A carefully selective cold-war account

THE cold war is over, and the ideological division of the world that began in 1945 has disappeared with amazing speed, without battle or much bloodshed. Martin Walker, former Moscow bureau chief for the Guardian of London, offers us an imaginative and smoothly written account, free from cant, of this half-century often burdened with flip judgments.

As a journalist, Walker writes clearly, decisively, alert to the telling phrase. Consider the Soviet hierarch Anastas Mikoyan, musing in retrospect about the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, ``You Americans must understand what Cuba means to us old Bolsheviks. We have been waiting all our lives for a country to go Communist without the Red Army, and it happened in Cuba. It makes us feel like boys again.''

And there is Dean Acheson writing to Anthony Eden in England in 1968 as one retired statesman to another: ``I begin to think that LBJ may be in trouble. It is not Vietnam alone. The country would probably stay with him on that. But Vietnam plus the riots is very bad. It spells frustration and a sense of feebleness at home and abroad. Everyone pushes the USA around.''

Clearly, Walker knows the secondary sources well and has mined them intensively. But many authors do that. What matters is his interpretation of the cold war as much more than the conventional communist vs. capitalist conflict.

His is nothing less than a carefully selective world history during 1944-92, from the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, through the inevitable Soviet-American conflict over Europe that followed, and on to the global changes that involve Presidents Gorbachev and Clinton. So there is Korea, Vietnam, and the nuclear stalemate, to be sure, but also nationalism, as the third world gained independence in the 1950s and '60s; economics, as American business lost its way in the 1970s; and political transformation as Gorbachev's reforms shook the 1980s.

Walker is skilled at moving from these broad historical rivers to the sudden storms that punctuate his narrative. Berlin in 1946 and 1961, Korea in 1950, Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam during 1954, Quemoy and Matsu on the coast of communist China during 1957 - the list stretches on, with crisis management, or brinkmanship, at its heart.

Walker, using the transcripts of Soviet-American conferences during 1987-91, is particularly good on the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. The military of both sides were hawkish, with the US Air Force's General Curtis LeMay insisting, ``It's the greatest defeat in our history, Mr. President ... We should invade [Cuba] today.''

And Nikita Khrushchev later said of his generals, ``They looked at me as though I was out of my mind or, what was worse, a traitor. The biggest tragedy, as they saw it, was not that our country might be devastated and everything lost, but that the Chinese or Albanians would accuse us of appeasement or weakness.''

The generals were no less blind as the Soviet system collapsed in the 1990s, making the United States the first unchallenged global superpower, and leaving the future of the former Soviet Union the key question for the next century.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.