If you want to know the facts about the Cold War, you should read histories and memoirs. If you want to know how the Cold War felt, you should read novels. Why? Because “fiction reveals truths that reality obscures.” So in that spirit, here are my ten favorite English-language Cold War novels—plus my favorite Cold War play as a bonus pick:
- Eugene Burdick and William J. Lederer, The Ugly American (1958). The Ugly American was a sensation when it debuted in 1958, spending a year-and-a-half on the best-seller list and selling more than five million copies. Those are impressive numbers for a thinly veiled critique of U.S. policy in Vietnam. Set in the fictional Southeast Asian country of Sarkhan, The Ugly American tells the story of American incompetence in the fight against communism. American officials are too convinced of their superiority to begin to understand the people they are trying to help. John F. Kennedy was so taken with The Ugly American that he bought a copy for every one of his Senate colleagues. When he became president he pushed for the creation of the Peace Corps, an idea suggested in the epilogue to The Ugly American. The term “ugly American” quickly entered the English language as a catchphrase for bad American behavior abroad.
- Tom Clancy, The Hunt for Red October (1984). Tom Clancy was an insurance agent by day who wrote novels at night. In 1984, he persuaded the Naval Institute Press to buy his first novel, The Hunt for Red October, for $5,000. That was a smart move by the press. Clancy’s tale of a renegade Soviet sub being hunted by the U.S. Navy hit the best-seller list. He got a helping hand from an unexpected source. Someone gave a copy of The Hunt for Red October to President Ronald Reagan, and he praised it publicly. The novel’s success allowed Clancy to leave the insurance business behind. He went on to write a slew of best-selling techno-thrillers, most of which were turned into Hollywood blockbusters, before he died in 2013. But his first novel remains his best.
- Ian Fleming, From Russia With Love (1957). Who doesn’t love James Bond? In From Russia With Love, Ian Fleming is at his best. The leaders of SMERSH, the Soviet counterintelligence agency, want to kill Bond and discredit MI6. (Yes, MI6 now has its own website.) To trap their prey, they dangle a beautiful young Russian cipher clerk, Tatiana Romanova, and a top-secret Soviet decoding device, Spektor. Bond takes the bait. It doesn’t give anything away to say that he nonetheless foils his would-be assassins. It is how he turns the table on the perfidious SMERSH agents that makes for a gripping read.
- William Golding, The Lord of the Flies (1954). Few people guessed when The Lord of the Flies was first published that it would win (now Sir) William Golding the Nobel Prize for Literature and a place on Time magazine’s All-Time 100 novels list. The book sold fewer than 3,000 copies before going out of print. But it eventually became a best seller. It tells the tale of British schoolboys forced to fend for themselves after a plane evacuating them amidst nuclear war crashes on a tropical island. The orderly society they try to set up quickly devolves into violence and chaos. While The Lord of the Flies can be read as a simple tale of the loss of childhood innocence, it can also be read as a powerful allegory about what was at stake as East and West squared off in the Cold War.
- Graham Greene, The Quiet American (1956). A novelist by trade, Greene turned his experiences as a correspondent in French Indochina in the early 1950s into a biting assessment of U.S. policy in South Vietnam. Alden Pyle, a young American sent to Saigon on a secret mission, is entranced with abstract theories of political development and lacks any understanding of the people he claims to want to help. Thomas Fowler is a middle-aged British journalist who long ago soured on idealists. They compete for the love of a woman against the backdrop of rising unrest in Saigon. Greene also wrote the wonderful political satire, Our Man in Havana, which would be on this list if I weren’t limiting myself to one book per author.
- John le Carre, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963). Time magazine named The Spy Who Came in From the Cold as one of the All-Time 100 novels, and Publisher’s Weekly has called it “the best spy novel of all-time.” Le Carre’s tale of deception, betrayal, and moral ambiguity deserves both accolades. Burned out-British spy Alec Leamas undertakes one final mission in East Germany. Nothing is what it seems at first, however, as lies turn on themselves. The ending is unforgettable—and haunting. I remember it as clearly today as I did when I first read it forty years ago. Le Carre wrote several other superb spy thrillers set in the Cold War, including the wonderful Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. But for my money The Spy Who Came in the From the Cold remains his best work.
- Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen (1986). It’s uncool to admit to liking comic books. (Evidence: The Big Bang Theory.) But if you say you like graphic novels, well, you’re hip. Watchmen is probably as good as it gets when it comes to graphic novels. It takes place in an alternate universe in which a team of superheroes has altered the course of the Cold War. It is 1985, Richard Nixon is still president, and the United States has triumphed in Vietnam. But the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union still looms in the background. A retired superhero is killed, and his former colleagues set out to find his killer. It’s a fascinating story with beautiful artwork that may, or may not, be a subtle critique of 1980s America. Watchmen made Time magazine’s list of one of the All-Time 100 novels.
- George Orwell, 1984 (1948). Odds are good that you were assigned Orwell’s dystopian critique of totalitarianism in high school English class. I was in 1976, and my four teenage children were three-plus decades later. Orwell’s story is well-known. Winston Smith desperately wants to escape the watchful eye of Big Brother. He discovers that resisting the government’s demands brings about grave consequences—and that love does not conquer all. (Orwell also wrote Animal Farm, the superb allegory of the Russian revolution. It’s one of my favorite novels. But given the topic and the fact it was published in 1945, Animal Farm doesn’t qualify as a Cold War novel.)
- Nevil Shute, On the Beach (1957). The specter of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union hovered over the Cold War. Shute, an aeronautical engineer turned novelist, dared to imagine the worst. A nuclear war has devastated the northern hemisphere. People in Melbourne, Australia confront their mortality as deadly radioactive fallout slowly heads toward them. Radio signals are detected coming from Seattle, Washington. A U.S. Navy submarine that took refuge in Melbourne harbor after the war heads to the Pacific Northwest in a desperate hope of finding survivors. What they discover is bitter disappointment
- Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle (1963). Vonnegut doesn’t inspire the kind of following that he did in the 1970s, when seemingly every high school and college student carried around a well-thumbed copy of one of his many novels. That’s too bad because he told stories that were funny, perplexing, and moving—and sometimes all at once. Cat’s Cradle satirizes arms races and the indifference scientists can have to the consequences of their inventions. The plot is built around a scientist who helped build the atomic bomb but also discovers ice-nine, a way to make water freeze at room temperature. He made the discovery while trying to solve a mundane military problem: how can you make it easier for armies to travel across muddy ground? The compound brings disaster to everyone who touches it—and by the end of the story everyone has. Vonnegut gave himself an A+ for Cat’s Cradle. I agree.
In addition to these ten novels, I’d flag one play as a must read on the Cold War. (You can also watch it if you prefer)
- Arthur Miller, The Crucible (1953). The Crucible tells the story of how hysteria and blatant lies drove the Salem witch trials. But audiences in 1953 no doubt understood the parallels that Miller was implying between what happened in 1692 and contemporary McCarthyism. Miller himself was suspected of communist sympathies, and in 1956, he was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He refused to name names, and as a result, was convicted of contempt of Congress.
If I’ve missed your favorites, please add them in the comments below.
For more suggested resources on the Cold War, check out the other posts in this series: