The Cold War: A World His­tory

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE -

On May 12, 1945 Win­ston Churchill tele­grammed US President Harry Tru­man. The Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter warned of an iron cur­tain de­scend­ing over east­ern Europe.

Churchill wanted US and Bri­tish troops to re­main in the po­si­tions they had be­fore World War II ended. Tru­man re­fused though.

The Al­lies weren’t happy about Stalin’s dom­i­na­tion of East­ern Europe. But all sides wanted peace. And so Europe di­vided: with Ger­many mark­ing east from west.

The con­tours of this new world or­der were firmly drawn be­tween two su­per­pow­ers es­pous­ing op­pos­ing ideas.

Com­mu­nism — sup­pos­edly rep­re­sent­ing so­cial­ist val­ues of egal­i­tar­i­an­ism and brother­hood of man— was led by the Soviet Union in the east. And free-mar­ket cap­i­tal­ism— sup­pos­edly rep­re­sent­ing val­ues of free­dom, democ­racy and in­di­vid­u­al­ism — was led by the United States in the west.

Last­ing from 1945 un­til 1989, the Cold War was a zero-sum game where two su­per­pow­ers were al­ways on the cusp of all-out-war: should one side move the diplo­matic chess­board a lit­tle too sud­denly.

A show­down be­tween both states would have re­sulted in a cat­a­clysmic nu­clear ar­maged­don. Be­tween 1950 and 1960, un­der the Eisen­hower ad­min­is­tra­tion, the US nu­clear arse­nal ex­panded from 370 war­heads HIS­TORY Odd Arne Wes­tad Allen Lane, hard­back, 629 pages, €33.99 to 40,000. The Cold War: A World His­tory re­calls key mo­ments of the con­flict. Point­ing out how, iron­i­cally, it kept peace in Europe for 50 years, even­tu­ally lead­ing to a Euro­pean Union that en­com­passes both east and west: de facto led by Ger­many fol­low­ing its post-Cold War re­uni­fi­ca­tion.

But the Cold War caused ma­jor havoc else­where: in South East Asia and Latin Amer­ica es­pe­cially. It also saw China go through two rev­o­lu­tions — com­mu­nist in 1949 and cap­i­tal­ist in 1979 — com­ing out the other side as a lead­ing world power.

Some of the high­lights of the book in­clude the year-long Ber­lin Block­ade, an un­suc­cess­ful at­tempt in 1948 by the Soviet Union to limit the Al­lies to travel and de­liver food and goods to their sec­tors of Ber­lin, which lay within Rus­sian-oc­cu­pied East Ger­many; the build­ing of the Ber­lin Wall in Au­gust 1961, os­ten­si­bly an at­tempt to keep so called “west­ern fas­cists” from en­ter­ing East Ger­many to un­der­mine the so­cial­ist state, but which re­ally be­came a po­tent sym­bol of stark di­vi­sions be­tween the US and the Soviet Union in the heart of Cen­tral Europe; the Cuban Mis­sile Cri­sis of Oc­to­ber 1962, a three-day po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary stand­off over the in­stal­la­tion of nu­clear-armed Soviet mis­siles on Cuba, which eas­ily could have led to an all-out nu­clear global Holo­caust; and the tear­ing down of the Ber­lin Wall in Novem­ber 1989; which in turn led to the sud­den col­lapse of the Soviet Union in De­cem­ber 1991.

Per­son­al­i­ties, of course, were hugely im­por­tant in shap­ing Cold War his­tory.

And so we look at the con­flict and high-stakes diplo­macy here through the eyes and ears of the era’s strong­men, in­clud­ing: Stalin, Mao, Kennedy, Cas­tro, Nixon, Khrushchev, Brezh­nev, Rea­gan and Gor­bachev.

There is a ten­dency in the west­ern-pop­u­lar-col­lec­tive-imag­i­na­tion to view Cold War his­tory in sim­ple sound­bites and clichéd images.

In this ver­sion of events, we are led to be­lieve, the Soviet Em­pire was to­tal­i­tar­ian and evil.

The cap­i­tal­ist West, mean­while, led by Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism, es­poused free­dom and democ­racy for all. The lat­ter side even­tu­ally won: as democ­racy and civil lib­er­ties flour­ished.

Odd Arne Wes­tad, a distin­guished his­tory pro­fes­sor from Har­vard Uni­ver­sity, es­chews this fairy­tale-like nar­ra­tive; us­ing in­stead a more nu­anced, rig­or­ous and de­tailed anal­y­sis in this riv­et­ing his­tor­i­cal com­pen­dium. The West did win the Cold War. Not be­cause it was morally su­pe­rior to the Soviet Union, the his­to­rian ar­gues. But be­cause cap­i­tal­ism went global dur­ing the 1970s: due to mas­sive tech­no­log­i­cal changes that were evolv­ing at the time.

The West also ex­ported cul­ture and ideas with far more efficiency than the Sovi­ets. This be­came es­pe­cially im­por­tant when con­sumerism be­came a cen­tral com­po­nent of lib­eral cap­i­tal­ism, as the 1970s gave way to the 1980s.

In the end, the Soviet Union sim­ply could not de­liver fin­ished prod­ucts to cit­i­zens who wanted them.

Hol­ly­wood movies and satel­lite TV may have played their part in win­ning the ide­o­log­i­cal war for the West. But vi­o­lence played a cen­tral role too, as the au­thor keeps re­mind­ing us.

Why try to rea­son with your op­po­nents, when you can just se­cretly mur­der them?

Wes­tad’s chap­ter on the Cold War in Latin Amer­ica is par­tic­u­larly en-

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