Analyzing the Cold War
When Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh and Kim Il-Sung, in 1950, gathered in Moscow to talk about the future, they had basis to feel positive. International communism appeared all over the place on the odious: Stalin was at the pinnacle of his power; all of Eastern Europe was steadily in the Soviet camp; America’s domination on nuclear weapons was a thing of the past; and Mao’s forces had presumed power over the world’s most crowded country. All over on the globe, colonialism left the West ethically conciliated. The story of the previous five decades, which saw severe economic depression, two world wars, a nearly successful attempt to wipe out the Jews, and the invention of weapons capable of wiping out everyone, was one of worst fears confirmed, and there seemed as of 1950 little sign, at least to the West, that the next fifty years would be any less dark. (Gaddis, 19)
Depicting on newly opened records and the memories of the major players, John Lewis Gaddis clarifies not just what happened but why? From the months in 1945 when the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. went from coalition to rivalry to the hardly avoided holocaust of the Cuban Missile Crisis to the military exercises of Nixon and Mao, Reagan and Gorbachev. Virtuoso, accessible, almost Shakespearean in its drama, the Cold War stands as a successful outline of the era that, more than any other, shaped our own. Recent America is the story of the United States and the American people from the end of World War II to the present. The densely braided narrative seeks to show the development of American life and experience in the sixty years since 1945 and to tie the changes together. In actual fact, of course, the century’s end brought the prevalent success of political and economic liberty over its ideological enemies. (Gaddis, 32)
Clearly, any work of history must be careful. Some themes and topics must be inferiored; others highlighted. In this work the author spotlights, above all, on people. The concerns and doings of ordinary men and women are outstandingly discussed. That focus has led in turn to importance on work, and income, and technology. But it has not excluded social relations, play, and the arts. Simultaneously, the point of reference does not ignore the role of elites, especially in foreign policy and politics, in shaping the events that affect every American’s life. It also does not ignore the play of large “forces,” often unforeseen, that powerfully impact even the small events of daily life in recent America. (Unger, 201)
The decades since World War II have, for good or ill, been historic for the United States and for the American people. These were flourishing years. The United States pulled out of the greatest economic despair it ever faced and began a half century and more of steady and increasing affluence. These were tolerant years. Between 1945 and the present, Americans ended legal racial separation and, generally, learned to live with groups, practices, and beliefs that were once mocked or even banned. These were democratic years. Increasingly authority mellowed from political parties, unbending hierarchies, and self-perpetuating elites to other groups and looser aggregations and associations. These were inventive years. In painting, literature, and the popular arts in America became a cultural dynamo, respected and envied around the world. Yet even admitting all these advances, these were troubled and unstable years as well. Especially in the 1960s the country was wracked with aggression and torn by conflict. And these were also threatening years. For most of the last half of the twentieth-century Americans cowered under the threat of superpower collision and nuclear holocaust.
It is a humdrum among thoughtful Americans, even today, to disparage texts for neglecting “outsiders.” In actual fact this is seldom true any more, a change that reflects a revolution in attitudes since World War II. And it is certainly not true of Recent America: The United States Since 1945. The work, rather, seeks to recount the progress of many groups in America once considered secondary players in the nation’s story.
Historian Darden Asbury Pyron’s absorbing biography of Liberace (1919-87) pays America’s most popular and denounced pianist the one compliment he probably never expected: it takes him critically. “Liberace seemed to me a kind of emblem of modern America,” Pyron writes in his preface, “swarming with both [its] virtues and [its] vices.” He makes a persuasive case for this idea in a text that efficiently blends critical theory, historical background, and a lucid narrative of his subject’s life. Born Wladziu Valentino Liberace, the youthful piano phenomenon chose to become a showman rather than a serious musician, livening up the classical repertoire with pop favorites and attracting swooning female fans who adored his outrageous costumes and garish accessories like the famous candelabra. He was ostentatiously swishy yet never openly admitted he was gay, even when dying of AIDS; he authentically believed in the traditional, Catholic, Midwestern values of his immigrant parents, even as his private life contradicted them. Pyron takes apart the frontage of lies and elusions behind which Liberace concealed his driving ambition as well as his sexual orientation, but this is a fundamentally sympathetic portrait. Refusing to acknowledge the boundaries between high and low culture, conducting his life with a weird mixture of hypocrisy and sincerity, Liberace, the author concludes, “was born and died an American boy.” (Pyron, 15)
The reader of Recent America will find widespread exposure of women, blacks, Latinos (Hispanics), immigrants, gays, dissenters, and men and women of traditional religious views. These Americans, visibly far more than half the total population, have rightly demanded that their voices be heard, their stories told.
During the years covered by Recent America the lives of virtually every American was molded in part by the Cold War, the potentially deadly international rivalry of the United States and the Soviet Union. It cost the nation many billions of dollars that could have enhanced the quality of life. It created anxieties that cast a shadow on daily existence and helped shape the arts. It influenced the way Americans felt about their educational system. It affected domestic politics. It even rechanneled the course of science and technology. Its rather abrupt end in the last decade of the twentieth century leaves us with uncertainty about developments in many different aspects of our lives.
About the Cold War, Gaddis, Pyron and Unger make major part to our understanding of this epochal story. Opening with WW-II and ending with the fall down of the Soviet Union, they provided an exciting description of the tactical dynamics that drove the age, rich with illuminating portraits of its major personalities and much fresh insight into its most decisive events. The Cold War contains much new and often surprising information drawn from newly opened Soviet, East European, and Chinese archives. As America once again finds itself in a global confrontation with a merciless ideological enemy, The Cold War told a story whose lessons it is crucially necessary to recognize.
Pyron, Darden A. Liberace: An American Boy, University Of Chicago Press, 2001.
Unger, Irwin. Recent America: The United States Since 1945, Prentice Hall, 1st edition, 2001.
Gaddis, John L. The Cold War: A New History, New York: The Penguin Press, 2005.