Cold War, by John Lewis Gaddis

In the age of armageddon
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In his introduction to this brilliant and concise book, John Lewis Gaddis notes that the students whose questions inspired it are now too young to remember the events it describes. Like many of the lecturers who will be recommending the book, I understand exactly what he means. For my generation, as for his, the Cold War was not just a dangerous and costly stand-off between two great powers. It set the tone for a particular kind of moralistic, polarised debate, for bar-room arguments over Trotsky and Mao, earnest meetings about banning the bomb.

Shorthand expressions like "the West" made sense back then; today they are as redundant as the word "comrade" in Putin's Russia. An entire mode of thinking vanished almost overnight at the end of the 1980s, evaporating rather than collapsing, and for the students in Gaddis's class at Yale, many of whom were infants when the Berlin Wall came down, its language and its values seem surreal. This book, accordingly, assumes no prior knowledge of events. It also sets out to explain assumptions and fears that now seem absurd, but which, just 20 years ago, were part of everybody's lives.

Few writers are more qualified to do the job than Gaddis. His latest book is both a distillation of four decades of research and a bulletin to update readers about recent archival and memoir revelations. The subject-matter is a web of controversy, and much of the academic literature on which Gaddis has drawn remains impenetrably dull, but his own work is neither heavy nor patronising. Instead, it beckons and pleases exactly as successful lectures must, drawing the reader into complicated material with the aid of anecdotes, examples, and rapidly moving narrative.

The story begins in the confusion of the Second World War. Its main theme is the fear of armageddon. The atomic bomb makes an early appearance, setting the terms for international diplomacy by making total war unthinkable. From there the story weaves through the clumsy division of Germany, the Korean war, the Cuban missile crisis and a succession of conflicts over influence in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Each incident is shown to have made sense at the time, but the gradual acceptance of a particular set of rules and conventions cumulatively created a sterile, inhuman politics. By the time that the US and the Soviet Union had groped their way through to détente, a dowdy compromise that left too much unsaid, the idea of a global balance of power between them had become a diplomatic commonplace.

Its implications were bizarre. Right-wing dictatorships were shored up by the US to prevent the emergence of left-wing regimes. Soviet tanks might crush the fledgling democratic movements of central Europe without international opposition, but US aid and arms were reserved for recipients like Saddam's Iraq and Pinochet's Chile. Even Mutual Assured Destruction, the doctrine that insured that neither side would launch an all-out nuclear strike for fear of annihilation, implied a threat to civilian populations worldwide. It was, as Gaddis asserts, a time of "moral amnesia... Once it became clear that everybody was in the same lifeboat, hardly anyone wanted to rock it."

For Gaddis, morality and straight-talking revived with Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Vaclav Havel and John Paul II. His description of communism's collapse is trenchant, and readers in search of the main facts will find it helpful. But brevity does have a price. Here, as elsewhere in the book, Gaddis is better when he deals with the US than when he has to disentangle Soviet affairs.

We get the idea, rightly, that the Soviets were hard to bargain with, but beyond that (and a sketchy overview of Marxism-Leninism), we are given little sense of what Russia was like. The omission is especially striking where personalities are discussed. For Gaddis, Gorbachev is a largely passive figure, resembling "the eponymous hero of Woody Allen's movie Zelig, who managed to be present at all the great events of his time, but only by taking on the character, even the appearance, of the stronger personalities who surrounded him". Oddly, Gaddis has this weak Gorbachev act out of "love". By contrast, Reagan emerges as a genius, decisive and even prophetic in his diplomatic style: "as skillful a politician as the nation had seen for many years, and one of its sharpest grand strategists ever".

Whatever older readers may think of the praise, the contrasting dismissal of Gorbachev is unfair, and also symptomatic of two further problems with the book's approach. In the first place, leaders do not act alone. It is surprising, then, to follow an account of the Soviet Union's collapse that never mentions Eduard Shevardnadze, Gorbachev's adviser on international affairs and the man often credited with the most enlightened ideas about the region's prospects. Beyond Shevardnadze were scores of other actors, to say nothing of whole populations with agendas of their own.

Advisers, and the conflicts and pressures that influence decision-making, are absent on the American side as well, but Gaddis may assume that readers will understand the system in their own country.

Here is the second problem, for this is definitely an insider's textbook. Gaddis is not crude, and many of his judgements are wise, but this is history written by the victors. Mrs Thatcher's condemnation of democratic socialism ("a miserable failure") is largely nodded through. The grail for which millions struggled - the search to balance individual liberty with a greater social justice - vanishes along with Berlin's wall.

Perhaps this represents the post-Cold War consensus, but it is not a value-free account. The self-congratulation implied in Gaddis's own phrase, "we now know", is a political and even ideological statement, an assertion of the moral primacy of US-dominated market capitalism.

The story that Gaddis has told could well be read in other ways. One thing it shows is the extent to which each generation is enslaved by assumptions and conventions that may well be absurd. Another is the depth of our shared capacity for ignoring uncomfortable facts, including the claims and even suffering of others.

Finally, the confrontation between East and West need not be told exclusively in terms of Marxism. What was at stake, at least as much, was the possibility of an alternative to America's global hegemony. The Cold War may have ended, but these problems endure. So, despite arms talks and test-ban treaties, does our capacity to destroy our own species, our environment, and the planet that we all call home.

Catherine Merridale is professor of contemporary history at Queen Mary, London; her 'Ivan's War' is published by Faber & Faber