Reading the Cold War

9 Nov

Today – as almost everybody is doubtless aware – is the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a momentous event in modern history and one that I still vividly remember from my childhood. In the popular mind, that rush of people though gaps in the wall represented the end of the Cold War. Therefore, I thought I’d do a list of nine pieces of Cold War scholarship that I think represent the best of what’s out there. This is by no means authoritative or complete, it’s simply a selection of works that I admire or find find particularly useful (and are, in many ways, reflective of my own research interests).

Pertti Ahonen, Death at the Berlin Wall (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011)

It would be foolish to have such a list on this particular day without at least one volume that focuses specifically on the wall. And, I should disclose up front that Prof. Ahonen is a friend, but hopefully that doesn’t make me too biased towards his work! The book examines a handful of the killings that took place at the Berlin Wall, across the span of its existence. The wider official and popular reactions to the killings are examined in fruitful and engaging ways. It is an excellent book that helps us remember the human tragedy of the wall.

Mary Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000)

This was the book that – for the first time – made me realise how important the US civil rights movement was in an international, Cold War context. Dudziak traces the feedback loops between civil rights, Cold War propaganda, decolonisation, and US foreign relations is persuasive, fascinating detail.

Francis J. Gavin, Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy and America’s Atomic Age (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012)

The wonderful thing about Gavin’s book is that – despite looking back at some of the better-travelled paths of Cold War nuclear history – it manages to make the familiar seem fresh again. The text concisely explores episodes such as the Second Berlin Crisis, re-examining the evidence to come to reasoned conclusions that often cast events in a new light. More of an episodic collection of article-length pieces (indeed, many chapters had previously appeared in scholarly journals), it is nonetheless a vital purchase for those attempting to understand nuclear issues during the Cold War.

Peter Hennessey, The Secret State: Preparing for the Worst, 1945-2010 (London: Penguin, 2010)

Probably the most populist of the books on this list, The Secret State is still a great read and very useful to scholars investigating British nuclear policy from 1945 onwards. From the ‘importance of being nuclear’ and the decisions to go for the atomic and hydrogen bombs, to the horror felt in government at the findings of the 1955 Strath Report, to the farcical nature of civil defence, Hennessey details the absurdities and incongruities of government policy with a scholar’s eye for archival detail and a healthy dose of black humour.

Matthew Jones, After Hiroshima: The United States, Race, and Nuclear Weapons in Asia, 1945-1965 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)

The most significant work in nuclear history to appear in the last decade. A bold claim? Perhaps, but one I’m quite willing to stand by. The greatest quality of After Hiroshima is the way in which it clearly and convincingly demonstrates how and why ideas about race and racism influenced US nuclear policy in Asia.

Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (London: Penguin, 2005)

A monumental study of post-World War 2 European history by the late, great Tony Judt. Postwar is a remarkable achievement in synthesising and analysing the histories of that diverse continent we call Europe,, and Judt skillfully and engagingly takes us on a journey through five decades of tumult and change. At time the bok reflects the author’s own proclivities and particularities, but it is never anything less than a great read.

Marc Trachtenberg, A Constructed Piece: The Making of the European Settlement, 1945-1963 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999)

A complex, dense, multi-faceted work that nearly two decades after its original publication still continues to provoke debate and discussion. Trachtenberg’s assertion that the ‘German question’ was central to the conduct of the Cold War is persuasive. In particular his foregrounding of the potential for a West German nuclear weapons capability and the fears this provoked on both sides of the Iron Curtain is immensely valuable for those looking to understand how, why, and when ‘the bomb’ influenced global policy.

Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)

The Global Cold War is one of those works that – if you are interested in the post-1945 period – you simply must read. Analysing US and Soviet interventions in the developing world, Westad offers a genuinely international history, drawing from a huge range of archives and secondary sources. Newcomers to the field will find his introductory chapters particularly useful, tracing as they do the long term, ideological origins of the Cold War in a succinct and engaging fashion.

Vladislav Zubok, A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007)

Last, but in absolutely no way least, comes Vladislav Zubok’s masterful A Failed Empire. If you are looking to understand the Soviet perspective on the Cold War, as told through thorough and exhaustive archival research, start here! Some of the findings may startle those familiar with the more traditional, Western-focused narratives of the Cold War. Thus, this is essential reading for anyone interested in the subject.

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2 Responses to “Reading the Cold War”

  1. robteix November 13, 2014 at 1:46 pm #

    Thank you for this list. I’ve read “A Failed Empire” not long ago and I agree, I was very surprised at some of the findings there. I’m going to look for some of the other books on this list. Thanks again!

    • malcolmcraig November 16, 2014 at 1:54 pm #

      Thanks for the response. Zubok’s work is very good. There are some articles/chapters that he’s done on Stalin and Khrushschev’s attitudes towards nuclear weapons that are particularly interesting. If you end up reading more of the books on the list, I’d be delighted to hear your opinions.

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