Books to get you started on understanding the Cold War era
With the third year of the pandemic looming, David Moscrop went searching desperately for a hobby – a search that ended when he started looking at his bookshelves in a new way. In his first column, he pulled together a reading list on medieval literature and then dragged it into the real world through food, drink, video games and film. In this one, he decided to tackle something a little more recent.
The fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s heralded the end of the Cold War and the triumph of liberal democracy – or so said the chorus of voices who believed history had arrived at something like an “end.” But the world order that emerged after the Second World War and developed into a First (Western), Second (Communist Bloc) and Third (Non-Aligned) World was stickier than many predicted. The persistence of a Cold War mentality, lingering historical antagonisms and rivalries, and the domestic and international political institutions formed throughout the last century continue to shape our lives.
In The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade & the Mass Murder Program That Shaped Our World (PublicAffairs, 2020), former Washington Post and Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent Vincent Bevins traces the history of U.S. foreign interventions that led us to where we are today. While casual observers of American history may neglect to think of Indonesia as a crucial player in the geopolitics of the past century, Bevins leverages archival research and interviews to argue the U.S. pioneered a bloody anti-communist strategy there in the 1960s that it exported around the world. He makes a compelling case.
The United States was not the only country to pursue brutal foreign (and domestic) policy during the Cold War. The Soviet Union’s imperialism is well known. China’s domestic atrocities are too. But that’s not what The Jakarta Method is about. “I spent less time discussing the real atrocities carried out by certain communist regimes in the 20th century,” Bevins writes. Why not? For one, they’re well known. But more to the point: America won the Cold War, he says, emerging as a global hegemon in a unipolar world made possible by its 20th-century imperial misadventures. This is a history of the victor and the bloody price of that victory.
The preponderance of Cold War era cultural fodder in the West, from films to television shows to books, obscures the complex history of the era, smoothing out an enduring global conflict, simplifying the matter by reducing it all to Good versus Evil and counting on people not to look too closely at the details. One of the more iconic entries in the pop culture catalogue from the time is Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October (Naval Institute Press, 1984). Iconic in its own right, the novel that introduced the world to CIA analyst Jack Ryan was made into a hit film in 1990 starring Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin and Sam Neill. The book is a classic Cold War thriller. A renegade Soviet submarine is chased by two superpowers as its captain, Marko Ramius, exacts revenge on the motherland. Clancy alternates between high-paced page-turner tropes and detailed descriptions of military technology, tactics and strategies.
It’s easy to dismiss such a novel as Western propaganda by way of a pot boiler. In many ways, it is. But it’s not without insight. Beyond the research that gives the book technical credibility and the precision of the prose, Clancy captures the politics of the time and some lessons for all times. In a scene referring to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Ryan summarizes the blunder for an admiral, saying “Sir, the truth is Moscow moved in there by mistake.” The “mistake” line echoes Barbara Tuchman’s 1962 volume, The Guns of August. That book captured how states fell into combat in the First World War – how they became locked into a deadly logic from which they were unable to escape.
Noting the Soviet “mistake,” Ryan continues, “From where I sit, I don’t see that they know what they want to do. In a case like this the bureaucratic mind finds it most easy to do nothing. So, their field commanders are told to continue the mission, while the senior Party bosses fumble around looking for a solution and covering their asses for getting into the mess in the first place.” Some of these lines could be repurposed as a critique of the American invasion of Afghanistan – or Iraq – decades later.
The Cold War happened in Canada, too. Sometimes that’s easy to forget, fixated as we are by a focus on the United States and the Soviet Union. In Just Watch Us: RCMP Surveillance of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Cold War Canada (MQUP, 2018), Christabelle Sethna and Steve Hewitt unearth voluminous records obtained by access to information inquiries. With them, they tell the story of how the Royal Canadian Mounted Police surveilled, infiltrated and disrupted the women’s movement in the 1960s and 70s.
Sethna and Hewitt interrogate the RCMP’s intelligence history prior to it being split from the force with the creation of the Canada Security Intelligence Service in the 1980s. They build out the concept of the “red tinged prism,” a security lens through which “the state was perpetually endangered by communism through espionage and, most significantly of all, by the spectre of subversion.” That helps us understand, though not excuse, police motives.
The red-tinged prism reveals a paranoid state lacking confidence in its own capacity to promote and preserve liberal democracy. As Sethna and Hewitt put it, “the counter-subversion activities of the RCMP Security Service in general, including its red-tinged framing of the women’s liberation movement, reflected a lack of trust in the stability of Canada’s liberal-democratic system and a desire to ensure that any change was monitored, moderated and allowed to flow only along preferred streams; if necessary, it would be disrupted.” Today, the same could be said no doubt of state opposition to new social and resistance movements, including Indigenous land defence and anti-colonial action.
As talk of a “new” Cold War emerges, a look at the geopolitics of the last century yields a series of warnings. Whether we are doomed to repeat the paranoia, proxy wars, arms races and imperialism of that dead century is not predetermined. If we can find a way to resist imperialism all the way down and establish a functioning world community of nations that can address contemporary challenges, including the existential threat of climate change, remains to be seen. The odds, it seems, are against us. But they’ve appeared to be against us before, and we’re still here. For now, at least.
Food and drink
As tempted as you might be to eat and drink your way through Cold War history with TV dinners, vodka, canned foods, McDonald’s – the first fast-food joint in the Soviet Union, who are now leaving Russia for good – there is no food that better transcends borders and historical eras than pierogis. Everyone will have their preferred way to cook and eat them, but the best way is the way you like best. Given the news cycles these days, the only recommendation one might insist upon is volume. More is more. You deserve it.
There may be no grimmer depiction of the Cold War nuclear threat than the 1964 thriller Fail Safe. Starring Walter Matthau, Henry Fonda and Larry Hagman, the film begins with a computer error and ends with, well, no spoilers, but you can probably guess from context. Set up as an idealist versus realist debate, the film is rife with classic lines that hold up and explain a contemporary politics nearly six decades removed from the time. A few quotations stand out as particularly prescient, including the prediction of drones, “The next airplanes, they won’t need men,” and a critique of the military-industrial complex and logic of mutually assured destruction, “We’re setting up a war machine that acts faster than man’s ability to control it.”
In June, 2020, Electronic Arts released a remastered 4K editions of two of its Command and Conquer real-time strategy games. Reserved for Windows play only – alas, Mac users – the new edition includes both the original Command and Conquer and the Cold War inspired Command and Conquer: Red Alert. After watching Fail Safe, you’ll have earned some down time with this classic and some pierogis.