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  • E.G. Maladroit

'The Cold War: A World History' - Odd Arne Westad. Strange and Mundane?


The Cold War – odd Arne Westwad

‘The Cold War’ is an adequate and intensive history of the world under the cold war, as its title conclusively implies. It stretches far – describing the effects of the war across in a huge range of countries and does so clearly. It is not spectacular – but it’s an interesting introduction to such a complex period.


I enjoyed the thematic setup – it allowed for a less jumpy outlook on the events as they unfolded in different areas, and for a range of perspectives to be seen on the seminary events. I particularly enjoyed this for the look at the Sino Soviet split – it was intriguing to view it from the context of the cultural revolution and how it affected Mao’s policies. Some reviews touch on this as rather limiting the book, one said it made it more of a book like ‘episodes from [the cold war’s] history’ rather than a conclusive chronicle of the period, which is entirely understandable. It is noticeably superficial – events have to be touched on lightly in such a small volume, and I would not recommend it to someone desiring an in-depth understanding. However, for someone who is only vaguely familiar with the cold war period – or only familiar with its more western events – it is perfectly adequate as light reading. I found it did well in audiobook form (it was around 25 hours) as it did not necessitate full attention to be aware of what was going on throughout, and I finished it rather rapidly despite it not being the only book I was reading at the time.


Not having to keep your full attention on it also comes in handy for the writing style, which came across as rather bland, though not offensively so. It is a more subjective factor, but interesting or illustrative phrases were few and far between (I did like his description of an event as a ‘carnival of released tensions’, which I wrote down for some unknown reason).


The focus on the third world was a key thing I liked about the book. It is common for books on the cold war to either only focus on the two superpowers – the USSR and the USA – or just its impacts in the west, an outlook which ignores its vast and engrossing extent. However, in looking further into reviews of the book I found some of Westad’s claims may be less reliable than expected – such as his assertion Lumumba was ‘murdered’, and omission of the fact it had come out that Eisenhower directly ordered the CIA to ‘eliminate him’ (the review itself said this was the JFK administration, but I took my information from here: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2000/aug/10/martinkettle ). There were a couple other similar assertions of inaccuracies, which may make it a less useful book to some.


What I liked least from the book was certainly Westad’s strange and entirely unconvincing conclusion. He gives an oddly pessimistic summary of the entire Soviet Union – summarising it as a failure which only damaged the lives of the Russian people, whilst spinning an oddly positive summary of America – despite within the book having chronicled its numerous destabilisations of foreign democracies and systems, and its support of immense violence and destruction worldwide - all out of an entirely unwarranted paranoia about socialism and sense of self-righteousness. He goes on to generalise all contemporary Russians as conspiracy toting cynicists, which was certainly an odd touch.


Overall, the book is, as is abovementioned a couple of times, adequate. It was interesting enough, and I enjoyed the focus on non-western spheres, but it did not particularly strike me in any way – I doubt I’d recommend it to anyone, as it was simply so mundane. I would certainly dissuade anyone from buying it in book form for that reason also, though as an audiobook it is not necessarily bad.

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