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John Lewis Gaddis on good versus evil in the Cold War

One of the particular pleasures of twenty-first century life is that it is now easy to purchase interesting books which have been around for quite a while, cheaply and easily rather than expensively and complicatedly. I recently bought, from Amazon, We Now Know, by John Lewis Gaddis, which is about the Cold War and was published in the 1990s. I’ve been meaning to acquaint myself with this book ever since I first heard about it, which must have been well over a decade ago.

I have so far only skimmed We Now Know, but I have already encountered a rather striking passage, towards the end. (Skimming usually involves looking at the end, doesn’t it?)

The Cold War, says Gaddis, was not decided in the Third World, but rather in such places as Europe and Japan. And why, asks Gaddis (pp.286-7 – his italics in bold), did “Washington’s empire in those pivotal regions”, generate so much less friction that Moscow’s:

One answer may be that many people then saw the Cold War as a contest of good versus evil, even if historians since have rarely done so.

Let me focus here on a single significant case: it has to do with what happened in Germany immediately after the war as its citizens confronted their respective occupiers. What Stalin sought there, it now seems clear, was a communist regime in the east that would attract Germans in the west without requiring the use of force, something the Russians could ill afford given their own exhaustion and the Americans’ monopoly over the atomic bomb.

Obviously, this is not what he got. Germans first voted with their feet – fleeing to the west in huge numbers to avoid the Red Army – and then at the ballot box in ways that frustrated all of Stalin’s hopes. But this outcome was not fore-ordained. There were large numbers of communist party members throughout Germany at the end of the war, and their prestige – because of their opposition to the Nazis – had never been higher. Why did the Germans so overwhelmingly welcome the Americans and their allies, and fear the Russians?

It has long been known that the Red Army behaved brutally toward German civilians in those parts of the country it occupied, and that this treatment contrasted strikingly with that accorded the Germans in the American, British, and French zones. What we had not known, until recently, is how pervasive the problem of rape was: Red Army soldiers may have assaulted as many as two million German women in 1945-6. There were few efforts for many months to stop this behavior, or to discipline those who indulged in it. To this day, some Soviet officers recall the experience much as Stalin saw it at the time: troops that had risked their lives and survived deserved a little fun.

Now, obviously rape in particular, and brutality in general, is always a problem when armies occupy the territory of defeated adversaries. Certainly Russian troops had good reason to hate the Germans, given what they had done inside the Soviet Union. But these semi-sanctioned mass rapes took place precisely as Stalin was trying to win the support of the German people, not just in the east but throughout the country. He even allowed elections to be held inside the Soviet zone in the fall of 1946, only to have the Germans – women in particular – vote overwhelmingly against the Soviet-supported candidates.

The incidence of rape and other forms of brutality was so much greater on the Soviet than on the western side that it played a major role in determining which way Germans would tilt in the Cold War that was to come. It ensured a pro-western orientation from the very beginning of that conflict, which surely helps to account for why the West German regime was able to establish itself as a legitimate government while its East German counterpart never did.

What happened here was not a reflection of high policy; it was rather a matter of occupying armies, in the absence of clear orders, falling back upon their own domestic standards of acceptable behavior. The rules of civil society implicit in democratic politics made the humanitarian treatment of defeated enemies seem natural to the Western allies. Their troops did not have to be ordered to do this – they just did it, and it did not occur to them to do otherwise. Much the same thing happened, with equally important results, in occupied Japan. But thanks to Stalin and Hitler, Russian troops came out of a culture of brutality with few parallels in modern history. Having been brutalized themselves, it did not occur to many of them that there was anything wrong with brutalizing others. And it did not occur to their leaders to put a stop to this process until after it had lost them Germany.

In this instance, then, civility on one side and its absence on the other played an enormous role in shaping the course of events. The rapes dramatized differences between Soviet authoritarianism and American democracy in ways that could hardly have been more direct. Social history, even gender history, intersected with inhumanity to make diplomatic history. What this suggests, then, is that historians of the Cold War need to look quite carefully at what those who saw distinctions between good and evil thought and did about them. For when people vote with their feet, it generally means they have ideas in their minds. But to understand these, we have to take seriously what they at the time believed.

