The Cold War: A World History

By Odd Arne Westad

Allen Lane, £30

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Review by Julie McDowall

AFTER the Soviet Union’s collapse, many in the West congratulated themselves on winning the Cold War, but increasingly we’re hearing the opinion that it was unwise to regard 1991 as a victory. Had America treated Russia as a partner seeking assistance rather than a humiliated land requiring the civilising influence of capitalism, then perhaps there would have been no place for an authoritarian Putin with his intent to restore Russian pride.

Professor Westad’s book argues that America’s jubilation, coupled with Nato's eastward expansion, has left Russia “sulking at Europe’s door”. Not only does he question the triumphalist narrative of the Cold War’s conclusion but he interrogates the popular idea of the conflict as a battle in Europe between communism and capitalism. His ambitious book wrests attention away from the classic arenas of Moscow, Berlin and Washington, and looks instead at Indonesia, Chile, Angola, China and Korea, showing how the Cold War affected the globe and how it was, in turn, shaped by events in seemingly distant lands.

The author also challenges the established idea that the Cold War began after 1945. Instead, he sees its origins in the late 19th century when industrialisation was starting to show an ugly face, and European workers became radicalised. The First World War followed and was easily portrayed as a conflict between capitalists, with Lenin arguing soldiers had more in common with their rivals across the barbed wire than with the elites pushing them into battle. Then came the Depression, which seemed to confirm suspicions that capitalism was rotten, and so “the Soviet alternative” began to appeal to ever greater numbers.

Westad stretches the Cold War in both time and space, forcing us to tilt our heads and see it from a strange new angle. And what did the superpowers do in the extra time and space afforded them? They tried to recruit countries to their cause, naturally. In Africa and Asia, for example, the post-war era saw the old powers release their colonial grip. They could no longer afford the pompous luxury of empires, and two world wars had raised the question: “[By] what right did they rule others when they could not avoid repeatedly tearing their own continent to pieces?” Their money and legitimacy had vanished, and the Cold War filled the vacuum: America urged decolonisation along so they might gain access to markets which the colonial powers had jealously guarded, whereas the USSR saw it as a way of “putting pressure on the whole imperialist system”.

Leaping across continents and decades this book is so vast that, as the author admits, “it can do little but scratch the surface”. Consequently, it is best approached as an introduction to the Cold War beyond Europe. In a nervous period during which we seem to be moving into a new cold war, and where the prospect of nuclear conflict is once again in the news, a deeper understanding of the era can only be a good thing.