Review: The Cold War: A World History by Odd Arne Westad

It may surprise you to hear this, but historians love fads. You may have thought that the guardians of knowledge about the past would be above such frivolities, but historians, just like most academics, are very susceptible to the latest intellectual trends. Whether it be social history, the cultural turn, microhistory, subaltern studies, digital humanities (still not sure what that is), revitalised editions of Marxism, or transnationalism, historical methodologies come in many new and interesting flavours, which in time become standardised options, reliable but slightly stale, just like their predecessors. The latest fashion is global history, with its subtypes: the history of globalisation, the history of a particular phenomenon or process, or the history of a particular “global” moment, for instance the social movements of 1968.

Historians spend a great deal of their time grappling with definitions and specifications. PhD topics are notable for their exhaustive specificity, and a quick perusal of any academic journal will reveal titles of extraordinary precision. Even when historians of more advanced experience write books with a grand scope, they always begin with hand-wringing remarks about problematic terminology and the difficulties of periodisation. It is startling, then, to observe those same historians advocating something so vast as global history.

Of course, I should not be misleading. The current fad allows for very specific research to be called “global history”, so long as it includes some account of global influences on the local case study. Yet this is not really a new methodology, but merely the expansion of context. At the other end, these histories of “global moments” and transnational processes, if carried to their logical conclusion, require such feats of scholarship as to be prohibitive. For this reason, there are times when, in my view, global history appears to be less a new method and more a way to create problems: intellectual make-work.

There are, however, occasions when global history is not only useful, but very engaging. Odd Arne Westad’s The Cold War: A World History is one such example. This monumental work follows the journey of the Cold War, from its foreshadowings in the First World War, all the way to its conclusion in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Along the way, Westad takes in all the usual landmarks of US-Soviet diplomacy, nuclear tensions, proxy wars, and domestic politics. More importantly, he integrates the well-known tale with an account of the ways in which Third World countries were drawn in, or chose to engage with, the conflict between the superpowers. In this way, he demonstrates the extent to which 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.” It is an outstanding feat of scholarship, giving equal attention to Africa, Latin America, and Asia, examining how countries on each continent responded to the opportunities and dangers raised by the ideological conflict. Westad’s expertise on China is brought to bear, along with the support of some talented research assistants, whom he takes care to acknowledge. The result is global history in the truest sense (even if he prefers to call it “world” history), as he outlines a geopolitical structure to which almost every nation was attached.

Of course, any historian of any war must address the question of blame, even on an implicit level. Westad is not dogmatic in his assessments, but it is evident that he attributes responsibility for the escalation of Cold War tensions to US leaders. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, he argues, the US “should have done more to keep open channels of communication, of trade, and of cultural and scientific exchange.” Stalin’s turn inward was probably unavoidable, but in Westad’s view, the Americans had the power to promote cooperation, and failed to use it. Without excessive condemnation, he presents the arrogance of American conduct during the latter half of the twentieth century, suggesting that in the 1950s, most Americans considered opposing Communism “part of their country’s fundamental quality”, as they engaged in an “unprecedented struggle for the soul of mankind”. The catastrophe of Vietnam was, of course, driven by this binary worldview, yet the most significant mistake of Kennedy and Johnson, Westad argues, was their insistence on viewing the north and the south as two different countries. Conflict between Saigon and Hanoi, therefore, was seen as a matter of invasion, rather than the internal tension that it actually was. A lopsided view of the world also brought an end to détente, because most Americans were unwilling to accept any nation as their equal, a conviction that was irreconcilable with the Soviets’ understanding of détente as an indication of true equality between the two superpowers. Westad does not discount the imperialistic and interventionist tendencies of the Soviet Union, but he makes it clear that, by and large, the United States was the more forceful, more intransigent aggressor in the Cold War.

