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How the Cold War Ended: Debating and Doing History

How the Cold War Ended: Debating and Doing History by John Prados. Potomac Books, 2011, 320 pp.

Examining the end of the Cold War can provide two benefits. First, it can inform the reader on the details of how this half-century political-economic-cultural conflict came to the end. It can also provide an outstanding primer on how the history of international relations is developed and delivered to scholars and general readers—a historiography case study. The current work argues that the fall of the Soviet Union can be attributed primarily to factors internal to that state and the United States had only a marginal effect. It also concludes that international relations is an exceedingly complex discipline and that the triumphalists who attribute the end of the Cold War to the actions of Pres. Ronald Reagan oversimplify the story.

It is hard to imagine a scholar better qualified to write such a work. John Prados holds a PhD in political science from Columbia University. He clearly does his homework and sees the necessity of deep research into primary sources as a foundation for his conclusions. To him, history for the sake of history is inadequate—to be complete the scholar must draw conclusions as to what this documentation means. He understands that the story is necessarily complex and must fully explore a host of factors. Yet, all of them cannot be given equal weight in the conclusions, and judgment calls on relative importance must be made. Prados’ splendid writing style makes this work a pleasure to read. The published works of this giant among international relations scholars are too numerous to list here, but among the most significant is Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War. He is associated with the National Security Archive in Washington.

Prados asserts the USSR fell mostly because of internal factors. One was economic—its heavy reliance on oil and gas exports with their falling prices during the 1980s. Another was technological—the failure to make necessary investments in modernization of its petroleum industry. Also, the rigidities of the Stalinist system resulted in slowness to change and in false reporting that prevented the leadership from really knowing what was occurring. This was also a factor in the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact—the cost of subsidies and other support was more than the system could bear. Further, the human rights movement (which Prados says did not arise from Presidents Carter or Reagan) was a worldwide phenomenon that proved incompatible with the Soviet system. Cultural factors spread to the USSR from Europe and America, further undermining the system. Worldwide communications improvements along with rising educational levels within the USSR stimulated discontent. The Soviet military was not as responsive to SDI and Reagan’s military buildup as the triumphalists around him argued. The Euromissile crisis of the 1980s was a factor, but a major dimension of this was the antimissile movement among Western Europeans. Prados asserts the United States and the Soviet Union came close to war in 1983 in the wake of the shoot-down of a Korean airliner, but in the end cooler heads prevailed on both sides.

Intelligence analysis and spying did have some effects, but neither was decisive. CIA activities in Afghanistan hurt the Soviet military substantially, but according to Prados the war there was not a major factor—the USSR would have collapsed without Afghanistan. Soviet activities elsewhere (e.g., Cuba and Africa) were a relatively minor cost to their system and had even less impact than the Afghanistan War.

The Great Man approach to history has lost much of its impact, but our author does argue that sometimes the individual can make a difference. Though President Reagan was influenced by the “hawks” around him, he did rise above them in some crucial circumstances—principally in arms control and in the 1983 war scare. More influential, however, was the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev at almost the right moment in history. His reformist attitude was rare in earlier days, but he did manage some important changes with perestroika and glasnost that rationalized the USSR system some and opened the culture more than it had been to change. He came close to saving the USSR, but the Warsaw Pact was already gone, and the nationalities problem proved beyond his control.

How the Cold War Ended is a great case study on how international relations work and what humanity can do to try and control it. Politics, ideology, economics, culture, technology, personality, political structure, military force, religion, and pure accident are among the factors that combine in unpredictable ways to govern outcomes. There will always be self-serving individuals to claim credit for good outcomes, but the best that strategists can do is to reduce the number of unknown factors to improve the odds their final guesses will be correct—or more correct than those of the adversary. We can hope they will also strive to build their decision-making structure to be more flexible than that of the Stalinists and react more quickly to unpredictable events.

David R. Mets, PhD

Niceville, Florida

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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