Not the most interesting or enlightening read, especially if one is familiar with the key events of the Cold War. After all, John Lewis Gaddis’s “The Cold War” is a short text which covers only the key events during the period, interspersed with an occasional anecdote of the personalities involved. He does concede in his preface that “Cold War historians will find much of what I say familiar, partly because I’ve drawn a lot of it from their work, partly because I’ve repeated some things I’ve said in my own”, and furthermore – not unexpectedly – there is also no key divergence from the main historical narrative.
I picked up the book some time ago because Gaddis was cited as a post-revisionist during history studies in junior college, where we used excerpts of his text for analysis. In this vein “The Cold War” is a nice summary of the conflict.
Besides the familiarity of the events and personalities, another shortcoming is the disproportionate focus on the American events or the American version of the Cold War. Juxtaposed against the prosperous and successful West (even if some of its misadventures are noted) the Communist countries are often painted in unflattering light, and their leaders are presented to be always bumbling, clueless, and oppressive (this final observation is less contentious, of course). Compared to more extensive texts of Communism I think Gaddis gives the Soviet Union less credit than it deserves, though the emphasis on the United States throws up new insight, such as how the indictment of Richard Nixon over the Watergate Scandal – despite his foreign policy successes – was perceived.
What was perhaps most illuminating was the attention paid to the smaller countries and individual “actors” and “ordinary people”. Traditional perceptions that superpowers were always in control, which – if Gaddis’s narrative is anything to go by – was not necessarily true. It was “the Hungarians who declared their barbed wire obsolete and then flocked to a funeral for a man who had been dead thirty-one years; the Poles who surprised [then trade union Solidarity] by sweeping it into office; the East Germans who vacationed in Hungary, climbed embassy fences in Prague, humiliated [former East Germany leader Erich Honecker] at his own parade, persuaded the police not to fire in [Leipzig, Germany], and ultimately opened a gate that took down a wall and reunited a country”.