Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Cold War: A New History- John Lewis Gaddis

The 'dean of American cold war historians', John Gaddis, opens the second chapter of his book with a surreal scenario. Even history buffs like me disbelievingly read the first few lines with consternation, and then the fiction begins to sink in. It's 1950. In response to South Korean and American troops' buildup near the Korean demilitarized zone, the Soviets drop two atomic bombs on two South Korean cities. In response, General Douglas MacArthur takes matters in his own hands and orders the atomic bombing of two equivalent Soviet cities. Escalating the horror, the Chinese prepare to arm themselves with more atomic bombs and answer a blow with a blow...

Fortunately, we know that this did not happen. The Yale historian's point is that it could have, and it's all too easy for us, ensconced as we are in 2006, to look back on those days and underestimate the colours of a very different world from today's. Gaddis's superb and succint cold war history should (finally?) convince us why capitalism is not just about inivisble hands, profit making, and competition. With his lucid prose and authentic historical passages, Gaddis makes it clear that the cold war was not a fight between communism and capitalism, but surely one between democracy and totalitarianism. One of the big questions we ask today is if capitalism and true democracy necessarily go hand in hand. Although a black and white answer to this question is probably still not possible (especially with China always threatening to be a nice exception to the rule), history makes it clear that they mostly have to. The reason is that only free expression and free actions can encourage competitions between every citizen of a country. In case of China, I get the feeling that the world should bide its time...
The cold war, then, was a competition between the wielders of power whose anchor was historical infallibility, and those who learnt from their fallibility.

The first part of Gaddis's book is an eloquent account of 1940s and 50s US-Soviet relations (that inevitably involved the rest of the world). Based on the latest declassified US, Soviet, and Chinese archives, Gaddis narrates the political aspirations, misunderstandings, and convictions of all the major players that defined the era. In doing so, he dispels many illusions that persisted for a long time in the minds of both historians and the lay public alike. These revelations serve as painful reminders of a time when decisions were taken based on ignorance, ignorance that has begat the world in its current state of affairs, and that will resonate in political and social undercurrents for a long time to come. For example, it is now almost a proven, known fact that Joseph Stalin had neither the conviction nor the resources to wage in any significant conflict with the US. In Europe as well as in Southeast Asia, the Tsar of the proletariat deftly played on the many misunderstandings about the Soviet Union and its policies that US officials harboured. Many times these misunderstanding bordered on paranoia about Soviet nuclear attacks. However, these also gave plenty of opportunities and excuses for the Soviets to build more nuclear weapons and advance the cause of Marxist-Leninist principles. Stalin could not have engaged in any conflict during the 1940s and 1950s, simply because his country had fought the most brutal and exhausting war in its history, leading to unbelievable losses of about 10 million lives, both civilian and military (US losses in comparison, numbered a 'mere' 300,000). Much of the Soviet industrial capacity had been destroyed, compared to the then thriving US economy. The morale of the people was still recovering from its nadir, and at such a time, even an iron-handed tyrant like the Soviet premier could not have exercised his will according to whim. At the same time, Stalin was hardly one to shirk from exploiting any opportunity for expanding the sphere of his noble communist principles. Everytime, the shrewd dictator offered the US the bait of imminent communist takeover. Everytime they took it. Of course, there was some justification for the US in doing this, given its fear of communism. What Stalin understood was that he could use satellite communist states for creating a false facade of the so-called 'domino effect'- the belief that once one state is overrun by communists, every state nearby will continue to do so, until an entire continent becomes submerged under the Kremlin's boot. This was not really true. As Gaddis propounds, Stalin found the opportunity to use the aspiring communists Mao Zedong (China), Kim Jong (North Korea), and the tenacious Ho Chi Minh (Vietnam) to further his communist interests. Even if their particular communist interests were not simply in being cronies of Stalin, still they were worshippers of the leader of the greatest communist country in the world, and Stalin knew better than not to use their influence to at least project a threat of world communist domination. However, the US kept on misunderstanding motives of these leaders that led to increasing and uncalled for American presence in Korea, Africa, and finally the debacle in Vietnam.

