Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos

Nikita Khrushchev and Richard Nixon, Moscow, 1959

Two American academics have written big, serious, and thoroughly intelligent studies of the cold war. In The Cold War: A World History Odd Arne Westad, a professor of US–Asia relations at Harvard, covers the entire period that is conventionally held to have started in about 1947 and ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. He questions whether those dates really fit the history (he sees the conflict taking shape, or at least germinating, as far back as the 1890s). Most perceptively, he examines all the related conflicts in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and doesn’t treat them as mere peripheral damage thrown off by the “main” European confrontation. Westad shows that hot wars in Angola, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Vietnam fed back into and often violently altered the course of the broader East-West standoff.

In The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War, Benn Steil, currently at the Council on Foreign Relations, puts together and expands work that has already been much admired (his The Battle of Bretton Woods studied the first phase of his subject in close-up*). The Marshall Plan, with which the US helped rebuild Western European economies after World War II, had a short life, effectively starting in 1948 and winding up in 1952, but Steil embeds it in a sharp and critical political history of the first years of the cold war itself. In his final chapters, he looks far beyond the period of the Marshall Plan and discusses parallels and contrasts with the twenty-first-century scene.

Both historians are inclined to think that the United States handled relations with Russia more deftly—or at least less stupidly—in the late 1940s than in the decades after 1991. Westad complains of what he calls “post–Cold War rudderlessness…a consequence of a lack of imaginative leadership.” Steil deplores the lack of an “American Grand Strategy” today, or of any proposal as coherent as George Kennan’s “containment”; he considers policy today to be mere improvisation, while the behavior of NATO and the European Union toward Russia has been unrealistic and provocative. Like Westad, Steil thinks that there should have been more effort to integrate post-Communist Russia into European trade and security arrangements. But neither historian fancies that the cold war could have been entirely avoided. Westad writes:

There were points along the way when leaders could have held back, especially on military rivalry and the arms race. But the ideological conflict that was at the bottom of the post–World War II tension made such sensible thinking very difficult to achieve. In that sense, it was its ideological origins that made the Cold War special and hyperdangerous. People of goodwill on both sides believed that they were representing an idea whose very existence was threatened. It led them to take otherwise avoidable risks with their own lives and the lives of others.

Steil writes that “given how the two sides saw their vital interests, the conflict was inevitable.” He concedes that “the Marshall Plan accelerated and intensified it.” But he goes on to suggest that the “Plan, in accelerating the political division of [Germany],…pushed the two sides toward what may have been the only feasible compromise to avert hot war.”

Who wanted that division? Whose fault was it that Europe was split by what Churchill called an “iron curtain” running from the Baltic to the Adriatic? Both Westad and Steil agree that Stalin did not want it, at least in the first postwar years. He preferred a united Germany under Allied four-power administration, which could be systematically looted of its industrial base as reparations. At this stage, he was content to leave the nations occupied by the Red Army as unconvincing “Peoples’ Democracies,” spared full “Sovietization” but ruled by coalition governments in which Communists held the important ministries and the monopoly of force.

As a matter of history, it was American, not Soviet, policy that divided Europe. At some stage, a “firebreak” strategy seems to have been formulated, though neither Westad nor Steil says so explicitly. Cutting loose and abandoning the lands under Stalin’s control was apparently held to be the only way to block Soviet communism’s advance over Western Europe—either by military offensive or, as Western leaders considered more likely, by a pandemic of Communist ideology spreading to the hungry, jobless millions crouching in the ruins of French, Italian, and German cities.

Both fears, in retrospect, were delusions. Stalin had no intention of plunging westward to the Atlantic. The other fear, that misery would drive whole populations to communism, was expressed in General Lucius Clay’s famous dictum: “There is no choice between being a Communist on 1500 calories a day and a believer in democracy on 1000.” Much later, President Johnson was to repeat that “poverty and ignorance [are] the grim recruiting sergeants of Communism.”


But was that ever true? These two books suggest that radical and injured patriotism was at least as powerful a motive. Clay’s brand of crude economism—an article of faith to the Marshall planners—now feels like bad history. Walter Lippmann already saw through it in 1947:

The course of events in western Europe is demonstrating…that highly developed countries cannot be captured by Communist propaganda and infiltration…. They do not react to hunger, inflation, and the paralysis of government by turning to the Communist Party. They turn to the right, not the left.

