Historian: John Lewis Gaddis

john lewis gaddisName: John Lewis Gaddis

Lived: 1941-

Nationality: American

Profession(s): Academic, historian

Books: Strategies of Containment (1982, 2005), The Long Peace: Inquiries into the History of the Cold War (1987), We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (1997), The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941-1947 (2000), George F. Kennan: An American Life (2011).

Perspective: Post-revisionist

John Lewis Gaddis is an American historian and a preeminent scholar of the Cold War. He is best known as the leading historian of the Post-Revisionist school.

Born in Cotulla, southern Texas, Gaddis was educated at the University of Austin, graduating with a PhD in history (1968). After graduation, he joined Ohio University as an assistant professor. Gaddis has since taught at the Naval War College and several universities including Helsinki, Princeton, Yale and Oxford. He has authored numerous books and historiographical studies on the Cold War.

Gaddis was a close friend of American Cold War figure George Kennan. His 2011 biography of Kennan was critically acclaimed and earned Gaddis a Pulitzer Prize for Biography. He was also close to George W. Bush, serving as an occasional advisor to the former president. In 2005, Bush presented Gaddis with the National Humanities Medal.

Gaddis is the most significant Cold War historian of recent times, establishing and shaping the Post-Revisionist movement. Post-Revisionists seek to extract and isolate historical truth from between the Orthodox and Revisionist schools.

In his earlier works, Gaddis refused to apportion blame for the origins of the Cold War. In Gaddis’ view, neither the United States or the Soviet Union were wholly or mainly responsible for starting the Cold War; instead, both acted as major powers seeking to protect their security and interests. Gaddis believed that post-1945 tensions were fuelled by communication difficulties and misapprehensions by both superpowers, particularly about the motives and relative strength of their counterpart.

Gaddis revised his view in the late 1990s, following the opening of Soviet archives and the examination of new sources. In We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History, he admitted that Joseph Stalin played a greater role in instigating the Cold War than suggested in his earlier works.


“By the end of 1945 most American and British leaders had come round – some reluctantly, others eagerly – to a dispositional explanation of Stalin’s behaviour. Further efforts to negotiate or compromise with him were likely to fail, or so it seemed, because success would require that he cease to be what he was.”

“Stalin’s post-war goals were security for himself, his regime, his country and his ideology, in precisely that order.”

“With… Soviet unilateralism in Europe all too clearly in mind, there was no desire in the new Truman administration to see something similar repeated on northeast Asia. Here then the Americans embraced Stalin’s own equation of blood with influence. They had done most of the fighting in the Pacific War. They alone, therefore, would occupy the nation that had started it [Japan].”

“American economic assistance [the Marshall Plan] would produce immediate psychological benefits and later material ones… That the Soviet Union would not accept such aid, or allow its satellites to [allowed the US to] seize both the geopolitical and moral initiative in the emerging Cold War.”

“From 1957 through 1961, Khrushchev openly, repeatedly and bloodcurdlingly threatened the West with nuclear annihilation. Soviet missile capabilities were so far superior to those of the United States, he insisted, that he could wipe out any American or European city.”

“Revisionism is a healthy historiographical process, and no-one, not even revisionists, should be exempt from it.”

“[Cold War developments] did not happen simply because Reagan gave a speech or because Orwell wrote a book. [But] it is worth starting with visions, though, because they establish hopes and fears. History then determines which prevail.”

“This is where the capitalists got it right: they were better than the communists at learning from history because they never bought into any single, sacrosanct and therefore unchallengeable theory of history.”

“To visualise what happened [in the Soviet Union], imagine a troubled triceratops. From the outside, as rivals contemplated its sheer size, tough skin, bristling armament and aggressive posturing, the beast looked sufficiently formidable that none dared tangle with it. Appearances deceived, though, for within, its digestive, circulatory and respiratory systems were slowly clogging up and then shutting down. There were few external signs of this until the day the creature was found with all four feet in the air still awesome but now bloated stiff, and quite dead. The moral of the fable is that armaments make impressive exoskeletons, but a shell alone ensures the survival of no animal and no state.”

“The upheavals of 1989 caught everyone by surprise. What no one understood at the beginning of 1989 was that the Soviet Union, its empire, its ideology – and therefore the Cold War itself – was a sand pile ready to slide. All it took to make that happen were a few more grains of sand. The people who dropped them were not in charge of superpowers or movements: they were ordinary people with simple priorities who saw, seized, and sometimes stumbled into opportunities. In doing so, they caused a collapse no one could stop. Their leaders had little choice but to follow.”

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