Who Won the Cold War?

Who Won the Cold War?

A straight line can be drawn from the idea that Ronald Reagan’s military buildup and assertive rhetoric ended the Cold War to the fantasy that the United States could rebuild the Middle East.

Similarly incisive here is a chapter on India. Often neglected in general histories of the Cold War, India was for a while the leader of the Non-Aligned nations. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was progressive, but intent on keeping his newly independent country truly independent. This, of course, infuriated the Americans, for whom any friendliness with the USSR was interpreted as hostility to them. And yet, when India’s moral purity conflicted with its conflict with China, nationalism prevailed, leading to a brief war. “In spite of its many efforts, even a country as a significant as India was never able to fully break away from the global conflict molding its policies,” Westad concludes.

WESTAD ALSO wrote a book on the fall of détente, for which he distinctly blames Americans. “Nixon and Kissinger had gone further in attempting to manage the Cold War together with the Soviet Union than most Americans were willing to accept,” he writes. “Most Americans were simply not willing to tolerate that the United States could have an equal in international affairs, in the 1970s or ever.” This is where Gaddis’s immersion in American documents might have been helpful. Most Americans, at least on the anti-détente side, were worried not that the Soviet Union was at parity with the United States, but that it had actually exceeded America’s capabilities. However wrongheaded and overly alarmist that perspective was, its importance in explaining American behavior should not be overlooked.

Indeed, Westad’s decision to reduce the research shown to the readers in this book makes some of his unorthodox judgments difficult to credit. Most conspicuously, Westad assesses Dwight Eisenhower harshly, but without offering enough support for his claims. In the late 1950s and 1960s, the evaluation of Ike was decidedly mixed. He was too complacent, it was said, too moderate and timid. He favored a strategic posture built around nuclear weapons that led to an arms race. He failed to confront Joe McCarthy and McCarthyism. He initiated the first of many ill-considered CIA interventions in foreign countries, in Guatemala and Iran. And he added a religious dimension to the Cold War, which elevated the conflict beyond the already-dangerous levels that existed when he took power in 1953.

That perception gave way in the 1980s to a consideration that Eisenhower was not complacent, but subtle. The opening of archives in the 1970s convinced many that his was, as the political scientist Fred Greenstein put it in his 1982 book of the same name, “the hidden-hand presidency.” The popular historian Stephen Ambrose did much to further this view, first in 1981’s Ike’s Spies: Eisenhower and the Espionage Establishment, and then in a biography, released in two volumes in 1983 and 1984. (Writing in the New Republic in 2006, the journalist John Judis observed that Ambrose’s books “changed many a liberal’s view of the general,” counting himself among them.)

The revisionist view of Eisenhower has now become orthodoxy. He routinely numbers among historians’ rankings of the top ten presidents. Far from sharing the contemporary perception of him as popular but ineffectual—“It’s just like Eisenhower. The worse I do, the more popular I get,” JFK said after the Bay of Pigs disaster—we like Ike as much as the people who wore his campaign buttons. Celebrity architect Frank Gehry designed an Eisenhower memorial that Congress has funded to the tune of $100 million, to sit across from the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, on Washington’s Independence Avenue.

Most scholars lean toward the view that Ike was a first-rate Cold War strategist. He balanced the budget thrice, halting the unsustainable economic and military buildup that resulted from the Korean War. He set diplomatic precedents by meeting with Soviet leaders and organizing purposeful summits. And he outflanked domestic hysteria, establishing a bipartisan commitment to a strategy of containment. Predominant is the view expressed by Robert Bowie and Richard Immerman in their book, Waging Peace: How Eisenhower Shaped a Cold War Strategy:

Later events . . . have enhanced appreciation of his prudent and sober judgment. In a turbulent and dangerous stage of East-West relations, with an untested and erratic Soviet leadership and a changing strategic environment, Eisenhower managed a succession of crises and set a course that preserved both security and peace.

Westad will have none of it. “Intent to move away from the Cold War as a national emergency, Eisenhower ended up institutionalizing it as policy and doctrine,” he writes. “On the Korean War, the new president simply got lucky. . . . The turn toward a policy of massive nuclear retaliation meant preparing for strategic warfare on a scale that so far had seemed unimaginable.” Pages later, he adds,

If the president was not a Cold War hysteric, neither was he someone who could conceive of a world without the confrontation with the Soviet Union. Eisenhower lacked the imagination and political will to think about ending the Cold War after Stalin’s death.

This is a provocative portrayal of Eisenhower, a welcome antidote to the revisionism that can approach hagiography. But it is undercut by Westad’s slight documentation.

Cold War triumphalism has had pernicious effects on American foreign policy. A straight line can be drawn from the idea that Ronald Reagan’s military buildup and assertive rhetoric ended the Cold War to the fantasy that the United States could rebuild the Middle East. The prominence of neoconservatives in the George W. Bush administration was due largely to the widespread belief that they had been right in seeing the transformative potential of American power during the Cold War. Though Donald Trump was able, in the Republican primaries in 2016, to counter delusions of American omnipotence with delusions of American seclusion, the messianic streak still runs strong in the Republican Party and in segments of the Democratic Party. Its absence in current political debates should be seen as temporary. When it inevitably arises again, trouble will ensue. “We all lost the cold war,” Gorbachev once said. The difficulty arises when one party thinks it won.

Jordan Michael Smith is the author of the Kindle single Humanity: How Jimmy Carter Lost an Election and Transformed the Post-Presidency.

Image: President Eisenhower visits with Republic of China President Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Chiang in TaipeiTaiwan. June 1960. Also pictured is US Ambassador to Republic of China Everett Drumright​