One-A-Day: John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History

My next project, if I can put it together, is going to focus on Africa as a whole during the Cold War. So I’ve been diving into the general historiography of the Cold War as much as I can manage for the last few months, which is a huge and sometimes intimidating body of literature.

One contrast to Africanist writing that leaps out at me is the vigorous presence of a more traditional mode of political and diplomatic history (as well as historical writing that is essentially being done within the discipline of political science), a scholarly form that is relatively rare in scholarly writing about modern Africa in the last twenty years. By training and inclination, I’m a cultural and social historian, but I genuinely try to cultivate a taste for other approaches and styles within the discipline.

There are a lot of things to be said about the formidable work of John Lewis Gaddis within this historiography, and most of them have been said by people for whom this is their primary specialization. His new general overview, first published in 2005, is the kind of work that I think all scholars ought to try and pull off at some point in their career, even in short form: a readable, lucid synthesis of scholarship (and scholarly debates) on a topic they know well. I like Gaddis’ historiographical and methodological statement of principles, The Landscape of History, though I think like many other historians of his generation, he uses “postmodernism” as a kind of all-purpose boogeyman.

Since these are just notes, not full reviews, let me discuss one thing that did strike me reading Gaddis about “traditional” political and diplomatic history. (I think there is a lot of recent work that seems to me to count as political history which nevertheless integrates social and cultural history in a way that Gaddis does not.) I don’t have the driving antagonism towards “great man history” that a lot of older social historians built into their work. Histories which see events as the consequence of decisions made by political leaders and their closest advisors not only have the virtue of great narrative coherence, but are also in many cases empirically correct in a very straightforward way. You can do a social and cultural history of the Cuban missile crisis, but such a history has to focus on what that event meant to large groups of people, or how that event was represented in cultural forms. If you want to talk about the event itself, you’re talking about what a few powerful people did and thought and meant to do, and about how their decisions commanded military and political systems of enormous size and their capacity to act in particular ways.

A really sophisticated “total history” might eventually integrate those two kinds of knowledge by looking at the feedback between these different registers and levels of historical experience. I think that’s the wrong thing to ask of a compact, lucid overview like Gaddis’ book. There is one particular kind of integration, however, that I think even a more traditional kind of political and diplomatic history ought to contain, even when it is a compact overview.

Gaddis does deal with the long-running debate about the relative rationality of Soviet and Western actors during the Cold War, and I like the broad outlines of his composite argument, some of which is informed by the flood of new materials that became available after the fall of the Soviet Union. As I read him, he argues first that ideology was genuinely important to many leaders and their key advisors, both as a prism through which they interpreted their antagonists and as a motivation for their own actions. My reading of Gaddis (not just in this book, but also his other work), is that he sees ideology in this sense asymmetrically, that Soviet or Communist actors were often ideological while Western actors were often pragmatic, flexible and situational. At the same time, Gaddis also acknowledges some structural or systemic aspects of the behavior of political leaders. For example, he discusses a well-known argument in diplomatic history, that one state pursuing greater security for itself can degrade the security of another, which forces the second state to aggressively compensate, which makes the first state less secure.

A social or cultural historian might broaden what is meant by “ideology” in this context to look at someone like Stalin or Kennedy as actors whose personal social and cultural character, in relationship to broader social and cultural patterns, shaped their decision making. For example, reviewing Kennedy’s foreign policy in the context of certain kinds of American and Western histories of masculinity. Gaddis integrates some of that approach as well, again more pointedly in his analysis of Soviet leaders. Certainly more traditional political and diplomatic histories do not lack for attention to the psychology of political leaders.

I think what I’d like to see, however, is more a social historian’s approach to leadership and power. Not as social historians would tend to write it, because social historians often want to deal with much larger collectivities and institutions than “one leader and his immediate circle of advisors and subordinates”. What sometimes strikes me about traditional narrative political and diplomatic history is that there is an assumption of symmetry between a leader’s intention to act and the actions that leader takes, and a belief that any given decision can be atomistically broken down into its causal components.

So Gaddis, for example, argues that from 1941 to his death, Stalin operated with a fairly consistent ideological assumption that capitalist nations would resume rivalrous relationships after the end of the war, and that the Soviet Union merely needed to wait for the inevitable outbreak of conflict and war between Britain, the United States, and other capitalist powers. This view, Gaddis claims, structured a good deal of Stalin’s decision-making in the beginnings of the Cold War.

In the manuscript I’m just finishing on colonialism and individual agency in Zimbabwe, one of the arguments I’m trying to make is that there is first a disconnect between what imperial leaders did and what actors on the colonial periphery did, and that the actions of the latter sometimes drove the former, and that decisions made at either (or both) levels often were internally contradictory, improvisational as well as pre-determined, based on fragmentary or patchwork kinds of knowledge, and frequently opaque to the actors themselves. I’m hoping to carry over some of this approach to the Cold War in Africa.

