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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Post-Soviet Look at the Cold War

Martin Walker, the indefatigable Washington correspondent for the Guardian newspaper (and weekly columnist for The Moscow Times) begins his overview of "The Cold War" with an assumption. He assumes that the struggle for military, economic and ideological supremacy between the two great powers of the United States and the Soviet Union in the post-war years must have so impinged on the daily lives of all people that the concept of a "Cold War" needs no definition. Without pausing to explain how the term first captured the popular imagination, Walker dates the end of the Cold War primarily to a speech which Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev gave before the United Nations in December 1988, when he called off the competition. Walker insists that it is unhelpful to analyze the Cold War's legacy in militaristic terms of victory or defeat. "In reality, the end of the Cold War was just as much a Soviet decision to redirect their frustrated energies to a new challenge, a decisive and still unresolved confrontation with their own internal/infernal problems and structures," he writes. "In human terms, everyone won, and it was the Cold War itself which lost." But even as he writes these words, Walker finds himself suffused with a nostalgia for the certainties of the past as he contemplates the future in a world without rules of engagement. He regrets the passing of the "strange and almost poetic stillness at the heart of the Cold War" in an uncharacteristic burst of lyricism. The publishers of "The Cold War" assert that Walker's book is the first history of the conflict. And indeed it is a useful and wide-ranging general account of the struggle first for supremacy, and later for parity, between capitalism and communism. This is not an academic history; the absence of a bibliography only serves to highlight the reliance on secondary sources. But it is an accessible chronology of a conflict whose legacy will continue to make itself felt well into the next century. In the month when the Allies, comprehensibly snubbing their Soviet co-combatants, celebrated the 50th anniversary of D-day, it is instructive to recall how tensions between the Allies spurred the race for Berlin well before they surfaced explicitly at Yalta in early 1945. From Cuba to North Korea, the conflict smolders on even without the oxygen of superpower rivalry. Walker has a journalist's eye for the little details that bring a story alive. Andrei Vyshinsky, Stalin's deputy commissar for foreign affairs, leaves cracks in the palace plaster when he slams the door on the King and Hungary's chance to take up the Yalta promise of democracy. Khrushchev reduces visiting American diplomat John McCloy's young daughter to tears, so brutally does he depict the devastating force of an 100-megaton H-bomb as they are lunching at his Black Sea dacha. And while describing the imperial twilight of post-war Britain, Walker enjoys the anecdote about the shrunken head of a Japanese soldier which was given to the wife of Britain's departing defense minister in Borneo, only to be discovered later behind a sofa in Admiralty House by an assiduous cleaning-lady, who promptly fainted. Inevitably, a broad survey of so complex a conflict will have its weaknesses. The search for patterns or rhythms of behavior in the years of strife encourages Walker to generalize and simplify. Walker advances a thesis about end-of-decade despondency which can just about be made to work. He argues that the victory of Mao's Communists in the Chinese civil war in the late 1940s sparked a confidence crisis in the West, which feared that it was on the losing side. This loss of spirit was repeated in the late '50s by the technological gap exposed by Sputnik's success. And again in the '60s by the Vietnam syndrome and general Western social unease. It finally reoccurred in the closing days of the 1970s when the economic oil crisis in the West, coupled with the fall of Iran to Islam and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, left the West feeling impotent. Other comparisons are less felicitous. The repeated image of the Cold War as a tennis game soon begins to seem banal. And Walker's comparison of America's current prison community -- with its preponderance of young, black males -- with the victimization of the kulak class in Stalin's gulag strains credulity even as it makes a valid point about the warped social priorities of America in the grips of a Cold War fever. Walker concludes "The Cold War" by arguing that the cost of the arms race reduced both superpowers to superlosers, as they invested disproportionately in military technology and foreign military aid at the expense of their own economic infrastructure. Future Cold War historians will be better placed to judge. Walker's conclusion might well be premature. "The Cold War" by Martin Walker, Henry Holt and Company, 378 pages, $30. The book will be issued in paperback in the fall by Vintage publishers.