But this heretical opinion fell on deaf ears. A State Department document in the same year claimed that “totalitarian forces” were

hoping that the food and financial situation in Europe this winter will produce economic conditions sufficiently serious that they can be aggravated by aggressive communist actions to a point where the position of democratic governments in France and Italy can be made untenable and communist regimes installed.

A firebreak plowed across Europe might keep those red flames from leaping across to the West. Back in 1945, George Kennan had written to “Chip” Bohlen at the Yalta Conference that the United States needed to “divide Europe frankly into spheres of influence—keep ourselves out of the Russian sphere and keep the Russians out of ours.” Some eighteen months later, in September 1946, Secretary of State James Byrnes delivered his famous Stuttgart speech, which offered the first sparks of reconciliation to defeated Germany. Poland’s new western frontier along the Oder-Neisse line had been agreed on by the Allies at the Potsdam Conference, but now Byrnes said that it might be changed again in Germany’s favor. The following year, Secretary of State George Marshall himself suggested revising Potsdam and returning parts of Silesia and Pomerania to Germany.

The impact on Poland was disastrous. Polish Communists were handed a crushing argument: the Americans are not your friends but “imperialists” who plan to let a restored German Reich seize Polish territory once more—and only your alliance with the Soviet Union can prevent it. The firebreak strategy pushed Poland firmly out of “democratic” Europe. But Steil shows that the fathers of the Marshall Plan were haunted by the awful possibility that the USSR and its “satellite” nations might accept the invitation to join it. In fact, the more he reveals about the plan’s early negotiations, the stronger suspicion grows about ulterior motives.

The generous urge to save European nations—including bankrupt Britain—from starvation and economic collapse was real enough. At the end of the war, fifty million Europeans were homeless. Forty percent of Germany’s housing had been destroyed; daily calorie consumption in the British occupation zone was down to 1,050 by early 1947. Inflation in Hungary hit 160,000 percent per day. Relief had to come before economic recovery.

But was not the Marshall Plan also designed precisely to be rejected by Stalin, so that his tyranny over Eastern Europe could be exposed and the “diseased” economies and politics of “his Europe” irrevocably distanced from the West? The planners’ worst moment came when it looked as if the Soviet Union might apply to join: their relief was immense when Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin’s foreign minister, walked out of the preparatory talks in 1947. Czechoslovakia and especially war-shattered Poland were both desperate for Marshall aid, but when Moscow forced them to reject it, Kennan was callously gleeful. “The Russians smoked out in their relations with satellite countries,” he noted.

Two countries came out of the war with more industrial capacity than when they entered it. One was the United States, and the other—astonishingly—was Germany. Steil writes that

a remarkable 80 percent of the country’s industrial plant capacity remained intact. Germany exited the war with a greater functioning machine tool stock than it had on entering it—much of it new (one third of industrial equipment was less than five years old, up from one tenth in 1939).

The gigantic Allied air offensive, in other words, had left the working population starving, cold, and homeless, but had largely preserved the factories. If the rocket fuel for twentieth-century economic takeoff was the combination of access to hard currency, new equipment, and an army of unemployed skilled labor, then West Germany’s “economic miracle” in the 1950s was inevitable.

How much of the European recovery, though, can be ascribed to the Marshall Plan? In its four-year run, the plan transferred the equivalent—in today’s value—of $130 billion to the sixteen Marshall Plan countries. But economic recovery was already underway when it began; it seems to have added between 2 and 7 percent to growth figures, but Steil finds it hard to explain just how or why. The late historian Alan Milward, that great English contrarian, argued that Marshall aid had been completely unnecessary: Western Europe would have recovered without it. But he also claimed that the hunger statistics were unreal because they ignored the existence of the black market. Steil retorts that Milward was talking nonsense.


The original intention was for the Marshall Plan to give Europeans economic security, allowing American troops to be withdrawn. As the cold war began, Washington soon changed its mind: military security was still needed to allow the plan to gain European confidence, and the first steps toward a North Atlantic pact were taken. (Steil allows himself a heavy pun here: “The Marshall Plan needed a martial plan.”) The Communist camp used this to justify its argument that the plan was only an arm of “Wall Street imperialism,” relying on bayonets to force Western Europe into accepting American free-market capitalism.

