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10 Terrific Histories of the Cold War

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Sunday marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. For those of us who grew up during the Cold War it was an unforgettable moment—one we hoped for but didn’t necessarily expect to see. The fact that the wall fell, and did so with a simple announcement rather than at the barrel of gun, remains one of the most consequential events of the twentieth century.

To mark the anniversary of the fall of the wall, I will be posting my favorite books, memoirs, novels, films, and quotes about the Cold War, much as I did with this year’s centennial of the start of World War I. To kick things off, here are ten terrific histories of the Cold War:

- Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 (2012). Applebaum’s tour-de-force describes how the Iron Curtain descended on Eastern Europe. What distinguishes her writing is that she goes beyond describing how Josef Stalin succeeded in imposing his domination over Eastern Europe to describe the lives of ordinary people suddenly forced to live under Soviet rule.

-Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, Khrushchev’s Cold War: The Inside Story of an American Adversary (2006). Fursenko and Naftali plumbed previously secret Soviet archives to pull together the story of Nikita Khrushchev’s foreign policy. Not surprisingly, Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy figure prominently in Khrushchev’s Cold War, which provides a different perspective on U.S. foreign policy than most Americans are used to. (Fursenko and Naftali also wrote One Hell of a Gamble, a terrific book on the Cuban missile crisis).

- John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy During the Cold War (1982). Gaddis is America’s foremost Cold War historian, and when I was in graduate school, Strategies of Containment was required reading for its crisp assessment of how successive presidents shaped their approach to the Soviet Union. We have learned a lot more about U.S.-Soviet relations since the Cold War ended and the Soviet archives opened up. Gaddis has revised and extended some of his analysis as a result, in books such as We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (1997) and The Cold War: A New History (2006). Nonetheless, the original Strategies of Containment is worth reading to understand what we knew—or thought we knew—before the wall fell.

-Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas, The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made (1986). Isaacson and Thomas tell the story of six men who shaped American policy during the early Cold War years: Dean Acheson, Harry Truman’s secretary of state and the author of my favorite Cold War memoir, Present at the Creation; Charles “Chip” Bohlen, long-time diplomat and Soviet expert; Averell Harriman, Franklin Roosevelt’s special envoy to Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin; George Kennan, the foreign service officer whose “Long Telegram” and “X article” laid down the basic outlines of U.S. containment policy; Robert Lovett, Truman’s secretary of defense; and John McCloy, a lawyer who served Democratic and Republican presidents in a variety of diplomatic capacities (and who, in the interest of full disclosure, was chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations from 1953-1970).

-Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2005). Judt’s epic history of postwar Europe reviews the political, social, and economic forces that shaped the continent’s evolution in the aftermath of World War II. The distinctive feature of Postwar is that it tells the story on both sides of the Iron Curtain, highlighting how Europe was caught between two superpowers. Postwar was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and received CFR’s Arthur Ross Book Award in 2006.

-Melvyn Leffler and David S. Painter (eds.), Origins of the Cold War: An International History (1994). Most Cold War histories focus on events in Europe or on relations between Washington and Moscow. The essays that historians Leffler and Painter assembled take a different approach: they look at how the Cold War influenced countries around the world and the international system more broadly. The essays delve into traditional geopolitical and security issues and also into the social and cultural impact of the clash of East and West.

-David Remnick, Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire (1994). Remnick won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for his brilliant retelling of the Soviet Union’s final days. He had a front-row seat in witnessing the Soviet demise; starting in January 1988 he served a four-year stint as the Washington Post’s Moscow correspondent. In Lenin’s Tomb,he draws on the many conversations he had with Russians inside and outside of government to explain Mikhail Gorbachev’s push for reforms and why they led to the collapse of communism rather than its rebirth.

-Nicholas Thompson, The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War (2009). Paul Nitze and George Kennan were good friends. They were also fierce ideological rivals with diametrically opposed views on U.S. policy during the Cold War. Thompson tells the story of both men’s lives and how their competing views shaped how policymakers assessed U.S. policy. Thompson also brings a special insight to his story: Paul Nitze was his grandfather.

-Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (2006). Westad examines the legacy of the expansion of U.S.-Soviet rivalry to the rest of the globe. He shows how U.S.-Soviet competition drove events outside of Europe and triggered political, economic, and cultural upheavals in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. Those upheavals in turn created new challenges and crises that tested both superpowers.

