Catastrophe by Samuel Beckett (1982)

Catastrophe is a very short play by Samuel Beckett, written in French in 1982 at the invitation of the Association Internationale de Défense des Artistes and first produced in the Avignon Festival on 21 July 1982.

Unlike most of Beckett’s plays or works, which are notably apolitical and even asocial in their studiedly abstract, experimental and often very solipsistic focus, Catastrophe is something like a political play, an impression Beckett fostered by dedicating it to the Czech playwright and political reformer, Václav Havel who was, at the time, imprisoned by the Czech communist regime.

That said, the play is still very late-Beckettian in at least three respects:

  1. It is really very short – the Beckett Project production clocks in at just five and a half minutes
  2. It is very claustrophobic, small and confined and, as so often, only has two speaking parts, in this instance a bossy theatre director and his assistant
  3. As mention of the characters suggests, it isn’t set in a prison or concentration camp or dictator’s courtroom or party meeting or hideout of rebels and freedom fighters or any other overtly political setting that the word ‘political’ implies –instead it is set in a theatre

Mise-en-scène

As so often, Beckett’s stage directions convey half the information or impact of the piece. As so often there are only 2 speaking roles. As so often they and the two non-speaking roles don’t even have names but are assigned only initials.

Director (D).
His female assistant (A).
Protagonist (P).
Luke, in charge of the lighting, offstage (L).

Rehearsal. Final touches to the last scene. Bare stage. A and L have just set the lighting. D has just arrived.
D in an armchair downstairs audience left. Fur coat. Fur toque to match. Age and physique unimportant.
A standing beside him. White overall. Bare head. Pencil on ear. Age and physique unimportant.
P midstage standing on a black block 18 inches high. Black wide-brimmed hat. Black dressing-gown to ankles. Barefoot. Head bowed. Hands in pockets. Age and physique unimportant.
D and A contemplate P.
Long pause.

It is, in its telegraphese, prosey way, a kind of poem.

The plot

We are in a theatre. A haughty director snaps and bosses around a female assistant as they put the finishing touches to some kind of ‘last scene’ of some kind of dramatic presentation. This appears to consist entirely of one man, called The Protagonist, standing stock still on a plinth on the stage while the director and assistant circle him considering his dress, posture and so on.

In this respect – two characters animatedly discussing a third who does not move or speak – it is identical to Rough For Theatre II where two characters, A and B, discuss the character and case of a third figure, C, who stands in the open window, unmoving and unspeaking.

The Assistant has arranged the Protagonist atop the 18-inch-high black block and draped him in a ‘black dressing gown’ down to his ankles and wearing a ‘black wide-brimmed hat’. The action of the play consists of the irritable, domineering Director over-riding her presentation and fussing about innumerable details of the Protagonist’s posture, his hands, the hat, his face, telling the assistant to take off the Protagonist’s coat and roll up the trousers of his old grey pyjamas.

His irritability is symbolised by the way his big Director’s cigar keeps going out and he keeps snapping at the Assistant to provide him a light.

When he has got the Assistant to largely strip the Protagonist, she points out that he is now shivering. The Director doesn’t care. Or worse, he pretends (to himself) to care, saying ‘Bless his heart,’ but not changing his behaviour at all. He’s only interested in achieving his great creative effect, and also mentions that he’s late for a meeting (which he refers to by the unusual term of a ‘caucus’).

Throughout, whenever the Director makes a more general suggestion, the Assistant replies with the unusual phrase ‘I make a note’, rather than ‘I will make a note’ or ‘I’ll take a note’ or make sure it’s done’ or any of a  number of possible phrases. No. ‘I make a note’ has a surprisingly large impact in making the dialogue, and consequently the entire setup, appear strangely brittle and unnatural.

When the Director withdraws to the stalls to get a proper view of his handiwork, the Assistant flops down in an empty theatre seat, but only for a moment. She springs right back up and wipes the seat vigorously, as if to avoid contamination, before reseating herself.

In the last minute they call on Luke, the lighting technician, who has two lines, though he doesn’t appear, and who obeys the Director’s imperious instructions about changing the light on the Protagonist in order to create the most dramatic possible tableau. It is at this point that the title of the piece appears. When Luke adjusts the lighting so it falls solely on the Protagonist’s face, the Director goes into raptures.

