John Lewis Gaddis has been one of the most ideological figures within the subfield of us ‘diplomatic history’. All historians, of course, operate in and through ideology; Gaddis, however, has been unusual in foregrounding the ideological nature of his works. Though the message to be conveyed has not always been the same, he has been constant in his defence of us interests, and has consistently mirrored—albeit with slight lags—the prevailing attitudes of the powers that be. A realist in the 1970s and neo-Reaganite from the late 1980s onwards, Gaddis was somewhat disgruntled in the Clinton era, but has found the second Bush altogether more congenial. Gaddis’s method, too, has endured across his extensive œuvre: always disdainful of any excessive fascination with the archives, he has preferred to pick out some theme or idea and drive it through with relentless single-mindedness and clarity, subordinating every aspect of the proceedings to his ideological aim. His characterization of Ronald Reagan in his most recent book, The Cold War, applies equally to himself: ‘His strength lay in his ability to see beyond complexity to simplicity’.
For Gaddis, the right kind of simplicity is not truth simplified, but truth itself. Contradiction, nuance and uncertainty tend to disappear from his work. This does not necessarily make it uninteresting: it takes a certain intelligence, confidence and ruthlessness to write this kind of history. Gaddis published his dissertation on The United States and the Origins of the Cold War in 1972, and has been writing prolifically about the same topic since then, remaining essentially within its political framework. At the beginning of his career, his project was to defuse the revisionist critique of America’s responsibility for the early Cold War, nationalist orthodoxy having been largely shot to pieces by Vietnam. It was, if you will, a containment strategy against revisionism—seeking to preserve the ‘truth’ of orthodoxy while making some concessions to the other side. Bored by such historiographical controversies, however, Gaddis began to move away from his own discipline in the mid-1970s, turning instead to the field of international relations. The shift was hardly surprising: his governing interest has always been policymaking at its most elevated, and neo-realist theory provided him with a means of reaching his ideal Beltway audience. Initially, the change in approach proved fertile, resulting in some of his best works: Strategies of Containment (1982) and The Long Peace (1986) are both products of this moment, where the combination of Gaddis’s neorealist idiom and his close attention to the protocols of empirical evidence put a damper on any indiscriminate us nationalism.
With the disappearance of the ussr, however, Gaddis became disenchanted with international relations theory, mainly because of its—and his—failure to grasp the changes taking place during the 1980s in the Soviet Union and international system; after all, in The Long Peace, Gaddis himself had celebrated the stability of the Cold War at the very moment when it was coming to an end. He now began to slide to the right, under the towering influence of Reagan, and to seek inspiration in whatever areas happened to serve his ideological concerns of the moment. Hence his intermittent interest in chaos theory, plate tectonics and, in The Cold War, theatrics and drama. This sounds a lot more intellectually adventurous than it really is, since Gaddis’s approach is always eminently reductionist.
Outside the academic world, and certainly outside the us, Gaddis has come to be seen as the most distinguished representative of diplomatic history, although he has distanced himself from its scholarly proceedings for quite some time, and is probably no longer considered central to the field by his colleagues. In 1997, he returned to his original area of expertise with We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (the unconvincing message of which was that Stalin was not only a communist but a romantic). Since moving from Ohio to Yale the same year, however, Gaddis has focused predominantly on ‘Grand Strategy’—which he has described, typically, as an intuitive skill, requiring ‘a certain shallowness’; no accident, then, that he has found avid readers in the Bush White House. But Gaddis has stayed notably clear of direct links to party politics. Originally from rural Texas, he has retained his domestic roots in traditional New Deal Democracy. Guarding his role as an ‘independent’ academic with the detachment and objectivity of a truth-telling historian has not only allowed him tactical room for manoeuvre; it is also the ultimate condition of his power.
Gaddis’s latest opus on the Cold War has sold vastly more than any comparable work, and been widely regarded—again, outside the profession—as the authoritative word on the subject. Announced in its subtitle as ‘a new history’, the book is, from a scholarly viewpoint, nothing of the kind. Gaddis, defiantly, says as much himself, stating that he wrote the book in response to pleas from his agent and students for a more ‘accessible’ account, covering ‘more years in fewer pages’. What we get is a set of undergraduate lectures, pulpit wisdom for a sympathetic and credulous audience. The narrative focuses on ‘visions’, good and evil, and how individual actors, good and evil, put them across in material settings; though with the exception of some perceptive passages about the nuclear game, the material aspect gets rather perfunctory attention. The Cold War was caused, not surprisingly, by Stalin, a very evil man indeed. Though he did not really want war, either hot or cold, Stalin got the latter because, just like Hitler, he sought to dominate Europe, thus eventually generating the kind of Western response he deserved. While the West at the end of the Second World War believed in the compatibility of incompatible systems—coexistence, if you will—Stalin believed that incompatible systems were precisely that. The shared victory of 1945 concealed the fact that the two systems were already at war, ‘ideologically and geopolitically’. While the West was characterized above all by Hope, Stalin coupled Hope with pervasive Fear, which was to overshadow the world for the next five years.
The 1950s and the start of the nuclear arms race on a grand scale, however, brought a paradoxical lightening of the horizon: Gaddis describes the first American and Soviet hydrogen bomb tests of 1952–53 as ‘a small but significant sign of hope for the human race’. For the massively increased lethality of the hydrogen bomb heralded what was to be confirmed in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, namely, that no one could afford to let the Cold War turn into a hot one. The eve of destruction, then, provided for control and predictability, the kind of managed conflict that would receive its apotheosis in the détente of the 1970s. Alas, it was a false Hope. It was false, of course, because it left in place that unnatural command system, based on Fear, in the unnaturally extended East. While, for instance, Western occupations of Japan and Germany had been based on genuine self-determination, democracy, spontaneity and pragmatism, the Eastern system was one of command, repression, rigidity and a dogmatic belief in Theory over Practicality.
Meanwhile, in the same period ‘autonomous’ agents began to emerge: on the one hand the decolonized and non-aligned regimes, on the other free-wheeling ‘high-wire acrobats’ within the two Cold War camps—pre-eminently, Mao and De Gaulle. The Cultural Revolution and May 68, respectively, brought the latter two down to earth, in Mao’s case meaning the geopolitical opening to the United States. Little did the practitioners of realist statecraft realize that the return of Morality was just around the corner, heralded symbolically by Nixon’s exit: the Constitution proved ‘an adversary more powerful than either the Soviet Union or the international communist movement’. Thus, by the mid-1970s, a critical sense developed that there was indeed still a universal standard of justice. And what could be more obviously unjust than the geopolitical stability game known as détente? Nixon, after all, had ended up defending, in the name of détente, the internal stability of the Soviet Union: sordid Watergate was commensurate with the sordid compromises of the Cold War. As the decade wore on, the United States recovered its moral and political bearings, the Soviet Union declined economically and, partly led astray by Fidel, went berserk in the Third World; the stage was ready for the triumphant return of everlasting notions of Morality and Evil.