-William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959). Writing at the height of the Cold War, Williams challenged the conventional wisdom that U.S. foreign policy was about the defense of freedom and protection of liberty. He instead contended that it had been driven by the desire for empire and expansion, and he placed the blame for the Cold War as much if not more on the United States than on the Soviet Union. Several generations of historians have argued over Williams’ claims, and a half century later his telling of events is dated. Nevertheless, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy remains one of the most consequential histories of the Cold War, greatly shaping how historians on all sides of the subject subsequently approached the topic.

These ten books are by no means the only Cold War histories worth reading. Thousands of books and articles have been written on the subject. If you don’t see one of your favorites listed here, please mention it in the comments below.

This piece first appeared in CFR’s blog The Water’s Edge here.

TopicsThe Berlin Wall RegionsGermany

Destined to Disappoint: What Barack Obama Should Have Learnt From Tony Blair

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Six years ago, America voted for change.  Crushed under the weight of the Iraq War and, ultimately, a collapsing financial system, George W. Bush’s approval rating had averaged just 37 percent during his second term and stood at a miserable 22 percent when he left office.  At the time, most observers recognized that the 2008 election was Barack Obama’s to lose.  The American public was content to back Obama as the archetypal anti-Bush candidate.

“I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless,” Obama had told the his party’s nominating convention.  “This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth.”  These were tall orders indeed.

Fast forward just two years and President Obama already had alienated much of the country.  The 2010 midterm elections delivered what the president famously described as a “shellacking,” the largest change in Congressional seats in over sixty years.  Disappointment and frustration with the administration was most palpable among Obama’s base.  In a video clip that crystallized the prevailing mood, self-identified “middle-class American” Velma Hart confided her exasperation at a town hall meeting with the president: “I had been told that I voted for a man who said he was going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class,” Ms. Hart explained. “I'm one of those people and I'm waiting, sir. I’m waiting.”

Disappointment with the Obama administration continues to run deep.  The Democrats looks set to incur heavy losses in next week’s midterm elections, and many in the party are laying the blame at the door of the White House. But is the rot of disillusionment surprising, or could we have seen it coming?

There are some parallels with another left-of-center leader—Britain’s Tony Blair.  In 1997, Blair led a Labour Party that looked certain to replace John Major’s ailing Conservatives as Britain’s party of government.  After 18 years of Tory “misrule”—economic crises, various scandals of ministerial misconduct (so-called “sleaze”), and blistering backbench rebellions against Major’s leadership—the country was ready for something different.  “A new day has dawned, has it not?” asked Blair, rhetorically, upon securing his parliamentary majority, fully aware of the widespread optimism that his party’s victory inspired.

Like Obama, Blair promised to “clean up” politics.  His government would introduce an “ethical” foreign policy in contrast to the wheeling and dealing of the Thatcher and Major governments, which had been accused of supplying arms to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq among other things.  Labour would pass a Freedom of Information Act to make government more transparent.  Public services would be well-resourced and responsive to peoples’ needs.  The drudgery of the Tory years was over; the promised land of New Labour politics had arrived.

Blair was destined to disappoint.  Already on the wane, public confidence in Blair plummeted in 2003 with the decision to invade Iraq.  He finally left office in 2007 under pressure from members of his own party who feared he would prove an electoral liability at the forthcoming general election.  Today, it is difficult to recall how much hope Tony Blair inspired in 1997; the disappointment and the undelivered promises overshadow the (considerable) achievements that Blair racked up in office.

First Blair and now Obama have learnt that if it is audacious to hope then it is also risky to inspire too much hope in others.  While hope can undeniably help parties and candidates to win elections, in the long-run such political tactics can undermine the credibility of individual politicians and the political process in general.  In 2010, Velma Hart let Obama know this in no uncertain terms, but the president really should have known what was coming.

One crucial difference between Blair and Obama is that people pinned their hopes on Tony Blair because eighteen years of gloom under the Conservative Party had pushed them towards seeing him as an emancipatory force; people pinned their hopes on Obama because he explicitly invited them to do so.  In Britain, Labour still struggles to reengage with voters and activists who feel badly let down by Blair and his co-partisans.  Likewise, the fallout from Obama’s disappointing spell in office will continue to affect U.S. politics long after next week’s elections.  For some of the most disillusioned, the effects may be irreparable.

Image: Creative Commons 2.0. 

TopicsDomestic Politics RegionsUnited States

New Caledonia: The Crisis America Isn't Going to Do Anything About

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Given the long list of items on the Obama administration’s foreign-policy agenda—American neglect of the South Pacific is understandable. There are no vital U.S. interests at stake in the region, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon. Unless, of course, the big strategic picture makes the Melanesian arc of islands as strategically vital as it proved to be during the Battle of Guadalcanal. But I’m not expecting the U.S. cavalry to come to the rescue in the near future if my homeland of New Caledonia burns. And that’s okay.