D: [Pause.] Good. There’s our catastrophe. In the bag. Once more and I’m off… Terrific! He’ll have them on their feet. I can hear it from here…

‘In the bag’. Good. And with that the Director is ready to whisk off to his ‘caucus’. But it’s in the last 30 seconds that the piece acquires its bite. For in these last seconds, the Protagonist, who has been standing stock still, with his head down, submitting to all these indignities, finally raises his head and looks the audience directly in the eye, and the audience, which has been acquiescing in this bullying and humiliation, is slowly shamed into silence.

P raises his bead, fixes the audience. The applause falters, dies. Long pause

Beckett, whose every utterance was, by this late stage of his life, taken down and recorded for the use of future scholars, apparently told American theatre critic Mel Gussow that:

‘it was not his intention to have the character make an appeal… He is a triumphant martyr rather than a sacrificial victim… and it is meant to cow onlookers into submission through the intensity of his gaze and stoicism.’

Interpretations

Aristotle

In Aristotle’s seminal work of literary criticism, the Poetics, the Greek philosopher defines the catastrophe of a play as the moment when the tragic hero pulls down ruin and pain on himself and his society, when Oedipus blinds himself, when Pentheus is torn to pieces by the Maenads. More broadly, it is:

the final resolution in a poem or narrative plot, which unravels the intrigue and brings the piece to a close. (Wikipedia)

Catastrophe is obviously nothing like Aeschylus or Sophocles. It is muted and boring, the only real interest being the character of the thuggish, bullying male director, a character who could have walked directly from the accusations of the #metoo movement.

And yet the word ‘catastrophe’ is deliberately uttered by the key character, and he appears to be using it in its correct technical sense.

D: [Pause.] Good. There’s our catastrophe. In the bag.

The Director is satisfied that this tableau, of the protagonist stripped down to his undergarments and lit just so will provide just the right climax to whatever drama has preceded it.

There is, then, a tremendous irony in the way the play then proceeds, in the final 30 seconds, to enact Beckett’s ‘catastrophe’, the one whereby the Protagonist lifts his face to confront the audience and cow them into silence and shame.

This catastrophe doesn’t bring tragic recognition and ruin in the classic sense, but it does transform the figure from utterly passive object, rudely talked about, to a man who is fighting back, defying his owners and manipulators.

Thus the concept of the ‘catastrophe’ is correctly used twice at the end of the play, but to highlight the fact that it contains two narratives – the play-within-a-play whereby the Director achieves his effect – and the wider play, the Beckett play which the audience is watching, which achieves its catastrophe in an entirely different way. Or is working to a completely different aesthetic. Or to a completely different set of moral values.

For such a short piece, it’s quite a dense and complex effect.

Politics

If it hadn’t been dedicated to Havel, a world-famous dissident and political reformer, it might not have been easy to see Catastrophe as a ‘political’ play at all. But in the event, Beckett was involved in several of the productions around the West and left some pretty explicit comments about his intentions in this regard. Most notably, in answer to a reviewer who claimed that the ending was ambiguous, Beckett replied angrily:

‘There’s no ambiguity there at all. He’s saying, you bastards, you haven’t finished me yet.’

So quite obviously Catastrophe is about a figure who is poked and prodded and reified or objectified and reduced to a wordless mannequin to suit the whims of the Director. But who at the last minute asserts his freedom and agency.

Whether you think this rather slender ‘plot’, and the fairly tame and super-familiar setting (a rehearsal for a play, or part thereof) is sturdy enough to bear the heavy freight of political symbolism which the play has been loaded with, is a judgement call. In the febrile world of the theatre and the glib world of literary criticism it can easily be made to pass for one.

The Beckett on Film production

The Beckett on Film project set out, at the turn of the century, to produce high quality, filmed productions of all 19 of Beckett’s plays. The producers approached leading directors and actors, but not always with happy results.

To direct Catastrophe they chose acclaimed American playwright and director David Mamet, cast playwright and Beckett enthusiast Harold Pinter to play the Director and, in a great coup, secured acclaimed Shakespearian actor Sir John Gielgud as the Protagonist. It was Gielgud’s last role and he died only a few weeks after filming it.

