America in the Cold War: A Reference Guide

america-in-cold-warThis book by William T. Walker is exactly as advertised in the title. It has a very useful chronology of events in the front. The main body is contains “Clift Notes” versions of important events and has much to recommend it as a reference book. The Preface leads, “On Christmas night, December 25, 1991. George H.W. Bush addressed the American people to report the Soviet Union had ceased to exist and a new Commonwealth of Independent States and several new countries, including Russia, had been recognized immediately by the United States. On January 28, 1992, in his State of the Union Address to a joint session of Congress, Bush proclaimed the United States had won the Cold War.” The reality was that the remnants of the Cold War lingered in China, Cuba, North Korea, and Vietnam. Historians began the debates about whether the Soviet Union collapsed because of internal corruptions and inefficiencies, whether American wealth and power had defeated them, or whether the Soviet Union was “…an artificial state that succumbed to the nationalist identities and ambitions of its own people.” The answer is undoubtedly a combination of all of those plus some other reasons. Regardless of the reason, it was a remarkable event.

A section titled “The Beginning: Allies Become Antagonists” is a good example of how the book presents complicated history briefly and precisely. It begins with the Americans providing Lend Lease to the Soviets as they reeled under the Nazi invasion. The alliance the World War II alliance with the Soviets began to fray before the Potsdam Conference. The Americans decided they had to step in to stop Communist advances in the later 1940s with the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan and the Soviets responded by blockading Berlin. All of that in less than two pages.

The Soviet government had been given full diplomatic recognition on November 17, 1933 under the FDR administration. The Soviets promised in return that they would “…abstain from conducting propaganda within the United States.” The Great Depression moved FDR further left, and several “…Americans were attracted to the Soviet experiment, entered the federal government, and provided secret information on American policies and interests to the Soviet Union.” By the end of World War II the Soviets had focused on establishing hegemony in Eastern Europe. Some historians blame the beginning of the Cold War on the use of the atomic bomb in Japan. Stalin decided the bombings were done to intimidate the Soviet Union. He pushed his scientists to build an atomic bomb to counter the American monopoly.

A fascinating aspect of the Cold War is that Soviet spies in America had turned and given information to the U.S. government that the Soviets had been preparing for war with American while they were allies in World War II. Whittaker Chambers, who had been a courier for two spy rings, revealed his role and the names of the spies in the rings in 1938. The information was mostly ignored for years. Elizabeth Bentley turned herself into the FBI in 1945 and provided a lengthy list of Soviet spies in the government. She was dismissed by many as a “frustrated spinster who had made up an incredible story.” Nothing was done until the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) took up the Chambers and Bentley cases in 1947. Truman agreed with a reporter that the allegations of Soviet spying were a Republican “red herring” to cover up their lack of performance. Many of the accused spies remained in government until they moved on voluntarily or retired. The information provided by Chambers and Bentley was challenged until the Soviet archives were opened and collaborated what they had told. The Venona project provided even more proof about the accuracy of their testimony when it was declassified .

I don’t intend to summarize any more of the book. I recommend it as a short recounting of a fascinating time in history. I was astonished to see that it sells for $68 in hardcover and $54.40 as a Kindle on Amazon. Even more baffling is that there are offers for used and new copies ranging in price from $247-$328. Maybe it is an even better book than I thought?

One thought on “America in the Cold War: A Reference Guide

  1. An interesting reinforcement of the narrative chronicled by the WGN Network show, “Manhattan”. The program tells the story of the development of the first nuclear weapon, and one subplot deals with how the Soviet Union was easily able to coerce American scientists into letting slip the details of their research. Spies were told by their Soviet handlers that if the US alone possessed the Bomb that we would use it indiscriminately and millions of innocents, and perhaps the entire planet, would die as a result. Even non-spies like Robert Oppenheimer were ambivalent about releasing the split atom on the world. How different would our history have unfolded had America been the lone nuclear power for another decade or so?

    While we are considering alternate historical possibilities, my favorite “what if” these days concerns the 1992 Presidential election. George H. W. Bush, whose performance in office and approval rating were both just a shade less than excellent, was well on his way to four more years. During those years, the US economy would rebound strongly from a minor recession and subsequently the country would see a balanced budget, happenings largely independent of which party controlled the White House but which would reasonably have been credited to Republican fiscal conservatism and might have given the GOP a virtually unbreakable grip on the executive branch for a generation. All that stood in Bush’s path was a narcissic billionaire with a low-resolution view of reality and a penchant for outrageous oratory. As the Republican Party looked on in helpless disbelief Ross Perot, running as an independent, siphoned off 17% of the popular vote and gave the country William Jefferson Clinton and spouse. That gift, as we all know, keeps on giving, as history is now poised to repeat itself in very scary detail.

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