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Book Review: The Cold War

By (September 6, 2017) No Comment

The Cold War: A World History

by Odd Arne Westad

Basic Books, 2017

Norwegian historian Odd Arne Westad’s 2006 book The Global Cold War won the prestigious Bancroft Prize and put forward a broad-staged reading of the Cold War, not only tracing some of its ideologies to the 19th century but also highlighting the international effects it had far from Washington and Moscow. His new book, The Cold War: A World History, builds on that earlier book, adding some 200 pages and a great deal more context and drama. “In its prime,” he writes, “the Cold War constituted an international system, in the sense that the world’s leading powers all based their foreign policies on some relationship to it.” More than any other global history, Westad’s Cold War shows the whole world of that international system and its effects on both leading powers and not-so-leading powers.

Westad has devoted his professional life to researching the Cold War, so it’s refreshing to read him reminding his readers at the outset that there’s more to modern human history than his chosen subject:

Even at the height of confrontation … the Cold War – although predominant – was not the only game in town; the late twentieth century saw many important historical developments that were neither created by the Cold War nor determined by it. The Cold War did not decide everything, but it influenced most things, and often for the worse: the confrontation helped cement a world dominated by Superpowers, a world in which might and violence – or the threat of violence – were the yardsticks of international relations, and where beliefs tended toward the absolute. Only one’s own system was good. The other system was inherently evil.

Some of this is overblown, obviously – the world had been dominated by Superpowers for centuries before the Russian Revolution of 1917, and those Superpowers had very often held all-or-nothing vides of each other – and yet, paradoxically, the impression that strengthens throughout The Cold War: A World History is that in one way or another the whole world really was shaped by the ongoing seismic event of the struggle between the Soviet Union. In unfailingly lively prose, Westad describes revolutions, counter-revolutions, coups, and proxy-wars everywhere from Ghana to Algeria to Bolivia to Congo, making these side-theaters and their colorful personalities more integral parts of the larger narrative than they’ve seemed in any other comprehensive history of the subject.

Even so, no amount of scale-balancing revisionism can change the main show: The United States v.s. The Soviet Union, with ghastly pride of place given to the worst of all the proxy-wars: the long conflict in Vietnam. And whether he’s recounting events in Southeast Asia or South America, Westad is careful to avoid the kind of ideological absolutism that he rightly contends often both motivated and blinded the Superpowers he’s studying. Throughout its decades-long “Third World War” against the advance of Communism, the United States was always perfectly willing to support a brutal dictator over a democratically-elected government if it served what was seen as the greater geopolitical chess match, and Westad never shies away from that. It would scarcely be possible to do so entirely when so much of the book is forced to star President Lyndon Johnson, who never met an ethical rationale he couldn’t twist into a pretzel. And unlike his Soviet counterparts, Johnson faced organized increasingly vocal opposition inside his own government – often leading to quotes that resonate at eerily altered frequencies in 21st century ears:

Johnson’s hope, especially in light of rising US military expenditure in Indochina, was to get western Europe (and Japan) to carry more of the economic burden for their defense themselves. But LBJ did not believe that the United States ought to withdraw forces from Europe. When the Democratic leader of the Senate, Mike Mansfield, put forward a resolution calling for substantial troop reductions in Europe, Johnson scoffed to his staff: “I’m not one of those folks that are just sucked in by the Russians. I don’t believe in the … whole goddamned theory that it’s all over there … I think those sons of bitches want to eat us any day they can.”

Basic Books has produced The Cold War: A World History as a big, somber thing with barbed wire on its stark cover, and this is entirely fitting to a subject that blighted lives and nations. But Westad balances the grim nature of his study with sometimes thrilling insights and constantly lively, almost conversational prose. Even in a book-market glutted with Russia-centered histories, this one stands out.