No historian looking at the religious practices of late antiquity, or at the medieval peasantry, or even at revolutions in America, France, or Russia would doubt the importance of seeking out the voices and viewpoints of everyday life. And yet, when looking at the origins, the evolution, and the end of the Cold War – or for that matter at the gap between popular and academic perceptions of the past today – historians seem to want to tell the public what its memories ought to be. A little self-scrutiny might be in order here, to see whether we are treating the distant past and the recent past in exactly the same way.

You sense that, for Gaddis too, the Cold War was indeed something of “a contest of good versus evil”. But he separates that claim from the more modest one that historians should at least consider the possibility that so many people in important places merely thinking this way made a big difference. As it surely did.

My hostile guess is that all those anti-anti-communist “historians” have since failed to answer even this challenge, by simply ignoring it. Good and evil? How juvenile. Their line has been that because the Cold War is now history it need no longer concern historians. But that’s just a hostile guess. I hope I’m at least a bit wrong about that.

Hearing his title, many readers may be wondering if Gaddis deals with all those miscreants who “we now know” were collaborating with the USSR, but who furiously denied it at the time, and who were furiously defended by other miscreants. So far I have encountered no discussions of such matters in this book and, in particular, no names. Gaddis’s view seems to be that the USSR was an ideological failure in the eyes of most of the people who really mattered pretty much as soon as the Cold War got started, for the kind of reasons alluded to in the paragraphs quoted above. Meanwhile, I note that this review of the book also makes no mention of lying and lied-about pro-USSR-ites.

A few of my own opinions about good and evil during the Cold War, published just before the Cold War ended, can be read in this.

22 comments to John Lewis Gaddis on good versus evil in the Cold War

  • Behind Enemy Lines

    Thanks, Brian. After all these many years, I take a great deal of (quiet) pride in my humble role during the late Cold War and the years immediately after. So this makes for interesting reading. During the 70s and 80s I always gave the Soviet man in the street (and the Soviet man in the 8th Guards Army) a certain benefit of the doubt, since of course they were stuck as pawns within their system. At the same time, I knew that the traitors in the West were (and remain) pure evil. They knew better all along, yet still supported the communists. Our greatest mistake in 1989 was not to put our fifth column to the sword. I said so at the time, but of course we had a ‘peace dividend’ to spend, and other distractions to be distracted by. We’ll pay for that mistake for the rest of our lives. Perhaps with our lives, on present trends.

  • Alsadius

    Looks like this is the 1946 election in question, for anyone interested: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1946_Berlin_state_election – nationwide elections weren’t held until 1949 in East Germany (because it was just an occupation zone until then, not a country), but that looks like it covered all of Berlin, not just the Western Allied or Russian zones.

  • What we had not known, until recently, is how pervasive the problem of rape was

    Anyone who read the history knew (the history of the end of WWII, that is – Gaddis is right about certain cold war historians). I was reading about this stuff in my schooldays, and when in Berlin, heard various accounts. (For example, we could never have an unannounced exercise. In the 60s, American, British and French troops had a major night alert exercise – during which some 30+ Berliners committed suicide because they thought it was the real thing and the soviet troops were coming back. They remembered how those troops had behaved.) While the fall of the soviet union’s eastern empire doubtless provided more precise statistics, they were not surprising to anyone who had studied the period.

    If anything, Gaddis slightly overstates the spontaneousness of it. While the soviets brutally crushed it when it got out of hand and threatened discipline, the indulgence the rest of the time came straight from Stalin. The way in which the Soviet army’s second line was noticeably crueller than the front-line also speaks to how the soviets organised things – the second line had a lot of informers and other servants of the state, and the front line knew the dangers of crossing it.

    But thanks to Stalin and Hitler, Russian troops came out of a culture of brutality with few parallels in modern history.

    This is very relevant in two ways. It is immensely relevant to how brutal the soviets were (you can throw in Lenin, the civil war and the harshness of Russian history back to Ivan the Terrible, and before him the Mongols, as lesser contributors). The courage and kindness to object had both been selected against savagely – though accounts show some remained.

