Formally, the Cold War began in 1945 and ended in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In fact, its roots began long before 1945 and its effects still reverberate today.
Newspaper headlines illustrate how the Cold War is becoming more overt as Russia threatens Ukraine and other neighboring countries, and China threatens Taiwan and crushes democracy in Hong Kong.
This post is the latest in my What-I’m-Reading series. It integrates insights from dramatic portrayals, biographies, and a remarkable scholarly overview.
The Context of Russian History
Amor Towles’s novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, provides wonderful glimpses into Russia in the first half of the 20th Century. It is the story of Count Alexander Rostov, who is sentenced to house arrest in a tiny attic of the grand Hotel Metropol in Moscow and becomes the head waiter at its fancy restaurant. The story starts in 1922 and ends in 1954, with a wide-ranging cast of characters whose adventures in the hotel illustrate how the Soviet Union evolved during that time. It goes back even before then as Rostov describes his aristocratic life before the Revolution. As the story progresses, we see revolutionaries gathering to hash out policies, apparatchiks, cultural heroes, intellectuals, political prisoners, everyday workers, foreign visitors, and more. Rostov is a charming, erudite character who has a keen eye and loves food and drink. You have to suspend disbelief at times, but, hey, this is a novel. The audiobook narration really brings the characters to life.
The Cold War grew out of and in reaction to Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator, by Oleg Khlevniuk, provides a fascinating detailed account of his life and the world around him. The author had access to previously secret Soviet archives and provides an apparently accurate and balanced account.
Stalin probably would not have been the towering figure in Soviet history if Lenin had not died prematurely. Lenin was the paramount leader of the Russian Revolution and initial regime. Stalin had high-level positions, and he and Lenin were political allies but they differed on various issues. There is some indication that, at the end of his life, Lenin planned to remove Stalin from power, but obviously this didn’t happen. After Lenin’s death in 1924, there was a period of collective leadership. Stalin proved to be an effective bureaucratic infighter, consolidating his power by subordinating or eliminating rivals. He was a stubborn and brutal dictator who exercised hegemony over countries behind the “Iron Curtain” and whose policies led to a police state with extensive spying in the Soviet Union and other countries, Big Brother propaganda, horrible economic decisions including forced collectivization, mass starvation, concentration camps (gulags), show trials, and purges. He was a bad guy.
World War II led to his rise as the leader of the international communist movement and protagonist in the Cold War. In 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union made the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact, but Germany broke the agreement by invading the Soviet Union in June 1941. After an initially successful blitzkrieg offensive in which Germany took a lot of Soviet territory, the Soviet Union stopped the German advance just short of Moscow. The tide of the war turned against Germany as the US and UK allied with the Soviets. Stalin asked for an Allied invasion in Western Europe to weaken and distract Hitler, and Stalin was frustrated because the Allies didn’t launch the D-Day attacks until June 1944. By the time Germany fell in April 1945, the Soviet Union had occupied Eastern Europe.
In the summer of 1945, the leaders of the US, UK, and USSR met in Potsdam to plan the post-War world. In 1947, the US launched the Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe, and Western powers formed NATO in 1949, which the Soviets found threatening. The Soviets organized counterpart Communist organizations, the Comecon and Warsaw Pact, in 1949 and 1955, respectively. Stalin promised to permit Eastern European countries to be governed independently and there were plans for unification of Germany after a temporary division into four zones. There were mutual recriminations about which side failed to meet its obligations under the agreements.
Soviet spies stole secret US designs for the atomic bomb and the Soviet Union tested its own atomic bomb in 1949. Both sides sought to build alliances around the world and the Cold War had taken off.
Stalin died in 1953. He was succeeded by a series of leaders who did not have power unified in a single man – until Vladimir Putin.
For a detailed history of Stalin’s life, check out the Wikipedia page.
Communist Sympathizers and Spies
Today, communism is almost completely discredited in the West, but not so 90 years ago. In the wake of the Depression, many leftists in the US and Europe lost faith in capitalism. Robber barons had dominated the economies while millions lived in poverty. Leftists viewed capitalism as an individualistic system where it was every man (and woman and child) for him- or herself, with little concern for the common good. Although the Progressive Movement in the US had successfully advocated for some reforms at the beginning of the 20th Century, courts invalidated some of them and the reforms didn’t solve fundamental problems of capitalism. And they certainly didn’t prevent the Depression.
So it was not unusual for publicly-minded people to join the Communist Party or be “communist sympathizers.” Indeed, this was considered quite admirable, normal, and even fashionable in some circles. As the McCarthy hearings demonstrated, many of our social icons had been communists or “fellow travelers” in the 1930s and 40s. At the time, liberals were split about communism and the Soviet Union. Some idealistically lauded the Soviet Union’s purported egalitarian ideology and opposition to Hitler, while others recognized the dangers both because of Stalin’s genocidal police state tactics in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and Soviet subversion of unions and political organizations in the US.
