David Caute

The most charitable interpretation

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The Cold War

John Lewis Gaddis

Allen Lane, pp. 400, £

Late November 1950: United Nations forces commanded by the legendary General Douglas MacArthur are approaching the North Korean frontier when Chinese forces suddenly strike, an overwhelming onslaught precipitating a devastating retreat. At a presidential press conference held on 30 November, Harry Truman is pressed by journalists whether the atomic bomb might now be used to stem the tide. He rules nothing out: ‘That includes every weapon we have ... The military commander in the field will have charge of the use of weapons, as he always has.’

But has he? According to conventional wisdom, Truman and MacArthur fell out on the use of atomic weapons against the Chinese in Korea, with the result that MacArthur was famously recalled as Far Eastern supremo. But what really happened, John Lewis Gaddis now reveals for the first time, was rather different. MacArthur ordered the US Air Force to drop two Hiroshima-type atomic bombs on Chinese divisions advancing down the Korean peninsula, leaving an estimated 150,000 Chinese dead. The Soviet Union responded with a 48-hour ultimatum to the United States which, ignored, resulted in two Soviet bombers obliterating the South Korean ports of Pusan and Inchon. MacArthur in turn retaliated with an atomic attack on Vladivostock, as well as the Chinese cities of Shenyang and Harbin. Mushroom clouds duly appeared over the West German cities of Frankfurt and Hamburg.

You didn’t know? Reading page 39 of Gaddis’s sober and authoritative Cold War, I experienced a historian’s heart attack. Not only had I been dead since 1950, but — far worse — I would have failed any exam on the Korean war (better dead than badly read). Despite the familiarity of televised ‘virtuals’, the popular ‘what if?’ syndrome, the deadpan professor from Yale, dean of Cold-War historians, coolly pulls off a narrative shock, force 9 on the Richter scale. This is the most recent of half-a-dozen works on the same subject by the same author, from The United States and the Origins of the Cold War through to We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (a title accused of ‘triumphalism’ by the revisionists currently fighting a beleaguered rearguard action in the wake of the Venona transcripts and the opening of the Moscow archives). American Cold-War historiography has always been riven by bitter factional contests. During the acrimonious proceedings of the Society for the History of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR), of which Gaddis has been president, he was accused by the influential revisionist, Michael J. Hogan, of ignoring ‘working people, women, or minorities, who exist only in the background of his address as hapless victims of Soviet diplomacy’. In Hogan’s view Gaddis simplistically offered two different types of empire in confrontation: America’s — an ‘open and relaxed form of hegemony’ — up against the ‘closed and repressive imperialism of the Soviet Union’.

Has Gaddis taken such strictures to heart? No sign of it here. He clearly has a softer time for the claims of contingency, accident and misunderstanding than for heavy-duty revisionist theories (the ‘world-systems’ analysts, for example). His special province is benign analysis of the personalities and motives of American presidents from Roosevelt and Truman to Eisenhower and Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Reagan — there are also deft if rather simplified portraits of Stalin and Gorbachev.

Gaddis points out that during the years of Cold War domestic consensus, from Truman to Kennedy, presidents had not been held accountable at home for violating foreign airspace or overthrowing governments. When Johnson took over from the assassinated Kennedy, he must have regarded the presidency and the national security agencies as a law unto themselves. Torn between the irreconcilable claims of victory in Vietnam (the guns) and the fulfilment of the Great Society (the butter), he lied and sacrificed public trust; the ‘credibility gap’ descended on the White House. By the time he left office five years later, too unpopular to run for re-election, the entire American establishment, including the sacrosanct Pentagon and CIA, was discredited — permanently, though Gaddis does not say so — by the Vietnam war and the lies gilding it.

Coming to Ronald Reagan, he offers a somewhat whimsical insight: ‘he was the only nuclear abolitionist ever to have been president of the United States’. Reagan, it may be recalled, having denounced the ‘evil empire’ (forerunner of the ‘axis of evil’), lost no time in launching his Strategic Defense Initiative, or ‘Star Wars’, while cramming Greenham Common with Cruise missiles and putting the Warsaw Pact on more or less permanent nuclear alert. The idea that the old Hollywood cowboy was really set on zero nuclear arsenals, but was frustrated by successive Soviet leaders dropping dead, is yet another ‘virtual’: one assumes that on retirement Ronald and Nancy went to live in a flower-power commune with their deposed pal Gorby, sustaining themselves on lotus leaves and E. P. Thompson.

The number of democracies in the world quintupled during the last half of the century: according to Gaddis, ‘promoting democracy became the most viable way that the Americans and their Western European allies could differentiate themselves from their Marxist-Leninist rivals’. Hold on! From 1945 to the mid-Seventies, when the falangist-style regimes in Portugal and Spain collapsed, any filthy anti-red junta or dictator was preferable to a legally elected neutralist government, or one smelling of Havana cigars. Hence the American coups in Iran, Guatemala, Chile, the whir of helicopter blades round the frontiers of Cuba, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Salvador — one could go on. British colonial wars in Kenya and Malaya met with no opposition from Washington, likewise the Fourth Republic’s brutal war in Algeria. Indeed, the United States virtually took over France’s colonial role in Indo-China after the defeat at Dien Bien Phu. Were Johnson, Rusk and McNamara really fighting for ‘democracy’ in Vietnam?

Gaddis’s comments on ideology, evidently a fatal disease among communists but unable to penetrate the immune system of global capitalism, reflect the ‘end of ideology’ doctrine popular with the Congress for Cultural Freedom in the late 1950s. Yet the CCF itself goes unmentioned by Gaddis. The cultural cold war, the major intellectual clashes, the media, the scribes, the prophets, the arts, the often disastrous academic exchanges, do not detain him; likewise the space spectaculars (no glimpse of Gagarin) and the great Exhibition Contest of 1959. This is a somewhat narrow, philistine interpretation of the subject which neither pauses to consider the uproar over Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago nor sees reason to mention such major intellectual players as Russell, Malraux, Sartre, Camus, Koestler, Aron, Hook, Schlesinger, Arendt, Deutscher, Shostakovich, Ehrenburg, Aragon or Brecht. The more often Gaddis retraces his own footsteps on this subject the more it sounds like a fireside fairytale with a happy ending.