In a thought-provoking work of political forecasting dressed up as fiction, a renowned New Caledonian expert portrayed a coming civil war on this island of divided political aspirations. (Over half of the population wishes to remain French, but the indigenous Kanak minority wants independence). In this book, a Chinese-trained Kanak general, versed in the Confucian way of war and armed to the teeth by the PLA, manages to defeat the French army and the local population in a classic blitzkrieg. The U.S. Navy ends up sending a couple of aircraft carriers to defeat this Chinese-backed coup, but they somehow get defeated by crudely-armed insurgents on an aluminum boat wielding IEDs, and by New Caledonia’s natural defenses—its almost impenetrable barrier reef. Defeated and humiliated by a band of Chinese-backed insurgents, Uncle Sam limps home and out of the South Pacific.

I can practically hear the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff laughing out loud at this scenario; and it is, of course, gloriously unrealistic. But that’s not the point. The point the author was making is much more realistic: my homeland of New Caledonia risks descending into the second nasty civil war in thirty years. But in the real world, neither China nor the United States is likely to get involved before the place has burned to the ground.

Of course, the United States cannot be expected to shoulder the burden of conflict management every time someone takes up arms or threatens their neighbor halfway around the world. For all its hard and soft power, it is only normal that the United States should focus on and prioritize crises which challenge the international order, such as Ukraine, wars in the Middle East and China’s actions in the East and South China Seas.

If I were American, I would recommend that the United States prioritize its interests defined in terms of power. But I’m not American. I am from that tiny, forgotten island that you had to look up on Google Maps.

This South Pacific nation is currently undergoing a very tense political transition that will last until 2018, as its citizens are called to vote on whether to become independent or remain French. A civil war engulfed the country on this very question from 1984 to 1988, and there are danger signs that locals are arming up for future conflict.

Gun sales have gone through the roof since 2011, when the French government liberalized arms sales to this fragile country. Now, according to our research, New Caledonia—if it were independent—would be second only to the United States in the number of guns per capita. Ostensibly, this is for hunting. But, in actual fact, when you speak to local gun buyers, many of whom live in the capital—where there are only stray dogs and homo sapiens to hunt—they are pretty honest in admitting that they’re buying arms “just in case” the country collapses once again.

Unlike the United States, New Caledonia’s civil war is within living memory, and its wounds have hardly healed.

During the last civil war, some partisans of a French New Caledonia sent an informal delegation to Washington, D.C. to ask Ronald Reagan for diplomatic support. The president received them, and, so far as I was able to garner from interviews, gave a show of support with B-52 overflights and other tacit strategic signals. The CIA, according to Bob Gates, also kept a watchful eye.

But this was the Cold War, and U.S. interest in New Caledonia solely came from this broader geostrategic context. The last time the United States took notice of this unsinkable aircraft carrier was during the Second World War, when 1 million GIs used it as a base and field hospital to fight off the Japanese at Guadalcanal and to defend Australia’s eastern flank.

Although many Americans probably don’t know it, the U.S. presence had a huge influence on the course of local history. The sight of African-Americans in the U.S. army jump-started the local civil-rights movement for the Kanak people. One small political movement in the 1980s was even dedicated to petitioning the United States to add New Caledonia as the 51st state of the Union.

Nevertheless, I am under no illusions that, if conflict broke out in New Caledonia today, it would not be a U.S. priority to do anything about it, let alone take any notice. This is a sobering view, but I think it’s accurate.

This is not at all a critique of U.S. foreign policy. It is, I think, a realistic appreciation of the limits of great powers’ involvement in local crises in far-flung places.

To an extent, New Caledonia’s fate will be much more strongly influenced by Australia, New Zealand and France, and by neighboring Melanesian states, such as Papua New Guinea.

But most importantly, and this is a message which I stress to my interlocutors in New Caledonia, whether this conflict ends peacefully or on CNN depends almost solely on local leaders and populations—not on external powers like the United States, or international organizations like the UN.

I strongly appreciate any external shows of support for a peaceful transition that international actors can provide. In fact, I would positively praise a U.S. show of leadership and benevolent interest at the G20 summit in Brisbane next month. Even a one-line reference to New Caledonia in a press conference by a single world leader would have immensely positive repercussions in such a small place used to international neglect, and would strengthen local partisans of peace and undermine potential peace spoilers.

