Admit it -- You miss the cold war. It was a roughly symmetrical duel, a face-off between two nuclear powers. The battle against terrorism is more like a free-for-all in a gladiator movie--spear vs. net, triton vs. tiger. We land our troops with guns. They board our trains with backpacks.
In The Cold War: A New History (the Penguin Press; 333 pages), John Lewis Gaddis, the pre-eminent American scholar of the period, does indeed manage to make the old global standoff seem, for all its insanities, like a relatively coherent and well-managed struggle. In this brisk, useful primer on the period, he reminds us that containment, the decades-long American policy of confining Soviet ambitions abroad, though a dangerous game, was a highly successful one. "The world, I am quite sure, is a better place for that conflict having been fought in the way it was," he writes, "and won by the side that won it."
But at the outset, no one could be sure that would be so. At the close of World War II, the Soviet Union had a huge predominance in the number of troops stationed at the edge of Western Europe. For a time, the U.S. had the advantage of nuclear weapons, but not for long. Franklin Roosevelt once assured Stalin that the U.S. would withdraw from Europe within two years after Hitler was defeated. Instead, faced with the need to protect weakened Western democracies, the U.S. would embark on the Marshall Plan, a bid to make Europeans prosperous enough fast enough to keep them from turning communist, and initiate NATO, its first transatlantic alliance since its 18th century pact with France.
For Gaddis, it was Dwight Eisenhower who made one of the crucial recognitions of the nuclear era, that American policy must be based on the assumption that any nuclear war would quickly escalate to an all-out exchange, annihilating both sides. Although this discouraged policy thinkers who imagined that tactical nukes could become battlefield options in small wars, it also opened the way to the world of mutually assured destruction, the lasting stalemate between two massively armed powers that only dared to thrust at each other indirectly, through proxy wars in Southeast Asia, Africa and Central America.
The status quo might have stood even longer than it did, Gaddis argues, but along came Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II and Mikhail Gorbachev, all prepared to think anew. By that time, thanks to the manifest failures of the Marxist system, so were a lot of other people. More than the disposition of forces, victory in the war of ideas was crucial to ending the cold war. When the Berlin Wall finally fell, communism was so discredited that not even communists believed in it anymore.