The Cold War

John Lewis Gaddis’s The Cold War: A New History is a political historical narrative of the Cold War. Gaddis is a skilled writer and adeptly details the significant foreign policy decisions, political ideologies, and key actors of the Cold War. Beginning with World War II, Gaddis discusses the goals and objectives of the US and Russia during World War II and in the immediate postwar years, containment, Kennan’s long telegram, the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, and the outbreak of war in Korea. Gaddis then discusses the Cuban Missile Crisis in relation to deterrence, Mutually Assured Destruction, and the eventual limitation of the production of nuclear weapons. He also delineates the motivations and ideologies of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. In the fourth chapter that discusses autonomy, Gaddis covers the Suez Canal crisis, the Eisenhower doctrine, the beginnings of the conflict in Vietnam, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the relationship between Nixon and Mao, and the Prague Spring. Nixon’s eventual demise is prefaced by his foreign policy decision-making, and the resulting backlash against unrestrained executive power is discussed, as are the coups and conflicts in Chile and Angola, detente, the Jackson-Vanik amendment, and the Helsinki Agreement. Gaddis’s penultimate chapter, “Actors,” discusses SALT I and SALT II, as well as the “movers and shakers” of the 1980s, such as Deng Xiaoping, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan. Gaddis ends his work by detailing the breakup of the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s and Yeltsin’s usurpation of Gorbachev’s role as head of state. As is evident, Gaddis effectively covers a lot of ground in a relatively short work. One aspect of The Cold War that was not quite as effective was Gaddis’s use of a thematic approach to the Cold War rather than a chronological approach.

Thomas Borstelmann’s The Cold War and the Color Line: American Race Relations in the Global Arena examines the ways in which the US federal government dealt with racial discrimination during the Cold War domestically and internationally. American presidents and lawmakers throughout the latter portion of the twentieth century found themselves grappling with domestic racial discrimination and the civil rights movement and the ways in which governmental response and policies affected the perception of the US abroad. Borstlemann also examines American policy in Africa during this time period, although in a less successful and less cohesive way in comparison to his treatment of domestic policy.

Borstlemann begins by contextualizing race, racial discrimination, and the racial policies enacted by the US government in the nineteenth century and then discusses how race affected the European and Pacific theaters of World War II. Following this first chapter, his remaining chapters follow a uniform structure–each of which is centered around a Cold War president: Borstlemann begins by examining the personal and political background of the president, the domestic racial policies enacted by each presidential administration and Congress, and then details the policies they pursued in Africa. Borstlemann takes readers though the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations, and briefly touches on Ford, Carter, Regan, and Bush 41. Borstelmann’s ending seems rather abrupt, and his cursory treatment of the final Cold War presidents is rather inadequate. By not discussing the final presidents in greater detail, he seems to be making the argument that Cold War racial policies ended or were resolved once Carter left office, which is clearly not the case.

Lyndon Johnson, for example, grew up poor but entered the White House as one of the richest presidents. He allied himself with the heads of major civil rights organizations like Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and A. Philip Randolph. Johnson wanted to eradicate poverty and racial discrimination in America in order for the United States to serve as a model for the rest of the world. Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was met with increasing white violence towards African Americans in the form of an upsurge of violence by the KKK, the disappearance of three civil rights activists in Mississippi, and the Harlem Race Riot, as well as Bloody Sunday and the Watts Riots. Meanwhile, Johnson was given free reign in southeast Asia with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. White liberal interest in African independence began to wane as American-hired mercenaries  entered the Congo and began committing atrocities against Congolese civilians and Rhodesia declared independence from Great Britain. In 1966 and 1967, racial polarization and antiwar dissent was accelerating. Civil rights organizations, which had previously remained mum on the war in Vietnam, declared their opposition. Despite pushing through the most significant pieces of civil rights legislation in the twentieth century, Johnson’s last year as president saw some of the worst levels of racial violence in the post World War II period. That racial violence also played out in Vietnam, where American soldiers abused, raped, and murdered Vietnamese civilians, most notably during the My Lai Massacre.

In The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America, Margot Canaday “examines three of the ‘engines’ of the twentieth century state–the Bureau of Immigration, the military, and the federal agencies that administered welfare benefits–to demonstrate how federal interest in homosexuality developed in tandem with the growth of the bureaucratic state.” (2) She complicates the idea that the state only began repressing gender and sex noncomformity in the years following World War II, and seeks to answer why the state constructed such a vast apparatus for policing homosexuality.

In the early twentieth century, immigrants could be barred from entering the Untied States if they had been convicted of a crime of moral turpitude or if they were in violation of the public charge clause. Immigration officials became more vigorous in their surveillance of immigrants during this time and encountered perversion in one of two ways: through the act itself, or they detected perversion on immigrant bodies. Some immigrants were deported after officials examined their body and deemed them frail or strange, as officials believed that “perverted anatomy” would lead to perverse acts. By the 1950s immigration law had been revised to reflect the idea that homosexuality was a a discrete identity distinct from class and race, one that posed a unique threat to the state. By midcentury, immigration officials encountered sexually deviant immigrants through inspections prior to entry or because immigrants “brought attention to themselves” after being in the country. Many deportations occurred after immigrants were trapped and baited in public bathrooms. Canaday also discusses in detail the ways in which the military and welfare officials policed homosexuality. Two of her most fascinating chapters are the ones dealing with transient people during the Great Depression–how relief officials attempted to recast transient people as deserving of need, the camp program, and the Civilian Conservation Corps–and women’s integration into the army and the subsequent focus on lesbianism, which resulted in extreme policing of women’s bodies and activities.

Discussion questions

  1. What approaches do these three scholars take in tackling the history of the Cold War?
  2. Who are the major actors in each of these three works?
  3. Canaday’s The Straight State is complementary to much of the scholarship we have already read for this course. How does her work fit with the books we’ve read on immigration and racial formation, or gender and sexuality? What about Linda Gordon’s work on the welfare state?

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