    But those who obeyed Stalin were not brutal only to those who had obeyed Hitler.

    “If they do to us a fraction of what we are doing on the Eastern front, we will suffer, and we will deserve to suffer.”

    was how one German on leave put it to Christabel Bielenberg (quoted from memory). Soviets were brutal to Poles, to Czechs, to Ukrainians and of course to Russians. That Stalin could not win the votes of a population who had fought for Hitler is not so diagnostic in itself. The anti-Americanism that has been so pervasive in west Germany all my life speaks to ways in which impossible-alternative-reality restrained Russian invaders might have been met with ingratitude. The voting-with-feet that made the Berlin wall is indeed incredibly relevant to one side being good and the other evil, but so is the fact that non-Germans trapped in the east would as gladly have crossed it if they could.

    So I’m glad you quoted Gaddis and he has a point but I would have put it a bit differently.

  • Deep Lurker

    My understanding is that the official policy on the western side was harsher than the troops were inclined to dish out, especially just after the war. So it wasn’t just “a matter of occupying armies, in the absence of clear orders, falling back upon their own domestic standards of acceptable behavior” but of occupying armies being somewhat slack about orders in favor of following their own standards of acceptable behavior instead.

    It’s disturbing to imagine what the Cold War would have looked like if the Morgenthau Plan had been successfully pushed through as a whole, rather than just having a disputed level of influence on the policies imposed.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Stalin is said to have had a copy of The Prince on his bedside table; and yet Machiavelli explicitly wrote that a ruler is safest in his rule and in his life when he respects women and property of the citizenry (and also by keeping taxes and spending at a low level).

    Although the Eastern Europeans and East Germans were not citizens of the Soviet Union, it seems clear to me that Stalin did not get the message.

  • Ferox

    I have always heard that the mass rape of German women at the end of WW II was official Soviet policy – designed to essentially create a Slavic buffer state between the Soviet Union and the western powers.

    “From 8 to 80” was Stalin’s order for who was to be raped, and an entire generation of Slavic east germans was the result.

    Trying to understand that portion of WW II that was fought in Russia, and then later in Eastern Europe and Germany on the backswing, through the lens of western culture and western democratic ideals is hopeless – it was fought in the context of far more ancient and primitive impulses. Both the Russians and the Germans fought it that way, and when the history is written a hundred years from now, it will be written as a vicious no-holds-barred war that was fought between those two peoples, with a bunch of other peoples joining in here and there along the fringes.

  • Paul Marks

    Snorri Godhi – as you know “Stalin” was a MARXIST. His common sense might have told him to respect the private property of the populations his Red Legions conquered – but his doctrines (his Marxism) did not allow that. It would have made little difference who was in charge – the problem was Marxism.

    The Cold War was indeed a struggle against evil – and that evil was MARXISM.

    Of course all human beings struggle with evil (the evil within ourselves) every day – but Marxism takes that evil and calls it good. We do have moral agency (free will), but it is a desperate effort to exercise it against the evil of our passions (which is why the philosophy of David Hume, that “reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions”, is so despicable) – Marxism (like National Socialism) seeks to undermine our better selves (our resistance to the evil within ourselves) by telling us that morality is just “class interests” (National Socialism says “race interests”) in a particular “historical period”. Historicism (relativism) being the source of both National Socialism and Marxism.

    In the desperate struggle with evil each person has each day (if only in small ways) the last thing someone needs is a doctrine such as Marxism (or National Socialism) whispering in their mind that “there is no such thing as objective morality – no objective good or objective evil, if it is in the interests of the class [or “the race” with National Socialism] DO IT”.

    This is what most academics (who are normally “Fellow Travellers”, if not formal Marxists, themselves) will not admit – thus generations of students are being mislead.

    “It is not like this with the more distant past” – sadly IT IS these days.

    For example, the desperate struggle against Islam over the centuries is now being taught as some silly European resistance to multicultural enrichment. The actual behaviour of the Ottoman Empire and other Islamic powers is being systematically whitewashed – as are the teachings, and the personal deeds, of Muhammed-Mohammed himself.