The Soviet Union had extensive spy networks that penetrated Western intelligence agencies. In two sensational cases that dominated the news, Alger Hiss and Judith and Ethel Rosenberg were accused of spying for the Soviets. In fact, the Rosenbergs were spies and they were convicted and executed for giving nuclear secrets to the Soviets. Mr. Hiss was convicted of perjury for lying about whether he was a spy but experts never agreed whether he actually was a spy. Conservatives had no doubt that they were spies but liberals believed that they had been framed by anti-communists like Senators Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon.
The Netflix movie, Red Joan, is a compelling dramatization showing why some people were communist sympathizers and even spied for the Soviet Union. Adapted from a true story, it shows how the assistant to a British nuclear scientist became a Soviet spy. It toggles back and forth between contemporary scenes of the now-elderly woman being interrogated by police and the story of how she started spying during World War II. Watching the fabulous Dame Judi Dench as the elderly woman, you understand why this made sense to her as a patriotic Brit. Although the movie got mixed reviews, I really enjoyed it.
For a deeply engrossing account of Soviet infiltration of the British MI6, read A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre, based in part on British intelligence files. A product of the British upper class, Mr. Philby was recruited as a Soviet spy in the 1930s, along with his Cambridge classmates, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, who were convinced that the Soviet Union was the best defense against fascism. The book paints a vivid – and unflattering – portrait of British class society, especially in its intelligence services.
Brilliant and debonaire, Mr. Philby became head of Britain’s counterintelligence against the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War. At one point, he was considered as a possible head of MI6 overall. As charming as James Bond (with a similar appetite for alcohol and women), he was, however, a villain from the West’s perspective, not a hero. He corrupted US counterintelligence as well as that of the UK. Although there had been suspicions for some time about whether he was a double agent, it was only in 1963 when he was finally outed. Perhaps surprisingly, the UK allowed him to defect to the Soviet Union, where he lived until his death in 1988.
Even though you know that he was eventually exposed, the story is as gripping as any spy novel. The audiobook is particularly well narrated and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It includes an afterword by the novelist John Le Carré, who had been an MI6 operative, and he left the service after Mr. Philby blew his cover. Wikipedia provides a detailed biography of Mr. Philby, but I suggest that you don’t read it if you plan to read the book.
It’s a MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD Cold War
After the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb, the Cold War was off to the races. Having seen the frightening effects of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, people naturally were afraid of the effects of atomic war and how the US and USSR might exercise power by threatening to use these weapons. This sparked the “arms race” in which both countries built their nuclear arsenals as fast as they could. In a short time, they accumulated enough weapons to destroy the earth many times over.
The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War, by Nicholas Thompson, is a fascinating dual biography that sheds light on the deliberations within the US government about how to deal with the arms race. Here’s an excerpt from the publisher’s description:
Both men came to power during World War II, reached their professional peaks during the Cold War’s most frightening moments, and fought epic political battles that spanned decades. Yet despite their very different views, Paul Nitze and George Kennan dined together, attended the weddings of each other’s children, and remained good friends all their lives. … Nitze – the hawk – was a consummate insider who believed that the best way to avoid a nuclear clash was to prepare to win one. More than any other American, he was responsible for the arms race. Kennan – the dove – was a diplomat turned academic whose famous “X article” persuasively argued that we should contain the Soviet Union while waiting for it to collapse from within.
Here’s an excerpt from the Wikipedia page for George Kennan:
During the late 1940s, his writings inspired the Truman Doctrine and the U.S. foreign policy of “containing” the Soviet Union. His “Long Telegram” from Moscow during 1946 and the subsequent 1947 article, The Sources of Soviet Conduct, argued that the Soviet regime was inherently expansionist and that its influence had to be “contained” in areas of vital strategic importance to the United States. These texts provided justification for the Truman administration’s new anti-Soviet policy. Kennan played a major role in the development of definitive Cold War programs and institutions, notably the Marshall Plan.
Soon after his concepts had become U.S. policy, Kennan began to criticize the foreign policies that he had helped articulate. By late 1948, Kennan became confident that positive dialogue could commence with the Soviet government. His proposals were discounted by the Truman administration and Kennan’s influence was marginalized, particularly after Dean Acheson was appointed Secretary of State in 1949. Soon thereafter, U.S. Cold War strategy assumed a more assertive and militaristic quality, causing Kennan to lament what he believed was an abrogation of his previous assessments.
Kennan was frustrated because US officials interpreted containment as a military rather than political strategy. Paul Nitze was foremost among those advocating for a military approach. With an engineer’s devotion to mathematical precision, he continually advocated for ever greater levels of nuclear arms to deter the Soviet Union from initiating a nuclear attack. Thus Nitze advocated the MAD (mutually assured destruction) strategy. As Wikipedia describes:
It was also responsible for the arms race, as both nations struggled to keep nuclear parity, or at least retain second-strike capability. Although the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, the MAD doctrine continues to be applied. Proponents of MAD as part of the US and USSR strategic doctrine believed that nuclear war could best be prevented if neither side could expect to survive a full-scale nuclear exchange as a functioning state. Since the credibility of the threat is critical to such assurance, each side had to invest substantial capital in their nuclear arsenals even if they were not intended for use.
