The Buzz

10 Cold War Memoirs Worth Reading

Yesterday, I posted a list of great histories of the Cold War. Those books provide an excellent analysis of the U.S.-Soviet superpower rivalry. Their great strength is their detachment—they are academic efforts to make sense of the decisions governments made. But you can also gain deep insight into the Cold War by reading the memoirs of the people who made those decisions. Below are my ten favorite Cold War memoirs—firsthand accounts of the events that shaped the second half of the twentieth century.

Here are seven memoirs by American policymakers:

-Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department(1969). Acheson’s ten years at the State Department are hard to top. As assistant secretary of state for economic affairs (1941-1944), undersecretary of state (1945-1947), and finally as secretary of state (1949-1953), he served during some of the most critical years in American history. Here are just three of the major events he helped shape: the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and the North Atlantic Treaty. If you want to understand how the Truman administration saw the emerging Cold War, Present at the Creation is a must read.

-James A. Baker III, The Politics of Diplomacy: Revolution, War & Peace, 1989-1992 (1995). The Cold War began. It also ended. And one of the reasons it ended peacefully—and many observers at the time worried that it wouldn’t—was Baker’s adroit diplomacy. He certainly brought well-tested negotiating and crisis-management skills to the task. After a successful law career, he served first as White House chief of staff and then as treasury secretary under Ronald Reagan. Baker’s memoir covers the final days of the Cold War and tells of how he and his colleagues struggled to make sense of the fact that the world they had known their entire adult lives no longer existed.

-George Bush and Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed (1998). I have left presidential memoirs off this list because they typically devote more space to domestic policy than to foreign policy. The elder Bush’s memoir is the exception. Written with Brent Scowcroft, his national security advisor, it makes clear that the peaceful demise of the Soviet Union was not inevitable. Leaders on both sides of the Iron Curtain worried about the new world they were entering, and on more than one occasion their initial instincts look terrible in retrospect. American voters may not have rewarded the elder Bush for his foreign policy successes, but historians are likely to be far kinder.

-Robert Gates, From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War (1996). Gates joined the CIA as an analyst in 1966 after being recruited while getting his master’s degree at Indiana University. He stayed with the CIA for much of the next quarter century, eventually becoming its director in 1991. That career trajectory enabled him to give a first-hand account of how five presidents, from Richard Nixon through George H.W. Bush, managed the Cold War. Gates explores how different personalities worked together to make important policy decisions. (Gates returned to the memoir genre in 2014 with Duty, his reflections on his time as secretary of defense from 2006 to 2011.)