  • Chester Draws

    Remember that a lot of the Germans in East Germany weren’t actually Germans. They were people of often quite remote German ancestry thrown from their homes by Soviet ethnic cleansing. Their hatred of the Soviets ran very, very deep indeed.

    Meanwhile in the West the German speakers of Italy and France were able to remain in their homes (provided they hadn’t collaborated).

  • Snorri Godhi

    Paul: Stalin was even more of a failure as a Marxist than as a “Machiavellian”, since he bears the main responsibility for the collapse of the Soviet economy, and therefore of the Soviet Union.

  • Ferox

    since he bears the main responsibility for the collapse of the Soviet economy

    The rumor is that kulaks, counterrevolutionaries, and saboteurs worked tirelessly to derail Uncle Joe’s plan for a prosperous nation.

    Just like they did all the other places where socialism has tried to free the people from the waste and unfairness of the market economy …

    That’s why he had to shoot so many of them in the head.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Ferox: I appreciate the sarcasm (since it’s not directed at me).
    If you want details of why i blame Stalin instead of the “usual suspects”, you can look here. I found it a good read, even gripping.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    Brian M: “The Cold War, says Gaddis, was not decided in the Third World, but rather in such places as Europe and Japan.”

    Interesting conclusion — because the article by Yegor Gaidar linked by Snorri would suggest the Cold War was decided by the Gods of the Copybook Headings. First, by poor top-down driven Soviet agricultural decisions from the 1920s onward which left the USSR by the early 1960s unable to feed itself, requiring to buy grain from the West. Second, by Saudi oil production decisions in the mid-1980s which cut the price of oil and left the USSR unable to earn enough foreign exchange from oil exports to pay for the necessary grain imports. But even at that, the USSR managed to hold on until 1991. It seems like Europe & Japan had little role in deciding the outcome of the Cold War.

    Maybe the lesson for us in the West today is that the Mighty can be laid low by a combination of bad internal decisions and external shocks. And it can take decades for the consequences of those bad internal decisions to become fatal. Unsustainable government over-spending and unsustainable trade deficits, for example?

  • The collapse of the Soviet Union should serve as a lesson to those who construct policy based on the assumption that oil prices will remain perpetually high. (Quoted from the article linked by Snorri Godhi, May 10, 2019 at 7:43 pm.)

    A useful lesson for the natz in my own country. 🙂 Venezuela might also have been wise to note it.

    Thanks for the link; interesting read. Everyone knows of course that, in a general sense, the Gods of the Copybook Headings are the destroyers of socialism, but the end of each socialist state has its particular details and dates.

  • bobby b

    ” . . . the Gods of the Copybook Headings are the destroyers of socialism . . . “

    In fairness, we all seem to get the chance to be humbled by them at some point.

  • Snorri Godhi

    I am gratified to learn that Yegor Gaidar’s essay has been found of interest by some people here. I actually think that it should be mandatory reading in high school.

    Gavin has a point in saying that the Cold War, pace Gaddis, was not decided in Europe & Japan but in the Soviet Union. Still, it must be said that, at the very least, Communism would have inflicted much more human suffering if Europe & Japan had not been alienated by Stalin’s actions… and they would have been even more alienated, were it not for the NY Times.

    It is also of interest that Venezuela today makes the Soviet Union look good in one respect: the Soviet economy survived until 1991 thanks to oil; the Venezuelan economy is collapsing in spite of larger oil reserves (i believe) AND a smaller population than the USSR. (I blame Chavez prioritizing consumption over investment; but what do i know?)

  • Gavin Longmuir

    Nial K: “A useful lesson for the natz in my own country.”

    bobby b has on more than one occasion reminded us all that starting off by insulting people who hold different views is not a smart way to convince them that our beliefs are better. Wise words! Especially in these days when the ongoing catastrophic failure of the Mother of Parliaments rather undermines the case that the denizens of Westminster are obviously the best people to run the lives of the inhabitants of the British Isles.

