I bought this book with the expectation that it would provide a comprehensive overview of the events, episodes, personalities, motivations, and results of the Cold War. A reader looking for something similar might be disappointed. This book does not really attempt to be a comprehensive history of the Cold War, but is rather a collection of chapters, each devoted to a particular thematic aspect of the war. It reads as though Gaddis has a particular thesis about the Cold War that he wants to flesh out in each chapter, rather than telling the whole story in an orderly narrative.
As examples: there is a chapter about the "logic" of Mutual Assured Destruction, and how mankind's survival depended on two superpowers maneuvering their way through that system's pitfalls. There is another chapter contrasting the Leninist vision of authoritarianism with the Wilsonian vision of self-determination. There is a chapter about how the superpowers' respective allies eventually refused to do their bidding. There is a chapter about the moral paradoxes at the heart of American Cold War international policy. There is another about the key individual actors who forced the Cold War to a successful resolution. And there is one, sort of a "people power" chapter, about how the Cold War ended (Gaddis argues) largely because the internal contradictions of communism, the gap between its promises and its reality, would no longer be tolerated by its subjects.
I found many of these chapters to be thought-provoking, and often found them persuasive. At first, I resisted Gaddis's thesis about the spillover of amorality from the international sphere to the American domestic sphere, and how this precipitated the fall of Richard Nixon. It seemed a weak thesis to me at first, but upon reflection, I agree with Gaddis that there was a fundamental discomfort, a paradox, in how America waged the Cold War. We cozied up to various dictators who violated American values re individual rights, so long as they sided with us in the conflict. And we countenanced actions abroad that we would not have at home. Eventually, Gaddis argues, the roof fell in on those contradictions, when President Nixon started to practice the sort of statecraft domestically that had previously only been tolerated internationally. Gaddis seems to suggest that it was only a matter of time before something like this happened, that this inconsistency was unsustainable.
In other places, though, I found Gaddis to be less convincing. Certainly the demonstrations of "people power" that brought down the communist regimes were courageous and consequential. But it is equally true that it could have come out quite differently, if a Stalin had still been in power. Gaddis argues that the people in the communist regimes had finally come to fully appreciate the vast gulf between communism's promises and its reality, and while that is no doubt true, many a similarly-cognizant subject of these regimes was crushed by them in earlier decades. Many other factors coalesced to bring down the governments behind the Iron Curtain, including the steady economic and military pressure brought to bear by a more prosperous west.
Perhaps the best chapter in the Gaddis book is the one that is devoted to "actors" -- the singular figures whose insights and vision succeeded in changing the world. Gaddis is clearly an admirer of John Paul II, and he also credits Ronald Reagan with a lofty vision beyond what most other statesmen of his time could see. Reagan, according to Gaddis, was critical to ending the uneasy, dangerous "peace" of Mutual Assured Destruction.
Another of Gaddis's finer chapters is one wherein he details the events in Hungary and East Germany that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Gaddis presents more details and insights than I have found in other histories of those wondrous events of 1989.
Some of Gaddis's pronouncements struck me as simply curious. He states in one chapter that never so much misery and suffering has been borne from good intentions as under the communist regimes. Whose good intentions, I wondered? Stalin? Lenin? Marx? Mao? It really stretches the definition of "good intentions" to ascribe such to the architects of 20th century authoritarian communism. By this malleable definition, most any dictator could be said to have "good intentions."
Gaddis also provides a much loftier portrait of Woodrow Wilson than I believe most historians would share. Gaddis indicates that Wilson is highly respected today, but I would suggest that at least as many historians regard Wilson as an impractical romantic, in the arena of international relations.
I would recommend Gaddis's book as a second or third book on the Cold War, but not the first source. It is not the best source as to the "what," though Gaddis's pronouncements on "why" are often convincing.