America’s Cold War is a powerful and provocative book written by two very talented historians. Campbell Craig and Fredrik Logevall offer a compelling survey of the Cold War that begins with debates about American foreign policy during the Second War, and extends into the post-9/11/01 “war on terror.” The authors draw on a deep reading of primary documents from the U.S. government and a broad familiarity with the extensive secondary literature on the period. Craig and Logevall sketch insightful lines of continuity in American politics from the debates about communist aggression in the Korean War to the Vietnam War, from the efforts at assuring nuclear advantage in the Eisenhower years to Reagan’s strategic buildup. Time and again, the authors show, American policy-makers opted for more force and threatening behavior, rather than more diplomacy and efforts at political settlement.
Craig and Logevall challenge the conventional wisdom that American foreign policy is driven by foreign threats and opportunities. They argue that by 1949 U.S. aims to contain postwar communist aggression “had largely been achieved.” Yet, “despite America’s great advantage over the USSR in almost every geopolitical arena, Washington politicians and lobbyists warned of present dangers, of windows of vulnerability, of imminent doom” (3). Craig and Logevall thread this argument through the decades of the Cold War. They point to American aggressive behavior on the Korean peninsula before the June 25, 1950 North Korean invasion, and after (114-122). They analyze Dwight Eisenhower’s refusal to pursue an opening with the Soviet Union after Josef Stalin’s death in 1953 (142-45). They tell the agonizing story of Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to show strength and accomplishment in Vietnam (232-40). Even the end of the Cold War, the authors argue, was driven by American efforts to avoid nuclear danger while asserting military strength abroad. The Soviet Union had to make all the major compromises (312-15).
Why did Americans consistently overreach? Why did the United States build an excessive and dangerous “military-industrial complex”? Why have Americans failed to pursue effective diplomacy since 1949? Craig and Logevall point to domestic politics as the primary factor. They argue that, in the wake of the Second World War, defining grave foreign threats and showing muscular toughness to domestic constituents became the recipe for political victory. Any evidence of weakness or wishful thinking would sink a politician’s electoral possibilities. This was especially true for Democrats who championed domestic reform proposals, and therefore had to compensate by showing their toughness against foreign enemies. Domestic political pressures, according to Craig and Logevall, made sophisticated international compromise nearly impossible. American presidents had to show that they were “winning” and their adversaries were “losing.”
This provocative argument raises many questions for our online discussion. Are Craig and Logevall understating the nature of the foreign threats that the United States confronted in Berlin, in Cuba, in Korea, in the Taiwan Strait, in Vietnam, in the Middle East, and in Eastern Europe? Weren’t American leaders also motivated by a serious need to respond to communist aggression? Even if the United States was “objectively safe,” as Craig and Logevall argue (11), did Americans know that at the time? How could they be sure? Why are Craig and Logevall so sure about America’s “objective” safety? Most of all, how does one assess the “costs” of the Cold War? Didn’t many of the expenses for the conflict strengthen the American economy, university system, and even the nation’s foreign appeal? Weren’t there many benefits, beyond the military-industrial complex, to American efforts in the Cold War, despite the flaws? Perhaps the democratic system worked better than Craig and Logevall are willing to admit. I am sure we will discuss these topics in some depth during our online discussion.