Coming in from the Cold War
History: The Cold War: A World History, Odd Arne Westad, Allen Lane, hardback, 629 pages, €33.99
JP O' Malley takes a look at this riveting historical compendium which gives a nuanced and rigorous analysis of the diplomatic chess played between the US and the Soviets during the second half of the 20th century.
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 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 enlightening. By the late 1970s, 15 of 21 major states in Latin America were ruled by ruthless military dictators: these crushed not just communists, but anyone with a penchant for questioning militant conservatism and the status quo.
In these proxy Cold War conflicts, the US used sneaky methods to implement their global hegemony.
The CIA often bribed politicians and officials to carry out coups; while also supplying weapons, training, cash and manpower to blood thirsty right-wing regimes.
Chile, Guatemala and Argentina being three good cases studies among a host of others. But likewise, the Soviet Union crushed any dissent on their side too.
By the early 1950s, almost two million people had been exiled by Stalin to the Gulags in Siberia to hard labour camps.
Hungarians, meanwhile, were made an example of to the rest the Eastern European satellite states, when Moscow crushed the spontaneous revolution that broke out in Budapest in October 1956, which called for more freedom and democracy.
But the real losers of this historical epoch, as this book convincingly argues, were the areas where serious conflict actually took place, as the Cold War went global. Namely, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Palestine and much of Latin America.
Westad concludes on an existential note.
The politics of the Cold War may have been endlessly threatening total annihilation. But at least everybody knew what side they belonged to, the historian seems to suggest.
Presently, our political world consists of many conflicting ideas and ideologies.
Among them authoritarian capitalism, Islamic fundamentalism, centrist European neoliberalism and far-right breast-beating nationalism.
All of which are contesting for power, resources, and hearts and minds. But where little collective consensus exits.
Therefore making sense of geopolitics and predicting future conflicts in this multifaceted world is much harder to work out than it was in the simple binary world of the Cold War era; however imperfect it was.