For most Britons and Americans, the cold war means images of central European cities in the 1950s, the Cuban missile crisis, Checkpoint Charlie and spies in Berlin in the 60s, armies lined up on northern German plains in the 70s, the apparently imminent prospect of nuclear destruction and Reagan’s “star wars” in the 80s – followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union liberating a restive eastern Europe and leaving a triumphant US, the leader of the “free world”, as the undisputed victor.
In recent years, this vision has been challenged by new research and writing. No longer just a binary confrontation, the cold war is being reframed as something much more global and complex; a set of interrelated battles that touched hundreds of millions of lives on every continent.
Lorenz Lüthi’s ambitious Cold Wars is the latest major work to suggest that our understanding and collective memories of the conflict should be reassessed. With 700-odd pages of dense, dry text, it is a heavyweight contribution. Many works by serious modern historians have successfully bridged the gap between the lecture theatre and the airport bookshop without sacrificing intellectual rigour. Lüthi’s book is not among them. This is a shame, because his powerful insights deserve a bigger audience.
One of the main achievements of the new writing about the cold war is to revise ideas of the relationship between the superpowers and local actors. Fifteen years ago, Odd Arne Westad, a Yale historian who grew up on a cold war frontline in Norway, published an important academic work (The Global Cold War) showing how regional leaders were not simply puppets but effective opportunists who played on the needs, hopes and ignorance of officials in Washington or Moscow.
A second aim of this new thinking is to overturn the idea that the feud brought “a long peace”, as suggested by an earlier generation of largely US-based academics. Paul Thomas Chamberlin, a historian at Columbia University, argued in The Cold War’s Killing Fields (2018) that while Europe and, particularly, North America remained largely untouched by real conflict, that was not the case elsewhere.
Chamberlin sees a crescent running from north-east china and Manchuria through south-east Asia, across South Asia and into the Middle East as the primary zone of cold war confrontation, and discerns three separate waves of violence. The first, in the 1940s and 50s, ravaged east Asia and was closely tied to the collapse of the Japanese empire and the Chinese Revolution. The second was a consequence of ideological battles and superpower competition in the Asia Pacific region. The third wave, shaped in part by the Iranian Revolution, was focused on the Middle East, though by the 1980s the ideological conflicts of earlier decades had evolved into skirmishes based on ethnic or sectarian identity. Massacres such as that committed by US soldiers at My Lai in Vietnam were far from aberrations and Chamberlin describes the mass violence committed in successive theatres of conflict in harrowing detail.
As befits a specialist in international relations, Lüthi’s book views the world through this discipline – or at least its more traditional practitioners. This has its uses. The scope is vast and the detail impressive. Passages dealing with the fairly disastrous foreign policy of Charles de Gaulle in the 60s and the rise of a new conservatism in Europe and the US in the early 80s are fresh and welcome.
But such a focus on states and statecraft has drawbacks. This is world history as a giant game of Risk. The only voices in the book are those of powerful men, and we barely hear even those among the descriptions of pacts, alliances, diplomatic initiatives, conferences, agreements or treaties. Women are almost entirely absent (exceptions being Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir ). So too are the weak, the disenfranchised and the victims of the conflicts that Lüthi describes. Nor was the cold war fought only in chancelleries. Among the most potent weapons of the “free world” were rock music and denim. The socialist armoury did not just comprise SS-20 missiles but gymnasts and chess grandmasters. Neither features.
With such an ambitious and serious book, it seems churlish to point out errors. But one of the risks of writing history on such a scale is that factual mistakes are almost inevitable. For example, it was the Black September organisation, led by men who were close to Yasser Arafat, that was responsible for the terrorist attack on the Munich Olympics in 1972, not the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Equally, the most recent research suggests that the so-called “Arab Afghans”, the foreigners who fought with the mujahideen against the Soviets and their local auxiliaries in Afghanistan, numbered around 7,000, not 25,000. This is important today, when we attempt to work out the potential threat posed by the many more such fighters who joined Isis.
Lüthi convincingly argues that the cold war was effectively over much earlier than the moment marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall. It had ended in the Middle East by the late 1970s, and in Asia by the early 80s. In Europe, the economic exhaustion of the socialist camp, growing integration of Soviet satellite states into the global economy and the surging wealth of western nations meant the conflict was effectively over well before the frenzied scenes of celebration in Germany’s capital.
A long-term consequence of the cold war in Europe was resurgence of ethno-nationalism and national conservative movements and parties, Lüthi writes. The EU deserves criticism for many things, but populist enemies exploit its weaknesses for short-term political gain, forgetting that the process of western European integration has guaranteed peace and prosperity since 1945. This is an achievement that should not be easily gambled away, he warns. The winners and losers of the cold war are still being counted and its ghosts are with us still.
• Cold Wars: Asia, the Middle East, Europe by Lorenz Lüthi is published by Cambridge University Press (£26.99)