on 16 July 2009
My copy of this book weighs in at 400 pages, which may not seem brief. But its such a compelling and easy read, you wouldn't mind it being twice the length. The author has a complete mastery of the subject coupled with much inside knowledge. Furthermore, he recounts the history in a fascinating narrative. Whilst generally more sympathetic to the US, he is equally scathing of the excesses of any regime, be it China, USSR or the USA. The book is divided into short chapters each covering an important episode of the Cold War. The author brings the material alive, with a pacy style, lucid character sketches and a dry wit. In many ways, the book reminds me of a John Grisham thriller and is as easy to read. But don't let that put you off. This is serious history. If only all the books in the Brief History series were this good.
on 18 November 2009
I was deeply disappointed by this work for two reasons, something of a surprise given how much I've enjoyed other titles in the Brief History range and on the Cold War in general. Firstly it is not sufficiently academic and secondly it is not sufficiently dispassionate in analysing the inception and course of Cold War relations.
The author indicates correctly that the Cold War started prior to the WWII and Yalta, tracing it back to the Russian Revolution. Unfortunately, he does not bother tracing back its roots any further in paying attention to Russia's historically despotic, integrationist and expansionist approach to neighbouring territories throughout the 19th century, evidenced by amongst other things the Crimean War, the Russo-Turkish War, the November and January uprisings and the brutal responses to internal power challenges (e.g. vs Decembrist uprising). This is critical (at least to my mind) in understanding Russia's positioning going into WW1 and the rise of the Bolsheviks.
Without bothering to frame this there is no context to the Bolsheviks which, rather handily allows him to demonise Lenin and Stalin and in fact all the Red Army through this period as "bloodthirsty monsters". It also allows him to very much underplay the role of the Allied powers through the Revolution in entrenching their existing mindset, and to equally underplay atrocities committed by the Whites as well as the Reds.
The result of this is that the book, from the outset, turns the Bolsheviks largely into monster - not to say, of course, that Stalin wasn't, but without context it becomes a very simple case of "Allied powers good, Red Army evil" rather than an understanding of how existing divisions between Russia and Continental Europe became part of the Cold War. And indeed this theme is continued, with details of heroic Western spies battling their way into Russia whilst Russian spies such as Philby are "maggots". Whilst their approach to their trade might have been different, I'm not sure one country's spies should be classed as good and the other as maggots unless you're seeking to make it polemic...
From there the tone improves, and there is more critical balance but certainly the nuancing continues to favour the West on a subjective basis. More worryingly are certain bizarre views and comments through the rest of the piece. For example, that the Cuban Missile Crisis lead directly to the assassination of Kennedy by the Mafia including, yes, a shooter on the grassy knoll and Lee Harvey Oswald as a patsy. Just dropped in as a matter of established fact rather than something which is, at the most generous view, highly debatable. The effect of these, coupled with the overall dramatized tone of various proceedings (e.g. the Berlin airlift) and arguable gaps in information (e.g. impact of Franco-German relations on Russian positioning) mean that the reader is left wondering how much of the text is academic `fact' and how much is not. Not ideal for people trying to get a grasp of the subject matter in hand.
In short, read with caution.