One of the consequences of the perspective I’m taking is that I’m perpetually skeptical about whether we ever ought to talk about individual intentions in an atomistic way, e.g., where we break down what an individual meant to do and assign proportionate value to different components of intention, and equally skeptical about whether we can ever atomistically describe the relationship between intention and result. That’s just with one individual, but it’s even more so once we talk about how a decision actually is made by small groups of advisors and is then transmitted to larger institutional networks. A certain amount of atomistic language is a narrative and explanatory necessity for historians. You can’t easily represent a decision in indeterminate or “fuzzy” language even if that’s how in the end a decision actually becomes a tangible event in human history.

Just to give one example in more recent experience, one of the interesting bits of information to come out of the Iraq War so far has to do with why US intelligence was so off about Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. People who want to argue that intelligence was purely concocted for political purposes are too simplistic, people who want to reduce it all to the will of Dick Cheney or a few neocons are too simplistic, people who want to make it a sincere mistake are too simplistic. Some of what strikes me as actually involved includes:

a. That very indirectly, almost “culturally” or ideologically, actors inside the Bush Administration made it known that they, even more than their predecessors, would not welcome intelligence which blatantly contradicted beliefs or assumptions that they were inclined to make. No one ever sends an order down that says, “Here’s the casus belli we need, please write it up! kthnx.” This kind of pressure gets exerted when someone like Cheney says in a conversation that includes key advisors and heads of executive departments that intelligence has been “too timid” in the past, or is too dominated by experts who are unwilling to act. The thing is, Cheney (or various neocons) could believe that statement as a reaction to some factual understanding of the history of US intelligence, could say it as a reflection of a much more intuitive kind of personal, emotional orientation towards leadership (think John Bolton here), and so on–and could not entirely know themselves why they say it, or how that statement is likely to be received or interpreted.

2) Another thing at play: how the movement of information through institutions is rather like a game of telephone, that there is a kind of drift and transformation which has less to do with intentionality and more to do with processes of translation, reparsing, repackaging and repurposing as information travels from office to office, up and down hierarchies. So at one level of action and knowledge, you can get a very granular, nuanced understanding of the extremely limited value of a source like “Curveball”, but a process rather like genetic drift starts to mutate that knowledge into something else by the time it reaches the layer where ultimate decisions are made.

3) On the other side of things, one reason that US intelligence might have thought Hussein had weapons of mass destruction is that Hussein may have thought he did. E.g., that autocratic leaders often are surrounded by disinformation. After the Gulf War, Hussein may simply have not known much about the actual capacity of his own state apparatus for anything besides punishing dissidents and preventing challenges to his own power, and there was every reason in the world for subordinates and advisors to tell him whatever he wanted to hear. But these kinds of fictions are complex, improvisational things: they hang in the air between people, rather than reside neatly inside any single person’s psychology.

I could add more, but it seems to me that this is what a social history of state or institutional action at the top of hierarchies might begin to look like. I wouldn’t want someone like Gaddis to take this sort of thinking on board so far that it messes up narrative and explanatory clarity, but I do think traditional political and diplomatic history sometimes mirrors a flaw of a lot of social science. Some social scientists confuse explanatory models for empirical reality; some political historians confuse explanatory narratives about decision-making for the messy processes that shape intentions and translate intentions into action and event.

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12 Responses to One-A-Day: John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History

  1. Matthew says:

    I work on a topic that has a great deal to do with Cold War history (peace movements) as an anthropologist in a very different context (Japan) and have found myself totally starved for academic work which attempts to address the intersection between its political and cultural histories, so it’s great to hear about this project.

    So, my question for you is a little bit the reverse of what you’re talking about here: what kind of social figuration could you find for Cold War institutions in Africa? In Japan, for example, the mass-mediated and local identities of the biggest ‘ethnic’ minority group (resident Koreans) are very strongly determined by their allegiance with North or South-a distinction which didn’t even exist when they were stranded in Japan at the end of WWII.

    As a consequence, you could go on to say, the cultural identities of resident Koreans now are very heavily influenced by political choices made by their parents and grandparents in the 1940-50’s. The interesting thing is that something similar is true among some Japanese people as well:membership in the Japanese Communist party is transmitted more through families than through trade union membership per se, and the CP has its own idea of what Japanese culture ought to be, and so on. This is picking up in salience because of the way that the war on terror in Japan is inflected (mostly against the DPRK), and so on…

  2. Matthew says:

    BTW, I kind of misspoke-Korea was divided into North and South very soon after 8/15, but the division didn’t really assume its present significance until later.

  3. Matthew says:

    It’s also interesting to hear about the tendencies in Africanist writing: in East Asia/Japanological writing, there’s generally been the opposite tendency towards a strict division of labor wherein political topics are done by institutionalist political scientists, anthropologists study what’s already explicitly labeled as culture, and so on.

    And I shouldn’t have said ‘trade union,’ I guess-historically Japanese unions are company or workplace unions, but anyway…it’s that damned area training making me say these stupid things (jk).

  4. ancarett says:

    As a pre-modernist, I’m only familiar with Gaddis as the author of “The Landscape of History” (which I quite admire) but I’ve always wanted to read one of his books. This might be an interesting and useful one to tackle seeing as I’m still occasionally responsible for the modern half of Western Civ although, like you, I long for a social historian to explain the political culture behind the Cold War’s leadership.

