Revisiting the Cold War

In The Guardian, James Buchan reviews two new books on the Cold War, The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis and The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times by Odd Arne Westad.

Gaddis is glad the cold war was fought as it was fought and won by the side that won it. Like some primary-school teacher, he hands out prizes for effort to pretty well everyone: Eisenhower, Nixon, Walesa, Reagan, Thatcher, Pope John Paul, Deng Xiaoping and, above all, Gorbachev, who managed to defuse the whole contraption without it blowing up in his face.

Odd Arne Westad, the Norwegian-born scholar who heads the Cold War Studies Centre at the London School of Economics and has hitherto concentrated on China and the Far East, is less sanguine. He believes that the cold war, far from being a conflict necessary to clear the ideological air, was a continuation, under new management, of the old European colonial enterprise. Westad, too, gives out prizes but only to the tragic failures: Lumumba, Cabral, Guevara, Gorbachev.

Each approach has its charm. It is pleasant, on reading Gaddis, to see the public events of one’s childhood or youth gathered into a lucid and elegant narrative and, as it were, put away out of sight. Westad offers a philosophy of history that, though not wholly free of leftese, better accommodates 9/11 and the US occupation of Iraq. There is no wasteful overlap. Westad ignores Berlin 1948, Gaddis has nothing on Katanga 1964.