10 Cold War Memoirs Worth Reading

November 4, 2014 Topic: Cold War Region: United States Blog Brand: The Buzz

10 Cold War Memoirs Worth Reading

"Their great strength is their detachment—they are academic efforts to make sense of the decisions governments made." 


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.)

-George Kennan, Memoirs 1925-1950 (1967) and Memoirs 1950-1963 (1972). If one person deserves credit for formulating the strategy that the United States pursued during the Cold War, it’s Kennan. First in the Long Telegram and then in the “X article,” he made the case for containment of the Soviet Union. Kennan left the Foreign Service in 1950, disillusioned that the Truman administration had given containment a more militaristic bent than he had intended. Other than a brief stint as U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1952, he spent most of the next fifty-five years at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton writing elegantly though critically about U.S. foreign policy. His first memoir covers his early years as a Foreign Service officer and the beginning of the Cold War. His second memoir recounts his time as the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union and conveys his reflections on U.S. Cold War policy in the 1950s and early 1960s.

-Henry Kissinger, White House Years, Years of Upheaval, and Years of Renewal (1979). As national security advisor for Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and then as secretary of state under Ford, Kissinger dominated the U.S. foreign-policy process in a way that no one outside of a president has done before or since. He was a central figure in shaping U.S. policy in Vietnam, détente with the Soviet Union, and the opening to China to name just a few of the monumental policy initiatives he helped fashion and implement. In his three-volume memoir, Kissinger reflects on the decisions that the Nixon and Ford administrations made as well as on his relationships with both presidents.

-George P. Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State (1993). Few people can match Shultz’s career. He taught economics at MIT and the University of Chicago for nearly two decades, served as secretary of labor (1969–70), director of the Office of Management and Budget (1970–72), secretary of the treasury (1972–1974), and then headed up the Bechtel Corporation. He capped off his government career as Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state from 1982 to 1989. From his seventh floor office at the State Department, he engaged in legendary bureaucratic infighting with Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and helped shaped U.S. foreign policy in the final years of the Cold War. In his memoir, Shultz takes readers behind the scenes of the Reagan administration and offers his assessment of Reagan the man.

Of course, the Soviets had their own views of the Cold War. Here are three memoirs by senior Soviet officials worth reading:

-Anatoly Dobrynin, In Confidence: Moscow’s Ambassador to Six Cold War Presidents (1995). Dobrynin served as the Soviet Union’s ambassador to the United States from 1962 until 1986. He witnessed a lot of ups and down during his quarter of a century in Washington: Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko lying to President John Kennedy in the Oval Office about Soviet missiles in Cuba, the rise of détente, and the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to name just a few. His memoir provides a different perspective on how American politicians and policymakers handled the Cold War.

-Mikhail Gorbachev, Memoirs (1996). In the West, Gorbachev is a hero for recognizing the inevitable and allowing the Soviet Union to collapse. For many of his fellow Russians he is a villain for the same reason. In his memoir, Gorbachev explores why and how he revolutionized his country, transformed relations with the West, and helped end the Cold War. His account hasn’t done much to change how Russians feel about him, but it does make clear that at critical points in history, individuals matter.

-Nikita Khrushchev, Memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev, Volume III: Statesman(2007). Khrushchev was one of the Cold War’s most blustery personalities. He vowed to “bury the West,” challenged then–Vice President Richard Nixon in a kitchen debate, and banged his shoe on a desktop at the United Nations. Those theatrics, plus his reckless instigation of the Cuban missile crisis and his mishandling of relations with China, help explain why his Politburo colleagues dumped him as Soviet premier in 1964. While under house arrest following his ouster, he dictated his memoirs—and he had a lot to say. Khrushchev’s memoirs were originally published as Khrushchev Remembers in the 1970s. (Strobe Talbott, who later became deputy secretary of state and president of the Brookings Institution, was the translator.) But Khrushchev’s son had a new and more complete version published.

My suggestions hardly exhaust the supply of good Cold War memoirs. So please list your favorites in the comments below.

This piece first appeared in the CFR blog The Water's Edge.