The Cold War: A World History
by Odd Arne Westad
Allen Lane

We tend to suffer from what evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins terms the “tyranny of the discontinuous mind” – a weakness for putting things into clearly defined and labelled boxes that inevitably clash with the inescapable facts of the real world.

Our understanding of our own history, in particular, falls prey to this tendency. And this can have unfortunate consequences, as Odd Arne Westad’s excellent precis of the cold war reminds us.

At more than 600 pages, “precis” might seem an odd description. But this is a global account covering the cold war’s roots and consequences, as well as encapsulating all the action in between. As such, the author admits, a one-volume history can only scratch the surface.

Misconceptions start with definitions. If we take Wikipedia as the perfect manifestation of our discontinuity syndrome, then the cold war began in 1947 and ended in 1991. Westad locates its origins in the distant, shared past of Europe’s religious wars, the Enlightenment and colonialism, although he starts his cold war clock around the turn of the previous century and the emergence of Russia and the United States as global powers.

“Concepts of modernity in the United States and the Soviet Union had a common starting point […] in the expansion of Europe and European modes of thinking, over a global scale over the past three centuries,” he says.

The course the two then took – one towards the globalising force of communism and the other towards the equally globalising free-market capitalism – shapes the world today. Not least in terms of the post-cold war mindset in which “we continue to see the world in terms of zero-sum games of mutually incompatible binary divisions”.

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This longer view of events is helpful, though not original. Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote extensively about his “short century” – the one that began with the hopes and idealism of the Bolshevik revolution and which ended with the slow-motion train wreck of communism in the early 1990s.

For Hobsbawm, the end of the Soviet Union was a personal loss involving a utopian dream turned nightmare. All history, he said, is current affairs in fancy dress.

Hobsbawm was reflecting on his own perspective as a Jew in Central Europe who vividly remembered the day Adolf Hitler came to power. He was writing just two years after the collapse of the socialist bloc in Europe. Greater distance, in other words, enables a greater detachment.

So what effect has the passage of more than two decades had on Westad’s account?

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Much may depend on the reader. I am old enough to recall the fear of nuclear annihilation in the Reagan-Thatcher years and was among the more than 250,000 people who marched through London in 1983 to demand the US pull its nukes out of Britain. But I am also young enough to have been outraged when my socialist father told me he’d backed the Vietnam war: back then, he told me, it was believed the entire world would turn communist.

By the 1980s, it was clear that communism was no longer a viable alternative to capitalism. But the senescent decline of the Soviet superpower carried its own risks, the foremost of which at the time appeared to come from a messianic US leadership.

The socialisation of Eastern Bloc leaders that began with Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik of the early 1970s meant that as the USSR began to show signs of failure, it no longer seemed the likely instigator of a war in Europe. Add the post-war normal­isation of social democracy in Western Europe – in the form of the welfare state and state ownership of key industries – and the ideological distinctions between East and West became blurred. At least, between a largely social democratic Western Europe and a liberalising Eastern European bloc.

Westad, the S. T. Lee Professor of US-Asia relations at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, does a good job of tracing a coherent path through some of the cold war’s apparent incongruities.

The wartime alliance between the Allied powers, for example, was a series of “shotgun weddings” delaying what was already a long-running ideological dogfight between implacable world viewpoints.

On the alliance with Stalin’s Soviet Union, Britain’s Winston Churchill said: “If Hitler invaded Hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.”

Seen in the light of America’s modern-day struggle to come to terms with the concept of Obamacare and “socialised medicine”, US financial and political backing for the European and Japanese welfare state seem like oddities. In the context of the rise of fascism and the threat of global encroachment by communism, they make perfect sense.

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“Capitalism had already produced war and colonial enslave­ment. After the stock market crash of 1929, it produced poverty, too,” writes Westad.

The war that followed marked a new social compact between the world’s ruling elites and the masses who were mobilised to fight the forces of fascism. The lesson in the industrialised West was to smooth out the rough edges of capitalism with progressive fiscal and social policies – subsidised medicine, safety nets for workers, egalitarian education and employment laws. For the rest of the world, the war had been more about the passing of an old order defined by imperial powers and their racist “civilising mission”.

“Peoples everywhere wanted modernity for themselves in order to better resist the empires that lorded over them,” Westad writes.

That choice was often binary: communism or the free market. And a remarkable slice of the world seemed likely to fall onto the Soviet side of the ledger. For a time it looked as if Korea, Indonesia, even India would be overwhelmed by the Red tide.

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A tragic element of the cold war was the apparent inability of American leaders to accept the genuine struggle of peoples against repression, inequality and injustice. US leaders made common cause with some of the greatest monsters of modern times to combat left-of-centre popular movements. One legacy has been continued distrust of US leadership – a distrust that can still be used to mobilise mass opinion today, from Venezuela to Iran, Russia and beyond.

The rise of the non-aligned movement, led by Indonesia, India and Egypt, was seen as a betrayal of American leadership, and not the opportunity it might have been to accept a multipolar world of mutually agreed respect for self-determination.

As Westad writes: “Cold war ideologies offered immediate solutions to complex problems,” with the added benefit for emerging nation states of financial, material and military backing from the competing superpowers.

If the view from Western Europe was that the cold war offered a perverse umbrella that guaranteed stability, peace and the opportunity to build a prosperous and more equitable society, for the majority of the world’s inhabitants it was a period of untold misery and suffering, the author says.

For many readers, Westad’s account will cover large swathes of common knowledge. But any danger of over­familiarity is banished by the author’s fast-paced narrative peppered with delightful snippets from a broad range of sources. For example, US civil rights leader Roy Wilkins’ description of Dwight D. Eisenhower as “a fine general and a good, decent man, but if he had fought World War II the way he fought for civil rights, we would all be speaking German today”.

The familiar story is also augmented by much that will be new. As a global account, the book pushes beyond the barriers of most national history curriculums. (The author’s Norwegian background finds a welcome role in the book’s supporting cast, too.)

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The net effect is to fill in the cracks of missing knowledge and to blur some of the certainties of perceived wisdom.

At times the sheer sweep of Westad’s account means the covering of those cracks is paper thin. Given the pivotal role that the rift between China and the USSR played in the cold war’s outcome, the testy relationship between Mao Zedong and the Soviets could have used some fleshing out – especially in the period before the civil war. It is hard to credit the Soviet-China schism when Mao is portrayed as a feeble thrall of Stalin.

Despite its flaws, this volume should sit on the bookshelf of every home as a constant reminder of how stupidity, ignorance and arrogance almost brought the world to annihilation. With the personification of all three traits now squatting in the White House, this book has real and current value.