The concept of threat leads naturally to that of non-alignment. Any able military leader knows that psychology plays a pivotal role in influencing the 'enemy's' choices and actions. Stalin understood this better than anyone else at the time, and was a master geopolitical thinker. It is not conflict but the threat of perceived conflict that sculpts international relations. Whereas the US fell for the threat of communist domination, the Soviets fell for that of acute nuclear retaliation. They also used this threat to develop more nuclear weapons of their own. Both powers were kept in check by MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction- wonderfully epitomized in Kubrick's outrageous and all too realistic Dr. Strangelove). After Stalin however, the US seems to have understood this concept only too well, and they implemented it in the form of the well known detente and containment principles which they applied to US-Soviet relations. As for non-alignment, Gaddis lucidly explains how every state from Yugoslavia (Tito) to Taiwan (Chiang Kai Sheikh) to Egypt (Gamal Abdel Nasser) to India (Nehru) exploited and even abused this preorogative to project a different kind of threat; the threat of succumbing to occupation or influence by the other side. I chuckled when I read how this principle enabled these small nations to force the great powers to do a balancing act. It was really simple. What these small states were saying was, if you don't strengthen our economy/give us military aid/quell our political unrest, we may defect to the other side, or at the least, we may get embroiled in civil war which will lead to the other side occupying us anyway. Compelling examples, as Gaddis notes, of "tails wagging the dogs"!

Is is also heartening to see that in many ways, democracy does seem essential to capitalism, at least the 'American kind' of capitalism that we are accustomed to. Give people more choices, allow dissent and constant improvement in the polity, and then only can competition lead to a thriving free market with maximum incentives. It is one of the greatest ironies of history that the very people that communism aspired to free and empower were its greatest and most brutally oppressed victims. The mother seems to have found it necessary to murder her own children to apparently 'empower' them. In the list of genocidal dictators, Marshall Stalin definitely tops the list, surpassing even Adolf Hitler in purging the state of the maximum number of its own citizens and dissidents. Stalin's angel of death was the infamous sadist and rapist Lavrenti Beria, a brilliant operative nonetheless, under whose supervision, something like 10 million 'dissidents' were murdered in the Soviet Union (As much of a monster as he was, credit must be given to Beria for being the administrative architect of the Soviet bomb. See Rhodes). This single fact should convince anyone of the sheer maniacal idiocy of the kind of communism that prevailed during the time. However, it seems that communist leaders have always been in an informal competition with each other to top each other's deeds in mass murder. Where Stalin executed millions in his gulags, his somewhat unwilling protege Chairman Mao gladly implemented an 'experiment' that led to the single greatest humanitarian tragedy of the century; the starvation to death of almost 30 million citizens as a result of Mao's warped execution of collectivized agriculture. I believe that this is the most compelling case against communism; that in every instance, its practioners have had to resort to outright violence and mass murder of citizens in order to 'empower' them. What better demonstration of a failed philosophy than one that needs to actually and paradoxically contradict itself in order to secure itself. Reductio ad absurdum. The very fact that a wall had to be put up in Berlin indicates the inherent dissatisfaction with communism that abounded in people's minds. Unfortunately, the world failed to stop the gory debacle, at least not before the literal factory-like butchering of millions.

There is much in Gaddis's book that is revealing, and I can touch on only a few tidbits here. The revelations stride across well-established notions about well-known events. The Cuban missile crisis for example; contrary to universal belief that the attempt was part of a direct threat to the US by the Russians, Gaddis recounts how it was first and foremost, an attempt by the Russians to provide support for Castro's government, a government in which they first did not believe in, but which they later ecstatically supported with the hope that Castro would set an example and bring communism to Latin America. It is also instructive to note again, how the US and the Soviet Union got embroiled in Castro's grievances in Angola and Ethiopia where they had no business in the first place, and whose sovereignties did not even interest them too much (and apparently don't ever since then). It was not a case of eating the cake, but simply being too terrified of letting the other person eat it. This pattern of preventive (preemptive?) conflict continued into the 70s, in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