Which makes it all the more of a shame that Mamet seems to have made quite a balls-up of the piece. Mamet made his name as the author of a series of plays about hairy, testosterone-fuelled toxic American men such as Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1974), and American Buffalo (1975), Glengarry Glen Ross (1984) and Speed-the-Plow (1988).

If you’re familiar with Mamet’s attraction to strong, unpleasant male characters, often depicted in exploitative relationships with younger women, it comes as no surprise that his production devotes all its attention to the domineering figure of the Director, played by a characteristically offensive, barkingly pukka, alpha male Harold Pinter, and his bullying relationship with the (very attractive) Assistant.

Re, this Assistant, it is notable that, whereas, in the stage directions the Assistant wears shapeless ‘White overall. Bare head. Pencil on ear. Age and physique unimportant.’ in Mamet’s production, she is a) very attractive b) wearing the smart and shapely outfit of a briskly willing secretary, as per the Hollywood BDSM movie, The Secretary.

All subtlety whatsoever is scorched away from the piece. It has been turned into Sexual Perversity in Theatreland.

It doesn’t help your sense that Beckett’s original intentions have been left far behind when you learn that the actress playing A, Rebecca Pidgeon, is a) American – which helps to explain what is subtly wrong about her posh English accent – and b) is, um, married to David Mamet. Aha. People talk, these days, about crony capitalism. Maybe there’s such a thing as crony thespianism.

All of which is getting on for tragic because of the criminal under-use of one of the greatest English actors of all time, Sir John Gielgud, who stands out of vision for almost the entire piece.

Now, you can understand why they keep his figure peripheral for the scripted part of the play – it is in order to raise the tension and expectation so that when the Big Reveal comes it will be all the more dramatic. Reasonable idea.

And yet, when the Big Reveal does come, the moment which the entire interpretation of the piece as a political play hangs on, the notion that his final facial expression conveys the Protagonist’s revolt and defiance and cows and shames the audience which has acquiesced in his humiliation into embarrassed silence – well, Mamet muffs it big time and makes Gielgud look exactly like Gollum from the Lord of the Rings movies.

Instead of a look of defiance designed to shame the audience which has tamely acquiesced in his torment, Gielgud is made to look like a grinning goblin. It’s a travesty. A travesty of a mockery of a sham.

Mamet’s mangling of this subtle play is a good piece of evidence for the broader argument that Americans simply can’t understand European culture because they have never been invaded, overrun, defeated, cowed and crushing into submission, as almost the entire continent of Europe was from 1939 to 1945.

And then that, while half of Europe groaned under communist tyranny for decades after the Second World War, and their intellectuals agonised about communism and decolonisation, Americans were enjoying a bubblegum postwar boom, driving bigger and bigger cars, building bigger and bigger houses equipped with swimming pools and ever-more convenient domestic appliances, and ogling pneumatic pinup girls. Brainless consumerism.

So, in my opinion, Mamet completely misses what so many critics take to be the play’s central importance, namely the way the dominating Director functions as a symbol of the thoughtless, bullying authority which forms the basis of most repressive regimes.

But not only this, Mamet also completely omits the artistic subtlety of the piece – the Beckettian overtones, the weird, abstracted, formalised armature to be found in so many of Beckett’s plays, the oddities of language and phrasing (the way the Assistant says ‘I take a note’ and the Director keeps saying, ‘Come on. Say it’) the language oddly off kilter, which alert the viewer or reader that we are in a strange and unusual place, in Beckettland.

No, Mamet and Pinter conspire to make this piece all about cocky, swaggering masculinity, about a big swinging theatrical dick, so that the subtlety of language, the oddity of the action, and the ghosts of Europe’s history of oppression and struggle, are all utterly erased.

In the theatre

In several other reviews I’ve pointed out a basic fact of much of Beckett’s prose, which is that it can be seen as consisting of narrators who pose, position and direct other characters.