The plan obviously gave a boost to American exports; Congress would never have passed it if it hadn’t. Marshall and his colleagues hoped to see the withering-away of European planned economies and their replacement by American-style private enterprise, but in the event Labour’s democratic socialism in Britain and French state-driven investment programs frustrated them. Clement Attlee’s government spent 97 percent of Britain’s counterpart funds on paying off debt, rather than on industrial imports from the United States. But in occupied Germany, Lucius Clay suppressed attempts to nationalize industry in the American zone and even blocked mild schemes for worker participation (the Mitbestimmung that was to be so successful in the future West Germany): “They were foreign to my way of thinking—and to the American way of thinking,” he later wrote. When the British wanted to transfer Labour Party practice to their zone of Germany by nationalizing coal mining and heavy industry, Washington threatened to freeze the zone’s food supplies and the money for British occupation costs.

The plan also tried to lay foundations for Western European integration. But the time was not yet ripe; Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman were to give real impetus to that process later, in their own time and in their own way. Perhaps the best outcomes of the Marshall Plan were simply to stabilize national economies and then to persuade other Europeans that partnership with a revived German state was not only unavoidable but desirable. It’s certainly true that out of the plan grew the trente glorieuses, thirty years of Western European prosperity, security, and growing social equality, the epoch that the late Tony Judt considered one of humanity’s finest achievements.

In cold war historiography, Westad and Steil could be seen as revising the revisionists. Unlike radical historians at the end of the last century, neither can bring himself completely to dismiss the old assumption that Stalin meant to extend Soviet hegemony to the Atlantic. They are skeptical about any Soviet intention to invade Western Europe. But Steil, at least, accepts that Soviet strategy from 1947 onward required Communist parties in Western Europe to “renounce coalition politics and to seize power by more aggressive means.” He sees this new revolutionary strategy “coded” in Andrei Zhdanov’s speech to the Cominform founding congress in September 1947, and the CIA read the speech in the same way. Westad, on the other hand, doesn’t believe that Zhdanov was calling for French and Italian Communists to imitate the coup de Prague, the seizure of power by the Czechoslovak Communist Party in February 1948: “Soviet leaders—essentially Stalin himself—were choosing security and ideological rectitude,” walling themselves in rather than risking expansion westward.

Magnum Photos

The Berlin Wall, West Berlin, 1962; photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson

But that congress, at Szklarska Poręba in Poland, ushered in fateful changes for Eastern Europe. Now began the years of unlimited Stalinist state terror and the reckless Sovietization of economies and societies, a nightmare that only began to fade after Stalin’s death in 1953. A question for historians is whether this sudden hardening in the Communist bloc led to the intensification of the cold war that followed, or whether the opposite is true. Was it American anti-Communist moves in the West and especially in Germany that alarmed the Soviet leaders into extreme measures—the Berlin blockade, the mass repressions and show trials in Eastern Europe, the power monopoly for “satellite” Communist parties, and the violent collectivization of peasant farmers?

Westad and Steil are inconclusive about this. Westad writes that “with Soviet military control already in place, it is likely that a Sovietization of eastern Europe would have happened at some point whatever the policies of others had been.” But in the same paragraph he suggests that “the advent of a Cold War between the Soviets and the United States made complete Communist takeovers everywhere in eastern Europe more critical and urgent for Moscow.”

Westad’s main interest, however, is not so much Europe as the impact of the cold war on the postcolonial world, and how its conflicts in turn affected the Soviet–American confrontation. Of course, much of the world was not postcolonial at all in 1945. Westad points out that the United States—for all its anticolonial ethos—gave the crumbling European empires several decades of extra life, buying into the myth peddled by British, French, Portuguese, and South African governments that their fight against independence movements was part of the West’s global fight against the spread of communism. Westad is scathing about this. As the cold war went on, “it became harder and harder for US political leaders to distinguish between radical nationalism and Communism. Both were seen as anti-American.”

The new states breaking out of the disintegrating empires saw the cold war as imperialism in a new form, an attempt to lure them back into dependence on one or the other of the two superpowers. India’s Jawaharlal Nehru called the cold war a “mental barrier…which divides the world into devils and angels.” The paralyzing anticommunism that had distorted American views on how the German economy should be rebuilt was now turned on the new states of postcolonial Africa and Asia: “As the Cold War hardened, countries that did not conform to US visions of liberty and economic growth were believed to be sliding toward a Soviet orientation.”

On the Korean War, Westad’s lament is eloquent. The war

and its effects were perhaps the biggest calamities of the Cold War. They devastated a country and enchained a people. Their direct consequences are with us today…. Worst of all, this was an entirely avoidable war, created by the intensity of ideological conflict among Koreans and a Cold War framework that enabled Superpower interventions.