Nuclear weapons continued to be an ugly motive and part of decision making during the cold war. Even today, we lament how, in the face of these apparent Soviet threats, the US constructed a nuclear arsenal of absurd proportions; meaninglessly more than what it would need to effect deterrence. Some credit must be given to people like George Kennan (containment) and Kissinger (detente) who saw political diplomacy as being more effective than shows of military might. In retrospect, one can only note with irony, that in spite of the US lead in nuclear weaponry and all the hullabaloo about being first in the arms race, it was the USSR which made the first H-bomb that could be delivered by air, and also developed the first ICBM capable of carrying a nuclear warhead in 1958, events which massively upped the ante. This made treaties outlawing some or the other aspect of nuclear weapons only partially successful, since because of asymmetry in weapons arsenals or delivery systems, no treaty could bring complete security to either side. And yet the efforts of scientists and politicians who strove to implement these treaties, no matter that they were born out of rightly inculcated fear of nuclear war, should be applauded.

Gaddis also devotes a section to how Americans kept on reinforcing their faith in the rule of law even when their leaders sought it fit to trangress constitutional principles abroad in the name of 'national security'. After all, every president upto and including George W. has been doing it. But the history of cold war America still provides hope that ordinary people's convictions for the overarching importance of constitutional principles over law will finally prevail. Gaddis narrates how Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, all undertook to give explicit or tacit approval for all kinds of covert actions, especially by the CIA. As is known now, this involved everything from government coups to surveillance to assasination attempts. The Bay of Pigs invasion was an embarrassing attempt at toppling Castro's government. In the beginning, people actually supported presidential decisions like these. The apologetic phrase was 'plausible denial', a phrase that I am sure makes the rounds of the administration everyday now. But gradually, and especially when Johnson authorized large-scale Vietnam bombings that escalated the war, people began to take notice and protest. Gaddis notes how Nixon carried the principle to the extreme, when he began to engage in covert action against his own people. That was too much to take for the egalitarian Americans, and Watergate is now history. It is heartening to read this part of American history, where people constantly reminded even the most powerful man in the world, that he is not above the rule of law, that subversive and damaging actions even in foreign lands cannot be justified in the name of national security. Where are those people now?

Interestingly, it is precisely these passages of Gaddis's book that lead me to question his apparent neutrality as a historian in some instances, when he finally comes to the Reagan administration. Gaddis praises this period as the period when common men turned the tables on authoritarian regimes. Gaddis calls these men as unusually proficient- not surprisingly- actors...Gaddis's list of leading men (and the sole woman) includes Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and a host of popular rising leaders from Eastern Europe, whose views were first suppressed, then mildly neglected, and then grudgingly approved by the Kremlin. The reasons for the Kremlin's astonishing transition is mainly, according to Gaddis, the result of a single man's conviction and efforts- Mikhail Gorbachev. Gaddis thinks Gorbachev was the single greatest deserving recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. He cites his constant struggles with the Reagan administration, he cites Reagan's cocktail party humour that served to mitigate tensions more than once, and he cites the contribution of all his other actors noted above, all of whom began as common men and women. It's of course encouraging to see that it was the common man who brought about the eventual downfall of Stalin's once brutal regime. The regime had since been gradually but surely made more tolerant by every successive Soviet leader, either because of genuine concern, or mostly because of accomdations with the West that became necessary for diplomatic and economic purposes. But it was Gorbachev who finally drove the nail into the coffin, or at least handed over the nails to his successor Boris Yeltsin. It seems that many times, he did this simply through inaction. In 1989, the Chinese were the sole officials to use brutal force to suppress the Tiananmen square protests. No such thing on a comparable scale happened during that decade in Eastern Europe, although opportunities were plenty. Everywhere, people were destroying once venerated symbols, breaking down barriers, and cutting through barbed wires. For the Soviet Union, it had become both infeasible and too costly, to keep on maintaining its sphere of influence. Reagan and Bush took full advantage of this. In witty, idealistic, even religious speeches, Reagan denounced the 'evil empire'. But what about Reagan's own evil actions in Latin America, where he was following the tradition of his predecessors to suppress left-wing uprisings and install right-wing governments, no matter how oppressive? What about the Iran contra deal? I was struck by the fact that Gaddis does not devote much space to these discussions. And then it struck me that maybe I was expecting too much from the man, when I found out that he is an active supporter of George W. Bush's war in Iraq. Since history has repeated itself, there is no reason, I suppose, for Gaddis to change his views.

