The Cold War 1949–2016

Jon K. Chang

Martin McCauley’s third edition of The Cold War 1949–2016 is a brilliant new monograph promoting a truly ‘internationalist’ understanding of the dyadic-superpowers (American and Soviet) who dominated the Cold War. The 3rd edition is a major revision adding approximately 150 pages of new material over the 2nd edition. This monograph produces the startling conclusion (perhaps not at all uncommon, if based on today’s hindsight and geopolitics) that China emerged as perhaps, the unexpected winner in this long ideological battle. 

 McCauley’s work differs from some of the better known works such as John Lewis Gaddis’s The Cold War: A New History (London: Penguin Group, 2006), Jeremy Black’s The Cold War: A Military History (London: Bloomsbury, 2015) and Jonathan Haslam’s Russia’s Cold War: From the October Revolution to the Fall of the Wall (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011) with his addition of a third principal protagonist, China. McCauley, by continuing the ‘Cold War’ through 2016, implies that perhaps a new struggle between two ideological superpowers has already begun. His study by necessity recalibrates Cold War history to consider the economic side of the ‘war’ to play a greater causal role.

As McCauley points out, the Chinese communists came to vastly different conclusions and analyses regarding how to build a ‘socialist’ economy and motivate the workers after Mao (pp. 240–3). Their analysis and especially their tactical implementation were only vaguely Marxist. As an example, McCauley quoted Kissinger on [military] planning, ‘Chinese strategy normally exhibits three characteristics: meticulous analysis of long-term trends; careful study of tactical options; and detached exploration of operational decisions’ (p. 22).

Joseph Stalin introduced his first ‘five-year plan’ in 1928 in order to modernize and industrialize the country according to Western standards. Furthermore, Stalin became infatuated with building grand skyscrapers for Moscow’s skyline and later, for Warsaw. In his mind, the fact that Soviet skyscrapers could match Western ones (primarily in height and aesthetic appearance) represented Soviet equality in industrial design, engineering and construction (p. 130).

McCauley continues with the argument of economic and technological competition being the Cold War ‘kryptonite’ of the Soviet Union. In March of 1983, Ronald Reagan first announced that America would begin building its Strategic Defense Initiative based on a missile defense system run by a series of supercomputers and satellites. Also in March 1983, Soviet Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov made a startling admission, ‘We cannot equal the quality of US arms for a generation or two. Modern military power is based upon technology, and technology is based on computers…. We will never be able to catch up with you … until we have an economic revolution. And the question is whether we can have an economic revolution without a political revolution’ (p. 200).

The author points out that one of the least known factors in deciding the Cold War took place in July of 1987 when the USSR passed the Law on State Enterprise allowing regional and local plant workers, engineers, and chairmen to override central planning. The Soviet Union began a serious enquiry into its manufacturing and industrial woes which resulted in more travel to communist bloc neighbors, Western Europe and North America to ‘study the problem’. Once there, the Soviet leaders and trade delegations continued to request to see every small town and backwater farm, plant and small cooperative after their initial stays in America’s metropoles. This was their ‘test’ to see if the benefits of capitalism had reached every farm and village. McCauley perhaps understates this point, but ‘seeing was believing’ for the Soviet communists and they now understood that their material life and living conditions lagged far behind the West’s. By 1989–1990, Mikhail Gorbachev and the USSR made diplomatic concessions and signed agreements that basically nullified the chance of nuclear war and ended the Cold War one year prior to the collapse of the USSR (pp. 228–31).

Economic realnost (reality), in this case, became a major actor in American realpolitik. McCauley even portrayed Gorbachev as having adopted Western norms in his diplomacy with the Reagan and Bush administrations. The Soviet leader repeatedly stressed that the United States and USSR could reach agreements based upon their mutual ‘universal, democratic values’, ‘Europe is our common home’ and other aphorisms (pp. 229–31).

The second strength of McCauley’s The Cold War is his chronicles of the Soviet Union’s ‘give and take’ relations with its satellite states, the Middle East and the Third World. China, Poland, Hungary, and Yugoslavia are depicted as particularly resistant to Soviet intervention in their domestic and international affairs. The 1956 Polish–Soviet leadership faceoff in Warsaw was a particularly acrimonious encounter. Nikita Khrushchev flew into Warsaw with three Presidium members (the Presidium replaced the Politburo) and the Soviet commander of the Warsaw Pact forces to ‘face down’ Edward Ochab, the leader of the Polish United Worker’s Party (PUWP). The implication was that there would be serious repercussions if Wladyslaw Gomulka, a Polish nationalist, was elected the new leader of the PUWP. Soviet troops had already begun moving towards Warsaw in anticipation of military intervention. Khrushchev shook his fist and swore profanities as Edward Ochab.

Ochab stood up to Khushchev stating, ‘I have spent a good few years in prison and I’m not afraid of it; I’m not afraid of anything. We’re responsible for our country … these are our internal affairs’. Mao Zedong got wind of this tête-à-tête and sent a strong message to Khrushchev stating, ‘We condemn what you are doing…. If the Soviet Union moves its troops, we will support Poland’ (pp. 50–1). McCauley has added several new details and dialogue to his account of a fractured Communist bloc with many internal tensions, backbiting and rivalries.

In regards to the 21st century, the reader is given a glimpse of the present state of world affairs and geopolitics in the final chapter. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is one which firmly believes in ‘hard power’ in its diplomacy and seeks to maintain a major role in international affairs. Yet, their economy and population are experiencing further decline (p. 309). Russia’s population is expected to fall to 111 million by 2050 and they eye their neighbor to the south warily. The United States is in economic decline. China is the undisputed manufacturing engine of the world and chief infrastructure ‘engineer’ for the developing world. McCauley has endorsed China’s role as the second superpower in a new 21st century, bipolar world order (pp. 316–38).

In conclusion, I would like to discuss what we might expect to see (hypothetically) in McCauley’s 4th edition of The Cold War based on new developments since 2016. These events implicitly point to a new 21st century ‘Cold War’ which has already begun. Europe and America have moved increasingly ‘right’. Asia’s conservative ‘right pivot’ centering on various forms of identity, nationalism(s), and military might has gone relatively unnoticed. These pivots were the natural progression of world population numbers, ‘peak resources’ and each state’s greater control over media, policy, ‘education’, and security. With greater control, the political and business elites are more intertwined than ever. They have made considerable (mutual) gains in consolidating their power, resources, and overview (the opticon). China, Japan, Russia, India, South Korea, Pakistan, Australia, and others will continue to build their naval and military forces. Each of the major Asian powers will seek to consolidate fringe borderland areas and waters through the construction of bases and other structures (from above). The ‘historical rivalries’ of Asia will fill its seas and waterways from the Kuril Islands to Australia with an increase in flashpoints, brinkmanship, and potential conflicts. Many of the elites from Asia (except Japan) will continue to immigrate (or send their progeny) to Australia, New Zealand, and the West (and the ensuing ‘capital flight’) without ever asking themselves the ‘bigger question’.

McCauley’s The Cold War1949–2016 was refreshing, riveting and intellectually powerful. It brought to light many new nuances, facts, and viewpoints. Most importantly, this study is probably the most ‘internationalist’ of all works on this topic in the sense that it vividly captured the ‘give and take’ and the ‘connectedness’ between all of the Cold War’s events and actors (nations) while linking the consequences of that rivalry to the beginning of perhaps a new and far more complex 21st century ‘Cold War’ based on several various fronts (religious, military, financial, political, cultural, geographical, and others) and alliances which vary depending upon the particular field of contestation. This is a piece of work that deserves much more attention!