Take Ill Seen Ill Said which I’ve just reviewed. There is very little plot in the ordinary sense; what there is, is a narrator who is trying to arrange the disparate elements of the situation into some kind of order and, in doing so, he frequently stops to comment on his own efforts, wonders whether he should pose the old lady protagonist in this, that or the other position even, at one point, stops arranging the action altogether in order to wonder whether his approach is correct or valid.

In other words, in a lot of Beckett prose pieces the narrator behaves like a theatrical director, getting his characters to do things or say things over and over again, with multiple variations, as he struggles to achieve the desired effect (the desired effect often explicitly being described as ‘finishing’, completing the task, achieving the closure which, however, the texts forever hold out of reach of all concerned, both characters and author).

In this respect Catastrophe brings this situation up out of the shadows of the (often hard to read) prose pieces and makes it explicit.

1. It is one thing to read the play as a political allegory, with the Director as a heartless and ruthless brute treating people like objects to achieve a satisfying result, whether fascist, communist or any other way tyrannical…

2. But Catastrophe is obviously also a simple and straightforward account of what bastards theatrical directors can be, treating people like meat, forcing them to undergo humiliating actions, costumes and poses in order to achieve the desired effect.

3. And not very far behind that, is the even simpler interpretation, of what utter bastards writers can be – on the one hand, playing havoc with people in real life, exploiting their names and characters and lives and stories and mannerisms regardless of the consequences, in order to create the all-important ‘work of art’; and then subjecting their fictional characters to a vast array of humiliations, fiascos, tortures and death, in order to entertain and amuse their readers.

Writers of fiction like to tell themselves they are educating the nation and firing the imagination and liberating people’s minds and striking blows for freedom and justice and all the rest of the standard boilerplate. But when you compare this rhetoric with most of the works of fiction that are actually published in a year – the slushy romances, the thrillers and cop novels, and the vast number of fantasy, sword and sorcery novels in which endless legions are hacked, stabbed, burned and eviscerated to death, you realise what a weak and self-serving argument that is.

Being a writer of fiction is a profoundly morally compromised activity, and it is the way this realisation is one of the three or four layers of meaning packed into Catastrophe – much more than the supposed ‘political’ interpretation – which is what I take away from this incredibly short but amazingly dense and multi-levelled piece of drama.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis (2005)

Lenin, following Marx, assumed the incompatibility of class interests: because the rich would always exploit the poor, the poor had no choice but to supplant the rich. [President Woodrow] Wilson, following Adam Smith, assumed the opposite: that the pursuit of individual interests would advance everyone’s interests, thereby eroding class differences while benefiting both the rich and the poor. These were, therefore, radically different solutions to the problem of achieving social justice within modern industrial societies. At the time the Cold War began it would not have been at all clear which was going to prevail.
(The Cold War, page 89)

John Lewis Gaddis (b.1941) is a renowned academic expert on the Cold War and has been teaching and writing about it since the 1970s. The preface to this book explains that his students and publishers suggested he write a popular, brief overview of the subject about which he knows so much, and that this book is the result.

The cover of the Penguin paperback edition promises to give you the lowdown on ‘THE DEALS. THE SPIES. THE LIES. THE TRUTH’ but this is quite misleading. Along with Len Deighton’s description of it as ‘gripping’, this blurb gives the impression that the book is a rip-roaring narrative of an action-packed era, full of intrigue and human interest.

Cover of the Penguin edition of The Cold War

Cover of the Penguin edition of The Cold War

Academic and theoretical approach

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact the book feels much more like the textbook to accompany a university course in international studies. It doesn’t at all give a chronological narrative of the Cold War and certainly has no eyewitness accounts or personal stories of the kind that bring to life, for example, Jim Baggott’s history of the atom bomb, Atomic, or Max Hasting’s history of the Korean War.

Instead, the book is divided into seven themed chapters and an epilogue which deal at a very academic level with the semi-abstract theories of international affairs and geopolitics.

Nuclear weapons and the theory of war

So, for example, the second chapter, about the atom bomb, certainly covers all the key dates and developments in the history of the bomb but is, at its core, an extended meditation on the German theorist of war, Carl von Clausewitz’s, famous dictum that war ‘is a continuation of political activity by other means’ (quoted p.51). The chapter shows how U.S. presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy, and their Russian opposite numbers, Stalin and Khrushchev, worked through the implications of this profound insight.