The most striking insight to come out of Gaddis's book was the reasons he explores for assesing capitalism's success. Granted that democracy was more successful than domination. But after all, everybody since Marx had believed that capitalism would end up causing conflicts between capitalists, and that collapse and revolution would have to take place sooner or later because of inequality between the rulers and the ruled. And we do have to admit that the twentieth century was much more of a century of totalitarian regimes. What happened then?
What no communist visionary had banked on was the self-correcting, progressive nature of modern capitalism. The real difference between the two systems is that of dogma versus flexibility, what Gaddis calls 'spontaneity'. As a scientist, I appreciate this eternal skepticism and lack of deference to authority. Communist nations have justified their actions and dreams mainly on the basis of anecdotal evidence from history and historical infallibility. Capitalist nations have always learnt from their mistakes and have never tried to assume systems as being foolproof. They have made concessions to workers, the poor and the oppressed, and have strived to raise living standards for the unfortunate. When capitalism realised the macabre circumstances which impossible war reparations enforced upon Germany in the aftermath of the first world war- an experiment that finally went horribly wrong- it learnt from its mistake and implemented the Marshall Plan for the restoration of Europe. Capitalism, in this guise, is hardly the capitalism Marx, Lenin, or Stalin imagined and opposed. In fact, we get the feeling that Karl Marx would have been profoundly disappointed with the communism of Lenin and Stalin. The very fluidity of capitalism ensures its constant self-appraisal and development. And that again reinforces the connection between capitalism and democracy that has been noted. Without freedom of expression and the power to make choices, without agreeing to disagree with each other, how can there be progress? Finally, it simply does not seem that communism is compatible with human nature. How can someone ever have the incentive to progress if the state is confiscating part of their wealth everytime they earn it, in the name of bringing about 'equality'? Growth needs incentives, and those incentives lie in unlimited possibilities, not unyielding consequences. Modern day capitalism may not have great equality to begin with. But it does have equal opportunities; equality exists at least as a realistic goal. Freedom only cements this edifice.
Gaddis says that even as late as 1950, writers were questioning the apt definition of democracy; is it freedom without equality, or equality without freedom? In the communist bloc, it seemed that leaders were prepared to sacrifice freedom for the proverbial equality that their philosophical fathers advocated. But in reality, not even equality remained in the end. No freedom, and still no equality. Only the shrads of textbooks and manifestos that propounded lofty principles. A grotesquely failed enterprise indeed.

Gaddis says in his preface that many American students today have scant knowledge of, and interest in, the struggles that underpinned the existence of two superpowers for almost fifty years. Gaddis rightly says that instruction in this history is important, because it illustrates how flimsy even assured perspectives and predictions can be. I believe it is important for another reason. Twentieth century history has shown that democracy with all its merits, is neither infallible nor inherently strong and influential. Why else would the century have been dominated by Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot? The self-appraisal of capitalist states that Gaddis expounds on is probably not just a key feature, but an essential one. Democracy seems to be like a tightrope walker. You have to keep balancing, keep asking, keep doubting and progressing, simply to stay in the act. Excelling takes even more efforts. Bad democracies are as prone to totalitarian takeovers as completely devastated nations. Progress does not ensure stability. No matter what percentage of the population is educated, no matter how modern thinking is, no matter how generously wealth is distributed, war and collapse can be surprisingly close for any nation (look at Germany in the twentieth century). Democracy in principle faces the same danger of succumbing to a notion of historical infallibility that communism did. And the more democracy succeeds, the more this danger actually becomes realistic. The message of self-improvement and 'spontaneity' is the one that seems be the most enduring in Gaddis's book. In current circumstances, I believe it has become even more timely, because we longer live in a world that is divided more or less unambiguously between 'bad' communists and 'good' capitalists. The demons we fight today seem to be the ones from within. These would be the toughest to identify in the first place, which is all the more reason to keep the message in mind. History should help us to do that.