  5. The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939-March 1942 by Christopher Browning and Jurgen Matthaus might be a good example of the sort of “social history” of decision-making you’re looking for. It tells how various factors — obviously including Hitler’s own extreme anti-Semitic worldview and that of the rest of the Nazi leadership, but also the way the Nazi state operated, the specific situations faced by administrators of conquered territory, and the progress of the war itself — ultimately led to Hitler giving the (presumably oral) order for the Final Solution.

  6. llws says:

    To point out the 800 lb gorilla in the room, the book that does a great deal of what you’re asking for with a case example you cite: Graham Allison’s Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missle Crisis. I came of age with the second edition from the late 90s, cowritten by Philip Zelikow and working off a pool of primary materials greatly expanded by declassification.

    Essence of Decision is the type of book that through its approach to the intersection of individual and institution in decision making processes makes political science something more than just history lite or philosophy lite. I could say a lot of asinine, unsubstantiated pol blog and Heritage Foundation intern words here like nuanced, lucid, revolutionary, and essential (har-har), but I think the work speaks best for itself. Also, to be honest, it’s been three and a half years since I last read the text. I don’t know how much of what I think of when I think of Allison is actually from Essence, or the river silt and ox-bow lakes of other works, personal experiences, and pet theories, the usual claptrap. A few years back, I rewatched the Rankin-Bass Return of the King with a 5 year old and was shocked to see that the scene that stayed with me for all of my childhood, (spoiler warning or some-unnecessary-such) when Eowyn rips off her helm and shouts ‘I am no man,’ doesn’t even register a full 30 seconds. Or it’s like the proverb in Slavery and Social Death that takes me forever to refind every time because it seems so much more revelatory and central in my mind than it ever is in the text, like there should be more on the page. The danger of a lack of rigor.

    Prof. Murphy’s syllabus for Race and Foreign Affairs also has a great deal of pertinent work on the intersection of cultural norms and political decision making and bureaucratic implementation.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    I think there’s quite a lot out there that fits the bill, yes. What I suppose I’m wondering is what it would take to integrate the insights of this kind of work into a “traditional” mode of writing about leadership and decision-making.

  8. barry says:


    Brad DeLong has a comment on this:

    In short: it’s highly plausible that Bush fell for these traps; it’s highly implausible that Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell and Rice did.

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes, I think Brad’s right. But I still think you can talk about the cultural and social history of decisions in ways that aren’t quite as noun-verb as Gaddis or other political historians sometimes are (e.g., Cheney did, Rice did, Rumsfeld did, in which we assume that they had an intention, they made a decision and an action happened in the world and all three are the same thing).

  10. peter55 says:

    “In the manuscript I’m just finishing on colonialism and individual agency in Zimbabwe . . .”

    No doubt your manuscript is careful to note that Zimbabwe (or, rather its geographic predecessors) was only strictly a “colony” for the few short months between the majority-rule agreement at Lancaster House, London, in December 1979 and Independence in April 1980. When initally settled by whites in 1890, it was run, under a royal charter granted to the company by the British crown, by the British South African Company, until, in 1923, it became a self-governing (with, a course, a very restricted franchise) British dependency.

    Is your manuscript publicly available? Having lived in Zim, it would be very interesting to read it.

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    I’ll be done with it soon. (He says optimistically.) But the precision you point to strikes me as not terribly crucial in this case: Africans in Southern Rhodesia, later Rhodesia, (whether BSAC state or self-governing) lived under a system that was in almost every meaningful respect similar to the imperial administrations of other territories. Government officials after 1923, again after the Central African Federation, and again after UDI were often keen to insist that the legal status of their sovereignty made them unlike other British imperial territories in Africa, and in certain respects that was true for the white inhabitants of the territory. But it wasn’t a particularly noticeable difference to Africans, save for the general differences that living in a settler society made in terms of social status, political status and so on.

  12. peter55 says:

    Thanks for your reply, Timothy, which I agree with up to a point. I think that not-being-a-colony had a psychological impact on the white population (as you say), which was manifest in a greater intransigence than in the other British colonies. In West Africa, whites did not think of themselves as long-term settlers. In East Africa, they did, but they were very much aware that they were still under the thumb of London. Being long-term settlers and having what they believed was control over their own destiny (and on a path, so they believed, towards British Dominion status) made them less willing (IMHO) to consider accommodation of black-african nationalist ambitions.

    It is interesting, for example, to note that (black and white) officials of both the Central African Federation and the Governments of its constituent nations traveled to other British Commonwealth nations in the 1950s and early 1960s. The CAF was even invited to and represented at the Independence celebrations of Ghana in 1957. Officials of the Kenyan administration, for instance, weren’t sent to Australia on extended study tours to share ideas about education policy, as one black Zimbabwean CAF civil servant (whom I knew) was in the early 1960s. I think the black-white relationship in Southern Rhodesia prior to Independence was subtly different from that elsewhere in British colonial Africa, and that the belief of the white population that they were on a path to dominion status played a major part in this. Of course, you are correct that for the overwhelming majority of black people their life experience was little different from that elsewhere.

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