If war only exists to further the interests of the state (as it had done through all recorded history up till 1945) then a war which threatens, in fact which guarantees, the destruction of the very state whose interests it is meant to be furthering, is literally inconceivable.

Truman showed he had already grasped some of this when he removed the decision to deploy atom bombs from the military – who were inclined to think of it as just another weapon, only bigger and better – and made use of the atom bomb the sole decision of the civilian power i.e. the president.

But as the atom bombs of the 1940s were superseded by the hydrogen bombs of the 1950s, it dawned on both sides that a nuclear war would destroy the very states it was meant to protect, with profound consequences for military strategy.

This insight came very close to being ignored during the darkest days of the Korean War, when the massed Chinese army threatened to push the Allies right out of the Korean peninsula and plans were drawn up to drop atom bombs on numerous Chinese cities. Again, during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, American generals were advising President Kennedy to authorise a devastating first strike on the Soviet Union with likely results not wildly exaggerated in Kubrick’s bleak nuclear satire, Dr Stangelove.

And yet both times the civilian authority, in the shape of Presidents Truman and Kennedy, rejected the advice of their military and refused the use of nuclear weapons. Truman signalled to both China and Russia that the Korean War would remain a conventional war limited to Korea only. And Kennedy made significant concessions to the Soviets in order to defuse the Cuba situation. We aftercomers owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the wisdom and restraint of both these men.

It is by following the ramifications of the new theory of war created by the advent of nuclear weapons, that Gaddis makes sense of a number of Cold War developments. For example, the development of regular meetings to discuss arms limitations which took place between the Cold War antagonists from the Cuban crisis onwards, talks which certainly continued to be fractious opportunities for propaganda on both sides, but which also proved Churchill’s dictum that ‘jaw jaw is better than war war’.

Capitalism versus communism

If chapter two considered the evolution of new military theory during the war, chapter three covers much the same chronological period but looked at in terms of socio-economic theory, starting with a very basic introduction to theories of Marxism and capitalism, and then seeing how these played out after World War One.

Gaddis deploys a sequence of significant dates each separated by a decade, which tell the story of the decline and fall of communism:

  • in 1951 all nations were recovering from the devastation of war, the USSR had established communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe and a newly communist China was challenging the West’s staying power in Korea
  • in 1961 Nikita Khrushchev visited America and gleefully told his audience that the communist countries would surge ahead in economic production and ‘bury’ the West
  • by 1971, as consumerism triumphed in the West, all the communist economies were stagnating and communism in China was accompanied by inconceivable brutality and mass murder
  • by 1981 life expectancy in the Soviet Union was in decline and Russia was mired in a pointless war in Afghanistan
  • by 1991 the Soviet Union and all the communist East European regimes had disappeared, while China was abandoning almost all its communist policies, leaving ‘communism’ to linger on only in the dictatorships of Cuba and North Korea

Capitalism won the Cold War. Marx claimed to have revealed the secrets of history, that the capitalist system was inevitably doomed to collapse because the exploited proletariat would inevitably grow larger as an ever-shrinking capitalist class concentrated all wealth unto itself, making a proletarian revolution inevitable and unstoppable. That was Marx and Engel’s clear prediction.

1. In direct contradiction to Marxist theory, living standards in all capitalist countries for everyone are unrecognisably higher than they were 100 years ago.

2. Marx predicted that his communist revolution could only happen in advanced industrial countries where the capitalists had accumulated all power and the proletariat was forced to rebel. In the event, communist revolutions turned out to be a characteristic of backward, feudal or peasant countries, namely Russia and China, later Cuba, and then a sorry string of Third World basket cases – Angola, Somalia, Ethiopia, Afghanistan. Communism only took hold  in Eastern Europe because it was imposed by Russia’s military dictatorship, and was thrown off the second that Russia’s tyrannical grip was loosened.

It was the tragedy of both Russia and China that, in order to make their countries conform to Marx’s theories, their leaders undertook policies of forced collectivisation and industrialisation which led to the deaths by starvation or murder of as many as 50 million people, generally the very poorest of their populations. Communism promised to liberate the poor. In fact it ended up murdering the poorest of the poor in unprecedented numbers.