He could have laid almost the same emphasis on the long-term consequences of deposing Mohammed Mossadegh, the Iranian premier, in 1953 through a coup engineered by the CIA and the duplicitous British, who had owned the oil industry that Mossadegh nationalized and warned Washington that he was tilting toward the Soviets. That still-unforgiven act was one of the main causes—together with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians—of today’s Middle Eastern turmoil.

Westad’s account of relations with Cuba and the missile crisis of 1962 is comprehensive but throws up some doubtful remarks. He writes that the Soviet missiles were intended to defend Cuba, but then calls Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko a liar for saying that they were defensive. He omits the terrifying fact, revealed only after the cold war, that—unknown to the US military—there were also short-range nuclear weapons targeted on the beaches where American troops might have landed. And his statement that “Khrushchev lost the most” can be challenged. Forcing Kennedy to pull American missiles out of Turkey, a NATO member on the Soviet border, was no small gain.

Vietnam was the only place, as Westad says, where nationalism immediately took a Communist form; American failure to grasp the implications of that meant that the war was “folly from the beginning.” In Angola, Washington again confused radical nationalism with Soviet communism and backed the losing side. Latin America saw the same mistakes, but US clients usually won; by 1980, fifteen out of twenty-one major Latin American states were led by military dictators. Westad’s verdict that the CIA “did not directly participate” in the ghastly Pinochet coup in Chile in 1973 seems rather evasive: surely there’s much more to be said about American involvement. But he concludes that “as so often in the Cold War, the logic of the conflict defeated both self-interest [of the US] and common human decency.”

It’s interesting that Westad contributes to the rehabilitation of Richard Nixon—in foreign policy, at least. He writes that “Nixon did not trust the American people, and especially its youth, to be willing to pay the price that Superpower status implied.” That mistrust led him toward détente, to “make an uncertain future more predictable” through his historic visit to China, his determination to get the United States out of Vietnam, and his visit to Moscow in 1972, which produced the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty. Watergate brought him down, but East–West détente carried on: “It was…Richard Nixon who had made it all possible…. Nixon had forced US foreign policy onto a track where, for the first time during the Cold War, it dealt with others on the assumption that US global hegemony would not last forever.”

Détente did not last either. In 1979 the Islamic revolution overthrew the Shah of Iran, and the Soviet Union began its disastrous invasion of Afghanistan. Panic spread through Washington, as President Carter swallowed Zbigniew Brzezinski’s assertion that an “arc of crisis” threatened the Horn of Africa and the oil of the Persian Gulf. Carter, losing his usual calm, said that this was “the most serious threat to the peace since the Second World War.” Sanctions were clapped on the Soviet Union. Military aid was sent to the anti-Soviet Mujahideen in Afghanistan and to the contras in Nicaragua. “Ultimately,” Westad comments, “détente was defeated by politics in the United States…. Most Americans were simply not willing to tolerate that the United States could have an equal in international affairs, in the 1970s or ever.”

From 1979 on the “little cold war” brought fresh confrontations, as the Soviet Union and NATO stationed new medium-range missiles in Europe and Eastern European dissidents argued over priorities with Western nuclear disarmers. But in 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev took power in Moscow, and within a few years he and Ronald Reagan had melted the mutual fear of the cold war down to the beginnings of a sometimes frosty partnership. Did anyone win the cold war? Westad accepts that America won. To a European, it looked more as if one of the great duelists had thrown his weapon down in the snow, gone home, and died.

There followed what has been called “the new world disorder.” Far from inheriting the earth, the United States found that it was losing control even of the large part of the world that it had dominated during the cold war. Attitudes that should have changed did not. Many chances were missed. There was no Western response to Gorbachev’s vision of a “common European home” and a world united to abolish poverty. The Warsaw Pact abolished itself, but NATO and the European Union survived, expanded, and continued blindly to behave as if the rules of the cold war that had formed them still applied. In consequence Russia, which might have been brought into a partnership with the West, was edged into paranoid hostility.

Was the Cuban missile crisis the most dangerous moment? Maybe not. Westad thinks that an equally perilous episode came in 1983: East–West relations were already inflamed after the Soviets shot down a Korean airliner, and when the NATO “Able Archer 83” exercise, simulating nuclear “conflict escalation,” suddenly ceased to look like a simulation. At other times, migrating birds were briefly identified as incoming missiles. For us in the West, the cold war can seem in retrospect the best method ever found to prevent hot war. But we were lucky to survive. Millions in postcolonial countries dragged into that struggle didn’t share our luck.