Ten Histories of the Cold War Worth Reading
Sunday marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. For those of us who grew up during the Cold War it was an unforgettable moment—one we hoped for but didn’t necessarily expect to see. The fact that the wall fell, and did so with a simple announcement rather than at the barrel of gun, remains one of the most consequential events of the twentieth century.
To mark the anniversary of the fall of the wall, I will be posting my favorite books, memoirs, novels, films, and quotes about the Cold War, much as I did with this year’s centennial of the start of World War I. To kick things off, here are ten terrific histories of the Cold War:
- Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 (2012). Applebaum’s tour-de-force describes how the Iron Curtain descended on Eastern Europe. What distinguishes her writing is that she goes beyond describing how Josef Stalin succeeded in imposing his domination over Eastern Europe to describe the lives of ordinary people suddenly forced to live under Soviet rule.
- Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, Khrushchev’s Cold War: The Inside Story of an American Adversary (2006). Fursenko and Naftali plumbed previously secret Soviet archives to pull together the story of Nikita Khrushchev’s foreign policy. Not surprisingly, Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy figure prominently in Khrushchev’s Cold War, which provides a different perspective on U.S. foreign policy than most Americans are used to. (Fursenko and Naftali also wrote One Hell of a Gamble, a terrific book on the Cuban missile crisis).
- John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy During the Cold War (1982). Gaddis is America’s foremost Cold War historian, and when I was in graduate school, Strategies of Containment was required reading for its crisp assessment of how successive presidents shaped their approach to the Soviet Union. We have learned a lot more about U.S.-Soviet relations since the Cold War ended and the Soviet archives opened up. Gaddis has revised and extended some of his analysis as a result, in books such as We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (1997) and The Cold War: A New History (2006). Nonetheless, the original Strategies of Containment is worth reading to understand what we knew—or thought we knew—before the wall fell.
- Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas, The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made (1986). Isaacson and Thomas tell the story of six men who shaped American policy during the early Cold War years: Dean Acheson, Harry Truman’s secretary of state and the author of my favorite Cold War memoir, Present at the Creation; Charles “Chip” Bohlen, long-time diplomat and Soviet expert; Averell Harriman, Franklin Roosevelt’s special envoy to Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin; George Kennan, the foreign service officer whose “Long Telegram” and “X article” laid down the basic outlines of U.S. containment policy; Robert Lovett, Truman’s secretary of defense; and John McCloy, a lawyer who served Democratic and Republican presidents in a variety of diplomatic capacities (and who, in the interest of full disclosure, was chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations from 1953-1970).
- Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2005). Judt’s epic history of postwar Europe reviews the political, social, and economic forces that shaped the continent’s evolution in the aftermath of World War II. The distinctive feature of Postwar is that it tells the story on both sides of the Iron Curtain, highlighting how Europe was caught between two superpowers. Postwar was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and received CFR’s Arthur Ross Book Award in 2006.
- Melvyn Leffler and David S. Painter (eds.), Origins of the Cold War: An International History (1994). Most Cold War histories focus on events in Europe or on relations between Washington and Moscow. The essays that historians Leffler and Painter assembled take a different approach: they look at how the Cold War influenced countries around the world and the international system more broadly. The essays delve into traditional geopolitical and security issues and also into the social and cultural impact of the clash of East and West.
- David Remnick, Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire (1994). Remnick won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for his brilliant retelling of the Soviet Union’s final days. He had a front-row seat in witnessing the Soviet demise; starting in January 1988 he served a four-year stint as the Washington Post’s Moscow correspondent. In Lenin’s Tomb, he draws on the many conversations he had with Russians inside and outside of government to explain Mikhail Gorbachev’s push for reforms and why they led to the collapse of communism rather than its rebirth.
- Nicholas Thompson, The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War (2009). Paul Nitze and George Kennan were good friends. They were also fierce ideological rivals with diametrically opposed views on U.S. policy during the Cold War. Thompson tells the story of both men’s lives and how their competing views shaped how policymakers assessed U.S. policy. Thompson also brings a special insight to his story: Paul Nitze was his grandfather.
- Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (2006). Westad examines the legacy of the expansion of U.S.-Soviet rivalry to the rest of the globe. He shows how U.S.-Soviet competition drove events outside of Europe and triggered political, economic, and cultural upheavals in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. Those upheavals in turn created new challenges and crises that tested both superpowers.
- William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959). Writing at the height of the Cold War, Williams challenged the conventional wisdom that U.S. foreign policy was about the defense of freedom and protection of liberty. He instead contended that it had been driven by the desire for empire and expansion, and he placed the blame for the Cold War as much if not more on the United States than on the Soviet Union. Several generations of historians have argued over Williams’ claims, and a half century later his telling of events is dated. Nevertheless, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy remains one of the most consequential histories of the Cold War, greatly shaping how historians on all sides of the subject subsequently approached the topic.
These ten books are by no means the only Cold War histories worth reading. Thousands of books and articles have been written on the subject. If you don’t see one of your favorites listed here, please mention it in the comments below.
For more suggested resources on the Cold War, check out the other posts in this series:
“Ten Cold War Memoirs Worth Reading”
“Ten Cold War Novels Worth Reading”
“Ten Cold War Films Worth Watching”
“The History the Cold War in 40 Quotes”