It wasn’t just their theory of revolution that was wrong. Lenin’s 1916 tract, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, is an interesting analysis of the history of the European empires up to that date and a contribution to the vast debate over the origins of the First World War. But its key practical suggestion was that capitalist states will always be driven by boundless greed and, therefore, inevitably, unstoppably, must always go to war.

Gaddis shows how Stalin and Mao shared this doctrinaire belief but how it led them to bad miscalculations. Because, in direct contradiction to the notion of inevitable inter-capitalist conflict, American presidents Truman and Eisenhower, both with direct personal experience of war, grasped some important and massive ideas, the central one being that America could no longer be isolationist but needed to create (and lead) a union of capitalist countries, to build up economic and military security, to ensure they never again went to war among themselves. The opposite of what Lenin predicted.

This was a big shift in American strategy. Throughout the 19th century America concentrated on settling its own lands and building up its own economy, happily ignoring developments beyond its borders. Despite President Wilson’s achievement in persuading Americans to intervene in the Great War, immediately afterwards they relapsed back into isolationism, refusing to join the League of Nations and indifferent to the rise of authoritarian regimes in Russia, Germany and Japan.

After the cataclysm of the Second World War, American policy shifted massively, finding expression in the Truman Doctrine, President Truman’s pledge that America would help and support democracies and free peoples around the world to resist communism. To be precise:

‘It must be the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.’ (Truman’s speech to Congress on 12 March 1947)

The Truman Doctrine was prompted by practical intervention ($400 million) to support the anti-communist forces during Greece’s Civil war (1945 to 1949), which the Americans felt also had to be balanced by support ($100 million) for Turkey. In both respects the Americans were taking over from aid formerly provided by Britain, which was now no longer able to afford it. The doctrine’s implicit strategy of ‘containment’ of the USSR, led on to the creation of NATO in 1949 and the Marshall Plan for massive American aid to help the nations of Western Europe rebuild their economies.

Of course it was in America’s self-interest to stem the tide of communism, but this doesn’t really detract from the scale of the achievement – it was American economic intervention which helped rebuild the economies of, and ensured freedom from tyranny for, France, West Germany, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Belgium and Holland (in Europe) and Japan and South Korea in the Far East. Hundreds of millions of people have led lives of freedom and fulfilment because of the decisions of the Truman administration.

The power of weakness

Of course the down side of this vast new expansion of America’s overseas commitment was the way it also included a long and dishonourable tradition of American support for repellent dictators and right-wing rulers solely because they were the only available anti-communist figures available in many countries.

This lamentable tradition kicked off with America’s ambivalent support for Chiang Kai-shek, the semi-fascist Nationalist leader who America supported in pre-communist China, then the repellent Syngman Rhee in post-war South Korea, through Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam, General Pinochet in Chile, the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and so on and so on.

This dark side to American post-war foreign policy is well-known, but what’s thought-provoking about Gaddis’s account is the thesis he hangs his fourth chapter on, a teasing paradox which only slowly emerges – that many of these small, ‘dependent’ nations ended up able to bend the Superpowers to their will, by threatening to collapse.

Thus many of the repellent dictators America found itself supporting were able to say: ‘If you don’t support me, my regime will collapse and then the communists will take over.’ The paradox is that it was often the weakest powers which ended up having the the strongest say over Superpower policy. Thus Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist regime in China was able to summon up American support, as was the equally unpleasant Sygman Rhee in South Korea, because America regarded these states as vital buffers to communist expansion, which meant that, in practice, both dictators could get away with murder and still be supported, often reluctantly, by the U.S.

But the same could also go for medium-size allies. In 1950 both France and China very much needed their respective sponsors, America and the Soviet Union. But by 1960 both were more confident of their economic and military power and by the late 1960s both were confident enough to throw off their shackles: General de Gaulle in France notoriously withdrew from NATO and proclaimed France’s independence while in fact continuing to benefit from NATO and American protection. France was weak enough to proclaim its independence while, paradoxically, America the superpower had to put up with de Gaulle’s behaviour because they needed France to carry on being an ally in Western Europe.

