John Lewis Gaddis’ The Cold War and Melvyn Leffler’s The Specter of Communism share a topic, but offer two very dissimilar approaches to the study of the Cold War. In The Cold War Gaddis presents a detailed illustration of the ways in which the United States and Soviet Union, through an inevitable clash of ideologies, came to blows throughout the last half of the twentieth century. Gaddis takes a decisive stance on the events that transpired, pitting the wholesomeness of American values against the near-apocalyptic threat that the expansion of Soviet influence posed.
Ultimately, Gaddis paints a picture of how the shortsightedness of Marxist ideology and the shortcomings of Soviet leaders set the stage for the West to triumph over communism. Leffler’s book chronicles the ways in which Cold War politics shaped not only the United States’ relationship with its communist neighbors, but also the way in which it has influenced American domestic politics. Central to Leffler’s argument is the notion that the United States responded so ardently to the threat of communism because, for a number of reasons, the nation simply could not exist constantly in peril of domination by totalitarian adversaries.
One fundamental difference between the two books can be seen in the authors’ choices of scope and style. While Gaddis focuses on presenting his theories about the circumstances that led to the emergence of tensions between competing nations, Leffler places more of a premium on chronicling events and describing the way that Cold War politics operated within the mechanism of American domestic policy. Gaddis’ approach offers an energetic tour-de-force journey behind the scenes of an America-centric world weathering the siege of communism and its vices.
In contrast, Leffler’s more introspective approach serves to illustrate his thesis that the phobia of communism was more a result of Americans’ reactions to an overblown, politically orchestrated culture of fear than a direct response to the agenda of the Soviet communists. Although Gaddis and Leffler’s books both provide remarkably lucid depictions of the role that fear played in escalating Cold War tensions, this is an issue that distinguishes their individual perspectives dramatically. Gaddis takes the stance that the guiding force behind the Soviet regime was fear itself.
The West was not willing to share the international stage with a nation that used fear as a political mechanism because the nature of their own founding principles was so diametrically opposite. Western nations were simultaneously repulsed and threatened by Stalin, who, as they understood it, had ruthlessly deprived his nation and its people of all conceivable liberties, solely as a means of augmenting his own power – a power that he fully intended to continue building, even if it meant toppling every democracy in his path.
Gaddis points to Kennan’s famous “long telegram” as the quintessential articulation of the security crisis that ultimately forced the United States to defend itself from the Soviet menace. With the knowledge that Stalin intended to overtake his democratic neighbors one by one through internal subversion, the United States could not return to its default position of isolationism. Instead, the only way for the Unites States to protect itself would be for it to lead its allies in a cooperative campaign against the spread of communism.
The frightening reality that one false step might place the world in peril of atomic annihilation put United States in a difficult position where it would have to find a way to limit the Soviet sphere of influence without provoking an outright war. The escalation of fears and tradition of brinkmanship that would characterize the subsequent course of the Cold War is a direct result of Kennan’s strategy2. Leffler takes a very different view of the way that fear factored into the plot of the Cold War.
In light of the atrocities that Stalin had exacted in the course of his rampage to collectivization, many Americans became unable to dissociate Stalin’s terror from the political framework of communist ideology. As communism came to be seen as a force of evil, many Americans began to fear that it was as pertinent a threat to their way of life as that of Nazi totalitarianism. 3 Politicians seized upon their constituents’ passionate anti-communist attitudes and quickly began to manipulate these anxieties to their advantage.
Anti-communist rhetoric became an element essential to almost all political dialogues and seriously streamlined the sport of mud slinging, for nothing could more significantly discredit an opponent than an accusation of involvement with the Communist party. Leffler points out that the Truman administration, as well, took note of the value of the public’s polar vision of ideological good and evil.
Communism, not unlike the threat of fascism in World War II, became the adversarial force against which Americans found themselves able to reconcile and define their own disparate systems of values. With this menace the horizon, things that could be characterized as clearly “American,” “free,” or “good” became much more obvious and simple to identify. Communism was the dark standard against which American values could be tested, and Truman set his strategy accordingly, planning political maneuvers with his constituents’ fears and anxieties in mind.
Despite their disparate approaches, one point to which Gaddis and Leffler devote equal attention is the subject of how economic concerns fueled the Western fear of the spread of communism. Both the United States and the Soviet Union emerged from World War II with preconceived notions about the economic state of Europe and the relationship their ideologies would have with its recovery. Leffler suggests that the realm of economics provided the most vibrant and alarming representation of the impending encroachment of the communist specter.
Americans, Soviets, and everyone in between knew that communism and economics were inexorably linked. If Europe were to sink deeper into economic disrepair, then the force of communism would be able to capitalize on the weakness of these nations, enveloping them one by one until none could stand outside its shadow. 4 Gaddis agrees with this stance in his understanding of the threat that the dreaded “domino effect” posed to the survival of Western democracies.
With Europe in dire economic straits, it was obvious that these desperate circumstances provided an excellent setting for communism to take hold. Thus, dollar diplomacy, in the form of foreign aid such as the Marshall Plan offered, presented the most effective means of preventing the spread of communism in Europe and stabilizing the world stage for the maintenance of free international markets. 5 The most striking difference between Gaddis and Leffler’s books can be seen in their final analyses of the significance of the Cold War.
Gaddis writes in his epilogue that the Cold War had essentially been a great step forward for the West and the free world – a trial that had, without too many adverse effects, ultimately eradicated the prospect of hot war between great powers, discredited dictatorship, and globalized democracy. Leffler takes a more cautious stance, reminding his audience that America’s triumph had been at a considerable cost not only to our neighbors abroad, but also to those Americans whose lives were damaged or destroyed by the tumult of Cold War politics.
Leffler’s choice to take a more global stance on the outcome of the Cold War highlights the fact that his perspective is far more balanced than that which Gaddis presents in The Cold War. Although his work is passionate and makes a compelling case for America’s triumph over adversity, Gaddis cannot escape the criticism that he has failed to fully and fairly address the international and domestic repercussions of this hard-won victory.