By the Skin of Our Teeth

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…

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