Mao Zedong was in awe of Stalin and relied on his good opinion and logistical support throughout his rise to power in China in 1949 until Stalin’s death in 1953. This respect for the USSR lingered on through the 1950s, but China came to despise the weakness of Stalin’s successor, Khrushchev, and the feebleness of the USSR’s hold over its East European satellites, especially after they rose up in revolt (East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968).

I didn’t know that border incidents between China and Russia flared up in 1969 and spread: for a while it looked as if the world’s two largest communist powers would go to war – making nonsense of Lenin’s thesis.

This of course presented the West with a great opportunity to divide the two communist behemoths, and Gaddis is favourable to President Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for the brave decision they took to visit China, to meet Mao in person and try to develop better trade and cultural links.

The Chinese, surrounded by a menacing Russia to the north, neutral India to the West and the traditional enemy, Japan, to the East, realised there was merit in reaching an understanding with distant America. Nixon realised what an enormous coup it would be to prise apart the two largest communist nations, as well as helping sort out some kind of end to the disastrous war in Vietnam.

By this stage, 25 or so years into the Cold War, the relative simplicity of a bipolar world divided between two superpowers had become considerably more complicated, an increasing complexity created by the newly independent nations of the developing or Third World, and the growth of a would-be ‘non-aligned’ group of nations seeking to avoid entanglement with either side, but cannily playing both superpowers off against each other in order to extract maximum advantage.

Other themes

These first chapters deal with:

  • the realisation of the nuclear stalemate and its implications i.e. superpower war is self-defeating
  • the failure of both capitalism and communism to deliver what they promised
  • the realisation by ‘weak’ states that they could use the superpower rivalry to their advantage

Further chapters discuss:

Human rights 

The rise of the notion of human rights and universal justice, which was increasingly used to hold both superpowers to ever-tighter account. Gaddis looks in detail at the slow growth of official lying and ‘deniability’ within American foreign policy (epitomised by the growth in espionage carried out by the CIA) which reached its nadir when the systematic lying of President Nixon unravelled after Watergate.

Gaddis compares the discrediting of American policy with the long-term effects of the Russian suppression of the Prague Spring of 1968. In a kind of mirror of the Watergate experience, the Soviet repression in Czechoslovakia planted seeds of doubt about the legitimacy of communist rule in the minds of much of the Soviet population and especially among its intellectuals. From the 1970s onwards the Soviets had to cope with home-grown ‘dissidents’, most notably Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov.

Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev worked hard to secure the ‘Helsinki Accords’, a contract with the West giving a permanent written guarantee of the security of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe. He allowed the declarations of human rights which made up its latter sections to be inserted by the West as a necessary concession, but was appalled when these began to be used by dissidents within Russia to measure the government by.

When a Czech rock band was arrested by the authorities in 1977, leading intellectuals protested and signed Charter 77, which politely called on the Czech communist government to respect the human rights which were paid lip service in both the Czech communist constitution and the Helsinki Accords. And when the first Polish pope, Pope John Paul II, visited his homeland in 1979, he also called on the Polish government to respect human rights as defined in the Helsinki Accords.

Gaddis identifies this emergence of human rights, a realm of authenticity over and above the laws or actions of any actual government, of either West or East, as a major development in the 1970s.

The power of individuals

A chapter is devoted to the importance of individuals in history, contrary to Marxist theory which believes in historical inevitabilities driven by the power of the masses, themselves driven by the ineluctable laws of economics. Thus Gaddis gives pen portraits of key players in the final years of communism, namely Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, Vaclav Havel and Lech Wałęsa, but most space is given to the key role played by Ronald Reagan.

Gaddis explains that détente, the strategic policy developed by President Nixon and continued by Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, and on the Soviet side agreed by Brezhnev, amounted to an acceptance of the status quo, especially the borders in Europe, and thus solidified Russia’s grasp in the East. With these borders defined and agreed, both sides could:

  1. Settle down to a routine of talks about reducing nuclear weapons (which, by this stage, came in a bewildering range of shapes and sizes – hence the complexity of the Strategic Arms Limitations [SALT] talks).
  2. Sublimate their confrontation into the developing world: hence the stream of local conflicts in far away countries like Ethiopia or Nicaragua. Fascinatingly, Gaddis quotes Kremlin advisers confessing that the Soviet leadership often had second thoughts about getting involved in some of these remote conflicts, e.g. in Angola or Somalia, but felt trapped by the logic of needing to be seen to support ‘national liberation struggles’ wherever they involved self-proclaimed Marxist parties.