A Global Perspective
Norwegian-born Harvard Professor Odd Arne Westad provides a global perspective in his 2017 book, The Cold War: A World History. Like other books described in this post, it benefits from declassification of secret documents and thus provides improved insight into leaders’ thinking.
In contrast to analyses based on a conventional bipolar perspective, this book analyzes how the Cold War engulfed the entire world as the two reigning superpowers assembled coalitions of allies and proxies throughout the world. From an American perspective, for example, our wars in Korea and Viet Nam and interventions in Cuba and Nicaragua make sense only in the context of the Cold War. It helps explain why taunts of “socialism” in American politics remain powerful (though extremely inaccurate) epithets even today. For a time, a “non-aligned” movement of countries tried to avoid taking sides, but this itself reflected the dominance of the bipolar Cold War system. The book systematically analyzes the dynamics and effects of the Cold War throughout the world. It traces the origins of the Cold War far before World War II and shows how we still feel its consequences today.
It is a long book that, given its very broad scope, inevitably requires summarizing detailed sequences of events. That’s actually helpful if you want to get a good overview. It is well written and I learned a lot. I found the audiobook quite engaging.
The (Post?) Cold War and What Putin is Up To
As I write this, there is an escalating series of threats by Russia, the US, and NATO. The situation today is vastly different than when World War II ended in 1945. Then, the US was militarily and economically dominant while much of the rest of the world lay in ruins. The US essentially constructed modern Western Europe, which was dependent on and closely aligned with the US. Today, the US is bitterly divided internally and as is Europe, which is much more independent of the US – and dependent on Russia for critical energy resources. At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union was dominated by a single dictator who died within a few years. Now, Russia is controlled by a dictator at the peak of his power who could stay in power for a long time to come.
Fortunately, the risk of nuclear war today seems low as it would undermine the interests of all the countries involved. No one is threatening nuclear attack. Instead, the antagonists threaten conventional military action, insurgency, cyber-warfare, and economic and political sanctions.
Russian President Vladimir Putin initiated the current escalation but his goals are not clear. New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman suggests several possible motives, which are not mutually exclusive:
Why is Vladimir Putin threatening to take another bite out of Ukraine, after devouring Crimea in 2014? That is not an easy question to answer because Putin is a one-man psychodrama, with a giant inferiority complex toward America that leaves him always stalking the world with a chip on his shoulder so big it’s amazing he can fit through any door. Let’s see: Putin is a modern-day Peter the Great out to restore the glory of Mother Russia. He’s a retired K.G.B. agent who simply refuses to come in from the cold and still sees the C.I.A. under every rock and behind every opponent. He’s America’s ex-boyfriend-from-hell, who refuses to let us ignore him and date other countries, like China – because he always measures his status in the world in relation to us. And he’s a politician trying to make sure he wins (or rigs) Russia’s 2024 election – and becomes president for life – because when you’ve siphoned off as many rubles as Putin has, you can never be sure that your successor won’t lock you up and take them all. For him, it’s rule or die.
Russia expert Fiona Hill argues that he wants to “evict the US from Europe,” essentially reversing changes after the Cold War supposedly ended.
He has a personal obsession with history and anniversaries. December 2021 marked the 30th anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when Russia lost its dominant position in Europe. Mr. Putin wants to give the United States a taste of the same bitter medicine Russia had to swallow in the 1990s. … In the 1990s, the United States and NATO forced Russia to withdraw the remnants of the Soviet military from their bases in Eastern Europe, Germany and the Baltic States. Mr. Putin wants the United States to suffer in a similar way. From Russia’s perspective, America’s domestic travails after four years of Donald Trump’s disastrous presidency, as well as the rifts he created with U.S. allies and then America’s precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan, signal weakness. If Russia presses hard enough, Mr. Putin hopes he can strike a new security deal with NATO and Europe to avoid an open-ended conflict, and then it will be America’s turn to leave, taking its troops and missiles with it. … Unlike President Biden, Mr. Putin doesn’t have to worry about midterm elections or pushback from his own party or the opposition. Mr. Putin has no concerns about bad press or poor poll ratings. He isn’t part of a political party and he has crushed the Russian opposition.
Michael McFaul, former US ambassador to Russia, makes similar arguments. He writes that there are three main tenets to Mr. Putin’s thinking. First, he “believes that the West unfairly dictated the terms of peace at the Cold War’s end. … [Second, he] believes that U.S. support for democracy abroad threatens his autocratic rule.” Third, he believes that the Russian public shares his views. Ambassador McFaul identifies problems with each of these premises.
We now are watching a very high-stakes multi-party negotiation with very uncertain outcomes. Stay tuned.