Yay, Yay for USA!

Reviewed: John Lewis Gaddis' "The Cold War: A New History" (Penguin, 2006)

Ok, let's get realistic and lower our expectations here. As in: it would be foolish to expect anything other than smug gloating in an account of the Cold War by an aged American insider like Yale Professor John Lewis Gaddis, who has spent a lifetime battening on the uniformly wrong predictions of the Sovietologists' Guild. So suppress your gag reflex and any vestigial intellectual rigor, and you can enjoy this book. After all, Gaddis' thesis is simple and sensible: "For all its dangers, atrocities, costs, distractions, and moral compromises, the Cold War-like the American Civil War-was a necessary contest that settled fundamental issues once and for all. We have no reason to miss it. But given the alternatives, we have little reason either to regret its having occurred."

Fair enough, though you have to wonder why Gaddis needs 200 pages to point out that not having a nuclear exchange which wipes out the human race was, in retrospect, better than having one. It's kind of like the old joke about old age being preferable to the alternative -- comes under the "Duh!" category, more suited to the punchline format than a book-length treatise.

Which means this book must have some purpose other than its ostensible one. And it's not hard to discern this purpose: yup, good ol' gloating. Of course, Gaddis' book, like the two million other gloat-histories Western cheerleaders wrote after 1989, isn't so much a history as a long Monday-morning sports page, another chance for Reaganites to relive their Superbowl victory over the Moscow Medvedy.

At the risk of offending such sports fans, I'd like to say I'm getting a little tired of this genre. Folks (I gather you're "folks" now, ersatz Texans that you are) -- folks, how many times do readers need to be told about the heroic manner in which "we" beat the Soviets? At least half the books I've reviewed in the past few years fall into the category of British Tory-style revisionist accounts of the last century, footnoted Narnias in which the Tweedsters not only won, but were always going to win and looked wonderful doing it. I'm telling you, folks, this era is not going to be remembered as a glorious one for Western literature, but rather as the literary equivalent of that pitiful gully in the mid-70s when Neil Sedaka sang in chorus with Elton John.

If you think of other examples of victory-gloats cranked out by the dozen, two parallels come to mind: the Battle of Britain in Commonwealth culture, and the Great Patriotic War in Soviet film and literature. And both commemorated the final, fatal victories of dying empires. So all you America boosters out there should maybe be a little more wary of buying your two-millionth history of how we gloriously stomped Russia by outspending on useless weapons and outbribing sleazy dictators. You might just be funding the text on your culture's headstone.

Connoisseurs of smug victory stories will not be disappointed in this book. Not only is Gaddis' account of the past half-century absurdly simplistic and skewed, but the ethos he adopts is even more irksome than one would expect, combining the ponderous levity of the emeritus with the self-satisfied tone of a reactionary eager to tell us how his party defeated all that was potentially interesting or dangerous.

It's all there, starting with a preface full of lame attempts to mimic his first-years:
[A]s they learn more about the great rivalry that dominated the last half of the century... my students... leave class trembling. "Yikes!" they exclaim (I sanitize somewhat):and then they invariably add: "Awesome!"
Gaddis segues easily from patronizing his students to an even more condescending tribute to his wife: "I regard listening to my students as only slightly less important than listening to my wife:" Ah yes, an uncharacteristically concise summation of academic hierarchy there: first, the Prof, then, way down below him, the long-suffering wife, and "only slightly less important" than her, those loveable doofii, the students.

Don't tell me this sort of linguistic decor doesn't matter. It matters a great deal, because this is the mental landscape of the victors in the last century's Great Game. These, folks, are the people who won -- thousands of little Gaddises, every one a humming little egg sac full of smuggery. Makes you wish some other faction -- anybody, the Dyaks or the Iroquois or the Hittites -- had won the last half-century's Risk game. Anybody but these port-sipping Yalies.

Gaddis starts his fireside story by invoking Orwell's 1984. The point: well, guess for yourself, and remember, stick to the numbingly obvious, because we're in "Duh!' territory here. Yes, you guessed it: Gaddis's point is that Orwell's dystopia didn't happen. And therefore, all is well. A strange logic -- a fan's logic, not even meant to stand serious questioning and grounded in a typically naive American view of Orwell's ideology and indeed of the entire history of "the West," as exemplified by this Mormonic assertion that Americans "could plausibly claim, in 1945, to live in the freest society on the face of the earth."

