Born and raised in Norway, Odd Arne Westad is a prize-winning historian, who now teaches at Harvard. In The Cold War, he has written a very big book. The result qualifies as a goldmine of sorts. That is, it contains occasional nuggets. Unfortunately, unearthing those nuggets requires patience and persistence.
The episode commonly referred to as the Cold War, lasting from the mid-1940s to the late 1980s, ended more than a quarter-century ago. Readers who are not especially knowledgeable about all that occurred during that interval—and today there are surely many—will find Westad’s account instructive. Global in scope, it is comprehensive and, given the ground it covers, succinct. With rare exceptions, it gets the facts right.
It is also conventional. Those familiar with the principal political, diplomatic, and military events of the period won’t find much here that they don’t already know. The Cold War will not make them think anew about the past and the relationship of past to present. The nuggets it yields tend to be small. In that regard, it disappoints.
Westad describes the Cold War as a product of ideological competition and geopolitical upheaval. Ideologically, it pitted capitalism against socialism, or “the market, with all its imperfections and injustices” against “the plan, which was rational and integrated.” Geopolitically, according to Westad, the Cold War represents “a stage in the advent of U.S. global hegemony.”
In the decades following its Civil War, the United States had muscled its way onto the global scene as “an international troublemaker.” Indeed, Westad writes, “The history of the world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is first and foremost a history of the growth of American power.” The new arrival on the world stage was a destabilizing force. It “refused to play by the rules.” America’s “ideas were revolutionary, its mores were upsetting, and its doctrinarism dangerous.”
Possessing a “foreign policy ideology of great force and coherence,” the United States “felt an obligation” to the rest of the world to “re-create it in the U.S. image.” Europe’s collective suicide, which commenced in 1914, presented the United States with an opportunity to do just that. By 1945, only the Soviet Union, representing an alternative future and supported by the Communist faithful around the world, stood in the way.
Westad fingers the United States as principal instigator of the ensuing quarrel. Devastated by their clash with Nazi Germany, the Soviets “did not have a master plan for what to do in Eastern Europe when the war was over.” In a vastly more favorable position, Washington “should have done more to keep open channels” of trade and communication. Instead, it opted for “containment rather than the integration of [the] Soviet Union” into the postwar order. In short, the Americans might have cut the Kremlin some slack, Westad believes, but they chose otherwise.
Having explained the origins of the conflict, Westad then embarks on a Long March across four crisis-punctuated decades, employing the Soviet-American rivalry as an all-purpose interpretive lens. “Over and over,” he writes, “events that were in origin local and specific metamorphosed into manifestations of a global struggle.” Given the expanse of material covered, many of those events receive only cursory attention. So the creation of NATO, the Suez Crisis of 1956, the 1968 Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia, and the fall of the Berlin Wall each get roughly three pages.
Sprinting from episode to episode, Westad rarely has anything original to say about any of them. At times, the text reads like a very long Wikipedia entry. The narrative drags. When The Cold War finally reaches its conclusion, the reader is likely to feel as exhausted as were participants in the Cold War itself.