The great divide. Richard Gott on an unashamedly biased account of the US-Soviet stand-off

The Cold War

John Lewis Gaddis <em>Allen Lane, the Penguin Press, 352pp, £20</em>

ISBN 071399912

It was suggested over Christmas that Adolf Hitler gets too much attention in schools, and that history teaching might now move forward to the cold war. Such a notion seems eminently reasonable, and right on cue comes a book on the topic from an American historian who knows more than most. John Lewis Gaddis is a specialist who has published many large works on the cold war, and his publisher has persuaded him to write a concise guide to international history since 1945, designed for a generation not around at the time.

His book is a handy synthesis, yet it would be a mistake for it to be used as a textbook in British schools, because it is an unashamedly American and triumphalist version of the long US-Soviet quarrel that broke out after the Second World War. Few British historians would accept it un-critically, even with the carefully phrased puff from Peter Hennessy on the jacket.

No consensus exists today about the cold war, although the powerful revisionist school that existed in the US during the Vietnam war has been largely obliterated by the post-1989 euphoria. Few of those who lived through the whole of the cold war (you have to be over 60) have changed the opinions they formed at the time. Some thought the west, led by the US, was confronted by an expansionist Soviet state, held in check only by armed force and nuclear weapons. Others believed the exact opposite, arguing that an expansionist US, armed with nuclear weapons, was intent on rolling back the frontiers of the communist world.

A third group, to which I have long belonged, thought that the entire contest was a huge mistake, totally misconceived and possibly fabricated, both expensive and dangerous. So problematic is the topic that New Statesman readers, even today, can almost certainly be found in each category, sometimes holding at least two opinions at the same time.

The cold war took place over nearly half a century, from the Berlin Airlift, which began in April 1948, to the final extinction of the Soviet Union in December 1991. (Some might think, judging by the attitude of most western chancelleries and media outlets towards Vladimir Putin, that it continues to this day.) The Americans and the Russians fought each other, often at one remove, with every dirty weapon except the nuclear bomb. First presided over by Stalin and Harry Truman, and in effect concluded by Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, the end of their icy struggle looked very different from its early beginnings.

Gaddis tries to provide a continuous storyline that encompasses its many twists and turns, but in practice the cold war years were unified solely by the existence of a permanent nuclear threat, a promise to commit suicide that appeared to make conventional war between great states impossible. Today we tend to ignore the fact that this terrible menace is still there, although since the collapse of the Soviet Union no powerful country has felt able to contemplate even a verbal confrontation with the United States.

The first period of the cold war, the 13 years from the start of the Berlin Airlift to the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, was largely dominated by the German Question, a hardy perennial of European history. The much-derided wall brought a measure of stability to the European scene, and many people in the west - strange now to recall - thoroughly approved of it. I remember Richard Crossman, when editor of this paper in the early 1970s, defending it vigorously to his staff of astonished young Trotskyists.

Berlin, a problem left over at the end of the Second World War, gets its fair share of attention in Gaddis's book, yet in retrospect, not much emphasised here, it was the Chinese revolution in 1949 that really caused the US to panic, and gave the cold war its atmosphere of deadly menace. For several years the Yellow Peril, another ancient formulation, grew more alarming than the German Question, and provoked an often neglected war in Korea.

The 1950s, the classic years of cold war mythology, gave the conflict a special hold on the popular imagination. In a decade replete with spies, the activities of the parallel secret services have been well chronicled in fiction, and it is appropriate that Len Deighton provides an encomium for Gaddis's book. More relevantly, the period also witnessed the twin episodes of internal suppression in each camp - Iran and Guatemala on the western side, East Germany and Hungary on the part of the Soviets - that so discredited the cold warriors' claims to moral superiority.

The second period, which lasted through the 1960s and 1970s, was dominated by the mayhem and havoc of wars in the third world that arose after the collapse of Europe's colonial empires. This particular cold war development, arguably of more historical consequence than the stale east-west conflict in Europe, gets little space in Gaddis's book, perhaps because it led to the crushing US defeat in Vietnam. As a result of that US disaster, which did not affect the peace and prosperity of western Europe, the Americans began to talk of detente and disarmament, of strategic arms limitations and human rights. Urged on by European social democrats, the global conflict settled into a cosy and manageable routine that continued to keep wars far from the European heartland.

Finally, in the 1980s, this apparent stability was shown to have been built on shaky foundations. When the US took up the Soviet challenge in Afghanistan, when the Hungarians and the Poles began to chart their separate paths towards a fresh settlement with Moscow, and when a new generation of nuclear weapons was deployed in Europe, the old verities began to collapse.

Gaddis makes much of the role of Pope John Paul II, a deus ex machina who threw his weight behind the emerging opposition forces in central Europe, but the real cause of Gorbachev's internal reforms that detonated the final crisis was the lamentable state of the Soviet economy, a subject to which Gaddis gives scant attention.

The Americans emerge from Gaddis's account smelling of roses, yet, in the wake of the US seizure of Iraq and the unfolding of a fresh imperial agenda, future historians may look less benignly on America's role in the cold war. They might well conclude that the Russians were right to be alarmed by American power, given that while Soviet forces had advanced a few hundred miles into central Europe in 1945, and stayed there until 1989, the Americans had leap- frogged over oceans to put their troops into western Europe and Japan - and have kept them there to this day.

French philosophers might argue that the cold war did not actually take place, yet under its imagined threat the US was able to extend its ideological and cultural control over western Europe, effectively undermining and eventually destroying the old leftist and working-class movements built up since the 19th century - the cold war's most lasting and pernicious legacy. Gaddis's book plays the old tunes well, but some readers may still find it less riveting than the story of the unfolding of the Third Reich. If history teachers want to hold the attention of their students, they will probably be justified in continuing with Hitler for a while longer.

Richard Gott is writing a book about imperial rebellions