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John Lewis Gaddis Essay

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John Lewis Gaddis - The Cold War Historian

Blaming Stalin and the Soviets for the Cold War

Part 1: Life of John Lewis Gaddis

John Lewis Gaddis was born in 1941 and thus grew up and came of age during the Cold War, which he would go on to write about as a historian to great acclaim. Gaddis was raised in Texas and received his education at the University of Texas at Austin, where he obtained a Bachelor’s in 1963, a Master’s in 1965, and a Doctorate in 1968 at the age of 27. He taught at Indiana University, Ohio University, founded the Contemporary History Institute, and became a Visiting Professor of Strategy at Naval War College in the mid-70s. He was also a Visiting Professor at Oxford, Princeton, and Helsinki. By 1997, Gaddis had accepted the position of Robert A. Lovett Professor of Military and Naval History at Yale, a position he still holds to this day.

In 1997 Gaddis married theater director Toni Dorfman. He divorced from his first wife, Barbara Sue Jackson, whom he married in 1965. He has two children: John Michael and David Matthew.[footnoteRef:2] [2: Encyclopedia, “John Lewis Gaddis,”]

Growing up in Texas, Gaddis had a front row seat to some of the most dramatic events of the 20th century. The assassination of JFK happened in his home state the same year Gaddis earned his Bachelor’s. He saw firsthand the effects of the Cold War and lived through the standoff with the Soviets over missiles in Cuba. He lived through the tempest that was Vietnam and saw directly how ordinary people were being impacted by the events of the Cold War. It was this interest in his own people and his own time that led him to dedicate his life to studying contemporary history and in particular the Cold War.

At Yale he became known as the “dean of the Cold War” among his students.[footnoteRef:3] One of the reasons he attracted so many students was his approach to the topic: he avoided the trap of political polarization that other professors fell victim to. Instead he chose to view the Cold War the way a contrarian investor views the equities market: he sought out value where others saw waste. To Gaddis, the Cold War could best be understood as “The Long Peace”—a period of time that resembled a peace movement en force than a war among nations.[footnoteRef:4] [3: Mark Alden Branch, “Days of Duck and Cover,” Yale Alumni Magazine, 2000.] [4: Anders Stephanson, "Rethinking Cold War History." Review of International Studies 24, no. 1 (1998), 119.]

Gaddis adopted a diplomatic approach to diplomatic history and was drawn to it primarily because these were events that he himself had witnessed all his life. He wanted to understand deeply his own place and people and time, and thus he immersed himself in the world of Cold War history, approaching without bias or prejudice but rather as one with no loyalties to any side.[footnoteRef:5] He rose above the propaganda of the times to see the wizards in both the East and the West, pulling the levers of policy and making the public dance in response. [5: National Endowment for the Humanities. “John Lewis Gaddis.”]

It has meant a great deal for Gaddis to be named the Robert A. Lovett Professor at Yale. Now that he is able to access important Soviet, Chinese and American documents that could not be accessed decades earlier, he relishes the opportunity of showing the Cold War to students with fresh eyes and through new lenses.[footnoteRef:6] [6: National Endowment for the Humanities. “John Lewis Gaddis.”]

Part 2: Why I Chose This Historian

I chose this historian because of my own interest in the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear war was so high. The fact that Gaddis has been called the Dean of the Cold War piqued my interest in him and made me want to learn more. I like the idea that tackles the subject with fresh eyes and new understanding, always incorporating new documents and evidence into his thinking and allowing the facts to shape his outlook rather than his outlook to shape his perception of the facts.

Part 3: Notable Works, Writing Career, and Awards

One of the most famous of Gaddis’ works…

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…ruled, during the 1930s, into a gargantuan extension of his own pathologically suspicious personality.”[footnoteRef:13] Stalin used terror and coercion to purge dissent. The Gulag Archipelago, experienced personally by Solzhenitsyn after he dared to criticize Stalin’s decisions during WW2, was a prime example of Stalin’s totalitarianism. It was this totalitarianism that Stalin and the Soviets were spreading, like a cancer, around the world through their ideological emissaries, according to Gaddis.[footnoteRef:14] [13: John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (Oxford University Press, 1997), 9.] [14: John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (Oxford University Press, 1997), 40.]

Indeed, that cancer had spread to China and was embraced by Mao, who implemented his terroristic actions against his own people. The Great Famine, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution: millions of Chinese died under the totalitarian heal of Mao. China had become infected with the brutal spirit of Stalinism, Gaddis explains.[footnoteRef:15] Stalin wanted world revolution. He wanted the world to be remade in his image the way Mao wanted China reshaped in his. Stalin and Mao were more closely united that Gaddis originally believed back in 1972. Mao invited influence from Stalin—and he received it.[footnoteRef:16] Stalin was a romantic revolutionary and as long as Stalin was the leader of the Soviet Union, the Cold War was inevitable. Stalin made the Cold War inevitable and thus Gaddis places the blame for the Cold War squarely on Stalin: “He alone pursued personal security by depriving everyone else of it: no Western leader relied on terror to the extent that he did.”[footnoteRef:17] Stalin was the virus that risked infecting the rest of world with a desire for violent revolution—that is the conclusion Gaddis reaches in this book. He asserts, moreover, that by 1947 it was the conclusion of the West as well: they knew that Stalin would not cooperate to build a new world order.[footnoteRef:18] [15: John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (Oxford University Press, 1997), 67-70.] [16: John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (Oxford University Press, 1997), 162.] [17: John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (Oxford University Press, 1997), 25.]…

Sample Source(s) Used


Alpha History, “Cold War Historiography.”

Branch, Mark Alden. “Days of Duck and Cover,” Yale Alumni Magazine, 2000.

Encyclopedia. “John Lewis Gaddis,” 2020.

Gaddis, John Lewis. We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History. Oxford University Press, 1997.

Kaplan, Fred. “America’s Cold War Sage and His Discontents,” NYTimes, 2007.

Lundestad, Geir. "The Cold War According to John Gaddis." Cold War History 6, no. 4 (2006): 535-542.

National Endowment for the Humanities. “John Lewis Gaddis,” 2005.

Paxton, Robert. Anatomy of Fascism. New York: Vintage, 2012.

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