At the time it felt as if Soviet communism was successfully funding revolutions and spreading its tentacles around the world; only in retrospect do we see all this as the last gasps of a flailing giant. According to Gaddis, the great political visionary who brought it to its knees was Ronald Reagan!

As someone alive and politically active during the 1980s I know that the great majority of the British people saw Reagan as a bumbling fool, satirised in the Spitting Image TV show in a recurring sketch called ‘The President’s brain is missing’. To my amazement, in Gaddis’s account, Reagan is portrayed as a strategic genius (one of America’s ‘sharpest grand strategists ever’, p.217) who swept aside détente in at least two ways:

  1. Reagan thought communism was an aberration, ‘a bizarre chapter’ (p.223) in human history which was destined to fail. So instead of accepting its potentially endless existence (like Nixon, Ford and Carter before him) Reagan’s strategy and speeches were based on the idea that Soviet communism must inevitably collapse (for example, in his famous speech in Berlin when he called on Mr Gorbachev to ‘tear down this wall’).
  2. Similarly, Reagan rejected the entire twisted logic of mutually assured destruction which had grown up around nuclear weapons: he was the first genuine nuclear abolitionist to inhabit the White House, hence his outrageous offer to Gorbachev at the Iceland summit for both sides to get rid of all their nuclear weapons. And when Gorbachev refused, Reagan announced the development of his Strategic Defence Initiative (nicknamed Star Wars) i.e. the creation of a satellite shield which would shoot down any incoming nuclear missiles attacking the United States, thus rendering Russia’s nuclear arsenal obsolete, but also dangerously disturbing the delicate balance of power.

At the time these destabilising words and actions seemed reckless and dangerous, and what Gaddis portrays as the entrenched détente establishment on both sides strongly criticised Reagan. It is only with the enormous benefit of hindsight – the knowledge that the Soviet Union and communism were to collapse like a pack of cards in 1989 – that Reagan’s approach and all his speeches take on the light not of a mad old man (he was 74 when Gorbachev came to power in 1985) but of a bold visionary.

The steady growth in Reagan’s stature is a salutary lesson in how history works, how what we think about a period we’ve actually lived through can be completely transformed and reinterpreted in the light of later events. How our beginnings have no inkling of our ends. An object lesson in the severe limitations of human understanding.

Conclusion

To summarise: The Cold War is not a straightforward historical account of the era 1945 to 1991; it is, rather, a series of thought-provoking and stimulating essays on key aspects and themes from the era.

Each chapter could easily form the basis of a fascinating discussion or seminar (of the kind that Gaddis has no doubt supervised by the hundred in  his long and distinguished academic career).

In other words, coverage of specific incidents and events is always secondary to the ideas and theories of geopolitics and international strategic ideas which the period threw up in such abundance, and which are the real focus of the text.

It’s a fascinating book full of unexpected insights and new ways of thinking about the recent past.

I was politically active during the 1970s and 1980s, so I remember the later stages of the Cold War vividly. Maybe the biggest single takeaway from this book is that this entire era is now a ‘period’ with a beginning, a middle and an end, which can be studied as a whole. As it recedes in time it is becoming a simplified artefact, a subject for study by GCSE, A-level and undergraduate students who have no idea what it felt like to live under the ever-present threat of nuclear war and when communism still seemed like a viable alternative to consumer capitalism.

Although many of its effects and implications linger on, with every year that passes the Cold War becomes a distant historical epoch, as dry and theoretical as the Fall of the Roman Empire or the Thirty Years War. I try to explain how it felt to be alive in the 1980s to my children and they look at me with blank incomprehension. So this is what it feels like to become history.


Credit

The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis was published by Allen Lane in 2005. All references are to the 2007 Penguin paperback edition.

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