Westad’s extensive material on the fortunes of Third World countries is a powerful illustration of this point. He shows us US support for brutal regimes for Africa, such as the brutal overthrow and killing of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, when the local military murdered the left-wing prime minister before the CIA could enact its own assassination plan. We read of the brutal attitude toward Latin America, considered by US leaders as “a special zone in which US power had to reign supreme to protect basic US security and US global aims”. This outlook led to the antidemocratic, unyielding treatment of governments such as that in Chile, led by Salvador Allende. Nixon, driven by a fear of a second Cuba arising in the south, advised the CIA to “make the economy scream”; and when Pinochet betrayed and overthrew Allende, the Washington administration took a favourable view of the new dictatorship, even as it showed its ruthlessness. And perhaps the most absurd example of US foreign influence was in Cambodia: during the Reagan years, American assistance was provided to local forces who fought the (Communist) Vietnamese-backed government, forces that, in fact, included remnants of the former Khmer Rouge. US support ensured that the conflict rattled on, preventing any kind of sustained economic reconstruction after decades of warfare in the region.

All these narrative threads support Westad’s contention that the Cold War was truly an ideological conflict, driven by the superpowers’ respective commitments to their visions of the future. Indeed, in his view, this ideological passion is the only thing that can explain the otherwise bizarre choices by Cold War leaders, as they ratcheted up nuclear tensions and put the world on the brink of total destruction. Such “unconscionable risks with the fate of the earth” were taken, he concludes, because both sides genuinely believed their system was the best answer to the problems that faced humanity in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Given this perspective, it is surprising that Westad does not offer any significant analysis of these ideologies. Indeed, though it is a very impressive synthesis, this book does contain a few curious inconsistencies. It is often unclear whether it is pitched at a general reader or a specialist: naturally, good background knowledge of twentieth-century history is assumed, yet there are times when he makes narrative or analytical jumps that require a certain historical background to comprehend. There are, too, a few lost threads in Westad’s voluminous skein. He entitles his chapter on the late 1960s and early 1970s “The Age of Brezhnev”, suggesting that the Soviet leader, unlike other, more radical figures, was the most accurate symbol of this transformative time, because he stood for the attempt by political leaders to impose order on an uncertain era. This is quite a compelling interpretation, yet he does not sustain the argument, and the chapter settles into a straightforward overview of the period. As mentioned, his argumentation about ideology is also patchy. At the outset of the book, he stages the Cold War as a global ideological struggle, and returns to this concept at times throughout the book, but on the whole The Cold War reads like a straightforward political-economic narrative, with a few notes about social and cultural development included for variation and illustration. Westad’s vision is expansive, powerful, and detailed, yet his own key concepts slip out of view as he attempts to interweave narratives.

Of course, I am a little biased, because I am always a little dissatisfied with historians who are not very compelling prose stylists. Despite the theatrical nature of his material, Westad’s writing lacks drama: rather than opening his book with an engrossing anecdote or powerful statement, he begins with a rather dry comment about how the Cold War affected Norway. This has the potential to be quite engaging, but he drops the point, never referring to it again for the ensuing six hundred pages. There are many who would disagree with me, but I believe that history should be written in a manner that inspires its readers with the same sense of urgency that filled those who participated in the actual events. It is not enough to know of the past, we must also feel it. Westad is a historian of great stature, but this is not his strong suit.

Still, there is no doubt that this is an outstanding summary of the Cold War, and serves as an excellent introduction to people such as myself, who are beginning to explore the topic in more detail. I would hesitate to recommend it to those lacking a minimum level of general knowledge about recent history, which is to say that if your only knowledge of the Cold War is derived from secondary school textbooks, it may be better to do some other reading before tackling this tome. Above all, this is an excellent example of what global history is good for: drawing connections between people and events across vast distances, illuminating the influence of ideas upon disparate occurrences, and revealing how the contradictory facets of a superpower’s foreign policy fit (or not!) into a larger whole. I have a bad memory for detail, and there is a great deal of this book that I will promptly forget. What I will retain, however, is an impression of the Cold War as not a war, but a collection of constant interactions between states and peoples, in which those who benefitted were greatly outnumbered by those who suffered, as ideologies and interests were pursued with little remorse.

English, history, and other things. My first novel THE LAST WORLD is available on Amazon.

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