He credits teachers in high school with inspiring him to become a history major. Gaddis was an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin and remained there for his master's and Ph.D. He specialized in the Cold War in part out of "ambition" and out of awareness that it was a relatively new field, a story just beginning to be told.
As an author, he established himself with his first book, "The United States and the Origins of the Cold War," published in 1972. At the time, Cold War scholarship had been shaped by such New Left historians as William Appleman Williams, who had written that economic reasons, especially the need for markets overseas, were a principle force behind U.S. foreign policy. Gaddis countered that capitalism was just one part of a conflict that included domestic politics, Marxist ideology and the personalities of Stalin, Mao and other leaders.
"I found some of the New Left views valuable: the emphasis on the economic dimensions of foreign policy, and, flowing from that, their insistence that there'd been more continuity in it throughout the 20th century than older historians had perceived," Gaddis says. "What I did not find convincing was their argument that the need to export drove the Americans into an aggressive foreign policy, and that had it not been for this, the Russians would have continued to be allies. The New Left's greatest weakness was always its lack of interest in, or curiosity about, the USSR."
Gaddis' scholarship has been a story of revision. In the 1970s, historians had no access to Soviet or Chinese documents, and the world itself seemed deadlocked between rival superpowers. Within 20 years, the Cold War was over and the Soviet Union had broken up. Secrets once vital were now expendable; Gaddis and others could finally learn what Stalin and other Eastern bloc leaders were thinking.
In "We Now Know," published in 1997, Gaddis revisits such Cold War topics as why North Korea invaded South Korea (Stalin encouraged it, assuming the United States would not respond), how frightened the Soviets might have been by the atom bomb (more than they let on) and the assumption that Stalin and others valued survival above all and never really thought Marxism would defeat and destroy capitalism.
"That was the prevailing wisdom, which I certainly bought into, that the ideological rhetoric of the Chinese, Russians and East Europeans was window dressing," Gaddis says. "But as I began to go into the documents, I discovered that the language was the same in the secret meetings as it was in the public pronouncements. They really believed this stuff."
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