If you scan only for Big Brother totalitarian constraints, as dramatized in 1984, this is arguable; if you include the sort of self-censorship and social constraint Tocqueville emphasized in his critique of American culture, it's laughable. American debate, whether in 1945 or 2006, is far more restrictive than that of the average Commonwealth polity, to say nothing of the wilder Continental polities. It's a measure of Gaddis's smug provincialism that he truly doesn't seem even to have attempted such a comparison.

All he knows is that compared to Stalinism, we're great. Which is why we won. (Repeat chorus.)

What makes this book objectionable, rather than merely superficial, is that in support of his simplistic thesis, Gaddis misreads (or simply hasn't read) some of the more original, rigorous analyses of the genesis of the Cold War. His misreading of Racing the Enemy, Tsuyoshi Hasegawa's brilliant study of the last phase of the Pacific War, is especially shocking.

Hasegawa's book, argues at great length that, contrary to received opinion, it was not the atom bomb which led to Japan's surrender, and that the Soviet attacks in Manchuria had a much bigger role in the Japanese junta's decision to capitulate that American historians have ever realized. So it's pretty damn weird to find Professor Gaddis blandly asserting that "The prevailing view in Washington and London was that the Red Army's assistance -- especially an invasion of Japanese-occupied Manchuria -- would be vital in hastening victory. But that was before the United States successfully tested its first atomic bomb in July, 1945. Once it became clear that the Americans possessed such a weapon, the need for Soviet military assistance vanished."

An endnote to this odd passage cites Hasegawa's book in a way that can't help but make one suspect Gaddis hasn't read it: "Tsoyoshi Hasegawa, Racing the Enemy... provides the most recent account." Indeed it does, but since Hasegawa's account directly contradicts Gaddis's claims here, nodding to it as "the most recent account" is more than patronizing; it's shoddy work.

Another crude and fundamental error is Gaddis's claim that "the Americans had wiped out Dresden without atomic weapons in 1945." Once again, that's just plain wrong. It was the British Royal Air Force under Bomber Harris, not "the Americans," who carried out that massacre. One would hardly expect a prominent 20th century historian to make that particular mistake.

Gaddis's errors of judgment are perhaps more damaging than his errors of fact. Like most successful academics, he's hopelessly naive. It's an adaptive trait for advancement in that most credulous of guilds, but a huge handicap to anyone attempting to write history. He's awed by gravitas, as most Tweedsters are, so he attributes to the laconic Stalin vast wisdom while treating Khruschev as the clown Khruschev took so much trouble to seem. The result is that Gaddis's story of the 1950s US-USSR rivalry falls apart, because he wants to argue that (a) Khruschev had a much weaker hand in the nuclear double-bluff, thanks to the failure of Soviet rocket programs; and (b) Khruschev's many nuclear bluffs were no more than tantrums: "[Khruschev] was like a petulant child playing with a loaded gun."

Once again: no, just plain no. And here, it's Gaddis himself who supplies the proof that Khruschev's bluffs were actually a damned good strategy for a player stuck with a weak hand, when he lamely extends his tantrum-metaphor to concede that, ":as children sometimes do, though, [Khruschev] wound up getting some of what he wanted."

In other words: it worked.

Gaddis seems to have only the most Jurassic sense of humor, which makes it impossible for him to understand figures like Khruschev and Mao, both of whom enjoyed playing the fool for fun and predation. Gaddis simply doesn't understand what Mao said, did or meant. Sorry, but it's that simple. Part of the problem is that, like the rest of the masters of the defunct Sovietologists' Guild, Gaddis has a European fixation and can't really make himself take Asia, let alone Africa or Latin America, seriously. Thus he ends the book with a saccharine account of events in Central Europe during Reagan's term, as if the fall of those dotard regimes and the "liberation" of small nations with a negative birthrate counted for as much on the world stage as did events in Austria in 1938.

And so we say Goodbye to Mister Chips. His retirement will be a happy one. As he never tires of reminding us, his side won. And by "his side," I don't mean "the West," let alone "the Free World," still less "freedom." I mean a host of craven reactionaries, Byron's "four and 20 blackbirds"; I mean the death of Nietzsche's and Philip K. Dick's world, and the triumph of people who make Big Brother seem pretty damn cool.

There's more than one kind of Hell, and the 2006 version Gaddis & co. love so much differs from the 1984 model largely in the sheer cheesiness of our books, and the shame that their authors churned out all that stinking dairy product without coercion, in a free world, after the triumph of freedom. Yay for us, huh?

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