New Cold War Histories

Rohit Khare (
Sun, 10 Aug 1997 00:11:52 -0400

There have been two very good new books out on the Cold War, both with
excellent Slate reviews.
=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0 Mercifully, the end of the Cold War has brought an end to=
this type
of hair-raising exchange. But those readers looking to remember the bad old
days can find this sort of thing, and plenty of it, in Aleksandr Fursenko
and Timothy Naftali's important new book on the Cuban missile crisis, "One
Hell of a Gamble." It would be nice to report that their account packs the
pleasure and thrills of a spy novel, but that's not exactly the case. Spy
novels induce a frisson of tension that's enjoyable because the reader
knows nothing is really at stake. But Fursenko and Naftali's book, while it
will leave readers' knuckles white, is no fun at all to read, because the
events it describes are so frightening.=20
=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0 Titles can be dangerous. John Lewis Gaddis, the most=
eminent of
America's Cold War historians, has taken a risk by naming his book We Now
Know. For, the big surprise of the opening of so many of the Soviet,
Chinese, and Eastern European archives is that we have learned so little
that seriously alters the known contours of the 45-year confrontation.=20

[see also:
tm -- esp for comparing writing styles over the decades]

The latter review also points to an excellent Gaddis article on the
underexamined moral dimension of the War:

Where does that leave us, though, with the new evidence we have about the
victims of Stalin and Mao Zedong? One recent but reliable estimate suggests
that Stalin's domestic victims alone - when one totals not only the figures
for the purges but also for the collectivization of agriculture and the
famine that resulted from it - numbered about twenty million dead. This
does not count the additional acknowledged twenty-seven million Soviet
citizens who died as a result of World War II. But this is not the worst of
it. Estimates of those who died in one single episode - the Chinese famine
produced by Mao's ill-conceived Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1961 - now
come to some thirty million, thereby qualifying the Chairman (whose image
was once a popular adornment for t-shirts and dormitory wall posters in the
West) as perhaps the greatest mass murderer of all time.=20


The incidence of rape and brutality was so much greater on the Soviet than
on the Western side that it played a major role in determining which way
the Germans would tilt in the Cold War that was to come. It ensured a
pro-Western orientation among all Germans from the very beginning of that
conflict, which surely helps to explain why the West German regime was able
to establish itself as a legitimate government and the East German regime
never could. This pattern, in turn, replicated itself on a larger scale
when the West Europeans invited the United States to organize the NATO
alliance and include them within it. The Warsaw Pact, a Soviet creation
imposed on Eastern Europe in reaction to NATO, operated on quite a
different basis.=20

What happened here was not so much a matter of deliberate policy as it was
one of occupying armies reflecting their own domestic institutions,
cultures, and standards of acceptable behavior. The rules of civil society
implicit in democratic politics made the humanitarian treatment of defeated
enemies seem natural to the Western allies. They didn't have to be ordered
to do this - they just did it, and it didn't occur to them to do otherwise.
Much the same thing happened, with equally important long-term results, in
occupied Japan. But the Russian troops came out of a culture of brutality
unparalleled in modern history. Given this background, it did not occur to
many of them that there was anything wrong with brutalizing others. And it
did not occur to their leaders to put a stop to the process, despite the
fact that it lost them Germany.=20


Fourth, would it have made a difference if the world had learned of the
existence of atomic weapons by less violent means? If they had simply been
tested and their existence then announced? Perhaps, but not necessarily in
a desirable way. One advantage of military use was that the horror of
atomic weapons fixed itself in people's minds at the moment they learned of
their existence. Had an awareness of existence preceded an awareness of
capabilities, it is not clear that the world - or the two Cold War
superpowers - would have held these lethal instruments in such awe.=20

Fifth, would it have made a difference if another nation had developed
atomic weapons first? Here it is worth pointing out the irony that the
world's principal democracy wound up being the first nation to build - and
the only nation to use - the world's most horrible weapon. Questions of
human rights played a major role in determining this outcome, for many of
the scientists who developed the bomb had come to the United States during
the 1930s as refugees from Nazi Germany. It is also worth noting that,
having used the bomb, the United States then handled its four years of
actual monopoly - and perhaps a decade, altogether, of effective monopoly -
with surprising restraint.=20

Why didn't the United States exploit its advantage to keep the Soviet Union
from developing its own bomb? Or to avoid near-defeat in Korea? These are
complicated questions, but one of the answers that comes up, when one looks
at what American officials said to each other, is the conviction that a
democracy could only use such a weapon as a last resort, and in=

But that in turn raises another interesting question of comparative
morality: would an authoritarian system - one based on an ideology that
explicitly justified any means necessary to achieve its ends, one that
employed terror as a method of government, and one as casual about the loss
of human life as were Stalin's and Mao's - have shown similar restraint had
it got the bomb first?=20

There is no way to answer any of these questions authoritatively, but
posing them in these counterfactual terms is a useful exercise because it
makes us see that history did not have to happen in the way that it did.
There might have been better ways to have handled these situations. There
might also have been worse ways.=20

Rohit Khare /// MCI Internet Architecture (BOS) ///
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