Anonymous Chetan said...

Wow! That was an amazing piece. I feel like I don't need to read the book anymore. just kidding. Actually, it makes me want to get it and read it right away.

There were some interesting insights for me in spite of the fact that I was broadly aware of most of the background. For instance, I had never thought about Non-alignment movement as having a pragmatic self-interest angle to it. The way Gaddis has described it as a bargaining chip makes a lot of sense. However I am still having a hard time reconciling an idealistic leader like Nehru having thought about this and having exploited this aspect knowingly.

The observation about common people being leaders who were responsible for the fall of communism made me remember a leadership theory I had read somewhere. It said that there is no such thing as a good and a bad leader. Rather the effectiveness of a leader is determined largely by how much his qualities resonate with the circumstances under which his leadership functions. For instance one may assume that a democratic leader who cares to listen to others, is not too domineering, treats his subordinates with respect is a good leader. But you don't want such a leader to lead you when a fire has broken out. In that scenario you might want to be led by an authoritarian personality who barks orders. While under non-emergency circumstances the same authoritarian leader will prove to be a liability. I think the Britishers understood this pretty well when they didn't elect Churchill after the war was over. His qualities might not have resonated with the needs of post-war England. This is why Reagan with his black and white/ good against evil kind of an attitude proved to be an effective leader during the end of the cold war. Probably a Wilsonian kind of a leader who understood the grey complexities might have tended to cut slack precisely when the noose should have been tightened. It was a real stroke of luck that the world got Gorbachev, a sensitive, instrospective, intelligent and appreciative of complexities kind of a person to rule Russia at the same time as we had a strong leader like Reagan who had contempt for an ideology to goad Gorbachev whenever he might have had his doubts.

I got a feeling after reading that Gaddis compares Reagan and Thatcher and draws parallels between them. Their ideologies may have been similar but their leadership styles as well as the way they came to believe in their ideologies is much different. I think amongst Reagan and Thatcher, Reagan was more the commoner. In fact I wouldn't mind calling him a simpleton when it comes to how he viewed the world. Whereas Thatcher was pretty well read and had come to conservative views after reading books by economists like Fredrich Hayek and understood the whole incentive/spontaneous order game, Reagan was the sort who did it just because he believed (sincerely)in the 'we want to get government out of our pants' rhetoric without really studying the implications or understanding its consequences.

About your suspicion regarding a bias in Gaddis' reading of history... The way people in the US read history has confounded me. From whatever I had read and followed on television (The World this Week) in India Gorbachev was clearly the one who deserved credit for the fall of Communism. Reagan can at best be described as a formentor who coaxed and goaded whenever it was required. But the Americans truly believe that it was Reagan and Reagan alone who was responsible for bringing down the USSR and Gorbachev at best was an ineffectual facilitator who if it wasn't for Reagan would have bungled. And this view is shared even by the academicians. In this regard the dissonance with how the world sees certain events and how Americans see them matches the dissonance with respect to Israel-Palestinian conflict.

You are right about your observations regarding how communism exploited the same people it was purporting to save. Communism will no longer hold any appeal in the future IMO. A fairly liberal democracy has enough means of venting frustration without resorting to an armed revolution. Also with markets proving to be the best at fostering self-improvement and spontaneity, their appeal is going to increase. More than a struggle between communism and free markets, the struggle democracies will be dealing with in an globalised world is how to balance the freedom of the markets/marketers and the need felt by people to control certain aspects of their surroundings which inevitably impinges on the markets. So the struggle would be between the right to have a say in economic decision making vis a vis a free market scenario which can be shown to be extremely effective in bringing about prosperity, but does not allow any sort of infringement by the people's will.

