Review of The Cold War: A World History

Odd Arne Westad’s The Cold War is simply a must-read for anyone who wants a better understanding of the world today. Despite having lived through the Cold War — and as someone who probably pays closer attention to current events, world politics, and history than your average American — there was a lot here that I did already know but so much more that I did not.

For example, I did know about U.S. interventions in Central America such as Nicaragua and Guatemala, but I had not known much about Soviet Union invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, nor its blockade of Berlin. I knew about the Marshall Plan, but I did not realize the importance of American culture in tying Europe and the U.S. closer together. And although I distinctly remember the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev as well as the rise of Yeltsin, it was fascinating to get a more behind-the-scenes look at what was exactly going on

Indeed, I finally now even get the joke in Star Trek VI when Spock says to Kirk that Vulcans have a saying, “Only Nixon could go to China.” It was all about his credibility due to his reputation as a tough Cold Warrior — the same way the Klingons viewed Kirk. And I must confess what I mostly know about Richard Nixon is Watergate and thus had absolutely no idea how instrumental he and Kissinger were to detente (and thus, I hate to admit, possibly the survival of the world). Nor did I have any idea of how hawkish Jimmy Carter was as a president, and indeed I saw a lot of parallels with his foreign policy and that of Trump (particularly what I read about in Superpower Showdown).

Perhaps not surprisingly, I am appreciating Tom Clancy’s books quite a bit differently now that I have a much richer knowledge of his setting. It was not a conscious decision to take advantage of this, but I did happen to reread Hunt for Red October shortly after this, and my family also gifted me Sontag’s also excellent (albeit much more narrowly focused) Blind Man’s Bluff that also happens to tie in very well.

There is so much treasure here. I’ve highlighted it heavily and am still taking notes from it, and I’ve cited it in online discussions (link is to last post, scroll up a ways to get to the beginning — you might need to click on the post’s date first). It’s well-organized (willing to occasionally present things out-of-order if it improves the narrative), obviously very well researched, and it’s very objective. I do have one slight quibble where he characterizes Milton Friedman as extremist when actually his school of thought has been almost wholly incorporated into the Neoclassical Keynesian mainstream, but beyond that Westad is very fair to both sides and also not shy at uncovering grievous and horrific actions on both sides.

Due to the immense amount of material, he can’t quite get as detailed in his characterization as a more tightly focused work such as Tuchman’s excellent Guns of August, and by the nature of how the conflict actually played out, it does end more with a whimper than a bang, but there’s enough detail and color to make each chapter compelling, and indeed I found it a book that was very difficult to put down.

In summary, it is a book that I am so very glad to have read, and it is one I expect to be revisiting again and again.

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