    On a broader point about the future price of oil — since the mid-19th Century, the oil industry has been the poster boy for Boom & Bust. Part of that has been the fact that oil supply tends to be relatively inflexible, whereas demand for oil varies with the general state of the economy. Major new sources of oil supply often take a decade or more to bring to market, and once an oil field has been developed, it generally makes sense to continue production even if the price of oil falls to barely above the ongoing costs of operations.

    Some argue that that old dynamic is changing because of the growth of oil shale production. Since the economics of shale oil rely on flush production from new wells, the supply side of oil may become more sensitive to price. Lower oil price could quickly result in less shale drilling, which in turn means lower supply. This could have the effect of stabilizing the global price of oil in a much tighter range in the future than the world has seen in the past. We will see! But none of this helps the Venezuelans today, of course.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Snorri, thanks a bunch for the article. Very, very interesting.

  • Gavin Longmuir (May 11, 2019 at 4:35 pm), if I write nats, my spellchecker will try to correct it to hats or mats. 🙂 By contrast, all spellcheckers I know leaves natz alone. (If I ever encountered a spellcheckier that tried to correct natz – especially if it ‘corrected’ it to a the short name of a well-known former German party – then it would indeed be wise to change my spelling.)

    It is not of course my only reason for liking the spelling I use, but the spellchecker is quite genuinely the initial cause of my adopting the habit.

    I got the idea from the hashtag #cybernatz (SNP twitter trolls), used by some who posted about them, and, over time, I came to think it an OK way to spell #vandalnatz when posting photos of vandalised unionist posters, etc., during the indyref.

    I’d rather talk of the evil deeds of the natz than see what I expect to see and later find I have denounced the mats or the hats. 🙂

  • Julie near Chicago


    It all depends on the hue of the hats. Les Chapeaux Blancs, c’est tres mal pour dénoncer; mais c’est de rigueur pour dénoncer les chapeaux noir.

    I trust that the point is clear. (Think DEFCON.) 😀 😎

  • Gavin Longmuir

    Niall — it sounds like you are still missing bobby b’s advice. It might give you brief satisfaction to call your fellow-citizens with different views “natz” (sounds like Nazis) or even “nats” (sounds insulting, like Chinks) — but it is not likely to help you convince those fellow-citizens that your views are better. In these unstable times, respect for one’s fellow citizens (if not for their beliefs) might be a better foundation for convincing them to change to your views.

  • Rykehaven

    Brian Micklethwait (London): The Cold War, says Gaddis, was not decided in the Third World, but rather in such places as Europe and Japan. And why, asks Gaddis (pp.286-7 – his italics in bold), did “Washington’s empire in those pivotal regions”, generate so much less friction that Moscow’s

    That statement is pure Poppycock.

    The Cold War was decided in the United States and the Soviet Union.

    During the 1980s and even early 1990s, Japan was getting too big for its britches and pretending to dictate geopolitical matters to the United States. What resulted was one of the most systematic geopolitical demotions of its Vassal-state by a Superpower in the entire Cold War. Japan was a bit-player who’s self-importance ego were out-sized – their mouths were writing checks their country couldn’t cash.

    “Japan won the Cold War”.

    Virtually every idiot who thought the Soviet Union would win, went from one tirade to another as to why America didn’t win, why “nobody” saw the Soviet Union losing, and eventually settling on why Japan won the Cold War (before that charade failed spectacularly, so they moved onto “The Dawn of Europe” which was destined to overtake the United States – remember that one? – just before the Bosnian War).

    I remember “The Japan that can say ‘No'” unofficial translation I received with the preamble by Akio Morita, the Founder of Sony. This in a day when the Japanese finally got their hands on American “Super” technology; Supercapacitors, Superconductors, Supercoolants, etc – they oddly thought they’d rule the roost making incremental derivatives of copied American invention. And they were apparently unaware or dismissive that design such technology as distributed elements in circuits and modeling of such capacitance, inductance, reactance, etc, in integrated circuits and doping/masking techniques (formerly called “ghost circuits”) were being developed and implemented by the American companies.

    Remember Japanese triumphalism over their FSX/F-2/F-16 cloning program? Only to learn years later that the Americans had proved, prototyped and built production stealth aircraft a decade before (and were, as yet unknown, developing a GCCS of a secure, global ATC protocol to lay the groundwork of its revolutionary worldwide UAV technology).

