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According to John Lewis Gaddis in "The Long Peace," why didn't the Cold War erupt into a full scale conflict between the USSR and the U.S.?

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In "The Long Peace," John Lewis Gaddis argues that a "bipolar" system of world powers helped prevent the Cold War from erupting into a full scale conflict between the U.S and USSR. The concentrated power behind only two world superpowers as opposed to multiple allowed increased global stability.

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In "The Long Peace", Gaddis argues that the international system during the Cold War was built upon an artificial division of the world into spheres of influence, with countries aligning with either of the two superpowers of the time: the United States and the USSR. Gaddis’ argument is based off of what is referred to as “systems theory.” He posits that the war remained "cold" between the US and the USSR because of the number of great powers in the international arena and therefore attributes this bipolarity with the period’s stability. By stability, Gaddis means that the system remains relatively stable and that no country or power becomes dominant. The Cold War’s bipolarity created a “self-regulating system”different from “self-aggravating systems,” which get out of controlin which the major powers played by a set of unspoken rules and conventions to resolve disputes, the structure of the system making it clear how the power was distributed among the members.

The Cold War was the first true instance of bipolarity in all of history: World War II resulted in the “true first polarization of power in modern history.” This bipolar structure, Gaddis argues, made the international situation more simple. As Hans Morgenthau put it in 1948, world politics turned into a “primitive spectacle of two giants eyeing each other” and did not require great leadership and diplomacy to maintain.

Furthermore, this simple structure meant that the alliance structures were relatively stable, long lasting, and durable. Gaddis argues that shifting alliances in multipolar systems caused uncertainty and led to the eruption of war. Similarly, the stable structure of the alliance system tolerated defections without major disruptionsChina was able to reverse its alignment twice during the Cold War by speaking to the stability that bipolarity brings.

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In this essay, first published in the journal International Relations in 1986, Gaddis attempts to account for the fact that the period after the Second World War, which featured one of the "most bitter and persistent antagonisms short of war in modern history," did not result in a Third World War. This was despite the fact that war between the United States and the Soviet Union seemed very likely at several points throughout this period.

Gaddis finds the answer in the international system that developed after the war. While he does not ignore the bloodshed in places like Vietnam and Afghanistan (the Soviet Union was fighting there when Gaddis published the essay) he points to the relative stability of that system as its most salient feature. To explain this stability, Gaddis points to the "bipolarity" of the postwar arrangement, which was at once very dangerous and inherently more stable than the periods before the First and Second World Wars. The bipolar arrangement was simple, it did not require a skilled statesman to maintain it, and its alliance systems (like NATO and the Warsaw Pact) were strong enough that the actions of outsider states in Latin America and Asia in particular did not destabilize them.

Another thing that made it possible was that the two "bipolar" powers were independent of each other. They did not compete for trade, in particular, and they carved out two spheres of influence that only really overlapped in a few areas. Another major feature in promoting stability in this bipolar world was the possession, by both sides, of a nuclear deterrent.

"Consider," Gaddis observes, "what the effect of this mechanism would be on a statesman from either superpower who was contemplating war." The fact that both sides knew (after Hiroshima and Nagasaki) what these weapons could do to people, and that both sides had the ability to destroy the other naturally put a brake on the kinds of aggression that had contributed to wars in the past.

The doctrine of "mutually assured destruction" also encouraged both sides to use their influence to rein in third party states whose behavior was likely to lead to full-scale war. Both sides agreed (having really no choice) that nuclear weapons were only to be used as a last resort.

All of these factors, among others, Gaddis concludes, made the "bipolar" arrangement after the Second World War more stable, if not necessarily more conducive to human rights and social justice, than previous situations that led to war. 

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John Lewis Gaddis in "The Long Peace" argues that the bipolar system of world powers that existed in the Cold War era was quite stable. Further, he argues that it was more stable than a multipolar system where multiple countries jockey for power. The United States and the Soviet Union did not fear an open attack from one another since the attack would be catastrophic due to both sides having nuclear weapons. Both sides claimed imminent attack was possible in order to maintain political control in their respective nations.

According to Gaddis, the fact that the two nations were not close together also fueled this peace because there was not constant contact and communication between them, thus limiting the possibilities for traditional warfare. The nuclear weapons possessed and espionage committed by both sides led to no secret weapons systems; both sides knew that war would likely end the human race. This was part of Eisenhower's "Mutual Assured Destruction" theory of national defense and why he wanted the nuclear arsenals increased during his time in office. 

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In my opinion, Gaddis presents two main arguments as to why the Cold War did not ever become a hot war.  One is the polarity of the international system during that time.  The other is the relative isolation of the two countries.

Gaddis argues that the world was bipolar during the Cold War.  He says that this helped bring stability because there were so many fewer opportunities for conflict to arise (unlike in WWI, for example, where there were all these powerful countries with changing and complicated relations).

Second, Gaddis says that the US and USSR were less likely to go to war because they had so little to do with one another.  There were not constant interactions that could lead to conflict.

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