Regarding the point about learning from history and never giving extra-constitutional powers to leaders even under exceptional circumstances, a vigilant free press is a pre-requisite. This is where I disagree with free-market proponents arguing for govt. getting out of all businesses. We need a press that has an intellectual, investigative,development related news component as is still mainstream to keep the govt. on its toes and help the proper functioning of a democracy. A press at the mercy of the markets catering to lowest common denominator might not be the right prescription for learning from history and avoiding the pitfalls that democracies are prone to and it might be too late if we count on the self-corrective mechanism to adjust to the requisite levels. A govt. funded yet independent media such as BBC, PBS is required for proper functioning.

I had hard time believing that Gaddis supported the Iraq invasion. I mean for someone who had studied how Stalin used the threat of conflict to get his way in the world political arena it seems stupid not to recognise that Saddam, a worshipper of Stalin (he modelled himself on him) wouldn't be indulging in the same. So how much of what the author prescribes -- learning from history -- he himself follows is itself under question.

In this otherwise brilliant post, I did not understand what you meant by the following :-

Democracy in principle faces the same danger of succumbing to a notion of historical infallibility that communism did. And the more democracy succeeds, the more this danger actually becomes realistic.

Could you clarify what you meant by that? Thanks once again for the wonderful review.

11:46 PM  
Blogger Sumedha said...

Great post :)
I wonder if democracy is the universal 'steady state'for all nations. After 1991, the Soviet Union reverted to being a totalitarian state in some sense of the word; Yeltsin and Putin could be called near-dictators.
Also, Indian democracy flourishes (except for the blot of the 1970s emergency), while Pakistan just can't manage it. Same goes for most other Muslim countries.
What's the secret? Is it demographic diversity and openness? Or is there no simple answer?

8:29 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Chetan: Thanks for the big and thoughtful comment. Actually you are right about Nehru. Even though he was in fact the originator of non-alignment, he was as you say an idealist, and India unlike other non-aligned states, never took practical and shrewd advantage of this position. Whether this idealism and stoic detachment was effective is for history to judge...
As for Reagan, I think that the statament that he was a great actor sums it up well. But yes, Gorbachev was the principal architect of the collapse of the Soviet Union, although I also think that even without him, it would have happened quite soon, but possibly with greater bloodshed. As for Gaddis supporting the Iraq war, I won't say he is exactly a flag waving republican, but he does try to justify the invasion within narrowly defined concepts of preemption and prevention. And I guess what the world is most irked about is not even the invasion per se, but the unilateral mode in which they pursue it. This actually is consistent with the Wilsonian doctrine prevalent at the beginning of the century, and then a similar doctrine advocated by secretary of state Henry Stimson. The problem is that the world has changed, borders between good and evil have become fuzzier, and globalization has empowered many people. It is not fair, does not make sense, and is in fact unnecessary for one state to take unilateral decisions of far reaching international magnitude, without pursuing a multilateral approach. For once, I am in favour of Bush's multilateral approach towards N. Korea. So Saddam did model himself after Stalin, but action against him cannot be taken in the same way that leaders during the cold war took. New times need new approaches.

And about that democracy statement, what I mean is that the model of democracy we have had for most of the post-war era is that of the American kind. We are already seeing the limitations of trying to impose that kind of democracy on other nations. American democracy is a good model; it has worked very well for America, and can even work well for other nations, but possibly after major modifications which will render it in an entirely new light. My statement simply means that no dogma of any kind can be engendered by even democracy. So just because it has worked so well does not mean it is a cure for all ages in the same form that it always has been.

Sumedha: Part of what I wrote above is related to the questions you ask, as you can see. So I don't think there is a simple answer, especially given the varied kind of countries in which democracy has taken root in the world. In fact, to be frank, sometimes I am amazed that India always could sustain democracy. I think that the reason ironically may be that the very diversity which causes us to disagree with each other also makes it unable for someone dictatorial to take the reins of power in his own hands. A good illustration is the fact that we need a coalition government! One think I do believe in is that the more the dogma inherent in the political philosophy of any nation, the more the chance that an authoritarian regime could arise there. That's why the US, with the least amount of dogma (although maybe not so these days!) has been the most democratic, and many of the Muslim nations, with the greatest amount of dogma, found it easy to let dictatorships take root and sway the people with dogma.

10:08 AM  

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