    Think British/French premature triumphalism, creating their partnership after the legendary Ascani’s NAA civilian version of the Valkyrie was turned down, using his work without permission or compensation for the Concorde (leading to the laughable exercise of having to build, model, and test wind tunnel data AFTER deciding on “their” wing and hull design), only to realize that the Americans had long ago discovered the economic and physical limits of SST – culminating in the flight of the Boeing 747 even before the British and French could even finish a downgraded clone of Ascani’s genius.

    The Japanese were claiming that because the Americans had moved most of their manufacture of semiconductors and electronics to Japan, that Japan was now more powerful than the United States and had the right to dictate the direction of geopolitical affairs in the Eastern hemisphere – especially contrary to American policy. Everything that we associate with the Chinese today was actually done first by the Japanese – in fact, many Chinese state openly that they mimicked Japanese trade practices.

    And so the Japanese sold “their” technology (they weren’t the only ones) to the Soviet Union, including nuclear submarine technology, AEGIS, phased array technology, F-16 avionics, etc.

    “Trade is war” and “Business is War”, said the Japanese.

    Needless to say, this was a serious breach of American national security at the height of the Cold War – the Japanese overtly tried playing to the Soviet side in the 80s – right up to making deals with Saddam Hussein in his conflict with Kuwait. There was nothing subtle about what was being said: “America is in decline and can’t do anyhing about it”…

    And the American response is history in the engineering and industrial world among old-guard from IEEE to the NSA.

    In 1986, Nippon Electric Company (NEC), the Japanese semiconductor conglomerate had an essential monopoly – with American companies outsourcing their technology for fabrication. Today, we call this the “Fabless” industrial model, where American companies outsource mass fabrication and technology to other parties – particularly foreign parties – while retaining only the minimum local industrial capacity for development.

    During this time, Japan makes noise about selling American technology to the Soviets without American permission, let alone compensation – again, the Japanese system and practice is a carbon-copy of what the PRC has today. In an amazing show of treachery, everyone associated with MITI and Japanese business whom the Americans once regarded as “professionals” are caught in bald-faced lies with their hands in the cookie jar – and dragged before Congress.

    In an uncanny bout of coincidence, all those American companies, from Intel to Apple to IBM to Cray to Motorola (now Google), etc, etc, etc. went to other countries – two notable ones being Taiwan and South Korea – and basically asked them “Japan is being fired; do you want their jobs”?

    Of course, the Taiwanese and South Koreans said “Hell Yes!” You may know the two major companies these Americans contracted mostly with; they’re called TMCI and Samsung.

    Within 5 years, NEC’s market share collapsed, their volume shrinking by nearly 70% – they were virtually bankrupt, if a company backed by a national government and MITI can go bankrupt.

    At the end of the day, outsourced manufacturing capacity is nothing on the stage of geopolitics. Manufacturing is downstream from technology, which is downstream from culture, which is downstream from the Source – the People who create the Culture.

    That Culture is America.

    America almost exclusively contracted its electronics manufacture to Japan, far more than it contracts to China today, and it didn’t make any difference. Don’t even ask what happened in other industries, as Americans could have obliterated Japan’s car industry – the financial and industrial ruin would have sent Japan into starvation if the Americans weren’t so lenient.

    Japan lost – badly – and the only reason it wasn’t worse was because good management of the geopolitical ecology is:

    “Business, not personal”.

    And an outgrowth of Japan’s loss was to the gain of other countries – including China (who took Motorola for all they were worth).

    The Chinese think to achieve, that which Japan has not dared to presume in 20+ years after essentially getting fired by America, and hiring the PRC, ROC and ROK.

    As with Japan 30 years ago, China’s loss does not simply mean that jobs go only to the US, but that countries like India, the Philippines, Thailand, Burma/Myanmar, Brazil, etc, are reaping the opportunities that the demotion of China creates. They too understand business – and the history of business – as it relates to Asian tigers who roar meekly at the Eagle looming over them.