But I also know that Obama has bigger fish to fry, and I don’t blame the United States for not caring about what happens on a cigar-shaped island halfway around the world. So, while I’ll keep dreaming about a G20 miracle next month, I won’t stake any money on it. Realists can dream too; but they always wake up.           

Daryl Morini is the Director of the Centre for a Common Destiny, a conflict prevention think tank. He is currently finishing his PhD in preventive diplomacy.

Image: Flickr/Bruno Moure/CC by 2.0

TopicsForeign PolicyDomestic Politics RegionsSouth PacificNew CaledoniaUnited States

Revealed: How the Soviets Planned To Go To War with America's Navy

The Buzz

My thanks to colleague Anthony Bubalo for alerting me to this extraordinary 2013 paper published by the US Naval War College all about how the Soviet Union planned to hit America's aircraft carrier fleet in the event of war (h/t also to Information Dissemination, where Anthony found the paper).

The article is written by former Soviet naval officer Maksim Tokarev, and contains a depth of detail about Soviet military operations that I have never seen before. So there's plenty of red meat for the military wonks, including the fact that the Soviets planned to send a fleet of 100 bombers armed with anti-ship missiles against a US aircraft-carrier battle group, fully expecting to lose half of them to enemy action.

But there's also wit and drama, which you rarely find in these types of papers. Here's an account of an air-crew briefing for a mock raid by Soviet Backfire bombers on a US carrier fleet somewhere in the Pacific:

...a young second lieutenant...fresh from the air college, asked the senior navigator of the regiment, an old major: “Sir, tell me why we have a detailed flight plan to the target over the vast ocean, but only a rough dot-and-dash line across Hokkaido Island on way back?”

“Son,” answered the major calmly, “if your crew manages to get the plane back out of the sky over the carrier by any means, on half a wing broken by a Phoenix (ed. note: the name of a missile carried by the US Navy's F-14 fighters) and a screaming prayer, no matter whether it’s somewhere over Hokkaido or directly through the moon, it’ll be the greatest possible thing in your entire life!”

Tokarev also writes that the naval air force, tasked with sending its bombers against US carrier fleets, did not trust the targeting information they got from satellites or other intelligence methods. “The most reliable source of targeting of carriers at sea was the direct-tracking ship' or 'd-tracker”, a destroyer or other ship that shadows the US fleet constantly in peacetime, sending back coordinates just in case war breaks out. And when it does?

It was extremely clear that if a war started, these ships would be sent to the bottom immediately. Given that, the commanding officer of each had orders to behave like a rat caught in a corner: at the moment of war declaration or when specifically ordered, after sending the carrier's position by radio, he would shell the carrier's flight deck with gunfire...He could even ram the carrier, and some trained their ship's companies to do so; the image of a “near miss,” of the bow of a Soviet destroyer passing just clear of their own ship's quarter, is deeply impressed in the memory of some people who served on board US aircraft carriers in those years.

One other incredible detail about the targeting of US carrier battle groups:

...if you see a carrier in plain sight, the only problem to solve is how to radio reliably the reports and targeting data against the US electronic countermeasures. Ironically, since the time lag of Soviet military communication systems compared to the NATO ones is quite clear, the old Morse wireless telegraph used by the Soviet ships was the long-established way to solve that problem...While obsolete, strictly speaking, and very limited in information flow, Morse wireless communication was long the most serviceable for the Soviet Navy, owing to its simplicity and reliability.

This piece was first posted on The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Image: Creative Commons 2.0

TopicsSecurity RegionsRussia

North Korea is the Mafia: Lessons from the "Kim Jong-un has disappeared" Hysteria

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For six weeks, from September 3 to October 14, Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, disappeared from view. The rumors it triggered became increasingly outlandish. He was dead or dying; body doubles were being prepared (a favorite theory about his father); his sister was running the country (a female leader in North Korea?); factional infighting had broken out in the backrooms of Pyongyang; or he had been pushed aside in a coup.

As if to illustrate just how untethered the commentary had become, The Onion ran its own pretty funny mock story.

Now that the 'Young General' is back, the hangover has kicked in. Increasingly, the noteworthy story of the last two months is not Kim Jong-un's disappearance itself, but the explosion of over-the-top media speculation it unleashed, particularly in the West. In South Korea (where I live), the media coverage was obviously sustained, but not nearly as unhinged. I think we can draw a few conclusions from the speculative fun we all had last month:

1. The Kims get sick too, but the regime can stumble on for awhile:

This seems pretty banal, but everyone seemed to forget that Kim Jong-un's father Kim Jong-il suffered from a stroke and disappeared from view for twice as long back in 2008. At that time too, there was some hysteria, but nothing like this time around even though it was longer. I am not sure why.

