The Cold War, by John Lewis Gaddis

You need enemies, not friends
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The Independent Culture

In the New Year of 1948 Graham Greene visited the "smashed, dreary city of Vienna" to begin work on The Third Man. The Austrian capital was divided into four, mutually antagonistic Cold War zones occupied by Russia, America, France and Britain. Tensions between East and West increased later in the year when Stalin blockaded Berlin. The western allies, fearing a Red takeover, improvised an airlift for the beleaguered Berliners. However, a sense of insecurity now infected the highest levels in Washington: Americans spoke fearfully of Moscow's atomic capabilities and asked how long it would be before a Red Square appeared in democratic Europe.

Apparently nothing could be done to halt the mounting tensions and fears of an atomic Armageddon. On 20 August 1961 - a black day for capitalist Europe - East German police began to seal the Berlin border and put up demarcation wire prior to installing the concrete divide. Thousands in the Soviet zone tried to flee through loopholes, or leapt from upper-floor windows. A year later, in October 1962, distrust between the superpowers reached new levels when Washington discovered Khrushchev's missile sites in Cuba. Overnight the world seemed on the brink of a nuclear conflagration; mercifully a "hot war" was averted as both the Soviet leader and President Kennedy acknowledged the importance of saving lives.

Interestingly, the collapse of Soviet Communism has prompted a nostalgia for the old days of the Cold War. Pre-glasnost East Berlin, with its shadowy Harry Palmer atmosphere, no longer exists. The dissolution of Communism, moreover, has not been to everyone's benefit. The new capitalist "oligarchs" of Russia are puffed up with more greed and self-importance than any Khrushchev apparatchik. The motto of Russia's dispossessed, "Things were better before," is increasingly heard post-Cold War.

John Lewis Gaddis, author of this superb history of the Cold War, is an authority on post-war East-West relations. He dates the war back to the start of the Hitler conflict, when the principal members of the allied coalition were already at ideological loggerheads. Rather than find common cause in Hitler's defeat, Stalin gleefully prophesied new class wars and a final crumbling of capitalist society. The dictator's anti-western animus was not the result of a paranoid mind, argues Gaddis. Stalin did not see enemies everywhere; rather, he invented them because he needed them. Underlying his strategy in the Cold War was the deeply rooted principle (inherited from Lenin) that enemies were more useful to Soviet power than friends.

A turning-point in the Cold War came in 1956 when, three years after Stalin's death, Khrushchev denounced the dictator at the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. Stalin's "cult of personality" and "executions without trial" were roundly condemned in a speech lasting nearly four hours. With Khrushchev's unmasking of Stalin the die was cast for Gorbachev's glasnost in the mid-1980s. And once the Berlin Wall had come down, everything was possible.

To the delight of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, Soviet authority quickly unravelled after the wall's demolition in November 1989. On Christmas Day that extraordinary year the Romanian dictators Nicolai and Elena Ceauçescu were executed by firing squad. The Baltic States agitated for independence soon after. By now, says Gaddis, the USSR was a "sandpile ready to slide", and in 1991 Boris Yeltsin officially terminated its existence. Remarkably few people died in the last days of the Cold War, considering the magnitude of what had happened. The threat posed today by suicide bombers and Pentagon intransigence makes the old East-West rivalries look quite manageable in comparison.

Oddly, this book makes no mention of Russia's competition with America into space - an important part of the Cold War. In 1961 the Soviets stole a march on their rivals when Yuri Gagarin became the first man to break through the bonds of Earth's gravity. (Landing afterwards on the banks of the River Volga, the cosmonaut told a peasant girl: "I come from outer space.") Ironically, both the US and the USSR co-opted ex-Nazi German ballistics experts to engineer their space programmes. In the Cold War theatre, Gaddis relates, distinctions between ideological left and right were "not always obvious".

Gaddis, a Yale history professor, has written a comprehensive and readable history brimful of racy incident. He does not peddle crass anti-Soviet, Cold War nostrums, but sees America's rivalry with Russia as an "Alice-in-Wonderland-like game" of make-believe. However, it did not always seem like that at the time. Graham Greene's vision of a world made destructible by the atom bomb was echoed in the famous Ferris wheel scene of The Third Man, where the racketeer Harry Lime (modelled on the British double agent Kim Philby) announces: "Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don't, so why should we?"

Ian Thomson's biography of Primo Levi (Vintage) won the 2003 W H Heinemann Award