Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Cold War

"Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe." ~H.G. Wells

I remember a statement by C.S. Lewis that said in effect that he did not read newspapers because the things that are really happening in the world won't be written about till six months from now. To some extent he is right, and often it is much later still than six months. Some truths only come to light after decades of being kept under wraps, and for this reason we do not always fully understand the very times we live in.

This week I just finished reading Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis' The Cold War, a fascinating read because so much of it formed a backdrop for all who grew up as part of the baby boom generation of which I have been a part. It was a strange kind of war. For the first time in history, two superpowers had weapons that they were afraid to use.

Gaddis has written a half dozen books on this topic beginning with his 1972 volume on the origins of the Cold War. It's a compelling read with inside stories about things I'd only half understood.

His coverage of the Sixties was especially captivating for me, as I think many of us are still trying to understand the experience we went through while coming of age in that tumultuous time. I remember when Nixon resumed bombing of Cambodia in the early Seventies when I was at Ohio U and the protests it generated. I specifically remember when Harry Reasoner came and spoke to a packed house in the M.I.A., an auditorium on the college green. He had to use veiled language to tell us there was much to be concerned about things going on in the then-current Nixon administration. It seemed like he had so much he wanted to say but could not.

Gaddis does say it. Two months after taking office, in his very first year, Nixon began the illegal bombing of Cambodia, a neutral country in Southeast Asia. But Nixon did not tell the truth about this activity. Instead, when the N.Y. Times stated that we were bombing a neutral country, he told the people it was not true. The Cambodians knew we were bombing. The North Vietnamese knew were were bombing. China and the Soviet Union knew we were bombing. But American citizens were being kept in the dark. Why?

The result was an ever widening credibility gap between the American people and their leaders.

The Cold War is not only about the American experience, and this is its greatest strength. We also meet each of the Soviet dictators with their strengths and flaws, from Stalin to Gorbachev. How the Berlin Wall came to be erected, how the Soviet Union maintained control of the Eastern Bloc, how Mao came to power and how China evolved to the power it is today, and how the Wall came down.... it's all discussed in a vivid manner that bring new gems to light.

There were many insights I had not heard before. How Nixon and Kissinger were able to open up trade relations with Mao's China was fascinating. Mao made an interesting comment that he liked (American) conservatives because even though he did not agree with them, they said what they meant, whereas our liberals said one thing and did another.

What was especially interesting is how the dictators of many smaller powers used the Cold War to their own advantage by playing one power off against the other. "Help me or I will join their side." In this manner many dictators were able to consolidate their power within a defined sphere.

The development of thermonuclear weapons brought the world into a pretty scary place. To think that mutual assured destruction could be a legitimate peace-keeping strategy seems almost insane, yet it worked. It's hard to say what our future holds since many of these weapons remain, but the rules have changed. Let's hope and pray that wisdom prevails.

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