It is worth noting that the Kims, obviously, lead pretty unhealthy lives. All three Kim monarchs were seriously overweight, if not obese, in their prime. All were rumored to be heavy drinkers and smokers, possibly abusing narcotics. Kim Jong-il's consumption of Hennessey was legend. North Korea even has a semi-formal prostitution service – the “joy brigade” – for its elites, presumably including the top leader. The Kims are the modern versions of the self-indulgent tyrants of antiquity, like Nero, living a lifestyle of gross over-indulgence. Not surprisingly, they have recurrent health issues.

But the state does not fall apart as a result. Presumably even North Korea, focused as it is on the “Sun King,” can muddle through on autopilot for at least a few months, a prediction I made before Kim Jong-un resurfaced. The Kims are the focus of global media attention, but there is a whole cluster of family, retainers, flunkeys, high-ranking Korean People's Army and Korean Worker's Party officials deeply vested in the continuation of the Kim monarchy. If these figures did not turn on each other in a factional power struggle after Kim Jong-il unexpectedly died in 2011, it was hard to see them doing so in these circumstances.

I've often thought a good analogy for North Korea is the mafia. North Korea engages in all sorts of illicit activities, from its well-known proliferation efforts to its less well-known meth operations and insurance fraud. The DPRK is what happens when the godfather and his cronies manage to take over a whole country; the Kims are the Korean version of the Corleones.

In such a structure, all the top players are bound to each other by blood, shared knowledge of each other's criminality and desire to keep the lifestyle and money rolling in. In the same way the Corleone family survived the Don's near assassination and semi-retirement, so will the Kim gangsterocracy. No one (in either family) wants the structure to fall apart because they are all complicit in its awfulness and enjoy its rewards, so the incentives are huge to put the system on autopilot when el hefe is temporarily incapacitated.

2. The media focus too much on the Kims:

Part of the problem must be the unique global media focus on the Kims, and specifically on the leader. In my experience with media as a commentator/talking head, I am routinely asked about the Kims themselves, including their personal habits, their mental state and their absurdities (Kim Jong-il's platform shoes and bouffant hair-style were favorites). The working assumption is often that they're just “bonkers”, as a Sky TV reporter asked me once.

But clearly no country with a large population can function without some manner of institutions tying the society together. And North Korea, in its own unique, gangsterish way, has those. The most important are the Army and the Party (probably, as we don't really know), soldered together by the personal relationships of the extended Kim clan. It is a curiously feudal or patrimonial structure, especially for a state that, in its ideology, formally condemns feudalism as backward and reactionary. It is not “Weberian” or rational. It is massively economically dysfunctional; it led, for example, to the famine of the 1990s. For this reason political scientists often define the DPRK as fragile or brittle and it is regularly near the top of the Fund for Peace' annual Failed State Index

But North Korea has managed to survive far greater challenges and hurdles than many thought it could overcome. Despite the death of Kim Il-sung, the cut-off of Soviet subsidies, the famines, the extreme isolation following the nuclear tests, the sudden death of Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un's disturbing desire to party with Dennis Rodman, the regime lurches on. Clearly there is much more going on that just a sun-king monarchy, however relentless the media focus on the top leadership.

3. The media enjoys the sheer lunacy and freedom to wildly speculate that North Korea opens up:

Perhaps I watch too much media coverage of North Korea, but I am always struck by how “unplugged” North Korea allows otherwise bland media networks and reporters to be. A year ago, wild unsubstantiated rumors circulated that Kim Jong-un's uncle (Jang Song-thaek) had been executed by wild dogs tearing him apart. This “story” originated in some obscure Chinese paper but was quickly picked up by Western media with little fact-checking. Almost certainly, the sheer luridness of it was appealing: North Korea is a black hole, the boy-king is probably bonkers anyway, so sure, why not run that story?

Similar media hype of North Korean kitschy ridiculousness can be seen in the stories about its discovery of a unicorn. Once again, the story went viral (Google it and see), probably for the sheer lunatic fun of reporting on North Korea. It's almost like you can say anything. That must be fun in a way. Consider all those “Kim looking at things” tumblrs. At some point, this is not really news anymore. It's comedy. But they are actually really serious ethical issues about laughing over North Korea, a place where hundreds of thousands are executed or imprisoned in appalling conditions. Remember that next time you hear some gratuitously parodic depiction of North Korea.

This piece was first posted on The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Image: Creative Commons 2.0/Flickr

TopicsSecurity RegionsNorth Korea

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