until they succeed in subduing their nemesis. The subduing may be inflicted by outside forces, as in the defeat of Nazi Germany, or may be caused by domestic implosion, as occured in the collapse of Soviet Union. But what if both competitors are simply too powerful to be undermined, much less be conquered? It might lead to all-out war. But in the era of nuclear arms, going to war might not just harm the enemy but may also cause one’s own destruction. So if defeat in war is out of question and internal collapse, on either side, is not likely as far as the eye can see, what might become of such a world order? Mutual animosity might dissolve into mutual respect and harmony as a result of exhaustion. Or hostility and mistrust might pave the way for, as Winston Churchill said, ‘mutual annihilation’. The challenge that the Biden administration is faced with is to devise a strategy vis-à-vis its geopolitical rival, China, without knowing the answer to all these questions.

Prof. John Lewis Gaddis’s THE COLD WAR examines the evolution of the eponymous geopolitical rivalry in which America came out on top whilst its enemy was left to rot away and ultimately disintegrate. He tells a story of how the ‘freest society on earth’ got the better of the ‘most authoritarian society’ and by doing so, frames the cold war almost as a fight between good and evil. Like most historians with a Western bias, Prof. Gaddis tends to concentrate a great deal of his focus on the depravity of the Soviet Union whilst insouciantly papering over much of America’s own sordid conduct throughout the period. For instance, he justifiably skewers the Soviet and Chinese leaders for the human and economic costs they willingly incurred in their attempts to actualise the dictatorship of the proletariat, but fails to adequately censure the American leaders who presided over unnecessarily sanguinary violence in Vietnam, Cambodia and elsewhere. This ideological hauteur mars the quality of what is otherwise a highly readable, engaging and short history of the cold war. Every so often, as he perceptively describes the unfolding of events, Prof. Gaddis relapses into several lines of sententious moralising about why the Soviet system was intrinsically flawed and, by consequence, inferior to the capitalist West.

A maven of Cold War history, Prof. Gaddis’s mastery of the sequence of events shines through each page and he writes with such authority and command of the subject that most other historians can only dream of. The chapter on how smaller powers, such as France and China, turned the great competition to their own advantage is particularly interesting as it deals with a dimension of the conflict usually ignored in mainstream texts. It also demonstrates Prof. Gaddis’s nuanced understanding of the cold war as it exposes how weaker powers took advantage of the inordinate ideological obsession of their patrons. This chapter also exemplifies the approach he adopts throughout the book to narrate the story of the war. What the book offers is not a jejune chronicle of what transpired during those turbulent years, but instead a narrative inquiry into the causes and effects of each consequential development. Whilst this approach draws the reader into the tale and prods her to consider the turn of events with a critical eye, it falters when events that don’t fit neatly in the narrative are given only a short shrift or not examined at all.

For instance, one would’ve appreciated a deeper analysis of the East Berlin uprising of 1953 or the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. But Prof. Gaddis merely hints at these developments and avoids assessing them in detail as it would be a digression from his main narrative. Similarly, the phenomenon of detente, a temporary thaw in relations between America and Soviet Union, also receives only inadequate evaluation. On the flip side, Prof. Gaddis deals at considerable length with certain issues, such as the domestic dynamics in American politics under the reign of President Nixon, which may not be as germane to the study of cold war as detente and the political ferment in Eastern Europe are. This shortcoming spurs one to think whether the book could’ve been a tad lengthier with a couple of additional chapters to make room for the author to explain significant events in greater detail. But one has to take heart from the exhaustive list of sources and bibliography given at the end which directs the reader to other important works on specific topics.

Another defect that emanates from Prof. Gaddis’s narrative style is that it disinclines him to follow up on particular topics in the latter parts of the book which he deals with at considerable length initially. For instance, we are offered an excellent analysis of the thinking that went behind the building of nuclear weapons on both sides and what each American president thought about deploying them in a real war should one break out. Prof. Gaddis hammers home the historic significance of leaders deciding not to deploy an entire class of weaponry in an actual war and how it birthed the concept of deterrence. He also dazzlingly explicates the rationale behind the signing of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 by contextualising it in the psychology of deterrence. However, Prof. Gaddis neglects to deal with the further evolution of the arms race at similar length and clarity as the book progresses, leaving the narrative incomplete. All we get is a few lines about President Reagan’s interest in holding on to the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI).

Probably the most glaring lacuna in the book is that Prof. Gaddis fails to consider what might have happened if someone other than Gorbachev had occupied the Kremlin during the tumultuous period of the late 1980s. How would it have affected Moscow’s rivalry with Washington if a different Soviet President had given the go-ahead to something resembling China’s method towards handling the Tiananmen square protests against the East European uprisings? The Eastern bloc might have survived a little longer, perhaps? Indeed, then East German chancellor Erich Honecker advocated in favour of such a move. But Prof. Gaddis writes about the collapse of the Soviet Union as though it was destined to happen. Whilst the economic weakness of the Eastern bloc in comparison to the West might have continued to be embarrassing, the Soviet Union could have lasted longer politically with brutal leadership. Would the cold war have continued to be as fraught as it was before if Moscow had succeeded in holding its unwieldy frontiers together? It never occurs to Prof. Gaddis to address these questions.

This is particularly disappointing when one attempts to learn lessons from the past that one could apply in the present and the future. Dealing with the plausible alternatives to Soviet collapse might have led us to some understanding about the kind of approach one should adopt in the present towards China. Indeed, contemporary China would have resembled the Soviet Union if Moscow had had a tough and doctrinaire leader during the late 1980s, except that Beijing wields far greater economic clout. Unlike the Soviet Union, though, the political system of China is nowhere near disintegration. In essence, therefore, China is Soviet Union on steroids. A careful consideration of the different courses of action that might have followed if Soviet Union had pulled itself together might have given us some perspective into tackling China. Upon reading Prof. Gaddis’s work, one gets the impression that, when faced with a strong enemy, America must superciliously and complacently wait as its opponent hurtles down the road to its perdition. President Biden might do well not to heed such advice.

-Prasanna Aditya (Freelancer)

Picture Credits: AP Photo /

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